Rinkōkaku: A Legacy of the Meiji Restoration

Nowadays, it is hard to fathom the pace of change in society that existed in Japan during the transition from Edo Period (1603-1868 A.D.) to Meiji Period (1868 – 1912 A.D.). The feudal-based society, with a samurai-class and central government ruled by a shogun that had existed for seven centuries was removed and replaced by a foreign-influenced style of government in the space of 15-20 years. Many samurai were suddenly stripped of status, and were valued more by the power of their intellect than their martial skills. Those high-ranking samurai involved in the toppling of the Tokugawa Shogunate were rewarded with a new style of power, concentrating more on the improvement of their local economy than whether their vassals were carrying out their duties to their lord. The areas of land (han) that had existed in Japan for centuries, ruled by a line of hereditary-appointed feudal lords (daimyō) was abolished in place of a non-hereditary appointed governor presiding over a merged territory, called a prefecture.

Annex Building at Rinkokaku

Motohiko Katori was appointed the first governor of Gunma prefecture in 1876. Gunma prefecture, formerly known as Kōzuke, had long been a strategically important location for control of the north-western and central areas of the country. However, with the abolishment of the feudal system the area looked to the promotion of commercial interests to kick-start the economy and decrease unemployment. Katori immediately identified and promoted silk as the key industry. Amidst the turbulent times of the 1870s Meiji Restoration, before Katori had been appointed governor, European engineers had been consulted to establish silk-making factories for processing on a larger scale the raw silk grown around Gunma. After Katori’s appointment, Maebashi was established as the base to control this industry, and the silk industry rapidly expanded and began exporting to Europe and America. Due to this burgeoning industry, Katori was influential in the transferral of power in the prefecture from Takasaki to Maebashi in 1881, with the Prefectural Office temporarily setting up in the former Maebashi Castle. Katori also played an important role in the establishment of educational institutions in the Gunma area, increasing the school attendance considerably and developing an impressive reputation for Gunma among the newly formed prefectures. This is only a small portion of the very interesting life of Motohiko Katori.

Link between the Main and Annex Buildings

Rinkōkaku (臨江閣) is a guesthouse built during the time of Motohiko Katori in Maebashi. It is comprised of three buildings surrounded by elegant gardens. The main building (本館, ほんかん, honkan) was constructed in the sukiya style of architecture in 1884. Two months later, the iriomoya-style tea house (茶室, ちゃしつ, chashitsu) was constructed by a traditional Kyōto carpenter adjacent to the main building. The third and largest building, the annex (別館, べっかん, bekkan), was constructed in the shoin style architecture in 1910. Without knowledge of the specific architectural nomenclature, it is sufficient to say the buildings are constructed in the typical, traditional wooden style architecture, with the interior floors predominantly covered by tatami. The buildings have survived unscathed since 1884, which is remarkable considering the extensive damage to the area during World War II. As well as being the guesthouse for the Governor, it was the official accommodation for Emperor Meiji in 1893 and Emperor Taisho in 1902 and 1908. Due to the extensive damage to Maebashi from World War II, it was also used as the temporary City Hall from 1945-1954. The expansive functional hall (180 tatami mats and stage, 292m2) on the second floor of the annex building continues to be used by the public to this day for reserved functions.

Function Hall in the Annex Building

Currently the Rinkōkaku is going through a revival due to the NHK Taiga Drama “Hanamoyu”. The year-long drama focuses mainly on the second wife of Motohiko Katori, Fumi, but also intricately details the growth in the relationship with Katori and other crucial figures in her life. Part of the drama was filmed on location at Rinkōkaku, so naturally the Gunma Prefectural government has been proactive in offering guided tours and souvenirs pertaining to the drama. The buildings are very well maintained and impeccably clean. The rooms inside the buildings exude an atmosphere of simplicity and humbleness, as though they are still clasping the Zen philosophy of the samurai era during the flood of modernisation. Walking through the rooms, visitors will feel a sense of the bygone era under their feet, in the soft tatami mats and the creaking dark wood floorboards. It may only be the sound of your socks, but it could easily be imagined as the swish of kimono silk on tatami. The carefully sculptured gardens surrounding the buildings are best experienced at a leisurely pace with casual glances up at the beautiful traditional architecture. Upon entering, visitors will be cordially greeted by volunteer guides who are keen to impart the history and importance of these culturally significant buildings. Although the tours are only conducted in Japanese, the volunteers are still keen to communicate their passion and wealth of knowledge.

Link between the Annex and Main Buildings

Currently there is another reason for visiting the buildings. The café, located at the rear of the annex building, offers the usual selection of sembei (rice crackers), sweet biscuits, souvenirs related to the NHK drama and historical memorabilia. However, visitors are flocking there to enjoy the daifuku (sweet red beans inside a chewy rice ball) and green tea set for 600 yen. What sets this apart from others is the fact you can choose the Hagiyaki tea bowl to drink out of and then keep it. The “Hagi” from Hagiyaki (or Hagi ware in English), refers to the famous style of pottery from Yamaguchi prefecture, where Motohiko Katori was born. The café is purposely located next to a beautiful section of the gardens that allows visitors to empty their minds, and concentrate only on the flavours in their mouth and the nature that links the past to present.

Daifuku and Tea

A conversation at the Rinkokaku cafe

Entry is free.

Location: 15 San-chome, Otemachi, Maebashi, GUNMA

Hours: Open 9:00-18:00 from April to October; 9:00-17:00 from November to March

Contact: 027-231-5792

Rinkōkaku is located 10 minutes by car from Maebashi Station, or 15 minutes by car from the Maebashi IC on the Kan-etsu Highway.

The Gunma Prefectural Office Building is concurrently running a “Hanamoyu” NHK Taiga Drama exhibition with sets from the TV drama and memorabilia from the era. The Gunma Prefectural Office Building is 8 minutes on foot from Rinkōkaku and runs from 10th January 2015 until 31st January 2016.

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