Shikoku: Off the Trail in Nakamura

April 12, 2017

We call them rest days and today is one of those days. Here in the quiet, small city of Nakamura, we plan to do nothing more than see a few sights and, of course, eat.

Nakamura is the perfect place to take a holiday from our daily walking ritual. It’s a small community, just shy of 35,000 souls. So small, I assume, that in 2005 it was merged with another small community, Nishitosa, becoming Shimanto City.

The old town of Nakamura lies sandwiched between two branches of the mighty Shimanto River, Japan’s last free-flowing river. It takes about ten minutes to walk the width of downtown from one river bank to the other and 30 minutes to walk its length.

The day starts with a journey to the nearby Dragonfly Museum. A slightly long but leisurely path takes us through suburban outcroppings to a modern complex of museum buildings. Inside, there is the expected display of dragonflies from around the world, their delicate carcasses pinned and labelled in an orderly, scientific manner. We track down our Canadian cousins among the myriad of species lining the walls and filling the cabinets of two large rooms. In another wing, a huge variety of fish normally found in the Shimanto River are alive, confined to glass tanks.

Time for cake and coffee.

Our return walk takes us back across the Shimanto River. It’s a benign trickle right now, out of scale with the lengthy trestle bridge we cross. But the breadth of its grassy banks hints at this river’s volatility. If we were to travel further upstream, we would come to a remarkable series of low water bridges designed to be submerged when the Shimanto floods.

Downtown Nakamura is a hodgepodge of fairly unremarkable, newer buildings. Exceptions are the few examples of brutalist architecture. Like the City Cultural Centre, a concrete behemoth rising above the everyday commercial and residential structures surrounding it. Or the deserted housing strip, an embalmed concrete shell forever pinned to the urban fabric like those poor dragonflies.

And there is the requisite pedestrian street, several blocks long, two storeys high and spanned with a glass roof. This arcade is almost identical in age and design to the many other arcades we have seen in other Japanese cities. While they may be wildly successful in larger cities and have strong historical roots, the formula loses its vitality when rubber-stamped on smaller communities like Nakamura. Here, half the storefronts are shuttered. There is little activity under the glass-domed street.

This is an urban landscape tempered by nature. What we see today is largely the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in 1946. What followed was a city informed by the times, by concrete and brutalism and big ideas like pedestrian malls.

Very little of an earlier time remains to be seen. Ichijō, a Shinto shrine, sits on a small hill overlooking the old town. Once a palace for the Ichijō family, the site became a shrine in 1862, although the main temple building only dates to 1944. Its terrace offers views north to Nakamura Castle, high up on a wooded hill. Even it is not that old, merely a 1965 reconstruction of the castle that once stood nearby but was demolished in 1615. On the other side of town lies Nakamura’s most historic claim to fame, Fuba-Hachimanguu Shinto shrine. Established by the Ichijō clan in the 15th Century, today it is designated as a nationally historic heritage property. In pictures it looks to be a remarkable structure. Alas, on our visit, the main temple is shrouded in construction fabric, apparently undergoing extensive conservation work.

What is most remarkable about Nakamura is its honesty. Dragonfly museums and temples aside, to walk these streets is to discover a pace of life determined by its occupants. Buildings, shops, homes are what is needed by the community, what is sustainable in this remote corner of Shikoku. This is a workaday city. The beauty is not in its fine china and cutlery but in its well-used pots and pans.

It’s time for dinner.

 

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