Cherry Blossoms at Nagoya Castle (1937) by Tsuchiya Koitsu

July 14, 2020 5 min read

Cherry Blossoms at Nagoya Castle (1937) by Tsuchiya Koitsu

Delving into the Secrets of Japanese Castles with Cherry Blossoms at Nagoya Castle (1937) by Tsuchiya Koitsu

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One fascinating thing about Japanese Art is that we get to glean some information about the Japanese way of living and culture at the time it was made. This is especially important when the subject of the matter has ceased to exist to this day – which is very often the case, given that many important cultural and heritage monuments have been burned down during the many wars and natural disasters which have been plaguing Japan incessantly throughout the years. In this article, we are going to delve into the secrets of some important exquisite features found in traditional Japanese castles through the analysis of Cherry Blossoms at Nagoya Castle (1937) by Tsuchiya Koitsu.

This woodblock print has captured all the essential features of the Nagoya castle, the very epitome of Japanese castles, and there are some interesting historical anecdotes behind them. It was very fortunate that Tsuchiya Koitsu has immortalized the Nagoya Castle with his woodblock carvings, as most parts of the castle have been mercilessly burned down into ashes during the World War II in 1945.

The Nagoya Castle dates far back into the past. After the battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu came into power and ordered for the construction of the Nagoya Castle (名古屋城) in 1609. It was built in the vicinity of the castle ruins where Oda Nobunaga was born in, which was coincidentally also called Nagoya Castle (那古野城) with different Japanese characters. The location was chosen for convenience with easy access to both sea and land communications, and the design of the castle was inspired by the existing castles at the time.

Cherry Blossoms at Nagoya Castle (1937) by Tsuchiya Koitsu

 Main Tower Keep (Tenshukaku) and the Small Tower Keep (Shoutenshu)

While the imposing main tower keep (Tenshukaku) is grand, one should not overlook the small tower keep (Shoutenshu), which Tsuchiya Koitsu has not forgotten to capture in his woodblock print. There are four main topological styles of Japanese castles; Nagoya castle falls under the category of “connected-style” where the main tower keep is directly connected to the small tower keep and one has to pass through the small tower keep to enter the main tower keep. The faint colour of the smaller tower keep provides a perspective to the positioning of the two tower keeps.

Cherry Blossoms at Nagoya Castle Stone Walls (Ishigaki)

Stone Walls (Ishigaki)

Not only did Tsuchiya Koitsu manage to carve the exquisite castle keeps, he also painstakingly carved out the detailed stone walls (Ishigaki) – a characteristic of Japanese castles as the elevated base provides a better look of the surroundings which is essential for defence purposes.

Golden Shachi and the Family Crest (Kamon)

Golden Shachi and the Family Crest (Kamon)

A pointed structure could be seen protruding from the roof of the main tower keep. This is actually a gold-plated wooden ornament of Shachi, a Japanese folklore guardian creature with the head of a tiger and a body of a carp where its tail is always pointed towards the sky to exhibit strength and vitality. It was believed that Shachi will spew out water and protect the castle in the case of fire. While Shachi was usually made of clay or wood, the gold-plated Shachi was first installed in Oda Nobunaga’s Azuchi Castle and Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s Osaka Castle. Under the reign of Toyotomi administration, the use of gold in roof tiles and the likes were strictly forbidden. After the battle of Sekigahara in 1600, the Toyotomi administration’s hold was weakened, the rule was lifted and the use of golden tile ornaments in castle constructions faced a rising popularity among Japanese feudal lords (Daimyo). However, in 1615, the Tokugawa shogunate passed a decree for the “one castle per province” order (Ikkoku Ichijyou Rei) where around hundred-and-seventy castles were burned down. The purpose of which is to control the Japanese feudal lords (Daimyo) and while an effective measure, it came at the terrible expense of cultural losses. It is also the main reason why there are few Japanese castles with Golden Shachi.

With its brilliant sheer, it is no wonder that the Golden Shachi of the Nagoya Castle has caught the undesirable attention from robbers throughout the years. In fact, in the very same year when the Cherry Blossoms at Nagoya Castle woodblock print was completed in 1937, it was discovered that fifty-eight out of the hundred-and-ten golden scales of the Shachi were stolen by a brave robber who risked his life and climbed up to the roof at night. In fact a mesh has been installed to conceal the brilliant shine of the Golden Shachi to ward off any further undesirable attention. Unfortunately, the Golden Shachi was completely destroyed during the air raids in 1945. A golden replica was made in 1959 during the castle reconstruction and it remains an important symbol of Nagoya to this day. 

Right below the Golden Shachi, a circular ornament could be observed. This is supposed to be the family crest (Kamon) of the Tokugawa clan, depicting three leaves of the mallows (Aoi). The trivial use of the honoured family crest is strictly forbidden and that might explain why it was not carved in details.

Cherry Blossom (Sakura) and Pine (Matsu) trees

Cherry Blossom (Sakura) and Pine (Matsu) trees.

The evergreen pine (Matsu) leaves and mellow pink colour of the cherry blossom (Sakura) provide a nice visual contrast. But this, too, has a historical significance to itself. Pine trees were commonly planted in Japanese Castles not just for aesthetic reasons; there was a much more practical reasoning behind it. They were used as food reserves during sieges and famine. The rough surfaces of the pine tree (Matsu) bark were scrapped off, and then water was mixed into the white tree bark and stored to remove the bitter taste and unpleasant smell. The juice was subsequently dried into powder form and mixed with wheat flour to make glutinous rice cake (Mochi) or rice balls (Dango). This tedious process was a culmination of all the knowledge accumulated with past experiences. In fact, the entire pine (Matsu) trees lining up the streets of Japan were stripped bare during the three major famine crises, which occurred in 1732, 1782, and 1833 respectively. It was also a common tactic for enemies to surround the castle and cut off food supply into the castle during a siege, so it was a wise move to plant pine (Matsu) trees.

It is amazing how much history were captured in this single woodblock print. While most of the original structures were lost during World War II, there is one Japanese nutmeg (Kaya) tree in the Nagoya castle grounds which has survived through the air raids in 1945. It is designated as a national monument and symbolizes the strength to carry on, and hopefully like this tree, the treasured woodblock will be passed down to remind future generations of the history that should not be forgotten.

Article writen by Yeong


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