Master of Architecture candidate at the University of Washington. Spending October 2010 - March 2012 as a researcher at Kobe University on a Monbusho Fellowship, sponsored by the Japanese government. Researching the cultural and practical relationships between water and public space. Documenting research and reflections.

27 October 2010

gifu vernacular architecture

This weekend I had the pleasure of visiting the town of Gifu. I got to stay in a newly built Japanese farmhouse, inhabited by three generations of women. I ate a fabulous country-style home-cooked dinner, and visited the local public bath.
Here's a handrawn map, below, showing my trip. Kansai, of which Kobe, Kyoto, and Osaka are major cities, feels like a crisscrossing railroad track when compared with the more open countryside on the way to Gifu. It's rice harvesting season, so people are burning their fields, filling the air with the incense of rice husks. Gifu city is in an open plain between low hills.  
Gifu's architecture  seems to revolve around a single type of public building which maximizes roof span over a central cubic volume, and then amplifies that volume with a subsidiary bay around the edge. We visited the temple of the Great Buddha and a Kabuki theatre while we were there. Both used the same type, but occupied the volume in very different ways.
The Great Buddha (Gifu Sho-ho-ji Daibutsu) croaches in his space, almost too big for his shrine. This makes him seem even greater. He was made by monks from about 1790-1820. To make him, they made a bamboo latticework, and covered it in paper mache. The paper they used had prayers written on it. Then they applied thin layers of lacquer and covered the whole in gold leaf. It's one of three "great buddhas" in Japan. Architecturally, he takes up the central cubic volume, and his visitors use the exterior aisle to circulate around him.

The Kabuki theater, on the other hand, has a completely different circulation diagram. This theater has been adapted for the uses of modern Western theater, so that adds yet a third circulation diagram. The original way of viewing Kabuki had the audience outside, so the entire building was a raised stage that the audience looked into. The performers stayed mainly in the foreground, in what I referred to above as the subsidiary bay, and what here feels more like the porch. In the central cubic volume, a large ring in the floor allowed the scenery to rotate, or be changed from a room below the floor (another reason the building was raised). 
I had the chance to visit the space during a performance of Djembe African drumming. O japan. you're so weird. Anyway, the modern use has the performers in the same place as in the Kabuki times, under that porch. To control entry and exit, the audience now views the performance inside the space, sitting, in this case, inside the circle in the floor (originally used for backdrops and scenery). In practice, this didn't make so much sense for this particular performance, since the building is made of wood, the people outside heard almost the same thing as the people inside, with no insulation in the way. People made the best of the open space around the structure (originally used by the audience) by having a small crafts fair.

We also made a stop at Sejima's housing project in Gifu. It was fun to see how this building, normally portrayed as empty and white like a crystallized tetris game, actually looks and feels on a typical fall afternoon. 

about kobe geography

  This map shows the Kobe waterfront. It gives you an idea about the geographical constraints of this city, whose main pier was constructed in the Meiji era (1868-1912, when Japan opened to outside trade for the first time in 200 years). This main pier was called "Meriken", probably for the American traders whom it hoped to host. 

The city squeezes between the toothy waterfront with all of its piers and shipping activities, and the steep green hills that form its backdrop. To create more habitable terrain, several artificial islands have been constructed out of fill, such as the one in the lower right of the image, called Port Island. 

I visited Port Island accidentally on my bicycle two weekends ago. As you can read in an earlier post, I had assembled my bicycle and set out at sunset for a ramble. I went by the waterfront, and soon was circuited under a tangle of elevated freeways, bridges and pedestrian routes. I took one likely looking elevated pedestrian bridge and found myself over water. Finding myself on the island, I stuck to the edge, where I found a boardwalk looking back toward Kobe's downtown. At the end of the boardwalk, a huge ship unloaded its goods. This was pretty impressive, so I sat and watched for a while. When I'd had enough, I was about to turn back but I saw that the boardwalk continued just a little more. I went on...

...and found a group of fishermen leaning against the railing in the dark. They were fishing in the dark, and to keep track of their tackle, each had tied a floating light to his line. After the big ship and the elevated freeways, it was so quiet there. It seemed more quiet because the only sound were hushed conversations, children chasing one another, water slapping against rocks. The scale had changed dramatically, adding to the mystery. It was as if I'd stepped backwards in time in a particular way--people used to paddle around in the waterfront in long thin boats lit by paper lanterns. Jinnai Hidenobu talks about the "ludic space" of the Edo period (1603-1868) waterfront, where people could escape everyday life on the water. They would dress in elaborate costumes, dine in their boats, go see some was all very romantic. Here they are again using the waterfront for a spontaneous nighttime ludic space. As I watched, someone nearby caught a fish, pulling it out of the water and slapping it on the concrete.

Here's an assembled perspective looking from the international student center to downtown Kobe and beyond. The college is one of the last collections of buildings before the terrain is given over to the steep hills. From the college, one can take a cable car up the hills to a mountain called Mt Rokko. Near Mt Rokko is a hot springs resort.

1. Osaka airport, across Osaka Bay, where I flew into Japan
2. Rokko Island, the other major manmade island of Kobe
3. Rokkomichi station, the train station I use to get to school
4. Port Island
5. Waterfront and downtown Kobe

19 October 2010

I went to Tokyo to visit an old friend and to see Rob Hutchison, UW professor, lecture. Here`s a map. I left Kobe University on bus. Then transferred to local train, to Sannomiya Station. From there I took a bus to Osaka. In Osaka we met many others from the region who wanted to bus to Tokyo. We all boarded buses. We stopped twice, once at a truck stop full of trucks. As the sun rose, we got to Shinjuku station in downtown Tokyo. On the way back, I took the bullet train.
This is the inside of the overnight bus. Notice all the storage options, including a hook for your umbrella.
This is my seat in section. Note the sleeping umbrella.

Arriving in Tokyo, I checked into my accomodations: an onsen/public bath/capsule hotel. The capsule beds were very similar to a parking structure. See above diagram.

This is what it felt like to sleep in the capsule.

My dorm room

Everything fits in my dorm room! It`s just big enough...

Note the small step next to the door, a place to take off your shoes, and a throwback to days when the Japanese house was lifted off the ground, so you had to step up into the house. Even on the 8th floor of a dormitory, this convention has worked its way into the demands of a reasonable space. Of course, it also helps to keep the place cleaner.
You can see from this plan how much wall area is dedicated to storage space. The odd figure in the lower right corner is to show that if you sit on the window sill, you can`t put your feet on the balcony wall/railing. This was probably intentional.
On Sundays, elementary school kids play baseball in the park next door to the dorm. So much for sleeping in! Currently the sun is rising at about 5:30 am or 6 am and setting at about 5:30 pm, and cooler winds have started to blow. For the last three weeks it`s been nice and hot.

First bike ride in Kobe

My bicycle, an assemblage of components collected and organized for me by a savvy family member (thanks Dolan!) accompanied me as a second piece of luggage on my flight to Japan, three weeks ago. This machine was disassembled and packed into a box, secured, tied, and padded for travel. At the airport, my bicycle and I were informed that bicycles aren`t luggage, they`re a special item, applying to tickets bought after a specific date. I considered turning back there and then, but didn`t.

Arriving at the Hyogo International House twelve hours later, I fell asleep reading the copious instructions and rules regulating occupation of the dorm room. I had already broken a few rules just getting in the door: no shoes on in the room. no bicycles in the room. Oops.

As I recovered from jet lag and made my first foray about town by foot and then about the country by train, my bicycle waited patiently in its box. As promised, there certainly are many other bicycles here, and only a few of them are locked. Of those that are locked, the lock is a skimpy cable that anybody from a city in the U.S. would wonder whey she was even going to the trouble. When you go out, you find a group of other bicycles and put yours with those ones. They seem to stick together that way. A main advantage my bicycle has over those other bicycles is that it has a sophisticated gear system, so I can go up steep hills. A disadvantage is that it`s the only one without a kickstand. That may not seem like such a big deal, but if yours is the only one that doesn`t have a kickstand, it makes you look silly, and it also makes parking difficult.

Finally it was time to free my bike from its box. The first step was to figure out how to dispose of the packaging. Here, the trash system is highly regulated and specific. A main topic of both my orientation to the dormitory and my orientation to the university was the proper method of separating trash. You need to buy three different types of plastic bags: for combustible garbage, non-combustible garbage (including packaging but excluding bottles and cans), and non-combustible garbage (meaning bottles and cans). People actually self-organize and follow rules about their personal life and trash-sorting methods, unlike at home where in a similar situation I might have just found an open dumpster.

Once my bicycle was liberated, and I eventually sorted out the packaging, it was time to take my first ride. I found a sporting goods store where I pumped the tires, and then I rode over to a nearby hardware store to get one last tiny wrench for the rack. I reassembled everything and was ready to go by sunset.