The unfortunate history of the “Whiplash Kannon” and Heiwakannon-ji.

By Austin Smith.

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The view from the base of the kannon, Heiwakannon-ji.

Heiwakannon-ji temple is situated on the north-east coast of Awaji Island. The temple, which ostensibly promotes world peace, boasts a replica of the statue of liberty, a peace bell and a giant kannon statue – a symbol of compassion and mercy. The complex also includes a ten-storey pagoda, a museum and a rusting D51 steam locomotive (a pre-war Japanese model, some of which remained in service until the 1970s). There were even plans to open an onsen. However, Heiwakannon-ji is not marked on tourist maps of the island and the attractions have now fallen into a state of disrepair.

The temple was founded in 1977 by Toyokichi Okuuchi, a wealthy real-estate developer from Awaji who made his fortune constructing office buildings, apartments and hotels in nearby Osaka. Somewhat ironically, the city can still be seen from the statue on a clear day. Heiwakannon-ji is a typical example of the multitude of ambitious projects that struggled to stay afloat in the difficult financial climate that followed Japan’s ‘bubble economy’.

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The giant kannon statue at Heiwakannon-ji, Awaji Island.

When driving along the picturesque ‘28’ coastal road, towards Higashiura, the giant white kannon statue is visible from some distance. The statue was completed in 1982 and at approximately 100m tall (328ft), including the base, it is one of the world’s tallest statues. However, unlike most other statues of this scale the observation deck was constructed outside of the statue rather than inside. Locals soon noted that this feature made it appear that the kannon was wearing a neck brace, which resulted in an unfortunate nickname for the monument – ‘Whiplash Kannon’. It is said that on windy days the statue would sway, testament to its poor construction. This was seen as an added ‘attraction’ for thrill seekers.

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The ten-storey pagoda, Heiwakannon-ji.

The base of the statue contained a number of features to lure potential visitors. The first floor served as a temple which appears to have included a gallery of kannon statues, these have since been removed. The upper floors once housed a museum of Okuuchi’s private collection including art, armour and automobiles. Yet, even at its peak, the temple failed to attract more than 2,000 visitors a day and the business was near closure in the late 1990s. The souvenir shops and restaurants closed down and the upkeep rapidly deteriorated. The tatami mats in the room that once contained Okuuchi’s armour are now rotten. It is clear from images taken just before the closure that the condition of the property has declined considerably in recent years.

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The first floor, with empty plinths where the smaller kannon statues used to stand.

When Mr. Okuuchi died in 1988 control of the complex passed to his widow, who tried to keep the development afloat until her death in 2006. Attempts to sell the site at auction failed and control has since passed between potential developers – including a subsidiary of Lehman Brothers which was badly hit by the 2008 financial crisis. Heiwakannon-ji has been closed to the public since 2006 and, in 2011, was cordoned off due to fears the derelict statue, museum and pagoda were a danger to public safety.

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The view from the museum at the base of the great kannon statue.

External factors have not helped the plight, the completion of the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge and the Kobe-Awaji-Naruto Expressway in 1998 gave the people of Awaji access to Shikoku, Kansai and beyond. The Akashi Kaikyo National Park was opened nearby at the expense of Heiwakannon-ji, which was not advertised to tourists visiting the area.

Crucially, Heiwankannon-ji was never legally recognised as a temple and therefore did not benefit from tax exemptions that could have made the business model viable. During the bubble economy, big companies would fund the construction of large religious icons, such as kannon statues, to exploit tax loopholes. As a result of this, twinned with the poor quality of construction, the temple was held in poor esteem by locals and tourists alike. However, due to the uncertainty surrounding the ownership of the site, it cannot be demolished – despite the wishes of the local government. In recent years, Heiwakannon-ji has gained a cult following amongst unusual temple fanatics and haikyo enthusiasts, who enjoy exploring unique abandoned buildings.

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Impressions of Colonial Taipei.

By Austin Smith.
Background:

In 1895, Taiwan was ceded to Japan following China’s defeat in The First Sino-Japanese War. Taiwan became Japan’s first overseas colony and there were plans to rapidly develop the island’s economy, infrastructure and industry to demonstrate that Japan was capable of becoming a colonial power. Taiwan was intended to be a model colony and, by all accounts, in the post-war years the Taiwanese looked back on the period (1895-1945) more fondly than other countries that endured Japanese occupation. On a recent visit to Taipei, I set out to find remnants of the colonial period in an ever-changing city. This post will touch on some of the highlights of this pursuit in an attempt to assess the cultural legacy of Japanese rule.

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The Office of the Governor-General of Taipei

The former Office of the Governor-General of Taiwan:

The most imposing feature of modern Taipei dating from the colonial period is the former Office of the Governor-General of Taiwan, designed by Uheiji Nagano. Nagano had a reputation for combining Western and Eastern architectural styles, which were prevalent in Japanese buildings of the period. The building, which is reminiscent of Tokyo Station, has an East facing facade and blends Renaissance, Baroque and neo-Classical architectural styles. The offices were heavily bombed during World War II and not repaired until 1948. The building became The Office of the President in 1950 following the retreat of the ROC government to Taiwan from mainland China and it remains the seat of power. Whether the continued use of this building was borne out of nostalgia or necessity, it has come to symbolise the legacy of Japanese rule in Taipei.

Taipei Botanical Gardens:

The Taipei Botanical Garden was founded as Taipei Nursery in 1896, at the beginning of the Japanese colonial period. It was gradually expanded and renamed the Taipei Botanical Garden, becoming the country’s first botanical garden in 1921. It now covers 8.2 hectares and it includes more than 2,000 species of plants. Taiwan, which intersects tropical and subtropical regions, was ideal for the cultivation of a variety of plant species for natural sciences and academic research. The period of Japanese occupation was the most important in the history of botanical research in Taiwan and most of the country’s native plant species were identified during this time. The Taiwan Botanical Garden is part of a complex of education facilities known as The Nanhai Academy and it remains the country’s premier botanical institute for research and education. References to the positive legacy of the Japanese colonial period appear throughout the garden which is an oasis for those who want to get away from city life.

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The Green House, Taipei Botanical Garden.

The National Museum of History:

In 1955, The National Museum of History was established in a pre-existing Japanese-style building on the outskirts of Taipei Botanical Garden. The museum displays historic artefacts transported from the Henan Museum in China during the Sino-Japanese War. The need to find suitable venues to house the vast collection of artefacts transported from mainland China, as well as the picturesque location, made this colonial era building an obvious museum candidate. In 1956, the building was converted to a more appropriate Ming and Qing dynasty palace style, an example of the sinicization that took place in Taiwan from 1950 onwards.

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The National Museum of History, viewed from the lily pond.

Bu-Cheng-Shih-Sz:

The Guest House of Imperial Envoys was built in 1889, during the late Qing Dynasty. The building was used as a temporary office for government officials and was the highest public administration building on the island. The first ceremony to mark Japanese rule was held in this building and it was used as the Taiwan Governor-General’s Office and military headquarters until the construction of the Presidential Building in 1919. In 1933, the decision was made to dramatically relocate the building to allow for the construction of The Taipei Convention Centre to mark the ascension of Emperor Showa (Hirohito). The main section of the building was moved to the Taipei Botanical Garden. The relocation of the building appears to have ensured its preservation, it is now the only remaining official building constructed in the Min-nan style. The Min-nan style is characterised by high ceilings, symmetry and the 田- shape layout formed by the wings and corridors. The walls are decorated with traditional lion sculptures symbolising virtue and tradition. The building was painstakingly restored and designated as a historic monument before being renamed the Bu-Cheng-Shih-Sz Museum in 1998.

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Bu-Cheng-Shih-Sz
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The interior of Bu-Cheng-Shih-Sz

Bopilao:

Another remnant of Qing Dynasty Taipei can be found just north of Longshan Temple, a popular tourist destination. The Bopilao district is a block of narrow shopping streets with architectural styles hailing from the Qing Dynasty onwards.

A fine example of the colonial era businesses which have been preserved at Bopilao is Taiyoo Bookbinders. The shop was founded in the early 1940s as one of the first bookbinders in Taipei. The Wanhua District was the centre of book production but Taiyoo was the first in Taipei to mechanise the bookbinding process. Taiyoo earned a reputation for high quality and was chosen to bind the official “Chinese-Japanese Dictionary” during the Japanese Colonial Period. After the retrocession of Taiwan, they went on to publish various documents for the National Palace Museum.

Much of the surrounding area was demolished as part of a modernising campaign during the colonial period and Bopilao gradually fell into decline as urban planning shifted Taipei’s commercial centre. However, the area has been preserved and it was reopened in 2010 as a cultural centre containing original shop signs and facades. The once abandoned buildings now house exhibitions an education centre.

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The Bopilao District

Taiwan Grand Shrine:

One of the most striking buildings on the route from Taoyuan Airport to the city centre is the imposing Grand Hotel. It was not until researching this project that I discovered the hotel’s connections to colonial Taipei. The Grand Hotel stands on the site of the former Taiwan Grand Shrine, once the most important Shinto shrine in Taiwan and one of sixty-six that were built across the country during the colonial period. On October 23rd 1944, a pilot crashed into the grounds of Taiwan Grand Shrine, the torii gate was destroyed along with other important structures. In the post-war years, Chiang Kai Shek proposed that a hotel, fit for ambassadors, be built on the site and it became the Grand Hotel in 1952. Two copper bulls that stood at Taiwan Grand Shrine were relocated to The National Taiwan Museum.

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A postcard of Taiwan Grand Shrine

Overall impressions:

Personally, I found the most significant colonial impression to be a cultural one. In my experience, without meaning to generalise, the behaviour and attitudes of the Taiwanese people was culturally closer to the Japanese than elsewhere in Asia. This was twinned with an obvious appreciation for Japanese fashion and food. The linguistic hangover is also worth a mention, occasional Japanese words are in daily use and the older generations remain fluent Japanese speakers. In truth, physical traces of colonial Taipei were harder to find than I had expected. The city has developed rapidly in recent years and the infrastructure put in place in the pre-war years has been superseded. Nevertheless, the foundations and desire to modernise was introduced by Japan. Significantly, the legacy of the colonial period is often acknowledged positively – this is not something which I have encountered elsewhere in East Asia.

Photographs from Mikawa House.

By Austin Smith.

Due to the positive feedback the photographs from Mikawa House received, I have decided to add a larger compilation of images to this blog (many of which were originally edited and uploaded via instagram). I was contacted by people who remembered visiting the house during its time as accommodation for nursing students, so this may be of particular interest to them.

The original post on Mikawa House can be viewed here – https://austinsmithjp.wordpress.com/2013/03/28/mikawa-house-tokushima/

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The approach to Mikawa House.
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A fireplace on the ground floor.
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Stained glass above doors to the balcony.
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The flight of marble stairs.
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The landing on the second floor.
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The billiards room.
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The entrance hall.
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The garden.
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Art nouveau arch and stained glass.
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A dark upstairs corridor.
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The main bathroom, with a mosaic of a traditional Japanese scene.
The Japanese style room.
The Japanese style room.

Mikawa House, Tokushima.

By Austin Smith.

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The approach to Mikawa House, Tokushima-shi

Mikawa House sits on the banks of the Shinmachi river near the Prefectural Office in Tokushima-shi. Built in 1928, it is the oldest European-style residence in the prefecture. Thankfully, the building survived the heavy U.S. bombing of the city during the Asia Pacific War and was designated as an Important Cultural Property by the national government in 2007. However, it currently stands unoccupied and inaccessible to the general public.

The house was originally owned by Yoshiyaki Mikawa, a doctor of obstetrics and gynaecology who had studied radiology at Universtat zu Berlin. Following the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, Mikawa realised the importance of creating earthquake resistant buildings. He enlisted the help of Kinouchi Toyojiro, an industrial engineer who had also studied in Germany, at Leipzig. Mikawa House was built in the Jugendstil style (“The style of youth”), a movement influenced by English Art Nouveau as well as Japanese applied arts and prints. Made from ferroconcrete, the house is said to resemble a German country house or castle – one of an array of cultural connections between Tokushima and Germany from this period.

Mikawa House is currently owned and maintained by the Tokushima city government, staff of the city’s education research department, including myself, were given a supervised tour of the building to appreciate its layout and unique features.

The exterior of the house and surrounding garden are all that can currently be seen by the public, either from the roads along the banks of the Shinmachi river or from trains bound for Mugi on the JR line (which runs past the property). The house boasts a turret-style chimney, a gargoyle perched on the roof overlooking the river and curvaceous, mosaic tiled balconies.

The garden is a fusion of east and west, with moss-covered statues of lions and athletic figures in thoughtful poses standing amongst more traditional Japanese stone arrangements. This juxtaposition is continued throughout the interior of the property.

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The garden of Mikawa House.

The layout of the property is very different from that of other Japanese homes of the period. A grand porch leads to the main hall with doors to the drawing room, dining room and access to a corridor leading to the kitchen and utility rooms. A marble staircase can be taken up to the second and third floors, each with spacious landings and corridors.

The landing on the second floor has parquet wood flooring and it opens on to a wide balcony over the porch below. There is also a games room with the original carom billiards table (pocketless) standing in front of a large fireplace in a state of disrepair. Nevertheless, Japanese influences remain, there is an eight mat tatami room on the same floor complete with sliding doors and an alcove. The third floor, containing sleeping quarters, is the least opulent.

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The landing – with access to the balcony on the left, the games room in the centre and the tatami room on the right.

There are sash windows throughout the property and there is stained glass over double doors to the porch and balconies. In the majority of rooms the walls are papered and the floors are carpeted – although they are badly worn and in a poor condition. Coving and skirting boards are other obvious European features. A number of rooms contain fireplaces and chandeliers hang from the ceiling, while additional lighting appears to have been added at a later date.

Until approximately twenty years ago, the house was used as accommodation for student nurses. Locals recall seeing laundry hanging from the balconies and bikes parked outside. Air conditioning units, additional bathing facilities and western style toilets are notable later additions that would need to be removed to return the property to its former glory. Although there are ambitions to transform Mikawa House into a museum open to the public it is thought that it would cost five hundred million yen to restore the original features and remove the alterations.

Although the current condition of the interior is unfortunate, it is perhaps understandable given the most recent occupants. The exterior and garden are well maintained by the city government with the objective being to preserve the building for future generations. Ambitions to restore the property could be realised if funding becomes available.