Japan from the inside out


Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, December 13, 2011

FEW outside the country may be aware of it, but archaeological research is a thriving enterprise in Japan. The artifacts from two millennia of human activity lie beneath everyone’s feet throughout the archipelago, and it is likely that most people here have seen an excavation site at least once in their lives. Yoshinogari, one of the most important historical sites (see right sidebar), was discovered when construction work began on a shopping center on the outskirts of town.

Dazaifu dig

The accompanying photo shows just how close the past is to the mundane present. That’s the site of a former Nishitetsu railway switching yard in Dazaifu, Fukuoka. More than a millennium before that, however, from the early 8th to the early 9th century, it was the site of a reception and lodging house for official missions from the Korean Peninsula and the Asian continent. Scholars and officials have been shoveling away since 2005, and last week they confirmed the discovery at the site of Silla-type (i.e., early Korean) ceramics and high quality, metal alloy dinnerware. The spoons are identical to those in the Shosoin repository of ancient cultural treasures in Nara.

There’s another contemporaneous facility for receiving foreign guests in Fukuoka Prefecture closer to Hakata Bay, known as the Korokan. Historians now suspect the Korokan was used primarily for trade negotiations, and the Dazaifu facility was used for more informal interaction, i.e., parties and ceremonies. In other words, they talked turkey at Korokan and ate it at Dazaifu.

The visits of important delegations from overseas are a matter of historical record. The Silla Kingdom on the peninsula sent a delegation to Korokan in 688, 25 years after they and forces from T’ang Dynasty China combined to defeat the army of the Baekche Kingdom, backed by the Japanese. Many Baekche refugees wound up in Kyushu, including those from the royal house. In addition, the Silla prince and a group of 700 people visited in 752, and imperial emissaries from China came the following year. Considering that this Dazaifu site was for eating and drinking, and another site from the same period in the same place coughed up enough dice to gamble away a weekend in Vegas, the ancient Koreans and Chinese probably looked forward to the trip.

Dazaifu continues to offer distinctively Japanese hospitality today, albeit of a more modern variety. Starbucks Japan announced they will open a shop on the sando, or approach path, to the Dazaifu Tenman-gu Shinto shrine on the 16th. It will be the first Starbucks shop at a shrine or Buddhist temple.

Dazaifu Starbucks

The Tenman-gu shrine is a large facility with gardens containing 6,000 plum trees in addition to the buildings. A Shinto shrine was first built there in 905, and the current building, registered as an important cultural property, dates from 1591. It was built on the grave of Tenjin, the deification name of Sugawara no Michizane, renowned for his erudition and learning. They’re opening the Starbucks at just the right time, too, as tens of thousands of people will visit the shrine for New Year’s. The visits will continue into January as students make the pilgrimage to ask the deity for a blessing to pass their high school or university entrance examination. (I could have used some of that juice myself.) Another attraction, the Kyushu National Museum (right sidebar), is within walking distance nearby.

The location demands that this shop not resemble the typical shopping mall Starbucks. It was designed by University of Tokyo architect Kuma Kengo, known for his work on the Suntory Museum of Art and the Nezu Museum (got them on the right sidebar too). That design combines the traditional and the modern with natural materials, primary among which is 2,000 pieces of Japanese cedar obtained by thinning out forests. It will also have two gardens, one in front facing the sando and one inside with more plum trees. There will be 46 seats in the interior and 10 on the terrace.

The coffee and food, however, will be the same as that of other Starbucks outlets.

Said the company’s PR release:

From the entrance to the interior, the distinctive design employs a traditional wood pattern, which has been incorporated both in the interior and exterior. It offers the warmth of wood and the opportunity to spend some time in a luxurious setting while surrounded by the aroma of the highest quality coffee.

There’s more to modern Japanese hospitality than trendy coffee shops, too. Here’s some news that might wake you up faster than a cup of Starbucks espresso: Three Tokyo restaurants were awarded a third star last month in the Michelin guide to restaurants. Japan now has 32 restaurants with a three-star rating, the guide’s highest.

There are 25 in France.

More worthy of note for me is this dambuster-sized preconception destroyer: One of the new two-star eateries in Japan is a Korean restaurant.

Want to take a quick visit to the Tenman-gu shrine without buying a plane ticket? Try this YouTube video. It starts at the Nishitetsu Dazaifu station and walks you right to the shrine. Along the way you’ll see the reason that a Starbucks won’t be out of place in the neighborhood.

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One Response to “Hospitality”

  1. Hume's Bastard said

    Somehow I don’t see Koreans running to a Shinto shrine for coffee, or three-star food. But, I’m sure Koreans will take credit for the Michelin stars.

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