Accentuate the negative
Last year marked the 400th anniversary of the completion of Kumamoto castle, and 2008 sees the opening of the ‘Lord’s Inner Palace’ (本丸御殿 – Hon Maru Goten), a “new face of the castle”. It’s unfortunate then that this new face is so sour.
Billions of yen have been spent on the restoration of this new ‘wing’ of Kumamoto castle, and it was opened amid much fanfare at the beginning of Golden Week when the crowds were queuing for up to two hours to get in and have a peek.
A fair proportion of that money appears to have been spent on signs prohibiting visitors from doing much else other than looking and leaving.
Everywhere you turn there is a sign saying “DON’T…” Perhaps one of the most interesting parts is the enormous kitchen with its high ceiling. But visitors are permitted only a glimpse from one corner of the room, where there is a wooden fence preventing access, and if you didn’t get the point, red signs declaring “NO ADMITTANCE”.
When you can approach something, for instance where there are a few (very few, in honesty) informative displays detailing building methods or materials, across the front of all but one of the displays in large lettering is “DON’T TOUCH”. To back up the signs, there is a team of men in blue commissionaire suits dotted around the place, ready to pounce on people, like me, who look like they might be about to touch something, and bark in not terribly polite terms, “Don’t touch that!”
Last is the nonsensical ban on photography. And we’re not talking about flash photography, we’re talking any photographs whatsoever. Throughout the building, and in every room, there are signs displaying a camera in the prohibitive red circle with a thick red line through it. If you don’t get it, there’s text in Japanese, Korean and English making it clear “DON’T TAKE PHOTOGRAPHS”. Some of the interior restoration is grand indeed. To ban people from taking pictures of it is astonishing, unless the goal is to prevent people from sharing photos with their friends, who should instead visit (and more importantly, pay) themselves to see it, in which case it’s no longer astonishing, but extremely cynical.
(There are some ‘official’ photos available on the ‘Kumamoto Castle Official Site’.)
Aside from anything else, the photography ban is inconsistent with the rest of the Kumamoto castle site, where you have always been free to take photographs both outside and inside the other buildings. Ask for an explanation of the ban, and unsurprisingly what you’ll get is not a clarification, just a repetition. The Rules, as you should already know, are to be obeyed, not questioned.
The net effect of all this stern authority is to put a barrier between the visitor and the exhibit. You are at once invited to interact with it, and at the same time prevented from doing so. To underline this fact, just inside the entrance (before a succession of rooms that you’re prohibited from entering) is a room with a bank of computer screens where you can experience the Lord’s Inner Palace in – wait for it – virtual reality! Yes, you’ve got off the sofa, made the journey to the castle, and then the closest you can get to see most of it is on a computer screen.
After the years of build-up, and the billions of yen spent on the new building, the experience of seeing it for the first time was a huge disappointment. Aside from constantly being told what NOT to do, the visitor sees very little of what is an enormous building. There appears to have been a confused vision as to what part this new face in the city should play. The restoration team went to extraordinary lengths to recreate it as authentically as possible. And while it’s open to the public, it appears to be begrudgingly so, lest the public sully the fine restoration work. Whilst it’s beautiful, it’s worth remembering that it isn’t 400 years old, it’s less than a year old. Nothing original or irreplaceable would be lost if people were allowed to fully appreciate it.