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Sunday, 3 May 2015

Ijinkan, Kitano, Kobe

A small part of the west in the east

With the arrival of westerners (and also other Asians mainly from China and India) the architecture of Kobe evolved from it being a totally Japanese city. Originally the newcomers settled down by the port in what was called The Foreign Settlement, unfortunately these building were just about all destroyed during World War II. As time went on and the non-Japanese settled into permanent living in Kobe, they set about making that living as comfortable as possible. Japanese summers are oppressive, not just hot but also uncomfortably humid, so those westerners with money then moved up the mountain (or as described in a Japanese info guide "to the foot of Mt Rokko".) to try and escape the worst of the summer heat and built western style homes there. The houses were for the wealthy and foreign diplomats.


I love this area of Kobe, it's my favourite part. I love the notion of 'fish out of water' people who are removed from their own cultural background into one that is totally different and then try to replicate the familiar in their unfamiliar surroundings. The Japan of the late 19th and early 20th century was very much a foreign and different place for the westerners who lived there.

The area is called "Ijinkan" (The Foreign Residences), it's in Kitano, it's very popular with Japanese tourists as they get a taste of European style homes, some of them are open to tour others have been converted to restaurants.


Whilst the houses are European (there's a France House, an England House, an Austria House named after the nationalities of the original owners who built the houses) they are built of wood which is the traditional Japanese building material as homes can easily be repaired and rebuilt if damaged in earthquakes. So to me at least the houses look American, the only European touches are the shutters.

The houses are still very much in a Japanese neighbourhood, they aren't clustered together, the Sunday I was walking around there were the Japanese day-trippers who had their maps of the area with the location of the various houses marked. The whole area is very popular with the Japanese (not so much with westerners who are quite familiar with western style homes!) and there are nice cafes and restaurants dotted around.

Kobe isn't the only city in Japan where you can find the remains of foreign houses, Nagasaki also has a collection. The difference and why I prefer Kobe's in that in Nagasaki the foreign houses are together, not in a neighbourhood. You pay to go into the foreign settlement so it has something of an artificial theme park feel about visiting the houses. Kobe in contrast gives an imaginative person with a sense of history (me!) a feeling of what life could have been like to those westerners who lived in the area from the late 1890s. (Most of the Kobe houses were built 1890 to 1910)


The French flags over the entrance as due to the fact that this is "France House" the original occupant was French. The England House is next door (Entente cordiale, history nerds will get the joke!)


Some of the houses are not open, which makes me wonder if they are still privately owned. During my time in Kobe I was fascinated to come across expats (British, German, Portuguese) who were longterm Kobe (and Japanese) residents, some of the younger ones were second generation. They had lived their entire lives in Japan with perhaps making one visit to the country whose passport they held. Apparently these old time expats weren't unusual in places such as Hong Kong, even mainline China (until they were expelled with the Communist revolution, some of them ended up in Japan.)



These houses in Kobe survived World War II bombing raids and the 1995 earthquake due to their location up the mountain. The houses in Nagasaki are interesting as they survived the atomic bomb that was dropped on that city as those houses were on elevated ground as well, ground that curved away from the main part of the city, that location saved the houses (and the people in them!)

There are more houses than those I've posted, it is quite a large area to walk around in. I've never actually paid to go inside them as a westerner I'm very familiar with westerner interiors, even historic ones. But the whole area is worth spending an afternoon wandering around and stopping to have lunch or afternoon tea in one of the cafes.

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