Nostalgic, beautiful and even whimsical were the three words that came to mind as I passed under the gate topped with a wrought-iron arch and into the park. Before me was a lush green space with over-sized paving stones for walking paths, one leading uphill past an over-sized clock tower that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Disneyland and a white-hatted little hut obscured by green bushes and clusters of purple flowers, the other towards a simple, traditional detached room.
In a normal place these features could be chalked up to fancy for its own sake, but at Irifuneyama Park every one of these details has history and meaning. The paths are paved with stones from the old tramway, which a sign points out was the sixth to open in all of Japan. The white building is a sentry hut that has stood guard over the commander-in-chief’s residence likely since its construction, two foot-shaped valleys worn deeply into the stone pad on the precise spot where Sailors stood guard every hour of the day for decades. The clock tower once topped the Kure Naval Arsenal Engineering Department and even now still works and plays a melody every four hours decades after outliving its original purpose of letting busy shift workers know the time as they constructed everything from torpedo boats to the world’s largest battleship.
And the little rest house? It was once rented for a year by the future Fleet Adm. Heihachiro Togo when he was Chief of Staff at the newly established Kure Naval Station 1890-91. Cheesy, but visiting in the spring I could honestly say this is a place where history flourishes.
Kure, like the other former naval ports, is a navy town. It owes its existence as anything other than an irrelevant fishing village to the navy constructing a base here and for that reason I think it’s easy to see why people are nostalgic for a place that preserves its memory. Kure Chinjufu (Naval Station) opened in 1889 at a time when Japan was beginning to modernize and was both the result and an engine of this drive. For nearly half a century they produced many of the best warships in the world and the people of Kure can directly see that this was the handiwork of their grandparents, great-grandparents and families.
Irifuneyama Park is built on the property of the Official Residence of the Kure Naval Station Commander-in-Chief, which is still the park’s star attraction, but now surrounded by many other touchstones of Kure history neatly packed into one spot.
The residence itself was built in 1905 as a replacement for its predecessor that was destroyed in an earthquake that year. While funding was appropriated for building new working facilities, barracks and other living quarters, including the commander’s home, had to be rebuilt with existing materials so the two-story became one. It served as the commander-in-chief residence until the end of World War II. The Americans briefly occupied Kure before it was turned over to the British Commonwealth Occupation Force and the residence was used by its commander until 1956. It was turned over to the Japanese government and in 1966 given to Kure City which immediately set about preserving it as a museum. Given the period I think it was rather far-sighted of them to do so as quickly as they did.
The residence is deceptive in a good way. From the front I thought it was a charming little English cottage with a pleasant asymmetry to it. This is almost a façade as most of the house hidden behind the half-timber is actually a traditional Japanese mansion. Most of the living space is tatami rooms, spacious by Japanese standards and with lots of now-rare Meiji-era glass windows both outside and even in some of the room doors. It even has hallways between rooms which is another uncommon feature in Japanese homes.
Though no sign says so, the front door is not the entrance but entry is gained through the kitchen in the right side. Coming in from there we were led inside by our guide through the Japanese side then into the front where it abruptly shifts from East to West as tatami and sliding shoji doors give way to hardwood floors and gilded wallpaper and like a TARDIS, it looks cozy from the front outside, but it is bigger on the inside.
The Western-style rooms were for receiving guests and making an impression. It feels like a English mansion with its fine ornamentation and furnishing. Sadly, almost none of the furniture or other furnishing, while period correct for when the house was built, is original. The British Commonwealth Occupation Forces stripped it bare when departing, leaving only white walls in their stead.
Speaking of white walls, the original walls were later discovered to have had unique embossed gold wallpaper called kinkara-kami. This is a Japanese style of gold-embossing paper that is very rare even in Japan and despite its local origin perfectly fits with the Western rooms. When the house was restored in the early 1990s, craftsman recreated and re-applied the wallpaper.
I couldn’t get enough of this place as I love that upper-class English style. Everything about it just held my attention. I’ll be honest. I want to have afternoon cream tea in the guest room. I’d pay good money to do it.
Other little details outside the home have also been preserved such as the dedicated fire plug (precursor to the fire hydrant) and oil tank beside the house. I like this because these are small and usually discarded details for old houses that could easily have been removed or built over but instead are maintained here.
The park has a few other buildings, two of which are also historic. One is the former Takagarasu powder magazine, from one of the area coastal defense batteries that protected Kure. This is the only Imperial Japanese Army artifact in the park and an unusual example of military architecture in that it combines a rough-hewn stone construction with a traditional Japanese roof. I’d learned that these old powder magazines were designed with strong walls and relatively weak roofs so that if the contents detonated the explosion would be funneled upward through the roof and not explode outward. If look at the side you’ll see that the building is raised off the ground, this was to keep the magazine cool.
There’s two other museum buildings, one is the ticket counter and local museum located in the former stable and garage that has a small collection of artifacts related to the building and its occupants. None of it is in English, but even if you can’t read Japanese it has a few interesting pieces on display like building plans, maps and some personal belongings from the last naval station commander.
The other museum is also Japanese-only; it’s all about the process for creating kinkara-kami and has the embossing rollers on display. Our tour guide pointed out that both this and the art for creating slate roof shingles used in the house are dead arts in Japan and when the current generation of practitioners die they will have to go abroad to upkeep the residence, though the museum is trying to get people interested in learning the art of kinkara-kami and holds workshops.
Final note, when standing at the park gate and facing away from it, look at the intersection to your left. There’s a set of tall stone steps leading up to the nursing school. These stairs are all that remain of the former Kure Naval Hospital. There’s no sign or placard about it, I only learned about it because the English release of In This Corner of the World points it out in their Kure & Hiroshima Then & Now featurette.
There’s a lot to see but it can easily be done in an hour if just passing through all the stops, though with a guide explaining things to us and the time needed to stop to translate we were there for two and a half. While the museums aren’t in English, every sign around the park and inside the residence is bilingual so I didn’t have any language issues here.
Admission is 250 yen for the residence and museum, though the rest of the park is free.
Address: 4-6 Saiwai-cho, Kure City 737-0028
TEL: +81 823-21-1037