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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

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The Secrets of Lockh(e)art Castle (15-17 May)
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This was the last sign of British Hills as I left on Tuesday. A Union flag against a rice field makes a fitting symbol of the project as a whole, don't you think? I'm putting it in my file of possible book covers, anyway.



Soon enough I was back in Shin-Shirakawa station. After the English immersion and Downton-ish restraint of British Hills it was a bit of a culture shock to find myself once again in a Japanese railway station, having my senses abraded by the various recordings, screens and jingles, all relentlessly genki, but it only took 10 minutes to acclimatise.

When I was having lunch with Akira Suwa at Cardiff University a few months ago, I mentioned my Japanese project to him, and he asked if I’d ever heard of Lockheart Castle - a nineteenth-century Scottish castle imported stone by stone from Scotland in the 1990s by a famous Japanese actor, and rebuilt in the wilds of Gunma Prefecture in central Japan. It sounded interestingly eccentric project, but I didn't think I'd have the chance to visit. However, then I realised that my friend Mami, one of the people I know through practising Japanese on italki.com, happens to live in Gunma. It was a perfect opportunity to visit her, anyway; so, on the way south I stopped at Takasaki City for a couple of days, where I stayed in Mami's seventh-floor flat.

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Mami was a very generous host, with food, time and patience for my various foibles and enthusiasms. She also took me sightseeing. Straight from the station we went to have lunch at the temple next to this gigantic statue of Kannon, who overlooks the city from her mountain perch:

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I’m not posting a lot of food pics on this journey (which isn't to say that I'm not taking them, just that I don't want to tax your patience), but I’ll make an exception for this simple but beautiful nori soup. The restaurant serves the same fare the priests eat, and is therefore largely if not wholly vegetarian. It was like looking at a starfish in a rock pool.

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Near the statue of Kannon is a smaller statue of the man who commissioned the statue of Kannon. I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t also a tiny statue of whoever commissioned that statue, but then I am a silly person. There seem to be a few of these outsize statues in Japan - I seem to remember a famous Buddha in Nara. Do they vie with each other? It’s a pretty impressive monument, not least when seen from a distance (as it can be from many parts of Takasaki City), cresting the mountains like a benign Titan.

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In the afternoon, to match temple with jinja, we went to Haruna, a 1,100-year-old Shinto shrine lodged in a steep valley fashioned by water and volcanic rock. It’s about a kilometre walk, along a trail lined by gods of good luck and combed with waterfalls.

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Clearly the gods were doing their job, because when I got my fortune from the shrine (it was written on invisible ink, and revealed itself only when dipped in a basin of water provided for the purpose about halfway back along the trail), I got Daikichi - very good luck - for the first time ever. Not that I needed to be told that; if I didn’t have good luck, I don’t think I’d be doing this trip.

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I particularly liked the repository for used brushes (whether for painting or writing): apparently the priests collect and burn them with due ceremony, as way of thanking them for their service. I suppose this is among the rituals I mentioned in this post from two years ago about the tsukumogami, or spirits of everyday objects, and their need for propitiation.

But, back to business! This trip is all about Britain in Japan, after all. Yesterday Mami kindly drove me to Lockheart Castle, a different version of Britain to set alongside British Hills’ Manor House. Since the actor first established Lockheart Castle in Japan in the 1990s, it has been taken over by a local company that runs a stone quarry, and I’m not yet entirely sure which aspects of the current Lockheart Castle are due to which of its proprietors. It does seem quite a heterogeneous place. Certainly, there has been some attempt to recreate Lockhart Castle (the extra ‘e’ got added when it was imported to Japan, to beef up its appeal as a place for lovers) as it was when it was first built near Edinburgh in 1829:

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Then it belonged to Sir Walter Scott’s son-in-law, John Gibson Lockhart, and there’s a bit of a Scott theme going on in one or two of the exhibits, and at least as much Walker’s shortbread is on sale as you might reasonably expect or desire. Some of the furnishings suggest a desire for authentic detail, in the British Hills way.

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On the other hand, there’s also a throne of Scotland (complete with Stone of Scone!) on which one is free to look regal:

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There are also many less-expected items: a teddy bear collection; some of Audrey Hepburn’s bits and bobs; a large collection of Santa Clauses; one of Princess Diana’s Rolls Royces; autographs from the various actors and idol groups who’ve used the castle as a set (and they are, it seems, legion):

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A large part of Lockheart Castle’s business is hosting weddings, and there was a couple getting ready for theirs when were there (as shown in this paparazzi shot from what I hope was a sufficient distance). There is also the possibility of hiring a princess dress and doing a bit of light cosplay, as was being done by several young women (although none was younger than 16, I’d say).

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Again, I wonder what (if anything) is the difference between dressing and dressing up? Had the bride not simply made a more thorough job of dressing up as a bride than the princesses had of dressing up as princesses? (The princesses after all were wearing jeans and sneakers under their gorgeous gowns.)

Elsewhere, the castle had created certain traditions to ensure love and happiness in marriage, such as a bell at the top of a tower, the ringing of which ensures marital bliss. There were also many dozens of heart-shaped “ema” hung around the place, in which couples had pledged their troth for all they were worth. I think the most surprising congregation was on this suit of armour.

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I don’t believe for a moment that if Japanese people visited a Japanese castle and saw a suit of samurai armour they would be tempted to hang personal pledges of romantic love from it. Clearly they’re consuming Lockheart Castle in a different way - but what are they getting out of it? That’s another question.

On the way back from Lockheart, Mami and I stopped at a rose garden - on a massive scale. I’m used to places like the walled garden at Mottisfont Abbey, near where I grew up, but this is something else.

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Also, Cerberusmobile, anyone?

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We also did karaoke together. Mami has an excellent voice, it turns out. I can’t compete - but at least I got to fulfil a minor-but-long-held ambition, to sing The Vapors’ “Turning Japanese” in a Japanese karaoke place...

Mami thought it was funny (luckily).

Oh my, those roses! At a half-formed level, I have the impression that European knights have a greater association with romantic love than Samurai, because of the tradition of chivalry and going off to battle with your lady's colours etc. But that may just reveal my ignorance of Samurai culture, and given I know I'm pretty ignorant about that I'd be a little surprised if Japanese visitors are very well-acquainted with western European chivalry. Then again maybe the kind of people who come to Lockheart castle are more than averagely steeped in it?

I think you're probably right about samurai culture, but I suspect you're also right that the cult of chivalry is not much talked of by the young people of Japan. (Except, perhaps, in the principle of "Ladies First", which is associated with Britain and to a lesser extent the West in general; but not so much with knights, I think?)

Does one eat the pink flower that is floating in the soup or is it purely decorative?

Oh, it's totally edible. At least, I ate it...

Fabulous photos!