Monday, November 13, 2006

A Few Points of Interest

I shall take a brief recess from my description of a typical day at Kido Junior High School to introduce a few points of interest in Niigata City. After being designated one of Japan's five treaty ports, in 1868, Niigata City embarked on an ambitious program to modernize itself in anticipation of its first foreign visitors. A Custom House was built to facilitate foreign commerce. This lovely structure, in use until the 1970's, is the only one of the original five remaining today. Located near the mouth of the Shinano River, Japan's longest waterway, the Old Custom House is one of three facilities comprising the Historical Niigata Complex, or Minatopia. Additional improvements included the building and widening of roads, as well as the cleaning of the city's extensive network of canals. The canals connected to the Shinano River, permitting the delivery of riverborne freight to the city center. Once lending Niigata a distinctive character and charm, the canals have long since been filled in and paved over. The changes Niigata underwent were not limited to infrastructure or administration, however. A delegation from the Imperial government, touring Niigata City to observe first-hand the progress of its "internationalization", concluded that the city would not be properly "finished" without a large public park. Thus, in 1873, Hakusan Park was established as one of the first public parks in all of Japan. The orange gate, or torii, stands at the downtown entrance to Hakusan Shrine and Park. The etymology of the term torii is somewhat uncertain, but the 2 Chinese characters comprising the word mean, literally, "birds' roost". A traditional Shinto rite, now fallen into disuse, summoned the devout believer to morning prayer, a reverential salute to the rising sun. Shinto shrines therefore raised fowl for the purpose of announcing the coming of dawn, and of rousing the priests from their slumber. From their lofty perch atop the shrine gate, the cocks would herald the day's approach.

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