Mito Tōbukan 水戸東武館

Tōbukan Gate 東武館門

Dojo Name: Mito Tōbukan 水戸東武館
Arts Practiced: Kendō, Iaidō, Naginata, Hokushin Ittō-ryū kenjutsu (北辰一刀流)
Location: Mito, Ibaraki-ken, Japan
Completion Date: 1 January Meiji 7 (1874)
Summary: A dōjō of original period construction completed at the same time Japan transitioned from feudalism to industrialization, representing the kind of space a samurai would have actually trained in.

When I read first read the kenshi24/7 article about Tōbukan, which gives an excellent overview of the historic significance of the dōjō and its connection to kendō, I placed it on the list of places I wanted to eventually visit in Japan. Since it is of traditional Japanese timber construction or mokuzō (木造), this post will make a case study of Tōbukan’s traditional architectural features.

gate with dojo in the background 門と背景に道場

Site and Urban Context
Mito is the prefectural capital of Ibaraki. The region was once called Hitachi and home of the most junior of the three branches of the Tokugawa clan. Like many Japanese cities, Mito is mostly populated by concrete boxes built with little regards for aesthetics and it is within this that Tōbukan is situated. Located north of the city center, the site of this dōjō is adjacent to a well used road.

exterior view from street 道から外観

Most photographs I had seen online of Tōbukan shows the roofed entrance gate or mon (門), giving the impression that the dōjō itself, like a shrine or a temple, is situated behind the gate. This is not the case. The dōjō actually sits on the corner of the site adjacent to street with the entrance gate further along the main street at what is almost the end of what is left of an old boundary fence. This boundary fence extends only a few more meters beyond the gate before ending abruptly to be continued with a chain linked fence that encloses a coin car park that I speculate to have eaten into the original site of Tōbukan. Today’s site of Tōbukan is L shaped and wraps around the corner of the car park, separated by chain link fencing. A narrow sidewalk separates the main hall from the roadway. The roadway is so close in fact that from inside the dōjō the cars seem to drive pass close enough to shake hands. Tōbukan also has a more recently built extension adjacent to the far end of the hall (from the point of view of the entrance gate).

from the car park パーキングから

exterior view 外観

To enter the site one must pass through the mon, which is a typical feature of traditional Japanese compounds whether they are located in a wide open rural setting or within a more confined townscape. Tōbukan’s mon is aligned with a street that leads up to it, which suggests that it was originally intended to be a prominent place as such an arrangement is typical of public and religious institutions. Another indication that this may have been the intention is that the gate has a slightly grandiose arrangement as it has a central pair of doors with secondary doors to either side, suggesting different entrances are used depending on occasion or importance of those passing through.

Overall, the site is situated with the mon facing south. The dōjō occupies the southwest corner of the site with it’s genkan facing east. The modern extension is immediately to the north of the original dōjō. This two story extension, like the dōjō, is aligned along the small side road on the west side of the site.

Main Gate and Boundary Fence Construction
This particular mon is of the udegimon (腕木門) or kidomon (木戸門) type. A udegimon has braces (udegi) for lateral stability. The main posts (hottatebashira 掘立柱) sit on stone bases (kisokutsuishi 基礎沓石). Tilting is prevented by support by rear support posts (hikaebashira 控柱), which are connect to the hottatebashira by horizontal brace beams (udegi 腕木). Normally the secondary hikaebashira are shorter than the main hottatebashira, but in this case these hikaebashira are constructed of large unhewned logs that are as tall as the hottatebashira and actually more massive. Both the hottatebashira and hikaebashira carry large heavy main beams called kabuki (冠木 – different kanji from the traditional style of stage theater), which are also of unhewned logs. These kabuki hold up the hijiki (肘木) or traverse beams of the roof construction. In the case of Tōbukan the connection of the hijiki also provide another connection between the hottatebashira and hikaebashira. There does not appear to be any diagonal cross bracing so it is likely that interlocking joints, structural multiplicity (simply having lots of connected elements) and weight are relied on to provide lateral stability.

From either side of the mon extend out the ki-no-hei (木の塀 – lit. wood fence), also called itabei (板塀 – lit. board fence). In particular, Tōbukan’s itabei is of the aristocratic Genjibei (源氏塀) type, which has regularly spaced posts and supports a narrow roof. There are no supporting rear posts in this case although where the fence has been truncated for the car park entrance an ad-hoc bracing has been added.

genkan 玄関

Dōjō Construction
The dōjō itself is of typical mokuzō (木造), or traditional Japanese timber construction. In this type of construction, a wood frame structure transfer the loads down to footings or bases (kiso 基礎). The ground floor is built up off the floor, both providing underfloor ventilation (important in Japan’s humid environment) and prevention of ground moisture penetration. Post-feudal construction or renovation may include concrete footings or base in lieu of stone.

On top of this frame sits the roof construction, normally a heavy timber build up. As typical for this style, Tōbukan has an irimoya (入母屋) or hip and gable style roof. This style of roof is a distinctive feature of traditional East Asian architecture in which the roof is hipped but has gables inset into opposing sides. Both the main hall, the mon and the itabei have traditional kawara (瓦) fired clay roof tiles. The outward color of these tiles depends on the glazing used and the size and shape of the tiles seem to be standardized.

bay window 出窓

The wood frame structure then separates the inside from the outside with various elements. The lower portion of this structure is cladded in shitami’ita (下見板), overlapping wood planks similar to clapboards. These are held in place by vertical itaosae (板押), wooden battens. This type of cladding is placed over the structure thus covering them and acting as a rain screen preventing penetration by rainwater. The upper portion of this structure where the roof overhang lessens the concern for weather penetration has lime plaster infill called shikkui (漆喰). Shikkui is applied to a mesh, initially with coarse types and then successively finer and smoother types. Shikkui is applied between the structure, thus allowing exposure of the structure. Finally, windows and doors infill the main timber frame to allow for light and ventilation access as well as movement in and out of the building.

keikojō 稽古場

keikojō 稽古場

The same wood frame structure also works for subdividing the interior with internal partitions, thresholds and other spatial separations defined by the interval of the structure. The post and lintels of a structure can also be used as a door frame. In fact, one of the fascinating characteristics of a Japanese minka (民家 – traditional house) is how shōji (障子 – movable partitions) can be rearranged to transform a space. What is a large living room by day can be separated into a few bedrooms at night. The subdivisions of Tōbukan however, are fixed but visually fluid as the spaces are open to each other.

As is also typical for small scale mokuzō construction (as opposed to something like a temple or castle), Tōbukan’s structural interval is based on the logic of the tatami mat (畳). Tatami mats have standard sizes depending on region with Kantō (area around Tōkyō) tatami measuring about 88cm by 176cm. If one were to draw lines connecting posts in the orthogonal (right angle) directions, tatami mats would fit in between them almost perfectly (since structure has thickness this grid would be more like a tartan grid). This regularity also made it very easy to work out quickly the rough overall dimensions of Tōbukan.

keikojō 稽古場

keikojō 稽古場

Dōjō Layout
Through the gate the footpath brings one first to the genkan of the dōjō, which protrudes from the main volume of the building as a gable, or kirizuma (切妻). I was instructed however to enter through a secondary entrance next to this, which leads directly to the jōdan’noma. The jōdan’noma is raised some 50cm off the ground and has a tatami floor finish measuring 21 jō (畳 – mats). It is also one step up from the main keikojō (稽古場) floor, as is appropriate for its namesake as jōdan means up step. Off to the right side of the jōdan’noma (from the point of view of facing out to the keikojō) are two tokonoma (床の間). These tokonoma are the only spaces in the dōjō that have enclosures as shikkui infill walls separate them from each other and from the hikaenoma (控えの間 – reserve area) behind them. To the rear of the jōdan’noma is a set of doors which are level with the jōdan’noma and therefore significantly off the ground. Today there is a set of metal sports seating that provides steps to the ground but I would speculate that in former times this was used as a kind of view opening and not used for actual access.

jōdan'noma 上段の間

The keikojō is the heart of the dōjō as this is where training takes place. It measures approximately 9m wide by 12.7m long. The floor is made of sugi (杉) and each board runs the entire width of the dōjō. The floor is not sprung. It is constructed in the manner of a nōbutai (能舞台 – Noh theater stage). The natural elasticity of wood construction is relied on for this floor’s flexibility.

The ceiling of the keikojō and the jōdan’noma are a type of coffered drop ceiling called gōtenjō (格天井). This type of ceiling conceals the structure of the roof. The lattice division follows the logic of the main structural grid and thus also of the tatami interval.

hikaenoma 控えの間

One notable feature of the keikojō is the use of demado (出窓 – bay windows) to provide light and ventilation. Between the glazing and the training area is a shelf which serves to protect the glazing from collision as would be inevitable for a dōjō. The cladding on the lower part of the demado are alternating vertically aligned boards which have small open slits passing between them so the construction here is quite porous.

Another unusual feature of the keikojō is how the kamidana (神棚) is inset into the transom so that rather than projecting into the keikojō it projects back into the hikaenoma. This keeps the keikojō clear of obstruction.

During my visit there was an iaidō practice taking place. At seiza-rei (正座礼 – bowing from kneeling position typically at the start and end of practice), the students faced the kamidana with their backs to the genkan while the sensei faced the other way. The person who appeared to be the more junior student (there were only two at the time) sat further away from the jōdan’noma.

hikaenoma 控えの間

The hikaenoma is separated from the keikojō by a row of posts with itaranma (板欄間 – board transom infills) as well as a small step up. Two more itaranama visually subdivide the hikaenoma though one has to look up to notice this. The hikaenoma is used for storage with shelving lining its walls. The ceiling is of a board and batton type construction called saobuchi tenjō (竿縁天井). The hikaenoma also leads directly to the modern extension.

Since my visit was part of a general sightseeing trip I did not have time to venture into the extension. Since I had dropped in unannounced I also did not want to tread on others’ privacy especially as a group of women were in there preparing for naginata practice. It is nevertheless where the back of house functions are located such as changing rooms and toilets.

As a dōjō that would have been used by people with experience in conflicts involving real swords, Tōbukan is remarkable for surviving into this day and age.

That said, the construction itself is quite typical for traditional Japanese timber buildings, of which many even older examples still survive today. The techniques are not lost and craftsman who can produce this type of work are not endangered though they are expensive as producing genuinely traditional structures is mostly limited to renovations, religious buildings and to some degree rural residences.

plan 平面図

I am told that Tōbukan resembles a nostalgic countryside schoolhouse and in terms of architecture it seems to belong to that typology. Those practicing Japanese sword arts, especially those from outside Japan, will no doubt find it fascinating that a period building is still being used for practice. I suspect for many Japanese, including those within the budō community, the value is less obvious as within the totality of all Japanese architecture old period buildings can still be founded easily, with many maintained in a better state than Tōbukan.

Mito also has a handful of other sites that make it a pleasant day excursion out of Tokyo. Kairaku-en (偕楽園) is ranked one of the top three gardens in Japan. With its plum orchard it should be especially beautiful during plum blossom season (late February or early March depending on how early or late Spring starts). The head of the Mito Tokugawa family also founded a Tokugawa Museum (there is another by the Nagoya branch). Kōdōkan (弘道館), one of the largest and most famous of domain schools was established in Mito in the late Edo period to educate samurai (a sort of feudal university). Kōdōkan is within a few minutes walk from Tōbukan but as of now the interior is off limits due to the damage from the 11 March 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami Disaster. A bicycle is actually a very convenient way to get around Mito and there is a rental service at the south side of Mito Station.

For those interested in traditional Japanese architectural terminology, the Japanese Architecture and Art Net Users System (JAANUS) is to an useful online reference.

NB: Any inaccuracies in the above description are mine.

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