Matsumoto likes to call itself “Gakuto”. Depending on the Kanji (and your preferred translation of ”to” ) the word can mean Mountain Town (岳都), the Fun Capital (楽都), or the City of Learning (学都).
The first is obvious. The second is subjective. The third is grounded in some interesting history.
In Edo Era Matsumoto (known as Tsukama at the time) there were numerous “tera-koya”, private educational institutions for the children of commoners. These “temple kids’ shops” focused on reading and writing, bolstered by a curriculum of additional academic and cultural subjects, and were a highly-prized aspect of life in Tsukama. When the Ministry of Education, created in 1871 by the new Meiji government, introduced a series of education system reforms in 1872, the president of the local carpenter’s association, Seijyu Tateishi, was hired to direct construction on a new school. The following year the “Kaichi Gakko” opened as one of Japan’s first schools.
Now a walk-in repository of the history of education in Matsumoto, the Former Kaichi School offers a glimpse into the school life of the children who learned to read and write here over a hundred years ago.
The first thing one might notice about the Kaichi School is that it doesn’t look at all Japanese. That the Meiji government had just thrown Japan’s doors wide open to the world may have played an influential role in the architectural style chosen by Tateishi. Note that this was also the time Japanese castles were being razed in symbolic if not manifest destruction of Japan’s recent feudal past. A structure that would resemble in any way a remnant of that episode of Japan’s story would likely have not gone over well.
But a closer look at the ornate façade of the building shows a mix of architectural styles. The vertical windows and the balcony over the main entrance have a western flavor, but the tiled roof is clearly Japanese. The carvings of clouds adorning the balcony are of a Buddhist nature, while the carved dragon below is a ubiquitous symbol of eastern cultural history.
And while the interior of the school feels like it was transported wholly from the west…
…the school materials on display show that the learning was thoroughly Japanese.
On the first floor one large classroom remains largely as it was long ago, with aged wooden student desks and chairs of varying sizes, an equally time-worn teacher’s desk, and a piano held together with little more than some rope.
In other rooms you can see large pieces of remaining history, like an original wood-burning stove for the cold Tsukama winters; smaller objects like notebooks and straw shoes you can literally hold in your hand; and more photographs and exhibits of students and teachers and moments long gone.
Unfortunately, for now, little information is presented in English. Nevertheless a walk through the building gives one a good sense of what life at the Kaichi School must have been like.
To make your visit to this newly-designated National Treasure of Japan more interactive, there are a few things you can do. First off, the doors to the first floor hallway are decorated with wood carvings. One of them is of this creature that can’t seem to decide whether it is a dragon, a bird or a fish. There are (it is said) eight such carvings among the doors of the school. See if you can find them all.
There is also what is called a “Door to Nowhere” up near (yes, near) the second floor. There is nothing on the other side – not a room nor a hall – but it exists, evidently from a time when there was. You’ll have to take it on faith, though, as you are not allowed to open it.
One more interesting bit to the story of this school is the fact that much of the wood used in its construction came from an old abandoned temple. There is one supporting post in particular, next to a staircase, that bears an indication of the intriguing salvaged nature of this impressive, polished building.
There is much more to see and read about at the former Kaichi School, located a quick walk north of the castle and open every day from 9am to 4:30pm (entry 400 yen). Along your way there you also might get to see a few of today’s Japanese school children, running and laughing out on the playground of Matsumoto’s present-day Kaichi Elementary School.
In all, a trip to Matsumoto’s second and recently-designated National Treasure of Japan is well-worth a slice of your time here in the fun, mountainous, educational Gakuto.