A school of tranquility and silence in a mountainous landscape transcending time
I visited Shizutani School because I wanted to see its mirror-like cypress floor again. I first visited when I was in junior high school. It was just after the adjacent Youth Education Center had been built, and I have a faint memory of staying overnight at the Center and reciting from the Analects of Confucius in the school auditorium. I distinctly remember kneeling on a round straw mat called enza. My present-day sensation of the brightly gleaming floor revived my memory of our teacher earnestly explaining to us what an extraordinary and venerable place this was.
Shizutani School was founded in 1670. Today, 350 years later, it is still functioning as a school. In the early Edo period (1603-1868), Ikeda Mitsumasa, the lord of the Okayama domain, fell in love with the area and ordered Tsuda Nagatada to build a Confucian school where ordinary people could enroll. Nagatada was very talented; one is more and more impressed with his abilities upon comprehending each preeminent achievement in civil engineering, landscaping, architecture, management and treasury administration–demonstrated by such projects as the construction of the artificial Hyakken River for flood control, the creation of the famous Korakuen Garden and the development of new rice fields through land reclamation.
The roof tiles of the school auditorium, a national treasure, are all Bizen ware. The architecture is not only beautiful but also surprisingly robust. The truly sturdy stone foundations and the massive core pillars made of Japanese zelkova have an air of dignity. The eaves are deep and the end faces of the supporting rafters are tightly covered with linen and lacquered. The edges of the wooden framework are carefully covered with a mixture of plaster and lacquer, which acts as a countermeasure to insect damage and corrosion, according to my guide, Mr. Junro Kiyama, Secretary-General of Preservation Association for the Special Historic Site: Former Shizutani School. It seems that Mitsumasa ordered Nagatada to build a facility that would last for a long time; the latter’s efforts to fulfill this command are evident everywhere.
The superb stone wall is said to be the work of the mason Kawachiya Jihei, using the superb kirikomihagi method of elaborately processing the stones so that they are stacked so compactly as to leave no spaces between them. The stone wall, whose upper portion is rounded with a near-semicylindrical cross section, is constructed as makiishi, or boundary/encircling stones, like the outer fence defining the boundaries of a graveyard or enclosing a cemetery plot. Of the total 765-meter circumference, 505 meters are in the makiishi style. The climbing scenery that follows the terrain is somehow reminiscent of an animal, and does indeed put one in mind of a dragon. The interior, filled not with soil but with crushed rock, has excellent drainage, so that moss grows, but other vegetation does not. The unfailing solidity is admirable.
At the rear of the site are a mausoleum dedicated to Confucius and a shrine dedicated to Ikeda Mitsumasa. The latter on the right is situated about one meter below the former. This is said to express the decorum of “descending three shaku and not stepping on the shadow of the teacher”. The two trees on the slope at the mausoleum’s entrance are said to be two of the saplings of a Kai tree grown from seeds brought back from the philosopher’s hometown of Qufu, Shandong Province. When I visited, one of them was sporting beautiful fall foliage.
In this well-ordered site in a location in the northeast corner (the traditional position of the “demon’s gate”, where evil spirits are said to gather), there is a mound (not a grave, but a rounded knoll of soil) called Tsubakiyama in which are buried relics of Mitsumasa, such as his hair, etc. Passing through a tunnel of camellia, you come to a spot in which you can feel a mysterious spirituality. It seems that this mound was created to protect the Shizutani School. The stone wall surrounding the facility, the round, mounded lawn and the line of white storehouses are reminiscent of Kagawa Prefecture’s Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum Japan. It’s just a hunch, but there may well be a connection between the Shizutani School and the Garden Museum.
Michiichi Kunitomo, President of the Preservation Society for the Special Historic Site: Former Shizutani School, was the principal of my alma mater, Okayama Sozan High School. In 2009, on the occasion of the 110th anniversary, I was invited to make a commemorative speech and to design some items for the school: a logo, genko yoshi (special manuscript paper with 400 characters per sheet), writing paper and a white, blank notebook adorned with a small school logo as a commemorative gift for the graduates. When we met again, Mr. Kunitomo produced these items, and I was both moved and flattered that he had kept them all this time. I was suddenly inspired to reread the Analects of Confucius.