Castles, forts, pagodas, and temples: Historic Cities of East Asia
Guangzhou, China (mainland). Formerly known as Canton, Guangzhou is an old and huge city located along the Pearl River. Usually not described as an attractive city – growth is what drives this city, China’s largest by some estimates, the city nevertheless has historical merit and makes a visit worthwhile. Its proximity to Hong Kong – about 75 miles - makes the city very accessible to tourists. The city has an old center where most of the historical buildings are located including Liwan, Fangcun, and Shamian Island. The Temple of the Six Banyan Trees dates to the 6th century. Nearby the Liurong Temple has 17 stories and dates to the third century. Colonial buildings marking the 19th century European trading presence can be found in number on ShamianIsland which became a foreign trading enclave in 1859. Also along the waterfront is the Sacred Heart Cathedral which dates to the 1860s and remains the seat of the Roman Catholic Archbishop. It’s the oldest Catholic church in China. Guangzhou was also the home of Dr. Sun Yat-sen. He was born in a provincial village near the city and the city has memorialized him with the eponymous Memorial Hall as well as the President Sun Yat-sen Museum.
Macau, China (mainland). Macau, located in China’s southeast corner, is most famous for its Portuguese past. The settlement was finally handed over to China in 1999 after 442 years under a Portuguese flag. It will remain an autonomous region until 2049. Macau is also known for its casinos which are still flourishing. Once you get beyond the glitz and sleek high-rise buildings there is another part of the city which reminds you of its historical and colonial roots. Start at the Largo de Senado the main square, a wide expanse surrounded by Portuguese colonial buildings. Just up the hill from this is Macau’s most famous landmark the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral at the foot of Monte Forte, now housing the Macau Museum within its air-conditioned walls. The fort has excellent views of the city and the museum beautifully interprets the colony’s past. With close to 30 buildings included as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, it’s hard to see it all in one day. Closer to the ferry terminal overlooking the OuterHarbor is the Guia Fort and Lighthouse accessible by footpath and cable car. Just down the hill is the Sun Yat-sen House, where the father of Chinese nationalism stayed while in Macau. The current structure contains memorabilia and dates from the 1930s. The A-Ma Temple is also of great interest and is the oldest Chinese temple in the city located among granite boulders and across the street from the Macau Maritime Museum. Macau is very close to Hong Kong – 45 minutes by ferry.
Pingyao, China (mainland). Well known for its delicious beef, Pingyao is also a historical treasure with a Ming Dynasty city wall and building complexes which number as many as 4,000 structures. It is a UNESCO World heritage Site and includes the Wang mansion, the largest in China which contains 1,118 rooms and 123 courtyards within its sprawling complex. In many respects Pingyao is a looking glass into classical China with homes of all different types, poor and rich, enclosed in four walls surrounding a courtyard. The city walls is anchored by 72 watch towers surrounded by a moat shaped like a turtle with the market tower in the city’s center. The city has numerous temples as well including the Zhenguo Temple and its Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas. The city is also remarkable in that it has a symmetrical arrangement which was not untypical of ancient Chinese planning but a rarity today. Don’t miss Pingyao as it reflects what old Chinese cities looked like before they were razed, developed or destroyed.
Xiamen (Amoy), China
Xiamen (Amoy), China (mainland). Xiamen was formerly known as Amoy. It looks out over the Taiwan Strait, just six miles from Taiwanese territory Jinmen islands and has like many large Chinese cities a fast-paced growth outlook as well as an old, historic section which dates to the 1840s when the British used it as Treaty Port although settlement in the area dates to the 3rd century. Generally the city is beautiful and considered “well suitable” by Chinese standards. Head to Gulangyu Island for great views of the Xiamen skyline and explore the twisted streets and old colonial houses without the annoyance of cars – they are not allowed here. Other historic monuments in the city are the Tang Dynasty Nanputuo (South Putuo) Temple, a national treasure. Heaven King Hall is the highlight of this temple with multiple pavilions and pagodas. If the Hulishan Fortress is not your liking try the Botanical Garden. The former looks out over the sea, a 19th century bastion with a strange mix of cement which includes sugar, glutinous rice, camphor, and tree sap.
Kanazawa, Japan. Located in Ishikawa Prefecture, far from the major metropolitan areas, Kanazawa sits on Japan’s west coast overlooking the Sea of Japan. The city’s historic centerpiece is the castle and the history which surrounds it. Originally built in the fifteenth century, when many of Japan’s castles were constructed, the complex became the focus of the Ikko-ikki, a Buddhist sect which ousted the governor and established the “Peasant’s Kingdom” in contrast to various Shogunates, which were ruled by clans. Not unlike most of the Japan’s castles the present site contains some well reconstructed buildings as fire and other disasters left few original structures in places. The Ishikawa Gate and the Sanjikken Longhouse are original remnants. Explore some of the streets near the castle which have original samurai and merchant houses. Other sites worth a visit are the Kenrokuen Garden in the castle grounds, the Kanazawa Gold Leaf Museum, and Seisonkaku Villa.
Kurashiki, Japan. Kurashiki is located in the Okayama Prefecture, along the crowded corridor roughly mid distance between Osaka and Hiroshima fronting Japan’s Inland Sea. Its Bikan district is what makes it interesting and a rarity among cities in Japan. Old warehouses built between the 17th and 19th centuries line a canal. Electric lines are kept out to accent its authenticity. Formerly the houses of merchants the buildings of the Bikan are marked by their distinct white walls and black tiles. There were many such towns in Japan but few have survived with such integrity. A similar example can be found in Tochigi, in the Kanto region, although on a smaller scale. Kurashiki’s Bikan was also influenced by the industrial age: the Ohara spinning mill is an extant monument to its mercantile-industrial past. Another incentive to visiting Kurashiki is the Ohara Art Museum, the first of its kind in Japan dedicated to Western art. Founded in 1930, El Greco, Monet, and Renoir are all on display as well as other western greats. The museum is located near the Bikan District.
Takayama, Japan. Also known as Hida Takayama, the city sits in the mountains on the Miyagawa River in Gifu Prefecture. The city is a center of traditional Japanese crafts such as carpentry, lacquerware, and pottery. The heart of the city, Sanmachi, is also the old center and a good place to see these crafts on display and for sale without the over compensating neon and commercialization which typify other Japanese cities. The carpentry used to build the three-story Hida Kobubun-ji and the Ankoku-jiTemple are particularly unique; the latter dates to 1408. Not to miss is the Hida Minzoku Cultural Village, an open-air museum, which features traditional houses spanning the last couple of centuries. The houses of these traditional are well-known for their snow-repellant roofs.
Gyeongju, Republic of Korea.
Gyeongju, Republic of Korea (South Korea). On the opposite end of the country from Seoul, Gyeongju is near the sea while having its back up against the mountains, typical of cities on this rocky peninsula. Despite its manufacturing base the city has a rich history: it was the capital of the Silla dynasty for three hundred years between the 7th and 10th centuries. Designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites the city has four historic areas. Mount Namsan has dozens of temples and pagodas. The area was a focal point of Korean Buddhism and today the best way to see all of Namsan’s treasures are by hiking paths. The Buddhist rock carving is yet another highlight. Not to miss is the Cheomseongdae Observatory, an ancient astronomical looking post. Royal fortresses and tombs are also worthwhile including the Heavenly Horse Tomb and the Wolseong fortress. The city once housed the largest temple in Korea, the HwangnyongsaTemple, now in ruins. If you arrive in April the cherry blossoms are spectacular as is the Grotto of Seokguram any time of year.
Gyeongju, Republic of Korea.
Tainan, Republic of China (Taiwan). Tainan retains its sense of history better than other large cities in Taiwan. It also had a foreign enclave controlled by the Dutch who built Fort Zeelandia (also known as Fort Anping) in the 17th century. The city is also famous for its temples, the most famous being the First Confucian Temple-School built in 1665. Anping district hold numerous old houses many with the talismans used both decoratively and practically to ward to evil. Ming dynasty tombs can also be seen at Tseng Chen-Yang Mu. The night markets are a must visit and the city is well known for them. Other temples that are of interest include Koxinga’s Shrine, built in 1663, and the various temples dedicated to the city god Chen-Huang: Tainan Fu Cheng-Huang Miao, Hsien Cheng-Huang Miao, and Anping Chen Cheng-Huang Miao.