Mt. Kameda, now known as Jozan and the site of National Treasure Matsue Castle, is home to more than one historic building. Just down the stairs and north of the castle town sits Kounkaku, a Meiji era imperial guest house.

Completed in 1903 in anticipation of Emperor Meiji’s visit, it turned out to be used for instead in 1907 by his son who would go on to be Emperor Taisho. He stayed there for three nights in late May, and the buildings’ original function as a fitting spot to house an emperor was served.

During that time period when Japan was rapidly Westernizing, there was a rush to build Western style ballrooms where people in Western style attire would gather and socialize. Although they had observed many buildings abroad, the buildings in Japan maintained local construction techniques, there by retaining some elements that are very local in character, such as the wooden ceiling found at Kounkaku. In the emperor’s private sleeping quarters as well, the floors are made of tatami mats.


Whereas the floors in his working areas were covered in lush carpets. I’m give or take about the floors, but I love those curtains.

The building served as a prefectural office for a short period of time, and then as the Matsue Folklore Museum for a few decades, but ended with the 2011 opening of the Matsue History Museum nearby in a new (and very nice) building modeled on a high ranking samurai home. Kounkaku was closed for about two years undergoing renovations, and reopened last October both as a general tourism spot and as an event space.

We’ve hosted a couple of receptions for delegates from Matsue’s Friendship City, New Orleans, here on the second floor (it’s tempting to call it a ballroom, but it was not actually designed as a party space). I’ve had a few people ask me if the building was based on Southern plantation buildings, as something about it feels very much like home to them.

I can’t say it feels familiar to me, but I do feel at home in buildings that transport you back to ages long ago. Great care was taken in preserving the buildings’ integrity while adding accessibility options and toilets to the back of it outside of the original building. The paint colors are as close to the original as we have sources to indicate, and all the locks and keyholes, marbled Meiji glass, and wooden door remain the same. Even the knicks in the wood from years of use remain as they are, adding character akin to freckles to a building that remains proud and regal.

My affection for the state of the building made me alarmed when I was consulted about adding a cafe to the downstairs.

I could see why it seemed like a good idea on the surface, but I was consumed with how many ways a good idea could go wrong. There was some talk about opening a Cafe Du Monde chain there, given the connections between Matsue and New Orleans and that Japan is the only place where the chicory coffee and beignet shop allows any chains. If they put enough effort into maintaining the character of both Cafe Du Monde and of Kounkaku I though that had potential to be very impressive, but the company that owns the Cafe Du Monde chains in Japan–and made an abomination of them by selling breakfast hot dog sandwiches and not even providing beignets at its Kyoto Station location–likely would not allow the city such flexibility to try to honor the original. What’s a more, a chain—-if it were any kind of coffee shop with a recognizable name in Japan, that name would inevitably be all over the Meiji architecture, during the imperial guest house into a shrine to modern commerce and convenience culture. With those fears in mind, I strong advised that unless they could made an independant shop with commitment to a Meiji style atmosphere and menu, it would be safer not to chance it with a commercial enterprise.

Granted, my advise was only asked for in passing, but I doubt my influence went very far. There were other who also loved the building who had even more grave concerns, such as keeping the Prfectural Cultural Property from going up in flames due to electrical fires.

The cafe opened at the same time the building reopened to visitors last fall. And to my pleasant surprise, the Kamedayama Tea Room was not a name I recognized.

I should know by now that Matsue loves its castle town atmosphere too much to let it be sold out in the name of progress. Even the castle tower itself only stands today because a Meiji period citizens’ group pooling money together to buy it from the government to prevent it from being demolished in a nationwide effort to toss out the old and unnecessary remnants of feudal Japan. Likewise, they would not let just any cafe operate inside of a building as special as Kounkaku.

As the name suggests, it is named for the mount on which Matsue Castle stands. Due to strict fire prevention guidelines placed on designated cultural properties, there are limits to how much electricity the cafe can use, and no open flames are allowed. As such, the food is prepared off site and kept cooled and/or heated up on the premises, thereby although reducing noise. Visual noise is also kept to a minimum with the sleek and understated design of the furniture and dishes.

So far I’ve only tried an Earl Grey with persimmon cheesecake, as well as one breakfast there, but they do have an appetizing lunch menu as well. I am also very intrigued by the Kuromoji Tea, a brew hailing from the nearby Oki Islands and long since a favorite in Shimane Prefecture. I’ll bet it’s fragrant, and I’m saving trying it for a time when I don’t need a kick of caffeine.

It’s now also the closest spot to Matsue Castle to grab lunch or stop in for tea time. Of course, that doesn’t mean the springtime picnics around the castle are likely to decrease.

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