Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Nara Revisited: Day 2

June 25, 2009

I spent the second day outside the city, to the southwest.  My primary destination and first stop for the day was Hōryū-ji, a temple founded in 607.

Nara Houryuu-ji Central Gate

Hōryū-ji was built at the command of the imperial regent, Prince Shōtoku, who was instrumental in the spread of Buddhism in Japan.  Prince Shōtoku also ordered the adoption of the Chinese calendar and carried out significant governmental reforms.  But while he actively sought out and implemented the best aspects of Chinese culture, he also asserted Japan as being equal to China, putting an end to the previous subordinate relationship.  (He famously addressed a letter, “From the Son of Heaven in the Land of the Rising Sun to the Son of Heaven in the Land of the Setting Sun.”  The Chinese emperor was not pleased.)

A fire is said to have leveled Hōryū-ji in 670, but even so, the complex contains the longest-standing wooden buildings in the world.  And while they’re around a century younger than the temple itself, the gate guardians are the oldest in Japan.

Nara Houryuu-ji Niou Left Nara Houryuu-ji Niou Right

From Hōryū-ji, I moved on to Yakushi-ji, a temple located just within Nara’s city limits, which is still a mile or two outside of the city proper.

Nara Yakushi-ji

Yakushi-ji was established in 680 and moved to its present location in 718.  Over the years, nearly all of its buildings have burned down and been rebuilt. The eastern pagoda, built in 730, is the sole remaining original construction.

Nara Yakushi-ji From North

This round hall, meanwhile, is a totally new addition.

Nara Yakushi-ji Genjoudou

It was built in 1991 to hold a portion of the cremated remains of the famous 7th century Chinese monk, Xuanzang (Jp: Genjō Sanzō).  Another portion exists in a museum in India.  That one was a gift from the Chinese government, but the remains at Yakushi-ji were taken by Japanese soldiers during World War II.

I wonder how much that bothers China.  On the one hand, the Party holds religion in contempt, but on the other hand, Journey to the West, the novel loosely based on Xuanzang’s travels, is a beloved classic.  I guess it’s likely that most people simply don’t know about the remains being kept in Japan.  I certainly had no idea.

After poking around Yakushi-ji, I had  lunch at a small restaurant called Shūraku Ichihashi.

Nara Shuuraku Ichihashi Restaurant

I can’t remember exactly what I had, but I do remember being struck by how low the price was for such good food.  I’ve had better meals and I’ve had cheaper meals, but their ¥1,000 (~$10) lunch set was an outstanding bargain for the quality.

Here’s a map.  I should note that their dinner prices seemed much higher, so the restaurant is probably best for lunch.

After my somewhat late lunch, my last stop before heading home to Kobe was at Tōshōdai-ji, a short walk north of Yakushi-ji.  The main hall was completely walled off due to repair work, but this is the grave of Ganjin, the Chinese monk who founded the temple in 759.

Nara Toushoudai-ji Grave

Ganjin (Ch: Jianzhen) was invited to come to Japan to share his knowledge of Buddhism.  It took him six tries over the course of a dozen years before he finally made it across the ocean, and he had gone completely blind in the meantime.  When Ganjin at last made it to the capital, Nara, he served for five years as the abbot of Tōdai-ji (the temple with the giant statue of Buddha), before retiring to a plot of land granted by the emperor. Ganjin then used the land to build Tōshōdai-ji.  He died four years later.

There’s a beautiful mossy grove between the grave and the rest of the temple.

Nara Toushoudai-ji Moss

Even disregarding their cultural and historical value, Japan’s many temples and shrines are priceless just for all the green space they protect from encroaching concrete.

Not that there’s no countryside left in Japan.  The walk to the nearest train station was quite nice.

Nara Grass

It was harvest time in the rice fields.

Nara Fields

Houses pressed in at points…

Nara Rice Roofs

…but then I came upon a particularly novel bit of protected greenery.

Nara Kofun

This island is a giant, key-shaped burial mound.  Scores of these were built as tombs for nobility from the 3rd century to the early 7th century.

This one is officially designated as the tomb of Emperor Suinin, but I don’t know if there’s any evidence supporting that claim.  Japan’s Imperial Household Agency lists some 740 burial mounds as being imperial tombs, but excavations are forbidden and it’s widely thought that most of the designations – made in the 19th century – are spurious.  A few actually are supported by historical and archeological evidence though, so they aren’t all made up.

In any case, the mound is a literal island of greenery, and a sacrosanct one at that.  So rather than being all for the sake of one dead man, the enormous labor that must have been expended to build the tomb ended up producing something that will benefit a great many people for a long, long time.


Nara Revisited: Day 1

June 3, 2009

When I first visited Nara, I only had enough time to see a fraction of what I wanted to.  I resolved to make another trip, and so I did.  I revisited Nara at the end of October 2007, and this time I stayed at a hotel and made two days of it.

On the first day, I visited two sub-temples of Tōdai-ji – the temple with the giant statue of Buddha – as well as a major shrine and Nara National Museum.

From the northeast corner of the Great Buddha Hall at Tōdai-ji, a path leads up the hillside to Nigatsu-dō, the larger of the two sub-temples.

Nara Nigatsu-dou Path

Nigatsu-dō means “Hall of the 2nd Month,” and while there are several buildings in the complex, only the eponymous hall itself is open to the public.

Nara Nigatsu-dou

Nigatsu-dō dates from the 8th century, like the rest of Tōdai-ji, but the hall was reconstructed in 1669 after being destroyed in a fire. “2nd Month,” refers to a group of ceremonies held here during the 2nd month of the old lunar calendar, which equates to around March.  These ceremonies have been held every year since 752.

Along the stairs to the hall, there is a fountain for ritually purifying yourself by rinsing your hands.

Nara Nigatsu-dou Fountain

That’s a Shinto tradition, not a Buddhist one, but it sometimes shows up at Japanese Buddhist temples.

Up at the hall, you can’t actually enter the building, but you can walk along the terrace.

Nara Nigatsu-dou Terrace

In addition to lanterns in a variety of shapes and sizes, there are placards mounted all along the eaves.

Nara Nigatsu-dou Pictures

Some have writing and others have pictures, and some are fairly new while others are very old.  These two are nameplates (Nigatsu-dō is written “二月堂“), but as you can see, only the one on the left is still legible.

Nara Nigatsu-dou Nameplate

On two neighboring buildings:  Gargoyle tiles!

Nara Nigatsu-dou Onigawara

They’re called onigawara (鬼瓦) in Japanese.  I love these things.

Back on the ground, I encountered one of Nara’s many free-roaming sacred deer.

Nara Nigatsu-dou Deer

They get rounded up every October to have their antlers removed, but this guy must have evaded capture.

From Nigatsu-dō, I headed south along the hillside.  A short distance away is a modest building known as Sangatsu-dō, meaning “Hall of the 3rd Month.”

Nara Sangatsu-dou

It’s name comes from a ceremony held here during the 3rd lunar month. Sangatsu-dō isn’t as as well known as its neighbor, but it is said to be the oldest building at Tōdai-ji. It houses 16 statues, 14 of which date from between 729 and 749.  The statues are in very good condition given their age, and 12 are designated national treasures.  No photography allowed, alas.  After taking a look, I continued south.

The hillside is wooded, but some spots allow for views over Nara.  This is the Great Buddha Hall.

Nara Toudai-ji Distant

And here you can see the pagoda at Kōfuku-ji, the other temple I stopped by on my first visit.

Nara Koufuku-ji Distant

About 15 minutes farther south, in denser forest, is Kasuga Grand Shrine.  This is a side entrance.

Nara Kasuga Side Entrance

Kasuga Grand Shrine was founded in 768 as the tutelary shrine of the powerful Fujiwara clan.  It’s home to some 3,000 lanterns.  You can buy a paper to write your name and a wish, and then put it in one of the stone lanterns.

Nara Kasuga Stone Lantern

This person is praying for the well-being of his family.

For a more permanent prayer object, you can have a bronze lantern made.

Nara Kasuga Big Lantern

Here’s a close look at one.

Nara Kasuga New Lantern

These aren’t cheap, I’d imagine, but they’re hanging everywhere inside the shrine.

Nara Kasuga Lanterns

At least they’re probably more affordable than a torii gate at Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine.

And hey, here’s a wooden lantern.

Nara Kasuga Buckets

On the left.  I didn’t see any writing on it, so it probably wasn’t a prayer lantern.  I wonder if there’s always a wooden lantern there or if it was filling the spot for a bronze prayer lantern.  Hmm.

At any rate, as for the shrine itself, this inner gate is as far as the public is allowed to go.

Nara Kasuga Shrine

You can, however, see a picture of the inner sanctuary at the shrine’s website, here.  There are four kami enshrined in the sanctuary, hence four shrines.

I left Kasuga Grand Shrine from its south gate and headed back into town.  On the way, I happened upon the shrine’s Treasure Hall, a small museum that truly deserves its name.  They had some outstanding artifacts.  There are a few pictures here (click on the images for a better view).

Back in town, my last stop for the day was at Nara National Museum, which was holding its annual exhibition of treasures from Shōsō-in, a storehouse belonging to Tōdai-ji (although the treasures are now administered by the Imperial Household Agency). The dedication of the giant statue of Buddha at Tōdai-ji was attended by monks and dignitaries from as far away as India, and the collection includes some fascinating Silk Road artifacts in addition to Japanese works. You can see a handful of the repository’s 8,874 items here.

Dinner was noteworthy.

I ate at Miyako Kozuchi (京小づち), a restaurant that serves Japanese style Chinese medicinal cuisine, made from organic and mostly locally grown ingredients.  The restaurant doesn’t have a standard website, but they do have a blog.  This post shows what I ordered.

The soup is made from the traditional Japanese stock based on kombu seaweed, shiitake mushrooms, and katsuobushi.  To this is added egg, shredded nori (the dried seaweed used to wrap sushi), and green onion, as well as the very unusual ingredients of red rice and Silkie chicken.  The chicken is called “crow-bone chicken” in Japanese (烏骨鶏, “ukokkei”), due to the inky color of its skin, flesh, and bones.  To the right of the soup is, I believe, sesame pudding with wolfberries on top.  Next is an assortment of Japanese pickles.  Below that is a row of medicinal food to add to the soup – mostly seeds and berries, with pickled garlic and shiso leaf being the only things I could identify.  The contents of the large plate may have been a little different for my meal, but as far as what is pictured, on the right is egg, green beans, taro root, and wheat gluten (the pink and green thing); in the middle is fish with citrus-doused sweet potato; and on the left is a lightly sweetened mix of soy beans, seaweed, shiitake, and konnyaku.

The meal was delicious, satisfying, healthy, and novel.  You can’t ask for much more.

Miyako Kozuchi is located in a shopping arcade near the Nara-machi neighborhood.  From the southwest corner of Sarusawa Pond (south of Kōfuku-ji), head south one block and then west one block.  (The streets in this area are all narrow and there are many side streets, but I’m defining a block as ending at a four-way intersection.  And if you’ve left the narrow streets and hit a main road, you’ve gone too far.) You should be at the shopping arcade.  Head south and the restaurant will be on your right, just a few doors down.  You can recognize it by the picture of a short-handled mallet on the shop curtain.

Uji Continued

April 24, 2009

From Byōdō-in, I crossed the Uji River and made a brief stop at Ujigami Shrine.  It’s small and there isn’t much to see, but Ujigami has the oldest shrine buildings in Japan.  Inside this shelter are three shrines that have been dated through dendrochronology to around the year 1060.

Uji Ujigami Shelter

They look a bit like this secondary shrine.

Uji Ujigami Shrine

Of course in terms of its date of foundation, Ujigami Shrine isn’t even close to being the oldest shrine in Japan, it just has the longest standing  buildings.  I think no one knows which shrine is the oldest, institutionally speaking, since the really old ones were built before writing was imported from China.

After dropping by Ujigami Shrine, I headed back to the train station and took a train a few stops north to Mampuku-ji, my last site for the day.

Uji Mampuku-ji Map

Mampuku-ji is the head temple of the Ōbaku branch of Zen.  It was founded in 1661 by a Chinese monk, and the Ming Chinese influence is readily visible.

Not so much at the front gate . . .

Uji Mampuku-ji Gate

. . . but this alcove, for example, screams “Chinese.”

Uji Mampuku-ji Altar

My visit was a bit rushed, because the temple was closing early.  The reason was that Mampuku-ji was the 2007 host for the annual “Nippon to Asobō” event.  I hadn’t heard of it before, but Nippon to Asobō (“Let’s Play with Japan”) is a night of art and entertainment with the aim of celebrating Kyoto and keeping traditional Japanese art and culture fresh and relevant.

The theme for 2007 was ties with China.  They aren’t pictured here, but musicians playing erhu and other traditional Chinese instruments were warming up while the venue was being prepared.

Uji Mampuku-ji Event

As it came time for the general public to be kicked out, guests started arriving.  They were all dressed nicely – the men in suits and most of the women in kimonos.

Uji Mampuku-ji Couple

I saw some very pretty women in incredible kimonos, but I didn’t want to be rude, creepy, or otherwise paparazzi-like, so I don’t have any pictures of them.  Alas.


April 18, 2009

Just southeast of Kyoto’s Fushimi Ward lies the town of Uji, known for the tea it grows and for Byōdō-in, a temple whose image graces the 10-yen coin.

10-yen Coin

[Picture from Wikipedia]

I visited Uji in October of 2007, and the temple was my first stop there.

Byōdō-in was originally a villa built in 998 for the powerful Fujiwara no Michinaga.  The Fujiwara clan controlled the government for centuries by marrying its women into the imperial family.  Michinaga was the uncle of two emperors and the grandfather of three more, and he was effectively the ruler of Japan.

In 1052 the villa became a temple and the next year its famous Phoenix Hall was built.

Uji Byoudou-in

The name comes from the building’s appearance, with wing and tail corridors extending from the main structure.  The Phoenix Hall is the only original building remaining at the temple and is a designated national treasure.

Here’s a view from the side.

Uji Byoudou-in Bridge

Byōdō-in was built by the Fujiwara, but indirectly, they nearly destroyed it.

During the 10th century, the Fujiwara and other high ranking nobility made themselves exempt from the land tax. The lesser nobility then began transferring their land deeds to the exempt nobles.  The lesser nobles thus acquired tax exemption, and in return they paid a much smaller tithe to their new landlords.  Farmers soon did the same thing, until eventually all land fell under this arrangement. The emperor and the institution of government were crippled and made completely dependent on the noble families, and the nobles’ effective power became tied more to their holdings than to their offices.

The three most powerful clans, the Fujiwara, the Minamoto, and the Taira, jockeyed for control of this new fuedal system, and the samurai class began to form.  A succession dispute led to wars in 1156 and 1160 which resulted in the Fujiwara’s defeat.  The Minamoto and the Taira vied to become the next power behind the throne, and in 1180 a succession dispute again led to war.  However, this time it was a full-blown, nationwide civil war, and when the Minamoto emerged victorious five years later, they didn’t try to go back to the old way of doing things.  Instead, the head of the Minamoto became the first shogun, and the age of nobility gave way to the age of the samurai.

What does this have to do with Byōdō-in?

The civil war began with the Battle of Uji, which took place on the grounds of the temple.  The imperial claimant supported by the Minamoto was attacked by the Taira and fled Kyoto under the guard of a small army led by the 77-year-old Minamoto no Yorimasa.  A much larger Taira army cornered them at Byōdō-in, and the Minamoto were defeated.  To atone for his failure, and to deprive the Taira of the satisfaction of capturing or killing him, Minamoto no Yorimasa committed seppuku on this “fan-shaped lawn.”

Uji Byoudou-in Fan-Shaped Lawn

He wrote a death poem –
– which means something like this:

A buried tree
whose flowers
never blossomed.
What a sad end.

But more than 800 years later, fresh flowers still adorn his grave.

Uji Byoudou-in Grave

I imagine he would have been heartened to know that.


March 3, 2009

I may be back in the States, but I still have Japan travels to talk about, so without further ado, here’s one of them.  In May of 2008, I made a day trip to Fushimi.

Fushimi is now the southernmost ward in Kyoto city, but it used to be an entirely separate city and it has its own castle.

Fushimi Castle

As seen from a train station.  This is as close as I got.

Fushimi is the home of Gekkeikan, the world’s largest producer of sake.  Gekkeikan makes a lot of cheap sake – a lot of cheap sake – but it has some higher quality products, too.  It was the first brewery to sell sake in bottles instead of kegs and is still an innovator.

Gekkeikan was founded in 1637 and remains family owned.  The old brewery is now a museum.

Fushimi Gekkeikan Yard

The buildings, which I believe date from around 1900, are so much more attractive than the concrete box warehouses that prevail today, don’t you think?

Fushimi Gekkeikan Street

Of course, wooden buildings do make fires more of a danger.  The adjacent canal may have helped mitigate that.

Fushimi Gekkeikan Canal

More importantly for daily business (a hundred or more years ago, that is), the canal provides access to a major river that was used to ferry sake and all manner of other goods to and from Kyoto and Osaka.

After seeing the museum, I had yakitori for lunch, at a restaurant run by another sake brewery, and then I took a short train ride to Fushimi’s most famous feature, Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine.

Fushimi Inari Gate

Established in the year 711, Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine is the main shrine of Inari, the kami of agriculture and industry.  There are tens of thousands of minor shrines to Inari across Japan, often attached to temples or other shrines.  Inari is said to use foxes as messengers, and you can always identify an Inari shrine by its fox statues.

At Fushimi Inari, businesses and individuals donate (ie, buy) torii gates to wish for success, and these torii make a loop up the mountain behind the main shrine that takes several hours traverse.

At the beginning of the path are two rows of small torii.

Fushimi Inari Split

They practically form tunnels.

Fushimi Inari Tunnel

After a relatively short while, the small torii give way to large ones with more space between them.

Fushimi Inari Couple

Each torii has the name and address of its donor written on its uphill side.  It was interesting to read them (those that I could read, anyway), and occasionally I saw some well known companies, such as Sapporo Beer.

Fushimi Inari Sapporo

It’s the one with the big writing.

I also saw new torii being erected.

Fushimi Inari Raising

The number of gates is just crazy, and the path takes hours to walk, as I said, but it’s not monotonous.  At points, the torii stop for a while and there are other things along the trail.

Fushimi Inari Pathside

I’m not entirely sure what these piles are, but my best guess is that they’re private offerings like the gates, but in the form of small shrines.  In Japanese, they’re called tsuka (塚), which just means “mound.” The word tsuka also refers to burial mounds, but I don’t think these are graves.

Here’s a closer look at a mound.

Fushimi Inari Torii Mound

Each torii along the path has 奉納, “dedication” or “offering,” written at the joins on its front side. These torii have that, too, but they also have a bunch of other writing.  On the torii in front, there is the name of a kami on the cross piece – not Inari, but “Tamamitsu-ōkami,” who I don’t know anything about.  The left post says “Erected on New Year’s Day, 2008” and the right post has an address and some names.  “Jewel” (玉) is inscribed in the stone.  Hmm . . . I wish I had a picture of a different mound to compare with this one.  Oh well.  In any case, as far as I know, these mounds are peculiar to Inari shrines.

Along the path, there is also a large pond and the occasional building.

Fushimi Inari Pond

And this cool dragon fountain.

Fushimi Inari Dragon

And to abandon narrative entirely, in favor of the “Here’s a ___” blogging style, here’s a stage for ceremonial music and dance, back at the main shrine at the bottom of the trail.

Fushimi Inari Stage

That’s all for now.


February 11, 2009

I spent my last full day in China in the city of Suzhou, 45 minutes west of Shanghai by express train.

Suzhou was founded some 2,500 years ago as the capital of the state of Wu, during China’s “Spring and Autumn Period” (when separate kingdoms formed as the Zhou Dynasty gradually lost control, leading in turn to the Warring States Period).  Suzhou remained the cultural center of the region until Shanghai overshadowed it in the last century or so.  Today, a visitor might be tempted to call Suzhou a town rather than a city, as it doesn’t have any high rises, but it has over two million residents.

The Grand Canal passes through Suzhou, and the city is crisscrossed with many smaller canals.  Marco Polo called Suzhou the Venice of the East, and although it isn’t nearly so magnificent today, it still has charming spots.

Suzhou Canal-W

The canals vary in size and character.  This one is cleaner, if perhaps less interesting.

Suzhou Canal-C

Another small canal.

Suzhou Canal-N

But as picturesque as its canals can be, they aren’t what brought me to Suzhou.  The city’s real draw is its collection of old gardens.

Like Yuyuan in Shanghai, Suzhou’s gardens were urban homes landscaped into private paradises and sanctuaries.  At one time, Suzhou had over 200 gardens.  Unfortunately, far fewer remain today, but nine of the best preserved gardens are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.  I managed to visit five of these.

The first garden I saw was the Humble Administrator’s Garden.

Suzhou Prince Zhong's Residence

This is not the Humble Administrator’s Garden.

On accident, I entered Suzhou Museum, which is right next door.  I had known that the museum was next to the garden, but I was tricked because the museum has two entrances – one for the museum proper and another for Prince Zhong’s Residence, an old mansion that’s now part of the museum.  I soon realized my mistake, but only after I’d bought a ticket and entered.  Still, two good things came out of screwing up.

One was that the residence is a fascinating historic site, although the English signage was limited. Prince Zhong was a rebel commander in the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864).  I’d never heard of the rebellion, but apparently its leader claimed to be the younger brother of Christ.

And so the residence has a chapel.

Suzhou Prince Zhong's Residence Chapel

The Taiping Rebellion took place following the First Opium War, whose humiliating outcome left many Chinese people disaffected with the imperial government.  The rebellion gained many supporters and escalated into a brutal civil war that killed over 20 million people.  You’d think that would warrant mention in a history class, but then again, I don’t think I learned any Chinese history before college.

The second good thing about accidentally entering Suzhou Museum was that the main museum building was brand new and had really nice, clean, modern bathrooms.  That’s not something you can take for granted.

Anyhow, my time was limited, so after taking a very quick look at the most interesting parts of the museum and enjoying the beautifully sanitary restroom, I moved on to my intended destination.

At all the gardens I visited, the crowds were heavy – it was the Saturday following a national holiday after all – and the best views were constantly blocked by domestic tour groups.  There were occasional lulls in the flow of people, and I took pictures when I could, but the breaks didn’t necessarily happen when I was in a good place for a shot, and my digital camera still had the problem of randomly flipping its image (which began in Hong Kong and which I didn’t fix until I was back in Japan), so I don’t have many good pictures.  I’ll share what I can.

This is the Humble Administrator’s Garden.

Suzhou Humble Administrator's Garden

It presents a nice example of the borrowed scenery technique, using the pagoda.

I bought a book on the gardens of Suzhou while I was in the city, and it says that the Humble Administrator’s Garden was built in 1530.  The book then goes on to note that the garden was later divided into three sections with different owners for each part.  Before being reunited centuries later, the different sections experienced very different treatment.  The central part mostly kept the original Ming Dynasty aesthetic, the western section changed to reflect late Qing Dynasty style, and the eastern section was in ruins before getting a renovation in the 1950s that didn’t really adhere to any classical style.

Maddeningly, the book never explains any of these styles.  It just says that such and such a garden is an exemplar of such and such an era’s style and then leaves it at that.  And since I haven’t found much information elsewhere, I can’t offer any illumination. Bah.

The next garden I visited was the Lion Grove, built around 1340.

Suzhou Lion Garden Lion

Rock collecting was a popular pursuit among Chinese literati and the owner must have been thrilled to find this lion-like formation.  I don’t know if the rock inspired the garden or if it was added later, but apparently the garden’s builder was a Buddhist monk, and Lion Grove was the name of a mountain monastery.

The garden’s most famous feature is its sprawling artificial hill, which was meant to evoke the mountain home of the original Lion Grove.

Suzhou Lion Garden Rocks

This is just a part of the maze-like rockery, which has nine paths and 11 caves.  Those numbers have some sort of religious symbolism, but I don’t know what that is.

After seeing the Lion Grove, I stopped for lunch.

I ate at Deyuelou (得月楼), a 400-year-old restaurant.  My food was fine, but nothing impressive, and the restaurant’s huge, modern building wasn’t particularly atmospheric.  Still, I don’t dismiss Deyuelou, since it’s really meant for large groups sharing a variety of dishes.  And I did eat something that I’d never eaten before and may never encounter again:  I had a soup that included fried caterpillar fungus.  It wasn’t bad.

From lunch, I moved on to the Master of Nets Garden, built in the 18th century on the site of a 12th century garden.

Suzhou Master of Nets Garden Flowers

The name, my book tells me, is a tribute to another garden, the Fisherman’s Garden.

The love of unusual rocks was present here, as in all the gardens I saw.

Suzhou Master of Nets Garden Rock

This particular rock supposedly produces a ringing tone when struck.  I didn’t test it myself, but a Chinese kid whacked at it with a plastic bottle for a while with no results (while his parents watched, utterly unconcerned).

This is the Surging Wave Pavilion, one of the oldest gardens in the city.

Suzhou Wave Garden

Built in 1044, the Surging Wave Pavilion is rare in that is surrounded by water, rather than having a large pond in the middle.  Apparently, this was the usual layout for gardens in southern Chinese “water towns” like Suzhou, before the pond arrangement became the norm.

The last garden I visited was the Garden for Lingering (or “Lingering Garden” as the official translation goes).

Suzhou Lingering Garden Door

The site began as the East Garden in 1593 and changed names several times before becoming the Garden for Lingering in 1876.

It had my favorite rocks among the many in all the gardens.

Suzhou Lingering Garden Mountains

I think that these  evoke mountains in a much more graceful and attractive fashion than the Lion Grove’s huge mass of rocks.

So as I said, I had a hard time taking pictures.  I was mostly limited to shots of walls and corners in the gardens, which are fine in and of themselves, but only give a vague idea of what the gardens were like.  Oh well.

The next morning, I visited the Shanghai Museum.  It’s free, which was nice, but to prevent overcrowding, visitors are admitted at a slow, controlled pace, which made for a long line outside.  After the museum, it was time to make my way to the airport and catch my flight back to Japan.

For one last fun experience in China, I rode the maglev to Pudong Airport.  The German-built Shanghai Maglev was the first commercially implemented, high speed maglev train.  Each compartment has a speedometer, and the top speed displayed was 431 km/h (about 268 mph).  Whee!


January 22, 2009

With three days left in my trip through China, I left Beijing for Shanghai.

Shanghai, located near the mouth of the Yangtze River, is a metropolis of over 18 million people and has been the economic center of mainland China since the 19th century.

I had wanted to take an overnight train to Shanghai like I did from Xi’an to Beijing, but tickets were sold out.  The reason, as I discovered later, was that my date of arrival was Tomb Sweeping Day, an old holiday that just last year became a national holiday in the PRC.  On Tomb Sweeping Day, 15 days before the spring equinox, families gather and pay their respects at their ancestors’ graves.  Thus, millions of people were traveling to visit family, and the trains were full.  Fortunately, I was able to stay an extra night at my hotel in Beijing and buy a plane ticket to Shanghai for the next morning.  This change in plans shortened my time in Shanghai, but the city only has a few attractions other than the city itself, so losing the morning wasn’t terrible.

I spent my first and only afternoon in Shanghai at Yuyuan (“Yu Garden”).

Shanghai Yuyuan Gate

This an inner gate, not the main entrance, by the way.

The wealthy son of a high-ranking Ming official built Yuyuan in 1559 as a private garden to please his aging father.  Over the following centuries the garden changed hands many times, fell in and out of disrepair, was occupied by various armies, and even spent several years during the Boxer Rebellion as the headquarters of the Small Swords Society, a separate rebel group that seized control of Shanghai.  Yuyuan is now a national monument, owned by the Shanghai government.

Alas, since I had unwittingly chosen to visit Yuyuan on a national holiday, the place was packed.  Working around the crowds and trying to take pictures over people’s heads, I couldn’t manage any decent photos, but here’s some of what I ended up with.

Dragon walls.

Shanghai Yuyuan Dragons

I really wanted to take this from a better angle – it would have been a great shot with the tree to the left and the wall in full view –  but I eventually gave up on fighting the crowd and moved on.  It was driving me crazy though.  In general, I try to enjoy the places I visit and just take some pictures along the way, rather than putting photography first, but it’s frustrating when a great scene is right there and you can’t capture it.  Oh well.

A handsome building next to a carp pond.

Shanghai Yuyuan Koi

Like most classical Chinese gardens, Yuyuan is actually an intricately landscaped residence (well, former residence now), as opposed to being strictly a garden.  Also in keeping with the traditional style, it has more rocks and water than plants.

The inside of another building.

Shanghai Yuyuan Room

An engraving.  (Or cast metal?)

Shanghai Yuyuan Relief

The stone around it was scraped up.  Signs of an attempt to pry it out, perhaps?  I’m sure the garden has been looted several times in its history, so it’s certainly possible.


Shanghai Yuyuan Flowers

There weren’t many in the garden, even considering that spring was just beginning.  Still, Yuyuan was beautiful.

Shanghai Yuyuan Skyscraper

After seeing the garden, I wandered around the city.

Not far from the garden is the Bund, Shanghai’s old financial center.

Shanghai Bund Night

The Bund has a lot of neat buildings dating from the early 20th century.

On the other side of the river is Pudong, the new financial district.

Shanghai Pudong Night

I had dinner on the Bund, at a British/American-style bar and grill in the basement of the old Nissin building (Nissin was a Japanese shipping company).  There was nothing historic or special about the restaurant, but it felt fitting.

Spitting, Lines, and China

December 15, 2008

First, a few more pictures from the Forbidden City.

Dragons and the number nine were associated with the emperor, and this is one of three nine-dragon walls in China.

Beijing Forbidden City Dragon Wall

Or half of the wall, anyway.

On the half that’s outside this shot, one of the tiles is wooden. It’s thought that a worker broke the original tile when the wall was being assembled and the wooden replacement was secretly made to avoid punishment.  The tile probably blended in perfectly when it was new, but as it aged, it faded more rapidly than the ceramic tiles and is now noticeably different.

This is a stage for Chinese opera.

Beijing Forbidden City Opera Stage

And for another lousy-but-possibly-interesting picture, this is one of several throne rooms in the Forbidden City.

Beijing Forbidden City Throne

The plaque above the throne says “just and honorable.”

Little figures like these are placed at the corners of palace roofs in both China and Korea.

Beijing Forbidden City Roof Figures

The more important the building, the more figures there are.

Some impressions of China.

When I wrote about my brief stay in Hong Kong, I said that among the Chinese cities I visited, Hong Kong was my favorite, because it didn’t suffer from some of the unpleasant aspects of mainland culture.

One of those unpleasant things is that people in China spit all over the place, including on the train and in buildings.  And it’s not just the rough, uneducated types; at the airport in Beijing, I saw a neatly-uniformed airport employee spit on the moving walkway.

Sometimes this casual disregard for cleanliness in public spaces was really bad.  In a modern shopping district in Guilin, a small child needed to pee, so his mother helped him with his pants and had him relieve himself on the sidewalk.  She could have at least had him do it by a tree or in the gutter, but nope, right on the sidewalk.

But as much as these things made me cringe, they’re not terrible, relatively speaking.  The worst problem on the mainland was that the vast majority of people had little concept of waiting one’s turn.  Most of the time it wasn’t noticeable, but it became infuriatingly apparent when I used the subway in Beijing and Shanghai.

I can say from experience that in Japan, Korea, and Thailand, people waiting for the metro form lines where markings on the platform say to, and when the train arrives, they let the disembarking passengers get off before they themselves board.  In China, I saw signs telling passengers to do this, but that’s not what happened.  Sometimes the people waiting on the platform did make lines (or were forced to by station attendants), but when the trains came, everyone would just crowd in front of the doors, and then they’d push their way on without letting anyone get off first.  There was no meanness in it, but the basic consideration for others embodied in waiting your turn was neither shown nor expected, and it made an utter mess of the already crowded subways.  The government had signs and posters everywhere laying out all sorts of etiquette, from “no spitting” and “wait in line,” to the practice of using one side of an escalator for standing and the other side walking, but while the escalator thing seemed to be catching on, the rest will probably be a long, uphill battle.

Speaking of government-sponsored ads (and to avoid ending on a negative note), it was four or five months before the Beijing Olympics when I was in China, and I saw a lot of billboards and TV spots not only hyping the Olympics, but also explaining them.  Most educated Chinese were thrilled to be hosting the Games, but evidently a lot of people (the “Zhou Six-Packs” of China, perhaps?) didn’t know much about the Olympics – I even saw a cartoon explaining footraces (why there are lanes, why runners start from a crouch, etc.) – so the government was doing its best to get people informed and excited.

The Forbidden City

December 7, 2008

In my third and final day in Beijing, I visited the Forbidden City.  I had intended to see some other places too, but the palace isn’t called a city for nothing, and in the end I spent most of the day there.  This picture from Wikipedia, gives a feel for the size of the complex (nearly 180 acres).

Beijing Forbidden City Panorama

Some history.

The Forbidden City was built in the early 15th century and was the imperial palace for 14 emperors of the Ming dynasty and all 10 emperors of the Qing dynasty.  The last emperor abdicated in 1912, but continued living in the Inner Court until he was kicked out in 1924.  The Forbidden City was then renamed the Palace Museum (the website doesn’t display properly in Firefox, fyi).

The Forbidden City is directly north of Tiananmen Square.

Beijing Tiananmen

The symbolism of Mao’s portrait at the gate to the former seat of power in China doesn’t need any explanation.

Past Tiananmen (“Gate of Heavenly Peace”) is a large courtyard for reviewing troops.  It still serves that purpose, and a couple hundred soldiers were being reviewed when I passed through.  I wasn’t sure if photos would be allowed, so I didn’t take any, deciding to play it safe and not risk losing my camera or memory card.

The gate at the west end of the courtyard leads to the former Imperial Shrine of State, now a park in honor of Sun Yat-sen.  The eastern gate leads to the former Imperial Ancestral Shrine, now the “Working People’s Cultural Hall.”

At the north end of the courtyard is the Meridian Gate, the main entrance to the Forbidden City.

Beijing Forbidden City Meridian Gate

A digression.

The English name, Meridian Gate, confused me for a while.  The name plate on the gate says 午門, in which the first character is the horse sign of the zodiac (just plain “horse” is written 馬) and the second character means gate.  A meridian, meanwhile, is a circle passing through the Earth’s poles, or a pathway of qi/chi in acupuncture, or, in some US dialects, a median strip in a road.

Then I remembered that the horse sign also means noon.  In Japanese, “noon” is usually written with another character entirely, but am and pm are “before 午” and “after 午.”  And in astronomy, a meridian is a circle that not only passes through the Earth’s poles, but also passes through the observer’s zenith, and noon of course is when the sun is at it’s zenith.  Indeed, if I were better read, I’d have known that meridian used to be commonly used to mean zenith, especially in the figurative sense.  Checking a dictionary later made things clear cut:  The word meridian originally meant noon.

So now “午門 = Meridian Gate” makes sense, but why is it called that in the first place?  Fortunately, that’s easily explained.  In addition to being associated with noon, the horse sign of the zodiac is also associated with the southern direction, and this is the southern gate.

Beyond the Meridian Gate is another vast courtyard.  An artificial stream runs through it, probably for reasons of feng shui.  At the north end of the courtyard is the Gate of Supreme Harmony.  The emperors sure liked grandiose names, eh?

This is the northwest corner of the courtyard, with bridges and one of the small gates that flank the big one.

Beijing Forbidden City Bridge

In the old days, most people had to use the side gates; the big gate was for the emperor.

I think this lion is in front of the central gate.

Beijing Forbidden City Lion

To the right of the lion you can see a carved ramp of sorts.  This is a close view.

Beijing Forbidden City Dragon Path

Dragon paths like this climb the center of the stairs that lead to each of the major ceremonial halls and gates.  The emperor was carried over them in a litter.

Beyond the Gate of Supreme Harmony lies yet another vast courtyard.

Beijing Forbidden City Main Hall

The building at the end of the courtyard is the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the symbolic center of the empire and the largest building in the Forbidden City.  It was used for grand ceremonies of state.  Unfortunately, it was being renovated when I was there, so visitors couldn’t enter or even peek inside.

Most of the other buildings were open, though, and I went in all that I could.

Some of the side halls were displaying palace artifacts.  This is a musical instrument.

Beijing Forbidden City Pipes

You’ll notice that it’s terribly dusty.  The other instruments on show were even worse.

Beijing Forbidden City Instruments

When Japan invaded China in the 1930s, thousands of crates filled with records and art from the Forbidden City were moved elsewhere for safekeeping.  Shortly after the end of World War II, much of the best of that treasure trove ended up in Taiwan and when the government of the Republic of China moved to Taiwan and mainland China became the People’s Republic, that artwork stayed on the island.  Now it forms the core collection of the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

If the Palace Museum in Beijing (ie the Forbidden City) is treating its relics like this, maybe it’s for the best that Taiwan has the good stuff in a proper museum.  That said, other exhibits at the Forbidden City were treated with appropriate care – the clock collection is quite nice – but the state of this clutch of musical instruments was simply appalling.

At least the buildings themselves were being seen to.

Behind the Hall of Supreme Harmony is the Hall of Central Harmony and then the Hall of Preserving Harmony. These three halls share a stone platform that raises them to roof height compared to the rest of the City.

Beijing Forbidden City Roofs

All this “harmony” business in the names was the doing of the Qing dynasty, by the way.   The Qing emperors were Manchu, not Han Chinese, and they not only renamed many of the palace buildings, but also added Manchu translations to most of the name plates.

Beijing Forbidden City Sign

This plate is for the Palace of Heavenly Purity, which is the next building in line north of the Hall of Preserving Harmony, but which belongs to the Inner Court, not the Outer.

The Outer Court is the southern half of the Forbidden City.  It comprises the formal halls and large plazas where public ceremonies of state were held.  The Inner Court is the dense, northern half of the City, where the imperial family lived and where the emperor conducted most daily affairs.

The satellite view from Google Maps lays things out nicely.

You can zoom in quite a bit more.

Continuing north from the Palace of Heavenly Purity past two more halls leads to the small Imperial Garden.  This patch of greenery was very welcome after seeing nothing but stone through most of the Forbidden City, but even the garden is more stone than anything else.  I don’t have any good pictures of the inside of the garden, but this is the gate.

Beijing Forbidden City Garden Gate

The gate has a pair of guardian statues that are more charming than imposing.  A dragon is on the left.

Beijing Forbidden City Dragon

And an elephant is on the right.

Beijing Forbidden City Elephant

Living quarters make up most of the rest of the Inner Court.  Several buildings in the northeast corner have been converted into museums (or sub-museums, I suppose) with exhibits of bronze, pottery, paintings and so on, plus the clocks I mentioned earlier.  Many of the northwest buildings retain their old furnishings and have information on the infamous Empress Dowager Cixi.  There was a certain amount of Communist slant in the presentations on the empress, but she did do a lot to earn her condemnation.  My favorite example of her extravagance is one of her more minor offenses:   She wore a new pair of silk socks every day, burning them after use.

Rounding out the rest of the Forbidden City, the southwest and southeast corners contain the Hall of Military Eminence and the Hall of Literary Glory, respectively.  Unfortunately, these sections were closed to the public.

That’s all for now.  A few more pictures from the Forbidden City and some final impressions of Beijing to come later.

The Great Wall

November 3, 2008

No trip to northern China would be complete without seeing the Great Wall, and there are several accessible sections near Beijing. The most visited of these is Badaling.  It is by all accounts the easiest part of the Wall to reach from Beijing, but also the most crowded and the most touristy.  Fortunately, there are other options.  Wanting a less crowded experience that isn’t too much farther away, I went with Mutianyu.

The Mutianyu (慕田峪) section of the Great Wall is 1.4 miles long and is about 40 miles north of Beijing.  It belongs to a part of the Wall built by the Ming dynasty in the late 14th century on the foundations of a 6th century Northern Qi dynasty wall.  It was restored around 1568 and again in the 1980s.

Jagged mountains lie to the north.

They continue for about 100 miles before giving way to the vast Mongolian steppe.

A few cannons still face the wilderness.

To the south, foothills stretch into the distance, flattening into the North China Plain just beyond the farthest visible ridge.

Unlike the north side, the south side of the Wall has an occasional door.

At the western end of the Mutianyu section, the Wall climbs steeply.

It continues in ruins, but visitors aren’t allowed to go any farther.

The eastern end is a little less steep, but only a little.

Here too, the Wall goes on in varying degrees of decay.

Between the two ruined ends at Mutianyu, there are 22 watchtowers.

They vary in size and design, but they were mostly pretty similar inside.

They’re bare and dark, but they’ve got some great views.

I had an unnecessarily difficult time getting to Mutianyu, due to bad advice on when to transfer from bus to taxi.  When I was in Beijing, getting to Mutianyu meant that you either had to join a tour group – which is usually overpriced and may involve side trips to “gem exhibitions” and the like – or you could take a direct bus on Sundays, or you had to do what I did (since it was Tuesday), which was take a bus to the town of Huairou and then find a taxi, haggle with the driver, and hire him for a round trip between Huairou and Mutianyu.

Apparently, things have recently become vastly easier.  There is now a direct bus between Beijing and Mutianyu that leaves hourly, every day.  From outside of Dongzhimen Long-Distance Bus Station (东直门长途汽车站), which is near the Dongzhimen subway stop, take bus 936支.  Check for a sign in the window saying Mutianyu in Chinese (慕田峪), as there is another 936支 that has a different destination.  Ride the bus to its last stop, below the Wall.  The price is 17 yuan each way.

I really wish it had been that cheap and straightforward when I was traveling, but the new route only began this October.  I suppose haggling with an unliscenced taxi driver is more memorable than just riding a bus, but for anyone making the trip, I’d recommend the new safer, cheaper, and simpler option.