Posts Tagged ‘Shrines’

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.


Ōtone Mujō

May 22, 2009

Translating songs is hard!

When I visited Ise Shrine, I bought a CD with a few songs related to the shrine.  You can listen to the first 45 seconds of each of the three songs at the CD’s page on’s Japanese site.  Click on the picture below to go to the CD’s page and scroll down a little to find “Listen to Samples.”

Nihon no Inori

The first song extols Ise Shrine as the spiritual heart of Japan, the second track is a karaoke version, and the third track is a festival parade song for the Okihiki festival, in which logs for the shrine’s reconstruction (conducted every 20 years) are carried through town and to the shrine.

The CD is a reissue of a 1967 release by Haruo Minami (三波春夫, Minami Haruo), who was a giant of enka music.  Minami, whose real name was Bunji Kitazume, was born in 1923.  He fought in Manchuria during World War II and spent four years as a POW in Russia before returning to Japan and resuming his career as a singer.  His talent made him very successful and he remains particularly famous for performing the theme song for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, for the phrase “Customers are gods,” and for always performing in a kimono.  He died in 2001.

YouTube has a number of old videos of Haruo Minami and I thought I’d share one.  It’s from the 1969 episode of the annual New Year’s Eve “Red and White Song Battle” on NHK, Japan’s public broadcasting station.  The song battle is a competition between two teams of musicians, a red team and a white team, in which the musicians perform songs one by one and are scored on their performances, with the winner being – of course – the team with the most points.

The song is “Ōtone Mujō” (大利根無情), which means something like “The Great, Heartless Tone.”  The Tone (“toh nay”) is a river to the northeast of Tokyo.

The song is sung from the perspective of Hirate Miki, a real person who lived during the first half of the 19th century.  Hirate was apprenticed to a master swordsman in Edo (Tokyo), but was expelled from the dojo for drunken violence.  As he wandered to the northeast, his heavy drinking ruined his health.  He was eventually taken in by a yakuza boss, receiving food, medical care, and a home in return for training yakuza in swordsmanship and serving as the boss’s bodyguard. Hirate planned to cut his ties with the gang and return to Edo as soon as his health was restored, but before that could happen, he died in a battle with a rival gang, alongside the Tone River.

The song, with its two spoken-word verses, recalls enka’s roots in traditional narrative music, although the instrumentation is in pure enka style.  This is my attempt at a translation.

Announcer: “To speak of 1959 is to think of the marriage of Her Imperial Highness (to the emperor, who was then the crown prince), the welcome beginning of economic recovery, and the song first sung that year, ‘Ōtone Mujō’!”

The Tone, the Tone River’s breeze,
and the reed warbler’s voice
coldly assail my body
So this is the “Floating World”
If I look where I mustn’t look, to the western sky,
To Edo, to Edo – a rose madder brush stroke of clouds

“I can hear the Sawara festival music
It really takes me back…Chiba Dojo, by Jewel Pond, eh?
Heh…and now I, Hirate Miki, am a yakuza bodyguard
A dead leaf in the back alley of life, eh?”

Duty, exposed to the night wind of duty
Moon, I bet you want to cry too
My heart in disarray,
plucked pampas grass clenched between my molars,
A man’s, a man’s tears – my sword hanging limply at my side

“Stop me not, Master Myōshin
No matter how low I have fallen,
I, Hirate, am still a warrior
I know when my end is near
I must go.  I must go!”

My eyelids, wetting my eyelids
So many dreams washed away in the Great Tone
If I hold my breath
And drink cold sake to speed myself to hell,
The bells, the temple bells ring, ring – at Myōen-ji

There are all sorts of tricky passages in this song.

The Floating World (“ukiyo,” like in ukiyo-e) refers to the urban lifestyle that grew out of the political stability and burgeoning cash-based economy of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868).  In particular, it refers to the red-light and theater districts, with their pleasure-seeking detachment from daily cares (hence “floating” world).

Sawara festival music refers to a style of festival music that was born in the region where Hirate died, but that had spread as far as Edo.  So even though Hirate hears the music at its birthplace, it must have been common back home, thus it makes him nostalgic for Edo.

“My sword hanging limply at my side” is a loose translation of a single word, otoshizashi (落し差し), which my dictionary defines as “wearing a katana improperly, with the end pointing straight down.”  Apparently, a katana should be worn horizontally, so that one can unsheathe it and strike a blow in one movement.  The song is saying that otoshizashi is a man’s tears.

For “I know when my end is near,” the song actually says “I know man’s chirigiwa.”  Chirigiwa (散りぎわ) is when a flower’s petals are just about to fall.

Alright, enough talk.  Here’s the song.

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.


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.

Hiroshima and Miyajima

March 23, 2008

My spring break trip to China is just a few days away. On the 26th, I’ll fly to Hong Kong and then visit Guilin, Xi’an, Beijing, and Shanghai, returning to Japan on April 6th. I imagine that I’ll come back with enough material to keep me writing for quite a while, so before that has me occupied, I want to talk about one of my previous excursions that deserves mention.

Back in the beginning of October, I spent a weekend in Hiroshima.

View Map

Hiroshima is of course the first city to have been struck with a nuclear bomb. This building was at the hypocenter of the explosion – the spot directly below the blast point.

Hiroshima A-Bomb Dome

At the nearby memorial museum, a set of pictures taken at the hypocenter not long after the bombing shows a panorama of nothing but miles of scorched rubble.

Hiroshima has recovered impressively from its devastation. The surroundings are beautiful and the city is both vibrant and laid-back. And though as a loyal resident of the Kansai region it pains me to admit it, Hiroshima style okonomiyaki wins over Osaka style.

I spent Saturday night and most of Sunday in Hiroshima, but before that I visited the nearby island of Miyajima.

Miyajima Ferry View

Miyajima (“shrine island”) is properly named Itsukushima, and it’s famous for Itsukushima Shrine’s Shinto gate.

Miyajima Torii

Both the gate and the shrine are at their best when the tide is in.

Miyajima Itsukushima Jinja

If the tide had been in, the shrine would seem like it’s floating on water. Oh well.

Itsukushima Shrine is about 1,400 years old, although its current form dates from 1168. As for the famous gate, it’s not just there to look cool; its position offshore indicates that the entire island is sacred. I’ve heard that to that end, no burials are allowed on the island, even though there are enough residents that it has an elementary school and a junior high.

Like Nara, Miyajima has sacred deer.

Miyajima Deer

They’re a bit less well-behaved than their cousins, though. Whereas the deer in Nara will only bug you if you have food, Miyajima’s love to eat paper, and you have to watch that any maps, tickets, bags, and the like aren’t devoured in an unguarded moment.

Miyajima’s fame resides with the shrine and its gate, without a doubt, but it also has a significant temple.

Miyajima Daishou-in Map

Daishō-in was founded in 806 by Kōbō-Daishi, an important figure in the history of Buddhism in Japan. I’ll write a post about him someday. The Dalai Lama visited the temple on its 1,200th anniversary.

Daishō-in doesn’t feature anything I’d rate as must-see, but a lot of little things made it worth the time.

Like this carving.

Miyajima Daishou-in Medashi-Daruma

Or this one, of a tanuki dressed as a monk.

Miyajima Daishou-in Tanuki

I love his expression.

And there’s always good old Jizō.

Miyajima Daishou-in Jizou

The buildings, meanwhile, were a mix of old and new, although I’m pretty sure that none of the originals remain. The newest construction was the highest main building, which had to be rebuilt after a nasty typhoon in 2004. This is the top floor, looking very new indeed.

Miyajima Daishou-in New

Finally, this is from the basement of another building.

Miyajima Daishou-in Lanterns


I remembered that Daishō-in actually does have a big draw. On the top of the mountain, a good hike from the main temple, is a building that houses a fire that has been kept burning since the temple’s foundation. Unfortunately, the path up the mountain had been washed out and was closed, so I wasn’t able to take a look.

Home with the Flu

December 6, 2007

I’ve been really busy lately. I took the level two Japanese Language Proficiency Test last weekend. 9:45am-2:40pm. Holy crap, that was hard. I have no idea if I passed, but I’ll find out in February. School, meanwhile, has been crazy. To give one example: There is a elementary school next door to my current junior high school. A couple weeks ago, one of our 8th graders brought an air gun to school and shot an elementary school student. Now seriously, that’s not okay.

Speaking of the elementary school, it seems that I’ll be teaching classes there every Thursday. I did that last week, which is probably why I’m now sick with the flu. Taking sick leave here is a hassle, by the way. We have twenty days of sick leave, but we can’t just use them as we like. One day of leave requires a receipt from a doctor’s visit or from a pharmacy. For more than one day (like my current case), you need an official, sealed doctor’s note, which costs about $30. What a racket.

Upside: I have time to write a post for my poor, neglected blog.


The last stop in my big summer trip was in Nagoya, the home of Toyota. I don’t really have much of interest to say though. Well, I don’t want to say nothing, so here’s one thing.

Nagoya Atsuta-jinguu Kusunoki

This camphor tree was planted around 1,200 years ago by the monk Kūkai (better known by his posthumous name, Kōbō Daishi), who was the creator of Shingon Buddhism. He founded dozens of temples, including one I saw in Fukuoka. This tree isn’t at a temple, though, it’s at Atsuta Shrine, which is said to house the sword that is one of the three imperial regalia. The real sword was probably lost a long time ago, but they have a museum that includes an impressive collection of swords received as offerings.

Alright, that’s it for Nagoya.


The weekend before last, I made a trip to Matsue, a city near the Sea of Japan (map pilfered from

Matsue Map

Matsue is a nice place, although a bit short on attractions in and of itself. My reason for making the journey was to see the Adachi Museum of Art and Izumo Grand Shrine, an hour to the east and west, respectively.

The Adachi Museum was built in 1970 by Adachi Zenko, then 71, a self-made businessman with a large collection of 20th century Japanese art (FYI, the museum’s English website says 1980, but that’s a typo). The art is quite good, but the museum is more famous for its garden.

Adachi Museum Garden

The design of the garden often feels like a painting, and a few windows in the museum explicitly create that effect.

Adachi Museum Picture Window

The white gravel usually represents water, but this section looked like some strange desert landscape.

Adachi Museum Pines

The museum was my first stop in the area, but when I moved on to Matsue itself, heavy rain moved in, so that was it for the day.

The next morning I headed for Izumo.

Izumo is known as “the home of the gods” and tradition has it that in October all the gods of Japan gather in Izumo, so for the rest of the country October is the month without gods (except for the god Ebisu, who is deaf and doesn’t hear the summons).

Izumo Taisha

The shrine’s history says that the original main hall was much taller than the current structure and the recent unearthing of the remains of huge pillars supports this. Supposedly it looked something like this.

Izumo Taisha Original

At shrines, you can get “omikuji,” which are slips of paper with your fortune written on them. They don’t predict events, rather they simply say things like “great luck” or “bad luck.” If you get a bad fortune, you are supposed to tie it to a tree.

Izumo Omikuji

After looking around Izumo, I returned to Matsue.

Matsue Castle.

Matsue Castle

Sunset over Lake Shinji.

Matsue Shinji-ko Sunset

And this is in the wrong place chronologically, but for one last picture, here’s the bullet train arriving in Kobe.

Kobe Shinkansen


November 14, 2007

I was hoping to finish off my overly long account of my summer trip around the country, but I haven’t had much time to write, so I’ll do this in two posts after all.


After Kamakura, I headed deep into the mountains to the city of Nagano, in the prefecture of the same name. Nagano was of course the host for the 1998 Winter Olympics. There isn’t much to do or see in the city, but it makes a convenient base of operations for travel in the surrounding area.

Nagano’s one famous spot is Zenkō-ji, the temple that the city formed around.

Nagano Zenkou-ji

Zenkō-ji guards what is claimed to be the first statue of Buddha in Japan, brought from Korea in the 6th century. The statue was held in various locations around the country until it became the object of a squabble between two clans and was thrown in a canal. A man named Honda Yoshimitsu later rescued it and the empress had Zenkō-ji built in 644 to house the statue. She gave the temple it’s name by taking the characters for Yoshimitsu (善光) and using their Sino-Japanese pronunciation. It makes a good name for a temple, since it means something like “light of goodness” or “shining virtue.”

The temple has burned down several times in its history and the current main hall dates from 1707. In an unusual arrangement, Zenkō-ji is nondenominational and is jointly administered by an abbot of the Tendai sect and an abbess of the Jōdo sect.

And that’s the only interesting thing in the city itself.


Just outside of Nagano is Obuse. Once a prosperous center of commerce located at the crossroads of several trade routes, Obuse is now a quiet town of 11,000, known for growing chestnuts. It’s biggest claim to fame is that the woodblock artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) spent his later years there. Hokusai’s works include the “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” series, of which The Great Wave off Kanagawa is especially famous.

Beyond some fields, at the edge of the mountains, is a small temple whose ceiling was painted by Hokusai. Photography was forbidden, but I scrounged up this picture online.

Obuse Ganshou-in Ceiling

The walk itself was pleasant, too, and I saw some of Obuse’s other produce.

Obuse Grapes

Each bunch of grapes has its own protective pouch. That’s one way to thwart the birds, but it seems terribly labor intensive.


I made one more day-trip from Nagano, this time up into the mountains to Togakushi Shrine. Togakushi is divided into an outer, middle, and inner shrine, with several miles separating each location. The middle shrine is in a small town, also named Togakushi. Some distance outside of town, a 2km long avenue of sugi (aka Cryptomeria) leads toward the inner shrine.

Togakushi Okusha Sugi

The avenue is followed by a lot of steps . . .

Togakushi Okusha Steps

. . . and then the shrine itself.

Togakushi Okusha

Not the best photo, but there isn’t much to see anyway. Definitely a case of the journey being more rewarding than the destination.

On my way back down the mountain, I detoured and took a hiking trail to the town. It was clouding up, but I got to enjoy the scenery for most of the hike.

Togakushi Lake

It was rather idyllic . . .

Togakushi Butterfly

. . . until right after I captured this photo-op, at which point it started raining and the trail became a river. Naturally, when I made it back to town, the rain let up.


October 8, 2007

Right. I said I’d talk about Yasukuni Shrine.

Tokyo Yasukuni Shrine

Yasukuni was built by imperial decree in 1869, to honor/enshrine those who died in the short civil war of the year before which had ended the Shogunate and restored direct imperial rule (the Meiji Restoration). It later became the shrine for all those who died in service of the nation.

Today, whenever a Japanese prime minister visits Yasukuni, protests arise throughout east and southeast Asia, particularly in Korea and China. But what’s the big deal? A nation should be able to honor its fallen soldiers, right? The US, for example, has Arlington National Cemetery and numerous war-related monuments, after all.

Part of the outrage comes from the fact that Class A war criminals are included among the enshrined. They weren’t included initially, since they hadn’t died in action, but when the government put them on the registry of war dead so that their families could receive pensions, Yasukuni used this as grounds to enshrine them. In and of itself, that’s still defensible, however the war criminals were enshrined as “Martyrs of Showa” (Showa being the name of Emperor Hirohito’s reign).

So the real issue isn’t that war criminals are enshrined at Yasukuni, but that the shrine is saying that they were in the right. This leads to the other source of controversy: Yasukuni’s war museum.

In addition to displaying letters, pictures, and personal affects of soldiers, the museum covers Japan’s military history, focusing on the modern era, from the Meiji Restoration to World War II. It presents Japan’s military actions of this period as a matter of defending itself and the rest of Asia from Western aggression. Korea was annexed for its own good and the invasion of China was somehow inevitable.

This is from Yasukuni Shrine’s official website [edit: the website has been overhauled and this rant no longer appears there]:

The text books used in history instruction at intermediate schools from the 1997 school year will contain material on the subject of comfort women. The textbooks depict as a historical fact the story of Asian women who were forced into prostitution by the Japanese Army. Imparting this story to students who are still young and immature has become a great problem since last year. This matter is drawn upon the judgment professed by the Military Tribunal for the Far East that Japan fought a war of aggression. Can we say that this view is correct? [. . .] We cannot help but feel that the possibility of ulterior motives have not been discounted. Isn’t it a fact that the West with its military power invaded and ruled over much of Asia and Africa and that this was the start of East-West relations? There is no uncertainty in history. Japan’s dream of building a Great East Asia was necessitated by history and it was sought after by the countries of Asia. We cannot overlook the intent of those who wish to tarnish the good name of the noble souls of Yasukuni.


Meanwhile, after the “Martyrs of Showa” were enshrined there hasn’t been a single imperial visit to Yasukuni. That’s gotta sting.

And that’s the basic background.


This has nothing to do with anything, but here’s another picture from Nikkō.

Nikkou Toushou-guu Lantern

This huge lantern in Tōshō-gū is decorated with baku, mythical creatures that eat bad dreams.



So what’s the deal with Yasukuni Shrine being so nationalistic when the Emperor himself is much more moderate? Basically, Yasukuni retains the State Shinto ideology.

State Shinto’s creation following the Meiji Restoration involved sharply separating Shinto from Buddhism, organizing the nation’s shrines into an ordered hierarchy, and shaping the varied and amorphous beliefs and practices of Shinto into a national religion centered around emperor worship and serving the empire. State Shinto was abolished after the war and old shrines at least partly reverted to their traditional identities, but aside from the removal of emperor worship, Yasukuni’s identity pretty much is State Shinto.

Also, the shrine’s de facto lay organization, the Izokukai, is very nationalistic. The Izokukai represents the families of soldiers who died in World War II. It began with the purpose of looking after widows and orphans, but has become increasingly right-wing. From Wikipedia, this is the Izokukai’s original mission statement:

With a view to pursuing the end of warfare, establishing global peace and world prosperity and contributing to the welfare of humanity, we seek to provide relief and assistance to the families of those who died in the War.

And this is their current mission statement:

In pursuit of the establishment of a peaceful Japan, the cultivation of character, and the promotion of morality, we seek to praise eirei [“heroic spirits,” i.e. the kami of soldiers], to promote the welfare of the families of the war dead, and to seek recognition and compensation for civilian auxiliary units.

So goals of world peace are dropped and instead they talk about morals and praising eirei. And that’s the sort of thing you hear from the people who demand that Japanese textbooks teach students patriotism and not “fabrications” like comfort women, the Nanking Massacre, and so on.


October 2, 2007

After visiting Tokyo, I spent two days in the town of Nikkō. Lying in the mountains north of Tokyo, two hours away by express train, Nikkō is famous as the location of Tōshō-gū, the shrine of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Tokugawa Ieyasu reunified Japan in 1600, ending the warring states period and creating the Tokugawa Shogunate, which lasted until 1868. Ieyasu asked that upon his death, a small shrine would be built in Nikkō where he would be enshrined as the nation’s guardian kami. His will was honored, but the 3rd Tokugawa Shogun, who idolized Ieyasu, had the modest shrine converted into the over-the-top buildings that remain today.

Nikkou Toushou-guu Gate

This gate is looking a bit faded, but the almost excessively ornate construction – over 500 sculptures on this gate alone – gives a good idea of the aesthetic of the shrine. This pagoda, meanwhile, has been given a fresh coat of paint.

Nikkou Toushou-guu Pagoda

Pagodas are usually associated with Buddhist temples, not Shinto shrines, but the distinction is blurred in Nikkō. Granted, the two institutions were often intertwined before the Shogunate fell and the new government decided to “purify” Shinto of foreign influences, but the mix is quite striking in this case. There is a Shinto gate . . .

Nikkou Toushou-guu Torii

. . . and the surroundings are appropriately forested, but otherwise the complex doesn’t look very shrine-like.


Breaking from the monumental . . .

Nikkou Toushou-guu 3 Monkeys

If not for the crowds of people snapping pictures, one might not notice the carvings adorning the shrine’s stable, but these are the original See/Speak/Hear-No-Evil monkeys. This is a play on words, by the way, since the Japanese phrase (which is much older than the imagery) uses an archaic negative suffix, “zaru,” and the word for monkey is “saru.” I’ve known this bit of trivia for a couple years, but what I didn’t know until I saw them is that the 3 Monkeys form just one scene in a series of panels depicting a life cycle.


A short distance from Ieyasu’s shrine is Taiyū-in, a shrine the 3rd Shogun commissioned for himself. Past its outer gates, it’s intentionally more subdued than Ieyasu’s, as you can see with this drum tower.

Nikkou Taiyuu-in Tower

But while Taiyū-in isn’t as overwhelming, just as much craft went into its construction.

This door belongs to what is commonly called the Peony Gate.

Nikkou Taiyuu-in Botanmon

And this is nicknamed the Dragon Palace Gate.

Nikkou Taiyuu-in Ryuumon

The inner shrine lies beyond, but it’s not open to the public.


Although it’s been rebuilt numerous times, this bridge dates to Nikkō’s founding, a thousand years before the shrines made the town famous.

Nikkou Shinkyou Bridge

Picturesque, eh? While the town itself isn’t particularly attractive, the surroundings are gorgeous. The temperature is also much cooler than in Tokyo, which was very welcome. But alas, my two days in Nikkō were quickly over and I was soon on a train speeding back to sweatier climes.

Nikkou Train-View


September 17, 2007

Gah. I seem to be unable to write anything coherent, so I’ll stop trying and just throw something together.


One of the several neighborhoods I visited in Tokyo was the nerd mecca of Akihabara. Following the war, there was a black market in Akihabara selling electronic parts to students of the nearby technical college. This grew and became known as Electric Town. This is the old face of Akihabara.

Tokyo Akiba RC Sign

From the ’80s on, computer parts entered the scene. The neighborhood increasingly became a destination for nerds of all types, not just the radio enthusiasts and gadget freaks. Eventually, Akiba (as the abbreviation goes) came to be dominated by Japanese comics and animation culture. This is the current face of Akiba.

Tokyo Akiba Toranoana et al

You can still find the electronics shops, but they’ve been joined by maid cafes, thriving arcades (a dead or dying institution elsewhere), huge manga (Japanese comic book) stores, and numerous 24-hour internet cafes. On Sundays, the main street is closed to cars and all manner of strange street performances take place. Singers of both the professional and painfully amateur varieties do their thing, girls in outlandish costumes pose as crowds take pictures, groups of people do synchronized dances, and craziness abounds.


Tangentially related:

Only a bit nerdy and not at all fringe is the Ghibli Museum, a 30-minute train ride west of Tokyo’s central loop.

Mitaka Ghibli Totoro

Studio Ghibli is an animation film studio, best known in America for the movies Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away (both highly recommended if you haven’t seen them). The museum has exhibits on the science of animation, a mock studio with piles of reference material, sketches, and storyboards from Ghibli’s films, a mini theater showing short films that can only be seen at the museum (you get one viewing), and so on. The whole time I was there, I felt like skipping around giddily like the little girl in the picture above.

On the roof, there was a full-sized statue of a robot from Castle in the Sky.

Mitaka Ghibli Robot

Photography was forbidden indoors, but there are some pictures of the museum’s interior at the official website.


A few random things.

A wedding procession at Meiji Shrine.

Tokyo Meiji-jingu Wedding

A statue in honor of kamikaze pilots, outside the war museum at the ever-controversial Yasukuni Shrine.

Tokyo Yasukuni Kamikaze

And a restored Mitsubishi Zero, inside the museum.

Tokyo Yasukuni Zero


Oof. Yasukuni warrants some background explanation, but I’ll forgo that in favor of just getting this entry posted.