Posts Tagged ‘Temples’

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.

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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.

Uji

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 –
埋もれ木の/花咲く事も/なかりしに/身のなる果てぞ/悲しかりける
– 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.

Beijing: Day 1

October 4, 2008

After visiting Xi’an, the next stop on my 12-day trek through China was Beijing.

When I made the trip, Google Maps didn’t display any detail for China, with the exceptions of Hong Kong and Macao, but it seems that the Chinese government relaxed and cooperated in time for the Olympics, and now there are full street maps and the satellite images zoom in all the way.  That would have made traveling much easier, but oh well.

I arrived in Beijing by overnight train at around 7:15am, not well rested, but not a mess either.  I’d paid the $56 for a bunk in a “soft sleeper,” which is a good price considering that it combines lodging and transportation and is cheaper than a plane ticket.  A “hard sleeper” goes for $36, but those sell out quickly and are, of course, less comfortable.  They have triple bunks, no doors, and thin mattresses, whereas soft sleepers are in lockable 4-person compartments, with somewhat better beds.

My three bunk-mates, two men and a woman, were traveling together, and amazingly, were also English-speaking foreign residents of Japan.  They were university students, and like me, they were on a spring break vacation. One guy was from Kuwait and the woman and the other man seemed to be from Southeast Asia, maybe Malaysia.  We compared our experiences in Xi’an and I mentioned that I really liked the Great Mosque.  The Kuwaiti said that the three of them had also visited the mosque, and at the gate, he said hello in Arabic and was greeted with a “Welcome, brother!” and had his entrance fee waived.  But his two non-Muslim companions had to pay, which he viewed as discriminatory.  I thought that it spoke well of him that he felt that way, but I can understand the mosque’s policy.  If non-worshipers didn’t have to pay, then the mosque would have constant problems with vendors, beggars, and scammers, and it would be difficult to maintain the tranquility that I admired so much.

After arriving in Beijing’s South Station, the three students and I parted ways, and I headed out into the gray and drizzly morning in search of breakfast.  Yoshinoya, a Japanese fast food chain, was the only restaurant in the bleak area around the station (which, like much of the city, was under heavy construction), so that’s where I had my first meal in Beijing.  I would rather have eaten local food, but at least it was cheap and filling.

After breakfast, I found my hotel, dropped off my luggage, and then went back out into the city.

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I spent the rest of the morning at the Temple of Heaven.

The playing field to the east gives an idea of how big the place is.

Built in the early 1400s, the Temple of Heaven was visited yearly by emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties, who performed rituals here to pray for good harvests.

Appropriately enough, the main building – the northernmost dark blue mark on the map – is known as the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.

The blue roof tiles represent heaven, as do circles.  Earth, on the other hand, is represented by squares.

Following the long path south of the Hall of Prayer leads to the Imperial Vault of Heaven, which holds imperial ancestral tablets.

The vault is surrounded by the Echo Wall.  Supposedly, two people standing at opposite ends of the courtyard can hold a conversation in normal speaking voices, thanks to the acoustics of the wall, but it was too noisy with visitors when I was there.

Just south of the Imperial Vault is the Circular Mound Altar.

The number nine is associated with the emperor, and the flagstones forming the top of the mound are arranged in nine rings around a center stone, with a multiple of nine stones in each ring, so that the inner ring has nine and the outer ring has 81.

This is the view back to the north.

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Lunch was a bit of a disaster.

I wanted to eat Peking duck in its home city, but I picked a lousy restaurant.  After I ordered, restaurant employees sat down nearby and had their own lunch while I waited half an hour before getting any tea, and another 15 minutes for my food.  And when the food finally came, it was pretty mediocre.  I had better Peking duck in Yokohama.  So if you’re ever in the neighborhood just south of Tiananmen Square, don’t bother with Jinzhengyang Restaurant (金正阳酒楼), eat somewhere else.

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I spent the afternoon at Yonghe Temple, commonly known as the Lama Temple.  As the name suggests, the Lama Temple belongs to the Tibetan branch of Buddhism.

The temple’s name plate is written in four languages.

From left to right:  Mongolian, Tibetan, Chinese, and Manchu.

The Lama Temple was originally built as a residence for court eunuchs in 1694.  In 1711 it became a prince’s palace, and when the prince became emperor in 1723, he converted half of his former palace into a lamasery.  The other half was converted following the emperor’s death in 1735.  It became the city’s largest and most important Tibetan Buddhist temple and was given imperial status, marked by yellow roof tiles.  The temple was spared during the Cultural Revolution – which saw many other temples destroyed or made into factories – purportedly due to the intervention of Premier Zhou Enlai.

The buildings in the temple are packed closely together, making them hard to photograph.

I tried (too) hard to fit this one in the frame, but it wasn’t happening.

Inside, by the way, is the world’s largest statue carved from a single piece of wood, an 18-meter-tall figure of Maitreya, the Future Buddha.  Alas, no pictures were allowed in any of the buildings.  But here’s a neat guardian lion.

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Dinner was much, much more successful than lunch.  I ate at Luogu Dongtian (锣鼓洞天), whose English name is Drum and Gong Fusion Restaurant, although the characters literally mean “gong-drum-cave-heavens.”

The restaurant says it serves fusion food, but I’d describe most of the menu as Chinese home cooking with a Sichuan bent.  In any case, the food was inexpensive and very good.

I returned to my hotel with a happy stomach and collapsed into bed.  The next day I visited the Great Wall.

Certification and City Gods

October 2, 2008

Alright, back in the saddle.

I spent the last few weeks studying for the CompTIA A+ certification, and now that I’ve passed the two tests (Woo hoo!), it’s high time I attended to this blog.  I’m writing a post on my visit to Beijing, but while I’m working on that, here’s a random picture.  This is at the Temple of the City Gods, in Xi’an.

There wasn’t that much to see, especially with several buildings under renovation, but this and Hong Kong’s Man Mo Temple are the only Taoist temples I’ve been to.

Kyoto: Food!

July 13, 2008

With just half a month to go before I leave Japan and the JET Program, I’ve been really busy and my blog has languished as a result.  I’ll probably finish writing about my China travels after I’ve returned to the US, but I’ll try to squeeze in some posts before I leave.

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Yesterday, packing be damned, I went to Kyoto.

Last Christmas, I was given an excellent book called Old Kyoto, which details traditional shops, restaurants, and inns in the former capital.  I haven’t had many chances to get over to Kyoto since then, so I made time this weekend and visited a few places from the book.

I got a late start – partly due to a farewell party the night before and partly because I had to do some laundry – so my first stop in Kyoto was for lunch.  I ate at Minokō, a cha-kaiseki restaurant in the Gion district.

Cha-kaiseki is a sort of haute cuisine served to accompany a tea ceremony.  At lunch, the restaurant serves an informal, less elaborate version in shared rooms.

(A bit blurry, alas.)  Inside Minokō, dark, wooden hallways lead to tatami mat rooms like this one, all very traditional, except for the table cloths and central air conditioning.  For dinner, you get a private room.

The meal began with matcha tea and some sweets.

The green container held toothpicks.  I suppose I should have moved it out of the shot, but oh well.

After tea, lunch was brought out in a chabako, a lacquer box meant for taking tea implements to picnics.

The jar on the left held rice and the red stuff was a dipping sauce made from pickled Japanese plums.  Inside the box were two layers.

I won’t list everything in the box – I don’t even know what some of it was – but here’s a better look at the three cups from the bottom.

In addition to the box, they also brought out a plate of grilled eggplant with a miso-based sauce.

And of course, no traditional Japanese meal is complete without more tea.

In this case, hōjicha, roasted green tea.

Finally, a small, simple dessert of watermelon ended the meal.

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After lunch, I walked to nearby Kennin-ji, Kyoto’s first Zen temple, established in 1202.

Like any proper Zen temple, it has rock gardens . . .

. . . and green gardens.

Nice, if nothing special.

The temple also had some notable art.  This is a replica of a 400-year-old screen painting of wind and lightning gods.  The original is a designated national treasure and is now held at Kyoto National Museum.

Old ink paintings decorated some of the walls.

And a brand new painting covers the ceiling of the Dharma Hall.

It was created to celebrate the temple’s 800th anniversary.

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After my temple detour, I got back to checking out places mentioned in Old Kyoto.

One was Aritsugu, a kitchen knife shop that’s been in business since 1560.  I didn’t take any pictures, but their knives are all hand-forged, and were clearly of outstanding quality.  A couple of professional chefs were talking business as the knives they had bought were sharpened and polished one more time before being boxed up.

Aritsugu is on the Nishiki market street, which is known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen” and is an experience in itself.  Many shops on Nishiki take pains to do things the old-fashioned way.  Here, for example, is an assortment of pickled vegetables displayed in the handsome, traditional pickling tubs used to make them.

The brown stuff is rice bran, the pickling agent in this case.

After wandering around Nishiki I headed to the main store of Ippodo, a tea shop that has been around since 1717.  Ippodo was an official purveyor to the Imperial Household, and although such designations ended after World War II, the company hasn’t lost its reputation.  I bought a can of tea leaves, and while I was there, I ducked into the shop’s cafe/tasting room and tried some “koicha,” thick matcha.  It was indeed thick.  Really, really thick.  After drinking it, you add more water and make regular matcha just using the tea left coating the cup.  Crazy stuff.

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Before heading back to Kobe, I grabbed dinner at Matsuno, an eel restaurant a few doors down from the Minami-za theater.  Good eel restaurants can be pretty expensive, so I ordered something simple.

Grilled eel over rice, with green tea, pickles, and beer.  Just this was thirty dollars, not counting the beer, but it was very good, and surprisingly filling.

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That’s all for now.  Next week is the last week of class, and the following week I’m using the last of my paid leave to clear out my apartment.  I’m glad I paid attention to my vacation days.  Some poor suckers will be stuck at school with absolutely nothing to do.

If I can get packing and cleaning done quickly, I think I’ll make one more visit to Kyoto, but if this one was my last, I guess I did alright.

Xi’an: Day 3

June 15, 2008

On the morning of my third and final day in Xi’an, I visited the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, about a ten-minute bus ride south of the old city walls.

The pagoda was originally built in 652 to hold Buddhist sutras brought from India by the Chinese monk, Xuanzang, whose travels were the basis for the enduringly popular novel, Journey to the West.

Xuanzang set out for India at age 28, heading west from Chang’an (Xi’an) along the Silk Road through the deserts of central Asia, and then south into India via present-day Afghanistan.  He then spent about 15 years traveling and studying in India before returning to Chang’an with 657 sutras.  Xuanzang had to sneak out of Chang’an when he began his trek, since China was at war with the Eastern Turks and travel was restricted, but after his return, he was made the abbot of a temple and received imperial support to create a translation bureau to convert his mountain of Sanskrit sutras into Chinese.  The translations he produced spread throughout East Asia and had a significant effect on Buddhism in the region.

So Big Wild Goose Pagoda is a very important historical site.  Unfortunately, the temple’s current state is somewhat depressing.  The buildings are kept in good condition, but at least four have been turned into souvenir shops, and there was even a shop on the first floor of the pagoda itself, selling tacky toys with flashing lights and noisy sound effects.  Meanwhile, signs prohibit any “superstitious activity” – i.e. actual religion – at the former religious institution, which is now a tourist attraction first and a temple not at all.

Luckily, my day didn’t stay depressing.  When I moved on to the Great Mosque of Xi’an, the situation was very different.

With its position at the northwest edge of central China, Xi’an has a community of perhaps 60,000 Muslims, mostly belonging to the Hui ethnic minority, and mostly living together in the city’s “Muslim Quarter.” This is a halal restaurant in the Muslim Quarter.

If you look closely, you can see Arabic on the shop sign and the glass case.

The Great Mosque has been the center of worship for this community since its foundation in 742, and it was clearly clearly receiving the love and respect sadly absent from the pagoda.  For example, shortly after I arrived an afternoon prayer service began, and when it was finished, I saw the worshipers clearing fallen twigs and seed pods from the walkways as they departed.  And certainly, no one was selling anything.

Here’s the worship hall.


The name board is in Arabic, but you’ll notice that the building is completely Chinese in style.  In fact, the whole mosque looks like a temple.  The current buildings mostly date from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

This is the mosque’s minaret.

Least traditional minaret ever.

Leaving the Great Mosque with my mood repaired, I wandered around Xi’an for the rest of the afternoon and then took an overnight train to Beijing.

And that’s where I’ll pick up next time.

Hong Kong

April 16, 2008

It’s been a week and a half since I returned from China. I’m still worn out from my travels and now I’m suffering from allergies. My brain doesn’t want to cooperate with attempts at writing anything coherent, but I’ll see what I can do.

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Hong Kong.

I had less than half a day in Hong Kong, so I don’t know if my reaction would hold over a longer stay, but I liked Hong Kong the most of all the Chinese cities I visited. It’s very cosmopolitan and doesn’t suffer from the problems of the mainland’s culture (I’ll get to those when I write about Beijing).

Hong Kong is the densest city I’ve seen, at least in terms of buildings. And yet the streets weren’t that crowded with people or cars, compared to Tokyo, anyway. Okay, maybe that’s not a useful comparison, but with so many tall buildings packed so closely together, it felt strange to have so much elbow room. Maybe I’ve just been in Japan for too long.

Hong Kong doesn’t really have any sights other than the city itself, but I did duck into a temple as I was wandering the streets.

This is Man Mo Temple – owned by a hospital, oddly enough – and dedicated to Man, god of literature, and Mo, god of war. The coils are incense and the air inside was thick with it. It was a little strange. The incense smelled neither bad nor good, just strong.

It was at this early point in my travels that my camera started having problems, which to my great frustration continued until I returned to Japan. The image would occasionally flip, which made aiming really difficult. I could still use the mechanical viewfinder rather than the screen, but it doesn’t show the picture’s true borders, so that was only good for aiming.

And so this shot is lousy, but here’s the outside of the temple.

The trees at the top are at street level, so you can see how steep the slope is. The city continues at this grade for block after block, climbing pretty far up the side of Victoria Peak.

I’ve barely written anything, but I’m about ready to collapse, so here’s one last thing before I go to bed.

Hong Kong’s currency isn’t issued by the government, it’s issued by banks, so each denomination has several different versions.

Odd, eh?

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

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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.