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A mountain town

Japan day ten


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Something in the air

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Rickshaw passengers in Takayama

There was something special about Takayama. I could feel it in the air as soon as I stepped off the train – crisp, fresh mountain air, so refreshing after the heat of Kyoto. This mountain town captivated me with its lively morning market, friendly locals, and beautifully preserved old houses. I knew very little about Takayama before visiting, so what a lovely surprise it was to discover this charming town which was to prove one of my favourite stops on our tour of Japan.

During our short stay here we visited a couple of the old merchant houses that have been restored and opened to the public, as well as a number of interesting museums including one dedicated to the twice-yearly festival, which unfortunately we had just missed, and another to the traditional karakuri ningyo or mechanical puppets.

We also enjoyed some of the nicest meals on the tour here, eating the fabulous Hida beef cooked the traditional way (grilled on a hot plate) and in possibly the best beef burger I have ever had! Not to mention the sake breweries ...

But there was no time to visit more than one of the many shrines, nor to take the short trip out of town to the renowned Hida Folk Village. So, like Kyoto before it, Takayama left me wanting to see more, and could well lure me back.

By train to Takayama

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On the slow train to Takayama

We had been staying in Kyoto prior to visiting Takayama and travelled here by train. Firstly we took the bullet train to Nagoya, which took about 40 minutes and was as comfortable as always.

We had some time at the station in Nagoya to shop for bento boxes for our lunch, and then boarded the JR Hida Limited Express, a diesel train. This was considerably slower than the bullet train and much shorter in length, but it had comfortable seats with lots of leg room, and in some ways it was nice to be travelling more slowly and be able to appreciate the countryside we were passing through, especially as the route runs through a mountainous area with scenic gorges, forested hillsides and some lovely views. There were tourist-focused announcements from time to time, in English as well as Japanese, pointing out places of interest, features of the landscape and so on.

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Washington Hotel Plaza

The journey from Nagoya to Takayama took two hours 20 minutes, and from Kyoto to Takayama was about three and a half hours altogether.

When we arrived in Takayama we paused briefly at the tourist information booth immediately outside the station to pick up some maps and then headed for our hotel, which was just across the road. But we stopped only to check in and leave our bags, and hurried out again to explore.

The old town

We decided to go along with the group on a stroll through the old town. Takayama is a very walkable city, with all but one of its main sights located in and around the old town (the exception is the Hida Folk Museum, which we didn’t manage to find the time to visit, unfortunately). From the station, and therefore from our hotel, it is about a 10-15 minute walk to the most interesting older part, although we saw plenty to distract us as we walked, including some attractive shops which several of us resolved to visit before our stay here was done!

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There are several of these wooden sculptures dotted around the town near the river

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Small shrine by the river

It’s quite easy to orientate yourself here. The Miyagawa River flows through the city from north to south, with the historic town on its east side. To the west of the river lies the new town and the station, and the old town lies to the east. A series of bridges crossing the river links the two. There are plenty of signs to help you find your way to the various tourist sights, but unusually these are set into the pavement so you need to look down to spot them. And talking of looking down, watch out too for the decorative manhole covers which are among the prettiest designs of those we saw on our travels. They feature rhododendron flowers, the symbol of the city of Takayama.

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Manhole cover, Takayama

Preserved private houses

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Typical street in the old town of Takayama

The oldest part of Takayama consists of three main streets that run north to south parallel to the river Miyagawa. From west to east these are Sannomachi, Ninomachi and Ichinomachi. The northern section of each has the prefix ‘Shimo’ and the southern, ‘Kami’. All are lined with a variety of old homes, with perhaps the greatest concentration on Kami-Sannomachi. These have been preserved (not restored or rebuilt as replicas) and are regarded as one of the best-preserved Edo-era neighbourhoods in Japan.

Most of these houses are over 200 years old. They have dark wood lattice fronts which give the rows that line each street a sense of uniformity, even where they are now put to use as shops or restaurants, or (quite common here) sake breweries. Unsurprisingly the district has been designated an area of important traditional buildings by the Japanese Government. It is a very popular area to explore, so you need to be prepared for crowds, especially at weekends, but they don’t really diminish from the sense of the past that lingers here. And if you come back at night you will quite likely have the streets almost to yourself, as we were to find the next evening.

Sake tasting

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Sake barrels, Takayama

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Sugidama outside a sake brewery

Andrew had offered to take us to a couple of the sake breweries in the old town which he recommended for tastings. People have been brewing sake here for centuries. You can recognise the breweries by the large white barrels outside and the distinctive spheres hanging above the entrance. These are known as sugidama and are the traditional sign of a sake brewery. Originally they were hung up whenever a new lot of sake was brewed. Made with green, freshly picked needles of a type of cedar, Cryptomeria japonica, the ball would hang there until the needles turned brown, indicating that the sake had aged enough and was ready for drinking. Today these sugidama are no longer used to indicate the age of the sake but simply as a sign of a traditional sake brewery or a sake shop.

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Signs in the sake shop

The two we visited were both towards the southern end of Kami-Sannomachi, the main street through the old town. In the first we were able to taste a good range of different sakes. We paid 100¥ and were given a small pottery cup which we could afterwards keep as a souvenir. On one side of the room was a display of sake bottles on three shelves, and we were free to sample as much as we liked from any of them. The only stipulation was that each person who wanted to taste had to pay for their own little cup. Or as the signs above the shelves said,

‘Wish from a store.
The carrying out from this corner of sample alcohol should withhold.
I refuse that a cup uses about. Please purchase one person one cup.’

‘Charged sample corner
Please sample after purchasing one-piece [the cup with the sansya logo] of 100 yen.
Grass can be brought home’

The second of these signs shows clearly the confusion the Japanese have between our L and R!

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Sue, Phil and Chris tasting the sake

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Traditionally served sake

After we had sampled a number of the sakes here (and debated about the rival qualities of each) we moved on to a nearby establishment that operates rather differently. Here you pay for your sake by the glass, and it is served in the traditional Takayama style, with the glass inside a small wooden box. Actually, the really traditional way is to serve it directly in the box, but this is probably more practical! They also sell a lemon-flavoured drink a little like the Italian limoncello which was very popular with our group but which I found a little sweet for my taste.

This particular sake brewery has a lovely courtyard at the rear where you can relax over your drinks, and there’s also a restaurant attached. One couple in our group came back here to eat the following evening and reported it very good.

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In the courtyard

Once we had drunk as much sake as seemed sensible for the middle of the afternoon (OK a little more than that!), the group dispersed, and Chris and I decided to investigate an interesting art gallery which we had spotted on the other side of the road selling original art, good quality prints and greetings cards. I was thinking of buying some of the latter but we were seduced by a fairly large limited edition woodblock print. We managed to resist buying this however … for now!

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On the streets of the old town, Takayama

We spent the remainder of the afternoon simply wandering the streets and taking loads of photos, as well as popping into a couple more of the shops. One sold nothing but rabbits – soft toys, scarves with bunny prints, rabbit chopsticks, pottery with rabbit pictures on it and more. Another favourite Takayama souvenir is a traditional parasol but these are more unwieldy for travellers from abroad to carry home and I wasn’t tempted. I did however buy some pretty bangles made of kimono silk encased in perspex, from a shop on Kokubunji Dori.

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Traditional paper parasols

Sarubobo

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Sarubobo

I found these red-headed faceless figures a little spooky, but they are very popular and you will see them all over Takayama, used as symbols in promoting shops etc. and available to buy as a souvenir in all sorts of forms, from little charms and key rings to large stuffed toys. Traditionally, these sarubobos were made by mothers and grandmothers to be given to their daughters as an amulet to ensure a good marriage, good children and happiness. The name means ‘baby monkey’ and it is believed that as monkeys have quick childbirths, so will the possessor of this charm. Nowadays they are regarded as more general good luck amulets that anyone can carry.

The face is red like that of the Japanese monkeys but it is less clear why it is traditionally without features. One theory is that they were originally made from leftover cloth and by relatives, so they were kept simple. Another is that the absence of a face allows the owner to imagine it – thus when the owner is sad, they can imagine their sarubobo to be sad too, when they are happy it is happy, and so on.

Today you may see sarubobos with different coloured faces as their very traditional use has widened. Each colour has its own meaning:
The red sarubobo is for luck in marriage, fertility and childbirth.
The blue sarubobo is for luck in work
The pink sarubobo is for luck in love
The green sarubobo is for luck in health
The yellow sarubobo is for luck in money
The black sarubobo is to remove bad luck

The best-dressed dogs

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One of many cute dogs in Takayama

As we continued to walk Takayama’s streets we noticed lots of cute dogs, and I began to speculate that this town might just have the best-dressed dogs in the country! Not only were most of the dogs we saw very smartly dressed in little coats, but some were carried in bags and one even in a pushchair. The dogs of Takayama are obviously rather spoiled!

The proud owners of these dogs were all very happy for us to take their photos, and several of them to pose for me with their pet.

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The dogs of Takayama

But for the ultimate in pampered pooches, have a look at this little one below. He had his own chair in the window where he could sit and watch all the activity out on the street without having to get his paws dirty by going out. I did though find it slightly reminiscent of other windows I have seen in certain parts of Amsterdam!

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Window dog

We thoroughly enjoyed our wanderings and I was already falling in love with this appealing town, but soon it was time to head back to the hotel and freshen up for dinner. We retrieved our bags from their storage and settled into our room which was clean and comfortable but, as so often in Japan, very small. If you want to unpack your suitcase you will find nowhere much to store the contents, yet living out of it is difficult when there's nowhere to lay it flat on the floor.

We had arranged to meet up again with most of the group and go along to a nearby restaurant recommended by Andrew, Karakuri.

Great Hida beef

While Kobe beef is the best in the world, Hida beef is considered to run it a close second, and you can buy it everywhere in Takayama for a fraction of what you probably pay for much less good meat back home. As with Kobe, the secret is in the marbling and although it looks odd if you're unused to it to see fat running through the meat, it is this that gives it its tenderness and flavour.

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Exterior of Karakuri

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Traditional and western-style seating inside

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Hida beef

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Lighting the burner

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Accompaniments

Karakuri is a small family-run restaurant near the station, well-known in Takayama for their beef dishes. We had one of the set meals which, in addition to the beef (you can choose between diced or sliced – we both chose the latter), included some small bits of cold and pickled vegetables served as starter.

With the meat we had a bowl of rice, miso soup, salad (with a wonderful dressing) and an excellent dipping sauce. The slices of beef are served to you raw, and a burner is lit in front of you, where you cook each slice as needed to your own preference. You then take the slice of beef, dip it in the sauce and maybe take some rice too. And enjoy the melt in your mouth texture and superb flavour.

This style of ‘do it yourself’ cooking on a sizzling cast iron pan is called sukiyaki. Most of us really loved this meal but there were a couple in the group who were put off by the veins of fat and wished for a leaner cut of meat. I felt that was missing the point however, and I’ve rarely if ever had beef so succulent.

Almost all seating here is traditional, on cushions on the floor. I found it made my back ache after a while but adding a second cushion and leaning back (I’d chosen a spot in front of a screen) helped. There were a few stools up at the counter for those who didn't feel able to cope on the floor for a whole meal. Pride stopped me opting for one of those but these days I reckon comfort would come before pride!

This meal was a lovely ending to one of the best days of the trip so far - and tomorrow would be even better!

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Inside the restaurant

Posted by ToonSarah 04:00 Archived in Japan Tagged trains food architecture restaurant japan culture history drink dogs customs takayama Comments (5)

A river runs through it

Japan day eleven


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Heron by the Miyagawa

Takayama is a mountain town, and the river that runs through it, the Miyagawa, is a clear mountain one. Trout and carp flourish here, ducks bob on the water, and we also saw a heron waiting patiently for the chance to catch a fish, no doubt. The heron, because of its habit of staying motionless like this, is regarded as a symbol of Buddhist meditation, so how special and appropriate it was to see one so clearly in what was one of my favourite Japanese places.

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Children feeding the fish and ducks

Morning market

As well as being a pleasant place to walk at any time of day, the river bank is the location for one of Takayama’s famous morning markets. After breakfast at our hotel (which offered a choice of Japanese or Western style – we copped out and opted for Western, having had very traditional Japanese ones the previous two mornings in Kyoto) we joined Andrew and some others from the group for a visit to the market.

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Stallholder at the market

There are in fact two markets held every morning in Takayama – the one we went is held on the banks of the Miyagawa in the old town. I have seen this reviewed as a ‘tourist trap’ but I have to disagree. Yes, tourists come, but it was also clear to me that locals were here too, shopping for (mostly) fruit and vegetables and enjoying a gossip with friends whom they met along the way. I loved our time here!

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Candle-maker

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Stall-holders

I always enjoy visiting a good colourful market anywhere I travel, as it is usually a great place to take photos and mix with the local people. This one was especially enjoyable because of the Japanese willingness to be photographed. I took so many photos of characterful faces, interesting food products and local crafts – several that I took here were among the best of the whole trip, I felt.

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Produce on sale

Of course, being a market, it’s also good place to shop! I bought some delicious sesame crunch sweets at one stall which modestly advertised its wares as being nothing much to look at but worth tasting with a sign that read:
‘Also the wife, the husband and confectionery which are NOT chosen by appearance.’

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Sign at a sweet stall

This is also a great place for snacking. Lots of the stalls sell little treats such as soy bean dumplings and sweets of all kinds. There’s a tea stall if you need warming up on what might be a chilly morning (remember, this is a mountain town) and the local Hida apples are huge and justifiably famous for their flavour.

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A bite to eat

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Tea stall

The morning market is a long-held tradition here, and there has been one on this spot for sixty years, although records show that the morning market was originally held close to the Takayama Betsuin Shourenji temple and started in the Edo Period. At its peak it is said to have had over 300 stalls but today it is usually between 50 and 70 – still plenty to keep any visitor interested.

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Calligraphy

After spending some time in the market Chris and I met up again with some of our group and Andrew proposed a visit to a nearby museum, dedicated to Takayama’s Festival Floats.

Matsuri Yatai Kaikan

Takayama is famous throughout Japan for its two annual festivals, in the spring and autumn, known as matsuri – the first celebrating the planting season, and the second the harvest. Unfortunately we missed the harvest matsuri by just a day (accounting in part for the large crowds milling around the old town on the day of our arrival) but at least we were able to get a good sense of what is involved by visiting this excellent museum.

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Main exhibit hall, Matsuri Yatai Kaikan

The focal point of both festivals is a parade of richly decorated floats known as yatai, 23 in total (12 for the spring festival, 11 for the autumn), some of which are 500 years old. Each is the responsibility, and pride, of one of the city’s communities. Originally they would have been carried on many shoulders, but today they have wheels. Nevertheless, manoeuvring these tall, unwieldy floats through Takayama’s narrow streets must be quite a challenge. On the first evening of the festival, they are illuminated with hundreds of paper lanterns and are hauled through the town by ropes, accompanied by wailing flutes and thundering drums. For the remainder of the festival they stand proudly at their allotted spot, attended by costumed locals.

For the rest of the year the yatai are kept hidden away, each in its own tall storehouse in the old town, and we saw several of these while walking around today. They are very tall, narrow and plain, and painted white in contrast to the dark wood of the old houses that surround them. Only during the four days of festival (two in the spring, two in the autumn) are the yatai wheeled out to be paraded around the town and exhibited in all their glory. If the festival is hit by bad weather they will remain in these storehouses instead, but with the large doors flung open so all can see them. At any other time visitors must be content with examining the photo that is displayed outside alongside some information about the float within.

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Yatai storehouse on the banks of the Miyagawa

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Another storehouse

But a few yatai are exhibited here in the Yatai Kaikan, on a rotating basis. The museum consists mainly of a single large hall, big enough to take these impressive constructions. They are displayed with mannequins modelling the various historical costumes worn in the parades etc., and a walkway winds round the central area, ascending gently, so that by the time you are on the fourth side you are almost level with the top of the floats. Which ones you will see depends on the cycle of rotation, but I believe the oldest one, which still has the old yokes (rather than wheels) and is no longer used, remains here all the time. All are beautifully carved, painted and lacquered. Many carry karakuri ningyo, mechanical dolls that can move and dance – more about those later in this entry.

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Float detail

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Float details

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A karakuri ningyo on a float

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Historical costume

A small room off this walkway is marked as a study room; I was glad I bothered to check this out as it shows an interesting ten minute video on a loop that gives a good idea of how the floats look in action at the festivals. If ever I get to come back to Takayama I will try very hard to ensure my visit coincides with one of these.

Sakurayama Nikko Kan

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Model of Toshugo at Sakurayama Nikko Kan

The admission fee to the Yatai Kaikan museum also includes the smaller one next door, Sakurayama-Nikko-kan, which holds a model of a World Heritage Site, the Toshogu Shrine in Nikko. It may seem odd (well, it did to me!) that one city should devote a museum to the wonders of another fairly distant city, but the reason became clear later when I read that this exhibit is both demonstration of, and tribute to, the wood-working skills of Takayama's craftsmen, who are famed throughout Japan for their carpentry. These 28 models of temple buildings contain 100,000 individual miniature pieces and took 33 sculptors 15 years to complete. What an achievement!

As you stroll around and peer at the 1/10 scale models the light in the hall will dim and you get to see how Toshogu looks by night as well as by day. As we were to visit Nikko later in our trip we didn’t spend as long here as we might otherwise have done, but the detail on the carvings is exquisite and you could be here for an hour or more and still be marvelling at the workmanship.

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Model of the temple buildings by day ...

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... and by night

Once we had seen all we wanted to here, we said goodbye to the rest of the group, who were going to the Hida Folk Museum. I would have liked to have seen this too, but we had decided it was more of a priority for us to see more of this lovely small city. So we set off to explore further by ourselves, and our next destination was a nearby shrine.

Sakurayama Hachimangu

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Sakurayama Hachimangu

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Lion dog

This Shinto shrine is in a lovely setting on the northern edge of the town, just beyond the Yatai Kaikan. It is the focal point for Takayama’s autumn festival. There are thousands of these Hachiman Shrines in Japan; they are dedicated to Hachiman, the kami (god or spirit) of war, who used to be popular among the leading military clans of the past. The origins of this particular shrine date back to the time of the Emperor Nintoku (313-399) who sent Prince Takefurukuma-no-mikoto to subjugate the monster Sukuna, a beast with two heads, four arms and four legs. Before undertaking this task, the warrior enshrined his father, the Emperor Ohjin, as the deity of this shrine and prayed for the success of his mission.

The shrine was enlarged in 1683 and established as the official protective shrine of the town. It has a pair of stone Komainu or ‘lion dogs’ guarding the entrance to the inner shrine, a large purification trough with dragons’ head fountains, a pool with large carp and a number of smaller buildings dotted around the grounds either side of the shrine. Among these (on the left as you face the main shrine) is an auxiliary shrine, an Inari Shrine, dedicated to the kami of the harvest and of industry. This shrine is guarded by a pair of foxes, regarded as the messengers of this god.

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Dragon fountain

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Inari Shrine, and prayers for good fortune

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Fox guarding the Inari Shrine

While we were here we were fortunate to witness a local celebration. On arrival we found the steps up to the shrine blocked by a family posing for formal photos. We stopped to see what was happening and a passing guide escorting another couple around (local and with excellent English) kindly stopped to explain to us that it is traditional here in Takayama to bring your new-born baby to this shrine to be blessed around the 40th day after the birth. This first visit to a shrine is known as Hatsu Miyamairi or more commonly Omiyamairi. In the past, this would be scheduled very precisely, and according to the baby’s gender, e.g. 31 days old for a baby boy and 32 days for a baby girl. The exact timing depends on the region – here in Takayama our informant indicated that 40 days is traditional. But nowadays it has become a common practice for babies (regardless of gender) to have their Omiyamairi at any time between 30 to 100 days after their birth. Many parents choose to go after their baby’s first month health check, and it may also depend on the availability of a priest and of family members.

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Family group at Sakurayama Hachimangu
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A baby's blessing

Traditionally, the mother and grandmother wear formal kimono, and their babies will be adorned in colourful robes or wraps. But the family we saw were in smart Western-style clothing. The purpose of the Omiyamairi is to show gratitude to the gods for the safe delivery and ask the local deity of the shrine to bless the baby, purify him/her and to accept the baby as part of the local worshipping community. The baby is introduced to the local deity by calling out his/her name and birth information, and the god is asked to purify, protect and bless the baby with happiness and health. No photos can be taken during the ceremony itself, but afterwards of course the proud new parents like to pose before the shrine with their offspring and other relatives, just as we saw here. To me it was very reminiscent of wedding photography, with the photographer arranging different combinations of the party in turn – the parents and baby, all the women, the whole group and so on. It was a lovely thing to witness and added to our appreciation of the shrine and its pretty setting.

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Torii gate at Sakuramaya Hachimangu

After taking our own photos and exploring the various buildings here we were in need of refreshment. As we strolled south from the shrine we kept our eyes open for somewhere we might find something to tempt us, and when we spotted a café in a traditional old building on Shimo-Ninomachi advertising cappuccinos, we knew we had found our place!

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Exterior of the café

Stepping inside we found ourselves in a fascinating old building with antiques and knickknacks around the walls and a few large wooden tables. We sat at one end of one of these and were handed menus by the friendly lady who was serving but explained we would just like coffees – a cappuccino for Chris and a mocha for me. She passed our order to the man making the drinks and we waited a while, thinking that he seemed to be taking extra care over them. When Chris’s, the first to arrive, was brought we saw why – an image of two little bears carefully ‘drawn’ in the foam. My mocha was equally decorative but very different, with lovely feathering. A Canadian guy sitting at the same table heard our exclamations and came over to look. When he saw the designs he asked permission to take a photo (of course we were already snapping away!) and explained that a friend of his, a professional photographer, was working on a book of ‘coffee art’ and would be jealous that he had come across such great examples! Oh, and fortunately the coffee was as good as it looked, and we thoroughly enjoyed our drinks.

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Cappuccino

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Mocha

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The 'artist' at work

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Inside the café, with our Canadian companion

Once we had finished our coffee and our chat, we were ready to carry on sightseeing.

Shishi-Kaikan: the Lion Dance Ceremony Exhibition Hall

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Sign in the Shishi-Kaikan

As the name suggests, the Lion Dance Ceremony Exhibition Hall has a collection of artefacts related to the famous lion dance performed at Japanese festivals. There are over 200 lion masks, as well as Edo-Period screens, ceramics, scrolls, coins, samurai armour, and swords. But although interesting, it was not these that had drawn us here, but the regular (every half hour) 15 minute demonstrations of the karakuri (automated dolls) which decorate many of the floats in Takayama's spring and autumn festivals.

We arrived just as one of these demonstrations was starting and were hurried inside to take our seats so we didn’t miss anything. Several karakuri ningyo, to give them their full name, were put through their paces as a woman gave explanations, a small part of which she translated into English (but enough only to give us a fairly vague idea of what was happening and how).

These karakuri ningyo are often described as the ancestors of Japanese robot technology. But their main purpose was not to show off technological possibilities but to conceal them and to create a sense of wonder and magic. The word karakuri means a ‘mechanical device to tease, trick, or take a person by surprise’. The aim in creating them was that the doll should be as lifelike as possible and not look like the machine it was.

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Dashi karakuri

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Another dashi karakuri, and the tea-serving doll

There are several types of karakuri. Most of those demonstrated here are dashi karakuri, which is the name given to those used on festival floats to re-enact scenes from plays, usually myths and legends. But we also saw a typical zashiki karakuri – the type of karakuri developed for amusement at home, a luxury item in the Edo period in Japan. One of the most popular of these, and the type that we saw, was the tea-serving doll. Like most of the dashi karakuri, it works by clockwork. When a cup is placed in its hands the robot moves forwards; when the cup is lifted it stops; and when the cup is again placed in its hands it turns and goes back where it started. You can imagine what a novelty that would have been in a rich Edo household – and indeed what a novelty it seemed to us! We also saw one that could write which went down especially well with the children in the audience, one of whom was given the finished paper.

If I’ve got you intrigued by these devices, there’s an excellent website about them, Karakuri Info, which is worth digging around in. Once we’d watched the demonstration we walked around the rest of the exhibits. There was no restriction on photography so as well as taking some photos of the karakuri and lion masks I was also able to make a short video of a couple of the former in action during the demonstration.

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Lion masks

By now it was lunch time and we retraced our steps towards a restaurant we had spotted earlier. Rakuda proved to be a great lunch stop. We loved the quirky decor which had rather a kitsch feel, with old 1970s posters and an odd assortment of objects displayed (which continued into the toilet, by the way – do check it out if you come here!) The music played was mostly from the same era, so it’s evidently a passion of the owners. The service was friendly and there was a helpful English-language menu.

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In Rakuda

I had a really tasty sandwich - thick slices of toast with an omelette filling, loads of vegetables (courgette, tomatoes, edame beans, aubergine etc.) and salad in a delicious dressing. Chris had the white pizza which had a very thin base (more like a quesadilla) but a delicious topping of two types of cheese with walnuts. Our drinks were equally as good – mine a home-made ginger ale and Chris's a soda with fresh fruits. And the prices were low - my huge sandwich was just 600¥ and our total bill not much over 2,000¥. What’s not to like?!!

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Rakuda exterior, and soda with fresh fruit

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My sandwich

Refreshed and very happy with our lunch break we headed to our next sight.

Yoshijima-ke

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In Yoshijima-ke

During the Edo period Takayama was largely a merchant, rather than a samurai, town, and its architecture reflects that fact. The streets of the old town are lined with houses of a style that accommodated both family and business life, and on Ninomachi in the northern part of the town are two of the finest examples, side by side, and both open to the public. The northernmost is Yoshijima-ke, built in 1907 to be both home and factory for the Yoshijima family, well-to-do brewers of sake. It is considered one of finest examples of rural Japanese buildings, and I absolutely loved it! The light inside was beautiful, and the contrast of the heavy dark beams, the lighter lacquered wood used for door frames, pillars etc., and the translucent paper screens was captivating – I couldn’t stop taking photos!

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In Yoshijima-ke

The house has two floors and two inner gardens which some of the rooms overlook. We paid 500¥ for admission and were given a small information leaflet (available in English). We were then free to wander at will, having of course removed our shoes before stepping on to the tatami matting that covers the floor of all the more formal rooms. There is minimal decoration, apart from some beautiful screens, carved wood panels and a few paintings by Japanese artist Shinoda Toko. The beauty is all in the arrangement of the spaces and the contrast of light and dark.

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In Yoshijima-ke

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If you’re interested there’s a plan of the house on this website about Oriental architecture, and also lots of photos, which together give a really comprehensive feel for this lovely building.

The sign outside had a lovely quotation which I think could apply to any old and well-loved home:
‘The completion of the house was only the beginning of its beautiful history. The activity inside the house brought it to life and added to the finishing touches. I think that this kind of beauty could only be created and ensue because of the loving hearts that supported it and lived in it. This struck when gazing through the high window on a moonlit night as white clouds drifted by.’
Teiji Ito (architectural historian)

After spending some time here, we moved to the house next door.

Kusakabe mingei-kan

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Daidokoro with irori, Kusakabe mingei-kan

This house belonged to the Kusakabe family, successful Takayama merchants who thrived in the late Edo and early Meiji periods. It was built in 1879 to replace an earlier home and business lost in a fire. It is generally more solid feeling than the neighbouring Yoshijima house, with darker wood. I have seen this described as the more masculine house and Yoshijima as more feminine, which sort of makes sense when you see them.

Like Yoshijima, this is a two storey structure. Its foot-square cypress timbers are as perfectly fitted as cabinet work, as might be expected from builders of this Hida region (famous throughout the country for their skills in woodwork and carpentry). Its most noticeable feature is perhaps the fireplace – a sunken hearth made of iron known as an irori and above it a huge adjustable hook for hanging a pot or kettle, known as a jizai-kagi. This is the heart of the daidokoro or family room, a large room but one which is even taller than it is wide.

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The jizai-kagi

Unlike Yoshijima, the Kusakabe house is furnished with some antiques – dark wood cabinets, low tables, a few ornaments. And in its storerooms (on the upper floor and to the rear of the building) are various exhibits of household items (cabinets, pots etc) that would have been traded by this merchant family.

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An inner garden

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Silk kimono on display

As with the Yoshijima, there’s a plan of the house on the Oriental architecture website, and again lots of photos. The official website also has some good photos and an interesting detailed history of the house.

Admission here too was 500¥. This included a cup of green tea and rice cake which was served in the rear courtyard between house and warehouse.

Tatami

As we left I spotted a tatami mat workshop on the opposite side of the road. I had already become intrigued with the tatami mats I had encountered on our travels in Japan, so I wandered over to check it out. Unfortunately there was no one here actually making the mats, but nevertheless it was interesting to see the weaving frames and tools used for this process.

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Tatami in the making

Tatami is the traditional Japanese floor covering and its distinctive appearance, texture and scent will linger long in my memories of the country. The scent in particular, because when you sleep in a tatami room you do so on futons, lying very close to the floor and fall asleep with that straw smell as a perfumed ‘lullaby’.

Tatami is still used a lot in Japan, and not only in traditional houses, as many modern homes and flats have at least one tatami-floored traditional room. The tatami mats are always made in standard sizes, which varies a bit with the region, but is usually around 1.80 metres long by 90 centimetres wide, and always with a ratio of 2:1. Because of this, rooms in Japan are also made in standard sizes and are measured and described as multiples of tatami mats (for example, a tea room is often 4½ mats and a shop usually 5½ mats).

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Tools of the tatami-making trade

Traditional tatami mats are made with an inner core of rice straw and a covering of woven rushes, bound at the edges with decorative cloth or brocade. The covering is known as the tatami omote; it is made of a soft reed and each mat needs about 4,000 to 5,000 rushes, which are woven together with hemp or cotton string. To make the tatami goto, as the straw core is known, 40 centimetres of straw is crushed to just five centimetres deep. Finally the edging or tatami beri is bound over the long edges.

There are some rules (this is Japan, there are always rules!) about the most auspicious arrangement for tatami mats. You will never see a room with tatami arranged in a simple grid pattern; the borders should not create a cross shape, because that would mean that you had joined four mats in that spot and the number four is considered unlucky in Japan because it is pronounced like the word used for death: shi. It is also considered unlucky to step on the cloth-bound border of a tatami mat, although avoiding them is easier said than done and I’m sure I stepped on many during our stay!

We strolled along the nearby streets some more and found ourselves back near the small gallery we had visited the previous day. Somehow we found ourselves popping back in for another look at that limited edition woodblock print, and before we knew it, we had bought it! We took the risk of buying it framed as the price was reasonable compared with what we would have paid to have it framed back home and, luckily, we liked the simple frame. The picture, by an artist called Ken Mozumi, cost us 13,700¥ or about £80 ($130) which for such a lovely and relatively unique souvenir seemed well worth paying. It is now hanging in our hall to be admired daily and remind us of our holiday.

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In the gallery

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Our print

After buying this this we headed back to the hotel with our purchase, to freshen up for dinner.

Center4 Hamburgers

Chris and I had both loved the Hida beef that Andrew had introduced us to on the previous evening, so we decided to try one of the other restaurants he recommended here in Takayama, a place known as Center4 Hamburgers. It sounded like a great place to get a change from Japanese food while still making the most of the high quality local ingredients.

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Center4 Hamburgers

The restaurant is run by a local couple who are clearly enamoured of all things American, as the burgers are served to a background of Johnny Cash music and many of the antiques that spill into the restaurant from the shop in front of it are from the US (though many others are from countries all over the world, as well as from Japan itself). There are just a handful of tables but on the week night we visited there was never more than one other table occupied – surprising perhaps when you consider its reputation.

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In Center4 Hamburgers

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Antiques spill into the restaurant

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My Hida beef burger

Less surprising is the menu, which is dominated by burgers, though there are a few other options. The Hida beef burger comes unadorned, as is only right given the quality of the meat, but you can also get burgers made with regular beef and with all the usual toppings such as cheese, bacon, chilli, egg. You pay considerably more for the Hida beef burger of course, though that does include fries and a tasty salsa. I know the salsa is tasty because I chose to splash out on that dish, and I was so pleased I did – it was amazing, and well worth the extra cost. Chris wanted blue cheese on his burger however so opted for the regular beef, but that too was pretty great. We accompanied our burgers with a large draft beer each (Kirin Ichiban) and had a second beer each afterwards as we were enjoying the atmosphere too much to want to hurry away.

We left eventually of course, and had a pleasant walk back through Takayama’s quiet night time streets, stopping off at the convenience store next to the hotel for some sake to enjoy as a night cap in our room, as the hotel’s bar seemed to be permanently closed. A very nice way to end what had been far too brief a stay in this charming town.

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Old town at night

Posted by ToonSarah 03:58 Archived in Japan Tagged art food architecture japan culture temple history market shopping restaurants houses museum shrine customs takayama street_photography Comments (4)

Back to Tokyo (via Matsumoto)

Japan day fourteen


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

A certain beauty

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When the skies cleared

It had rained for a day and a half. Kamikochi did have a certain beauty in the rain, but it had meant that the mountains we had come to see were hidden from view. But on the previous evening, our last here, we had been summoned outside by a member of the hotel staffto see ‘the white mountain’. There we found that at last the skies had cleared and we could indeed see the nearest mountain glowing palely in the light of the moon. It was bitterly cold, so we didn’t linger long, but that tantalising glimpse made us eager for the next morning.

And when we awoke it was to crisp, still, cold air and to a deep blue sky; to bright white mountains standing majestically around the basin that is Kamikochi; and to a heavy frost. We hurried breakfast and grabbed our cameras and warm jackets, rushing outside to make the most of our final hour or so here. The scene was transformed and wherever we looked there were beautiful views to be marvelled at and captured in our photos. We were so glad we had been granted a short time at least in which to experience this very different side to Kamikochi.

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Clouds rolling away

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Yakedake visible at last

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The Azusa River with backdrop of mountains revealed

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Mountain views

But all too soon it was time to leave, crossing a very different-looking Kappa-bashi to that on the day of our arrival - a little slippery with frost and surrounded by stunning mountain views. At last we could see why they call this the 'Japanese Alps'.

Leaving Kamikochi

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Kappa-bashi, early morning

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Sue and Jim on Kappa-bashi

We left Kamikochi as we had arrived, by bus, but this time bound for Shinshimashima. The journey took about an hour and the scenery was wonderful throughout. Unlike the day of our arrival, the sun was shining, the snowy peaks were visible and the views at almost every turn magnificent (apart from in the many tunnels).

But these tantalising glimpses of Kamikochi in sunlight left several of us yearning to stay, myself included. And my new friend Sue was so captivated by this place that when we left she wrote a beautiful song inspired by our time here:
'Kamikochi Mountains’ performed by Jim and Sue - lyrics and music by Sue Lee-Newman.

The bus took us past Taisho-Ike where we had been the previous day. How different it looked! Yesterday’s low cloud and the atmospheric mist that had shrouded the dead trees had lifted, and in its place we saw the glory of the surrounding mountains, Yakedake and Mount Hotaka, reflected in still waters. I was very pleased that I had a seat on the right-hand side of the bus and was able to grab a photo of a very different Taisho-Ike.

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Looking back at Taisho-Ike

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Train from Shinshimashima to Matsumoto

The bus took us directly to the station in Shinshimashima. There we had a 20 minute wait - just time to buy a drink and some fruit (wonderful Hida apples!) from the stall outside the station.

Then it was on to the small local train bound for Matsumoto, a journey of just 30 minutes. Matsumoto has a direct connection to Tokyo's Shinbuka Station, but we dropped our bags in the coin lockers at the station and took a few hours to explore the town before continuing our journey.

A few hours in Matsumoto

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Manhole cover, Matsumoto

Matsumoto lies in the heart of the island of Honshu and can be seen as a gateway to the Japanese Alps which surround the long valley in which it lies. For us however, it was more of an exit point.

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Monument in the town

And with only a few hours to spend here, the main sight we focused on was naturally the castle, which is one of the ‘National Treasures of Japan’ and one of relatively few original castles in the country, most having been lost to fire. It’s an impressive sight, surrounded by a wide moat and with a striking black and white colour scheme.

We also spent a bit of time browsing the quaint shops on Nawate-dori, visiting its tranquil shrine and grabbing lunch at a Western-style café that originates from Seattle USA. But there was no time for the well-regarded Museum of Art or any of the other museums in this culturally-minded city.

I left with fleeting impressions of a city that is well looked-after, with attractive street art, wide clean pavements and a laid-back air compared to the bustle of the large cities such as Tokyo and Osaka. It seems Matsumoto would make a good base for touring in this region at the heart of the country.

Matsumoto Castle

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Matsumoto Castle

The castle lies about 10/15 minutes’ walk from the station and we all walked there as a group, before splitting up to explore at our own pace.

This is one of relatively few original castles in Japan; as they were built mostly of wood they often burned down and were rebuilt, some many times. This though is one of just four castles designated as ‘National Treasures of Japan’ and is the oldest castle donjon still standing in the country.

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Matsumoto Castle

The castle was built at the end of the 16th century on the site of an earlier fort by the Ishikawa family. It has a striking black and white colour scheme, and three turrets. It is sometimes called 'Crow Castle' because of the black walls. Both the wooden interiors and external stonework are original. It is known as a flatland castle or hirajiro because it is built not on a hilltop or amid rivers, but on a plain. It is surrounded by a wide moat which makes for lovely photos, although some of the best I think would be from the far side of the castle (as you approach it from the ticket office) where a red bridge crosses the moat – an area of the park that was closed when we visited for construction work. So for us the best views were probably those from the park that surrounds it, as seen in my three photos above.

You can get these outside views of the castle for free but to get closer or to go inside you must pay the admission fee of 600¥, which we decided to do. We were given an informative leaflet in English and if you want can also get a free English language guided tour from a volunteer guide. We didn't do this as we only wanted a quick look round, but we did chat briefly to one of the guides whose English seemed OK and who was interested to chat about the differences between Japanese and English castles.

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Roof details

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Warning sign inside

Once inside the castle's precincts you can see some displays about its history and of course go inside. To do the latter you must remove your shoes and carry them in a plastic bag provided. Note that the stairs are all very steep and of polished wood - I found it tricky going in just socks! Various artefacts are displayed (swords, costumes, building materials etc) but very few signs are in English. At the top (six floors up) you get good views of Matsumoto and on a clear day, of the Japanese Alps in the distance – or so I understand. We gave up part way, deciding that the slippery steps weren't worth the trouble for relatively little reward when we had such limited time in the town.

But even if you don't want to go inside I reckon it's worth paying the admission to get a closer look at the castle and see the historical displays, and the guy dressed up as a samurai who I gather is usually there.

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Japanese tourist with 'samurai'

We also visited the gift shop as I had been advised by Andrew that this was one of relatively few places to buy wasabi chocolate. Yes, you read that correctly! It’s a white chocolate flavoured with the hot Japanese condiment. I rather liked it – but it won't appeal to everyone I suspect!

When we had seen enough of the castle we retraced our steps to an interesting street we had passed on our way here.

Nawate-dori

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Sign on Nawate-dori

This is a quaint, if slightly (but only slightly) touristy street not far from the castle. This street once formed the border between the Samurai residences and the commoners’ homes in the Edo era (1603 – 1868).

The name means ‘Frog’ street. It acquired this name at a time when the nearby river became so polluted that even the frogs died. The city managed to clean up the river, and named the street nearby after the frogs that returned to its waters. The name is also related to a pun on the Japanese word for ‘return’ kaeru. The mountains that surround Matsumoto could be treacherous, so frogs were given as a charm so that travellers would return safely.

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Nawate-dori, with giant frog

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Frog shop

We certainly would have found it hard to miss this street, as there is this very large fibreglass statue of a samurai frog by the entrance on Daimyocho Street. This was created by students from the Tokyo University for the Arts. The street is pedestrianised and not long – if you don’t stop to shop or browse you can walk it in about five minutes.

But there are plenty of interesting shops selling antiques and bric-a-brac, and others with gift items (one of which has only frog-related items!) I was very tempted by some antique sake cups but persuaded (probably rightly!) by Chris that we had already bought more than enough souvenirs.

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Shop window, Nawate-dori

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Nawate-dori book shop

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Garden on Nawate-dori

There are also some quaint corners likely to catch your eye if you’re a keen photographer, and several places to eat, both stalls selling local snacks such as soy bean dumplings, and more substantial sit-down places. We decided to have lunch in one of these.

Sweet Bakery

We had mostly eaten (and for the most part enjoyed) Japanese food on our travels, but there are times when you really crave the food of home - or at least of another country! So when we spotted this cosy bakery/café, with a menu of pizza, toasted sandwiches and soup, we thought it looked a promising spot for a more Western lunch for a change. And so it proved to be.

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Sweet Bakery on Nawate-dori

Sweet appears to be a Matsumoto offshoot of a Seattle bakery, and has been on this spot since 1924. It claims to have been the first shop to sell French-style baguettes in the region, a claim I find easy to believe!

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Cosy interior of Sweet Bakery

Inside we found a pleasant space, with old photos on the walls reflecting the bakery's establishment in 1924. There are also a few seats and tables outside, where smoking and dogs are permitted (neither is allowed inside, and after finding some Japanese cafės too smoky for my liking, I was pleased about this). Looking at the clientele, this place seems popular with local young mums. Chris found one of his favourites on the menu, a Reuben sandwich, and I had a bowl of clam chowder. We both enjoyed these dishes and they were just the right size for lunch.

Yohashira Shrine

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Carving detail, Yohashira Shrine

The main sight we found on Nawate-dori (in addition to the appeal of browsing the small shops) was this tranquil Shinto shrine. I haven’t been able to find out much about it, as the only website I could find was entirely Japanese, but if Google Translate was doing its job properly, the shrine was built in 1924 to replace an earlier one (1874?) that was destroyed by fire in 1888.

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Lion dog guardian, Yohashira Shrine

It seems to be something of a haven in the city for locals, several of whom stopped briefly to pray while we were here – I enjoyed seeing the little boy who was being shown by his mother how to ring the bell that draws the attention of the spirits or kami to the presence of the would-be petitioner.

It also seems to be a popular spot for pigeons – one man was feeding them here when we came, and there are several references to them among the brief descriptions of the shrine that I’ve been able to track down.

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Yohashira Shrine - feeding the pigeons and ringing the temple bell

We took a few photos here and enjoyed the tranquillity for a while but moved on when a small group arrived, armed with a set of metal steps, to set up a group photo in front of the main shrine. In any case, it was time to head back to the station to continue our journey to Tokyo.

Return to a very different Tokyo

We left Matsumoto on a limited express train service to Tokyo's Shinjuku Station. This journey took about two and a half hours, making Matsumoto just about do-able as a day trip from the capital. I learned that this train service is called the ‘Azusa’ or ‘Super Azusa’ limited express, named after the river we had enjoyed walking and staying beside in Kamikochi!

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Arriving in Shinjuku at night

We emerged from Shinjuku Station to a rather different Tokyo from the one we had experienced when staying in Asakusa at the start of our trip. There we had found relatively tranquillity in the almost suburban streets that surround its atmospheric shrine, Senso-ji. Here everything was modern and frenetic, constantly on the move. This is the Tokyo we so often see – a truly 24 hour city.

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Ibis Hotel, Shinjuku

Our base here for the night was the Ibis Hotel, just a few minutes’ walk from the station. We found the bedroom small, as they seemed to be in all the standard hotels in Japan - and, again as everywhere, we had everything we might need to make our stay comfortable: tea-making, TV (with, rare here, BBC World News channel), hair dryer, toiletries, robes and slippers, good free wifi.

We settled in but didn’t bother unpacking, as we would be leaving again the next morning. The bright lights of Shinjuku awaited!

Udon noodles galore!

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Outside Mentsudan restaurant - Andrew explaining the menu

This was the final night of our group tour and everyone was keen to have dinner together. Andrew proposed a visit to one of his favourite restaurants in Tokyo, Mentsudan, an unpretentious and great value udon joint. There are no frills here, but you can get a filling bowl of udon noodles in a wide range of styles for less than 1,000¥, and they are tasty!

It is self-service, but with the noodles cooked to order, and according to Time Out Tokyo ‘are handmade in-house by expert noodle makers from Kagawa, where the dish originates’. The first thing we saw on entering was the cooking area on the left, with the chefs hard at work and a small counter where we placed our orders. I didn't see an English menu but there were pictures to help us make our choice, and of course we had Andrew along to advise. On his recommendation we all chose a large portion, which for dinner I think is probably good advice.

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Place your order

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Rolling the noodles

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Udon noodles with tempura side

Once we’d ordered we sat on a bench opposite the counter to wait for our noodles to be prepared. I enjoyed watching the chefs in action as they rolled and cut the dough and cooked the noodles before topping them with our chosen sauces. Both Chris and I opted for cheese, again on Andrew's recommendation, and it was very good (a bit like macaroni cheese!)

Once we had our bowl of noodles we took our trays and proceeded along the counter choosing any additional dishes we fancied, all of which were priced at around 50-200¥. I chose a vegetable tempura dish, and Chris some potato salad. Others in our group had rice, other salads and different tempura including octopus and even a tempura bacon rasher! You can also get drinks - beer, sake, soft drinks. A few items are priced at 0¥ and can be added for free - I sprinkled some sliced spring onion onto my bowl of noodles and had some ginger paste on the side with my tempura. At the end of the counter we paid, took our trays to some available seats at one end of a long wooden table in the centre of the room, and tucked in. Yummy!

Oh, and also very cheap – for our two large cheese udon bowls, a couple of side dishes and two large beers we paid just 2,400¥ (about £15).

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Farewell group shot

After dinner we went back to the hotel and most of us had a drink together in the bar before taking a final group photo and saying our farewells. The next day most would be leaving Japan, but we still had a few more days to explore on our own while another couple were staying on in Tokyo. Some had to get up early the next day for flights home, but our train to Nikko wasn’t until mid morning. The night was young and the bright lights of Shinjuku were calling! So we went out to explore and take some photos.

Shinjuku at night

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Shinjuku at night

This is one of the most vibrant night-life areas of the city, and was a real contrast to Asakusa where we had stayed at the start of our trip – and even more to beautiful Kamikochi where we had been for the previous two nights. We wandered through the streets near our hotel and took lots of photos of the neon lights and all the activity. In some ways we could have been in any major city; in others, it was uniquely Japan.

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Shinjuku at night

I was especially intrigued by the narrow alleyways north of the station, known variously as Omoide Yokocho (which means ‘memory lane’), Yakitori Alley or more crudely, Piss Alley. They are lined with a myriad of the tiniest restaurants I think I have ever seen, most with just a counter and a handful of stools. Big bowls of noodles (ramen, soba, udon) bubble on the stoves and yakitori skewers are lined up on the grills. Fragrant steam rises on the air to tempt diners. Unfortunately we had already eaten so we just strolled through and took in all the sights.

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On Omoide Yokocho

A less appealing area for many will be Kabukicho, Japan’s largest red light district, which lies to the north east of the station. When we passed here I spotted several men obviously out to tout for business so we gave it a miss! It’s probably safe enough with so many other people around, but there were plenty of other streets to explore and bright lights to photograph.

82 Ale House

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Entrance to the pub

After we’d spent some time wandering around the brightly lit streets we decided it was time for another drink. We had spotted the narrow frontage of this bar and thought it looked welcoming so decided to give it a try. It was quite an interesting experience! The aim here is to recreate a British pub in the heart of Tokyo and I imagine for Japanese visitors it could feel very exotic and foreign. Certainly there were plenty of them there – the small space was almost full and mostly with Japanese drinkers though there were a few Westerners too. In appearance it has managed to create a fair impression of a UK pub (we were chuffed to see old pictures of Northumberland on the walls) and they have also replicated the custom of ordering and paying for your drinks at the bar. But it was very odd to be greeted at the door, after descending the short flight of steps to the basement, and seated as if we were in a restaurant – ‘Table for two? Over here please’!

Once settled at our table (which we were lucky to get) we found that there was a decent selection of drinks including some British ales, naturally, but also local ones. Chris had a Kirin while I was persuaded by the pub’s Jack Daniels promotion to try a cocktail based on their Tennessee Honey whiskey which was rather nice. We also shared a bowl of mixed nuts and rather enjoyed our experience of a Japanese take on a British night out!

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Japanese take on a British pub

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In the pub - note the Alnwick Castle poster!

Posted by ToonSarah 04:45 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes mountains night trains tokyo castles food streets architecture japan temple hotel restaurants pubs city shrine national_park matsumoto customs kamikochi Comments (4)

The wonders of Nikko

Japan day sixteen


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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At Toshogu Shrine - monk and novice

As always, we slept comfortably on our futons at the Turtle Inn Annexe. Breakfast was included in our stay here, and we enjoyed coffee, fruit, an egg, and toast (including a delicious raisin bread) in the cosy dining area – simple but adequate.

We then set out to explore the main sights of Nikko, walking from the ryokan the 15 minutes or so on what was a grey but (for now) a thankfully dry day. Before entering the shrines we detoured to the nearby Shinkyo Bridge.

Shinkyo Bridge

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Shinkyo Bridge

This distinctive red bridge is something of a symbol for Nikko. It belongs to the Futarasan Shrine (not, as may seem more likely, the slightly nearer Tosho-gu) and is the oldest bridge built over a gorge in Japan. It dates originally (in this form) from 1636. In 1902, during restoration works it was destroyed by the river and it was reconstructed in 1904. The most recent restoration was in 2005.

It is 28 metres long and 7.4 metres wide and spans the river at a height of 10.6 metres above the water. It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural property in December 1999.

This was the first bridge to be built over the Daiya river in Nikko, and its construction is linked to an interesting legend:

It is said that around the year 766, the Priest Shodo Shonin together with ten disciples tried to cross the Daiya river, at the place where today this bridge stands. They were unable to cross the river because of the strong currents, so the priest fell on his knees and prayed. Suddenly, the God of the River, Jinja-Daio appeared before him and said that he would help him to cross. The god released two snakes over the river, one red and one blue; their bodies transformed into a bridge and sedge sprouted on their back, allowing the party to cross. After they had crossed the river they looked back; Jinja-daiou and the bridge had already disappeared.

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Shinkyo Bridge

That’s why when it was rebuilt in the form we know today, during the time of Empress Meishō, it was considered sacred, and ordinary people were allowed only to look at the bridge, but had to cross the river on a different one nearby. Only the Empress, a few generals and Imperial messengers were allowed to use Shinko. This interdiction remained in place until modern times when, 40 years ago, the bridge was transformed into an open-air museum. And now everyone can cross it, for a fee of 500¥.

We didn’t do this ourselves but watched as a succession of proud Japanese tourists (some of them in traditional costume) solemnly strolled from the town end of the bridge to the shrine end, paused to pose for photos, and then strolled back again. You see, while you can nowadays walk across the bridge, you can’t actually use it as a means of crossing the river because the far end is closed (I assume to ensure that everyone pays their 500¥). So to cross the river you do still need to do as ordinary people did for centuries and use the parallel bridge that now carries the road traffic too.

Toshogu Shrine

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By the entrance to Toshogu


There is one sight that every visitor to Nikko comes to see, and that is the Toshogu Shrine. And rightly so. This flamboyantly ornamented, intricately carved, riotously coloured collection of buildings will blow your mind!

The shrine is the burial place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, which ruled from 1600 until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. It was Ieyasu who established Tokyo as the seat of government of a (more or less) unified Japan. A perhaps surprising choice for deification, he was brutal and bloodthirsty in pursuit of power; even members of his own family died at his hands. It was he too who established the trade monopolies that resulted in the almost total isolation of Japan from the rest of the world for over two centuries.

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Stone lantern

Ieyasu had expressed the wish to be deified after his death in order to protect his descendants from evil. He died in 1616 and his remains were originally buried at the Gongens' mausoleum at Kunōzan, but a year later were reburied here at Tosho-gu. It was his grandson Iemitsu who, in 1834, ordered the construction of the complex of 55 buildings we see today in order to fulfil Ieyasu’s dying wish:
‘Build a small shrine in Nikko and enshrine me as the God. I will be the guardian of peace keeping in Japan.’

He chose Nikko because of its location north of Edo. The north was considered the taboo direction, inhabited by demons. By placing himself there, Ieyasu hoped to protect Japan from evil and ensure long life for the Tokugawa government and eternal peace for the nation.

Whether these 55 buildings can be considered a ‘small shrine’ is another matter! It took 15,000 workers to build them, but they did so in an impressive one year, five months! The shrine complex was registered as a World Heritage site in December 1999, and most of the individual buildings are designated as either ‘an Important Cultural Property’ or ‘a National Treasure’ by the Japanese government. Almost all are covered with an explosion of colour and every surface is carved – there are 5,173 carvings in total!

As we approached the shrine we saw a small procession. I have no idea of the purpose of this – there must have been a special event happening somewhere, but we never saw anything more of it.

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Procession at Toshogu Shrine

Also near here is a dragon fountain with a wonderfully expressive dragon!

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Dragon fountain, Toshogu

One thing to be prepared for when visiting Toshogu is the sheer number of other people doing the same! We arrived here first thing in the morning, hoping to beat the crowds who make the day trip from Tokyo, but already there were some bus trips there and by 10.00 AM it was heaving.

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Crowds at Toshogu

This is not to say you shouldn't go – it is magnificent and a ‘must see’ if in this part of Japan (and indeed worth journeying to from any other part of the country). But it's helpful to be prepared mentally for the crowds you will encounter; to accept that you will have to wait to enter the inner shrine and other significant buildings; to recognise that other people will get into your photos, tread on your toes and probably push past you in their eagerness to see certain things. Accept all that, wait your turn patiently, and you will be rewarded.

Toshogu Shrine: Ishidorii

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Approaching the shrine -
not too crowded, yet!

You enter the complex through a massive torii gate, Ishidorii. This pre-dates Toshogu, having been dedicated in 1618 by Kuroda Nagamasa, the feudal lord of Kyushu Chikuzen (nowadays Fukuoka Prefecture).

The torii is made out of 15 blocks of stone, instead of wood, which is more usually used for torii. This stone was transported by ship from Kyushu to Koyama and then manually hauled overland to Nikko. The cross rails are hollow to minimise their weight and help withstand the impact of earthquakes. Despite this, an earthquake in 1949 caused a joint of the crossbars to slip widely, but it was shifted back to its original position by an aftershock. The inscription at the top reads: ‘Tosho-daigongen’ (‘Divine designation of Ieyasu Tokugawa’).

The stone steps leading up to the Ishidorii are cunningly designed. Although there are only ten of them, an impressive false perspective effect is created by the fact that the staircase narrows toward the top, and the height of the steps also decreases as they ascend. Despite the fact that the Tokugawa Shogunate had officially closed its doors to the rest of the world, in practice they had some secret channels that were used to bring in information and ideas from other countries. This included importing the concept of perspective from European art, and the designer Kobori Enshu put this to good use here at Toshogu – not only in the design of these steps but also on the path between the big cedar trees. In the past, the further you went the shorter the cedars were cut, creating the impression of a long, narrow path.

Toshogu Shrine: the Five-storied Pagoda

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Five-storied Pagoda

Inside the Ishidorii the first building we came to, on the left, was the Five-storied Pagoda or Gojunoto. This is designated as an Important Cultural Property by the government of Japan. The Gojunoto Pagoda was dedicated in 1648 by Sakai Tadakatsu, the feudal lord of Obama in Wakasa Province (present day Fukui Prefecture). But the one that stands here today was built in 1818 to replace that earlier one which was destroyed by fire in 1815.

The pagoda stands 35 metres high. It is carefully constructed to withstand earthquakes and strong winds. It has no internal floors and a central column is suspended by a chain from the fourth storey to support the ones below. This doesn’t rest on any foundations but instead is free to sway, thus functioning as a dynamic counterweight and also allowing for the wood to shrink or expand.

The pagoda’s five stories, from top to bottom, represent sky, fire, earth, water and wind, as well as the five Buddhas of wisdom. It is decorated with the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac on the first storey. You can go inside on payment of a small additional fee, but we opted not to, wanting to press on and see the main shrine complex before it got too crowded.

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Pagoda details

Beyond the pagoda you come to the ticket office, and to the official entrance to the shrine, the Omotemon Gate. We bought our tickets which, when we visited in October 2013, cost 1,300¥. I had seen references to a combination ticket for this and the other shrines but at the time of our visit that was suspended as the various sites hadn’t been able to agree a price. I’d also read that there was a supplementary payment to see some parts of Toshogu (such as Ieyasu’s mausoleum and the famous ‘sleeping cat’) but our tickets covered the whole complex.

Toshogu Shrine: Omotemon

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Omotemon - one of the guardian deities

This is the first of a series of impressive gates that mark the route through the Toshogu complex to its most sacred spots. It is also known as Niomon, a reference to the two guardian deity statues, Deva Kings, positioned on the left and right – Nioh means a guardian of Buddha. These were removed to the Taiyuin Mausoleum (part of Rinnoji Temple) by order of the Meiji government. At this time the gate took the name of Omotemon, meaning simply ‘front gate’. The Nioh, which are each four metres tall, were restored to their positions here in 1897 but the newer name stuck, for the most part.

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Omotemon - gilded elephant

On the far (inner) side of the gate the equivalent niches are occupied by statues – a lion and a kirin (a mythological creature, usually paired with the lion), while golden elephant-like creatures adorn the passage-way on that side. There are many other animal carvings too, including giraffes, tigers and leopards. The whole is a riot of colour and a wonderful foretaste of what is to come.

Proceeding through the gate (where our tickets were checked) we arrived in an open area with a number of buildings around the perimeter.

Toshogu Shrine: Sanjinko

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Shimojinko, the Lower Sacred Storehouse

Three of the buildings in the open area beyond the Omotemon are known as the Sanjinko or Three Sacred Storehouses. To our right was Shimojinko (Lower Sacred Storehouse), in front of us Nakajinko (Middle Sacred Storehouse) and to the left of that Kamijinko (Upper Sacred Storehouse). These are used to store the various harnesses and 1,200 costumes used in the Procession of a Thousand Samurai (Sennin Musha Gyoretsu), held each year in May and October. They also store the equipment for Yabusame contests (archery on horseback) which take place at the same time. The Sanjinko are open for viewing for one week each before the Spring and Autumn Festivals – I think we had unfortunately just missed the latter.

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Kamijinko

All three storehouses are designated Important Cultural Properties and all are ornately carved, but the most striking and consequently most photographed is Kamijinko. Large carvings of elephant adorn its gable. They are known as the ‘Imaginary Elephants’ because the artist, Kano Tanyu, would never have seen the real thing. He drew them from his imagination having heard accounts and descriptions, and really didn’t do a bad job under those circumstances – just think how hard it would be to conceive of an animal that looked like an elephant if you had never come across any, or any picture of one! OK the ears and tails are weird, but apart from that it’s pretty close.

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'Imaginary elephant', Kamijinko

Facing the middle and upper storehouses across this space is one of the best known of Toshogu’s 55 buildings, the Sacred Stable.

Toshogu Shrine: Shinkyu

In contrast to the other buildings in this part of the complex, such as the storehouses described in my previous tip, the Shinkyu or Sacred Stable is relatively plain – probably the least adorned building in Tosho-gu. Yet it contains its most famous single carving, that of the Three Wise Monkeys:
‘See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil’.

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Sansaru: the three monkeys

In fact, there is a frieze of eight monkey carvings. This frieze is known as a Sansaru and its panels function something like a picture book, telling the story of a monkey’s upbringing and way of life. Other images show scenes such as a mother caring for a youngster; a young monkey on his own, newly independent; a pair of monkeys; and a pregnant monkey. But everyone wants to see and to photograph this one, and you will have to wait your turn. Remember my warning about the crowds that flock to Toshogu? Well, most of them are here to see this!

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Sacred horse

The monkey has been treated as a guardian of horses since early times and at one time there would have been a monkey actually kept in the stable. Today there is no live monkey, but the stable is home to two sacred white horses. Or rather, a temporary home, as the horses live ‘off site’ and merely visit each day, for two and a half hours, taking it in turns to serve the shrine in this way. We were here as one arrived so had a good chance to take photos before he settled into the stable for the day.

Different horses have served the shrine over the years but they must always be white. A notice outside the stable explained more about the current horses and their role:

‘Toshogu Shrine owns two sacred horses. One is ‘Kotuku’ meaning ‘White Heron’ in the New Zealand native Maori language. He is the third sacred horse donated by the New Zealand Government as a token of goodwill and friendship between the two countries. He is the only horse donated from overseas serving at a shrine in Japan at present.

The other horse is ‘Fukuisami’, meaning ‘good luck and bravery’ in Japanese. He is the second sacred horse donated by the Japanese Racing Association to the Toshogu Shrine.

Each of these sacred horses takes turns serving the Shrine in this sacred stable for only two and a half hours a day. They spend the rest of the time, attended by a dedicated stablemaster and master horseman, at a nearby modern stable which is attached to an outdoor practice ground.’

Toshogu Shrine: Omizuya

Beyond the Shinkyu we came to the Omizuya or Cistern / Water Purification Building (‘mizu’ means water). Here the faithful purify the body and mind by washing their hands and rinsing out their mouth before worshiping the enshrined deity. The basin was dedicated in 1618 by Nabeshima Katsushige, feudal lord of Kyushu-Saga. It has been maintained in its original form without alteration since its construction in 1636 except for a few small structural changes.

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Omizuya

Today, there is an Omizuya, or Chozuya as they are also known, in most of the shrines in Japan. But originally worshippers would simply wash their hands and mouths in a natural river or spring. The Omizuya here at Toshogu was the first to be built specifically as the place of purification for worshippers. The significant techniques introduced for the first time in its construction include the installation of an aqueduct from the water source near the Takino-o-jinja to its water basin. In addition, a siphon mechanism was implemented as part of the water-supply system, which was an innovative approach at that time in Japan. Today however the water is supplied through contemporary metal piping.

The basin is 1.2 metres wide, 2.6 metres deep, and 1 metre high. The ornate roof is decorated with sculptures of flying dragons. The dragon has wings to control the water. The roof is shaped like waves, echoing the water below. You can see from the richness of the ornamentation that it has fairly recently been restored. This was part of a 15 year project undertaken by a Mr. Yoshihara Hokusai, who rediscovered the ancient Kano school technique of Mitsuda-e, a paint mixing and application technique resistant to UV light and water, which had been lost in the Meiji era. Unfortunately Mr. Hokusai died in 1988 having failed to teach his 35-step process using 7 colours to any apprentice, though he did teach craftsmen how to apply the paint.

Toshogu Shrine: Kyozo

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Kyozo

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Kyozo details

One more building stands in this vicinity. The Kyozo or Rinzo is a revolving library holding 7,000 sutra or sacred texts. Revolving sutra libraries were invented in China and were later brought to Japan. They offer several advantages. Firstly, they allow priests and monks to select the required more quickly. Secondly, the act of walking around or turning something is important in Buddhism because the wheel is the international sign of that faith. And finally, it was believed that simply by rotating the shelves around the central pillar the faithful would benefit from the learning contained in the texts of the sutras without actually reading them. Unfortunately we found that it isn’t possible to go inside this kyozo to see the mechanism or the sutras.

Toshogu Shrine: Yomeimon

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Crowds at Toshogu, with the Karadō-torii in the background

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The shrouded Yomeimon

After exploring the various buildings that lie just beyond the Omotemon, among increasing crowds (the day-trippers from Tokyo had clearly started to arrive), we proceeded through the Karadō-torii, the first bronze torii in Japan, to what many consider to be Toshogu’s greatest glory, Yomeimon.

The flamboyantly carved, riotously coloured Yomeimon is also known as Higurashino-mon, ‘the gate, where people spend all day long to look’, or the ‘Gate of the Setting Sun’ because one could gaze upon it all day and never tire. Unfortunately for us, when we visited (October 2013) there was very little to look at, as Yomeimon was under restoration, and under wraps. Its more than 500 carvings of animals (real and mythical), people (children playing, sages and wise men), flowers and leaves were all hidden from our view, and we certainly had no reason to spend all day looking at it, even if we had had the time to do so!

This also of course meant I could take no photos of the carvings, but a quick image search online will show you, as it has me, what we missed out on.

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The Kairo

Either side of Yomeimon is the Kairo or corridor, which extends to the right and left. It is decorated with flower and bird carvings that are considered among the best in Japan. All the carvings are single-panel openwork painted in vivid colours.

Toshogu Shrine: Shinyosha

Once I had seen my fill of the Kairo we passed quickly through shrouded Yomeimon to reach the upper level of the complex and one of my favourite buildings here, the Shinyosha. I liked it, I think, because of its more intimate scale and its exquisite animal carvings.

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Shinyosha details

Known in English as the Portable Shrine House, and designated an Important Cultural Property, the Shinyosha houses the three portable shrines used in the Sacred Processions which take place in the spring and autumn (May 18th and October 17th).

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Portable shrine

These shrines are also sometimes called sacred sedan chairs, because it is believed the deified spirits ride in them. The spirit of Ieyasu rides in the central shrine. It carries the crest of the Tokugawa family which you see all over Toshogu (either side at the top). This is known as Mitsuba-aoi (three hollyhocks in a circle). The right hand shrine is for the spirit of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, while the left hand one is for Yoritomo Minamotono.

Each shrine weighs 800 kilograms and is carried in the procession by 55 people. In the past they weighed much more – 1120 kilos – but this became too much for people to carry. The old shrines are displayed in the Treasure House of Toshogu Shrine which we didn’t manage to fit into our itinerary (it lies just outside the complex and a small additional fee is payable if you’d like to visit).

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Roof of Shinyosha with outer wall beyond

Toshogu Shrine: Karamon

There was one more gate for us to pass through before reaching the inner shrine, and thankfully this one, the Karamon or Chinese Gate, was fully visible.

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Karamon

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Above the gate

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Pillar detail

In contrast to the flamboyant colours of most of Toshogu’s carvings, this is predominately, and exquisitely, finished in white and gold. On either side are pillars painted with dragons and above the gate are 27 figures – characters from the Chinese legend ‘The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove’. The man in the centre, sitting on the chair, is the Emperor Shun. The crane logo once used by Japan Airlines was derived from one of the carvings on this gate. It also features over 400 carvings of small flowers.

Above the portal are two bronze figures known as tsutsuga, a mystical animal that protects all buildings. The tsutsuga is a ferocious creature, much stronger than a tiger. His legs are fastened with gold rings to prevent him escaping and thus withdrawing his protection from the shrine.

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Tsutsuga, Karamon

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Karamon detail

The Karamon may be small compared with Toshogu’s other gates (just three metres wide and two metres deep) but it is perhaps the most important, leading as it does to the inner shrine. During the Edo period, only feudal lords and aristocrats were admitted through it to worship at the shrine, and even today, only guests of the nation can enter during important festivals. The rest of us must go in by an entrance on the right-hand side of it to visit the Honsha or inner shrine.

Toshogu Shrine: Honsha

The main shrine or Honsha is not one but a connected series of buildings. It is permitted to enter these, but not through the Karamon. Instead there is an area on the right where you remove your shoes and place them in a cubby hole before proceeding to follow the line of worshippers and visitors down five copper steps and into a small chamber, the Ishinoma or Stone Passageway. This connects the Honden (main hall of the shrine) with the Haiden (place of prayer). Today its floor is covered with tatami but in the past it was stone, hence the name. This space is important because it links the world of the gods (in the Honden) and the human world (the Haiden).

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Entrance to the Honsha

From here you are directed by the attendant nuns or monks up a further five copper steps to enter the main hall or Honden. This is considered the most sacred place in Toshogu. It consists of three rooms: the Gejin (outer room), the Naijin (inner room) and the Nainaijin (inner room of the Naijin, therefore the innermost room). The divine spirit of Ieyasu is enshrined in the Nainaijin in the golden shrine Gokuden. This building is said to be a perfect realisation of the Gongen-zukuri style of Japanese religious architecture. (Gongen=incarnation, Zukuri=construction). Built in 1636, it has not undergone any alteration apart from the replacement of the roofing materials in 1654 and of the stone foundations of the Honden in 1690. Of course, photography is not allowed inside so you must be content, as I was, with a few shots taken from outside.

Toshogu Shrine: Nemuri-Neko

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The sleeping cat

To the east of the Honsha is the Kuguri-mon, the entrance to the inner shrine or Okumiya. And above this entrance is the second of Toshogu’s famous little carvings, although unlike the Three Wise Monkeys this one, the sleeping cat or Nemuri Neko, is perhaps mostly famous only in Japan rather than worldwide. Attributed to Hidari Jingorou, this carving of a cat dozing while surrounded by peonies is supposed to be a personification of peace – peace for Ieyasu and for the nation. On the far side of the panel are carved a couple of sparrows (sorry, I forgot to get a photo of these) and the fact that they play so happily and so close to the sleeping cat is seen as a sign that Japan is at peace. Also, the cat is bathed in sunlight which is said to be a depiction of Nikko (nikko means sunlight in Japanese).

Next we walked under the sleeping cat, being careful not to disturb him, to visit the inner shrine.

Toshogu Shrine: Ieyasu's tomb

At the Kuguri-mon (the gate with the sleeping cat) our tickets were checked again, but there is no additional charge to visit Ieyasu's tomb – unless you count the penance of climbing the 200 stone steps to be a charge! These ascend through the forest (so there would be plenty of shade on a hot day, I imagine) to a small complex of structures that surround the actual burial place of the Shogun. At its heart is the small pagoda-like tomb of Ieyasu Tokugawa. You pass through a torii gate guarded by two bronze Komainu (dog and lion-like creatures) and circle the tomb.

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Torii guarding Ieyasu's tomb

At one side is a sacred cedar tree, Kano Sugi, which has stood here protecting the shrine area for many years. It is said that if you pray facing a hole in its trunk your prayers will be answered, and a small stall sells Kano Suze, small bell-like charms in the shape of a cedar seed.

The tomb itself, Okusha-houtou, is of bronze – a replacement for an earlier stone one that was damaged by earthquake in 1683 (and which itself replaced the original wooden structure). Ieyasu’s coffin is within, but while he is buried here his deified spirit resides in the inner sanctuary of the main shrine below, in the golden shrine Gokuden in the Nainaijin or innermost room of the Honden.

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Ieyasu's tomb

In front of the tomb are a vase, incense burner and candlestick in shape of a crane, gifts of Korea. The atmosphere is more restrained and more tranquil than in the main shrine far below. Here among the trees you understand that Ieyasu Tokugawa’s wish for a ‘small shrine’ has indeed been fulfilled, and his grandson’s exuberant designs have not intruded totally on his longed-for peace.

Descending from here we stopped for a rest and a hot coffee from a vending machine in a small shelter (one of the few places on the site where eating and drinking are permitted) before taking a few final photos and then bidding farewell to Toshogu.

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Young tourists at Toshogu

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Novice nun

Many of the day trippers only have time to visit Toshogu, which is so huge that it can easily occupy the best part of their limited time in Nikko, but starting early meant that we left here by late morning, with plenty of time to take in some more of Nikko’s sights.

But as this entry is already very long I will save what we did during the rest of this busy day for my next entry ...

Posted by ToonSarah 05:57 Archived in Japan Tagged bridges shrines nikko architecture japan temple tomb toshogu Comments (8)

More wonders of Nikko

Japan day sixteen continued


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Futarasan

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Torii gate at entrance to Futurasan Shrine

Futarasan is only five minutes’ or so walk from Toshogu but it seemed to us that we were in a different world. The crowds had gone, leaving just a handful of tourists (some Western, some Japanese) and some local families. We strolled around in a much more leisurely way than had been possible at Toshogu, taking photos and soaking up the tranquil atmosphere and the rich colours of the leaves just starting to take on their autumn hues.

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Futarasan

Several local families with small children, some of them dressed up in traditional costume, were clearly here for a celebration. The festivities were focussed on a building to the right of the shrine itself and one mother there was more than happy for me to photograph her children, even encouraging them to pose for me.

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Children's festival at Futarasan

Futarasan Shrine was founded in 782 by Shodo Shonin, the Buddhist monk who introduced Buddhism to Nikko and who also founded the nearby Rinnoji Temple. It is dedicated to the deities of Nikko's three most sacred mountains: Mount Nantai, Mount Nyoho and Mount Taro (Futarasan being another name the first and most prominent of these.

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Torii gate at Futarasan

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Futarasan

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Nun at Futarasan

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Carving detail, Futarasan

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Torii gate detail, Futurasan

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Entrance to paid area

You can wander round the grounds here for free, though there was a small charge (300¥ in October 2013) to enter an area featuring a small forested garden with a couple more halls including the Shinyosha (portable shrines store) and Daikokuden where some treasures, including some beautifully worked swords, were on display.

There is also a sacred fountain, a modern Buddha statue and some old sacred trees. We found this the most peaceful part as few people other than us seemed minded to pay that small fee.

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Portable shrine

Modern Buddha statue

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Stone lanterns at Futarasan

When we left the shrine we encountered another local family group just outside and again there was no problem with us taking some photos. We then followed the rickshaw as the children were taken for a ride along the path between here and Toshogu, escorted by their proud parents and stopping at intervals for more photos, both by their own photographer and a few other tourists who had by now joined us. A woman nearby during one of these sessions, who I think may have been a family member, was kind enough to explain to me what was going on.

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Children's festival at Futarasan

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With the proud parents

She told me that it is the custom in Japan for children to be taken to a shrine to be blessed on reaching three, five and seven years of age. In the past, the lack of medical expertise and knowledge meant that to get through infancy was something to be celebrated, and each milestone on the journey was marked in this way. Today when childhood mortality is thankfully much less of an issue, the custom of thanking the spirits for the good health of a child remains.

It seems that this family must have one child at each of these ages: a boy of five and girls of three and seven. The seven year old was very solemn, like a little lady – clearly after two previous such celebrations she must have considered herself an old hand and responsible for keeping her younger siblings up to the mark!

Lunch time

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Kishino

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My soup at Kishino

At the far end of this path the rickshaw turned back to Futarasan and we turned our attention to lunch. After a long morning exploring Toshogu and Futarasan we were ready for something to eat, and in the grey and chilly weather, preferably something warming. I’d spotted a sign near the entrance to Toshogu that had looked promising so we headed over there to explore.

Kishino is part gift shop, part restaurant. You enter the latter through the former, so it was a good job they had those signs outside or we would never have realised we could eat here! It’s not very big and we were lucky to get one of only two free tables. We were promptly brought glasses of water and an English language menu which included various noodle dishes and a few other options. From this Chris chose the curry rice while I opted for soba noodles with yuba – the local delicacy made from sheets of bean curd skimmed from the surface when making tofu. The yuba in my photo is the coiled omelette-looking stuff floating on the top of the soup.

The dishes were nothing special but they were filling and warming on a chilly day. The service was brisk, understandably since they want to turn tables in such a popular location, but friendly, and we were able to use the spotless toilets here too.

Fortified, we were ready to carry on to our final sight in this part of town, Rinnoji.

Rinnoji Temple

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Protective structure at Rinnoji Temple

It is fair to say that we did not see Rinnoji at its best. The main sanctuary building, Sanbutsudoh (Three Buddha Hall), was undergoing major reconstruction at the time of our visit (October 2013) and was completely shrouded in this industrial-looking structure, within which it seems to have been almost completely dismantled. There was only an image of its frontage on the front of this to give us any idea of its usual appearance. But at least we were able to go into this structure (for a reduced fee, 400¥) and get just a glimpse of some of its treasures.

Rinnoji Temple was originally called Nikko-san, and was established by a Buddhist monk Shodo (whose statue stands at the entrance) in 766. It grew quickly, as many Buddhist monks flocked here in search of solitude among Nikko’s forests and mountains. By the 15th century there were over 500 buildings on this site; today there are just 15. Of these, Sanbutsudoh is the most significant by some distance. It has been moved several times in the past – at one time it stood where Toshogu is now located, then on the present-day site of Futarasan, and only under the Meiji regime, when it was decreed that Buddhist and Shinto places of worship should be separated (they had become very muddled over the years and were often co-located and intermingled), did it relocate to this spot. Or rather, Rinnoji relocated – it was some years before the temple, which was short of funds, could afford to rebuild Sanbutsudoh.

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Model Sanbutsu on display at Rinnoji Temple

In it are the three gold-leafed statues of Buddha: Amida, Kannnon with a thousand arms (Senju Kannon) and Kannon with a horse’s head (Bato Kannon). These were made in the early Edo period and are all 8 metres high. We were told when we paid for admission that we would only see one of these but that we would get much closer to it than is usually the case. Well, we certainly got close, just a metre or so from its feet, but as no photos were allowed in that part I can’t share it with you. The one we saw, Amida, is considered the foremost seated wooden image in Japan. I believe each of the three will be rotated in turn in this display area throughout the restoration period, which is due to last until March 2021.

We were allowed to take photos of the model Sanbutsu on display, and higher up this ten storey structure I got some photos of other elements of the temple that are being worked on by the restoration team, including (I have since realised) the one below which is, I think, one of the other Buddhas – Bato Kannon, or ‘Kannon with a horse’s head’ (so I probably should not have photographed it!).

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Bato Kannon(?) at Rinnoji Temple

As it was a Saturday, we didn’t see anyone actually at work on this immense task – an Australian lady we had spoken to outside had assured us that this was a fascinating process to view, as I’m sure it must be, so our timing was unfortunate in that respect. The relatively poor weather also meant that the views from the top were not as good as they must sometimes be, but it was still an excellent way to get a sense of Nikko’s lovely setting among the mountains, so well worth the climb.

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View of Nikko from the top of Rinnoji Temple

There are a number of other buildings dotted around the complex but we didn’t spend a lot of time investigating these (Chris in particular was suffering from temple overload and keen to leave time to see something of the town!) There is a small garden attached to the temple, Shoyoen, which was made in the Edo period and is in the style known as Chisen Kaiyu Shiki (‘short excursion around the pond’). The weather was not really conducive to garden visits so we skipped this too, but we did take a few photos in the pretty garden area immediately surrounding Sanbutsudoh.

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In the grounds of Rinnoji Temple

Exploring the town

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Statue near the Shinkyo Bridge

After leaving Rinnoji we headed into town. As we started to walk along the main street of the town we were in search of somewhere we could get a drink and a short rest after climbing the ten storeys of the Rinnoji restoration structure. We found what we wanted at Hippari Dako, a tiny place on the west side of the main street at the Shinkyo Bridge end. There are only three tables inside and a fairly limited menu (in English at least) but that wasn’t a problem for us as we only wanted a drink. I had an orange juice, Chris a coffee, and both were fine.

The most distinctive feature of Hippari Dako is its décor. The interior walls are covered with business cards, notes from happy customers, photos, banknotes etc etc. I added a VT card with my details to their collection! The owner was very happy for us to take photos of all of this, but declined Chris’s request to be in a photo herself.

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In Hippari Dako

Refreshed, we wandered on down the main street. We spent a very pleasant couple of hours exploring this and I was surprised at how much there was to occupy us here, from browsing in some shops and galleries to taking photos of quirky signs and interesting shop displays. I could have quite happily spent a fair bit of money in the shops but Chris kept me in check! I especially enjoyed the several antique shops we browsed in, and some delicate old china sake cups in particular.

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Shops in Nikko

Another thing you see a lot of here are items carved in wood, from small kitchen utensils to large pieces of furniture. The craftsmanship is excellent and it’s worth a look in these shops even if you don’t plan to buy, just to see the styles and the quality of the work.

About halfway along the street on its western side we found a lovely modern art gallery / café. You can browse the works on display on the ground floor and mezzanine above, and then have a coffee and maybe a piece of cake, also on the ground floor and surrounded by art – just the sort of place we enjoy. And the paintings on display when we visited included some lovely bird ones in a distinctive modern Japanese style that we rather liked.

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Above a door

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Shop keeper

After enjoying all the shops etc along the street we reached the bottom, by Tobu Nikko Station. We went inside to make some enquiries at the ticket office. Our return ticket to Tokyo tomorrow specified an afternoon train. But we saw that bad weather (worse than today’s occasional drizzle) was forecast and thought that it would be better to spend our last day in Japan in the city, where there were more options for indoor activities, than here in Nikko. So we enquired in the ticket office about taking a morning train instead, and were able to change our tickets and seat reservations without any problem – apparently you are allowed one free alteration, which is very helpful.

We then continued on to see Nikko’s other station.

JR Nikko Station

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JR Station, Nikko

Which station you arrive at in Nikko depends on the route you take from Tokyo. We had travelled yesterday from Shinjuku to Tobu Nikko Station, but other routes bring you to the other one, the JR Station. The reason that there are two stations so close together (about a five minute walk) is that the Tobu line is privately owned and has its own distinct station.

In most places it would be enough to know which station to use and you might then safely ignore the presence of the other. But if like me you are an admirer of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright you will perhaps want to check out this JR Station even if not using it for your journey, as he designed it. This fact came as something of a surprise to me as I hadn’t been aware that he had done any work in Japan. But what did I know?! It turns out that apart from America, Japan is the only other country where Frank Lloyd Wright ever worked and lived, and he did quite a lot here. But this station doesn’t seem typical of his work here, nor does it look like a style I would associate with him, being rather traditional in appearance (and even having, dare I say, having a little of the suburban twee aesthetic about it?!)

The station opened on 1 August 1890 and is in the typical somewhat romantic style of the Meiji period, though streamlined a little I think by the influence of Wright on that style. It apparently has an ornate and rather beautiful ‘guest room’ used by a former emperor, but this is only open at certain periods. We however contented ourselves with a quick look at the outside of the station, as it had been a long day and we were ready for a break.

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Nikkoji beer

Heading back up the main street we stopped for an early evening drink in the Little Wing café and were pleased to find that they served the local pilsner style beer, Nikkoji, as we'd been keen to try it. We found it pleasant enough though not really any different to other Japanese lagers, all of which are very palatable but unremarkable. It was maybe a little less fizzy than some of the others however, so depending on how you like your lager (personally I like a bit of a head) you may want to give this a try. The ones we tried were bottled and I’ve read that the draught is better so that’s something to look out for. You should also look out for the same brewery’s Premium Ale as I’ve read good reviews of that (it wasn’t available in the Little Wing), and I gather that they also sometimes have seasonal brews, such as dark, amber and special ales.

We had a very pleasant half hour or so here, enjoying the beer and a chat with a local guy at the next table, who had lived and worked for some years in California and thus spoke very good English. He was killing time over a coffee while waiting to pick his son up from football practice and was glad of the chance to refresh his English skills in a conversation with us.

But after a while we decided to move on in search of dinner as I’d read that restaurants in Nikko close early, as they cater mainly to the day trippers I assume. This is very true, and we were lucky to find a meal!

Kanaya Hotel Restaurant

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In the Kanaya Hotel

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Carving detail, Kanaya Hotel

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Crab croquettes

The guidebook I was using said that this restaurant was open till 20.00, unlike many in town, so we headed there for an early (for us) dinner at about 18.30, only to be told on arrival that they were about to close. I asked the waitress if she knew of any other restaurant nearby that would still be open, explaining that we were hungry and wanted dinner. She immediately offered to let us eat there after all! But perhaps for this reason, the service was probably the speediest we have ever experienced, with the waitress positively scurrying to take our order and bring us our drinks and food.

We had a table to one side of the attractive old room, which is ornamented with colourful woodcarvings, although the old world atmosphere is somewhat marred by the harsh fluorescent lighting. The menus we were given were in English and offered a choice of set dinners, with the cuisine a blend of Japanese and Western. I had the crab croquettes in a tomato sauce with rice, Chris had the hamburger in ‘Japanese style’ (which proved to be with grated radish on top). The croquettes were quite tasty and Chris’s burger was OK too. The set meal price included a cup of soup (quite nice, with strips of yuba) and a small salad, and we also had a large beer each. But we didn’t try our waitress’s good nature or patience by attempting to order dessert, so after paying the bill we headed back to the Turtle Inn Annexe, as Nikko had clearly shut down for the night (at about 19.30).

There we made sure of another session in the lovely onsen, listening to the river flow past outside – a great way to relax after a very busy day of sightseeing in Nikko.

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Shinkyo Bridge at night

Posted by ToonSarah 06:06 Archived in Japan Tagged people children food nikko architecture beer japan culture temple shopping restaurants shrine customs Comments (6)

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