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There’s more to Hakone than Mount Fuji

Japan day four


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General view from the Open Air Museum, Hakone

The best known landmark in Japan, and indeed one of its most iconic sights, is Mount Fuji. There is however no guarantee that you will see it, as the weather is unpredictable and the mountain often shrouded in cloud. We however were to be among the select band of lucky ones. But even had we not seen Fuji at all, our couple of days here would have been among the most pleasant of the whole trip, made more so by the friendly welcome we received at the Fuji-Hakone Guesthouse. We spent two nights in this small family-run guest house in Sengokuhara, and travelled the region by bus, funicular, cable car and even pirate ship!

Although I had enjoyed our time in Tokyo, it was in Hakone that I first started to really feel that I was getting closer to Japan.

Getting to Hakone

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Odawara Castle seen from the bus station

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Hakone Free Pass

To get to Hakone from our hotel in Asakusa we first took the subway (Ginza line) to Ueno, then the JR train to Tokyo station. Here we boarded a bullet train to Odawara (about 30 minutes). From here we took the bus, using our Hakone Free Pass.

This is a great buy if you plan to spend any time at all travelling around the Hakone area. You can buy a pass for two or three days, and use it for free travel on all the varied forms of local transport – local trains, buses, the funicular railway, all the cable cars and even on the pirate ships on Lake Ashi. As a bonus, you also get discounts at some of the attractions.

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Local bus

The ride to Sengokuhara took about 50 minutes, with lots of stops, climbing gradually. We followed a pretty river for part of the time, and later the road wound through woodland with glimpses of the surrounding mountains. The bus stopped only a couple of minutes’ walk from our guest house, Fuji-Hakone in Sengokuhara, so it was a very convenient way to travel here.

These though are local buses and not geared up for bulky luggage. We had taken Andrew’s advice to make use of the excellent luggage forwarding service offered by Japan Rail, so most of our stuff went directly from Tokyo to Osaka while we brought just enough for two nights on our journey to Hakone. I definitely advise doing the same as even our small overnight bags were an effort to squeeze in.

We stayed for two nights at the Fuji-Hakone Guesthouse, a friendly family-run ryokan in Sengokuhara. Rooms are Japanese style, with futons and tatami mats. Chris and I had a ground floor room, Fuji (all rooms are named after places in Japan). It opened directly from the pleasant communal sitting area. Walls are thin here, so even in your room you will have only a certain amount of privacy. I hadn't been sure how I would find sleeping on a futon but it was fine – comfortable and very cosy. There are no en suite facilities but you can book either the indoor or outdoor onsen for private use (30 mins at a time per room) – we used the outdoor one on both evenings and felt wonderfully relaxed each time after our soak under the stars.

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Corner of our room at the guesthouse

But for now we simply checked in, left our bags in our room, and hurried out again with Andrew and most of the rest of the group to return to the nearby bus stop and catch another bus to the Open Air Museum.

Hakone Open Air Museum

This was one of my highlights of our time in Hakone (although looking back I can’t think of much that we did here that wouldn’t fall into that category!) Not only does it have a fantastic collection of modern sculptures, including works by Henry Moore, Picasso, Antony Gormley, Rodin, Miro, Giocometti and others, it displays them in the most stunning setting. On arriving here we first had lunch in the Chinese restaurant near the entrance, which has fantastic views of the museum and the mountains beyond (the photo at the top of this page was taken from there), and then set off to explore the collection.

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Man and Pegasus, Carl Milles

All the sculptures are beautifully displayed around the grounds, each one positioned in a spot carefully chosen to show it off to best advantage. As you wander the paths you find a new gem around each corner, and most you will see from several angles and all with these fantastic scenic backdrops. We strolled around happily, taking lots of photos, for a couple of hours.

Among my favourite works were:

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Sfera con Stera by the Italian Arnaldo Pomodoro

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Reclining Figure: Arch Leg, Henry Moore

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A series of four Grande Statues (la Force, la Victoire, la Libertė and la Eloquence) by French sculptor Bourdelle, which looked especially good in this setting - the photos above are of la Libertė and la Eloquence

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The Hand of God by Carl Milles, and his Man and Pegasus above

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Grande Racconot (detail) by Giuliano Vangi

I also liked a kinetic sculpture by a Japanese artist, Takamichi Ito, called Sixteen Turning Sticks, which I videoed for a while.

One highlight was the Symphonic Sculpture, where we climbed the spiral steps for some more wonderful views, as well as admiring its wonderful stained glass interior.

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Symphonic Sculpture

Another was the hot water spring foot-bath at the far end of the gardens, where we could slip off our shoes and sit relaxing with our feet in the warm water. While this is included in the admission fee, I did pay 100¥ to get a small towel to dry off my feet afterwards it made a great little souvenir of our visit.

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The foot spa seen from the Symphonic Sculpture

We didn’t bother to go inside the several indoor galleries, which have among other things an extensive collection of works by Picasso, as it seemed a shame not to spend all our time outside where we could enjoy the wonderful scenery as a backdrop to the art. But we did pop into the café near the hot spring for ice creams – my first taste of green tea ice cream (and last, as it turned out, as it proved not really to my taste).

After a really lovely afternoon here we caught the bus back to the guest-house to freshen up before dinner.

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At the entrance to Daichi

On Andrew's recommendation we all headed to Daichi for our first dinner in the Hakone region. This is a family-run restaurant and that’s just what it feels like. The interior isn’t fancy (bare wood tables and seating, minimal decor) but it’s cosy and the service is friendly.

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Teriyaki chicken set

With 14 in our group we were asked to pre-order but that wasn't a problem as the guest-house had menus (in English, with photos) for us to consult. We all chose from the various set dinners. I had the ginger pork (the meat is thinly sliced and more like bacon) and Chris the teriyaki chicken. All our set dinners came with a bowl of chicken soup, a vegetable dish (egg-plant / aubergine), rice, pickles and salad. The portions were very generous and although the food was good I couldn't eat all of mine. Washed down with cold sake it made for an excellent if simple meal, and great value.

It was still quite early when we got off the bus back at the guest-house, and several off us decided to check out the shop opposite, which was still open – Lawson’s. This proved to be to be the ideal spot to pick up dessert and/or a drink to enjoy while relaxing in the lounge after dinner. They had some things we recognised from home (a good range of Hagen Dazs ice creams, for instance), and many that we did not. We bought some plum wine (very nice), an odd-looking half-hollow chocolate cake (less so) and a can of hot coffee from an impressive range on display.

There isn’t much to do in Sengokuhara after dark, but with snacks and drinks from Lawson’s and the cosy lounge at the Fuji-Hakone Guesthouse in which to enjoy them, no wonder the watchword for our group soon became ‘We love Lawson's!’

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Hot coffee for sale in Lawson's

Later, Chris and I had our pre-booked 30 minute slot in the outdoor onsen, and found it wonderfully relaxing to soak under the stars. A lovely end to a super day.

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In the onsen!!

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And in the cosy lounge

Tips

Posted by ToonSarah 12:08 Archived in Japan Tagged art restaurant japan museum customs hakone Comments (4)

A day trip to Hiroshima

Japan day seven


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Paper cranes, Peace Memorial Park, Hiroshima

Osaka is just two hours from Hiroshima by bullet train, making this a practical option for a day trip – especially if you have a JR Pass as we did and can travel ‘for free’. So on our second day staying in Osaka that is what we opted to do, and had an excellent day out.

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In the Peace Memorial Museum

When, at 8.15 am on August 6th 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated over Hiroshima, the city became in an instant one of the most famous in the world; but what city would ever have wanted that sort of fame?

The bomb killed an estimated 80,000 people instantly. It flattened an area of five square miles (13 square kilometres) and destroyed about 69% of the city's buildings were completely destroyed, with another 7% severely damaged. Three days later the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, and five days after that, Japan surrendered.

But the effects of the bomb were much longer term, with estimates suggesting that the final death toll was about 140,000, (out of a population of about 350,000), including those who died later from radiation. Many also suffered long-term sickness and disability as a result of the bomb’s radiation effects. Hiroshima would never be the same again.

Today Hiroshima, while never for a moment forgetting its past, has become a lively modern city which has turned its notoriety to advantage in order to campaign for a non-nuclear world; and also, it has to be said, to attract visitors who come to learn about that past and, the city hopes, leave sharing some of its values and ambitions for peace. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the city has succeeded in reinventing itself as a modern city that pays tribute to its past in the best possible way – using those terrible events as a platform from which to campaign for peace. Its memorial park and museum are not ‘Bomb Memorials’ but ‘Peace Memorials’ and this ethos pervades everything you see will here and the people, especially children, whom you will meet.

Travelling to Hiroshima

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On the bus

There are some that consider a visit to Hiroshima to be a bit macabre, but we didn’t feel we could be so near and not see the city for ourselves. We travelled to Hiroshima by bullet train, along with some of the others in our group (most though had opted to go with Andrew to visit Nara instead). There are several trains an hour from Shin-Osaka station, and the journey takes about 90 minutes. The trip was covered by our JR passes. As this was an independent day out, rather than part of our tour, we had no pre-booked seat reservations. We could have queued for some at the station before boarding but decided to take a chance on finding seats in one of the unreserved seating carriages. This was a good call, as lots of people got off in Osaka and it was easy to find seats together.

To get to the Peace Memorial Park from Hiroshima station we took the trolley bus. The fare was a flat 150¥ which you pay on leaving the bus. We weren’t totally sure about this system when we first boarded but a friendly local man showed us what to do, using mime and sign language, and also kindly let me take this photo of him.

We got off the bus by the Atomic Dome. From here you can walk across the bridge on to the island that was once a built-up area but is now totally devoted to the memory of what happened in August 1945 and to trying to ensure that it never happens again.

Genbaku Dōmu: the Atomic Bomb Dome

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Genbaku Dōmu

The first sight we saw on leaving the bus was the stark silhouette of the Genbaku Dōmu or Atomic Bomb Dome. The intended target point of the atomic bomb dropped on Monday 6th August 1945, at 8.15 am was the nearby Aioi Bridge but it missed this slightly and exploded almost directly above this building, which was at the time an exhibition hall known as the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. Because the blast was felt from immediately above, hitting the structure vertically, a surprising amount remained intact even though, of course, everyone inside was killed instantly.

For some years after the war the skeleton of the building remained as it was. There were some who felt it should be pulled down and the site redeveloped, while others argued for its restoration and yet others for its preservation as a ruin, to stand as a memorial to what had happened and to those who had lost their lives. The latter group won the day, and in 1966 the city council declared that it intended to preserve the building, undertaking only the minimal work necessary to ensuring its stability. In December 1996 the Atomic Bomb Dome was registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Its listing was based on its survival from a destructive force, the first use of nuclear weapons on human population, and importantly its representation as a symbol of peace.

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Images of destruction, Genbaku Dōmu

This is a stark introduction to the Peace Memorial Park which lies beyond it, and seems to have become a focus for individual local people who are keeping the memory of what happened on that day alive to express their feelings and, in some cases, share personal experiences with visitors. We saw several displays near here which had been set up by local people – some artefacts from the devastation caused by the bomb such as roof tiles, posters campaigning for peace and some old photos of Hiroshima at the time, both before and after the bomb.

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Campaigning for peace near the Atomic Bomb Dome

One of the displays held a rack of paper flyers promoting a blog by the son of parents who survived the attack (his mother being pregnant with him at the time), in which his mother describes the events of that day and the subsequent death of her father, his grandfather. I followed this up after our visit and found a simply told, powerful first-person testimony: My Father's sixth of August, 1945 in Hiroshima. In this he transcribes his mother’s account of the day the bomb fell:

‘That day, fifty-eight years ago, is something I still can't forget. It is also something I certainly don't want to remember or talk about. Even if I do talk about it, no one can feel what it really means. I don't want to think about it. It makes my heart ache. However, if I don't want it to ever happen again, it seems wise that I should write it down somewhere.’

The blogger, Mito Kosei, used to work at the museum but at the time of our visit (October 2013) was working as a volunteer guide at the Peace Memorial Park showing English-speaking visitors around. He said in the blog that he prefers to work independently as it gives him more freedom to campaign against all forms of nuclear activity.

Mito was one of the hibakusha, which translates as ‘explosion-affected people’, as he was affected by the radiation in utero. Wikipedia explains:

‘The Atomic Bomb Survivors Relief Law defines hibakusha as people who fall into one of the following categories: within a few kilometres of the hypocenters of the bombs; within 2 km of the hypocenters within two weeks of the bombings; exposed to radiation from fallout; or not yet born but carried by pregnant women in any of these categories. As of March 31, 2013, 201,779 hibakusha were recognized by the Japanese government, most living in Japan. … Hibakusha are entitled to government support. They receive a certain amount of allowance per month. About 1%, certified as suffering from bomb-related diseases, receive a special medical allowance.’

Memorial Tower to the Mobilised Students

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Detail of a dove, Memorial Tower to the Mobilised Students

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Memorial Tower to
the Mobilised Students

Before entering the Peace Park, we visited this nearby monument, behind the Atomic Bomb Dome. The Second World War caused a major labour shortage in Japan, so the government brought in the Student Labour Service Act in August 1944 which required students in middle school and above to work in munitions factories etc. Later that year, in November, the edict was extended to cover the work of tearing down homes and other buildings in order to create fire-breaks to limit the spread of fire in the event of air raids. Many were working on these projects in Hiroshima when the atom bomb was dropped; of the more than 8,000 secondary school students mobilised at building demolition sites, approximately 6,300 died. Many students who were working at various factories around the city were also killed.

After the war, the government only permitted mobilised students killed in the atomic bombing or in air strikes to be enshrined in Yasukuni Shrine if their names and date of death were known. In response to this, bereaved families began a campaign to create a list of all the dead and donated funds to build this tower in their memory.

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Paper cranes at the Memorial Tower to the Mobilised Students

The tower was dedicated in July 1967. Its design incorporates eight doves and a statue of the goddess of peace, arranged on and around the five storeys, which widen towards the top. At the base are plaques with scenes of: 1) working to increase food production; 2) female students sewing; 3) factory work; and 4) Hiroshima’s Lantern Floating Memorial. Behind the monument is a list of 352 schools attended by mobilised students throughout Japan who died during the war, from air raids as well as the atomic bombings. An epitaph reads:

‘Mobilised students working as volunteer labourers for increased production efforts number well over 3 million throughout Japan. Of those students who sacrificed their youth and opportunity for education, more than 10,000 fell in the ravages of war, approximately 6,000 of which were killed in the A-bomb. These mobilized students had high hopes and goals and dreamed of taking flight into their futures, but instead died for their country. This monument was constructed by friends and family members to console the spirits of the deceased students.’

Peace Memorial Park

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Peace Memorial Park seen from the Peace Memorial Museum

From the Memorial Tower we crossed the bridge to the Peace Memorial Park itself. This promontory between two rivers in the centre of Hiroshima was once the city’s busiest downtown commercial and residential district, known as Nakajima. It had been a thriving commercial area since the Edo period, with boats coming up the river to unload goods here. In the Meiji era (1868-1912), it was the political, administrative, and business heart of Hiroshima, home to the City Hall, the Prefectural Office and various commercial facilities. It was also heavily populated, with an estimated 6,500 people living in its seven cho (neighbourhood units) at the time of the atomic bombing.

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Models of Nakajima in the museum, before and after the bomb fell

Following the war, the city decided that rather than reconstruct Nakajima as it had been, the entire district would be developed as a park that would not only serve as a memorial to all who had lost their lives but also as a focal point for the city’s new commitment to advocate for world peace and an end to nuclear weapons.

The park covers approximately 122,100 square metres. There are a large number of monuments and memorials dotted around it. Some are dedicated to individuals, some to particular groups of people (e.g. teachers and students, or those working in specific industries such as coal, civil engineering and agriculture). Others are more general, dedicated to peace or to all who died in the war.

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In the Peace Memorial Park

Almost as soon as we arrived in the park we were greeted by a group of three school girls who approached us and asked, in hesitant English, if they might ask us a few questions. We naturally agreed and, armed with a clip-board and a work-book with a set of these questions, the girls proceeded to ‘interview’ us. They were to be the first of many! Our progress through the park was regularly interrupted as group after group spotted us, hurtled towards us, paused, maybe giggled or nudged each other, and then began: ‘Excuse me, may we ask you some questions?’, spoken in chorus and with mixed levels of English, from the reasonable to the almost non-existent. On one occasion there were even two such groups fighting over us!

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Chris and Phil being 'interviewed'

After each interview we might be asked to write something in their work-books – our names, where we lived, and in one, our message for peace. They posed for photos for us, and asked us to pose with them. And often there were gifts – a paper crane, a hand-made bookmark, a photo of their school. I think we must have given about ten of these ‘interviews’, but I have to confess that in the end we did tire of them a little and learned to take a circuitous route around the classes we saw ahead of us. Not that the experience of meeting these kids wasn’t a special one – it was – but we had lots to see in the park and a train back to Osaka to catch at the end of the afternoon. But we left with their halting English voices and shy smiles as lasting memories of the positive side of Hiroshima and its efforts for world peace.

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Young interviewers

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Some of the schoolgirls we met

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Posing for our photos

But in talking about our departure I am running ahead of myself, as there was so much to see in the park and we spent the rest of our day here without even seeing all of it.

The first monument we came to was the Peace Bell. This was added to the park in September 1964 by the A-bomb Survivor Hiroshima Hope Fruition Society with the declaration:

‘This temple bell/temple hall is standing at the dearest wish of Hiroshima aiming at the creation of a world of a true peaceful coexistence without any nuclear weapons or wars, and was built as a symbol for this spiritual and cultural movement. We wish that the sound of the bell resound in each corner of the world and reach the hearts of each and every human being.’

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The Peace Bell

The bell was designed by Masahiko Katori. On its surface is an embossed world map without national boundaries and the ‘sweet spot’ where the log hits the bell depicts the atomic energy symbol, expressing hope for the abolition of atomic and hydrogen bombs. Visitors are encouraged to ring the bell for world peace and you can hear the mellow deep toll ringing out repeatedly as you stroll through the park. In 1966 the sound of the bell was selected for the government Environment Agency's ‘One Hundred Sounds the Japanese People Wish to Preserve’.

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Chris ringing the Peace Bell

Our next stop was at the nearby Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound. After the bombing the bodies of some victims were claimed by relatives, but very many were unidentifiable and thus unclaimed, while others had no relatives left alive. This area, like much of Nakajima, was strewn with dead bodies after the bombing. Innumerable corpses, including those pulled out of the river, were brought here and cremated on a temporary altar at a temple on this site. There were also many who were effectively cremated by the bomb itself.

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The Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound

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Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound

In 1946 a temporary memorial mound, vault and chapel were built here to house their ashes, funded by private donations. In 1955 Hiroshima City took over the site and rebuilt the dilapidated vault. Unclaimed ashes that had been kept in various other places were also brought to this new vault. The vault lies under the mound and contains the ashes of roughly 70,000 victims. Those that were cremated as individuals have their own white porcelain urn and, if their name is known, it is inscribed on the outside. Each year the local newspapers publish the list of these names, and each year several are claimed and transferred to family graves elsewhere in the country or even abroad. As of 2010, the latest figures I could find, just over 800 remain here of the original named 2,432 placed here in 1955.

But the vast majority of those whose ashes lie here don’t even have the dignity of these urns. Behind curtains that hang in the vault are pine crates marked with the names of sites where human dust and bits of bone were found—a factory or a school or an apartment block. Beyond that, the ashes are anonymous. Thousands may still grieve for these victims but there is no way that they can ever be separated or identified. Under this mound therefore, in a handful of wooden boxes, are all that remains of a quarter of the population of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. A sobering thought as we stood before it.

But some of the memorials here carry a message is of hope rather than of grief. The Children's Peace Monument is one such. This is probably the most striking of the memorials in the park and, from what we observed, the focal point for the many school groups that visit. I made a video of one such group as they sang a song in front of the monument, having previously laid their paper cranes at its foot.

The monument, which was erected in 1958, is dedicated to the memory of Sadako Sasaki, a two year old girl living in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped in August 1945, about a mile from ground zero. She survived the blast, despite being flung out of a window, but in 1954 developed leukaemia and died the following year. Shocked by her death, her classmates put out a national call to ‘build a monument to mourn all the children who died from the atomic bombing.’ With the support of students in more than 3,100 schools around Japan and in nine other countries, the Society raised enough to build this monument to Sadako and to all the other children. The pedestal is topped with a statue of Sadako holding a golden crane, and on each side are suspended the figures of a boy and a girl symbolising a bright future and hope. At its foot is a black marble slab on which is inscribed in Japanese: ‘This is our cry. This is our prayer. Building peace in the world.’

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The Children's Peace Monument

Thousands of paper cranes are offered here every day by the visiting children and others, and are displayed in glass cases around the monument. These paper cranes have become a symbol of Hiroshima’s efforts for peace and you will see them all over the park. The reason for this can be traced back to Sadako Sasaki, the young victim whose memory inspired the Children’s Peace Memorial. When Sadako developed leukaemia in 1954 she was given, at the most, a year to live. While in hospital she started to fold the traditional origami paper cranes so beloved of the Japanese. Her aim was to make a thousand, as an ancient Japanese story promises that anyone who folds a thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish by the gods. One version of her story says that she didn’t manage to achieve this, having made ‘just’ 644 before her death in October of that year. Her school friends completed the task on her behalf and all thousand cranes were buried with her. However, an exhibit in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum asserts that by the end of August 1954, she had achieved her goal and continued to fold more cranes.

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Cases of paper cranes at the Children's Peace Monument

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Children waiting their turn to lay paper cranes

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Paper cranes recently laid

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Paper cranes in
St Paul's Chapel, NYC

Whatever the details of Sadako’s mission, she has inspired several generations of Japanese children. Her legacy is a custom that brings colour to the memorials here and provides a visible reminder of the thousands that pay tribute to the victims. It is also a custom that has travelled the globe. When we were in New York some years ago we visited St Paul’s Chapel, a small church that stood almost in the shadow of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, but miraculously escaped any damage in the attack of 9/11. In the months following, it served as a refuge for rescue workers, a triage centre for victims, and as a beacon of hope for the city. It is now a place of remembrance and among its exhibits are paper cranes sent by the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a sign of their empathy with their counterparts in New York – a wonderful manifestation of Hiroshima’s commitment to world peace.

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The Peace Flame

Beyond the Children’s Peace Monument we came to the focal point of the park, the Pond of Peace with at one end the Cenotaph and at the other the Peace Flame. Coming from the north as we were, we reached the Flame first. This was added to the park in August 1964 and has burned continuously since it was lit. The city has vowed that it will continue to burn until all nuclear bombs on the planet are destroyed and the threat of nuclear annihilation has been eliminated.

The pedestal that supports the flame is designed to suggest two hands pressed together at the wrist and bent back so that the palms point up to the sky. It expresses comfort for the victims unable to satisfy their thirst for water, and a prayer for nuclear abolition and enduring world peace. The flame is sometimes used to light others as a symbol of peace for various events, and in 1994 it lit the flame of the Asian Games which were held in Hiroshima City.

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The Peace Flame burns before the Atomic Dome building

The Pond of Peace links the Peace Flame and the Cenotaph. Originally this was a simple two metre wide moat around the latter, but it was later extended to 17 metres wide and 70 in length, when the Flame of Peace was added. Every August 6th this is the focal point for the park’s Peace Memorial Ceremony, designed to console the victims of the atomic bombs and to pray for the realisation of lasting world peace. This ceremony is attended by families of the deceased and people from all over the world. Coloured lanterns are floated on the pond and a declaration of peace is read out by Hiroshima’s mayor and displayed for the rest of the year in the museum.

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The Cenotaph

The Memorial Cenotaph at the southern end of the pond was one of the first monuments built on the open space set aside for the Peace Memorial Park on August 6, 1952 – the seventh anniversary of the bomb. It is designed to resemble an ancient arch-shaped house, to shelter the souls of the victims from the elements. Its Japanese inscription translates as ‘Let all the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil.’ But this is an approximation of the meaning, as in Japanese it is possible to omit the subject of the sentence. Thus the real reading is ‘Let all the souls here rest in peace, for … shall not repeat the evil.’

In this way they sought not to attribute blame either to the US and their allies who dropped the bomb nor to their own people for their part in the atrocities of war. An explanatory plaque in English makes the subtlety of the wording clearer:

‘The inscription on the front panel offers a prayer for the peaceful repose of the victims and a pledge on behalf of all humanity never to repeat the evil of war. It expresses the spirit of Hiroshima — enduring grief, transcending hatred, pursuing harmony and prosperity for all, and yearning for genuine, lasting world peace.’

The stone chest beneath the arch holds the register of all those known to have died from the bombing, of all nationalities. Names are added to the list whenever anyone related to a death makes an application. As of August 6, 2001, the registry comprised 77 volumes that list a total of 221,893 names.

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Crowds around the Cenotaph

At this point in our explorations we were more than ready for lunch. We had bumped into another of our group, Phil, and we all agreed to go for some lunch together. Following the advice of my Lonely Planet guidebook we explored the streets to the south of the park, beyond the museum. A floating restaurant in a boat on the river looked appealing but was a bit fancy for our needs. Then in a side street we came across a couple of places side by side and chose the first of these, Umaimono-Ibakaya.

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Umaimono-Ibakaya, outside and in

On entering we found that there was no English menu or plastic food display to guide us. Instead, near the door, was a machine with a lot of buttons and a lot of (to us incomprehensible) Japanese writing by each. Pictures of some dishes were displayed above but we weren’t sure how to relate these to the buttons or what to do about it! Luckily a friendly waiter hurried over to explain; his English was limited but he was keen to be helpful and between that and our collective sign language efforts we made progress. We understood that he was recommending two of the dishes as the most popular in the restaurant so all three of us chose one of these, a soup with noodles. We put our money in the machine, pressed the relevant button, and a slip of paper emerged which he then took as our order. He also showed how we should choose a drink from the small number available – Phil had a cola while Chris and I chose a Japanese orange-flavoured soft drink (somewhat like Fanta). We were then ushered to a table to wait for the food.

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Phil making his choice, helped by the waiter

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Ramen soup

When the bowls arrived we were all impressed with the quantity we got for our 750¥. What’s more, it tasted great! The soup itself was flavourful, and it was full of ramen noodles and vegetables such as pak choy and spring onion. A thick slice of pork floated on the top.

The restaurant had a cosy local atmosphere. If there were other tourists here, they were all Japanese. Being so close to the Peace Memorial Park that surprised us a little – this cheap and friendly place deserves to be discovered.

After lunch we decided to focus on the museum for the rest of our afternoon in Hiroshima, and Phil came along with us.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

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Children in the Peace Memorial Museum

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum was established on the tenth anniversary of the atomic bomb, in August 1955. It is dedicated to documenting the events surrounding the bombing and its effects, and to the promotion of world peace and an end to all nuclear weapons. It is the focus for the many visiting groups of school children and as such is always crowded (over a million people a year visit it), but I was glad we didn’t let the crowds put us off. You really shouldn’t come to Hiroshima and not see the powerful and moving exhibits it holds.

We entered through the newer East Wing and paid the very reasonable entrance fee of 50¥ for adults – kept deliberately affordable to that no one is excluded from visiting. This two storey building focuses on the history of the period before and after the dropping of the bomb. Models show the city before and immediately after the bombing, as do numerous old photos. One section I found especially interesting was the one devoted to the background to the decision to drop the bomb, including some fascinating documents detailing the process that went into choosing which city it would be dropped on. These accounts reveal the almost random manner in which Hiroshima met its fate.

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Position paper by scientists

Firstly, the Allies could have chosen to use the atom bomb against Germany, as they had developed the technology in time. But they rejected the idea, believing that should things go wrong and it not detonate, the Germans had sufficiently advanced skills to quickly learn from the bomb and develop their own to be turned against the Allies. So Japan it was.

Secondly, they could have opted not to use it at all. Several leading scientists of the day argued unsuccessfully that merely having (and demonstrating that they had) the capacity to build and use atomic weapons would be enough to ensure US post-war supremacy, and that indeed using the bomb would restrict that supremacy as it would speed up its acquisition by other powers. The position paper displayed in the museum states:

We believe that these considerations make the use of nuclear bombs for an early unannounced attack against Japan inadvisable. If the United States were to be the first to release this new means of indiscriminate destruction upon mankind, she would sacrifice public support throughout the world, precipitate the race for armaments, and prejudice the possibility of reaching an international agreement on the future control of such weapons.

Much more favorable conditions for the eventual achievement of such an agreement could be created if nuclear bombs were first revealed to the world by a demonstration in an appropriately selected uninhabited area.'

But the scientists were ignored.

Thirdly, there was an initial long-list of 17 Japanese cities, and then a short-list of four, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki (where the second bomb was dropped) were just two on this list. The criteria for the list included factors such as not having any prisoner of war facilities (the Allies didn’t want to bomb their own people), plus of course being of some strategic importance (a significant number of troops were stationed in Hiroshima and its port was one of the most important in the country). Also, to some extent the dropping of the bomb was an experiment by the Allies; they didn’t know exactly what impact it would have. So to ensure that the effects could be accurately observed, potential target cities had to have an urban area at least three miles in diameter (about 4.8 kilometres). Interestingly, at one point Kyoto was apparently considered as a possible target, but the wife of a senior US general reminded him of the wonderful honeymoon they had spent there and pleaded that its temples should be spared, so they were.

Finally, they had a shortlist of four: Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata, and Nagasaki. But in the end it all came down to weather. On the morning of 6th August 1945 the skies were clear over Hiroshima, so Hiroshima it was. The Peace Memorial Museum website describes what happened:

‘The bombardier was ordered to conduct a visual bombing, the most reliable method at the time. Before dawn on August 6, weather reconnaissance planes took off for Hiroshima, Kokura, and Nagasaki from Tinian, Mariana Islands. Three B29s took off later: the Enola Gay carrying the atomic bomb, a second bomber carrying scientific observation equipment, and a third with photographic equipment. Receiving the report that the sky over the primary target was clear, the Enola Gay headed straight for Hiroshima. The aiming point was the T-shaped Aioi Bridge in the central part of the city. At 8:15 a.m. on August 6, the atomic bomb was dropped and detonated approximately 600 meters over the Shima Hospital, located about 300 meters southeast of the Aioi Bridge.’

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Photo showing the devastation, with just a few buildings left half-standing

This wing also explores the impact on the fabric of the city, and ends with information about the nuclear age and the city’s efforts for international peace. From here we proceeded to the older West Wing across a raised walkway. I found this is altogether more personal and more harrowing. It concentrates on the damage caused by the bomb, both to the city and to the lives of its inhabitants. It is divided into sections such as Material Witness (clothing, watches, hair, and other personal effects worn by victims of the bomb – the most distressing section); Damage by the Heat Rays (looks at what happened to wood, stone, metal, glass, and flesh in the intense heat); Damage by the Blast (the destruction caused by the after-shocks); and Damage by the Radiation (the health effects suffered by survivors and also the challenges they faced in being accepted in society). Viewing all of this was not a comfortable experience but it brings home the individual impacts caused by the bomb in a way that the big numbers quoted in relation to the various monuments cannot do.

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Glass bottles fused by the heat

Photography is allowed throughout the museum but I felt uncomfortable taking pictures of the most personal exhibits so took most of my pictures in the more impersonal East Wing.

By the time we came out of the museum the afternoon was getting on and all three of us felt we had seen and absorbed enough, so we took the trolley bus back to the station, where we bumped into two more of our group, and travelled back to Osaka together.

An evening in Osaka

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Ganko

On the way back to Osaka Chris and I arranged to meet up again later with Phil for a drink, but meanwhile there was dinner to be found. So after freshening up back at the hotel we explored the arcades just behind it and chose a small restaurant, Ganko, on the strength of the availability of an English menu that was advertised outside, the attractive appearance and the presence of plenty of locals. These were all good signs, and we were not to be disappointed with our choice.

Seating is at the counter or Western-style tables and chairs – we chose the latter, in a nice booth from where we could still watch the sushi chefs working behind the counter and the kimono-clad waitresses. We both had the tempura salmon with tartare sauce - a good choice. It had lovely light tempura batter coating a good piece of salmon, and while the sauce was not like our tartare, having a milder flavour and with egg in it, it was tasty. We shared a Japanese radish salad which came with a nice dressing (with a hint of ginger) and fish flakes – again, good stuff! This was a relatively light meal so we had room for dessert and both chose a tempting-looking sundae from the picture menu - a scoop each of vanilla ice cream and berry sorbet, and frozen berries.

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Sushi chefs at work in Ganko

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Kimono-clad waitress

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Tempura salmon with tartare sauce

Apparently ‘ganko’ means stubborn - an odd name for a restaurant and one we could see no reason for. Certainly the service was anything but, and we enjoyed our meal here and the accompanying draft beer. The restaurant seems to be part of a small Osaka chain with three branches in the city – as well as the one we visited in Umeda there’s another on Dōtonbori and one in Kyobashi near the castle. There are also branches in Kyoto and Ginza I think.

Every city with any claim to a nightlife must these days have at least one Irish bar. We don’t make a habit of frequenting these, but we were tempted by what we read about the Blarney Stone in my Lonely Planet guide-book and decided to give it a go, so we had arranged to meet up here with Phil after dinner. And we had a fun time, helped perhaps by the fact that for several days previously we hadn’t had much chance for a night out.

This wasn’t the easiest place to find. It’s hidden in the maze of lanes behind the Umeda OS Hotel on Mido-Suji, on the one that runs parallel to the main road immediately behind the hotel. We spotted the sign outside a narrow and anonymous entryway and took the lift to the sixth floor. We were wondering what we would find at the top and were not entranced by the corridor that looked more like a cheap office building than anything else. But push open the door marked Blarney Stone and you are immediately transported – if not (definitely not!) to Ireland, at least to a weird and fascinating image of what the Japanese expect Irish pubs to look like. This is a cross between a US sports bar, an English (rather than Irish) pub and something uniquely Japanese. It’s cosy, down-to-earth and strangely appealing.

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In the Blarney Stone

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Bad Luck and Trouble

I’m not sure if there was a particular reason for cocktails being on special offer that night, but when I saw that they were all just 400¥ I had to indulge. This was a bargain price for my good (though not especially strong) Cosmopolitans, but beer was more expensive at 700¥ a pint for local brews and 900¥ for imports such as Chris's very good Kilkenny.

There was live music from a band of three US guys who were obviously regulars here and were pretty good. It was fun to watch the antics (I can't really justify calling it dancing) of some local lasses who were trying to impress a handful of older Western men – and who to be fair did seem easily impressed! There was no cover charge despite the live music, which according to the website is the pub’s regular policy (and there’s music every weekend night). I think from info on the same website that the band we saw are called Bad Luck & Trouble!

This was an enjoyable way to spend our last evening in Osaka. Tomorrow we would be leaving for Kyoto.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:09 Archived in Japan Tagged people children night trains osaka food monument japan history restaurants museum hiroshima customs war_and_peace Comments (7)

City of two thousand shrines

Japan day eight


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

Kyoto

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At Kiyomizu-dera

For over a thousand years Kyoto was the capital of Japan and it is probably the best preserved of all its cities.

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Kyoto station

Its historic value saw it dropped from the list of cities to be targeted by air raids and the atomic bomb during World War Two (some say because the wife of a senior US commander had fallen in love with Kyoto when they honeymooned there before the war), and is still treasured today. And while our time here was perhaps too limited for me to also fall in love, that time was packed with wonders.

To Kyoto by bullet train

We arrived in Kyoto on a bullet train from Osaka, a journey of just 15 minutes - but around an hour by regular train! The station is on the southern edge of the main downtown area and is very modern and very large. It is also very busy. It can therefore be a challenge to negotiate when carrying bags and newly arrived, but is impressive enough to merit a separate sightseeing visit another time.

For now though we focused on finding our way out of the station for the short walk to our accommodation at the Heianbo Ryokan. It was too early though to check-in, so we left our bags and hurried out again to make the most of our time, and all decided to catch taxis together to Kiyomizu-dera, one of the city’s most famous temples.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple

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Preying mantis at Kiyomizu-dera

This Buddhist temple is possibly the most visited in Kyoto – it is certainly up there in the top five. And it’s easy to see why it draws the crowds. It has a lovely hillside setting with views of the town and several other nearby pagodas and temples. It is near enough the centre of town and those other temples to be easily accessible. And it has a unique feature – a sort of platform or veranda that juts out on one side of the main hall, 13 metres above the hillside below. Both hall and stage, and indeed all the buildings here, were built without the use of nails, an amazing achievement. They date from 1633, though the temple was founded much earlier, in 778. Since that foundation, the temple had burned down many times, and thus most of the current buildings were rebuilt by the third Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu in the early Edo period. In 1994, the temple was added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites.

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Japanese visitors to Kiyomizu-dera

By the time we arrived here, at around 11.00 AM, it was packed, but the crowds, who were mostly Japanese tourists and worshippers, didn’t detract from our enjoyment at all. Indeed, I enjoyed watching the many girls who had dressed in kimonos for the occasion, and it was interesting to observe the rituals of washing in the fountain and burning incense, the smell of which wafted on the air and lent atmosphere to the temple complex.

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Nio-mon, Kiyomizu-dera

We entered the complex through the stunning Nio-mon, the 16th century gate that was refurbished in 2003. Beyond this is another gate, Sai-mon, dating from 1631 and famous for its view at sunset, and beyond that a three-storied pagoda. The photo above shows parts of both gates and the pagoda beyond.

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View of Kyoto from the Sai-mon

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The pagoda at Kiyomizu-dera

Off to our left we spotted a small crowd around another building, the Zuigu-do Hall, and went over to investigate. A man was selling tickets, or rather, exchanging them for a ‘suggested donation’ of 100¥, which we were happy to make though we had no idea what we were paying for at that point. We were then asked to remove our shoes and given a plastic bag each in which to carry them as we entered the shrine.

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The Zuigu-do Hall, with Sai-mon in the foreground

We were instructed to hold on to the rope handrail as we entered, and soon realised why. The path through the shrine is constructed in such a way that after a few steps you are plunged into total darkness, unable to see even an inch in front of you. This is the Tainai-meguri. The idea is that the total darkness here represents the womb of a female bodhisattva, so you are returning to a pre-birth state. At the heart of the shrine a little light falls on a large stone, which you spin and make a wish before ascending through more darkness until you emerge, blinking, into the bright light of day.

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Hondo lantern

After this rather special experience we continued on the path to the main hall or Hondo. This houses a small statue of the eleven-faced, thousand-armed Kannon Bodhisattva, the main object of worship here, which is only shown to the public once in 33 years. I found this story of the founding of the temple and the devotion to this statue:

‘In the year 778, Priest Enchin who was inspired by divine revelation in a dream to go up Kizu-gawa river to find a fountain of pure water, travelled up to a waterfall in the foot of Otowa-yama (Mt. Otowa). He met Gyoei Koji, a Buddhist recluse who had been devoted to self-discipline there, and was given a block of sacred wood. Enchin carved a statue of a Buddhist deity Kannon Bosatsu out of the block and enshrined it in the thatched hut in which Gyoei had been living till then. Two years later, a military general, Sakanoue no Tamuramaro, came up into the mountain and met Enchin who lectured for him on the merciful teaching of Kannon Bosatsu. Tamuramaro became a pious devotee to the Kannon and he dedicated a hall to the statue. This is said to be the origin of this temple. The name of the temple, ‘Kiyomizu’, literally means ‘pure water’ and came from the above story.’

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Kiyomizu-dera: the veranda

The Hondo has a unique feature which helps to explain the popularity of Kiyomizu-dera for both tourists and worshippers. On its southern side a sort of platform or veranda juts out, 13 metres above the hillside below. The veranda is known as the Kiyomizu Stage; it is supported by huge 12-metre high pillars made from Japanese Zelkova trees, were assembled without using a single nail, and its floor consists of over 410 cypress boards.

So famous is this veranda that it has given rise to a well-known Japanese saying, ‘To jump off the veranda of Kiyomizu-dera’, which has the same meaning as the English saying, ‘To take the plunge’, i.e. to take a risk.

We followed the path above and to the right of the main hall which led us past a couple of other halls that were undergoing major preservation work at that time and were hidden beneath scaffolding and wraps. From this path we could look back at the rest of the complex and see the dramatic way in which the veranda juts out over the hillside. We could have continued to follow the path as it wound round and down to the small group of buildings below the main hall, but instead retraced our steps a little to reach these via a stone staircase.

This took us to a path below the water fountain that gives Kiyomizu-dera its name of ‘clear water temple’. This is channelled from the Otowa Waterfall which falls from the mountain of the same name. There are three separate fountains dropping into the pool below. Drinking the water is believed to bestow special powers, and each fountain gives a different one – a long life, success in your career or in love. It is considered greedy to drink from all three!

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Otowa water fountain, Kiyomizu-dera

The path then led us beneath the veranda, and we could really appreciate the scale of its construction. There were several jizo statues brought here from elsewhere in Japan I believe, and some refreshment booths. It was while walking along here that we bumped into another member of our group, Phil, and decided to stop for a snack with him.

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Jizu statues

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The café

We spotted a little café beside the path and were pleased to see space on its shady terrace. The menu was only in Japanese but luckily had photos, though it was still in part a question of ‘pot-luck’ as to what we would get! I saw someone nearby eating something that looked like vanilla ice cream with a fruit sauce, but peering at the photos I could see that it was probably a dish that came with the sweet red adzuki bean paste topping I’d had and liked at the Edo Tokyo Museum, so I chose that.

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My kakigori

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Chris's noodles

The ‘ice cream’ was in fact shaved ice; I had chosen kakigori, one of Japan's favourite summer sweets. It is served all over the country with a wide range of toppings including syrups and fruits. I really enjoyed this version and found it very refreshing on what was proving to be the hottest day of our trip. Phil had the same shaved ice but with a fruit sauce, while Chris had some gelatinous noodles in a soy/wasabi based sauce, having opted for what seemed to be the only savoury item on the menu.

All the dishes were very good value at just a few hundred yen each. The staff were friendly and helpful, and it was here that we had our best demonstration of the Japanese non-tipping culture. When we sat down Chris noticed a small coin on the bench next to him – a single yen, worth about half a penny or about one cent. He left it lying there, but when we departed the café a waitress ran after us to give him back the coin she thought he had left in error!

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Hondo roof detail, Kiyomizu-dera

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Another roof detail

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And another!

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A torii gate

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View from Kiyomizu-dera

Higashiyama

After our snack we took a few more photos before leaving the temple area to explore the surrounding streets of the Higashiyama district which lies along the lower slopes of the mountains to the east of Kyoto and is one of the city's best preserved historic districts. These streets have been recently renovated to remove telephone poles and repave the streets to increase the traditional feel of the district. This atmosphere is enhanced by the many girls wearing kimono to do their sightseeing – although perhaps less so by the hordes of other tourists who throng to this area.

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Tourists on Chawan-zaka

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On Chawan-zaka

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Our sake cup

The street leading up to the temple, Chawan-zaka, has been given the nickname of Teapot Lane because of the large number of shops selling china goods (as well as other crafts and souvenirs). We bought a pretty little sake cup in one of these – not cheap but very nicely made. We also had a good cup of coffee in the upstairs café of another of the shops, where some large items, we noted, cost hundreds of pounds.

Part way up the street, on the left-hand side if you are facing uphill, we came across a small shrine. I wasn’t able to uncover a name or any other details about this, either at the time or since.

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Shrine on Chawan-zaka

After our shopping and coffee break here we were ready for another temple visit. We met up with the rest of our group and all piled into taxis again to head to Sanjusangen-do.

Sanjusangen-do Temple

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Roof detail, Sanjūsangen-dō, Kyoto

This temple, also known as Rengeo-in, was a complete contrast to Kiyomizu-dera but no less impressive in its way. The main hall is all that remains here, having been rebuilt in 1266 after a fire destroyed the temple 17 years before that. The hall is 120 metres long and is Japan's longest wooden structure. The name Sanjusangen-do (literally ‘33 intervals’) derives from the number of spaces between the building's support columns, which was a traditional method of measuring the size of a building.

Entering this main hall (after removing our shoes) we joined other visitors in filing along one side to view the wonders it contains. In the centre is a six foot tall wooden statue of a 1000-armed Kannon. This was carved by the Kamakura sculptor Tankei in 1254 and is a National Treasure of Japan. On each side of this are 500 more (making 1,001 Kannons in total), made of cypress wood and arranged in tiers (10 rows and 50 columns). They are human-sized and each one is subtly different from the next. People apparently come to Sanjusangen-do to look for the likeness of a loved one among the many statues. 124 of these statues are from the original temple, rescued from the fire of 1249, while the remaining 876 were constructed in the 13th century.

Traditionally 1000-armed Kannons are equipped with 11 heads to better witness the suffering of humans, and with 1000 arms to better help them fight the suffering. But you won’t be able to count 1000 arms on them, as in practice they are made with just 42 arms each. You need to subtract the two regular arms to give 40, each of which is said to have the power to save 25 worlds, giving the full thousand. In Buddhist beliefs, Kannon is a Bodhisattva, i.e. one who achieves enlightenment but postpones Buddhahood until all can be saved. The name literally means watchful listening, and it is the task of the compassionate Kannon to witness and listen to the prayers and cries of those in difficulty in the earthly realm, and to help them achieve salvation.

As we filed back to our starting point along the corridor behind these statues we passed 28 more statues of Japanese deities who protect the Buddhist universe. I was disappointed (as I always am) that no photography is allowed inside the hall. This rule is very strictly enforced, with CCTV cameras to supervise and notices announcing that anyone suspected of taking photos will have their camera examined and offending images deleted. You can however see some images of the Kannons on the temple’s website.

Outside there is a small Japanese garden with a water fountain, where we enjoyed relaxing on a shady bench for a while, and where we could take photos. As you can see, I worked off my frustrations at not being able to take photos inside by gorging on the beautiful details of the architecture here, especially the roof!

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Sanjusangendo Temple

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Roof details, Sanjūsangen-dō

After this we went back to check into our ryokan and to rest before another outing planned for later that afternoon. We were staying for two nights at the friendly, family-run, Heianbo Ryokan. Our room there was traditional in style, with futons on tatami mats for sleeping, but with en suite (half tub with a shower over) and air conditioning and other mod cons (such as a TV and hair dryer). We found this to be a great base in the city – very quiet for so central a location, and with lots of character.

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Our bedroom at the Ryokan Heianbo

Gion

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For the most part our Inside Japan tour didn’t include any guided sightseeing (although Andrew was always happy to lead some explorations in each place we visited). This allows for flexibility to do your own thing or go around with some or all of the group, according to preference. But one exception was a guided walk in Gion, Kyoto’s famous geisha district. This tour was led by a Canadian ex-pat who had previously been married to a geisha. He showed us some of the main sights and told us a lot about the lives of present-day maiko and geiko, as geisha are known in Kyoto.

One thing it is important to stress is that geisha are not prostitutes. Some may choose to prostitute themselves, but it is not ‘in the job description’ and is not normal practice. No – a geisha is an entertainer of men, a skilled performer, an expert in Japanese traditions and, probably, an accomplished flirt and conversationalist. To become a geisha a girl must study for some years and will usually start as an apprentice or maiko. The term maiko means dancing girl, while geisha means ‘art doer’, i.e. performer. These days, girls will probably not decide to study as a geisha until their teens – the days when a girl could be apprenticed as young as three or four are long gone. In the geisha school, apprentices learn to play traditional instruments such as the shamisen, to dance in the traditional way, and to perform the tea ceremony. They study literature, poetry and calligraphy. They also learn by following and observing experienced geisha, especially the ‘older sister’ who mentors them. At each stage of her development a maiko will wear the appropriate dress, hairstyle and make-up, and an expert could tell at a glance how long she had been working from this.

We saw several geiko and maiko on our walk around Gion but they move very quickly and, understandably, don’t choose to spend their valuable time posing for photos for tourists! I managed to get a few photos of maiko, but only from behind.

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Maiko in Gion

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A sign in Gion

We also saw the geisha school where all geisha study music and dance (regardless of age and how long they have been working), and a number of ochaya (tea-houses) where the geisha entertain. And although we didn’t have time to go inside while on this tour, we also walked through the grounds of the Kenninji Temple, where I loved the setting among the ‘cloud-pruned’ trees or niwaki. This is Japan's oldest Zen temple, having been founded in 1202, but the temple buildings we see today date from the 16th century when it was last rebuilt. The extensive grounds include sand and moss gardens, and inside there are notable art works, including the most recent addition, a ceiling painting of two dragons by Koizumi Junsaku which was installed in 2002 to commemorate the temple's 800th anniversary.

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Kenninji Temple

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Near Tatsumi Bashi

We passed several spots that featured in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, although our guide told us that the film was almost completely shot on a lot in California as the Kyoto authorities weren't keen to have it made here. One of the most picturesque of these was around the Shirakawa Canal and in particular by the bridge, Tatsumi Bashi, and the nearby Tatsumi Daimyojin Shrine where traditionally geiko and maiko come to pray for help in improving their skills. It was dusk by the time we arrived here and the lights were coming on in the houses overlooking the canal, giving it a special atmosphere – a lovely place to end our walk.

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Tatsumi Daimyojin Shrine

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Shirakawa Canal, Gion

After we had thanked our Canadian guide, Andrew proposed dinner at one of his favourite conveyer-belt sushi restaurants in the city, about a 20 minute walk away. Most of us liked the suggestion and decided to join him. I and several others in the group were wearying of all the walking so decided to get a taxi, while others walked with Andrew and we all met up again at the restaurant.

Our first evening in Kyoto

Although not fancy, Musashi Sushi is a great example of a kaiten or conveyor-belt sushi restaurant and we had an excellent meal here. We ate on the upper floor where booths radiate out from the central hub where sushi is prepared by the chefs and loaded on to the conveyor. Here the diners at the conveyor end of the table must take the responsibility for grabbing the passing plates not only for themselves but also for their dining companions. We ate with another couple from our group, Sue and John from Australia, and it was John and I who performed this task – with enthusiasm you might say, if you saw the number of empty plates piled on the table by the end of the meal! All the sushi here is handmade. There was a really good variety available and I don't think we had anything more than once, however good, in order to try more dishes. My favourite was probably the melt-in-your-mouth bonito tuna, closely followed by the tempura prawns (I've never had tempura on sushi before!) and crab.

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Plastic sushi in the window

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Sushi chef

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Karaoke room sign

After dinner some of us went to a nearby karaoke room for another classic Japanese experience. Most people know that karaoke was invented here; the word derives from the Japanese for empty, kara, and orchestra okesutora, alluding to the use of a musical track with its main lyrics removed. But unlike in Europe and the US, where karaoke is most often a public performance (or humiliation, depending on your viewpoint and the abilities of the singer!), in Japan it is more usually enjoyed in a private ‘karaoke box’, or small room, which a group of friends can rent for a fixed period of time.

Arriving at the venue we (well, Andrew, as the only Japanese speaker in our group of eight) negotiated the price of a room for two hours at reception. We then headed upstairs to find ourselves in a narrow, very pink room. At one end was the TV screen, round the other three walls low comfortable seating, and in the middle a table on which were two small machines – one for selecting songs and the other drinks. Our price of 2,600¥ per person (based on eight sharing) also included all we could drink, so the latter was as important as the music selection device! There was a wide choice of drinks – beer, plum wine, regular wine, sake and some spirits as well as soft drinks.

We ordered via the machine and a waiter would knock respectfully at the door within minutes, carrying the tray.

But to the main point of the exercise, the singing! The machine thankfully had an English language button for selecting and lots of English language tracks as well as Japanese – certainly more than enough to keep us occupied for two hours. As the drinks poured in, the inhibitions fell, and by the end we had not only enjoyed enthusiastic performances of Japanese pop (by Andrew), Elvis (both Presley and Costello, by Chris) and Pat Benatar (by Sue), but had also joined in with some great group numbers such as Hey Jude and American Pie. To hear just how well Andrew and Sue entered into the spirit of karaoke (and how well they sang) check out my short video.

Andrew and Sue's performances

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In the karaoke room

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Andrew, Sue and Jim

The two hours were up all too soon, and we reluctantly vacated the room and paid our fee back down at the lobby before hailing taxis to take us back to our ryokan. It had been a very full day and we were happy to snuggle down on our futons for a good night’s sleep.

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Ryokan Heianbo at night

Posted by ToonSarah 16:00 Archived in Japan Tagged buildings people kyoto shrines food architecture restaurant japan culture temple history music customs Comments (5)

Ancient and modern collide

Japan day nine


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

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Breakfast at the Ryokan Heianbo

On our second day in Kyoto we had breakfast at the ryokan – a traditional Japanese one served on a tray with items such as tofu with wasabi, some noodles, pickles and seaweed. Miso soup and rice were served separately, as was green tea. I was pleased to see the yoghurt and small pieces of fruit, and also the coffee available from a machine in the lobby.

Andrew had again offered to lead an outing, an offer that several in the group accepted, but Chris and I decided on a day exploring by ourselves. We headed for the Central Bus Station (right opposite the railway station), which we found to be well-organised and signposted. We took a 73 from there to Arashiyama. The journey lasted about 45 minutes and cost 240¥ per person. We had already observed in Hakone the Japanese bus ticketing system. You take a ticket on boarding and pay as you exit, according to the distance travelled – the fare for your stop is displayed on a screen above the driver. The bus stops for major sights in the city were announced in English but those likely to be of interest only to locals were not. We figured, correctly, that there was no reason to worry about missing our stop – if the announcement is in Japanese only, you can be pretty sure this isn't yours!

Arashiyama

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Fisherman in Arashiyama

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Cormorants on the Hozu River

We got off the bus near the bridge over the Hozu River (also often called the Katsura) in Arashiyama, not far from the station. The Hozu was in the past used to transport logs for the construction of many of Kyoto’s temples, and for Osaka’s castle. During the Edo Period it also carried grain, firewood and other cargo, but trains and road haulage made river transport obsolete, and operations ceased after several hundred years of use.

There were quite a few cormorants on the rocks in the water, and we spotted a lone fisherman apparently making his way home. We waited a while hoping that he would cast his traditional net but it seemed fishing was over for the morning and we waited in vain.

We soon left the river and started our explorations of this fascinating corner of the city. There is so much to see in Arashiyama that you could easily spend all day here, but we had decided on just a morning, with the afternoon reserved for some other must-see sights on my wish-list. So the plan was to focus on two sights in the area, the famous bamboo grove but before that another temple.

Tenryu-ji Temple

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Temple roof, Tenryu-ji

Tenryu-ji Temple is one of the most important Zen temples in Kyoto and is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built in 1339 by the ruling shogun Ashikaga Takauji, who dedicated it to his predecessor, the Emperor Go-Daigo. These two were formerly allies but Takauji turned against the emperor in his struggle for supremacy over Japan. By building the temple, Takauji intended to appease the former emperor's spirits. Many of the temple buildings were repeatedly lost in fires and wars over the centuries, and most of the current halls date from the relatively recent Meiji Period (1868-1912).

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Tenryu-ji Temple from the garden

The main reason we came to Tenryu-ji was to see its gardens, which was just as well, as at the time of our visit its main halls were being renovated and it is not possible to go inside. But in any case, the gardens are considered the main draw here (they are designated as a Special Place of Scenic Beauty), and were among the loveliest we saw in Japan, I thought. Unlike the buildings they have survived unchanged through the centuries. At their heart, immediately in front of one of the main buildings, is a beautiful pond, Sogen Pond. Various rocks are artfully placed in and around the water to look completely natural (in a technique known as ishigumi, literally ‘arranged rocks’), and large carp swim in the water. When we were here, in mid October, a few trees’ leaves were just turning into their bright autumn colours. Paths meandered among the trees past a number of little shrines and sculptures which are dotted around. This style of garden is known as a chisen-kaiyu-shiki or pond-stroll garden, which sums it up perfectly.

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The garden at Tenryu-ji

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The 'dry waterfall', Tenryu-ji

Lying just south of the famous Bamboo Grove of Arashiyama, Tenryu-ji also has its own small area of bamboo just inside the north gate, with more paths weaving through it. Find a quiet one and you can really absorb the strange sounds and atmosphere of this surreal-looking plant.

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Bamboo at Tenryu-ji

The forested Mount Arashiyama and Mount Kameyama to the west form an attractive background to the garden. This is an excellent example of the Japanese garden design technique, shakkei, usually translated as ‘borrowed scenery’. In this, the garden is designed in such a way that the surrounding scenery provides a background that complements and enhances the ambiance. Thus, the garden can be placed near an old forest or in front of an important landmark, such as a temple or a castle. But most frequently the garden designers used nearby hills or mountains, as here at Tenryu-ji.

Despite being busy, this temple felt quite peaceful compared to some others that we visited – perhaps the closure of its main buildings had kept some visitors away.

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In the garden at Tenryu-ji

We spent some time enjoying our surroundings before exiting from the north gate to visit the nearby Bamboo Grove.

In the Bamboo Grove

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On the path through the Bamboo Grove

The famous Bamboo Grove of Arashiyama lies just to the north of Tenryu-ji Temple. The bamboo has been used to manufacture various products, such as baskets, cups, boxes and mats at local workshops for centuries. Many visitors to Kyoto come here simply to see this grove, and it can get busy on the main path, as we found. I have seen pictures showing an empty path winding through the tall stems of bamboo, but if such a path exists, we didn’t find it, and I actually found the bamboo within the gardens of Tenryū-ji to have more atmosphere. But here it was fun to share the walk with lots of excited Japanese visitors, many of the girls in kimono, though we had to be quick at times to jump out of the path of the rickshaws that hurtled past, carrying more of these visitors!

Nevertheless it was quiet enough in places for us to be able to enjoy listening to the strange sounds the bamboo made whenever a breeze blew through the grove (it must be amazing on a windy day). But most of all I loved photographing the bamboo and trying to do justice to its subtle tones and geometric shapes.

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In the Bamboo Grove of Arashiyama

Nonomiya Shrine

Strolling back to the main road of Arashiyama from the Bamboo Grove our attention was caught by some pictures on the fence to our left of a shrine and wooded garden. We turned in to investigate and found ourselves in a small shrine tucked among the trees. There was no entry gate and no admission fee – this seemed to be more a place of worship than a tourist sight, though it was crowded with Japanese visitors doing a bit of both. We made the suggested donation of 100¥ for a small leaflet (all in Japanese but with pretty pictures) and also threw some coins into a bowl at the shrine. We strolled around taking photos (as everywhere in Japan we found that the locals had no concerns about us doing so) and admired the pretty moss garden in particular. Later, back home, I read up all about our ‘discovery’.

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At Nonomiya Shrine

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Miniature garden at Nonomiya Shrine

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Young women at the shrine

Nonomiya literally means a ‘field palace’ and there were once several shrines with this name, each of which served the same purpose. In the past there was a custom for one of the Imperial princesses to be selected to serve the god of Ise-jingu, the most sacred Shinto Shrine, where only a relative of the Japanese Imperial family could be a high priest or priestess. Once selected, she would undergo a one year period of purification inside the Imperial Palace, and would then move to the Nonomiya-jinja for a further three years of purification. Only after this long period was she able to go to Ise-jingu.

Several gods are enshrined at Nonomiya. One of them is a god of marriage and another is a god of an easy delivery. It is no doubt to these gods that the many young women we saw here were praying.

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At Nonomiya Shrine

With more time to spare in Kyoto I would have happily spent a whole day in Arashiyama, but there were other sights on my must-see list and so, somewhat regretfully, we left around lunch time. We headed to the smaller of the two stations that serve this district and stopped there for ice-creams (including an unusual sesame seed one) before catching the useful Randen Railway, with its little trains that are more like trams, to travel from here to Ryoanji-michi, changing at Katabiranotsuji.

When we got off the train at Ryoanji-michi we found that we had to walk through some residential streets for about 10/12 minutes or so in order to reach the main road. For us, on our first visit to Japan, everything was interesting. The first stretch led along a street of local shops, and then through a more residential area. Several of the houses had small private shrines in their front gardens, and many of the gardens were very nicely designed and immaculately kept, though small.

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In the back streets of Kyoto

Ryoan-ji Temple

I am fascinated by the different forms of Japanese garden design and wanted to see as varied a sample as possible in our limited time in Kyoto. I read about the famous Zen garden at Ryoan-ji Temple and knew it would give us a different perspective on this ancient art. And so it did.

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This style of garden dates from a period in Japanese history when interest in Zen Buddhism was at its height, in the late 14th-16th centuries. At this time gardens became smaller, simpler and more minimalist, but most retained many of the same elements as before, including ponds, islands, bridges and waterfalls. However, an extremely minimalist version emerged, the Karesansui dry garden, which uses nothing but rocks, gravel and sand to represent all the elements of the landscape. This example at Ryoan-ji is one of the most famous in the country.

It is rectangular in shape, enclosed by a clay wall. Arranged within it are fifteen stones of different sizes, composed in five groups: one group of five stones, two groups of three, and two groups of two stones. These stones are surrounded by white gravel which is carefully raked each day by the monks. The only vegetation is some moss surrounding each group of stones. The garden is intended to be viewed from a seated position on the veranda of the hojo, the pavilion that serves as the residence of the head priest.

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At first glance it may seem random, though elegant in its design. But everything is very deliberate. The stones are placed in such a way that it is impossible to see the entire composition at once from the veranda. They are also arranged so that when looking at the garden from any angle (other than from above) only fourteen are visible at a time. Tradition holds that only through attaining enlightenment could a person view all fifteen.

And the wall too is part of the design. The clay has been mixed with rapeseed oil to give these brown and rust-coloured tones, intended to set off the whiteness of the gravel by absorbing light, and to create a neutral background that focuses attention on the stones.

It isn’t known who designed this garden, and although there are many theories, no one can say for sure what it is intended to represent.

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Some say it is an abstraction of a tiger and her cubs crossing a river, but that appears to refer to an earlier version of the garden that had only nine stones. Some say these are small islands in the ocean, or mountain peaks emerging through a sea of cloud. Others have suggested that the arrangement of the rocks relates to the character for ‘heart’ or that there is some hidden geometry behind them. It is probably best to simply accept that they are as they are because someone wanted them to look exactly like this, rather than minimise their potential impact by straining to find an unintended meaning.

You cannot go inside the pavilion here but instead walk around its veranda (shoes off, naturally) to view the famous garden from a platform. Be warned – this is a popular spot and you may need to wait your turn to view it from a perch at the edge. While you wait you can peer inside to see the beautifully painted screens.

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The pavilion at Ryoan-ji

On the far side of the pavilion (that is, away from the garden) the building is surrounded by trees and moss, and there is a famous stone washbasin known as Tsukubai, which is said to have been contributed by Tokugawa Mitsukuni in the 17th century. It bears a simple but profound four-character Zen inscription: ‘I learn only to be contented’.

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'I learn only to be contented'

Ryoan-ji Gardens

When we’d walked right round the pavilion we went on to explore the rest of the gardens here. Although Ryoan-ji Temple is best known for its Zen dry garden, there is much more to it than that. It has a pretty pond garden which is also well worth exploring, its lush greenery all the more refreshing as a contrast to the white gravel and bare rocks of the former. This is Kyoyochi Pond, built in the 12th century when this site still served as an aristocrat's villa. There are large carp, white ducks and (when we were there in mid October) pink water lilies.

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Kyoyochi Pond

The path round the pond leads past the small stone bridge that will take you on to the islet with a little torii gate and shrine, and past a large stone Buddha statue.

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In the gardens of Ryoan-ji Temple

The leaves were just starting to turn when we were here, adding to the beauty of the scene. Towards the end of our walk we came across a small café where we sat outside and had one of the most refreshing drinks I’ve come across – a sort of lemonade with a blob of what tasted like marmalade in the bottom of the glass. I don’t know what this was called – a waiter with limited English helped us to order from the ‘pay first and take a slip’ machine, and all we knew for sure was that we were ordering a cold drink that wasn’t cola! We sat outside on shady benches and enjoyed a pleasant rest before heading off to our last temple for the day.

Kinkaku-ji

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Kinkaku-ji: the Golden Pavilion

Some sights are so much talked about and so often visited that you wonder if they can really be that wonderful. The Golden Pavilion is one such sight – and yes, it really is that wonderful. You will have to share it with many other people, but don’t let the thought of the crowds that flock here put you off. This place is a stunner and popular for good reason. I had seen advice that you should go first thing to avoid the crowds but we couldn’t manage that on our tight Kyoto schedule and in any case I'm not sure the light would be so good then. We were here around 4.00 PM and at that time the temple was beautifully lit by the late afternoon sun. I reckon whatever time you go you’ll probably have to just put up with the crowds if you want to see it, and see it you should.

The ‘proper’ name for this temple is Rokuon-ji or Deer Garden Temple, but no one seems to call it that. This is for sure the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji – no other name would suit it half as well. And no number of previously seen photos can prepare you for the sight that greets you when you arrive at the edge of the pond here and gaze across at the pavilion reflected in its waters. When you succeed in making your way to the shoreline the jostling of the crowd will fade away and you will be spell-bound – especially if, like us, you are fortunate enough to be able to see it in bright sunlight.

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First view of Kinkaku-ji

Like many of Kyoto’s temples, this was originally the site of a private villa, but it was converted to a Zen temple at the very start of the 15th century by the son of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, as a memorial to his father. Most of the buildings were lost in the Onin War later the same century, apart from the pavilion which survived. But in 1950 it too was lost, burned down by a novice monk, who tried to commit suicide as a result of what he had done. It was rebuilt in 1955 and that is the building we see today, a close copy of the original.

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Kinkaku-ji reflected

You can’t go inside the pavilion, only admire from outside, although a display panel does show some photos of the interior. This is unusual in that each floor has a different style. The top floor is a Zen meditation hall, built in Karayo style or Zen temple style. It is called Kukkyo-cho and its interior walls are also gilded. The middle floor is a hall dedicated to Kannon Bodhisattva; it is built in Buke-zukuri, the style of the samurai house and is called Cho-on-do. It holds a seated statue of the Kannon surrounded by statues of the Four Heavenly Kings, although this is not on view to the public. The lower, unpainted floor is a more secular space, designed for admiring the landscape and is Shinden-zukuri, or palace style, and is named Ho-sui-in. This, incidentally, is said to be the reason that this bottom floor is painted white on the exterior rather than gilded. The sacred upper floors which house temple halls are painted in gold, while the more worldly first floor looks like any other building. The building is topped with a wonderful golden phoenix.

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The golden phoenix of Kinkaku-ji

We found it most crowded at the first viewpoint, which is where most of my photos were taken, as inevitably everyone is brought up short at this point – and also, I am sure a few visitors never progress further than this in their rush to ‘tick off’ the sights of Kyoto. But once we had started to walk around the lake towards the temple it was just a little quieter, and there were also some interesting different views to be had.

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From different angles

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On golden pond - Kinkaku-ji reflected in the surrounding waters

The strolling garden

After viewing the Golden Temple of Kinkaku-ji from most sides, the path led us around the rest of the gardens. These have retained their original design from the days of Yoshimitsu, the Shogun who first built the temple on this spot. They are landscaped in a very natural way, with a variety of trees, bamboo, mosses and a stream, in a style known as ‘strolling garden’. This means that the garden is intended to be enjoyed not from a specific viewpoint (such as the famous Zen garden at Ryoan-ji which we had just come from) but rather from a series of viewpoints as you move along its paths.

There is a lot of symbolism in the garden too, with the rocks, bridges and plants arranged in particular ways to represent famous places in Chinese and Japanese literature. The largest of the islets in the pond represents the islands that constitute Japan itself, while four rocks which form a straight line in the pond near the pavilion are said to represent sailboats anchored at night, bound for the Isle of Eternal Life of Chinese mythology.

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In the strolling garden at Kinkaku-ji

Here and there in the grounds we came across statues and sculptures. The one in my photo above stands on an island in another small pond, An-min-taku. It is called Hakuja-no-tsuka (the Mound in Memory of the White Snake). This pond is said to never dry up.

Near the end of the path as you head towards the exit is a small shrine known as Fudodo, where the stone Fudo-myoc (Acara) is enshrined as a guardian. Also near here we found a couple of stalls selling snacks and bought some tasty wasabi nuts to fortify us after our long day out.

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Burning incense at Fudodo shrine

By now the afternoon was almost over and we were weary. It was time to head back to the ryokan to rest and freshen up before dinner. We decided to treat ourselves to a taxi back, rather than wait for a bus, and enjoyed chatting to the driver whose English was a little better than some others. He showed us a photo of his family (when stopped at some traffic lights!), pointed out a couple of sights as we passed them, and confirmed what I had already deduced, that the wearing of white gloves was compulsory for taxi drivers. Apparently it’s intended to make them look smart and also distinguish them from other drivers.

Kobe Pasta and Sweets

While enjoying Japanese cuisine is part of any trip here, just occasionally we found ourselves fancying a change. In Kyoto this urge for something different hit us, and we headed to the ‘restaurant floor’ of the Yodobashi store right by our hotel in search of pasta – Italian restaurants are very popular in Japan (due to the similarity between pasta and noodles it seems) and you'll find them in most cities. We found what we were looking for here, one of a number of restaurants strung out along a sort of indoor street on the sixth floor.

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Yodobashi restaurant floor

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'Pasta and sweets'

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Salmon and spinach pasta
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The rather odd 'bucket'!

There was an English menu of sorts and our waitress also spoke just enough words to be able to advise us that one of the set meals (here in Japan known as ‘sets’) would offer us good value as we could pay a single price for our pasta dish and beer. Chris chose a prosciutto and cheese sauce for his spaghetti while I went for salmon and spinach. The dishes are available as small, medium or large – and somewhat surprisingly, all sizes cost the same! We also got something they call a ‘bucket’, which is simply a baguette with a flavoured butter (we had basil) served rather incongruously in a beer stein!

Our medium dishes were a good size. The pasta was cooked fairly well (not too soft) and the sauces pleasant enough, if unremarkable. The beer washed it all down nicely and there was nothing to complain of in a bill of 3,080¥.

By the way. I’m not convinced that ‘Pasta and Sweets’ is its real name, but it appears prominently on the sign outside. Google Translate suggested ‘Kobe Pasta and Suites’ as a translation of its website but the shop sign clearly states ‘Sweets’ which seems more likely!

After dinner we did a bit of late-night shopping in Yodobashi, as Chris needed a new memory card (all those temples to photograph!) We found prices comparable with what we would pay at home, and the selection and overall size of the shop mind-boggling. Then we headed across the road to explore the station as its modern architecture had caught my eye on arriving in the city the day before.

Kyoto Station at night

Kyoto Station is huge (the second largest in the country, after Nagoya) and as I mentioned in my previous entry can be daunting to navigate as a traveller. But come back at your leisure, preferably at night, and you will find it an altogether different experience.

The station’s architecture is ultra modern, a real contrast to the historic temples that most people come to Kyoto to see. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but I loved it (I do tend to like modern architecture, if done well which this is). It makes a really bold statement in the centre of the city, and also serves its multiple functions effectively. Transport hub, shopping centre, entertainment complex, hotel – you will find all this and more within this massive structure.

The station was opened in 1997 to coincide with the city’s 1,200th anniversary. The style is loosely futurist, designed by Hiroshi Hara who also designed the Umeda Sky Building in Osaka. It wasn’t universally welcomed as many thought it was inappropriate for so historic a city and some have blamed it for a recent flush of modern buildings in the city centre.

The statistics give some idea of the scale of this structure. It is 70 metres high and 470 metres from east to west, with a total floor area of 238,000 square metres. The central atrium is 60 metres long and at the west end is an imposing 171 step stairway. This latter was a great place to start our night-time explorations as it is illuminated and (when we were there at least) constantly changing.

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Illuminated stairs

I wasn’t able to confirm whether this is a year-round feature or linked to specific seasonal events (in our case, Halloween) but do check it out to see whether there’s a ‘show’. I did a short video of the staircase but unfortunately my camera battery chose that moment to go flat, and I had thought to bring a spare on our evening out, so I wasn’t able to capture as many ‘scene changes’ as I would have liked. But the still photos give some idea.

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Kyoto Tower from the Skyway

After watching this for a while we headed upwards to visit the 45 metre long Skyway, a sort of suspended aerial corridor which you can walk along for great views of the Kyoto Tower and the city at night. To reach this you have to go up to the 10th floor and through a door to the left of the stairs which leads through a food hall to the Skyway. If you want to check this out do keep your eyes open, as we missed this door the first time – it’s easy to not spot the sign to the right of the door or to think you are walking into a restaurant by mistake! And give it a miss if you have a problem with heights as you feel quite exposed up there even though surrounded by glass.

After descending from the Skyway we headed outside the station to investigate something intriguing we had spotted from above, the Aqua Fantasy. This is a somewhat odd sight. On the roof of a small shop in front of Kyoto Station is a nightly display in which water jets are lit to look a little like fireworks and are set to music in a synchronised show. It’s a bit corny but fun, and worth stopping to watch if in the area. My flagging camera battery had gained a new lease of life with a short rest so again I made a little video of the performance. I read somewhere that these shows take place every evening at 7pm, 8pm, 9pm and 9.30pm. Do check it out if you’re nearby as it offers a different Kyoto experience.

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Aqua Fantasy

It had been a long day and we had packed in a lot of sights. It was time to head back to the ryokan, check our emails using the free wifi in the lobby, and snuggle down in our futons again. Tomorrow we would leave Kyoto on the next step of our journey …

Posted by ToonSarah 07:59 Archived in Japan Tagged night kyoto food architecture restaurant japan culture temple city garden shrine customs Comments (3)

A mountain town

Japan day ten


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

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)

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