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Arriving in Tokyo, jet-lagged and with senses overloaded

Japan day one


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Tokyo, city of contrasts

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Tea house, Hamarikyu

Here, ancient meets modern. A tranquil garden with a traditional teahouse provides a haven among towering skyscrapers. Girls in kimono tour ancient shrines while others don cute or kitsch cosplay outfits to shop in the trendiest boutiques. Shops sell exquisite crafts and the very latest in electronic gadgets. And there are people everywhere ...

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Visitors to Senso-ji, Asakusa

Tokyo is an enormous city, a true metropolis, and its scale can be daunting. Where to go, what to see in a limited time, and how best to get around?

The solution, I think, is to slow down (hard when all around you are rushing), choose a few areas to focus on, and not beat yourself up about everything else that you have no time to see. And make sure you build in downtime – a pause to sit, look around you and take in the sounds, scents and sensations of this at times overwhelming experience of a city.

We started and ended our Japanese holiday here. For the first few days we were in Asakusa – relatively quiet, almost suburban in places, with the beautiful Senso-ji Temple at its heart. This is the city’s oldest temple and our visit here was a great introduction to Japan. Although much of it had to be rebuilt following the World War Two air raids, it exudes history and, despite the crowds, a strong sense of the enduring faith that provides a stable background amid the frenzy of modern Japan.

London to Tokyo

We flew to Tokyo with British Airways on a direct flight from London Heathrow to Narita. The flight took 11.5 hours. That's a long while to be shut up in a tin box!

I'm useless at sleeping on planes and inevitably the time dragged, but the in-flight service was fine and the food served (dinner soon after boarding, breakfast before landing) also fine, if unremarkable.

The biggest challenge with this journey is the crossing of time zones. Tokyo is nine hours ahead of GMT, although ‘just’ eight hours ahead of London's British Summer Time when we travelled in early October. The timing of our flight meant that we landed a couple of hours after we would normally have gone to bed, to find Tokyo wide awake and ready to start a new day.

Luckily we found Narita Airport easy to navigate. The queues at immigration weren't too bad, our luggage arrived promptly, and we were soon through customs and searching for the counter where we were to pick up our pre-ordered wifi hub, before heading into the city. The holiday had begun!

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Subway platform at Narita

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Warning sign on the subway platform

To get to Asakusa we took the Kasei Line. We had already been supplied with preloaded Manaca cards, and with directions on the route to take. We followed the orange signs to platform 3 where we had about a 20 minute wait for the next through train to Asakusa. It arrived bang on time!

The journey took about 55 minutes. The first part was through an agricultural landscape (mainly paddy fields) before we entered the Tokyo suburbs. We had views of the Skytree on the left at one point.

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View from the train into the city

At Asakusa we decided that rather than make the 10 minute walk (with suitcases) to our hotel we would change to the orange Ginza line and travel one stop to Tarawamachi station which was quite a bit nearer - although the extra stairs involved in the change of train may have been no better than the walk as it turned out. But we made it OK and found the train to have been an efficient way to reach the hotel, given its location.

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In the Café Sunset

Unfortunately for weary travellers however, the hotel (one of the Toyoko Inn chain) had a check-in time of 16.00 so when we arrived late morning we could do little more than leave our bags and head out again to start sight-seeing. Looking for coffee to help us stay awake after our long overnight flight we came across a small cheerfully decorated cafe not far from the hotel, the Café Sunset.

The first sight that greeted us on entering was a model train set (in fact there are two here) and the second sight was the smiling owner with a helpful English coffee menu in his hand. I was warm from the journey so had an iced caffe latte, and Chris had a cappuccino. The drinks were nice and strong and were served with a small biscuit - just what we needed to revive us.

A little refreshed we felt able to get out and see some sights, starting with the nearby Senso-ji Temple. This is the city’s oldest temple and our visit here was a great introduction to Japan. We had a fascinating couple of hours of wandering here and in the vicinity, despite the inevitable tiredness that comes with an eleven hour overnight flight plus eight hours’ worth of jet-lag!

Senso-ji

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Hozomon, Senso-ji

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Fishing the Kannon from the river

Senso-ji was founded in the 7th century and is dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. According to legend, the temple was founded after two fishermen pulled a golden statue of Kannon from the Sumida River right by this spot. The sacred statue is apparently still housed in the temple, carefully preserved inside three boxes, but never displayed.

The approach to the temple is an experience itself. You enter through the huge Kaminarimon or Thunder Gate. Unfortunately for us, this was under renovation when we visited and largely obscured by scaffolding and hoardings, so I didn’t get a good look or a chance to take photos of it. The gate was originally built in 942 in a different location south of Asakusa in Komagata and was moved here during the Kamakura period (1192-1333). It has been destroyed numerous times, most recently by fire in 1865. It was only 95 years later that it was finally reconstructed by Konosuke Matsushita, founder of Panasonic (who are now sponsoring the renovation work, I noticed).

The gate is guarded on each side by fierce statues of the guardian gods Raijin (the god of thunder) and Fujin (the god of wind), and has a massive red lantern hanging above the entrance. The gods are there to guard the temple and people would pray to them to protect it against natural disasters such as typhoons, floods and fire. Over time however people came to pray for their own needs too – a bountiful harvest, good health and for peace in the world.

From here you proceed along a street lined with shops, Nakamise Dori. Nakamise means ‘inside shops’ and I assume the street takes its name from the fact that the stalls are inside the temple grounds. There have been vendors selling their wares here since the late 17th century, and many of the stalls have been owned by the same family for generations. But just because you’re inside a temple’s precincts, don’t expect the items on sale to have any religious significance. This is consumerism living side by side with worship in a way that everyone seems comfortable with here, perhaps because religious practice seems so integrated with daily life.

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Nakamise Dori

So the stalls sell a range of items that just shout ‘you're in Japan’! Super-cute dolls, lucky cats, fans of all descriptions, hair ornaments, cheap polyester kimonos, parasols, chopsticks ... Nothing is very expensive and some of it looks as cheap as it costs, but there are also plenty of eminently purchasable souvenirs and, on our very first day in the country, I had to resist the temptation to buy!

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Stalls on Nakamise Dori

There are also some stalls selling edible treats at very reasonable prices. We snacked on some soy bean jam buns (one with pork which was good, one with sweet potato which was less so, being a little too sweet for my taste) which cost just 170¥ each, bought from some very friendly ladies.

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The soy bean jam bun stall

From here we arrived at another gate, Hozomon, the Treasury Gate. This also has its ferocious guardian gods and red lantern, and on its far (northern) side, a pair of huge straw sandals (O-Waraji) which should be taken as belonging to one of these gods, showing their great size. A sign on the gate explains:

‘This pair of huge straw sandals called O-Waraji had been made by 800 citizens of Murayama City in a month and devoted to Senso-ji. O-Waraji is made of straw and 2500 kilograms in weight, 4.5 metres high. They are the charm against evils because they are symbolic of the power of Ni-Ou. Wishing for being goodwalkers, many people will touch this O-Waraji.’

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Hozomon, and one of the giant sandals

At the top of the gate are storerooms, complete with modern disaster-prevention equipment, to hold Senso-ji's treasures and Buddhist objects.

Hozomon, like Kaminarimon, is thought to date from 942, and also like Kaminarimon has been destroyed many times by fire and rebuilt. The current design reflects its 1649 incarnation which had stood for 250 years until being burned down again in the Tokyo air raids of World War Two. This version is an exact copy of that, and very impressive.

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Five Storied Pagoda

As you pass through Hozomon you will see the Five Storied Pagoda to your left. This, like other buildings in the complex, dates originally from 942 but has been many times destroyed by fire and rebuilt. Most recently, fires from the World War Two Tokyo air raids raised it to the ground, and it was rebuilt through donations made by faithful Buddhists from all over the country. In 1973, the pagoda was further restored to include additional facilities such as a room for mortuary tablets. Relics of the Buddha are kept on the top floor.

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Burning incense at Senso-Ji

In the area in front of the main shrine you’ll see a large incense burner. This is where worshippers ‘wash’ themselves in the smoke to ward off or help cure illness. Either side of this are the fortune telling drawers. For 100¥ you can shake one of the wooden boxes until a bamboo stick slides out of the hole. The stick will have a Japanese number on it, which corresponds to one of the numbers on the set of drawers. You then take the fortune, written in both English and Japanese, from the drawer of that number. I had read that the English translations were pretty obtuse so we didn’t try our fortune. In any case, if you don't like the fortune you get, you can conveniently cancel it out it by tying it to one of the wires provided for this purpose nearby!

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Fortune telling at Senso-Ji

Beyond the fortune telling are some stalls selling prayer cards and amulets. And then you arrive at the shrine itself, Kannondo Hall. This too is a 1950s reconstruction of an older building lost in the March 1945 Tokyo air raids. Though it mirrors the original style, the current building features a solid reinforced concrete structure with titanium roof tiles – the Japanese are rightly taking no more chances.

According to legend, the hall was originally built in 628 to house the statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, fished out of the nearby Sumida River by two brothers. At the heart of the inner shrine or naijin is the gokuden which houses this statue, or so the believers say – it is never ever seen and cynics might question its existence. It also houses a duplicate statue and this is seen on occasion – once a year to be accurate, on December 13 when it is taken out for public viewing. Either side of the gokuden are the Buddhist protector deities Bonten and Taishakuten. You can’t enter this inner shrine but you can approach to view it through a grille, taking off your shoes to do so. I couldn’t see any signs prohibiting photography so I took one, respectful, picture.

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Main shrine, Senso-Ji

You can easily spend quite some time wandering around the grounds of Senso-ji, as we did, as there is so much to see here. To the north east of the main shrine is another, known as the Asakusa Jinja or Sanja Sama (Shrine of the Three Guardians). Unlike Senso-ji, which is a Buddhist temple, this one is Shinto and their proximity to each other mirrors the way in which these two religions coexist peacefully in Japan and often interact. In this case, the Shinto shrine serves as protection for the Buddhist temple.

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Asakusa Jinja, Senso-ji

It was built in 1649 by Iemitsu Tokugawa, the third Tokugawa shogun, to commemorate the two fishermen who found the statue of Kannon in the Sumida River, Hamanari and Takenari Hinokuma, and to their village chief, Hajino Nakatomo. According to the story of the discovery, it was the latter who realised the importance of the statue and who built the first temple on this site to house it. The three men seen as the founders of Senso-ji and indeed of Asakusa are themselves now worshipped here. The shrine is built in the architectural style known as Gongen-zukuri, which we were to see two weeks later in Nikko at the Toshogu Shrine. This is one of the few original structures in the complex, having survived the numerous fires and the air raids of World War Two.

Near here is the Nitenmon gate, named for the two Buddhist deities (known as ten) that flank it. Like the Jinja Shrine, this gate is an original structure. It dates from 1618 although the deities are a more recent replacement for two that were desecrated in the late 19th century when Buddhism and Shintoism did not live so harmoniously together. The present statues were taken from the grave of Tokugwa Ietsuna, the fourth Edo shogun at Ueno Park. For some reason I seem to have omitted to take any photos of this gate – possibly because it started raining as we reached this point in our explorations.

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In the grounds of Senso-Ji

Meanwhile to the west of the main temple is a lovely garden area with some smaller shrines, statues of the Buddha, attractive planting and a stream with some large carp. There are a number of quiet corners and great photo opportunities. We spent some time relaxing on a bench here, still fighting sleepiness and jet-lag.

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In the grounds of Senso-Ji

Chingodo Temple

After leaving Senso-ji we explored some of the surrounding streets, soaking up the atmosphere.

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In Asakusa

We came across a tranquil tucked-away shrine devoted to the deity Otanuki-sama, the Chingodo Temple. Tanuki means raccoon-dog and the deity is thought to protect people and their homes from disasters such as fire and theft and is also, according to a sign I saw here, a god of ‘the art of public entertainment’.

Also here is a statue of Mizuko Jizo, the Buddhist monk guardian of aborted and prematurely dead children. Mizuko Jizō is often depicted as a staff-wielding monk with children in his arms or, as here, under his robe. The unfortunate parents of these children make offerings to the deity to enlist his help in helping the children escape hell, since they are considered not to have had the chance to lead the moral life that would have ensured good karma.

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Mizuko Jizo statues, Chingodo shrine

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The children at the Chingodo shrine

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Water fountain at Chingodo

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The Toyoko Inn Asakusa

By now it was late enough to check into our hotel, the Toyoko Inn, and we were weary enough to need a rest, so we headed back there to relax for a while before dinner. We got a friendly welcome, some soft drinks and toiletries as ‘gifts’ (including a gel that claimed to be able turn my ‘ugly body’ into one fit to be seen at celeb parties - yes, really!) and even the offer of a sterilised nightgown! Our 10th floor room was on the small side (as is common in Japan), but had no view other than of the wall of the next-door building. It was dominated by a large, comfortable bed, and we had everything else we needed for our stay too, including a bathroom with shower, washbasin and fancy Japanese toilet (heated seat, spray washes etc). There was a mini-bar, TV, hair dryer, kettle for tea-making and even slippers.

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Compact bedroom at the Toyoko Inn

As we were so tired we didn't want to venture far from our hotel that evening, so found a small restaurant on Kokusai Dori a block or so north of Tarawamachi Station. We had no idea what the name was as the sign was in Japanese only, but they did have an English menu and various set dinner options, which made choosing easier. Service was friendly, and although, as the only non-Japanese in there, we caused a small stir on entering, we felt comfortable and welcomed dining here. There is both western-style and traditional seating; the latter was all taken by a group of what I took to be local businessmen, and we were offered a choice of the one free table or eating at the counter, and chose the former.

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Futuwama

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Tempura set at Futuwama

We both had tempura meals which came with miso soup, rice, sauce for dipping the tempura, pickles and a small salad. We liked the tempura and the dipping sauce but I found the miso soup saltier than I am used to (and I like salt!) and Chris didn't take to it much at all. This was our first meal in Japan so hard to judge at the time, but looking back later in the trip we both agreed it was probably the least good meal we had. A shame, but possibly our tiredness had contributed to that impression, and at least it was good value and convenient for our hotel, so we could tumble gratefully into bed soon afterwards!

Posted by ToonSarah 01:22 Archived in Japan Tagged tokyo japan culture temple hotel restaurants city shrine customs street_photography Comments (6)

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 river runs through it

Japan day eleven


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

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Heron by the Miyagawa

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

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Children feeding the fish and ducks

Morning market

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

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Stallholder at the market

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

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Candle-maker

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Stall-holders

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

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Produce on sale

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

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Sign at a sweet stall

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

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A bite to eat

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Tea stall

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

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Calligraphy

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

Matsuri Yatai Kaikan

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

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Main exhibit hall, Matsuri Yatai Kaikan

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

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

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Yatai storehouse on the banks of the Miyagawa

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Another storehouse

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

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Float detail

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Float details

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A karakuri ningyo on a float

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Historical costume

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

Sakurayama Nikko Kan

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Model of Toshugo at Sakurayama Nikko Kan

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

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

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Model of the temple buildings by day ...

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... and by night

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

Sakurayama Hachimangu

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Sakurayama Hachimangu

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Lion dog

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

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

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Dragon fountain

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Inari Shrine, and prayers for good fortune

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Fox guarding the Inari Shrine

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

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Family group at Sakurayama Hachimangu
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A baby's blessing

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

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Torii gate at Sakuramaya Hachimangu

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

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Exterior of the café

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

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Cappuccino

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Mocha

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The 'artist' at work

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Inside the café, with our Canadian companion

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

Shishi-Kaikan: the Lion Dance Ceremony Exhibition Hall

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Sign in the Shishi-Kaikan

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

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

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

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Dashi karakuri

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Another dashi karakuri, and the tea-serving doll

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

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

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Lion masks

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

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In Rakuda

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

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Rakuda exterior, and soda with fresh fruit

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My sandwich

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

Yoshijima-ke

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In Yoshijima-ke

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

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In Yoshijima-ke

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

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In Yoshijima-ke

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

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

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

Kusakabe mingei-kan

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Daidokoro with irori, Kusakabe mingei-kan

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

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

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The jizai-kagi

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

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An inner garden

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Silk kimono on display

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

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

Tatami

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

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Tatami in the making

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

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

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Tools of the tatami-making trade

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

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

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

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In the gallery

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Our print

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

Center4 Hamburgers

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

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Center4 Hamburgers

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

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In Center4 Hamburgers

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Antiques spill into the restaurant

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My Hida beef burger

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

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

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Old town at night

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

Back to Tokyo (via Matsumoto)

Japan day fourteen


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

A certain beauty

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When the skies cleared

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

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

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Clouds rolling away

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Yakedake visible at last

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The Azusa River with backdrop of mountains revealed

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Mountain views

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

Leaving Kamikochi

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Kappa-bashi, early morning

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Sue and Jim on Kappa-bashi

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

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

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

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Looking back at Taisho-Ike

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Train from Shinshimashima to Matsumoto

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

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

A few hours in Matsumoto

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Manhole cover, Matsumoto

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

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Monument in the town

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

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

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

Matsumoto Castle

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Matsumoto Castle

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

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

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Matsumoto Castle

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

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

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Roof details

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Warning sign inside

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

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

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Japanese tourist with 'samurai'

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

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

Nawate-dori

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Sign on Nawate-dori

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

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

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Nawate-dori, with giant frog

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Frog shop

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

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

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Shop window, Nawate-dori

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Nawate-dori book shop

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Garden on Nawate-dori

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

Sweet Bakery

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

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Sweet Bakery on Nawate-dori

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

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Cosy interior of Sweet Bakery

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

Yohashira Shrine

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Carving detail, Yohashira Shrine

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

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Lion dog guardian, Yohashira Shrine

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

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

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Yohashira Shrine - feeding the pigeons and ringing the temple bell

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

Return to a very different Tokyo

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

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Arriving in Shinjuku at night

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

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Ibis Hotel, Shinjuku

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

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

Udon noodles galore!

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Outside Mentsudan restaurant - Andrew explaining the menu

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

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

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Place your order

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Rolling the noodles

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Udon noodles with tempura side

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

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

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

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Farewell group shot

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

Shinjuku at night

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Shinjuku at night

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

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Shinjuku at night

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

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On Omoide Yokocho

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

82 Ale House

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Entrance to the pub

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

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

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Japanese take on a British pub

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In the pub - note the Alnwick Castle poster!

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

Magnificent!

Japan day fifteen


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

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Detail, Toshogu Shrine

A famous Japanese saying proclaims:

‘Nikko wo minakereba "kekkō" to iu na’

‘Don't say "magnificent" until you've seen Nikko’

And with some good reason. Its shrines are a wonder to behold, especially perhaps Toshogu, arguably the most flamboyant building in Japan. We had only a day and a half here, but this was enough to give us a great insight into the best of Nikko’s glories which shone despite some gloomy drizzly weather.

Getting to Nikko

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Train to Shimo Imaichi

We started the day with breakfast at our hotel in Tokyo, the Ibis Shinjuku. The buffet breakfast was included in our rate there, with both Western and Japanese options available. I have to confess that after several days of very traditional Japanese breakfasts in our ryokan in Kamikochi we both fell on the cereal, croissants and bacon and eggs with some relief! The coffee was good and there was also fresh orange juice, so we breakfasted well.

It was then a short walk to the huge Shinjuku Station. Our journey to Nikko from here involved two trains (although there a very few direct services if you prefer not to have to change). Firstly, we took a Limited Express service to Shimo Imaichi, which took an hour and 45 minutes. There we had just a couple of minutes to transfer to the local Tōbu Nikko line for the short (eight minute) ride to Tōbu Nikko, one of two stations in the town. Luckily we only had to cross the platform so the short transfer time here was no problem.

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From the train to Nikko

If you too are planning a visit to Nikko it’s worth knowing that you can also travel between Asakusa in Tokyo and Nikko on the direct Tōbu line, but as we were staying in Shinjuku before and after this side trip, that was less convenient for us. It does however make a day trip to Nikko more practical if that is all you can manage (but you really should try to fit in an overnight stay if possible!)

Also there are, confusingly, two stations in Nikko just a few minutes’ walk apart. We used Tōbu Nikko for both our arrival and departure. The other is the JR station just down the road, which is served by JR trains from Tokyo and Ueno stations, changing at Utsunomiya. This costs more than the Tōbu line but is worth considering if you have a JR Pass (ours had expired by this point in our travels).

Arriving in Nikko

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The Turtle Inn Annexe

Arriving in Nikko we decided to take a taxi to our accommodation as we knew it was about 40 minutes’ walk away – a bit far with luggage even though we had left some in storage back at the Ibis, where we would be returning in a couple of days.

We had booked two nights at the Turtle Inn Annexe - Hotari An, a traditional ryokan on the western edge of town which had been recommended by Inside Japan. It was an excellent choice – one of my favourites of the many places we stayed on this trip. It has a pleasant location right beside the river. Our Japanese style room overlooked this river and we could hear its waters clearly as we lay on our cosy futons.

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Two views of our room

The room was en suite but the guesthouse also has an onsen (indoors but overlooking the river) which can be used privately for a 20 minute spell – ample time for a soak in the hot waters. There’s no booking system; you simply wait for it to be free and then hang an ‘occupied’ sign on the door. After a day spent seeing the sights in the rather chilly weather we experienced here, this was a great treat.

The only drawback to staying here was the distance from the main part of town. I’ve already mentioned how far it was from the station, and although nearer to the shrines these were still about 15 minutes’ walk, and the top end of the main street about 20 minutes. But on the plus side it’s very handy for the Kanmangafuchi Abyss, as we were about to discover. For us the quiet and pleasant location, and the pleasure of walking Nikko’s residential streets, more than made up for the distance from town but it’s something to consider before booking.

Lunchtime

We had arrived late morning and our room wasn’t to be ready until 2.00 PM, so we left our bags and went out in search of lunch which we found just a short walk away. Just by the start of the path to the Kanmangafuchi Abyss and the Bake-Jizō is a small wooden building housing a café, the Kanman Teahouse, named for the small park opposite. There was no English menu but there were pictures to help us choose, and we both decided on the dumplings. These were cooked to order by the friendly owner (I assume) and served three to a skewer, three skewers per person. I believe having done some research since our return that we were eating mitarashi dango – dumplings made with rice flour and served with a sort of sweet and sour sauce with a soy base. This sauce was really tasty! Our meal cost just 500¥ each, washed down with a shared bottle of a local soda.

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Dumplings cooking

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The finished dumplings

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Cute table decor

Fortified, we set off to explore the nearby Kanmangafuchi Abyss.

Kanmangafuchi Abyss

Most day trippers to Nikko come, rightly, to see its magnificent shrines, but if you’re here for any longer you really shouldn’t miss a visit to the so-called Kanmangafuchi Abyss. While ‘abyss’ is rather a grand term for what is essentially a small gorge, it’s a scenic spot and one which you’ll probably share with only a handful of other tourists rather than the hordes who visit Toshogu etc. Certainly we passed only a handful of others on our walk here.

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Kanmangafuchi Abyss

The gorge was formed about 7,000 years ago by an eruption of nearby Mount Nantai. Since then the river Daiya has been carving these huge boulders into dramatic shapes as it tumbles over them. This area has been considered a sacred place since ancient times, because Fudo-Myo-O (a manifestation of the Cosmic Buddha) once appeared to people from the deep waters of the river. The name of the abyss, ‘Kanman’, comes from the murmuring sound of the river, which the Priest Kokai likened to an incantation chanted by Fudo-Myo-O of which the last word was ‘kanman’.

A riverside path (easy walking but with some steps) follows the water upstream. On your left as you walk are the famous Bake-Jizō of Kanmangafuchi and on your right this tumbling stream. When we were here (third week in October) the leaves were turning and despite the dull weather there were some glowing colours that contrasted nicely with the rushing white waters. It really is a very photogenic spot.

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In Kanmangafuchi Abyss

But scenic as it is, the main reason to walk the Kanmangafuchi Abyss are the Bake-Jizō.

The Bake-Jizō of Kanmangafuchi

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The Bake-Jizō of Kanmangafuchi

As soon as I saw photos of these haunting statues while researching our trip, I knew I had to see them for myself. Commonly referred to as Hyaku Jizō, meaning the ‘100 Jizō’, there are in fact around 70 or 80 here as some were washed away in the 1902 flood. I say ‘around 70 or 80’ because it is said that no one knows the exact number. A legend says that each time they are counted, the result is different – hence their other name, Bake-Jizō, meaning ‘Ghost Jizō ‘. Of course the more rational visitor may conclude that the reason for all the discrepancies when counting is that so many have been badly damaged that they are now little more than a pedestal or pile of stones, and therefore no one can be sure whether or not to count them. But the legend is more captivating!

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The Bake-Jizō of Kanmangafuchi

Another name sometimes used is Narabi Jizō, meaning ‘Jizō in a line’, which is self-evident. They line one side of the path, facing the river, as if standing guard over the abyss. And in fact, standing guard is exactly what they are doing. Jizō is a Buddhist divinity, the guardian of children, and in particular, children who die before their parents. He is sometimes worshipped as the guardian of the souls of mizuko, the souls of stillborn, miscarried or aborted foetuses, in the ritual of mizuko kuyō, as I wrote about in my Tokyo blog about the Chingodo shrine in Asakusa. The unfortunate parents of these children make offerings to the deity to enlist his help in helping the children escape hell, since they are considered not to have had the chance to lead the moral life that would have ensured good karma.

According to one folk tale, the dead children must pile stones into towers to achieve karma and be released. But demons scatter the stones, and the towers can never be completed. Jizo hides children in his robes to protect them from these demons and save them.

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The Bake-Jizō of Kanmangafuchi

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I have read several explanations for the practice of putting red bibs and caps on these statues. One suggests that this custom is primarily associated with a child’s recovery from sickness (or preserving them from falling sick) and the red colour was originally associated particularly with smallpox. But also, putting bibs and hats on these statues is a way of nurturing the spirits with whom they are believed to be imbued. Expectant or worried parents knit these hats and bibs for the statues and leave offerings of money for their children's wellbeing.

We spent quite a lot of time taking photos of the statues, though had to wait a while to get the best ones as a man with a tripod had set up right in the middle and was in no rush to move on.

Reihi-Kaku

Part way along the abyss is a small building, Reihi-Kaku, formerly a Buddhist Gomadan (Alter of Holy Fire) which a priest, Kokai, built at the time of the foundation of the nearby Jiunji Temple. It was used to burn a holy fire facing a stone image of Fudo-Myo-O, located on the opposite bank. The Reihi-kaku was washed away by floods in 1902, and today's building is a 1971 reconstruction. The fire no longer burns here however.

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Reihi-Kaku in Kanmangafuchi Abyss

Beyond Reihi-Kaku and the Bake-Jizō the path ascends some steps past a small graveyard and through trees to emerge just below a main road. There are a couple of stone seats here but the views aren’t as good as from lower down, so we decided to turn back and retrace our steps for another chance to marvel at and photograph the Bake-Jizō. But eventually we got all the images we wanted and were ready to move on and explore the area around the Turtle Inn Annexe.

Higiri Jizoson Jokoji Temple

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Dragon fountain at Higiri Jizoson Jokoji Temple

On the western side of Nikko, tucked away among the streets of small houses, we came across this small temple, Jokoji or as it is sometimes transcribed, Joukouji. A small gate, a dragon water fountain for purification, a row of small statues including a couple of contemplative Buddhas ... And beyond, a cemetery with ancient and more recent grave markers packed in on the hillside overlooking the Daiya River.

This temple has stood here since 1640. It has a bell that is even older, dating from 1459. The most famous of its many statues is the Jizō-Do which sits in front of the main hall of the temple. Unusually it is portrayed wearing a stone hat – a Suge-gasa (a Japanese hat made from sedge grass). But the stone hat has not prevented people from adding the customary red cap, as you can see. It is believed that if you pray to this Jizō for something to be fulfilled by a certain date, your wish will come true.

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Jizō-Do

In 1902, the Daiya River overflowed its banks and two of the big Jizō statues that stand beside it were washed away in the floods. Later the head of one of these, the Oya-Jizō, was found in the riverbed and is now installed in the Jokoji Temple. Unfortunately we didn’t see this. But we found plenty of small Jizō in the atmospheric old cemetery behind the temple, as well as many interesting old gravestones.

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At the Jokoji Temple

The stone cups

On leaving the Jokoji Temple we took a short stroll around the nearby streets, partly to get our bearings and plan where to eat later. These streets have channels on either side, filled with running fresh water making its way down to the Daiya River below. My attention was caught by some unusual looking stone structures that sat on the edge of these channels at intervals. A nearby information sign, in English as well as Japanese, helpfully shed some light on their purpose:

‘They are water pipes, built in the Taisho Era, to bring water from the nearby spring. Linking the pipes are bowls carved out of individual stones.
In summer the water is cold, in winter it is warm. Let the water run through your fingers and experience how it makes you feel.’

Well, I let it run through mine and on a chilly afternoon in October it felt pretty cold! But the sound of running water and the frequent sights of it make this part of Nikko a pleasure to walk through, giving the town a sense of freshness and reminding you that here you are among the mountains.

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Stone cup

There are apparently eight of these cisterns, known locally as ‘stone cups’, still remaining in the town, although we only spotted a couple. They provided water not only for drinking but for many other purposes such as washing vegetables and splashing water on the road to settle the dust. The water is no longer considered safe for drinking however.

After exploring this area for a short while we headed back to the Turtle Inn Annexe to warm up before coming out again to seek dinner. We settled into our traditional tatami room and enjoyed the sound of the river outside while sorting our many photos of the Bake-Jizō and writing up journals, before heading out again into the drizzly evening.

The Bell Coffeehouse

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Cosy interior, Bell Coffeehouse

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Soba and yuba at the Bell Coffeehouse

We had asked the friendly owner of our guesthouse about nearby places to eat and she made a couple of suggestions, of which this was one, about 10 minutes’ walk away. We sat in a cosy corner near the bar, with Japanese baseball on the TV, and were given an English menu to choose from. I wanted to try the local delicacy, yuba - made from sheets of bean curd skimmed from the surface when making tofu. It sounds a bit odd but the result is not unlike pasta or noodles in consistency – maybe a little chewier.

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Shrimp and yuba gratin

Here at the Bell it is served in many ways, including a ‘yuba feast’ in which it appears in a number of dishes. But that looked like more than either of us wanted. So instead I chose a dish of yuba and soba noodles (my favourite Japanese noodles with the extra bite that the buckwheat gives) in a broth with vegetables, which was served with a side of inari sushi. This is usually a pouch of fried tofu filled with sushi rice, but here I think was made with more of the yuba in place of the more usual tofu (an improvement as far as I was concerned, not being a fan of tofu). Meanwhile Chris had a shrimp and yuba gratin dish that he really enjoyed. We both had a large beer with our meals and later found room for dessert – chocolate cake for Chris, cheesecake for me, coffee for both of us.

After dinner we headed back to the Turtle Inn Annexe to make use of their lovely onsen. The next day was to be a long one …

Posted by ToonSarah 08:13 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes waterfalls food water monument japan culture temple statue hotel restaurants shrine customs Comments (2)

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