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Japan – Kyoto and Takayama

February 12, 2013 1 comment

Japan so far:

This post is a photo tour of the beautiful sights of Kyoto, with its many temples, shrines and stunning gardens, as well as the remote mountain town of Takayama and its surrounding traditional villages.

NOTE If you are reading this in a news reader such as Google Reader, or inside Facebook on a tablet, you might want to open this in a dedicated browser window as the photo layout may work better. And there are more photos from these locations available on Flickr

KYOTO

Kyoto is one of the most famous cities in Japan, the former Imperial capital justly famed for its numerous cultural landmarks, the city which gave the world the geisha and set the standard for Japanese haute cuisine. Though it is a major tourist magnet now, both for foreign and domestic visitors, parts of Kyoto retain their charm. The city’s reputation for refinement survives despite now being part of one continuous conurbation with Kobe and Osaka, the latter a decidedly more blue-collar town.

The flipside of this is that as an independent traveller, Kyoto is also an occasionally frustrating city once you set about actually trying to explore it. If you don’t find yourself near one of the few subway lines, you rely on buses and taxis to get around, or bicycles if you are brave enough. Once you get to any of the major sights, you will find it completely swarmed with Japanese and other tourists. And, sadly, perhaps as a consequence of the tourist overload and the refined reputation, it is harder there to just walk into a restaurant or bar and get a warm welcome, if indeed you are let in at all. Still, this is one case where advanced research paid off and we were able to enjoy some great food whilst we were there, and did manage a friendly drink or two.

And of course there is the scenery….

Kiyomizu-dera Temple and southern Higashimiya
The Kiyomizu-dera Temple is justly celebrated as one of the major attractions of Kyoto, and isn’t shy about advertising itself either – a powerful spotlight beam emanates from the hill behind the site and sweeps across southern Kyoto, drawing in tourists by the coach load. This was easily the most crowded religious site we visited, and as it was our first night we were anxious about the rest of our time in Kyoto – were we to be jostled like human bowling pins for the entirety of our time here? But it was (just) worth it to see the famous view of the temple’s main hall suspended over the illuminated autumn-colour gardens. How I managed to get any sharp photos I couldn’t tell you…

Main Hall of Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto

Main Hall of Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto

 

Moving on from the Kiyomizu-dera we walked through the old-town pedestrianised hillside streets of southern Higashimiya, past a number of temples, to the Chion-in and its gardens, the famous Yasaka Shrine with its central dance hall lit by rows of (sponsored) lanterns every night, and ending up in the Gion district, home of the famous Geisha.

 

Northwestern Kyoto: The Golden Pavilion, Imamiya Shrine and Koto-in Temple
The next morning, we gingerly approached the Golden Pavilion, knowing it was one of the other “must-see” sights of Kyoto, and I remembered the last time I was here having to elbow my way past hordes of school groups to see anything. Mercifully, we happened to hit during a relatively quiet period, and were able to enjoy the temple grounds a bit more. We decided to have a walk through Northeast Kyoto after that, and ambled our way across to the Imamiya Shrine and finally to the Koto-In Temple, the latter experiencing a fantastic display of autumn colours in a serene setting.

The Golden Pavilion, Kyoto

The Golden Pavilion, Kyoto

 

Western Kyoto: Arashimaya and Tenryuji
After a comedy of errors getting from Northwest Kyoto to the Arashimaya district on public transport (perishing hunger and poor map reading skills do not make for a great combo) we topped up with some gorgeous soba noodles before ambling back out to the waterside to see the famous Togetsukyo Bridge, with its ludicrously colourful hillside backdrop, and just managed to make it along the river and into the picturesque gardens of the Tenryuji Temple before the sun went down and we were escorted out, politely but firmly, by a security guard with an illuminated wand, who put us in mind of fleeing from a menacing Darth Vader…

Togetsukyo Bridge, Arashimaya, Kyoto

Togetsukyo Bridge, Arashimaya, Kyoto

 

Eastern Kyoto: Silver Pavilion, Philosopher Path, Honen-in and Eikando Temples
The next day we struck out early for the Philosopher Path in eastern Kyoto, with the Silver Pavilion at the northern end, and a sedate amble along the canal path heading south to visit the small Honen-in temple and then to the larger complex of the Eikando temple, which boasted stunning autumn colours. Sense a theme here?

Silver Pavilion, Kyoto

Silver Pavilion, Kyoto

 

We had to run off after sampling the morning’s temple visits, because we had a lunch date with one of Kyoto’s finest kaiseki ryori / haute cuisine restaurants, Roan Kikunoi. This was a stunning foodie experience, down to personalised printed menus walking you through the many exquisite courses (more on this in a later post). One of the things we were fascinated with, sitting at the bar, was the deft knifework of the various chefs, especially when slicing sashimi or trimming fillets. I asked about the knives they used, and the head chef laid out the three knives below. It turns out they all started off the same length, but that the lengths they are now are a result of five-year increments of multiple sharpenings per day. Amazing.

3 ages of sashimi knife, Roan Kikunoi Restaurant, Kyoto

3 ages of sashimi knife, Roan Kikunoi Restaurant, Kyoto

 

Fushimi Inari Shrine
The last major religious sight we would visit in Kyoto is one I missed on my last visit – the Fushimi Inari Shrine, with its famous ranks of thousands of red torii gates flanking paths snaking up the hillside, leading to miniature shrines with offerings and fox kami statues aplenty. There were also various Shinto ceremonies going on as we made our way around the grounds, jarring in a way as so many of the temples and shrines we visited seemed to be almost deconsecrated, odes to the past, and here was one that was still very much active.

Giant torii gate at entrance to Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto

Giant torii gate at entrance to Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto

 

TAKAYAMA

From Kyoto we made our way North up into the Japan Alps, to the sleepy mountain town of Takayama. Famous for its preserved old town with its wooden buildings, Takayama is altogether more accessible than Kyoto was, though as we got there in the late afternoon and didn’t clock onto the fact that all of the tourist-oriented shops and restaurants in the old town area shut down precisely at 5pm, we wandered about for a while in the twilight increasingly worried that we had made a mistake and that Takayama was in fact not open for business. Thankfully a bit of research prior to the trip meant we ended up in a friendly (and, more importantly, open) izakaya where we sat around low tables, grilled our own Hida beef over a charcoal brazier, and were regaled with local drinking songs by the increasingly-inebriated neighbouring table. In fact we found Takayama locals to be by far the most welcoming and gregarious the Japanese we encountered on our trip, and we ended up exchanging rounds of drinks and plates of food and getting riotously drunk. So drunk that, defying all reason, we walked into an otherwise anonymous-looking door because we heard karaoke coming out of it, and ended up spending the evening in the company of the elderly mama-san and a couple of other old coots who had nothing better to do on a Monday night….

Takayama old town by night

Takayama old town by night

Sunday crowd at the Kyoya izakaya, Takayama

Sunday crowd at the Kyoya izakaya, Takayama

 

Takayama is also a handy jumping-off point to tour various preserved farm villages in the nearby valleys. We visited one called Ogimachi in Shirakawa-go, where a number of historic gassho-zukuri thatch-roof farmhouses sat nestled in the valley, and, as the early-morning sun began to melt the snow off the roofs, the steam rising off of them made for quite a sight.

Gassho-zukuri farmhouses, Ogimachi, Shirakawa-go

Gassho-zukuri farmhouses, Ogimachi, Shirakawa-go

 

Well that’s about it from Japan, barring a food-related post I have been mulling. The next stop will be the final set of photos of this trip, from a brief but very enjoyable stopover in Hong Kong. Considering we got home over two months, it’s about time!

Japan – Hiroshima, Miyajima and Koya-San

January 22, 2013 1 comment

Japan so far:

This post is a photo tour of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, the shrine island of Miyajima, and the mountaintop temple complex and cemetery of Koya-san.

NOTE If you are reading this in a news reader such as Google Reader, or inside Facebook on a tablet, you might want to open this in a dedicated browser window as the photo layout may work better. And there are more photos from these locations available on Flickr

HIROSHIMA

Hiroshima is famous for all the wrong reasons. Back in August 1945 it was a military garrison town, but hadn’t been extensively targeted by the Allied bombing raids that had devastated many of Japan’s other cities. It was therefore thought a prime target to test the first atomic bomb deployed in anger. This was treated primarily as a deterrent to urge Japan to surrender, but touring the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum makes you realise that the US military also treated it as a scientific endeavour, wanting to see how much damage and how many casualties would be caused. This chilling experiment resulted in over 100,000 deaths, both directly and over time, and of course devastated the city centre.

In the islands that were directly under the centre of the bomb blast, several buildings half-survived and are preserved as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, chief amongst them the Atomic Bomb Dome.

A-Bomb Dome, Peace Memorial Park, Hiroshima

A-Bomb Dome, Peace Memorial Park, Hiroshima

 

The Atomic Bomb Dome is set in the Peace Memorial Park, which contains a number of moving monuments including the Children’s Peace Memorial, the Cenotaph, and of course the Peace Memorial Museum, which has a harrowing set of exhibits of items recovered from the blast site.

 

Of course, nowadays Hiroshima is a thriving, commercial city, and one thing it is famous for is a special type of okonomiyaki that is layered rather than mixed, as one would find elsewhere. In fact, in Hiroshima there is even a miniature okonomikayi theme park called Okonomi-mura with several floors of competing vendors.

Serving Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki, Okonomi-mura, Hiroshima

Serving Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki, Okonomi-mura, Hiroshima

 

MIYAJIMA

A short train ride down the coast of Hiroshima Bay will bring you to Hatsukaichi, from where you can board a ferry to the shrine island of Itsukushima, popularly known as Miyajima. I made it here last time round, as you can see over on Flickr.

Before we could board our ferry, though, we ran into this odd couple who reminded us of our recent time in Fukuoka

Sumo rikishi on the Miyajima Ferry

Sumo rikishi on the Miyajima Ferry

 

On the island itself, one of the most famous symbols of Japan is the bright red torii gate sitting out in front of the main Itsukushima Shrine. When the tide is high, it appears to float offshore. It is, of course, besieged by camera-wielding tourists like yours truly. However, a little persistence, and a disregard for little things like cold and sleep, can yield rewards.

 

The actual Itsukushima Shrine itself is no slouch in the looks department – it was built on stilts so that it too appears to float when the tide is in – and it boasts a lovely pagoda.

Pagoda of the Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima

Pagoda of the Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima

 

Finally on Miyajima, up a series of cable cars, is Mount Misen, where one can enjoy a walk through some scenic woods before enjoying a panorama of Hiroshima Bay. We rather foolishly did not allow ourselves enough time to do this venture justice, and had all of 10 minutes to look around at the top before throwing ourselves back down the mountain…

Parkland and Autumn Colours on Mount Misen, Miyajima

Parkland and Autumn Colours on Mount Misen, Miyajima

Panorama of Hiroshima Bay from Mount Misen, Miyajima

Panorama of Hiroshima Bay from Mount Misen, Miyajima

 

From Miyajima we had to rush to catch a train back to Hiroshima and thence to Koya-san. This was by far and away our most stressful day of travel, and went roughly like this: ferry, local train, bullet train, subway, local train, local train, an awfully steep funicular up a mountainside, and finally bus. But the reward was ending up in the serene mountain surroundings of Koya-san…

KOYA-SAN

Once we finally got to Koya-san we hopped off our bus, glad that that our epic journey was over, and curious about the next 24 hours. Koya-san is nestled in a valley at 800m in altitude, surrounded by peaks of the mountain range of the same name. Koya-san is known as the spiritual centre of the Shingon sect, one of the mainstream varieties of Buddhism in Japan. The town exists to serve its temples, not the other way around, and the temples are an important centre for pilgrims adhering to Shingon, who can be seen wandering through town in white jackets, conical straw hats and walking sticks.

We were to stay in the Ichijo-in, one of the temples offering shukubo or temple lodging. This intrigued us as we knew that it was not going to be your normal ryokan experience: not only were we going to be served dinner and breakfast in our room, but it was to be shojin ryori – completely vegetarian. We were also curious about being invited to participate in the morning ceremony the following day, which would involve a 6AM start and, apparently, some meditation.

 

As we entered the gates we were immediately welcomed into the temple – by a monk – with a short purification ceremony in which we rubbed dried incense powder together between our hands. We were welcomed into a pretty decent-sized tatami room, with a comfortable electric blanket over the table’s seats, served tea, and then the host monk surprised us by launching into a fluent English conversation and asking us whether we wanted beer or sake with our meal. What followed was a surprisingly lush, well-presented and delicious meal which we meat-eaters found extremely satisfying. We had some time to relax after that and get an early night’s sleep before the next morning’s ceremony.

Early the next morning, we wrapped up tight into our warmest layers, put on our slippers and shuffled through the temple to the main hall, where we sat and listened to the head monk and the four acolytes chant sutras for over half an hour, while various supplicants made their way up to an offering box to find their fortunes, and we shifted from seating position to seating position on the tatami floor, all too aware that behind us, 70-year-old Japanese folks were calmly sitting on their ankles and not moving an inch.

Soon it was time to go out and see the town. We got an early start as we had heard that it was more atmospheric in the morning. It did not disappoint.

 

We walked through nearly-empty streets, eastwards towards Koya-san’s other main attraction, the Oku-no-in Temple and its surrounding cemetery. This graveyard is, for want of a better word, the most prestigious in Japan. It means something to be interred here, as it is said that the founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kobo Daishi, is merely resting in his tomb and will return one day – and if you are a Buddhist worth your salt then you want to be nearby when this happens. Many of Japan’s great and good, from important politicians, captains of industry, religious figures and so on are to be found resting here.

What has resulted is a seemingly endless forest full of mossy gravestones, memorial edifices, Shinto kami statues, torii gates, and even corporate-owned plots with branding intact.

 

As you walk deeper into the forest, and approach the main temple area – which is a sacred area in which you are forbidden to take pictures – you see more and more pilgrims on the paths. Once into the sacred area there is a small pagoda where the faithful can reach through a hole and try to toss a heavy stone up onto a grate to prove their spiritual purity. I am happy to report that I was able to achieve this, though how spiritually pure I was, I couldn’t tell you.

Shingon Buddhist pilgrims, Oku-no-in Cemetery, Koya-san

Shingon Buddhist pilgrims, Oku-no-in Cemetery, Koya-san

 

On our way out, just outside the sacred area was a stream, and a series of Jizō statues which one makes offerings to for the souls of children, unborn, stillborn or otherwise. This was a touching end to the cemetery walk.

 

On our way back into town we just had time to visit one more temple – that of the Kongobuji, the head temple of Shingon Buddhism. We enjoyed its rock garden and its spacious tea hall, where we rested our weary legs and supped matcha tea while we planned our next journey.

 

Koya-san was a memorable, exceptional experience that could only have happened in Japan.

Next up will be the final set of destinations in Japan: the refined temple metropolis of Kyoto, and the sleepy friendly mountain town of Takayama.

Photography from Bangkok, September 2012

September 24, 2012 1 comment

A couple weeks back I got back from our holiday to the Greek islands and immediately had to turn around and fly to Bangkok for a business trip. Once business was out of the way I was able to spend a little bit of time visiting Bangkok, camera in hand, splitting my time between Jim Thompson’s House, Chatuchak Market, and the classic must-see temple complexes of the Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho and Wat Arun. It was a short visit – my first since 2001 – but a highly fulfilling one.

For a change I am trying out WordPress’ built-in gallery view for my photos – click on any one to start a slide show – but if you’d like to see them in a still larger format go ahead over to my Flickr set for the usual goodness. Also this is best viewed in a proper browser window – so inside an iPad Facebook window, or inside Google Reader may give you some formatting issues.