Japan 2017, Tokyo

Finally in Tokyo the cherry blossom ( Sakura) had arrived and was in in full bloom! What a joyous occasion in Japan, everyone is out and about, wandering the streets and having picnics in the middle of the week.

There are almost too many things to do in Tokyo. We started with an exhibition by Yayio Kusama, whose pumpkin we had seen in Naoshima Island. It shows work from the beginning of her career to now. Her most recent paintings are extraordinary considering she is 80 years old.

Other excursions that stood out in Tokyo were-

a visit to the OTA woodblock museum where I finally succumbed and bought a woodblock print.

a stroll through Yanaka, recommended by Tony’s friend Magnus and Jasper, where we waited an hour to eat our last sashimi and caught up with another Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima whose number work we had seen already in Naoshima.

We also tried again to see Mt. Fuji on a clear morning from a skyscraper in Tokyo  but the smoke  foiled our attempts.

However two shopping trips on behalf of Jasper and Sebastian were fun and educational. In Kappabashi St. we bought amazing Japanese knives for Sebastian and a wonderful ” fake sushi clock”  for Tony, which now proudly decorates our kitchen!

Jasper needed a briefcase and sent us to this very swanky shopping area called  Nakameguro. It features little shops, cafes and the Meguro river which was lined by lovely cherry blossoms.

Having done our shopping, the Kabuki-Za theatre performance was a great way to finish the day.

All roles are played by adult men after the Shogunate by the mid seventeenth century forbid women and later young men to appear on stage. They were thought to pose a threat to public order. Information provided by the theatre-“In the constrained social circumstances of the Edo period, the Kabuki theatre was one of the only officially sanctioned forms of entertainment for the general public, and in particular for the grass roots of society. As such Kabuki became a vital channel of expression against government repression. Although strict censorship ensured that nothing negative could be stated openly, nevertheless the subjects of many plays were subversive in content, often criticizing the contemporary social system under ancient historical guise. The real intentions and subjects of such stories, however, were perfectly obvious to the audiences of the time.”

We saw two plays:

KATSURAGAWA RENRI NO SHIGARAMI -Obiya
This is a sewamono play, a play portraying the lives of ordinary people in the Edo period.
One of the most famous love stories in kabuki and bunraku is the love of the young maiden Ohan for her middle-aged neighbor Chōemon, finally culminating in a double suicide.

YAKKO DŌJŌJI
This dance is a parody of the famous work ‘The Maiden at Dōjōji’.
‘Musume Dōjōji’ is based on a legend about a woman who transformed herself into a serpent out of jealousy and who destroyed a temple bell that was keeping her from the object of her love.

You are not allowed to take pictures during the performance but the pictures below give you an idea.

On our last day in Japan/Tokyo the 4th of April we enjoyed the Cherry blossom and that night went to an extraordinary restaurant called Inakaya recommended by Mark’s sister Anne and Marcelo ( the owner of Rio Ancho in Uruguay). All the food was barbecued in front of us and we shared our meal with very entertaining guests from London, LA and India.

Afterwards we went to a Korean bathhouse for a massage and a scrub. The plan was not to go to bed at all and end up at the famous Tokyo fish market at 4am. Well, we sneaked in 2 hours sleep and when we got to the fish market it was closed as they had one of their annual holidays!!!

So there are reasons to come back to Japan, maybe to experience autumn and the change of colour in the maple trees, see the cranes in Hokkaido, do more skiing, take a flat in Kyoto for a month, do more walking, eat more wonderful food -I could go on.

Finally a selection of stamps I collected from all over Japan.

Thank you to everyone who gave us their recommendations on Japan. These contributed immensely to our enjoyment and fun in Japan.

Until our next holiday xxF

Japan 2017, Kyoto(2)

The 31st of March was a seriously rainy day but this did not stop us from seeing more stunning dry rock gardens in particular Daisen-in and Zuiho-in, both part of the enormous Daitokuji-Monastery. Daisen-in is different, every stone has a name and a meaning and Zuiho-in is interesting because the main garden was created only in  the 1960’s.

Our last day in Kyoto started with a marvellous spring dance and music performance of the Kyoto Geishas. The Miyako Odori performance runs for three weeks every spring and is preceded by a Japanese tea ceremony (see picture above).

Afterwards we strolled through the gardens of the Siver Pavillon (not silver but wooden), along the Philosopher’s Way, and in the gardens of Nanzen-ji temple complex in beautiful sunshine.

The cherry blossom was really only just beginning in Kyoto but people were out and about in anticipation. That night we took our last and fastest bullet train the Nazomi back to Tokyo. The ride of 452km takes around 2 and 1/2 hrs!

Japan 2017, Kyoto (1)

 

Kiyo took us from Koya-San to Kyoto via Osaka where we had a quick browse of ceramic shops and ate blowfish ( pufferfish). You may have seen the memorial to the blowfish in the last blog.

Tony’s take on our meal: “Octopus and puffer fish are more than life size looming over Osaka’s eating quarter. We had the latter for lunch, and survived! (Although I did feel odd for a minute or two.) Puffer fish (fugu) contain one of nature’s most lethal toxins, and fugu sashimi or soup can only be prepared by specially trained chefs. Wasn’t worth the bother, or the risk, imho”.

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Each year around 50 people die in Japan after eating pufferfish.

We approached Kyoto from the south and stopped off at Fushimi-Imari Takisha- a Shinto Shrine complex built into Mt. Inari. Initially it was dedicated to the gods of rice and sake. It is lined with  rows and rows of vermilion red Torii gates which have all been donated to the gods. One can still buy them, price depends on size! There are also hundreds of stone foxes,  as the fox is considered the messenger of the god of cereals (Inari).

 

We finished the day with a stroll around the Geiko (Geisha) district, which was full of tourists trying to get a glimpse of a geisha but none were to be seen.

The 29th of March was our last day with Kiyo our Oku Travel guide and she took us on a wonderful trip around the west and north of Kyoto. She showed us some beautiful gardens and we finished off with a great spring meal that night. Below pictures of Tenruji-ji Temple gardens, the famous Bamboo grove, the Golden temple and one of the most well known Zen rock garden at Ryoanji Temple (see also above). There are 15 stones in this garden and you are meant to only ever be able to see 14 stones, except there is of course a vantage point from where you can see all the stones!

 

Tony had been to Kyoto 28 years ago and stayed in a temple called Myoren-Ji and whilst they don’t offer accommodation anymore the temple still exists. It appears to have been done up recently and has some stunning gardens and  painted silk screens.

We continued on to Chishakuin temple and the 1001 statues of the Buddhist deity at Sanjusange-do followed by a special dinner where you sat in front of the chef. Tony liked the minimalist approach and that night we finally saw or first weeping cherry tree blossom.

 

Japan 2017, Koya-San

Koya-San is a 900m high plateau surrounded by 8 peaks which represent the petals of the lotus flower in bloom.

In 816 Kobo Dashi the founder of Shingon Buddhism build a monastic complex at Mt. Koya. It is still a sacred site and many pilgrims visit Kobo Dashi’s mausoleum each year.

The most famous temple Kongobuji and headquarter of Shingon Buddhism at Koya-San was original build by Hideyoshi in 1593  to memorialise his mother.

The temple complexes in Koya -San are vast and include monk training centres and the more recent Great Stupa rebuild in 1937 (red).

However the most impressive site in Koya-San is the enormous Buddist cemetery, Oku-no, in the middle of a vast forest with the mausoleum at its centre. Walking through the cemetery we found many historic families which we had encountered before during our travels in Japan, like the feudal lords of Matsumoto castle. There are several  Memorials to fallen soldiers, the victims the atomic bomb but also the dog,  the blowfish and the god of makeup.

We stayed in a lovely working monastary overnight with great vegetarian food. We were also allowed to attend morning prayers at 6am.

 

 

 

 

 

Japan 2017, Yoshino

March 26th we travelled south to the hill top village, Yoshino, one of the most famous places to view the cherry blossom in Japan.  However we were too early in the season and it was bucketing down with rain in the afternoon.  We just managed a short stroll through the village and a tofu lunch. The Japanese really know how to cook tofu, and I have become a convert, which worries Tony!  Thankfully we were staying in a wonderful ryokan called Kato with an outdoor hot bath,  a warm fire in a huge room overlooking the garden in the rain and a fantastic Japanese breakfast (see above) the next morning.

 

The oldest rope cable car in Japan takes you up to the village which has a famous Shinto Shrine and Buddhist temple. From the top of the village one should be able to see the mountain blooming. Cherry trees are still bought and planted as an offering to the gods. Below-cherry blossom in April and our view at the end of March.

Yoshino Shrine is known as the place where Minamoto no Yoshitsune and his courtesan lived in secret.
During the first year of the Bunji era (1185), Kamakura shogunate founder Minamoto no Yoritomo’s younger brother Minamoto no Yoshitsune along with his lover Shizuka Gozen were pursued by Yoritomo, and thus the couple came to Yoshimizu-jinja Shrine seeking refuge, hiding for 5 days. However orders came to kill them, and Shizuoka Gozen told her lover to leave so that he might be saved. Yoshitsune and his guard Benkei took on the guises of mountain priests and went to Mt. Omine. Unfortunately the mountain was forbidden to women and thus Shizuka could not go with them, and the armor and possessions of Yoshitsune as well as Benkei’s weapons were left here. Both were killed eventually. This tragic love story is told through Kabuki and Joruri theatre as “Yoshitsune Senbonzakura”. Within the garden is a famous stone that Benkei drove two nails into by force as a show of his strength.
Yoshimizu-jinja ( Shrine) has also been known since ancient times as a famous flower viewing spot. In 1594, Toyotomi Hideyoshi who had unified Japan brought 5,000 people here and had a massive flower viewing party that lasted for many days. The main building acted as the headquarters for the troops during this time, and there was music, tea, and Noh theatre. Hideyoshi donated many treasures to the shrine when he came for flower viewing, such as folding screens, priceless vases, and tea instruments. Particularly valuable is the folding screen that is covered in gold leaf.

Hideyoshi became rather too fond of decorating everything in gold and when his old tea master criticised Hideyoshi’s excesses, the tea master was told to commit suicide, which he did.

Next blog from Koya-San.

 

Japan 2017, Nara

Having Kiyo our guide made travelling very easy as we did not have to worry about anything. She was happy to adjust the itinerary according to our wishes which was a big bonus. Saturday night the 24th of March in Nara we had lovely barbecued eel in a restaurant which had a poster saying “save the eel”. Tony liked it so much that he asked them whether they had another one. Well they did not but just took the poster of the wall and gave it to him!

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Sunday was a lucky day in the Japanese calendar and we saw a wedding and several children being blessed at the beautiful vermilion( orange/red)  Kasuga -Taisha Shinto Shrine. The Shrine lies in Nara deer park and gets gets rebuilt every 50 years. It is  known for the nearly 2000 stone lanterns which decorate the path up to the shrine and are lit twice a year, which must look magical.  Nara park is full of sacred deers as in the 8th century a god came to Nara riding a white deer. Since then the deer have been protected and respected as divine messengers by the local people.

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According to Kiyo most people get married at the Shinto shrine but buried at the Buddhist temple because Buddhists  believe in an afterlife.

Buddhism flourished in Nara, although the emperor moved the capital to Kyoto after 70 years because the monks engaged in too much political intrigue. By then he had built the Great Buddha which is housed in Todaiji Temple and is the world’s largest bronze statue at 16m high.

Protective gilded gods have fiersome faces to frighten the enemy.

Legend says that the dressed up monk Binzuru was too naughty to enter the temple so he had to sit outside, do good and help others. He has the gift of healing so if you touch him and then the body part which hurts you will be healed!

On to Yoshino and Konya-San next xxF

Japan 2017, Nakasendo trail (3)

After a further short train and cab ride to Nojirijuku with our lunch packed we set off the next morning for a 14km walk through the undulating landscape of the Kiso Valley

ending up in one of the most beautiful and well preserved Japanese villages an Edo postal town called Tsumago. We arrived mid afternoon which gave us enough time to explore the 2 houses where the feudal lords would stay when travelling from Kyoto to Tokyo (Edo) as well as the museum.

We stayed in another lovely family run  Minshuku Matsushiroya established in 1804, which served delicious miso Carp for dinner, a local speciality. As our guide Kiyo and us were the only guests Tony and I were able to share their fabulous cypress wooden bath tub!

The following day’s walk between Tsumago and Magome is the best known part of the Nakasendo trail and very pretty. It features husband and wife waterfalls and bells to frighten the bears. Everywhere one finds little stone sculptures called Jizos which protect travellers and the weak such as children. Magome lies on a mountain ridge and the wooden houses are build on stone walls. It is also the birth place of a famous Japanese writer Shimazaki Toson.

For lunch we tried the local speciality of Gohei mocha, small round rice cakes. Then followed a bus and train ride to Nara the capital of Japan from 710-784,  about which I will blog next.