Saturday, 30 May 2009

Last trip...

Although technically my pass ends on the 30th, the 29th was my last "real" trip (read: Shinkansen ride). For this final day, I headed back to the familiar tourist haunt of Kyoto. Kyoto's an interesting city not only because it used to be the capital of Japan, but because it was recognized for holding so many culturally important buildings that it was spared the brunt of the USAF's brutality in the second World War. As such, there are many so many things there that you could easily spend a week seeing everything if you so wished.

I would say, however, that visiting all of them isn't really necessary unless its some sort of personal goal. All shrines and all temples are, essentially, the same and only the really famous ones stand out because of certain features. Whether it's Miyajima's floating torii or it's Ise's stark simplicity, there has to be a reason to visit them. And more often than not, it has to be something visual- the shrine or temple must be visually interesting to really pull tourists in; the shrine of the 46 Ronin is, though historically interesting, visually bland.

To that end, I placed the Fushimi Inari Shrine on my list because of its famous "tunnels" of torii gates. You might have seen this in various pictures or, rather famously, in "Memoirs Of A Geisha" where the little girl runs down the tunnel of bright red shrine gates. The shrine is dedicated to Inari, the god of prosperity (be it fertility, rice/agriculture, industry, or general worldly success) and foxes. As such, many businesses pray for success at the shrine and many of them donate a torii gate (each with the business' name inscribed on the pillars) for sure a purpose. Receive a few thousand donations and you end up with...

The shrine itself is just beyond the entrance (first picture) with various other buildings in the area (second picture). The gates (above) lead to a small hiking path that goes up nearby Inari mountain to various other smaller shrines.

Amazingly, I expected just a short tunnel section of these gates but it way surpassed my expectations by having torii tunnels all over the walking route, which takes about 2 hours to loop around, which results in both climbing the mountain and coming down the other side. It's worth noting that in striking comparison with the so-modest-everything-is-brown tone to the Ise Grand Shrines, the Inari shrines and gates almost glow with vermilion on a bright day, as you can see above. Also seen above is the inscriptions on the gates themselves.

As you walk along the path, you may notice that, like many other shrines, their defining feature has become the theme by which people may worship and Fushimi Inari is no different. Various sizes of mini torii are available (from ¥1200 to ¥10,000 sizes) for people to write their wishes to present to Inari (above).

And because Inari is also the god of foxes, there are fox-themed ema as well! Oddly, it's turned out that photographing ema at shrines has become a theme for me and I have a (small) collection of various ema shapes.

And then there are the obligatory statues of foxes. Many of them hold keys in their mouths, which is another symbol towards a prosperous life.

Overall, the shrine is definitely worth visiting simply because it's so visually interesting and it follows through with the notion that there are torii gates everywhere, not just some short section that everyone is allowed to walk through once. And at 2hrs to walk the main looping math, it's not only worthwhile to see, it's quick as well.

And finally, on my way back to Kyoto station, I visited the Rengeo-in, more commonly known as the Sanjusangendo (三十三間堂). The building is one of the longest wooden buildings in Japan (possibly the world) and its nickname comes from that fact that there are 33 spaces between the columns.

Within the spaces are a giant Thousand-Armed Kannon, 1001 life-size Kannon, and the 28 guardian deities from Buddhist scriptures. Unfortunately, because it is an extremely sacred building, photography is not allowed but I do highly recommend visiting this place because the statues are impressive.

As a sort of Buddhist Terracotta army, each of the 1001 life-size Kannon are slightly different and the guardian deities have small pieces of crystal inserted into the eye sockets to give a slightly more realistic look.

The best part about these two places is that they're right next to Kyoto station on the JR Nara Line. In fact, if you plan on visiting Nara as a day trip, I would say that taking the morning to see these sights on your way there works great, especially since the main sights of Nara can easily be done in an afternoon (by main I mean the park, its surroundings, and Todaiji).

Alas, that saw the last of my tour of Japan. I hope you guys enjoyed riding along and while I'm sure there's a lot I've still yet to see, it wasn't a bad way get the travelling started.

Stay tuned for some stats that I've collected on my journeys around this country =)...

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Week 3 - Off the beaten path...

It's only a few days til my friend Alan visits so instead of embarking on some far overnight trip, I took two day trips to some rather more unique places.

The first of the two trips (Tuesday, May 26) was to what's known as the Tsumago-Magome Hike. Tsumago and Magome were two post towns (aka: rest stops) along the ancient route between Edo (to use Tokyo's "old" name) and Kyoto. The route, having been designed for and became popular amongst shogun and daimyo's, has 69 stops along the way, with Tsumago and Magome being the 42nd and 43rd respectively.

Both towns have recently become tourist attractions and you can even stay overnight in one town and send your luggage to the other, allowing you to hike between the towns at your leisure. I started in Tsumago (above) which, of the two, has a slightly more "preserved" look to it, as if it was well kept throughout time. In all honesty, the towns offer very little aside from neat tea houses or souvenir shopping. Tourists seem to like it though, as bus after bus drove in and people wandered up and down the street.

A quick walk through the town sees you at the start of the Tsumago-Magome hiking trail which winds its way 8km towards Magome. The hike, having been made for dignitaries to cross, isn't difficult by any means even with one or two steep sections. It actually makes for a nice, short hike (I did it in well under two hours) which is unfortunate because it's rather hard to reach the trail in the first place, requiring rides on local trains and a bus. There's also really tiny neighbourhoods that live along the trail so you can walk past quiet houses with subsistence gardens and calm dogs, which just add to the atmosphere.

However, as modernity required linking everything with roads, some parts of the trail have actually be paved over and require you to walk from one section to the other on what is basically a paved mountain road. Traffic is few and far between so it's not dangerous though, just so you know =P... anyway, about halfway along, you can take a slight detour and see the Odakimedaki (Male & Female) Waterfalls (above, bottom). While not the most amazing waterfalls in the world, you can get quite close to them and, coupled with the clearest streams I've ever seen in Japan, do make for a great highlight to the hike.

The other reason why I suggesting walking to Magome instead of the other way around is that because Magome is slightly higher in altitude than Tsumago, the scenery make for a good cherry on top of the ice cream. Here you can see the surrounding Nagano countryside.

Magome, in interesting contrast to Tsumago, turned itself into a tourist attraction by almost reconstructing the old town look and feel, as you can see here with the neat stone paths. Lastly, the reason why you want to end up at Magome is that more busses from to the nearest train station, so you can leisurely make you way through the trail without have to worry about waiting an hour in a town that offers, quite frankly, very little to do. Also, many people stay the night in either town but I really feel there's not much to do there and certainly not enough to warrant a night's stay.

The next day (Wednesday, May 25) I headed to Ise in Mie prefecture. Ise is home to the Ise Grand Shrines, two Shinto shrines that together are known as the most scared shrines in all of Japan. It's easy to notice the distinctly greater number of people here praying to the various gods, including one couple expectating their first baby. The two shrines are divided into the Geku (Outer Shrine) and Naiku (Inner Shrine). Such is the importance of these shrines that photography is prohibited in the main shrines (the picture above is of another building in the Geku area) and they've even put up wooden barriers to prevent guests from entering too far without the guidance of a shinto priest.

This is about as close as you'll get to a picture of the main shrine at the Naiku. The shrines are particularly famous for their simple, almost determinedly basic buildings. Everything from the stones on the ground (light coloured stones on the paths, dark ones on the sides) to the tile-less roofs are humbling to see. Something even pictures cannot describe, however, are just how well built and intricate these structures are- the wood is selected from all of Japan, the fitment of the pieces are snug, and even the straw in the roof seemed to be aligned straighter than normal. The entire natural area around it even has the same feel, where all the trees seem just a shade browner and more "natural" to them. It's hard to describe but it feels like the whole place has a patina of natural yet cared for development to it.

The other thing that sets these shrines apart is that they're completely rebuilt every 20 years. As I mentioned before, the best wood is brought in from all over Japan and carried through Ise in cermonial fashion. As such, both shrines feel very different from other shrines or temples across Japan and they're so humbling that I almost felt bad for taking pictures. There's just something so down-to-earth about the atmosphere that the buildings and surrounding areas produce that it really is something that has to be felt to be believed.

Having said all that however, I do feel that, like Dr. Samuel Johnson said about the Giant's Causeway, the shrines are "worth seeing but not worth going to see". I say that because while the temples are definitely worth seeing, the town of Ise isn't. It's a rather long train ride (about 90 minutes from Nagoya) and the town itself is surprisingly rundown, or at least more so than I expected. A town with the most sacred of Shinto shrines deserves better than grimey stucco houses or rusted-over steel wall panelling. As you walk between the station and Geku or take the bus between Geku and Naiko (it's only a 1hr walk and you might be tempted, but don't... trust me, there's not much to see) you can't help but think that the whole laissez faire and basic nature of the shrines simply doesn't translate to much more temporary items like parking garages or cookie cutter houses...

At any rate, despite the city, the shrines are incredibly important, as the bus loads of elderly Japanese tourists can attest to- it's a place that is a must see, particularly because pictures can't really describe it. And for that reason and that the city is not exactly easy to get to, I do feel particularly proud for having made it there.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Your Japanese word of the week is...

"saisho" 最初 which means first. I'm mostly saying this because while many people learn "saigo" 最後 as last, it technically means final. The "last" train of the day, for example, isn't the final train to run, since it will start again the next day. Unfortunately, last is "saishuu" 最終 which, if you ask me, sounds a lot like "saisho". And that, doubly unfortunately, means mistaking one for the other results in a certain blog writer asking the same question 3 times to the hotel clerk... oh well haha......

Anyways, these past two days I was in Kanazawa, about 4 hours from Tokyo and up near the Sea of Japan coast. While known for many historic things, it also contained some rather nice modern things.

Quite obviously modern is Kanazawa's 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. Designed as a giant circle with multiple entrances so visitors can "approach" the art from many angles. Kanazawa itself also seems to been taken by modern yet artistic flair. Sculptures can be seen all around the city (above) and there are some neat architectural elements that just somehow look slightly more stylish. It even includes the cool lattice-work structure of Kanazawa station's entrance and a gorgeous re-interpretation of the famous torii gates found all over Japan (see first picture).

The art museum itself contains a few permanent and free pieces as well as lots of open space, inviting people to use the museum as a meeting spot and not just as a destination. Some of the free pieces include Leando Erlich's Swimming Pool (above), where 10cm of water and cleverly made pool bottom make it look like a real pool while people underneath the glass stare back up at you.

Now, I should admit I used to be quite critical of modern art; I once read about a new gallery in South Africa that hung all its paintings backwards, claiming there was much left unseen on the blank canvas behind. This pool I would've found cool but many things I tended to over-rationalize, quickly breaking them down into their component pieces and claiming ambivalence towards them (it's just a lamp post...), like when I went to visit the Pompidou Museum in Paris. But more recently I browsed through the modern art section of the Hong Kong Art Museum (twice) as well as saw an art film while I was there (all three of which, I now realise, is due to my aunt! Thank you! =P) and I think I've started to understand how to approach modern art- I force myself not to think about anything and then, with my mind sufficiently blank, I think about whatever thoughts bubble up as I view a piece. Some piece are easy to appreciate, like 100 Labyrinths (above), a maze made entirely of salt. The backwards South Africa idea, however, I still find ridiculous...

But these bicycles you can rent to ride around the museum halls or James Turell's Blue Planet Sky, which is a giant square room with a giant square cut out of the ceiling so visitors can sit and quietly watch the sky and light change, are great in and of themselves. Unfortunately, their special exhibit (which currently costs a whopping 1700yen for access to both zones) doesn't allow photography, but when I say one of the pieces is a giant black oval painted on a sloped off-white wall, you can understand why it might be something I would write off right away. It turns out, however, the piece is really intriguing as the lighting in the room makes it seem like it's an actual hollowed out section of the wall; an actual hole instead of a painted hole. In truth, I have no idea if it actually is a hole, as visitors aren't allowed within 2 feet of it, which makes it all the more interesting. Then there's a silent film about factory workers in China and how each garment they make contains a piece of the worker's history. Sounds plain, but the way it was filmed and the use of old and new footage make it more powerful than that. My favourite was Open Dialogue, which used a ping pong table with shock sensors so that each time the ball hit the table, a synthesizer would play a note. The exhibit asked visitors to play ping pong with someone for a while so despite the players focusing on keeping the ball on the table, the erratic pings and pongs from the speakers mimicked how a conversation would progress. I have no idea what exhibits will come next, but the entire place comes highly recommended, even if they do charge 1700yen for access to all the galleries.

A short bus ride from the museum drops you off near Myoryuji, a temple more commonly known as the Ninja Temple although it has nothing to with ninjas at all. I should warn that the temple requires reservations for tours and the tours are completely in Japanese. However, they do provide a comprehensive booklet that briefly covers, in the same order as the tour, all the things the guide covers. The temple itself was built in the Edo period as a defensive structure. As such, there are many tricks and traps hidden up the temple's sleeves... again which you can't take pictures of. The biggest trick, though, can be seen above. What looks like a simple two storey building actually has 7 "floors", 23 rooms, and 29 staircases. There are perilous pitfalls, secret pathways, and sneak lighting arrangements so that warriors can stand guard in a dark room watching guests in a lit room through rice-paper walls. Some of these tricks aren't too special (we close this door and it looks like a closet!) but others are really intricate, like a secret staircase entrance that automatically locks when the door is shut. There's also a well that is believed to connect to Kanazawa castle a few km away and then the entire maze-like layout of the temple with multiple passage ways- some rooms have up to five exits.

The next day I headed off to Kenrokuen, a landscape garden widely regarded as one of the best in Japan. And it didn't disappoint. Built off the principle that a beautiful garden should possess "spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, watercourses, and panoramas", it impressed even on a dreary overcast day. The garden also includes one of the symbols of Kanazawa- the Kotojitoro Lantern whose shape recalls that of the bridges supporting the strings on a Japanese koto (above, right). It even appears on their manhole covers =P...

Here's another view of the lantern with the "Rainbow Bridge" in front of it. I'd also like to take this time, since it is my blog, to rant about something...

See, people work really hard to keep the garden looking nice. I mean, "artificiality" is one of the principles the garden was built around, so it takes people to produce it. And it irks me to no end just how disrespectful some people are. When there's a fence somewhere, DON'T step over it into the groomed moss just so you can get your sorry head into a picture. When you're walking around cultivating your throat cancer, DON'T flick cigarette ash towards the trees lest you burn down the entire garden. When the weather gets a bit hot for you, DON'T toss your jacket onto a pruned bush because you don't have enough hands to hold it. I simply don't understand how some people can be so damn self-centred that they can stand around proclaiming how beautiful the garden is while crushing flowers under their feet because they couldn't stay out of the fenced off areas... And I'm certainly no generalist, racist, or stereotypist but all the people I saw doing this came from mainland China...

Fuming, I left and, walking by a tea house, I decided what I needed was a place to take my mind off all of it. The Shiguretei Tea House is the perfect place for that as you get served some nice green tea in a quiet room. Better than that, however, was the view of the tea house's garden exclusive to the serving room (above). At 300yen for the regular green tea (700 for the powdered version), it's worth the 300yen to see the garden.

Kenrokuen, however, is fully deserving of the praise it gets, as can be seen in the first of the two above pictures showing, on the right, a tortoise shell-like island representing the mythical island of perpetual youth and longevity. Even better is that it's rather close to the train station (about 30minutes should be enough to walk there, or a 10 minute bus ride) and it's right across from Kanazawa Castle, although the latter is current under re-construction.

Aside from the garden, Kanazawa is also famous for its many "tea districts" where visitors can experience an authentic tea house. Above is the Higashi-chaya (East) district which is probably the best of the 3 main ones (East, West, and Kazue-machi). While walking around it doesn't really provide much aside from interesting old buildings, spending some time (and money) at a tea house will enhance the experience.

My last stop before heading home was the Nagamachi Buke Yashiki District, which is to samurai what the tea districts are to tea houses. Walking through it does offer some contrast to the tea districts (all the buildings have strong outer walls; all the decorations are that bit more expensive looking) but there is a preserved samurai house (Nomura-ke) that serves as a mini-museum. You're free to enjoy the various rooms it has, take in some of the Edo-era items on display (two above), or gaze at the seemingly bursting garden (above).

All in all, Kanazawa is a surprisingly nice city to visit. It's got a great mix of old and new without feeling uncomfortable at the melding of the two aspects. It's a simple city to get around and everything is within a reasonable walking distance. And while it doesn't deserve (or need) more than a day or two to really see the core sights, at two hours from Nagoya, it makes for a very decent side trip.

Tomorrow I'm off to Kiso Valley, which is part of an old postal route with old post towns on either end of it. Then it's even more history on Wednesday, as I head to Ise Shrine, one of the most sacred shrines in Japan. Stay tuned...

Friday, 22 May 2009

Week 2 - Day Trips

For the latter half of week 2, I took two small day trips since I had plans for the nights back in Tokyo. Despite not being "far" (although it was still 3 or 4 hours each way on the Shinkansen...), they're both stuff I've been wanting to see. May 21 was the first trip out to Himeji...

As I mentioned in the previous posts, many of Japan's sights are historic. Unfortunately, many of these sights went through tough times and thus equally many of them are reconstructions. And while these reconstructions are still nice (Todaiji, for example), it's hard to beat something that's actually lasted. Himeji Castle is one such sight- a castle that's lasted more or less intact until now.

Like pretty much all castles, this was constructed in a time when enemy attacks were a real and common threat, so the castle construction reflects this. While the main entrance is reasonable straight forward, the inner paths (above) quickly become a spiralling maze designed to force intruders into sudden dead ends so they can be conveniently attacked through "hidden attack holes" in the walls. Of course, the tour route follows a specific path but you do often find yourself wondering if you've walked a certain area before or come around a corner only to notice you've ended up behind where you were 5 minutes ago.

The tour route starts from the outside and winds through some of the outer walls before finally ending up at the main keep. While it's a bit hard to see in the picture, it's rather cramped and many of the overhangs are quite low as you make your way across. However, the priority was on defensive ability, not luxurious livability, and a peep through those number attack holes show a good view of the outer area. One thing I noticed throughout the castle was that the staircases are REALLY steep... like really... I suppose it makes sense in a small space, but I can't imagine it be very easy (or fast) to climb 65 degree slopes wearing armour...

The closer you get the more impressive the castle becomes as everything from the gleaming white walls (the castle's also known as Hakurojo, or White Heron Castle) to the intricate detailing on the roofs. Also of interest is that despite the castle looking like it has 5 floors, it actually has 6 with another floor like a basement in that stone foundation. Lastly, while temples aim for aesthetics with their roof corners lining up perfectly, each floor is actually slightly offset for what I can only assume is a better defensive view...

Inside the castle, you're greeted by a very traditionally feeling space, what with the dim floors, the creaking wood, and the surprising breeziness of the whole place. However, it's been thoroughly renovated into a one-way tour route up and down all the floor. And while they've placed lots of memorabilia and artifacts from the castle's era, make sure not to get so caught up that you forget to enjoy the simple but functional construction of the whole castle interior.

Of course, this is a castle lived in by important people, so it's not all counter-attacks and sight-lines. There are lots of amenities for the royalty living there... like a sink... well, I suppose life back in the day wasn't the quite the same heh... but as you can see above, there are other details like this sample of various crest tiles used in the castle's constant updating as various owners improved it.

The castle really is beautiful and while many of the outer moats have been destroyed or reclaimed for the sake of an ever growing city, the actual castle and main area itself has remained. Knowing that certainly makes it just that slight bit more impressive and there are lots of intricate details as you walk around, such as an area specifically for committing ritual suicide or the "fan"-like curve to some of the stone walls to prevent intruders from scaling them.

The day after (Friday May 22), I headed off to Osaka, despite the recent spat of swine flu scares, which is home to one of the world's largest aquariums. There's also Osaka castle but having been to a castle the day before and it was raining the day I was in Osaka, so I headed for the aquarium. It does cost a rather unbelievable 2000yen to get in, but it does claim to hold quite a lot of rare and special animals in its 16 tanks. So once you've grimaced and paid the entry fee, you walk through the entrance tunnel (above) containing a small sample of things to come. Also in the picture above is a diver using a hose to clean the tank and divers are found in various tanks all day long keeping things looking... underwater-y =P...

The entire aquarium is based on various environments from the Ring Of Fire found in the Pacific Ocean. The route opens with a short walk through a tropical forest and then quickly gets into the tanks. And nothing gets guests excited as much as penguins, so the Antarctic tank is one of the first ones you reach.

The entire route also takes you up to the highest floor first and then winds its way down amongst all the tanks. This means guests can see the same tank but from 3 or 4 different angles and depths, so while you can watch penguins preening themselves in the upper most level, a few floors down you can watch them swim.

Then there's also the dolphin tank. This one deserves two pictures mainly because it was so incredibly hard to shoot swimming dolphins. I mean, shooting race cars is easy because they're so predictable but dolphins?? And they're really fast considering you're only a few feet away, so panning with them is extra hard... I don't think I've had so many failed shots before heh...

Further down is the Great Barrier Reef tank which is filled with colour. The displays are quite good about labelling the kinds of fish in the tank, but sometimes it's just nice to step back and admire the scene as a whole...

The aquarium's biggest tank is their Pacific Ocean tank (which famously touts its largest sheet of acrylic glass as requiring 1.5 times the normal annual production of acrylic) which has manta rays. I've never seen a manta ray. I've also never seen a manta ray (or any ray) do backflips... it turns out, however, this one had a sharksucker stuck pretty much to the top of its "head", which explains it...

But the crown jewel of the aquarium is its two whale sharks, Dai and Kai. Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world and the way the tank is set up (with other fish swimming around) really exaggerates its size. These, however, just swim lazily around the tank making much easier to shoot... actually, that's partly a lie because they're still difficult to shoot but mostly because they're almost always too big for the frame...

Hello Mr. Green Seaturtle. I should also mention that my new Minolta lens came in VERY handy at the aquarium because the huge aperture meant I could take shots in little to no light at acceptable shutter speeds. The down side is the severely limited depth of field but with a bit of tweaking and careful focusing, it worked out just fine.

This giant spider crab came from the tank replicating the deep trenches around Japan. And towards the end of the tour, they have more interactive exhibits such as ones where you can touch rays and sharks.

Anyway, the aquarium is a great place to check out if you're in Osaka, though I wouldn't really recommend going from Tokyo just to see it (unless you have a Rail Pass). Just make sure to budget enough time (2.5-3hrs) so that you can slowly make your way through the tanks and really take in all that the place has to offer, as many of the best sights are hiding behind rocks or in dark corners.

I'm taking today off but tomorrow I plan to head to Kanazawa, which has one of Japan's most beautiful landscape gardens, a modern art museum, and a ninja temple!! This is me being multi-interested heh.... I'll leave you with a few more shots of the aquarium.