Manhole cover designs in Japan

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Sakura motifs are often featured in Japanese manhole cover designs

 

If you have visited Japan before, you have probably seen the wonderul manhole covers on the pavements all over Japan – it would be hard to miss them! The popularity of these manhole covers has been growing rapidly both locally and overseas, and often the ‘manholers’ would seek, photograph these covers and share them online to websites like Japanese Society of Manhole Covers (日本マンホール蓋学会), and the Manhole lid museum. Meanwhile, Osaka-based photographer S. Morita has been photographing manhole covers around Japan for several years, and there are close to 2000 designs on the site. However, if seeing the photos doesn’t satisfy you, then you could attend the Japanese Manhole Cover Festival or summit in Tokyo where a variety of manhole cover designs are exhibited, along side with souvenir to bring home.

 

Only in Japan: A factory tour of the Nagashima Imono Casting Factory

 

The history of the manhole covers in Japan is mentioned in the book, Drainspotting: Japanese manhole covers by Remo Camerota. In the 1980s, the modernisation of the sewer system in rural Japan was unwelcomed by the local residents, but a civil servant Yasutake Kameda solved that problem by introducing customised manhole covers in every municipality. By enabling each city/town/village to design their own unqiue covers to showcase their specialities or identites turned out to be a huge success, hence it has become a cultural phenomenon over time. Although each cover is designed specifically for the location, it would generally feature elements such as the town emblem, famous landmark, special event, war battle, official bird, local flowers or local mascots etc. The ones with firefighters indicate that there is fire hydrant underneath it.

Although I am not a manhole cover otaku, I have been photographing these manhole covers whenever I came across them over the years during my trips to Japan, and will continue to do so in the future.

 

Floral theme

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manhole cover  manhole cover tokyo

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Local symbols/ specialties

manhole cover nara  manhole cover nara

Deer and nature in Nara

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Nagoya’s Amenbo (or water strider) is the symbol for Nagoya City Waterworks and Sewerage Office as this insect only lives in clean water

manhole cover

Grapes in Furano, Hokkaido

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Washi paper making in Fukui

 

Local lanndmarks

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Osaka castle

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Shiragawa-go

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Nature

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Firefighters

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Toko firefighters

 

 

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Boro textiles at Amuse museum (closed in 2019)

amuse museum Boro – real astonishment exhibition

Boro – real astonishment exhibition

 

After spending so much time in the rural countryside, I found it hard to cope with the hustle and bustle back in Tokyo, and felt slightly dazy and detached from reality. My original Airbnb booking was cancelled by a host in Tokyo at the last minute, (the 2nd Tokyo cancellation on this trip), and at the last minute, I found an apt hotel in Asakusa, which turned out to be excellent and very reasonable.

I usually avoid going to Asakusa whenever I visit Tokyo because it is always packed and very touristy. This time, however, I thought it might be fun to explore an area that I am not familiar with especially while I was staying minutes away from the famous Senso-ji.

One day, I walked past an old building and saw the name Amuse Museum with a shop at the front. It was the poster and indigo textiles that drew me inside. I had never heard of this museum before and had no idea what was exhibiting inside, but seeing the textiles compelled me to purchase an entry ticket. And once inside, I was completely blown away… I couldn’t believe that I stumbled upon this museum right after my Japanese textiles workshop! Serendipity, perhaps?!

 

amuse museum

amuse museum

amuse museum

 

This private museum opened in 2009 and specialises in Japanese textile and ukiyo-e. The amazing collection consists of 30,000 pieces of Boro clothing and textiles (from the 17th and 19th centuries) collected by folklorist and ethnologist Chuzaburo Tanaka, of which 786 items have been designated as Important Tangible Cultural Properties.

Derived from the Japanese boroboro, meaning something tattered or repaired, boro grew out of necessity rather than fashion. Its concept is almost the opposite of what fashion has become in the 21st century – you can even call it the precedent of ‘slow fashion’ and ‘upcycled fashion’.

There are two Japanese terms and concepts that are deeply ingrained into the Japanese culture: Mottainai meaning ‘a sense of regret concerning waste’, and Yuyonobi meaning ‘the beauty of practicality’. In the old days, impoverished rural farmimg families (especially those who live in the north like Tohoku) would mend, repair textiles (clothes and bedding) through piecing, patching and stitching to extend their use. Since the region was too cold to grow cotton, hemp became the most popular choice of material. Later, when old cotton clothing from the south made its way up to the north, scraps of indigo-dyed cotton would be used, and sewn with sashiko stitching (a type of functional embroidery) to reinforce and to quilt layers of cloth together. These ‘rags’ and garments would be handed down over generations, as the testimonies of decades of mending.

Interestingly, this concept is similiar to the robes worn by Zen Buddhist monks in ancient times, when monks used to collect rags and sew them up to create their one-of-a-kind patchwork robes.

 

amuse museum

boro textiles

amuse museum

amuse museum boro

amuse museum

 

For many centuries, Japan was a relatively poor country, and it was around the Meiji period (from 1868 to 1912) that the overall living standard started to rise. This meant that much of the Boro textiles were discarded, and new clothing was bought as fixing or mending became a tradition of the past.

Thanks to the effort of one ethnologist – Chuzaburo Tanaka – we are now able to admire this intricate and fantastic ancient craft and art form, and appreciate its unqiue value.

The special 10th year anniversary exhibition: Boro – Real astonishment showcased a collection of boro textiles along with 34 photo images published by Kyoichi Tsuzuki (the photographer and author of “BORO Rags and Tatters from the Far North of Japan”). This is a touring exhibition, and will be touring until 2020, so people outside of Japan can learn about this outsider art/craft form.

 

amuse museum

amuse museum

amuse museum

 

Besides the temporary exhibition, the permanent collection also showcases a rotating collection of 1500 pieces of boro clothing and textiles, alongside with other antiques and folk arts from Mr. Tanaka’s collection.

I was particularly glad to see the indigo-dyed firefighter’s jackets hikeshi banten often mentioned by Bryan at the textiles workshop. Made in the Edo period, these reversible jackets often feature a plain side and a decorative side. Firemen would expose the plain side while fighting the fire, but after the fire had been extinguished, they would reverse their jackets to display the decorative side to a cheering crowd. Hence, many firefighter’s jackets were decorated with tsutsugaki (a resist dyeing technique that is similar to Katazome) symbolic images that were meaningful and important to the firefighters. Indigo dye was chosen for its antibacterial and flame-resistant qualities, as well as its resistant to ripping and tearing, cutting and abrasion due to impact. With roots dating back to the 1600s, indigo-dyed fabrics were worn under the armour of samurais to keep bacteria away from wounds and to repel odor and dirt. Therefore, the indigo dye was used not for aesthetic reasons but for its excellent practical properties.

 

amuse museum  amuse museum

amuse museum

amuse museum

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amuse museum

 

Although I saw Akira Kurosawa‘s “Yume” or “Dreams” years ago, I could barely remember the costumes featured in that film (I watched it again after seeing the exhibition). It was fascinating to learn that the costumes featured in the film were lend to the director by Chuzaburo Tanaka himself. The folk clothing was beautifully showcased in the last segment of the film, Village of the Watermills, and the scene where the villagers all paraded down the village was heartfelt and memorable.

 

yume costumes kurasawa  yume costumes kurasawa

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The folk costumes featured in Yume/Dreams

 

The museum also has an interesting collection of woodblock prints, and it houses an indigo-dyeing studio where visitors can take part in workshops.

 

woodblock print amuse museum   woodblock print amuse museum

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Woodblock prints and Indigo-dyeing studio

 

After my inspiring tour of the museum, I went upstairs to the rooftop and spent some time admiring the panaromic view of Asakusa and watching the sun set behind Senso-ji (there was literally no other visitor there!). Spending a few hours at the museum made me forget that I was in Tokyo; while watching the sunset was the icing on the cake, it was a perfect end to my day.

 

senso-ji asakusa

 

N.B. Sadly, I learned that the Amuse Museum closed in March 2019, but hopefully it will revive again in another venue somewhere in the city. Fingers crossed.

 

 

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Japanese textiles workshop (Part 2): Katagami & Katazome

Ise-Katagami Artisan Isao Uchida

katagami  katagami

Top: a visit and demonstration of katagami by the Ise-Katagami artisan Isao Uchida

 

Like I mentioned in my previous entry, my knowledge on traditional Japanese textiles techniques was quite minimal before the workshop. I have done some shibori techniques like itajime and pole wrapping, but I have never done any stitch shibori nor Katagami and Katazome before, and so when I received a stencil cutter and some stencil paper from Bryan in the ‘homework’ box before the workshop, I had to google frantically to get some ideas on how to create three unqiue patterns.

So, what is Katagami? It is an ancient Japanese paper stenciling craft that dates back to the 6th century. The specific paper required is made up of several sheets of washi (Japanese mulbery paper) pasted together with kakishibu (a tannin-rich persimmon juice), resulting in a strong and flexible, brown-coloured paper. Patterns can then be cut out with a razor-like cutter or punched out with various tools. It is also possible to overlap multiple stencils to create intricate and beautiful patterns.

 

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katazome  indigo fujino

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 Botom: a vintage katagami stencil from Bryan’s collection

 

We had the prilvilege to meet the Ise-Katagami artisan Isao Uchida who demonstrated a skill that he has practiced for several decades. He had just been named as the ‘Living National Treasure (Ningen Kokuhō)’ by the Japanese Government, and he came to pay Bryan a visit before attending the ceremony with the Prime Minster that eveing.

The craft of katagami is often accompanied by katazome – a traditional craft of stencil resist-dyeing using a paste made from rice husks, lime and water. Using the katagami paper stencils, the rice paste is brushed onto the cloth and when dried, it is immersed in the dye, like indigo. In the old days, katazome was used primarily on kimono fabrics, but now it has become a dying art form as the demand for kimonos have decreased significantly in modern Japan.

During the workshop, we spent a full day working at the katazome paste maker and dyer’s home/workshop, Hiroshi Noguchi, in Hachioji. Mr Noguchi is the a sixth-generation paste maker and dyer who specialises in indigo katazome. He works with his son, and his young grandson (the eighth generation), who showed immense interest and enthusiasm with the family bsuiness.

 

Hiroshi Noguchi  paste maker

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paste maker  indigo dyeing

Hiroshi Noguchi

katazome paste maker

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paste maker  Hiroshi Noguchi

paste maker

  

At Mr Noguchi‘s workshop, we watched him making the rice paste from scratch, and his son preparing the paste for us to use. When the paste was ready, we applied it onto the cotton cloths laid out on long boards through the stencils we had each designed. Since it was a very hot day, the paste dried fairly quickly in the sun. These long cloths were then hung horizontally outside and we all had a go at applying a special grey dye onto them.

Aside from the long strips of cloths, we also cut up some shorter ones and dipped them in the indigo vats. Since the paper stencils are very strong, we could easily wash them and reuse them over and over again.

 

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Hiroshi Noguchi

katazome paste maker

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katazome paste maker  katazome

 

The experience of working at Mr Noguchi‘s workshop was novel and humbling. It was encouraging to see that this craft has been passed on for so many generations, and that he was generous enough to let us use his workshop. I highly respect Bryan for trying to protect these traditional Japanese arts and crafts from disappearing by bringing his students here in order to support these artisans. With so many anicent arts and crafts vanishing globally due to our ‘fast culture’, it is time to review our lifestyle and support artisans who have spent their entire lives dedicating to one specfic craft or art form.

 

Shibori & indigo dyeing textiles workshop in Fujino (Part 1)

indigo textiles workshop

 

Lately, I have beein trying to recall when I first became interested in textiles, initially I thought it was after seeing a Japanese textiles exhibition at MOMA years ago. But then I remember how I used to draw/sketch historical costumes after seeing them on TV drama series, and this made me realise that my interest in textiles and fashion began long before I was even consciously aware of it.

After running a solo business for over 6 years, I was feeling mentally exhausted and unispired. I was desperate to take a long vacation. I also wanted to go back to creating and making things – which I have missed after starting a business. I have done many short textiles courses on and off for years, but I have always considered them as my ‘hobby’. When I finally decided to take my 6-month sabbatical, I wanted to learn crafts that I have always been interested in, and shibori was high on my list. After some research on the internet, I found Canadian textiles artist and teacher Bryan Whitehead‘s blog and I contacted him to enquire about his textiles workshop. Originally, he told me that all his workshops were fully booked until next year (!), but then about a month later he informed me that some people have dropped out and there were spaces available.

The 10-day indigo dyeing and shibori textiles workshop turned out to be the most intense, eye-opening, overwhelming and yet satisfying experience. Even though I have done some shibori before, it was pretty basic, hence I felt quite out of my depth at the beginning. I felt like I have jumped into the deep end of the ocean but somehow survived. I have never done so much stitching in my life and was shocked by how much I managed to achieve in such a short period of time. Looking back now, I can say that this workshop has led me to a new path, and it was the beginning of my indigo dyeing and shibori journey.

 

fujino  fujino

fujino

fujino

fujino

 

Bryan and his partner, Hiro (an ikebana artist and amazing cook), live in a 150 year-old traditional farmhouse surrounded by mountains in Fujino, Kanagawa (about 1.5 hour from Tokyo). This area used to be known for its silk farming, but this has ceased and now it is more notable for its tea plantation and art village.

About one month prior to the workshop, I received a box of ‘homework’ with instructions, materials and tools to be completed before the workshop. I was busy planning my 5-week trip and I completely underestimated the amount of work that was required. I also misread the illustrations and ended up stitching on bullet trains and in ryokans late at night trying to complete the rather long piece of textile.

 

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ikebana

fujino

fujino

cat  dog

 

Bryan has lived in Japan for almost 30 years, and since he moved to Fujino, he got to learn silk farming from the local villagers, but sadly he is the only silk farmer left in the area now. Besides silk, he also grows and harvests tea and indigo. I am amazed by how he manages his time – he weaves, dyes, and teaches, yet he was always full of energy during our 10-day workshop.

 

fujino  fujino

fujino

shibori  shibori

shibori  shibori

 

I had no idea what to expect before the workshop, and to spend 10 days with 10 women from different parts of the world could have been quite challenging. Luckily, we all got on pretty well and even set up a whatsapp chat group after the workshop.

Over the 10 days, we stitched and dyed endlessly. We even had to go to the river to bash the textiles like people did in the ancient times, but then I woke up the next day with a sore and stiff neck. Luckily, Bryan‘s excellent acupuncturist was called in and cured me from my textile-bashing injury!

 

fujino textiles workshop  fujino textiles workshop

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shibori  fujino textiles workshop

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fujino textiles workshop

 

One thing that struck me at the workshop was how time-consuming it is to do stitch shibori and dye with indigo. Everything we did required time, patience, and focus, and we could not rush anything. I honestly was a bit clueless before. My final piece was dipped 16 times, and I was working on it until midnight on the last night… I must have spent more than 50 hours making that piece from scratch! The experience totally changed my view on shibori and indigo dyeing, and I now understand the true value of handmade and handdyed textiles.

 

fujino  fujino 

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fujino

fujino

 

Another highlight of the workshop was the amazing food freshly prepared and cooked by Hiro. He applied his flower arrangement skills to his food presentations, and every meal felt like a journey of the senses. Not only does he grow vegetables in the garden, he also goes foraging nearby. One day, he took us up to the hill at the back of the farm house to look for bamboo shoots, and hours later, we got to taste the freshest bamboo shoots on our plates!

On the last day, Bryan invited his 99 year old Japanese neighbour/student to make udon from scratch for us, and it was the best udon that I have ever tasted. Although Bryan and Hiro live in the rural countryside, they are never short of visitors, and there seems to be a a strong sense of community spirit. To me, their way of living and ideal, and I hope that I can live like that one day.

 

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udon  udon

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To be continued…

 

 

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The architecture of Kanazawa

kanazawa station Tsuzumimon   kanazawa station Tsuzumimon

Tsuzumimon at Kanazawa station

 

As soon as you arrive at Kanazawa train station, the “Motenashi Dome” (Welcome Dome) made up of 3,019 glass panels is likely to catch your eye. This train station is thought to be one of the most beautiful train stations in the world, and it is designed by Ryuzo Shiroe. And when you walk out of the conservatory-like space through the eastern part of the station, you would encounter the stunning and gigantic wooden structure called Tsuzumimon (drum gate). This 13.7 meter-high gate is supported by two twisted pillars, and the design resembles the tsuzumi, the drums featured in Noh theatre and Kaga Hosho (the style of Noh traditionally performed in Ishikawa prefecture) performances.

Walking around Kanazawa, it is hard not to notice the mix of old and new architecture, and since it was spared from the air raids during the war, I think the architecture here is more varied and interesting than many other cities in Japan.

 

kanazawa

kanazawa

kanazawa

kanazawa

kanazawa

Kanazawa

Traditional houses

 

Although I did not have time to visit many sights, I did enjoy wandering around the city while stumbling upon some interesting buildings. There is a conspicuous Western style red brick building at the bottom of the castle that really intrigued me, and it is The Shiinoki Cultural Complex, a government building built in 1924. While the front of the building has kept its original facade, the back of the building has a modern glassed facade. There are two amazing-looking 300 year old Chinquapin trees standing symmetrically in front of the main entrance and they are designated as Japan’s National Natural Monuments.

 

kanazawa The Shiinoki Cultural Complex

Kanazawa The Shiinoki Cultural Complex

kanazawa The Shiinoki Cultural Complex

kanazawa

kanazawa The Shiinoki Cultural Complex

kanazawa

The Shiinoki Cultural Complex

 

The Owari-cho area not far from the Omi-cho Market used to be a bustling merchant district during the Edo period, and so you can find many fascinating Edo period architecture here.

One of them is Gallery Mita, an art gallery housed in a Western-style building constructed in 1930, which has been designated as a Registered Tangible Cultural Property because of its rarity. The gallery sells mainly ceramics dishes, and it has a cafe next door. I especially love the stained glass designs here.

 

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Kanazawa

kanazawa  kanazawa

kanazawa  Kanazawa

kanazawa

 

When I took a route away from the main street, I came across a derelict building/house in an alley that has many art deco elements and seems to be from that period. Even though the house has fallen into disrepair, you can still see the architectural details and appreciate the fine design elements like the railings and tiles. It is a shame to see that it has been abandoned.

 

kanazawa   kanazawa

kanazawa

kanazawa

kanazawa

 

As for contemporary architecture, The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art and D. T. Suzuki Museum (see my other posts) are good examples, but there is also the Kanazawa Umimirai Library designed by Kazumi Kudo and Hiroshi Horiba in 2011, which I didn’t get to visit.

If you want to learn more about the architecture of Kanazawa, there are some suggested walking/cycling routes that encourage visitors to explore the city’s diverse architecture:

https://www.kanazawa-kankoukyoukai.or.jp/course/architect/web/en/

 

kanazawa   kanazawa

kanazawa

kanazawa

kanazawa

 

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Kenrokuen – is this the most beautiful landscape garden in Japan?

Kenroku-en

Kasumiga Pond

 

Kenrokuen is considered one of Japan’s three most beautiful landscape gardens alongside Mito’s Kairakuen and Okayama‘s Korakuen. Located in central Kanazawa, the once-private garden covers an area of 11 hectares (almost 25 acres) next to Kanazawa Castle. The original garden named Renchitei is said to have been created by the 5th Maeda lord, Tsunonori Maeda around 1676. The garden was burnt down in 1759, but was restored in 1774, and in 1822 the garden was renamed Kenrokuen. This name can be translated to “garden of six elements”, which refers to the six features mentioned in a classical Chinese poem for a perfect garden: spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, flowing water and panoramas. The garden was not opened to the public until 1874, and now it is one of the most popular sightseeing spots in Kanazawa.

 

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

 

There are two main entrances to the vast garden and it costs 310 yen to get in. It is easy to feel disoriented here because of its size, but if you are not in a hurry, you can easily stroll for a few hours while admiring the nature and landscape here.

There are roughly 8,750 trees, and 183 species of plants at this garden. The garden offers something different for every season, but it is particularly popular in spring because of cherry blossom.

 

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en  Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

 

Some of the main features at the garden include the artificial Kasumiga-ike Pond; Yugao-tei tea house on the Hisagoike pond which dates from 1774 and the oldest building in the garden; and a bronze statue of a legendary hero, Yamato Takeru was erected in 1880 to commemorate the deaths of 400 soldiers from Ishikawa Prefecture who died helping to suppress a rebellion in Kyushu. 

 

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en  Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

 

There is also stone with a poem inscribed on it by the haiku poet Matsuo Basho who visited Kanazawa in 1689. The poem reads:

bright red burning
bitter sun…
but autumn in the wind

Since I am no expert in traditional Japanese landscape garden, I can’t say whether this is the most beautiful landscape garden in Japan or not. However, I was very impressed by the ancient pine trees at this garden, and I think they are definitely some of the most beautiful trees I have ever seen. The tallest one is called “Neagarimatsu”, meaning “a pine tree with its roots going up”, is about 15 m in height and it was planted by the 13th lord Nariyasu about 200 years ago. It is an absolutely magnificent and stunning tree (see the third one below).

 

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

 

Although the garden was quite busy during my visit, but due to its size, it was easy to avoid the crowds and enjoy some tranquil spots. The garden also offers a panoramic view of city, so I guess these are all the elements that make this one of the best landscape gardens in Japan.

 

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

 

 

Eiheiji Temple & Zen Master Dogen

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eiheiji

eiheiji

eiheiji

 

A large 13th century temple complex located in rural Fukai is considered to be an important pilgrimage site by most Soto Zen practitioners (including Steve Jobs), and this temple is Eiheiji, founded by Master Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) in 1244.

I had been interested in Buddhism since I was in my early 20s, but I only started to practice properly in 2008. It was not plain sailing for me as I had to ‘shop around’ to find a non-dogmatic practice that suited me. I knew little about Master Dogen until I met my Zen teacher over more than four years ago. Since then, I have been practicing zazen regularly, and studying the writings of Dogen from his Shobogenzo (Treasury of the True Dharma Eye). And to my surprise, Dogen‘s writings from over 800 years ago are still pertinent today. However, Dogen advocated that the core of the practice is not about the writings, but the practice of zazen or Shikantaza (just sitting).

 

eiheiji

eiheiji

eiheiji

 

I had wanted to visit Eiheiji for some time, but due to its rural location, I did not make the journey until this long trip. Although the temple offers a sanro programme allowing foreign visitors to stay overnight, the stay has to be accompanied by an English-speaking guide and a written letter from your zen teacher (they got rid of this requirement recently). I was slightly put off by these requirements as I dislike bureaucracy, hence I opted for a day visit instead of staying overnight.

What struck me when I got off the bus at Eiheiji was the fact that I had to walk past numerous souvenir shops selling ‘zen’ items and restaurants specialising in ‘zen’ cuisine for about 10-15 minutes before reaching the site of the temple. It all felt quite commercial and not very ‘zen-like’.

 

eiheiji

eiheiji

eiheiji

eiheiji

 

The enormous temple complex is located deep in the mountains, and consisted of 70 buildings, as well as a cedar tree forest and a cemetery. The temple had been burnt down by several fires over the centuries (this seems to be the case with many of the temples in Japan), and the oldest structure on the current site dates back to 1794. Since Eihei-ji is a training monastery with more than two hundred monks and nuns in residence, there are many rules that visitors have to follow to minimise the disruption on the practicing monks and nuns.

 

eiheiji  eiheiji rules

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eiheiji

eiheiji

eiheiji

eiheiji

One of the main temple attractions is Sanshokaku (Reception Hall) and its ceiling covered with 230 paintings of flowers and birds by 144 different artists completed in 1930.

 

As a visitor, it is hard not to be impressed by the beautiful architecture and the maze-like complex, but I did find the ambience to be quite austere and the temple more polished than I imagined. After I started to study writings by Master Dogen and other prominent Zen teachers like Shunryu Suzuki, Kodo Sawaki, Kosho Uchiyama, and Gudo Wafu Nishijima for the last few years, I couldn’t help but feel that the temple is almost too grand and immaculate. Perhaps my preconceived ideas have let me down, and I probably would have been more in awe of the complex as a sightseeing visitor.

 

eiheiji   eiheiji

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eiheiji   eiheiji

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eiheiji

eiheiji

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eiheiji

 

Having said that, there are several buildings that are forbidden for visitors to enter, including the monks’ quarters (Sodo), where the monks eat, sleep and meditate; the kitchen (Daikuin) where the meals for the monks is prepared every day; and the baths and toilets (Yokushitsu and Tosu). And after watching a NHK documentary on the monks’ daily lives at Eiheiji, I gathered that the monks’ quarters are more modest and simple than the halls in the main buildings.

 

eiheiji

eiheiji

eiheiji  eiheiji

eiheiji

eiheiji  eiheiji

 

After my visit around the temple, I followed the path and walked up the mountain along the river. There are many amazing giant cedar trees on the temple grounds, and some are around 500 years old. This was my favourite part of the complex, and I thoroughly enjoyed the tranquility and nature here.

 

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eiheiji  eiheiji

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eiheiji  eiheiji

 

It was lucky that I arrived early, because I saw coaches of Japanese tourists arriving as I was leaving the temple complex. I find it hard to imagine how the practicing monks here can cope with the infux of tourists that the temple receives daily (apparently, it can reach up to 6000-7000). And in order to attract more tourists especially from the neighbouring China and South Korea, the temple and the local authority has started a redevelopment programme. Not only a new 18-room hotel will open in 2019, there will also be a new tourist information centre, and the restoration of the temple road according to the maps from the 1600s. I can’t help but wonder how the temple can maintain a balance between tranquility and tourism in the future. After my visit to Shirakawa-go, I am starting to fear the worst… It would be a shame if tourists are visiting just for photo opportunities rather than trying to learn more about the practice and the teachings by Dogen.

As my teacher keeps emphasising: the practice of zazen and Zen is about balancing our body-mind (body and mind is considered as one in the East). And in this day and age, I feel that all of us need this ‘balance’ more than ever – it probably explains why the teachings of Buddhism and the practice of Mindfulness are becoming more popular in recent years. Hence I certainly hope that the temple that advocates this philosophy/ practice will demonstrate that it is possible to achieve the balanced state.

 

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Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail (last day)

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Japanese breakfast at Minshuku Momofuku in Koguchi

 

After having a big Japanese breakfast at Minshuku Momofuku, I was ready for my last hike of the pilgrimage trail. Mr Nakazawa warned me about the first stretch of the hike, which requires a steep climb of 800 metres in elevation over 5km. This section of the trail is called Dogirizaka meaning ‘body breaking slope’. Mr Nakazawa smiled and told me that he had done it a few times, as shown in the photos on his wall.

 

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The most challenging section of the trail is Dogirizaka. The famous poet Fujiwara Teika (1162-1241) stated in his pilgrimage diary from 1201 that, “This route is very rough and difficult; it is impossible to describe precisely how tough it is”.

 

Out of all the days, the last day was the day when I encountered the most hikers. Oddly, the supposedly most difficult section seemed to attract more hikers than the rest. Early in the morning, I saw a couple having an argument while hiking up the woods; the husband stormed off (carrying nothing), and his wife (who was carrying a handbag) had to chase after him! It was a bizarre scene. Not long after that, I ran into the couple from San Francisco again and we decided to hike together. We all felt that carrying our own rucksacks while walking the pilgrimage trail was important to us… it would have been much easier to have our rucksacks forwarded to the next destination, but it would completely miss the point and notion of the pilgrimage.

We learned that the Dogirizaka section is tough because the rock staircases appear to be endless, and at times very steep and slippery. Since I have previously suffered from a knee injury, my poles helped me enormously throughout this trail.

 

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Finally, we survived the toughest section and reached the Echizen-toge pass. Yet it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing from then on, because there were still several descends and climbs from one mountain to another. However, we all felt that having companions made the journey easier… mostly because we were having some interesting conversations and were distracted from the walking.

At the Jizo-jaya teahouse remains, we met another group of hikers and had lunch here altogether. Since our water supply was low, we were thrilled to see a vending machine here. Normally, vending machines are conspicuous in Japan, but on this trail, they are rare and are considered as precious commodities. Like the one I saw yesterday, the one at the teahouse remains had ran out of water as well, so we had to opt for other drinks. After lunch, we carried on with the awareness that we were at the last stretch of the trail.

 

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Nachi Kogen Park
A pleasant surprise awaited us at the vast and picturesque Nachi Kogen Park, which at the time was full of cherry trees! We saw an ultra long slide and got very excited. We decided to try and slide down, but it was very difficult with the old rollers and ended up using our hands to move down the slide. Luckily, the view from the top of the slide was stunning because of the cherry trees and mountain backdrop, so it made up for the slow motion down the slide. Two Japanese guys saw us struggling and gave a cardboard to my American companion behind me. Thus, he was sliding down very quickly while I was struggling in front of him and worrying that he was going to crash into me… We all had a laugh in the end, especially because it was all quite unexpected, and not long before we reached our destination.

 

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Nachi-no-Otaki and Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine

 

When we finally got a glimpse of the Nachi-no-Otaki waterfall while descending from Mount Nachi, and we were all over the moon. Yet the first thing we did when we arrived at the Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine was to rush into a shop with an ice-cream sign outside! We felt that we deserved some reward for the hard work, and the delicious plum ice cream did the trick for us.

After our treat, we walked around the Shinto Nachi Taisha Shrine and the Buddhist Seiganto-ji Temple (the two structures used to be connected but were separated in the Meiji era). The temple is reputed to be the oldest structure in Kumano and said to have been founded in the fourth century by an Indian monk who also founded the Fudarakusan Temple .

The location was the Grand shrine offers a fantastic view of Japan’s tallest waterfall, Nachi-no-Otaki (133 meters high and 13 meters wide), which has long been a site of religious significance in Japan. The worship of the nature and kami (meaning superior to the human condition) is at the heart of Shintoism, hence the waterfall became a place of worship or pilgrimage site.

It felt odd to see tourists roaming around at this site, since I barely saw more than 20 people over the last few days. I spent more time with trees than humans during my pilgrimage trail, and despite the challenges, I found the experience extremely meditative and gratifying. Being able to walk the ancient trails where pilgrims have passed through for over a thousand years was a privilege, and I would never forget this amazing journey.

 

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Nachi-no-Otaki

 

After wandering around the site of the Shrine, it was time for the American couple and I to say goodbye. We exchanged contacts and then parted our ways. My journey would have been quite different without them, and I was glad that we were able to complete the trail together.

 

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Nachi-Katsuura

 

I waited for the last bus that headed towards Nachi-Katsuura, a fishing port where I spent my last night before leaving the region by train. Nachi-Katsuura has the highest catch of tuna in Japan, and its morning tuna market is a local attraction. It is also known for its onsens, and I splashed out on my last night of the trail at Manseiro Ryokan, located right across from the pier.

 

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The seafoof banquet at Manseiro Ryokan

 

The building of the ryokan is rather old and the decor is modest and dated, but the highlight here is its meals. After three days of hiking, I think the spectacular kaiseki-style seafood dinner was a great way to end my journey. The star of the meal was of course, tuna, and apart from eating it raw, it was also served as sukiyaki (usually beef is used). The food just kept coming, even the waiter was laughing because I looked stunned whenever he brought more dishes over.

 

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After the never-ending meal, I rested a little before taking the free ferry (10 mins ride) across to the neighboring Hotel Urashima, where it is famous for its Bokido onsen cave bath overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Hotel Urashima is a massive and touristy resort with numerous souvenir shops, karaoke bars, and game centers, and I was quite shocked when I arrived in my onsen yukata. Nonetheless, I managed to find my way in the labyrinth of hallways with colour coded lines on the floor.

Unlike the chaotic lobby and hallways, the natural hot spring bath in a cave by the ocean is very tranquil. Not only you can hear the waves beating against the rocks, you can also feel the sea breeze and look up at the moon and stars while soaking in a hot spring bath. It was a truly unforgettable experience, and I absolutely loved it. Even though all my aches was melting away, I was also feeling exhausted from my 8-hour hike, so I didn’t stay that long in the cave. All I could think of was ‘bed’ after the soak.

 

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Another big breakfast…

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Public foot onsen

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After another big but healthy Japanese breakfast the next morning, I ventured over to the tuna market. Although I had missed the early morning auction (I was in need of sleep), I was still curious to see where most of the tuna in Japan originated from. Luckily, there was still some actions to be seen… and I managed to take some photos from the observation deck of auction’s aftermath.

After a short stroll around the quiet town, I bought a fish bento and some seafood snacks for my train ride to kyoto. My five-day journey in the Wakayama region had been sublime and extraordinary, and what struck me most was the largely unspoilt nature along the Kumano Kodo trail. This part of my trip revealed the beauty of Japan that is usually depicted in nature-related documentaries, and I am sure my Shinrin-yoku/forest bathing time was beneficial to my physical and mental health.

 

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The view from the train

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Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail (Day 1)

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After a restful night at the lovely Happiness Chikatsuyu, I was feeling mentally prepared for my pilgrimage walk. According to the map, the distance from Chikatusuyu to Hongu Taisha-mae is about 25 km/15.5 miles with an elevation of 650 meters at the highest point of the route. On paper, it doesn’t sound too difficult, but in fact, my first day turned out to be the most challenging day of the entire trail. This was partly due to the exceptionally warm weather. It was the last day of March, and I had brought along my fleece, waterproofs, hat, scarf, etc.; what I did not expect was sunny blue sky with temperature reaching up to 25/6 degrees, and I ended up sweating throughout the day.

I walked to the village around 8 to have breakfast at the same cafe that delivered my dinner the previous night, and I had to order a takeaway bento as there are no other food/ convenient stores nearby to buy my lunch. My plan was to take the 9am bus that would take me up the hill to save some energy, however, after waiting for about 15 minutes, the bus still hadn’t arrived (in fact, it never it), hence I decided not to waste more time and started walking.

 

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Bottom right: Nonaka-no-Shimizu Spring is one of the 100 famous waters of Japan

 

Hiking over 200 meters in elevation up to Mt. Takao was arduous because the sun was right on top of me. It was not even 11am yet, and my back was soaked because of the rucksack. Even though I am an avid and experienced walker, the heat was making me slight wary about the rest of the day.

 

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Nonaka

 

I walked past Nonaka where there are a row of minshukus (family-run bed and breakfasts) that overlook the mountains nearby. Since the accommodations along the trail are limited, it is best to book in advanced esp. during the high seasons.

 

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I tried not to stop much and kept at a constant pace, but it got much tougher during the 4 km detour due to a typhoon damage in 2011. This section includes a steep hike over the Iwagami-toge pass (650 meters elevation), then descends to the Jagata Jizo. My foldable walking poles worked wonders during the descend, and I was glad that I bought them for this hike. Nonetheless, I had to stop and rest occasionally during the uphill section, and I felt as if my rucksack was getting heavier as I hiked upwards.

 

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After passing through Yukawa-oji, there is another steep climb upwards towards Mikoshi-toge Pass, where there is a rest area with toilets. By the time I reached Mikoshi-toge Pass, it was already 2:30pm, and I was feeling hot, tired, and starving. Here, I ran into the Japanese couple i met earlier in the day, and they were having their break and lunch as well. My simple bento consisted of three Onigiri, some fish sticks and a section of a banana. I could have eaten more, but at least the rice was quite filling, which was what I needed.

 

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Funatama Shrine and Inohana Oji

 

After the break, I continued on and there was more descend through an unpaved woodland path. Eventually when I left the woodland, there was a flat section (usually the flat part doesn’t last long) where some lovely cherry trees were starting to blossom.

Not long after, I walked past the Funatama Shrine which enshrines the god of ships dating back to the Edo period (1603-1867). And further down from the Shrine is Inohana Oji; in kanji, the term ‘Inohana’ means a pig’s nose, and apparently, it originated from the topography of the area which is supposed to resemble a wild boar’s nose. Hmm…

Throughout the trail, there are stamps available at various spots where hikers could stamp onto their stamp book. I did not managed to pick up a stamp book at Kii-Tanabe, so I stamped onto my free map, which probably wasn’t ideal. Yet seeing a new stamp on each page did provide me with a slight sense of progress and a bit of excitement.

 

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Hosshinmon oji

 

By around 4pm (after hiking for seven hours), I finally arrived at Hosshinmon oji, one of the most important sites on the trail. It is known as the “gate of awakening of the aspiration to enlightenment”, and passing through the gate is a transformational rite marking the initiatory death and rebirth in the Pure Land paradise.

From here, I still had about three more hours to walk until I reach the destination, Hongu Taisha-mae. I saw a warning sign reminding hikers that the sun would set around 6pm, and so I decided to walk towards the bus stop to try and catch the next bus. At the bus stop, I saw the Japanese couple from earlier and we waited patiently for some time, but the bus didn’t show up (again!). It was only later that we found out the bus at 4:30pm only runs in spring/ summer, and we had already missed the last bus, which was at 2:30pm! Luckily, they managed to call a taxi (apparently, it is the only one in the area) to pick us up from the bus stop…

 

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During the taxi ride, I found out that the couple was from Tokyo and it was also their first hike at Kumano Kodo. They found the trail more challenging than they had anticipated, and decided not to continue on.

After about 20-30 minutes’ ride through the mountains, I finally arrived at my destination: Pension Ashitanomori, a Western-style guest house at Kawayu Onsen. The couple and I split the taxi fare and they carried on towards Wataze Onsen, another onsen district nearby.

 

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Kawayu Onsen

 

There are three onsen districts in Hongu, and I chose to stay in the historic Kawayu Onsen because of the Oto River and its natural hot spring. There are a row of lodgings along the river, and apart from the pre-dug hot springs at the gravel river bed, guests can also dig their own onsen if they wish to do so.

 

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Pension Ashitanomori at Kawayu Onsen

 

I felt a sense of relief after arriving at the pension. Although I didn’t complete the route today, I was grateful that I managed to get a ride to the lodging before sunset. Hiking alone in the dark through the woodland would have been too dangerous, and it was not a risk worth taking. The trail was undoubtedly more strenuous than I had expected, and according to my iphone, I had walked over 37000 steps in a day! Rather than feeling regretful, I felt like I had achieved something remarkable, and I rewarded myself by soaking in the private indoor onsen, followed by a visit to the outdoor onsen after dinner (wearing clothing provided by the hotel because I didn’t have any swimming costume). This was probably the best onsen experience I have ever had because not only I was there alone, it was also full moon and the sky was very clear. I could feel the aches and pains from the day melting away as I was soaking in the hot spring while gazing at the stars and moon. It was pure bliss, and I couldn’t have been happier after a long day’s hike.

 

Japan’s sacred mountain – Koyasan

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Danjo Garan Temple complex

 

For a long time, I have been wanting to visit Mount Koya or Koyansan, a sacred mountain in the Wakayama region. It is the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism ( a Chinese-influenced esoteric sect), introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi, also known as Kukai. Located in the lush Koya-Ryujin Quasi-National Park, the monastic site has 117 temples and 52 of them offer temple lodgings or Shukubo to the public.

Unfortunately, the scenic cable car was out of service for a few months due to a disruptive typhoon last winter, so I had to take a train from Osaka, followed by two bus rides to reach the mountain. Yet the fine weather upon arrival made it all worthwhile. Sunny blue sky was not what I had expected ( I think I was misled by all the misty and snowy photos online), but I could hardly complain about this!

After much online research, I decided to spend the night at Saizen-in, a small temple with 24 guest rooms and a rock garden created by Mirei Shigemori, a notable modern garden and landscape designer.

 

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Saizen-in

 

I have stayed at a temple in Kyoto before, but the self-catering accommodation was located in a new building within the grounds, so I didn’t feel like I was staying at a temple at all. At Saizen-in, the Japanese-style tatami rooms have modern amenities like a flatscreen TV (which I was surprised to see), wifi, a safe and an under-table heater for my feet (which i loved). And like most Japanese-style accommodations, the toilets (very clean) and bath are shared among the same sex.

After checking in, I left the temple and headed towards the town centre to grab some lunch, followed by a visit to the Kongobuji temple. The organic vegetarian set lunch at Bon On Shya Cafe and art gallery was delicious and satisfying, and I especially loved the strong coffee and tofu cheesecake.

 

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Top row: Bon On Shya cafe and gallery

 

Originally constructed in 1593 and rebuilt in 1861, Kongobuji temple is head temple of Shingon Buddhism, hence the temple is Koyasan’s main tourist attraction. The temple contains many nature-inspired sliding screen doors painted by the famous painted Kano Tanyu (1602-1674) from the Kyoto Kano school. The temple’s Banryutei Rock Garden is the largest rock garden in Japan. Built in 1984, its large rocks from Shikoku, the birthplace of Kobo Daishi, represent a pair of dragons emerging from a sea of clouds.

 

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Kongobuji temple and its rock garden

 

Besides Kongobuji temple, the most popular attraction at Koyasan is undoubtedly Okunoin, Japan’s largest and most prestigious cemetery. It is the resting place of the founder of Koyasan, Kobo Daishi, and more than 200,000 Buddhist monks who are said to be waiting for the resurrection of the Future Buddha, Maitreya. There are regular night tours of the cemetery, but I think it would be too creepy, so I wasn’t too keen on this idea.

What struck me most as I walked through the 2km-long cemetery was the ancient cedar trees. I think these tress help to make the place less eerie. Apart from monks, many historically important figures are also buried here, and you can tell by their massive tombstones. The path leads towards Kobo Daishi‘s mausoleum, located behind Torodo Hall, which is filled with 10,000 lanterns. This is a pilgrimage site, so phones/photos are strictly forbidden.

 

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Okunoin cemetery

 

Everything was within my expectations until I strolled towards the newer looking part of the cemetery… I first spotted a tombstone for the Panasonic Corp, followed by a coffee cup and saucer-shaped stone for UCC Ueshima Coffee Co. Yet the most bizarre one has to be a rocket for the aerospace firm, Shin Meiwa Kogyo. Is this most sought-after cemetery in Japan? Definitely. If you were a ‘nobody’ in this lifetime, then getting a spot here would probably elevate you to a ‘somebody’. It seems like status still matters in the afterlife!

 

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After the long hours spent strolling around the cemetery, I took a bus back to Saizen-in before dinner time. The delicate and seasonal vegetarian/vegan dinner was served inside my room, and it was served by a friendly monk/lay person (not entirely sure if he is a monk because he worn non-monk clothing and doesn’t have a shaved head) who could speak quite good English. I asked him about the famous rock garden, and he told me that the room that faces the garden is occupied and so it is not available for viewing. However, he said he could try to arrange for me to see it after breakfast the next morning when the guests have checked out.

 

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Vegetarian dinner at Saizen-in

 

The following morning, I got up early to attend the morning prayer and sutra chanting. I have been practicing zazen (sitting meditation) and studying mostly Zen Buddhism for the last few years, but I am not familiar with Shingon Buddhism and their rituals, so the session was a new experience for me. I also followed other Japanese guests and queued up to offer incense, which is considered a standard Buddhist tradition that takes place in many parts of Asia.

 

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Breakfast

 

After breakfast, I went to see the friendly monk/lay person from last night and he told me to follow him. It turned out that a group of Japanese women have booked the garden room, but they gave him permission to let me in and admire the gardens! The three gardens were planted by Mirei Shigemori in the Showa period, and it is designated as a registered monument of the country in 2010. Each garden represents a rich “Koyasan” of water, and the flow of water is tied in three gardens.

After we left the room, he led me upstairs to show me a different view of the garden, then he ook out his phone and enthusiastically shared with me photos that he has taken during different seasons. I felt very moved by his kind gesture.

 

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The rock gardens designed by Mirei Shigemori

 

Before leaving the mountain, I went out for a short stroll to enjoy another day of blue sky and warm temperature. It was a serene morning with few visitors and cars – it was a huge contrast from Osaka where I had stayed earlier. I felt great and was a bit sad to leave this behind.

 

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After checking out, I wanted to ask the receptionist if I could see the monk/lay person before I leave, and luckily, he was just walking down the corridor. I thanked him for everything and we chatted a little before I headed off. I don’t think my stay would have been the same if I didn’t encounter him. I probably would have enjoyed it anyway, but I think it was his hospitality that made the stay even more memorable.

 

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