West of Tokyo and First Foray into Kyoto

I'm finally putting together the "report" from the last two trips taken in Japan during the end of the year in 2013. 


The first was a 5 day road trip west of Tokyo. Boarding the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo station to Nagano. From there, a rented car facilitated a drive to Matsumoto, Takayama and through to Kanazawa. The return trip to Tokyo was once again by train from Kanazawa.

As the train left Tokyo, an interesting ad on the side of a building, offering "lip service". 


Many of us who are conscious of WWII history forget that the swastika is an ancient symbol of Buddhism for peace and good. Here, the symbol is stark and dynamic on the bunting seen from afar at the massive Zenkoji Buddhist temple in Nagano. 


The first night in Nagano was a rustic experience at the "Jigokudani Yaen Koen - Monkey valley Ryokan and Onsen". In other words, a traditional Japanese bed-and-breakfast type of hotel where one sleeps on futons laid out in tatami mat rooms, with hot spring baths available as part of the experience. Some of these Ryokans can be pretty fancy but this one could do with a major renovation. Still, there was an outdoor Onsen (hot spring soaking bath, circled in the picture), and since it was set so much out in the open, it was not uncommon that the monkeys, at sunset, would also take a soak in it, even with humans.  


A series of loud whistles pierced the cold air over breakfast the next morning. To my great delight, a pipe-piper scene transpired. A park ranger was literally leading what seemed like 100 monkeys into the monkey park on the other side of the ravine. Several of them chose to deviate from the troop and ran through the Ryokan! No wonder there were signs everywhere to keep the doors shut at all times.

At the designated "Monkey Onsen", one can stroll among these unique creatures. For the most part, they were not interested in people and went about their own business. The park rangers feed them as they are a major tourist attraction there. They have their own webcam and website trained on their own Onsen spot. (http://www.jigokudani-yaenkoen.co.jp/english/html/top_e.htm)


Matsumoto castle at night masquerading as a pyramidal licorice stack. 


There was an opportunity to stay at a Gassho Zukuri house in Ainokura. These are designated Unesco cultural treasures. This one has been in the owner's family for 11 generations. In the middle of the "living" room, there was a sunken hearth where traditionally food would be cooked. Again, the guest rooms were Ryokan style with futons on the tatami mat floors.


A most charming puppet mechanical hut in Takayama. For the price of 100 yen, a little doll would emerge from her house and deposit a tiny rolled up fortune scroll for you, with haunting temple flute music playing during her approach to the deposit box, flanked by Inari "fox" statues. 


At the Kenroku-en Gardens in Kanazawa, what looked like a beautiful art installation turned out to be traditional methods of securing pine trees with rope, to provide support for the branches during the heavy snow falls during the winter. 


Although pressed for time in Kanazawa, a visit to the Noh museum was not to be missed. A petite fox mask stole the show in my books. As part of the activities offered at this museum, visitors can try on a full Noh costume, complete with a mask. A large array of them were on display and could be examined. 



The main reason for the trip to Kyoto was to see the night illuminations, this one is of the "kimono forest". A series of lighted tubes with patterns based on kimono textiles guiding the way to the train station. 


Large hand painted paper and reed lanterns by the river. 


Exquisite rock gardens at Daitoku-ji temple. It's actually a cluster of small temples in one area and only 6 of the 24 temples are open each day.


This is an image from the Sanjusangendo, a Buddist temple in Kyoto known for its 1001 statues of Kannon. I did not take this picture as photography was not allowed but found this on the internet (on http://jvcic.blogspot.jp/2010/05/breathtaking-sanjusangendo.html).  It was a stunning sight to see row upon row of gold painted wooden carvings, no two completely alike, for as far as the eye could see when you first entered the space. An arresting memory to leave Kyoto with. 


Food, Fruit and "Hoops"

Dragon Fruit

I always liked how strange they looked on the outside and on the inside. You scoop out the white part to eat. Its nice if its slightly chilled, but its very mild tasting. I've had them in Singapore, in NYC and now in Tokyo.


A Sake Pairing

A feast for the senses at Ningyo-cho (人形町 田酔 ) restaurant. The presentation was spectacular, as was the sake. Some of the more "slimy" morsels were challenging. 


Edible Cubes

From a cake "atelier", Louange Tokyo. These cakes cubes measure about 2.5 inches (about 6 cm). Needless to say, they are exquisite on every level. They are also exquisitely packed for the journey home.  


Wednesday Cat Belgian Style White Beer. 

Never judge a beer can by its sassy marketing "label" but I'll take two and I'll be back for more. 


Circles of Purification and Bits of Paper

I made a new friend while helping her to locate Hikawa Jinja. We arrived in time to see how these huge purification circles, called Chinowa 茅の輪, were constructed. A type of reef grass is used to wrap a base circular structure, which is also made from reed. (I love it that the kids have their white gloves on to help).


The structure at this particular shrine, the Hikawa Jinja, is erected under the Toii. It was a rainy day and everything looked so lush and green. This was done a week before the actual ceremony. 


The cleansing ceremony is called "nagoshi no harai". The priests from the shrine lead the congregation in a procession three times through the purification circle. I include this picture because these instruments make the most unusual sounds. When I first heard the chanting in the temple, a precursor to the actual procession, several tunes were played. It sounded like someone was playing abstract modern music on a synthesizer. I thought, how strange, why would they use electronic sounds piped in at intervals. I couldn't be more wrong! One of these three instruments here makes a hard metallic keyboard sound!


At the larger Hie shrine. This ceremony was more ostentatious as evident by the elegant robes worn here. Bits of white paper, cut into small squares are also thrown over the crowd, and by the crowd as well, over themselves as a symbolic act of cleansing. At this shrine, you could also part take in drinking a thimbleful of sake in a small shallow plate. All the rituals are done with great reverence. To conclude the ceremonies, an envelope of charms were handed out to everyone. 


Frogs with Foxes

Wanted to share the fox statues at my favorite shrine with my new friend and I saw these statues which I've never noticed before! Frog representatives! 


Akasaka Toyokawa Inari Shrine

The Akasaka Toyokawa Inari is a Shinto shrine. The Inari Okami is a Japanese deity of fertility, rice, agriculture, foxes, industry and worldly success. The Kitsune, (fox in Japanese) is the common animal effigy associated with the Inari. These fox statues are often adorned with red yodarekake (votive bibs). The venerated canine forms often hold a symbolic item in their mouths or beneath a front paw—often a jewel or a key. A sheaf of rice, a scroll, or a fox cub or a family of cubs are also common representations.

The Kitsune, (fox in Japanese) is a messenger of the Inari Okami.

Faithful intentions written on the bibs with hopes for a child. 

There would often be little offerings of coins placed at the feet or on the top of the heads of the statues, no matter what size they were.


The flash of the red bib and flags was so stark on a cold and clear winter's day. I had to fight an incredible urge to take one home with me.