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. 


Spring Days

I went to an exhibition last week at Suntory Museum and learned a new Japanese phrase that so completely captures the Japanese way of life. A phrase which increasingly resonates with me. 

(From Wikipedia)Mono no aware (もののあはれ), literally "the pathos of things," and also translated as "an empathy toward things," or "a sensitivity to ephemera," is a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence (無常 mujō?), or transience of things, and a gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing.

This phase was an epiphany to me... why the Japanese seemed so obsessed with taking pictures, celebrating micro-seasonal changes with festivals, making a spiritual "ceremony" of such a simple act of making tea. One aspect of this culture is so conscientious of honoring the present. For me, it has translated into a "mono awareness" of what it is to celebrate "living for today, and living today". 

The Black Butler (in Akasaka)

It was such a treat to be invited by a Japanese set designer to a full dress rehearsal of a Manga turned musical performance earlier this month. While some of the singing lacked luster, it was a great first hand experience to see a live production of "The Black Butler". The stage set was quite impressive and the piece, set in Victorian England about the adventures of a demonic butler and his 14 year old young British Lord, with an entire Japanese cast was ... a tad surreal. 

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Shaped like a Prefecture

The mascot of the Chiba prefecture is called Chiba-kun, and he is shaped like... the shape of Chiba prefecture! I rarely set scores by these mascot creatures but conceptually, he's pretty special. 

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An Acquired Taste

I was so fascinated when I first saw these, called Japanese Goya, a variety of gourd. It turns out they taste the same but have a different texture on the outside as the ones I grew up with in Singapore. I cooked them using a family recipe, in a stir-fry with eggs, rice vermicelli, minced garlic and they tasted exactly the way I remembered! The vegetable has to be sliced thinly as it has a bitterness to it. It is an acquired taste. 

Sympatico: Cats and Cemeteries

Nezu is a rather unspoiled neighborhood in Tokyo. There are about seven thousand graves on the grounds of the Yanaka Cemetery. It was a cloudy day and its furry living inhabitants were out and about, taking in the cool weather. 

The Lost Love Letter

New Wagashi designs at my favorite shop Shiono in Akasaka. The first one is fashioned after the small individual Hydrangea flower unit; the season for "appreciating" Hydrangea is around the corner with the upcoming raining season. The second design is titled "The lost love letter". The design mimics a leaf with a single drop of dew. 

A carp feeding frenzy

At the pond located on the grounds of the Yasukuni Shinto Shrine. For 100 yen, a vending machine by a little hut overhanging the pond dispenses a cigarette size box of fish food pellets. The result is a cacophony of colors breaking the surface of the water in a feeding frenzy. 

Scale and Space

"Nokogiri-yama", in Chiba, the "Saw Mountain". This hiking park is home to two immense Daibutsu or Buddha statues and a score of smaller ones set in various enclaves. The Yajushi Nyorai stands at 101.9 ft, (31.05 meters). According to the literature handed out, the park is "the oldest Imperial invocation place of worship in the Kanto area". Ergo, the Emperor laid a pretty penny down to get it done. 

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The second large Daibutsu is carved into the side of a stone hill with less dimensionality but no less poetry and beauty. It was pretty steep climbing up many flights of steps to get to the top of the mountain but the view of the surrounding mountains and sea was beautiful. The air was fresh and invigorating.

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The building where the Emperor would have taken his tea ceremony. I am constantly surprised that edifices associated with the Emperor are imbued with such incredible austerity. The roof is painted a subtle grey and the rest of the wood is left unadorned and unpainted. 

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Taking a breather at a humble tea house (for the common people). Seasonal Wagashi served with a delicate bamboo pick, with Matcha (finely ground, high quality green tea that is used in tea ceremonies) and a sprig of green on an elegant lacquer tray. 

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At Futtsu Beach, right at the "belly button" of the Chiba prefecture, (if you were looking at the overlay of the mascot shape). A structure of interconnecting viewing platforms right by the beach made for a distinct silhouette. 

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Two halves and a Whole

It was a very windy day and the beach was covered in seaweed and lots of shells, with the occasional washed up jellyfish. I found a rare fully intact sand dollar and what is more incredible, I found two halves of a second one, one half I picked up when I first started walking on the beach and the second half on the way back to the starting point.

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Golden Week and One After

Golden Week in Japan ushers in the loveliest of Spring weather. It is one of the most popular weeks for travel in Japan. There are 4 national holidays during the course of a week and this makes for a popular travel week during the start of these gorgeous spring days,

San'en-zan Zōjō-ji (三縁山増上寺)

One of the most endearing and arresting sights at the San'en-zan Zōjō-ji (三縁山増上寺), a large and prominent Buddhist temple situated in a public park near the Tokyo Tower. Row upon row of colorfully "dressed" stone statues at the "Unborn Children Garden". Crimson and vermilion crochet caps adorn these foot tall statues. 

While I was filming this, the daily 5 p.m. chime came on, with the tune from Yuuyake Koyake 夕焼小焼け, a tune originally written by a school teacher. The words to the song remind the children that the day is done and it's time to go home.

Bamboo Grove — Hokokuji Temple


Kamakura is about an hour by train from Tokyo and offers a plethora of Shrines and Temples. The bamboo grove at the Hokokuji Temple, albeit modest, still makes for a sublime walking experience.

The Great Buddha


The local tramways were stuffed to the gills. The Japanese have a special way of impossibly cramming people into train cars. The Great Buddha at Kotoku-In (at the Hase station) was impressive. Guide books have reported that President Obama has graced this tourist site with his presence.

Octopus Cracker

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Local Kamakura "octopus cracker". It's squid dipped in batter, put into a very high pressure "hot press" and cooked into a thin wafer like cracker. It looked like an abstract painting silkscreened onto an edible translucent substrate.

Dressing Public Sculptures


The practice of dressing public sculptures and statues, large or small brings smiles out all around. This, at the Hase train station at Kamakura.

Mount Fuji Bathed in Pink


The setting sun on the way to Enoshima, a small island connected by a causeway with a walkway for pedestrians. Mount Fuji (Fuji-san, as the mountain is affectionately known) in the distance bathed in a rose pink glow.

Indigo Eggplant


On the left, strips of complimentary seaweed snacks at a newly discovered Udon and Soba restaurant, Honmura An Soba, in Roppongi (thanks to our friend Mark). The indigo color from the pickling of eggplant was intriguing, at Doma Doma, a local Izakaya chain.

The Wagashi Obsession Continues


The "Romanc­ecar" Limited Express train runs from the Odakyu station at Shinjuku to Hakone. This train ride cuts the ride down to one and a half hours, shaving half an hour and the need to switch trains to get there. Hakone is located South West of Tokyo and makes for a lovely day trip. Upon arrival and foraging for food,  I came across a little shop which sold... Wagashi! 

Good advice is hard to come by


Pirate Boats 


The reputation of the "pirate boats" on Lake Ashi precedes all other forms of transportation in Hakone. (There is a "ropeway cable car" and a track bound "cable car" in addition to vintage electric tram cars). An invasion of Disney in an otherwise unspoiled seaside town. 

My traveling companions were mobbed by Japanese school children who were clamoring to practice English and were kind enough to help the children complete their English homework assignment.

I am the Eggman... Coo-Coo Ca-Choo.!


The sulphur springs at Owakudani is the first stop along the Hakone Ropeway (cable car). The hike up the hill was a gentle one but the air got pretty nasty near the pools of sulphur. This has to be one of the strangest tourist attractions. The infamous "not to be missed" food here — eggs that have been boiled in these steaming sulphur pools!

This work man is collecting baskets of eggs that have just been boiled in the liquid sulphur vats. And the result? A completely blackened shell with a frosted sheen. The eggs were strangely beautiful and while there was a faint scent of sulphur on the egg white, they tasted like regular hard boiled eggs. I didn't think I could eat one on the spot, the fumes was positively vile!

Hakone Jinja Shrine


The last stop of the day was the Hakone Jinja Shrine by Lake Ashi. Surrounded by 800 year old cedar trees was a marvelous way to end the day. This is the Torii leading to the Shrine from the main road.


Dragon statues at the shrine. Usually one is expected to rinse your hands with water (with ladles provided beside a trough of running water) before you go into the main shrine area.

This was an additional special watering grotto located immediately outside the main shrine.

A Kafkaesque image


A stunning Torii in the water providing a gateway to the shrine from Lake Ashi.