Category Archive: Japan

Video – Yakushima, Japan

Posted by on January 18, 2011

Back in November 2007 I visited Yakushima Island in Japan. It is one of the one of the most magical places I’ve visited during my travels. I created an audio slideshow of the photo I took on the island. Yakushima was the inspiration for the animated film Princess Mononoke.

I’ve recently been working on some audio slideshows again and finally got around to converting it to a video and uploading it to YouTube. I’ve decided to repost it for your enjoyment.

Go Oman!

Posted by on January 19, 2009

I picked the right day to come to Oman. The night I arrived Oman beat Saudi Arabia in the Gulf Nations Cup in Soccer. The last two days everyone has been going nuts, wearing Omani flags and scarves, driving around with cars decked out in red, white and green, honking and cheering.

I’m typing this at an internet cafe in Muscat as I wait for the bus to take me to Nizwa. I’m beginning to think that renting a car might have been a smarter option. Gas is really cheap, and all the road signs are in English as well as Arabic. I might do that in Nizwa still. The early bus to Nizwa left at 8am and I showed up at 9:30am not knowing the bus schedule. The next bus leaves at 2:30pm, so I sit and wait.

I wasn’t really planning on visiting Oman, but I’m glad I did.


On some related news from places I’ve been before, officials in Japan have closed the Tsukiji Fish Market to tourists for a month. Having been to the Tsukiji Fish Market, I’m amazed at some of the things people were doing. I was hyper aware of the fact that I was in the middle of an active market where people were earning a living. It is really no different than being on the floor of a stock exchange….except it is fish. You have to get up really early to visit the fish market, and if you are drunk at 5am, you have issues.

On a personal level, must say I was glad to hear no Americans were involved.

You can read more about my experience at the Tsukiji Fish Market.

The Seven Wonders of Japan

Posted by on August 21, 2008

I bring you, in no particular order, the Seven Wonders of Japan.


Caption

Photography by http://flickr.com/photos/anjin/

Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto
Kiyomizu-dera is a Tendi Buddhist temple in Kyoto and is one of the oldest and best-known temples in a historic city filled with temples. The current building was built in 1633 by the third Tokugawa shogun and temples on the location date back to 798. Situated on Mount Otowa, Kiyomizu offers a stunning view of the surrounding area.

Kiyomizu gets its name from a nearby 13m waterfall. People would often jump off the temple into the water below (a practice which is now banned). “Jumping from Kiyomizu Temple” has become a saying in Japan for doing something daring.

Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle, Himeji
Himeji Castle (Himeji-jo) is one of the best-preserved castles in Japan. Construction originally started in 1331, Himeji was untouched by the devastation in WWII, unlike Osaka and Hiroshima Castles. Himeji is considered one of the three great castles of Japan, along with Matsumoto Castle and Kumamoto Castle.

Castle holds a commanding view of all the surrounding flat land area, which made it ideal for a military fortification. In addition to its large keep and thick walls, the paths inside the compounds are a maze designed to confuse potential attackers.

Himeji can be visited via day trip from Kyoto or Hiroshima via the Shinkansen, and the castle is within easy walking distance from the train station.

A-Bomb Dome, Hiroshima

A-Bomb Dome, Hiroshima

Peace Park, Hiroshima
On August 6, 1945, Hiroshima, Japan became the first city ever to be destroyed with an atomic bomb. As Hiroshima rebuilt after the war, a decision was made to keep the ruins of the Genbaku Dome (A-Bomb Dome) standing as a reminder of the devastation, and the centerpiece of the Hiroshima Peace Park. The dome and the area of the park was ground zero for the blast which killed over 100,000 people.

The park draws visitors from all over the world who come, not only to remember those killed in the war but to hope for future peace.

In addition to the A-Bomb Dome, there are memorials to the children killed in the explosions, a peace library, and museum, an eternal peace flame, as well as several acres of park area. Visitors should take the time to ring the Peace Bell.

Golden Pavillion, Kyoto

Golden Pavillion, Kyoto

Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), Kyoto
The Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji) is one of the most beautiful buildings in Japan. Built on the grounds of the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1397, the pavilion was created to hold relics of the Buddha. The top two floors of the building is coated in gold leaf, which is where it gets its distinctive name.

The pavilion was burned down in 1950 by a deranged monk and rebuilt in 1955. The pavilion and the surround pond and garden are one of the most photographed scenes in Japan.

Shinkansen in Kagoshima

Shinkansen in Kagoshima

The Shinkansen
No trip to Japan would be complete without taking a trip on the Japanese bullet train, the Shinkansen.

The Shinkansen is the heart of the extensive Japanese rail system. While most of the trains in Japan are normal trains, the Shinkansen are kept on a separate rails designed for rapid transit. The Shinkansen can achieve a top speed of 300kph (180mph). There are no road or rail crossing on Shinkansen tracks. The speed of the train would make an accident devastating.

High-speed Shinkansen trains can be taken from Kagoshima in the far south to Hachinohe in the north, covering most of the country.

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Photo by http://flickr.com/photos/kamoda/

Fuji-san (Mount Fuji)
Could any list of the Seven Wonders of Japan be complete without Mount Fuji? Mount Fuji is not only the highest point in Japan but is a symbol of the country which has been used in countless pieces of artwork. Fuji is an active stratovolcano but has not erupted since 1707.

Approximately 200,000 people climb Mount Fuji each year, and visiting Mount Fuji is a popular destination for tourists. On a clear day, the summit of Mount Fuji can be seen from Tokyo. The most popular months for climbing Fuji are July and August.

Visiting the base of Mount Fuji can be easily done on a day trip from Tokyo.

 

If you dont think noodles can be a wonder, you havent been to Japan

If you don’t think noodles can be a wonder, you haven’t been to Japan

Ramen in Fukuoka
Japanese cuisine ranks among the best in the world. While sushi often gets the attention, one of the staple foods of Japan is ramen.

Originally a Chinese dish, ramen first became popular in Japan during the Meiji period in the 19th Century. Japanese ramen is a far cry from the instant noodles which many westerners think of when they hear ramen.

Ramen was believe to have been brought to Japan by Chinese merchants in Fukuoka. Fukuoka ramen is known for its rich, pork based Tonkotsu ramen, topped with a pork cutlet.

 


Other articles in Gary’s Wonders of the World series:
Seven Wonders of the Philippines | Seven Wonders of Australia | Seven Wonders of New Zealand | Seven Wonders of Japan | Seven Wonders of Egypt | Seven Wonders of Spain

The Shrines and Temples of Japan: Part 3, Nikko

Posted by on April 6, 2008

If you haven’t yet, first read part one and part two.

I had a reader ask me what she should do when she’s in Tokyo and I suggested a visit to Nikko. That reminded me that I never wrote the final party of my three part Shrines and Temples of Japan series. So, in the spirit of better late than never, I give you…..Nikko.

History

Unlike Kyoto or Nara, Nikko was not a capital of Japan. Nikko is located in the mountains in central Honshu surrounded by Japanese cedar forests. The first temple was established in 782 by the high priest Shodo as the forests around the area had always been sacred to the Shinto religion. The town of Nikko eventually grew around the shrines and temples.

The current temples date back to the seventeenth century and consist of a mix of Buddhist and Shinto temples and shrines. In addition to worshipers, Nikko became a popular attraction during the Miji Dynasty in the 19th century.

Most non-Japanese are probably not aware that the hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil saying comes from Nikko. The monkeys are found on a carving on a stable building at the Tosho-gu temple. I had no idea of this fact when I arrived in Nikko so I didn’t understand why so many stores in Nikko had t-shirts and statues of the three monkeys. I also didn’t understand why so many people were making goofy faces and getting their photos taken in front of the same building.

The Shrines

There are three primary sites, all adjoined to each other which compromise the Shrines and Temples of Nikko World Heritage Area. Tosho-gu, Rinno-ji, and Futarasan. Rinno-ji is Buddhist and the others are Shinto.

I am not going to go into detail regarding each site and building because, to be honest, they all sort of blurred together and I’m just not that much of an expert on Buddhism or Shintoism. I am aware of different schools of Buddhism and how the different temples are home to different schools, but if I tried to describe the difference I’d probably get it wrong and just end up plagiarizing Wikipedia.

What I can tell you are the very obvious differences between Nikko and Kyoto or Nara. The location of Nikko in the mountains and nestled in the cedar forest gives it a very different vibe than either city. Kyoto is a large city and no matter where you go, you are never far away from the city. Even in Nara, while not nearly as big, you always sort of have the feeling you are in a city park.

You are under no illusion that you are in a city at the Nikko shrines. Many of the buildings literally stand under or close to very large cedar trees. Even with large crowds, I still had a feeling that I was in the forest because you are totally surrounded by trees.

The other thing I noticed in Nikko was that the buildings were much more colorful and elaborate than what I had seen in Kyoto and Nara. In Nikko, the facades of buildings were often covered in gold leaf and you could see bright reds, blues, and yellows everywhere.

There was one path I was able to take which went up a hill and into the woods. I probably got sidetracked for over and hour hiking up there and I eventually came across a paved hillside and a system of pipes which sort of took away the magic of everything.

Getting There

It takes about two hours to get from Tokyo to Nikko. I took the Shinkansen to the Nikko line. There was only one train transfer and I think there may have been a slower train which went directly into Tokyo from Nikko, but I wasn’t aware of it. I also had a JR Rail pass, so I took the Shinkansen because I could.

Once you arrive in Nikko, it is possible to walk to the temple complex. It took me about 30 minutes to walk there and it was almost all uphill. There is a bus which can take you there, but I didn’t bother. The walk back is much easier as it is all downhill.

When I was there, there seemed to be a much higher percentage of Japanese tourists than I saw in Kyoto or Nara. I don’t think Nikko is as sexy of an attraction as either of those and tends to get more pilgrims and worshipers.

I was there in late November so it was getting chilly and the sun set early. The temples closed around five-ish on a Sunday.

I arrived at the complex a little after noon and I don’t think I was able to see everything (but it was also busy).

If you are in Tokyo and have a spare day, take a trip out to Nikko. It is probably the best option to experience traditional Japanese culture and religion available in the area.

The Big Mac(Donald’s) Update

Posted by on January 27, 2008

Since I last did a McDonald’s update, I’ve gained a lot of readers. For those who are new, I try to eat at a McDonald’s restaurant in every country I visit. McDonald’s in every country are just a little bit different as they adjust the menu to fit local tastes. Eating at McDonald’s is an attempt to try and see how each country is different through the lens of something which is very familiar. I do not usually go out of my way to eat fast food, but I do eat at least this one meal at each place.

My last update was in Taiwan, so I have Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong/Macau to fill everyone in on . Brunei didn’t have a McDonald’s that I could see (but they did have Pizza Hut and Jollibee’s) and I’ll wait till I pass through KL to talk about Malaysia.

Japan

You think Japan you think seafood. It should come as no surprise that Japan’s contribution to the global McDonald’s menu should come from the sea. They have given us the Fliet-o-Ebi, or the shrimp sandwich. What was interesting was that the Japanese McDonald’s all had cheaper seafood sandwiches than beef sandwiches. This is opposite (outside of Lent) as it is almost anywhere else. The filet-o-fish was the cheapest thing on the menu and the Quarter Pounder was the most expensive.

I had a helluva time finding Diet Coke in Japan and South Korea. I guess they aren’t that fat so don’t feel the need to drink diet coke that often. I’d usually get a Grape Fanta when I ate in Japan.

In the Asian McDonald’s I’ve visited (except for Hong Kong) they had a very clever system for getting rid of your garbage. Each garbage bin had a drain attached for dumping your ice and extra beverages. You were then expected to stack your cups. Also, hard plastic like forks, drink tops and straws were usually put in a separate bin. It was very efficient. Very Japanese. The drain on the garbage is one of those simple ideas that really should be adapted everywhere. It reduces the weight and potential mess of the garbage by removing the liquids from the bag. It also reduces the volume by stacking the cups. It would be very simple to implement and I think everyone would use it immediately.

South Korea

South Korea has one of the more boring menus I’ve seen so far. The only really unique thing I saw was the pumpkin pie, which sounds like something that is probably on the menu in North America in the fall, but I don’t recall ever actually seeing it.

The one thing which sets South Korean McDonald’s apart from Japan was something you could see all over the country: space. Most of the Japanese McDonald’s I saw were very crowded. Many had spaces for eating while standing up against the wall. There were very few booths or large tables. This is sort of a reflection of everything in Japan. Everything is tiny and crowded.

In South Korea, even though the country has a higher population density than Japan, you don’t see the same amount of crowding. I noticed this the moment I arrived in Busan. The apartments were bigger, almost American sized. Likewise, the McDonald’s were more roomy and less seafood oriented. Even though South Korea is heavily into pork, I didn’t see a lot of pork on the menu.

They also had corn soup on the menu, which is something I also saw in other Asian countries. I don’t get why corn is so popular. It certainly isn’t a traditional Asian food.

Hong Kong/Macau

I noticed that Hong Kong and Taipei had way more fast food restaurants than I saw anywhere in Japan and South Korea. You’d see them around in Seoul and Tokyo, but not in the same degree as in Taipei or Hong Kong. I have no clue if it is a Chinese thing.

That being said, the two places I’ve eaten the most fast food were in Taipei and Hong Kong. I think that is more a function of me staying there far longer than I had originally planned, having a screwed up sleep schedule, and McDonald’s being open 24/7. If you recall from my report on Taipei, they had great fried chicken. The Hong Kong chicken wings were also really good. Probably not very good for me, but they taste good. The only unique thing I saw was the Prosperity burger, which was available in beef and pork. I think it might have been a seasonal thing like the Shamrock Shake, but for Chinese New Year. I also saw the Prosperity Burger in Malaysian Borneo, which has a sizable Chinese population.

I plan on doing a special McDonald’s update from Bali. From what I’ve heard, the menu is very different there.

Japan: Mecca for Sushi Lovers

Posted by on January 13, 2008

Sushi is far and away my favorite food. I’m not alone in that assessment. All around the world sushi restaurants have been springing up like weeds as sushi has gained in popularity. It is easily the biggest Japanese contribution to global culture (yes, bigger than Anime).

So I couldn’t really go to Japan and not indulge in sushi. There were several things I had to know: is sushi better in Japan? how do they eat sushi in Japan? (fingers or chopstick?)

So throughout my time in Japan was investigating sushi. I got one blowout meal at a sushi restaurant in Ginza, I ate at several low end conveyor belt restaurants, and I went to what is Mecca for sushi lovers: The Tsukiji Fish Market (pronounced Skee-gee, and the last syllable is pronounced like how the French say “Guy” not like the letter “G”)

How do the Japanese eat sushi?

I have had this discussion with several people back in the US and have even gone to web sites to get an answer. The big debate is between using chopsticks and using your hands. I’m talking about nigiri sushi (with rice), not raw sashimi.

All the knowledgeable people I’ve spoken to in the US said you are supposed to pick it up with your hands. This is confirmed by the internet, which is never wrong. So a few years ago, I began eating sushi with my hands. Honestly, it is much easier than using chopsticks, which I only use for sashimi.

I get to Japan and everyone I see is eating with god damn chopsticks….

I’m not saying its right or its wrong, just that it was what I observed. I saw it at both the low end and high end sushi restaurants. That being said, no one ever looked funny at me or corrected me.

Is sushi better in Japan?

The short answer is, No. Sushi is not better in Japan. It isn’t worse, but I don’t think its is better. In fact, several Japanese I spoke with said they thought the best sushi restaurants were in New York. Personally, the best sushi I’ve ever had prior to Japan was in LA and Vegas, and the meal I had in Ginza was on a par with those.

The meal I had in Ginza was definitely different from sushi I’ve had elsewhere. As I’ve noticed with most food I’ve eaten on my trip, the difference with what you might find in an ethnic restaurant in foreign country vs what you’d find in a restaurant its native country is more a matter of what is missing from the menu. My meal in Ginza had many small dishes that I’ve never had before including some small fried fish and some non-fish items like small strips of beef. There were also many more sauces used on some of the dishes than I assumed would be used. I had been under the impression that “keepin-it-real” sushi was just fish and rice. All the sauces and crap were American inventions. The California roll is definitely American, but there are many sauces and deviations from basic fish and sushi rice which were served. (I should have written this a lot earlier. I’m having some trouble remembering everything that I ate that night)

I also ate at a rather nice place in Kobe where the fish served on each piece of nigiri was the size of a filet. It was enormous.

When I had my big meal in Ginza, the chef (who was just working on serving me) and some ladies next to me (one was an elderly woman wearing a kimono) both were happy to offer me tips on what items should go in soy sauce and what shouldn’t. At no point with their tips did they ever correct me for eating with my hands, even though the ladies were using chopsticks.

While many restaurants in Japan really focus on freshness in their fish, many of the items have to be flown into Japan so they aren’t necessarily that much more fresh than what you’d find elsewhere. At all but the highest end places, you will probably be getting fish that has been in a deep freeze.

Tsukiji Fish Market

The Mecca for sushi is Tsukiji. It is seafood ground zero. If you frequently eaten sushi, or even seafood, there is a very good chance you have eaten something which has passed through the Tsukiji Fish Market. While other regional fish markets have lessened the relative importance of Tsukiji globally, it is still the largest and most important fish market in the world.

Getting to Tsukiji isn’t difficult. It is only a few blocks from a subway station. However, you have to get up very early to view the fish market in action. Very early. Before sunrise early. I really don’t do early very well. You wont see any sunrise photos on my website. One night I was going to go with a group to Tsukiji by just staying up all night and leaving at 5am. That never happened. When you are near a vending machine that serves beer, you aren’t going to be able to stay up all night.

The fish market is a very busy place. The day I was there was the day after Japanese Thanksgiving, so the buyers were making up for the day it was closed. Most of the buyers are from Tokyo area sushi bars, restaurants and grocery stores who will be buying for that day. As a result, most of the inventory turns over very fast, as it sort of has to because fresh fish doesn’t stay fresh for long.

When I was there, there were some other tourists walking around along with me. We were all just obstructions and served no purpose whatsoever. If I worked at the fish market, I’d get really pissed off at tourists. Unlike visiting a normal market that sells nick-nacks, most people don’t purchase fresh seafood as souvenirs. As such, we were nothing but walking obstacles. Me and my huge camera bag kept getting in the way of guys rushing back and forth with product. About every few minutes I had to jump out of the way of an on coming gas powered cart.

The turnover and freshness means there is very little fishy smell at the fish market. I was rather surprised. Everything is either on ice or in running water. Most of the workers at the fish market wear rubber boots because of the water. I knew how to get to the fish market from the subway station by just following the men in rubber boots. I also saw more styrofoam boxes there than I’ve seen in my life.

The sheer variety of seafood at the fish market is amazing. I saw octopus (several varieties), eels, squid, crabs, lobster, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, snapper, prawns, enormous mussels, pretty fish, ugly fish, live fish, dried fish, one fish, two fish, red fish, and blue fish.

The star of the fish market, however, is tuna. Both fresh and frozen tuna can be seen all over and every day there are auctions for tuna at the fish market. Every so often an exceptionally high-quality tuna will come in that sets off a bidding frenzy in the auction. The record price for a single tuna is US$55,000. There is a very particular system used to judge quality of tuna. At each tuna stand, they slice a very thin section of the tail and put it on display. That slice is what is used by buyers to determine the quality of the tuna.

There are Japanese buyers at fish markets around the world. They buy tuna and other seafoods to bring to Tsukiji. From what I understand, Japanese buyers around the world all use the tail slice to determine tuna quality. Tuna purchased overseas is set to Tsukiji frozen. You can see men cutting up frozen tuna with band saws in many places in the fish market.

There is actually a sushi restaurant at the fish market. From what I’ve read it is supposed to be one of the best in the world. It isn’t fancy either. It looks like a cheap diner. I wasn’t able to eat there however because the line to get in went around the building. From what I was told, it is like that almost every day and the line starts at about 5am.

I did decide to eat at a place that was only a few blocks away. I figure it was probably just as good, but without the long wait. As I walked to the restaurant, I found a sort of secondary market around the main fish market. Here you could find vendors of high-quality sushi knives (they are expensive and good), ceramic place settings, vegetables, and anything else you’d ever need to run a restaurant.

I suppose my sushi breakfast was probably the freshest I’ve ever eaten. I can only assume the fish came from down the block at the fish market. It was a bit pricey for what I got, but it was an experience.

In summary, if you like seafood and are in Tokyo, make the effort to wake up early one morning to visit Tsukiji. It will be an experience you won’t soon forget.

The Shrines and Temples of Japan: Part 2, Horyuji and Nara

Posted by on December 19, 2007

Pagoda at Horyuji Temple

Pagoda at Horyuji Temple

If you’ve been following along for a while, or if you at least take a look at the left column of my website, you’ll notice that I have an affinity for UNESCO World Heritage sites. I’m not trying to visit every one of them, for that would be impossible. I passed up four in Japan and one in the Philippines. I use them as sort of a proxy for a guide book. (and I never use guidebooks). If you know nothing about a country and you wanted to know what “the” things to see while you were there, odds are most of them would be on the UNESCO list. Certainly if they are of historic, cultural, or natural significance.  This rule doesn’t hold all the time. Some really amazing things are not on the UNESCO list. Nan Modal in Micronesia and the rock islands of Palau come to mind. I also got a bit of a mini-education from the head of the World Heritage committee in Rennell in the Solomon islands about how the process works for getting on the list. Lets just say it isn’t an accident that rich countries have more than poor ones or that something as significant as Nan Madol is off the list while the Sydney Opera House (built in 1972) is on the list.

I will leave my UNESCO rant to a later day…

I bring this up as sort of a prelude to why I bothered to visit Horyuji and Nara in the first place. Unlike Kyoto, I had never heard of either of these places before I visited Japan. Most of the other travelers I spoke with in Japan were not planning on visiting either Nara or Horyuji (especially Horyuji). It just wasn’t on the list of “the” places you had to see in Japan. Too bad for them, because what I saw there were some of the coolest things I’ve seen in Japan.

After Kyoto, I went to Osaka for a few days. Honestly, I probably would have been better off staying in Kyoto given the hassle I had of finding a room.  Both Horyuji and Nara are as easy of day trips from Kyoto as from Osaka. It is just a matter of getting on the right JR train. I managed to see both Horyuji and Nara in one day without difficulty. If anyone in the future should stumble across this while doing a Google search, I’d definitely do both if you are going to do either one. It is a very short train ride from Nara to Horyuji.

Horyuji Temple World Heritage Site

Horyuji Temple World Heritage Site

Horyuji

Horyu is a very small town and the temple is by far its biggest attraction. The Horyuji Temple is actually the first site in Japan to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site, which should give you an indication of its importance. (as a general rule, the earlier a site is declared a heritage site, the bigger of a deal it is. The first were listed in 1993). In nothing else, the Temple of Horyuji has a claim to fame for being the site of the oldest wooden buildings in the world.

Built in the seventh century, the pagoda is the only wooden buildings from that time period on Earth still standing. The log used as the center post of the pagoda was cut in the year 594. Many of the wooden buildings you see in Asia are really reconstructions of earlier buildings which were destroyed by fire or war. Hiroshima Castle? Destroyed in WWII. The golden palace in the Forbidden City in Bejing? Rebuilt several times after fire destroyed earlier buildings. Almost everything I saw in Korea has similar a similar story. The temple of Horyuji, through sheer luck, has managed to survive wars and fire for 1,400 years.

If you look closely at the photo of the pagoda, you will notice a wire running down the lenght of structure. Every wooden building you find in Japan will have a wire like this. It sort of takes away from the photo, but it is vital that they are there because they are the grounding wires for the lightening rods. The number one killer of wooden structures over the years has been lightening. Strangely enough, the odds of the building surviving are probably better now than they were hundreds of years ago. No wars between factional warlords, lightening rods, and no open fires for heat. Oh, and firetrucks.

(Actually, it is believed that the temple isn’t the original building either. The first was built in 607 and burned down in 670. The current temple was finished in 711…a very apt number for Japan.)

The temple is still an active, working Buddhist temple and draws a large number of tourists from Japan. Outside of the pagoda and main temple building, the entire temple compound has a museuma and other structures in addition to a garden.

Todaji Temple, World's Largest Wooden Building

Todaji Temple, World's Largest Wooden Building

Nara

The biggest surprise was in Nara. Most of the historic things of note are all within one large area centered by a park. Like Miyajima outside of Hiroshima, Nara is full of tame deer roaming around. You can buy stacks of small crackers to feed the deer in the park. Nara was the capital of Japan before Kyoto from 710 to 784.

As I was doing the circuit of the temples in Nara, I wasn’t really impressed by anything, until I noticed a very large gate in the distance. In fact, the size of the gate was sort of deceptive. As I got closer, the gate became huge. It was far larger than any other ornamental gate I’ve seen in Asia. It was the gate to Todaiji Temple. I saw the word Todaiji on the map, but I really knew nothing about it. I thought to myself “This gate must be the big calling card for the temple.” How wrong I was….

Like most of the temples I visited in Japan, they usually chage a small fee. I went to the ticket window, paid my 500 yen and went around the wall go to the main temple building. As buildings go, it isn’t big. You can see bigger in almost any city. It took me a bit to realize that this totally made of wood. This is a freaking huge wooden building. (I later found out that a pervious temple stood on the same spot and was destroyed several hundred years ago. The previous temple was actually 1/3 bigger than the current one.)

The Daibutsu in Todaiji Temple

The Daibutsu in Todaiji Temple

So now I’m pretty excited. I like big things. I like old things. I like big, old things. (Imagine how excited I’ll get when I’m at the pyramids..) I’m taking my photos not even thinking about what might be inside a building that large or why you would need to make a building that large to begin with.

I enter the building and there it is. The same thing that is in every Buddhist temple: a statue of the Buddha. This one however is the giant, economy, family sized Buddha. It is called the Daibutsu, or large Buddha in Japanese. It is 15m (49ft) high. The original Buddha was built in 754. Since then, temples have been destroyed and rebuilt. The current bronze Buddha was repaired in parts over the last several hundred years. The current building dates back to 1701. (Amazingly enough, there used to be two pagodas here that were estimated to be 100m tall. They would have been the tallest structures in the world outside of the Great Pyramid.)

Inside the temple are several giant guardian statues. Each one is about 30ft (10m) tall. There is also a hole carved into one of the pillars in the temple. It is said that if you crawl through the hole, it will give you long life. As children are the only ones who can realistically fit through it, it is probably true.

In addition to Todaiji, there were other things on interest in Nara (Nigatsu-do Hall and Kasuga Shrine), but everything was sort of dwarfed (excuse the pun) by Todaiji. The one other thing that was interesting were the students practicing Ogasawara-ryu, or horseback archery.

If you visit Japan, make it a point to visit Nara and Horyuji. The pagoda at Horyuji and the Todaiji Temple were two of the high points of my trip.

The Temples and Shrines of Japan: Part 1, Kyoto

Posted by on December 17, 2007

Read part 2 and part 3

The Kyoto Tower is the single most noticeable landmark in Kyoto and was built to lead Kyoto into a future of flying cars and jive talking robot butlers.

The Kyoto Tower is the single most noticeable landmark in Kyoto and was built to lead Kyoto into a future of flying cars and jive talking robot butlers.

Travelers to Europe often complain of church fatigue. Everywhere you go, you see old churches and castles and after a while they all sort of just blur into each other. In Asia, the equivalent would be Shrine and Temple fatigue. No place I’ve visited so far suffers more from this than the greater Kyoto area.

Kyoto is packed full of history. It is like going to Rome or London. This is the where the former capital of Japan was located and it was intentionally spared from bombing during WWII because of the historic structures there. There is so much stuff in Kyoto that after several days, I still felt as if I didn’t see everything. Throw in the sites of nearby Nara and Horyuji, and it was a lot to digest in a short period of time.

I’m going to break up the discussion of the historical shrines and temples of Japan into three different posts. The first will deal with Kyoto, the second with Horyuji and Nara, and the last with Nikko. This will easier to digest for you and easier to write for me.

I’m also only going to touch on what I found interesting. Two of the big attractions in Kyoto for example, are Nijo Castle and the Imperial grounds. I didn’t really find Nijo that interesting and tours in the Imperial household had to be scheduled in advance, so I didn’t bother. I do have photos of both places, however. If you’ve been to Kyoto and think I missed something special, feel free to mention it in the comments.

Kyoto

Kyoto was the capital of Japan from 794 to 1868. The Imperial grounds in Kyoto are in fact still owned and controlled by the Japan’s Royal Family. Having been the capital for over 1,000 years is what makes it the epicenter of Japanese history.

Unlike Hiroshima which was destroyed in the war and totally rebuilt, Kyoto was spared from bombing during the WWII. Since WWII however, most of the older houses and structures in the city have been razed and replaced with modern buildings. At first glance, Kyoto doesn’t look any different than any other Japanese city. (and they really all do sort of look the same, but that is another post). When you arrive in Kyoto by Shinkansen, there is only one building of historical note that you can see: the five-story pagoda at Toji temple.

One of the books I read in Japan was “Dogs and Demons” by Alex Kerr, who is an expat who lives in Kyoto. He really had nothing good to say about the development of modern Kyoto. Unlike many major historic cities like Paris, Kyoto destroyed and rebuilt most of the old housing and in the process destroyed the feel which the city had. While many of the historic buildings were preserved, they were preserved in neighborhoods which are indistinguishable from what you would find in Tokyo or Osaka. This isn’t to say Kyoto didn’t need to modernize but really lacks any unique vibe. You walk away from the train station and the first thing you are hit with are gaudy pachinko parlors. That is the reality of modern Kyoto. (I should also note that Kyoto is the home of Nintendo)

The Golden Pavilion

The Golden Pavilion

The Golden Pavilion

The one thing in Kyoto I just had to see was the Golden Pavilion. One of my favorite movies is Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters by Paul Schrader, about the life of Japanese author Yukio Mishima. One of the four chapters featured snippets of his 1956 book, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. In the movie, a young Buddhist acolyte with a stutter and a limp develops a hatred for everything beautiful and burns down the Golden Pavilion. It is, in my opinion, one of the greatest movies ever made and probably the most overlooked.

Anyway….I really wanted to see the Golden Pavilion. The Golden Pavilion is sort of the poster child for Kyoto. The photos of the Golden Pavilion are one of the iconic images in Japan. What I was completely unaware of until I got there was that the story of a young monk burning down the pavilion….was true! In 1950. a Buddhist acolyte burned down the Golden Pavilion. It was a huge scandal at the time in Japan. The building which currently sits was a replica of the original building and was constructed in 1955. (Actually, like most historic buildings in Japan, the pavilion had burned down several times previously)

The Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji in Japanese) was built to house relics of the Buddha on the grounds of a former Shogun. The building is literally covered in gold leaf.

If you ever come across other photos of the Golden Pavilion, you will notice that almost everyone is taken from the exact same angle. You can’t enter the pavilion. There is a pond in front and across the pond there is a place for taking photos. Looking at the structure from across the pond is about the totality of the Golden Pavilion experience. There is a nice Japanese garden nearby, but there are no tours of the building.

Five story pagoda and garden at Toji Temple

Five story pagoda and garden at Toji Temple

Toji Temple

From the outside, the most stunning and prominent feature of Toji Temple is the five-story pagoda. Not only is it the tallest wooden structure in Japan (57m) but it is also the largest structure of any sort in the immediate area. No matter where you go in Japan you will see a sea of two and three story buildings (this is because of earthquakes. Until recently, the engineering to build tall, earthquake proof buildings didn’t exist.) It is really odds to see a wooden building stick out as the tallest structure in the area. As I said earlier, it is the only historic structure I was able to see from the Shinkansen as it entered Kyoto from Osaka.

The temple, however, is more than just the pagoda. There are two large wooden structures on the grounds in addition to a Japanese garden. The other building serves to house large statues of the Buddha. It was in these buildings that for the first time on my trip I got the real feel for something being old. The wood inside was ancient. You could feel it and you could smell it. Prior to this point, the oldest man-made structures I’ve seen were either made from stone (Easter Island and Nan Madol) or were masonry buildings no more than 400 years old (Vigan and Intramuros, Philippines). Toji was in a different league of old, at least as far as the senses were concerned.

The temple is of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, a subject which I feel not in the least bit qualified to discuss further. In many of the temples I’ve been to Asia have belonged to different sects and I can’t say I really know enough to describe the differences between them. I think that will be something I will have to research for a post in 2008 from China or Thailand.

The Shinto shrine to Inari in Fushimi

The Shinto shrine to Inari in Fushimi

Fushimi Inari-taisha

If this looks familiar it is because I used it as a daily photo a few weeks ago. It is a Shinto shrine to the fox deity Inari. The mountain which it is located (also called Inari) is significant because its paths are lined with thousands of wooden gates (torii). The wooden gates are sponsored by individual and are continuously being built. Walking up the mountain surrounded by gates is sort of surreal experience. Every so often you’d run across a guy who works for the shrine installing or painting a new gate. At several spots on the mountain, you would find small shrines with miniature gates. There is a small gate industry in the area as you can purchase gates and put them on the shrines.

There is a scene from the recent movie Memoirs of a Geisha which takes place here.

If you manage to make it up the mountain, you have a beautiful view of Kyoto all its sprawling, gray glory. Along the way, they have small stores and places for pilgrims to buy things. I really had no idea that Fushimi Inara existed before I arrived in Kyoto, but it was probably the highlight of my time there. The fact that I walked for over an hour from my hotel to get there made it all the better when I finally arrived. (Finding a train station just a few blocks away from the entrance which I could have used for free with my JR rail pass made me sad on the way back, however).

In my next installment, I’ll be talking about the oldest and largest wooden buildings in the world in Horyuji and Nara.

Man In A Can: My Stay At A Japanese Capsule Hotel

Posted by on December 11, 2007

Me in my rent-a-coffin. You can still sort of see the tan lines I had on my feet from wearing sandals for 7 months.

Me in my rent-a-coffin. You can still sort of see the tan lines I had on my feet from wearing sandals for 7 months.

I found myself in Tokyo without a place to stay. The hostel I was staying at was booked for the weekend and every other hostel I could find online in the Tokyo area was also booked. This was a condition I found during my entire stay in Japan. It didn’t make for very good seat of your pants travel.  I had no desire to get something expensive, nor did I really want to pick up and move far away because I had two more days of things to do in Tokyo. The only place that had beds available within reasonable distance was the Akihabara Capsule Hotel. I had heard of the capsule hotel and I figured “what the hell”. It was reasonably cheap (for Tokyo) and at least I could write a post about my experience.

The Basic Premise

The idea behind the capsule hotel is to cram as many people as possible into the smallest space possible for very short term stays. The primary target of a capsule hotel are business men who stayed out too late to catch the train back home and are stuck in Tokyo. The subway in Tokyo shuts down at midnight, which sort of put a damper on the Tokyo nightlife. It is very common for Japanese businessmen (and in this case, they are in fact always men) to stay late at the office then go out drinking with their boss and coworkers. You’re hammered, you are far away from home, and the trains aren’t running. What do you do? The capsule hotel was created to solve that problem.

It is pretty obvious that the capsule hotel is directed towards business men the moment you walk into the door. In the lobby they sell ties, shirts, socks and mens underwear. Five floors are reserved for men, one for women. Space is at such a premium, you have to store your luggage in a communal luggage rack in the lobby. The provide a very thin wire with a lock on it for “securing” your luggage. (I think you could have bit through the wire it was so thin), and a very narrow locker for clothes and other stuff you can fit inside of it.

The actual bed is really nothing more than an enclosed bunk bed with a TV, radio, and alarm clock embedded in it. While the word “capsule” has a clostraphobic air to it, it really isn’t that bad. It was better and more roomy than some of the beds I’ve slept in on my trip.

If you stay for more than one night, you have to be out of the hotel between 11am and 5pm. There is no place to sit around and loiter. This isn’t a hotel in any traditional sense. It is closer to a homeless shelter that you have to pay to sleep in.

The Japanese Touch

So far, nothing I’ve described is intrinsically Japaese. Such a business could in theory fly in any country. However, there were some things which you would only find in Japan.

For starters, when you came in the building you had to take off your shoes. That is no big deal, because you do that everywhere in Japan. However, at the capsule hotel, they had small shoe lockers for everyone. You’d take off your shoes, put them in the shoe locker, then take the shoe locker key to the front desk which would keep the key for you. The key for your personal locker was on a velcro wristband you were supposed to wear around the building.

The biggest thing was the bathing. The bath and showers were communal Japanese style. I’m not talking about a bunch of shower stalls in a communal bathroom like you would find in a dorm room or at a campgrounds. No, I’m talking about a group shower like you would find in a prison or a locker room. (It should be noted that prisons and gym class are things you are forced to do. No one does them of their own volition) I did learn one thing while I was in the bath room. All through out Japan, every shower I used was a flexible nozle and there were always two holders for the nozle; a high one and a low one. I assumed it was for children. Many of the showers also had a small bucket in the shower and I had no clue what that was for. Well, it turns out that Japanese often sit down when the shower. The pail is the seat and the lower nozle holder is for sitting down. You learn something new every day….

Outside of the akwardness of a westerner in the Japanese bath, there was really nothing wrong or uncomfortable with staying in a capsule hotel. There were several nights in other cities where I probably would have been better off in a capsule hotel. I think most hostels would be wise to install capsule type pods as opposed to bunk beds. You could fit in more people, yet give more privacy. Just don’t adapt the communal showers…