Posts Tagged With: gate

Alternating Religions

And the score after today’s outing is tied at Buddhism 2, Shinto 2! By which I mean that we visited two Buddhist temples and two Shinto shrines.(Buddhist temple names all end in -ji; Shinto shrines don’t, and the shrines themselves almost have a torii gates of larger or smaller size somewhere in the vicinity. (More on those later.) Also, please note that Buddhist places of worship are “temples” whereas Shinto places are “shrines”. Anyway, let’s begin:

Our first stop today was the Todaiji temple, home to another one of those giant Buddhas of which the Japanese seem very fond. It’s large, impressive, and very old. Here’s an outside view.
inari-001The great hall was built in the 8th century to house the giant Buddha, i.e. this guy.

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He’s made of bronze and stands — or more accurately sits — nearly 50 ft (15 m) tall; his eyes alone are a hair over a meter across. In fact his nostrils are 20 inches across, a fact made much of by the locals. In one corner of the temple interior stands a wooden column with a 20-inch diameter hole through it at floor level, and the tongue-in-cheek legend is that if you make a wish and successfully crawl through the hole, your wish will be granted. (Sure beats jumping off a five-story platform, doesn’t it?) There were many schoolchildren visiting today, and more than a few tried their luck, with varying degrees of success, getting through the hole. I would only have attempted it had my secret wish been to be cut out of a wooden hole by a Japanese fire department.

Buddha is flanked by two other large deities, carved from wood and covered in gold leaf. This shot gives a slightly better sense of scale of the effigies.

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The other thing that Todaiji is known for is deer, about 1200 of them in fact. They roam the grounds unfettered, variously ignoring or accosting visitors. You can buy bags of feed for them (some sort of cracker), so needless to say they’re pretty brazen. Their attentions are not always appreciated, for example by this guy:

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…although some people take full advantage of this situation, such as this girl taking the first “deer selfie” I have ever seen.

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The deer seemed pretty unimpressed.

Alternating religions, we moved on from the Todaiji temple to the Kasugataisha shrine, whose claim to fame is stone lanterns. Lots of stone lanterns.

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We were told there were about a thousand of them, mostly standing about 6 feet tall. They are maintained in part via donations, and so in addition to the lanterns themselves there is also a wall full of names (in Japanese script, of course) listing the donors on wooden slats. (It reminded me a great deal of the ranks of little brass plaques on synagogue walls. I  wondered if one of the slats translated as “Stone lantern donated by the Goldfarbs in loving memory of Isador and Sadie.”)

Kasugataisha also includes a shrine to Shinto’s god of love, whose name I cannot seem to unearth. Both locals and visitors pay homage by hanging little wooden prayer boards at the shrine. These are common at every Shinto shrine, but the distinction here is that they look like valentines:

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There are thousands of them, not all written in Japanese. My favorite was one in English whose prayer read, in its entirety, “May you have a short, explosive wedding and a long, peaceful marriage.”

Then it was back to Buddhism, as we drove a short distance into the picturesque town of Nara to eat lunch, walk around some side streets, and of course visit a temple. Here’s an old traditional Japanese pharmacy, peddling all sorts of traditional herbal remedies that can increase virility, cure eczema, and possibly make your ears fall off.

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Those red balls hanging on a string are a good luck charm and are very common in this area. Their shape is actually a very stylized curled up monkey, whose presence apparently wards off evil.

Then there’s the temple, another big one. Kofukuji is famous for this five story pagoda.

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I confess that the structure on top looks to me suspiciously like a cell phone tower. But since the temple is over 1300 years old, this seems unlikely. Kokufuji is quite well known;it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, one of about two dozen in the Kyoto area. Its fame stems from both its size and its history of moving around. It was built in the year 669, but elsewhere near Kyoto, then dismantled and moved in 672, then dismantled and moved again in 710. Hopefully it’ll stay put this time.

Our final stop of the day, in keeping with our “alternating religions” theme, was the most spectacular Shinto shrine of all: Fushimi Inari. Inari is definitely one of the heavyweight Shinto goddesses, being in charge of rice, tea, and sake, not to mention fertility and worldly success. With a portfolio like that she gets a lot of attention. She uses foxes as her earthly messengers — foxes eat birds who are trying to eat the rice from the fields — and so her shrines have a lot of fox statues around them. (Foxes get a lot of respect in Japan.) In addition, for reasons that were not explained to us, the shrine is a mecca for students who are prying to pass their exams. The legend is, that if you fold 1000 origami cranes, you will have luck in your exams. And so here are the colorful paper products of dozens of not hundreds of supplicatory students, each folding a thousand paper cranes :

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Pardon my cynicism, students, but wouldn’t you have a better chance of passing your exams by studying instead of spending countless hours folding paper birds? Seriously.

Fushimi Inari is marked by the typical torii gates found at every Shinto shrine, e.g.

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The distinction here is that Fushimi Inari has five thousand of them, dating back to the year 711. You walk a path that is a mile or two long, up the side of a low mountain, and pass through countless of these things.

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You might be wondering about the writing on the columns (usually on the downhill side, as it happens). And the answer is (you’re gonna love this): corporate sponsorships. Yep, even a multi-portfolio’d goddess like Inari needs corporate lucre to keep her shrine in good order. Every now and then, as you trek up the mountainside through the arch after arch, you will encounter one whose writing is partly in Western characters. And when that happens, you will see that it reads something like MIYAZAKI LLC www.miyazaki.co.jp. No, I am not kidding.

Anyway, it is quite a sight, and also quite a hike uphill on a hot and humid day. But is an extraordinary and impressive installation that attracts an enormous numbers of visitors (and makes it difficult to get a photo that is not crowded with people). The town below the shrine has something of a carnival atmosphere as a result, with food stands and souvenir vendors lining the main street. There is a sea of people, and many dress for the occasion: there is a liberal smattering of both men and women in traditional garb, such as these young women in kimonos.

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We returned to our hotel exhausted and sweaty. We forewent dinner with our tour group since we had come to feel that in our 2 1/2 weeks in Japan to date we had consumed an inadequate amount of sushi. Mirako recommended a nearby sushi restaurant, so we took advantage of that. Tomorrow is another early start and long day.

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Vicenza: A Man’s Castle is His Home

Yes! We are staying in a castle! And not some hokey Medieval Times castle with guards in polyester costumes and Fiberglass alligators in the moat. A real castle, in which we are the sole occupants! Here it is:

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Not your typical B&B

It has an iron gate, and a narrow spiral marble staircase, and dark scowling portraits on the walls, and all that cool stuff. What it does not, regrettably, is a suit of armor or (more importantly) wifi. The former prevents us from re-enacting old Scooby Doo episodes; the latter is a bit of a hindrance and is the reason that you may be reading this a few days late.

No set of photos can possibly do this place justice, so I have shot a brief walk-through video which I will try to post to YouTube later in the trip. But for the moment here is a shot of a corner of the living room.

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No suit of armor, but a 17th century flat screen TV

At the top behind the chandelier you have a glimpse of the exposed beams, which are elaborately painted. What you cannot see in this photo is the flat-screen TV, which seems a little anachronistically out of place. It gets about 100 channels, all in Italian. I suppose it would have a little more period-appropriate verisimilitude if it only showed 17th-century cable TV stations (“Monarchy Central”, and “The Anti-Semitism Channel”, the latter being timelessly popular).

Basanno Vicenze-4We do not actually know the age or history of this place; the owner never told us any of that. What the owner did tell us – and I am not making this up — is that every night upon retiring we are to close, bolt, and bar, with owner-supplied wooden 2 x 4s, a set of iron shutters on each of the doors that look out onto the extensive grounds. (You can see them in the picture above.) Why must we do this? We don’t know. Werewolves, perhaps. But when someone tells you to do something like that, it seems wise to do it.

Our initial view of the place triggered a classic “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” moment. As the iron gates swung open and we drove onto the grounds we all simultaneously started our respective gender-stereotype paroxysms. This actually happened:

ALICE and ELAINE: “Oooooh! Romantic!” “Scottish lairds!” “Does it have a ballroom?” “Women dancing in big puffy dresses and enormous wigs!”

RICH and JIM:  “You rannnnng?” “It’s pronounced ‘Eye-gor’!” “Uncle Fester!” “’What knockers!’ ‘Thank you, doctor.’” “What hump?”

And remember: we’re the enlightened ones.

Basanno Vicenze-6Since the serfs were off duty, the logical thing to do was to go into town and check out the walled city in the daylight. Vicenze is the birthplace of Andrea Palladio, a famed neoclassical architect of the mid-16th century. His style heavily influences the region, and the countryside is dotted with Palladian-style villas and palazzos, some designed by the master himself. (He designed the covered bridge in Basanno that I mentioned last time.) A number of his buildings are in or near the center of town, most notably a gigantic basilica with a copper roof, a rotunda on a hilltop outside of town, and a Greek-style performance venue called the Olympic Theater.

The latter was most impressive, the stage set being a masterpiece of trompe l’oeuil that makes it seem like the stage is a 100-yard deep classical Greek village.

We admired the theater for a while and generally walked our feet off, eventually spending a half hour or so in a nearby park whose most notable characteristics were an idyllic Greek rotunda on a tiny island in a lake, and about ten thousand rabbits.

Basanno Vicenze-8Yes, rabbits. You know how you sometimes go to a park with a lake and are surrounded by ducks and Canada geese? In this park you are surrounded by bunny rabbits. They were everywhere, all sizes and colors, loping around in their hoppy fashion, sleeping, munching on the vegetation, and generally doing what rabbits do. (They were lots of young ones, so yes, they were clearly doing that too.) It was an utterly charming sight, and as the sun lowered and the shadows grew long, more and more of them emerged from the vegetation to forage. By the time we ambled back to our car, they were absolutely everywhere, and if you are of a sufficiently dark state of mind it would not be hard to imagine ominous warnings about not staying in the park after dark. Nosirree, you do not want to be alone with the Vicenze Killer Rabbits in the dark. When the police find your body the next morning there won’t be anything left but your gnawed bones and adorable bits of fur.

We left the park in search of dinner, determined not to repeat our restaurant debacle of the previous night. But all of the restaurants in the old city seemed to be either run-of-the-mill sandwich places or exorbitant gourmet restaurants with things like sheep navels on the menu. So we retreated back to our castle, stopping and dining en route at a very pleasant restaurant barely 200 yards from our very own iron gate. Said restaurant also has wifi and an easygoing staff, wo if I am lucky I may be able to post these most recent entries without having to wait the few days till we reach our next destination.

Our goal today is the ancient university town of Padua. Alice has come down with a cold so we are probably not going to be too ambitious.

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