Posts Tagged With: shinto

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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Faster Than a… Oh, You Know

It is possible to get from Hakone to Kanazawa (our next destination) by shinkansen (bullet train) but this requires backtracking to Tokyo. So our travel itinerary for today was to travel by bullet train from Hakone to Nagano, then by conventional rail to Kanazawa. The numbers are revealing: we covered the 175 miles from Hakone to Nagano in an hour and ten minutes by shinkansen, but the remaining 145 miles took three hours. In other words, the bullet train is fast. Very fast.

We arrived at the Hakone rail station at a little before 10 AM, leaving us with enough time to hang around on the platform for a few minutes and watch the bullet trains pass through. Not two minutes after we arrived on the platform, someone looking down the length of the track said, “Look, here comes one.” “Oh good,” I thought, turning on my camera, “I’ll be able to get a pic-

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-ture.” HOLY MOTHER OF ZORK, WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?

“That”, of course, was a shinkansen, a blue-and-white blur passing our platform about 8 feet away from us. It was gone by the time I got my lens cap off, and I stood there frozen like an idiot. Then I took another few seconds to pick up my jaw off the floor; that thing passing next to the platform was the transportation equivalent of a bomb going off, absolutely stunning. Fortunately there were some other tracks farther away from us so over the next several minutes it was possible to get some shots at a distance from which it was physically possible for me to push the shutter button in time.

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“Race ya!”

The shinkansen has a cruising speed of 300 km/hr (186 mph), though the one that took me by surprise was probably not even going that fast since it was passing through a station. There are 16 cars whose total length including the engine is just about a quarter mile (404 m, to be exact). At its cruising speed, therefore, the train covers its own length in 4.8 seconds. It can carry roughly 1000 people.

The ride is quiet and very smooth, far smoother in fact than a conventional train, and with none of the traditional side-to-side rocking that one normally associates with train travel. That smoothness is not just a passenger convenience, but rather a physical requirement: at those speeds, a bump equals a catastrophic derailment.

After transferring to a run-of-the-mill express train (which, the name notwithstanding, made 13 stops en route) we reached our destination at about 3 PM. Kanazawa is the historical epicenter of the samurai culture, and so like Kyoto is known for its Shinto shrines. It’s a modern city overall, with a population of about half a million, and like many other Japanese cities with long histories takes some pains to integrate the old and the new.

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By the time we settled in to the hotel there was not a lot of time to explore, but on the way to dinner, just down the road, Mariko led us to the Oyama Jinja shrine, a relatively recent (mid-19th century) shrine distinguished by having stained glass and, oddly, sporting the first lightning rod ever installed in Japan. You can see both in this picture. (The stained glass is behind the upper balcony, below the cupola.)

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Behind the shrine is a small, classical Japanese garden, complete with stone lanterns and burbling brook filled with koi. We spent about a half hour wandering among these scenes:

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It was a gratifyingly serene way to end a day of train travel, and the topper was our first non-Japanese dinner since joining up with the tour group a week ago. Mariko led us to an underground promenade lined with appealing-looking eating places of various descriptions, and we dined at an Italian restaurant. The relatively small portion size and artistic presentation on the plate were definite Japanese accents to what was otherwise a very typical (to Americans) and quite good Italian meal. No doubt we will revert to native cuisine tomorrow.

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Cats (Not the Broadway Show)

The Meiji Shrine is located in the Harajuku district, about which I wil quote Wikipedia: “Harajuku is known internationally as a center of Japanese youth culture and fashion. Shopping and dining options include many small, youth oriented, independent boutiques and cafés…” To put it another way, it’s where you find a whole lot of very oddly dressed young people; indeed the mere act of typing that sentence makes me feel like an old fart. But I am getting slightly ahead of myself.

As we exited the park and crossed the large intersection at the front of the railway station, the first thing that caught my eye was a building that said Cat Café. This is more or less what it sounds, unless you think it sounds like a place where cats go to drink coffee – which, now that I think of it, is something crazy enough for Japan to actually have. But no, what it actually is a place where people go to play with cats. It’s a big room with all sorts of comfy cat-friendly furniture and crawling with cats. You pay your entrance fee and for a half hour you get to de-stress by playing with a room full of cats. Or at least, maybe you get to de-stress. I am allergic to them, and no huge fan to begin with. If forced into that setting at gunpoint (which would be required), I would while away a happy half hour sneezing, wiping mucus out of my eyes, and running around screaming “Get it off me! Get it off me!” Many people who know me think that this would be well worth the investment.

But Alice is a cat person and I offered her the opportunity to go in solo, which slightly to my surprise she declined. But let the record show to my extreme cat-loving friends (Angie and Thumper, you know who you are) that I did offer.

The intersection and main thoroughfare heading away from the station were mobbed, and we worked our way slowly down the street in search of both lunch and the famous Cat Street, the latter having nothing to do with cats despite the name but rather the hub of the aforementioned “Japanese youth culture and fashion”. We were temporarily impeded along our route by some kind of religious parade, as yiou can see here.

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As you can see there are three large groups of identically-dressed marchers, each carrying a shrine. They were highly enthusiastic, to say the least, shouting in unison, fist-pumping, and thumping rhythmically on the bamboo shrine supports.

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All very interesting and exciting, to be sure, but no one in the crowd or the nearby shops seemed to know quite what they were doing there. It is likely that it is some kind of equinox celebration (which they are big on here), a couple of days late so that it could take place on the weekend.

We continued down the road to Cat Street, indeed encountering a great number of the promised fashionable youth. Many, especially the young women, were very elegant. Many were rather outré, and many were of the “casual/vaguely hostile” look. Here’s one of the latter.

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But the most unsettling by far are the quasi-Lolitas. Here’s a head shot of one.

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What you cannot see in this picture is the rest of her outfit, which is a frilly white knee-length dress — complete with petticoats — with a big lacy heart on the front, white stockings, and patent leather shoes. Here’s a really lousy shot of one of this species that I sneaked in the Edo Museum the other day.

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(Her boyfriend’s striped pants definitely add to the effect, whatever it is.)

The poor quality of the photo is a direct result of my having taken it on the fly from waist level without any niceties of focusing or composition, my having done so because I simply did not have the temerity to ask permission of someone who so clearly occupies a different universe than I do.

So the Lolita look is a thing; we’ve seen six or eight girls who look like this. So I guess that there is a demographic that considers it fashionable to dress as though you’re on a date with a pedophile. Creepiness factor = maximum. (Humbert Humbert, check your messages.)

So that is Cat Street and environs. In addition to the high end boutiques, it includes a lot of cool little shops like this one where they make candy by hand.

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…as well as some appealingly normal people like this mom carrying her daughter.

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We ended the day with a trip to the Tokyo Tower, the city’s second-highest structure. From 800 feet up, we got a spectacular 360-degree nighttime view of the city. I will post photos tomorrow after I have a chance to edit them.

Now we’re off to meet up with our tour group. We’ve been on our own for the past week, but today is our last day in Tokyo and starting tomorrow we head south with a group of 14 other people to Mt Fuji en route to Kyoto.

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Meiji, Meiji Not

Remember when Commodore Perry muscled his way into Tokyo in 1853? Of course you do: we told you about it a couple of days ago when we visited the Edo-Tokyo Museum, although in fairness we did not warn you that there would be a quiz. Anyway, that more or less marked the beginning of the end of Japan’s Edo period, when the shoguns ruled the roost. They continued to lose ground after that, until finally in 1867 the biggest, baddest shogun of them all, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, ceded power to the emperor Meiji and thus ushered in the eponymous Meiji Period, also called the Meiji Restoration.

Meiji moved the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo, opened Japan up to international trade and diplomacy, and generally built the country up into a world power. When he died in 1912 it was  literally the end of an era. His son Yoshihito ascended the throne and with the assent of parliament built a large elaborate shrine in his honor; its grounds cover 174 acres and include a lake and gardens. Here is the entrance gate to the grounds.

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It is a much-visited and much honored place, which is one of the reasons that the Allies firebombed it to ashes during World War II. It was rebuilt in the 1950’s. The shrine itself faces a large courtyard where amulet and votive vendors ply their trade, as they do at all large Shinto shrines. Just as in Kamakura, you can buy oddly specific good luck charms, e.g., for passing an exam, or finding a job, or improving your health, or (my personal favorite) “traffic safety”.

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We were milling around the courtyard when to our delight a Shinto wedding procession exited the shrine, crossed the courtyard, and disappeared through the gate.

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“I can really feel that you’ve been working out.”

This was very exciting: our first Shinto wedding, and at a big-name shrine at that! How often does that happen?

The answer, as it turns out, is “about every ten minutes”. Because it was only a few minutes later that a wedding procession came back in through the gate, across the courtyard, and into the temple. Our first thought was, “Hey, why did they come back?” But no:

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Different couple! It appears that the Meiji Shrine is the Las Vegas wedding chapel of Shinto nuptials. So, mazel tov to these happy couples, and any others that happened to go through the mill today.

Despite my personal flippancy, many Japanese take this place very seriously; Meiji transformed Japan and is still venerated. We saw a number of visitors — including young people — come to a stop as they were exiting the gate, turn 180 degrees, and bow repeatedly to the shrine before leaving. We obviously did not, but we did linger long enough to stroll around the grounds and lake.

Cutting this of early today as we are off to get a panoramic nighttime view of Tokyo from the top of the Tokyo Tower, at 800 feet.

Next time: the curse of the cat people.

 

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Kamakura, For Sure-a

Kamakura is a scenic shrine- and shop-laden town of 175,000 apparently very religious souls, located about an hour and a half drive southwest of Tokyo. It is particularly famous for the Giant Buddha, which is exactly what it sounds like: a 44-foot tall Buddha, dating from the year 1252, located at the Buddhist (obviously) temple of Kōtoku-in. The statue sits in a courtyard in the middle of the temple, apparently as Buddha himself or some equally influential deity intended, since every few centuries the monks try and construct a building around it, only to have said building destroyed by hail, or a tsunami, or what have you. So now it looks like this:

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Notice the grayness and the umbrellas. “Ah,” you say, “it was raining while you were there.” If only. It was in fact pouring, a cyclonic downpour that left our shoes squishy and our pants soggy, despite our having had the foresight to bring umbrellas. So despite the fame of the statue we did not linger worshipfully, or at all. That said, I will note that this guy was having a great time in the rain. His parents, not so much.

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Continuing with our Buddhist theme — and hoping that eventually the guy upstairs would accept our touristic devotion and ease up on the goddamn rain — our next stop was the Hokokuji Temple, which is famed for its serene and beautiful bamboo gardens. We learned more about bamboo than anyone this side of a panda needs to know, e.g., the fact that Chinese bamboo is better to eat, but Japanese bamboo is better for weaving and construction. Remember this when you are bamboo shopping. But in any case, here are some shots of the temple and the bamboo grove.

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It is traditional to have one’s picture taken among the bamboo, and so of course we did. We then moved on to the Jomyoji Temple, a serene little place (“little” in comparison to the others) that is known for offering a tourist-level tea ceremony. Obviously we were not going not pass that up, and so we and about 20 others gathered at low tables in a quiet, severe room, all wooden floors, tapestries, and bamboo, and watched as a silent young woman moved fluidly through the rigidly prescribed process of wiping the utensils, mixing the tea, rotating the bowl in her hands, and other highly symbolic gestures whose significance was unsurprisingly lost on us. The drink itself was a very bitter green tea, a green powder (“matcha”) mixed with a bamboo whisk into hot water poured from an earthenware pot. The ritual was very…..precise.

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They do not have Lipton’s, so don’t ask.

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Our smiles belie the fact that the stuff tastes terrible.

By now the rain had finally let up, Buddha apparently having been mollified by our visits to three temples, so we decided to push our ecumenical luck by shifting theological gears and visiting a Shinto shrine. The major one in Kamakura is Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, which is dominated by a large traditional dance hall at the top of a long flight of stone stairs. The hall has a commanding view of the grounds and indeed much of the town and is not in fact used for dances (though it was once used for a ritual dance) but rather for other religious ceremonies. Before you approach it you must purify yourself at a hand washing station, like so:

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As with many Shinto shrines, the grounds include a number of locations where you can buy the Shinto equivalent of a fortune cookie: a scroll that, when you open it, reveals your predilections in areas of health, career, relationships, and so forth. You pay your money, and you are given a cylindrical shaker about the size of an oatmeal tin with the scroll inside. You shake, shake, shake the container, then open it and remove your scroll, which you then unwind to read your fate. If you like what you see — and you don’t always — you hang it on a sort of clothesline next to the shrine, along with everyone else’s wishes, like this:

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Many people — young women in particular — visit the shrine wearing traditional clothes, and it is quite delightful seeing groups of them strolling around, giggling over their fortunes.

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I should add that the other structure dominating the grounds is a huge wall full of sake casks, each about the size of a beer keg.

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In the immortal words of Slim Pickens in Doctor Strangelove, “Hell, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with this stuff!”

By this time it was 3 PM or so and we were pretty much templed- and shrined out. We walked around the shopping district for a while so that Alice could ogle pottery, then boarded the bus for the drive back to Tokyo. It was starting to get dark by the time we arrived, and since the bus had dropped us off at the Ginza railway station, we took advantage of the hour and the lack of rain to walk around that famously energetic shopping district before finding some dinner. After a day of cultural immersion we decided that having a Western meal would not compromise our touristic integrity, and so found a surprisingly good and reasonably priced Italian restaurant on a side street.

[Tourist Tip: when dining in Ginza, “side street” becomes an important restaurant selection criterion. The main drags are filled with Prada, Tiffany, Dior, Gucci, et cetera, et cetera stores, and consequently the restaurants on those streets have prices suitable for people who shop at Prada, Tiffany, Dior, and Gucci stores. Prices drop by about a factor of four when you move a block away.]

I will close with some shots of the Ginza, so that you can see exuberant consumerism at its energy-intense finest.

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