Posts Tagged With: shrine

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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Shrine On, Harvest Moon

…But first, the promised pictures from last night’s visit to the Tokyo Tower. The first is of course the tower itself; the others were taken from the top observatory, 800 feet up. (There is also a midpoint observatory at the 500 ft point.)

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The Tower was the tallest structure in Tokyo until July 2008, when the Tokyo Skytree was finished; at 2080 feet it dwarfs the Tower but is far less convenient to our hotel. Plus, I was up in the Tower 20 years ago so there was a certain nostalgia factor as well.

Today was a shrine-filled day as we moved around for the first time with our 15-person group. Also, the weather appears to have improved for the moment, so I suppose one could say it was a sun-shriney day. (Rim shot!)

Our first stop, however, was the Imperial Palace. You can’t actually go inside without special arrangements made long in advance, so your options are basically to either look at the gardens (which in truth are not all that interesting), or circumnavigate the grounds whilst admiring the wals and the moat. We went with the latter, and about all we have to show for it is a nice view of the so-called “double gate”, i.e.:

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Along the way our tour lead Mariko — a knowledge, high-energy 30-ish woman who speaks noticeably accented but generally good English — filled us in on the structure and recent history of the Japanese royal family. It’s less dysfunctional than the English royal family, though not by a whole lot. There was all sorts of angst about royals marrying commoners, that sort of thing. (There was also a case of a commoner joining the royal household and basically lapsing into permanent depression upon losing control of all aspects of her life.)

We moved on to Asakusa shrine, like Meiji one of the larger and better known shrines, although not one that acrries quite as much historical import as Meiji. Asakusa, like Meiji, has a large courtyard but with an added attraction: a large well-shaped incense burner in the middle of the courtyard so that prior to approaching the shrine supplicants can immerse themselves in, well, holy smoke, I guess. You can see the incense burner smoking in the middle of this photo, taken from the steps of the shrine and looking back towards the courtyard.

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And here are some visitors getting smoked:

asakusa-004The woman on the right in the sleeveless top who appears to be complaining about a migraine is in fact wafting the smoke towards her face, the better to be immersed in it. This is not a recommended religious activity for asthmatics.

One of the fun things about Asakusa is that it attracts a lot of people in traditional garb, like this girl.

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Here’s another traditional Japanese activity that you can find in the area:

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But another fun part of Asakusa — the best part, if you don’t actually practice Shinto — is that the road leading up to it is lined with vendor storefronts selling everything from Hello Kitty souvenirs to an enormous variety of interesting edibles.

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As you can see it’s a total madhouse, jam-packed with people to the point that it is occasionally difficult to move. We had lunch at an udon (thick noodle) restaurant on a side street and hit an ice cream stall for dessert on the crowded promenade. This was more interesting than it sounds, because the Japanese — as with so many other things — have a unique approach to ice cream. You know those Keurig coffee machines, where the cofee comes in a little cup-shaped pod that you pop into the machine? That’s how the Japanese do ice cream. The “pods” in this case are about the size of a small cereal bowl and are (obviously) stored at very low temperature. You specify what flavor you want, and they pop the appropriate pod into the machine, which aerates and extrudes the contents into the familiar cone. The wonderful thing about this paradigm is that since the pods can be stored so efficiently in these single-serving pods — you just have to stack the things in the freezer — that it is easy to lay in an inventory with a very large number of flavors, even in a small store. And so it came to pass that I had honeydew ice cream and Alice had — wait for it — sesame ice cream. In case you were wondering, sesame ice cream is gray in color, which is a little odd to behold. But they taste great.

Sated, we moved on to our next shrine, the controversial Yakusuni war memorial. More on that in a moment but first we stopped along the river for a view of Asahi (the beer company) headquarters. Why?  Here’s the building:

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The tall pointy thing second from left is the aforementioned Tokyo Skytree. The Asahi headquarters is the gold building with the funny upper floors. Look carefully now. Could it be that that building is built to resemble….a glass of beer? Yep, complete with foam head. But what’s that giant misshapen rhinoceros horn on the right? It is supposed to represent some kind of divine spirit that motivates the (apparently) blessed beermakers of Asahi. To me it looks less like a divine spirit than some kind of caricatured spermatazoa from a poorly-made junior high school sex-ed film. But that’s just me.

But back to the Yasukuni shrine. It is controversial because it is the memorial to 2.5 million war dead, all of whom are named there. This might not be so terrible except that the names include a number of Japan’s A-list war criminals. Every year there is a huge blow-up as to whether the prime minister should visit the shrine and pay homage; for many years he did not, at the urging of the US, Russia, China, and just about everybody else, the not unreasonable argument being that it kinda sends the wrong message. But the very nationalistic right wing is ascendant in Japan these days, just as in the US and Europe, and so the Prime Minister attended this year and pissed off a number of foreign governments in the process.

The shrine includes a good-size museum about the war, which I can hardly begin to describe because it is frankly such an egregious whitewash. But here’s a corner of the lobby:

yasakuni-001You may have a sense of where this is going. I won’t go into the details — partly because I am still picking my jaw up off the floor and partly because it is late and I need to get to bed — but here’s the big takeaway: World War II was the U.S.’s fault. Wow! I had no idea. I will have to sleep on this, so good night.

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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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The Answer is Hikin’ in the Wind

Today was mostly a riding-in-the-bus day as we made the several-hour semicircle around the mountains to get from Torres del Paine National Park in Chile to the Argentine town of El Calafate. This involved driving back across the park in conditions that were noticeably gloomier and windier than yesterday. We passed by the mountain range again, past scenes like this:

Torres del Paine in the wind

The wind was ferocious today, clocking in at 56 mph. You can see the ripples and some whitecaps on the lake in the picture above. But hey, they don’t call it adventure travel for nothing, and Julio promised that the threatened hike would be through a valley that was sheltered from the wind. Uh huh. And so it was that we found ourselves hiking through a high valley that, if this was what they call “sheltered”, I don’t want to see “exposed”, as we were basically sandblasted every inch of the way. Here we are making our way through the valley, looking for our lost Sherpas:

We paid good money to do this. Auntie Em’s house blew by a few moments later.

It is possible that at some time in your life you have wondered what it would be like to hike through a hurricane in the lower Andes mountains. If so, you probably concluded that it would not be physically pleasant. You were right. 

This guy should not have hiked on this path

It did have its rewards in the form of the view, the proliferation of interesting plants and rock formations, and the occasional gaunáco carcass such as the skull and fur at left. There were forensic artifacts like that all over the place: rib cages, vertebrae, mostly-intact bodies.  Seems that there is a population of pumas in the area, and we were walking through their happy hunting grounds. Happy for the pumas, anyway. For an awful lot of guanácos, not so much.

The hike was blissfully short — less than an hour — and we gratefully re-boarded our bus at the far end for the trip across the Chile-Argentina border, both sides of which were manned by bored-looking guards who stamped our passports. The Argentine guards in particular looked pretty miserable; their station was a windowless shack whose only power source was a generator that had failed, leaving them to inspect our visas in the cold and drafty dark. (Julio had cautioned us to say as little as possible if they asked us any questions at all, not because they were hostile but because they were starved for human contact and would keep us their for hours for the sole purpose of engaging in conversation.)

By the time we reached the border, an hour or so after our hike, the weather had gone full-blown (and I do mean blown) Patagonian Nasty, with the previous intermittent cold drizzle replaced by a hard blowing snowstorm that rocked the bus as we drove. We nonetheless stopped for a few minutes at yet another shrine to Gauchito Gil (remember him?), it being an OAT tradition to thank him for having had non-miserable weather during the trip, at least up to this point. This was more than a little ironic since both we and the shrine were being torn apart by gale-force winds and blizzard-like snow at the time.

We continued on to the 20,000-person town of El Calafate, whose primary economic base is tourism for the Perrito Moreno glacier, our destination for tomorrow. That will mark the end of the Patagonia leg of the trip; on Tuesday we return to Buenos Aires for a day before heading up to Iguassu Falls, where, mirabile dictu, it will be tropically warm.

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Not The End of the World, But You Can See It From Here

This will be a short post (postscript: apparently not), and definitely our last for at least 5 days and possibly longer since as of tomorrow evening we will be aboard ship rounding Cape Horn and heading up the Beagle Passage to the Patagonian ice fields.

We flew today to Ushuaia, at 55 degrees south latitude supposedly the southernmost city in the world. It is a town of 65,000 people squeezed in between the bottom of the Andes and Ushuaia Bay. Here is the view from our hotel room:

This is one of THREE mountain ranges separating Ushuaia from the rest of civilization

It might have struck you that “Ushuaia” is not a very Spanish-sounding name. That’s because it isn’t: it means “westward-facing bay” in the language of the original indigenes, the Yanama. And where are the Yanama now, you may ask? Silly question: remember that the Spanish colonized this place. The natives were wiped out by imported disease, conflict with the settlers, and over-hunting by the settlers of the sea lion population, which was the Yanama’s primary food source.

After another dramatic flight over the southern Andes we arrived at about noon today and started exploring the area. The town itself as you can see from the picture looks sort of like a ski resort from the Pacific Northwest, and there is indeed a ski resort here (though the season is just over, it being early spring here). We got lucky on the weather, at least for today: it is partly sunny with temperatures in the low 50’s. We are assured that this is unlikely to last. The wind is extremely gusty, which we are told is typical.

Our hostess exhorts us to share, and pretend to enjoy

Our first stop was lunch at a private home, a beautiful chalet-style house on the hillside overlooking the town and the mountains on the other side of the bay. The hostess and her family (husband and two small daughters) prepared a wonderful lunch — lentil stew with achingly sweet tres leches cake for dessert — and gave us the run of the house so we could chat with the family and admire the view. Afterwards we were presented with the Argentine equivalent of the Japanese tea ceremony, in this sharing the communal pot of Yerba mate. In case you have not heard of it, mate (pronounced MAH-tay) is a very bitter herbal tea made from the Yerba shrub that grows in the northern part of the country. There is a whole social ritual and vocabulary associated with partaking of it; our gracious hostess explained all this whilst preparing it, and we passed around the communal cup while pretending that it did not taste like pencil shavings soaked in motor oil.

Good grief, St. Charlie Brown!

Our first stop after lunch was at a bizarre collection of shrines along a roadway just outside of town; the prevailing style seemed to be Snoopy Doghouse, as you can see at left. Some are much more elaborate, though: as a bastion of a particular idolatrous form of Latin American Catholicism, Argentina has a couple of favorite saints that seem to generate a proliferation of shrines and legends. The

Don’t kill Gil

 first is “Gauchito Gil” who lived a virtuous life in the north as a landowner and sort of  Robin Hood figure, fighting against the evil Paraguayans and corrupt local sherriff. When finally captured he warned his killer-to-be that if he (Gil) were murderd then the killer’s son would also die. The killer reconsidered and checked up on his son, who was indeed suddenly gravely ill. So he prayed to Gil, his son recovered, and the lesson learned was Don’t Mess Around With The Gauchito. So now Gil’s got big roadside shrines about the size of beach cabañas, all draped in red, which was his symbolic color. The deal is that you offer him some wine by pouring it out of the bottle while making a wish. I’m not sure where any of this occurs in the Bible but we did it anyway. Julio warned us not to wish for good weather because that was probably a lost cause, so Alice wisely asked to be protected against seasickness. At right you can see her making her offering in front of the Big Red Shrine.

Arguably even more bizarre than Kill Gil is the shrine to La Defunte (“Deceased”) Correa, a woman beatified for breast feeding her baby while she herself starved to death in the wilderness. The child survived, and her shrine consists of many, many statuettes depicting her corpse cradling a baby. You make an offering of drinks to her too, and her shrine is copiously littered, both within and without, with hundreds if not thousands of empty bottles, mostly one- and two-liter soda bottles. Tell me that this isn’t an inspirational scene:

Becoming a saint really works up a thirst

OK, I think I’ve spent enough words on the local religion, at least the supernatural one. The other local religion — more accurately, one of several national obsessions — is obsessing over the 1982 Falklands War. But you damn well better not call it the Falklands War: those islands are the Malvinas in this country, and no substitute name is accepted.

“Yep, we lost.”

The Falklands/Malvinas were originally colonized by Argentina but conquered by Britain in 1833, and Argentina has been pining for them ever since. Problem is, under standards of international law once you own a place for 150 years it is well and truly legally yours, and the clock was running out. So at the 149 year mark — this is all true — the Argentine government decided to increase its abysmal popularity by making a grab for them, figuring that (a) Britain wouldn’t respond militarily, and (b) the US would support Argentina. Wrong on both counts; Margaret Thatcher wanted to increase her abysmal popularity too. Final score: the British lost about 230 men, plus 100 or so taken prisoner; the Argentines lost 649 men and 11 thousand taken prisoner; and the Falklands are still owned by the UK. Thirty two years later, Argentina is still gnashing its national teeth and trying to think of a clever comeback.

And so it came to pass that our last event of the day was an interview with a Malvinas war veteran, a pleasant 50 year old man who served on a naval vessel during that war when he was only 18 years old. His ship was sunk, and 300 men were lost out of a crew of about 1100; he survived in a covered lifeboat for 44 hours with 22 other men, huddled together for warmth. He related his experiences through our latest local guide, Laura, who acted as interpreter. It was interesting to hear, but in the end (a) he was only 18 at the time and (b) c’mon Argentina, get over it already.

Dinner tonight was a serious treat: King crab is found in these Antarctic waters, and so we went to a seafood restaurant where you can pick live ones from a tank for steaming, just like lobsters at home. If you have never been to either Alaska or Patagonia then you have probably never had fresh king crab, which is wholly unlike the frozen stuff you get in every store or restaurant or home. It’s like a transcendent experience in your mouth. Dessert was a stroll into a local ice cream store; remember that Argentines do a really good job on ice cream. So all in all a great end to the day.

So that’s been our introduction to Patagonia, here in Ushuaia. We’ll be off the grid and o’er the hopefully-not-too-bounding main starting late tomorrow afternoon. I’ll keep up my notes offline and post the batch of them the next time we have Internet access. Till then, our best regards to everyone!

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