Posts Tagged With: tea

Suicidal Pilgrims and the All-Seeing Buddhas

Long day today, and a rainy one at that. It would seem that the northern end of the island is being visited by Typhoon #18 — they gave them numbers instead of names here, which may be the only example on record of Japanese being less colorful than Americans. We’re in Kyoto now, towards the south, and are not receiving the full brunt of it, but it has been mostly a gray and rainy day. Not that this slowed us down.

It is getting late after a long day so I will moistly let the photos do the talking in place of my usual sparkling commentary. So to begin, we visited the Kiyomizu Buddhist temple, which is distinguished by three things: (1) a huge five-story pagoda; (2) a large stage where Noh performances were held; and (3) a platform on the aforementioned five story pagoda that people jumped off of. I’ll answer the obvious question in a moment, but let’s start with some photos of the environs.

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OK, now why exactly would someone jump of of something that high? The answer is easily summarized in one word: religion! Yessirree, when it comes to convincing people of the virtue of doing suicidally stupid things, it’s hard to beat religion. I had kind of figured Buddhism to be immune from this sort of thing, but apparently not. The deal was, you made a wish and jumped off. If you survived, your wish would come true. Personally I’d go with the old coins-in-the-wishing-well approach, but to each his own. Mariko claimed that the survival rate was 80%, which seems highly unlikely to me. In any event, the practice was discontinued a century or so ago.

There’s a beautiful view from the top, as well as a number of other smaller and very colorful ancillary temples. Here’s the view and some of the architecture.

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Our next stop was the 12th century  Sanju Sangendo Hall. Its claim to fame is a room full of Boddhisatva Buddhas, a thousand of them, each qbout 5 1/2 feet (165 cm) tall and strikingly detailed. No photos are allowed, alas, but here is a shot from Google Images. (In the dim light of the hall they actually appear much more brown than the golden tone in the photo.)

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It is quite an amazing sight. And an ironic one as well, for these particular thousand Buddhas – each with 42 arms — are the so-called Kannon Boddhisatvas, Kannon being an incarnation of Buddha who sees everything that happens in the world. Why is that ironic? Because if you were a Japanese entrepreneur who wanted to found a camera company whose name symbolized the all-seeing Buddha, your cameras hopefully seeing things all over the world, you would name your camera company…… Canon! Ta-da! I have now answered a question that you never thought to ask! Canon cameras are named after the thousand Kannon Buddhas…. the ones you’re not allowed to photograph. (As it happens, I shoot with a Canon EOS T1i, so it seems only fair that the authorities should have allowed me to take pictures. They didn’t see it that way.)

Well, at least here is a shot of a nice hallway outside the temple.

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We had a delightful encounter as we were about to leave the grounds, when I was accosted by a gaggle of middle-schoolers on a class trip who had a homework assignment to interview and English speaker in English. They were the most charming group and I happily answered their questions about where we were from (“Washington, DC.” “OOOOoooooohhhhh…!”), how Japan was different from the US, why we had come to visit, what was our favorite Japanese food, etc. We spent about ten very enjoyable minutes with them — you have never encountered a more polite set of adolescents — then took each others’ pictures.

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Next stop: the Golden Pavilion. Why is it called the Golden Pavilion? Duh.

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Its official name is Kinkaju-ji, and it dates from the mid-15th century. That is real gold leaf covering the outside, and as a result of this strikling distinction it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the region. Which is another way of saying that the place was mobbed, and since it was raining at the time the challenge became navigating the sea of umbrellas without losing an eye.

We moved on to the Nijo Castle, which was the local shogun’s residence during the Edo period (1603-1871) when the shoguns ruled the roost. The emperor was on the throne, of course, but the shogunate held all the power. They would probably have offed the emperor but for the fact that he was a divine descendant and thus much revered by the general population. Killing him would likely have sparked a revolt that would not have needed well for the shoguns, so they contented themselves with actually running things and let the emperor be.

The exterior of the castle is imposing, though very unlike a European castle. It has high, ornate gates and stark dark wooden walls.

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The Nijo castle is also known for its beautiful gardens, said to be among the most iconic in Japan.

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No photos are allowed inside. It is a maze of high-ceilinged square hallways with dark wooden beams and white paper walls. There are a series of large, spartan anterooms — little more than tatami mats and wall carvings — where visiting functionaries awaited their audience with the shogun. But the cool thing — and it is very cool — is that the floors are designed to squeak so that would-be assassins would be unable to sneak around. And we are not talking about the random squeaks that you get from loose floorboards in your house: these floorboards are supported by metal angle brackets that establish a small air gap between the boards and underlying support beams, so that when you step on them the metal bends and the nails through it “chirp”. It is a most remarkable sound: as a group of people (like our tour group) walk down the hallway you hear what sounds for all the world like a soft metallic discordant chittering flock of birds. As busloads of tourists make their way through the building it sounds like you are surrounded by huge numbers of vaguely ominous robot nightingales. It is quite an amazing effect.

We ended the afternoon with a tea ceremony, which I won’t bother describing in detail since this is the second one we’ve had on this trip. But the young woman performing the ceremony was quite graceful and pretty, so here are a few pictures of her anyway.

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I took the last one as we were leaving, when I asked if I could take her portrait. (Alice thinks the photo looks like an ad for Japan Airlines. I’m OK with that.)

As we headed back to the hotel, Mariko proposed an “architecture walk” through Kyoto railway station before dinner. I confess I was unenthusiastic about the idea, since we were tired and I had a mental image of a decidedly unexciting walk: “These roof beams date from the early shogunate…”, that sort of thing.  But I had to go along: I lost my lens cap yesterday and Mariko had told me that there was a camera store at the station. Hoo boy, was my expectation off base. My interest would have been a lot higher had Mariko explained that the Kyoto railway station architecture dated from the early 23rd century, e.g.:

kyoto-023 kyoto-024 kyoto-025Absolutely unbelievable…the place is pure Blade Runner, except for the Las Vegas parts. It is vast, a five-story science fiction shopping mall with animated LED staircases and spidery skyways, attached to a train station. Do not fail to visit this place at night if you are ever in Kyoto.

New lens cap acquired, and we headed to dinner, the uniquely Japanese okonomiyaki. It’s a teppan yaki kind of thing, like Benihana without the steak or the theatrics. Rather, the entrees are various types of pancake-like agglomerations of meat, noodles, and cabbage, cooked on the grill at the table. Satisfying, tasty, and cheap.

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Hmmm, I thought I said something about not writing much. I guess I can’t help myself. Anyway, that was our day…

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Family Guy

Today was mostly a travel day as we relocated from Kanazawa to Kyoto for our final five nights of the trip. The one thing we did do, however, was a staple of our tour operator, Overseas Adventure Travel. (Consider this a plug: this is the fourth time we have traveled with them and recommend them wholeheartedly, not least for the uniform excellence of their tour leads, such as Mariko.) OAT is heavily into cultural immersion, and every trip includes at least one local home visit, which happened to be today.  Our hosts were Mr. and Mrs. Nakagawa, ages 72 and 68 respectively. He owns a nearby sake factory and judging from their house and possessions appears very prosperous. There were four of us on the visit: Alice and me of course, and another couple from our group, Ann and John (who are US-born but happen to be ethnic Chinese). The rest of our 15-person group were distributed among other households.

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Mrs. Nakagawa spoke no English but Mr. Nakagawa could get by reasonably well as long as the topic of conversation was one that he was used to: sake, his art collection, and his family. (Mariko had equipped us with a Japanese cheat sheet, so we could wow them with some stock polite phrases used when entering a house, presenting a gift — we gave them some NASA paraphernalia  — or eating.)

They were, as you might expect, very hospitable, especially since they do this at least a couple times per week.  Mrs. Nakagawa had a collection of beautiful silk kimonos, which of course Alice and Ann to dress up for your basic Tourist Photo Op.

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Their house was larger than we expected, about the size of a large American townhouse, and though the building exterior was very Western-looking, the interior was in many ways classic Japanese, elegantly furnished with lots of art and beautiful hardwood floors. The guest bedroom was like a small museum in its own right:

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The open closet on the left is actually a very compact but elaborate Buddhist shrine.

Our hosts’ welcoming attitude and the elegance of the house notwithstanding, it was nonetheless a somewhat odd visit. Mr. Nakagawa was friendly and voluble to the point of not letting anyone get a word in edgewise, and his entire presentation — for at bottom, that is what it was — was pretty much a guided (and rather boastful) tour of every piece of expensive art in the house, followed by a lengthy walkthrough of about a half dozen family photo albums of their children’s weddings and a vacation that they took in Okinawa several years ago. (A minor bit of surrealism during the latter activity: the photo album books themselves were all Mickey Mouse-themed, with Disney characters on the covers and decorating the margins of the pages. Okayyyyy……) We also briefly met their 18 year old granddaughter, whose entire interaction with us consisted entirely of her saying, in English, “My name is Toriko. I am 18 years old,” with a deadpan expression that made it clear that she would rather be doing just about anything else, including drinking laundry detergent.

Mrs. Nakagawa served us tea at one of those low Japanese tables that force you to sit on the floor. However, no one has to sit on their knees, or cross-legged, or whatever, in this dining room: there is actually a below-floor-level rectangular well underneath the table to accommodate your legs, so despite the fact that your butt is on the floor (actually on a cushion on the floor), your posture is the same as though you were sitting in a chair.

The visit lasted about two hours, and concluded with Mr. Nakamura bestowing upon us two gifts: a small ceramic pot and a piece of calligraphy in which he had written our and his names in Japanese characters, along with an adage about friendship and the date and address of the house.

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It’s actually pretty cool-looking — the upper six characters in the leftmost column are our names — and so it seems a little churlish to confess that by the end of the two hours we were ready to leave. I talked to Mariko afterwards about how Mr. Nakagawa seemed to spend most of the time trying to impress us, rather than have a genuine two-way interaction, and she said that her father (who is about the same age) is exactly the same way. She suggested that it was some kind of generational thing, the need for Japanese men of that age to express themselves as alpha males, and related that she and her sister often have to ask her father to dial it back. She also related with some amusement that when her father is in conversation with another man of similar age that the conversation spirals completely out of control since they get locked into a spiral of one-upmanship. So I guess on reflection that we learned something about the culture from this home visit after all, albeit not quite what anyone had in mind at the outset….

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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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Down the Rabat Hole

This will be a short post for the simple yet boring reason that not a whole lot happened today, it having been mostly a travel day on the van to get us from Tangier to Rabat. It’s about a 3 1/2 drive through not especially interesting countryside, mostly big industrial-sized farms that are far more similar to their American counterparts than to the small family farms that we saw in the Rif mountains. The countryside is mostly pretty dry, as you might expect, but the farms are irrigated. The most common crop that we saw was strawberries, with okra a distant second. Lots and lots of strawberries, protected from the sun under acres of plastic sheets… “strawberry fields forever”, one might say, if one was desperate to insert some lame humor into an otherwise pedestrian blog post.

We arrived in Rabat around lunchtime and did a quick spin around the city in the van to get a feel for it. It is a somewhat schizophrenic place: very modern looking on the one hand, with a gleaming light rail system that would be the envy of any American city, yet at the same time exuding the Moorish ambience of the royal palace and the very large mosque next door. And overlooking the city and its river (called the Bou Regreg), the largest casbah we have seen, a huge medieval fortress housing a walled town with its souk and medina, and an ancient royal garden. This casbah is a classic Moorish fortress, with tall onion-shaped arches under classic medieval parapets like a marching row of squared-off teeth.

Momo (our tour lead Mohammed) brought us all to lunch at a bustling trattoria adjacent to Rabat’s central rail station. It was a very American kind of place, serving mostly burgers, pizza, and, um, shawarma (which if this were Greece you would call gyro). It all had a very big-city feel to it and could have been any European city except for the proliferation of women in hijabs. But far from all of them: being the capital (and having a population of 2 million), Rabat is pretty cosmopolitan. There we a larger percentage of Wester-dressed women her than any other place we’ve seen, and this included the co-owner of the restaurant, an attractive and thoroughly Western 30-ish woman who spoke nearly perfect English and came over to chat with us for a while. (Her father is the other co-owner.)

We had a couple of hours to kill after lunch, so Steve and Thumper and we decided to do some exploring on our own. We had heard that the casbah gardens, called the Andalusian Gardens in the guidebooks, were worthwhile, so despite the likelihood that we will be visiting them tomorrow we jumped in a cab and instructed the driver in French to take us there. That did not turn out as well as we hoped. Not because our French was inadequate — we can get by in that department — but because, unbeknownst to us and the guidebooks notwithstanding, the locals do not refer to them as the Andalusian Gardens but rather the Oudaya Gardens, Oudaya being the name of the casbah. The only reason we got there at all was that Alice showed the driver a map indicating our destination, at which point the light bulb went on and he charged forward. The ride took about 10 minutes and cost $1.50. I gave him two bucks in dirhams and felt like a big spender.

The gardens were pleasant if unspectacular, more enjoyable for the setting beneath the castle walls and the locals strolling about that for the flora. The was a group of teenagers playing music on a guitar and flute; pairs of women in hijabs taking selfies with their phones; families with children; lovers sitting on a ledge holding hands. It was cool in the shade and fragrant with roses, an unselfconscious little idyll behind high walls.

An archway at one corner of the garden led to an outdoor tea salon on a terrace overlooking the river, where for two bucks apiece we each had a glass of achingly sweet and satisfying mint tea and a plate of genuinely spectacular almond cookies. The river view itself is austere; it is broad and shallow with surprisingly little boat traffic, and long low rows of boxy apartment blocks on the far shore. One boat in particular caught our eye: a large dark brown wooden dhow, surprisingly resembling Captain Hook’s ship from Peter Pan, lay moored at the shore. We had been told that we would be having dinner aboard a boat tonight, and wondered if that was it. (Spoiler alert: it was.)

Leaving the terrace, we ambled through the medina for a half hour or so, a stroll that include Alice getting waylaid by an insistent lady selling henna tattoos. Alice plunked for one — the lady wanted five bucks, Alice offered two, deal accepted — and sported a nice henna curlicue on her arm that listed all of about a half hour before washing off.

Back at the hotel we finally met the rest of our group, a gregarious crowd of folks who mostly hail from New Orleans and mostly already know each other. They seem like a real good group that will fit in nicely with our current eight, and I expect we’ll enjoy our time with them. So far I’ve identified among them a nurse, an architect, a caterer, a retail store and coffee shop owner, and a rheumatologist. They’re all very good-humored and interesting to talk to; over dinner the rheumatologist was telling me about some volunteer work that he did in a refugee camp in Iraq.

Dinner on the boat was surprisingly good and the setting surprisingly elegant considering that it looked from the outside like some kind of tourist trap. (Our tour operator, OAT, does their homework in this regard.) Tomorrow we’ll have a city tour that I expect will bring us back to Oudaya. But that’s fine with us. I’ll post some photos of the day in my next entry.

 

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