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This view,this beauty
A tear unbidden
Creeps into my eye.

My stay is short
But I shall return to this place
If only my life is long enough.

Such beauty
Gazing upon it
I hope my years are many.

Bokusui Wakayama.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

This Piece of Rock.: Off the Beaten Track.

This Piece of Rock.: Off the Beaten Track.:     It was 1993, during the month of June if I remember correctly, and I was sitting at the bar in  "Kytelers Inn" , a popular  watering hol...

Off the Beaten Track.

   It was 1993, during the month of June if I remember correctly, and I was sitting at the bar in "Kytelers Inn", a popular watering hole in Kilkenny. It was the eve of my departure of a month-long cycle-tour of Ireland and I was sharing my plans with a local who, during the course of our conversation (and a few pints of Guinness) offered me the following piece-of-advice - "The best way to see Ireland my friend, is keep off the main road". I took the mans advice and, as a result, I saw, experienced and met parts of Ireland that not many others would. 18-years later, and I am still adhering to that advice. Whether it be back home in Aoteraoa, or here in Japan.
   This post is some of my "off the beaten track" experiences since living in Japan.
Kamocho Ohata.
I will commence with the village of Kamocho Ohata (Map), nestled amongst the hills of Kamo Town, which is part of Kizugawa City. I passed-through here as part of my research for my "Everytrail Trip" - "Kamocho (Kamo Town)" - but, what I was soon to discover, is that this town, and many-others that I have experienced on my travels, have a lot in common - serenity, beauty, scenic, plus a feeling you don't experience when you are wandering through the city. Access to this village is via a narrow lane, that branches-off a narrow road that itself branches-off another road.  
   Then there are the people you meet on your travels. I remember one particular occasion, during my cycle-tour of Ireland, when I arrived in a village - the village consisted of a pub, store & petrol-pumps and a few houses - about 9am. I remember I was a bit low-in-mood and so I stopped to take-in the surrounding scenery - rolling hills, trees, sheep grazing - just as an old man walked-by. As he passed he greeted me - "Good-morning my son, may the good lord be with you on your travels". That one comment perked me up 100% and I was able to continue on my way. 
So, let me introduce you to Motokazu-san. I was out on one of my hiking trips, by myself, when we came-across each other in a clearing ( as seen in the photo), I was exiting the bush, he was about to enter. I was delighted that he was able to speak English, (my Nihongo leaves a lot to be desired) so we were able to chat for some time. Three years, and several hiking-trips later, we still regularly meet and chat. He has a mind of information regarding all things Japanese, and I am always keen to "pick his brain" about this great country.
   Now let me not forget to tell you about those "little surprises". The ones you stumble-upon off-the-beaten-track (check-out this link - "Off the Beaten Track in Japan"). And, believe me when I say, they will pop-up anywhere.
from the road.
up close.
These next two images are a testament to what one can stumble-upon. The path I was on was narrow and in fairly-dense forest. Although it was early (about 9:30am), it was also the middle-of-summer and I was in dire need of a refreshment break. The signpost, in the image on the left, attracted my attention and was my cue to stop. Then I saw it. This huge rock with a carving on it. This is a Magaibutsu, and is known as "Daimonnohotokendani", and there are many dotted-about this area (check-out my "Everytrail Guide" - Touno Sekibutsu no Sato - Pilgrimage to Sekibutsu). From the road it looks small but, when up close, as in the image on the right, it is quite huge (I am about 176cm tall). 
   Before I sign-off, I want to share something with you that is well-off the beaten-track. I was told about this place by a friend who said I should check-it-out. When I came-across this, it was about 8am, I was almost thrown-off my bike at the suddenness of it's appearance. After cycling along a forest track, here was this;
"Togenochaya" is a classical example of a "Traditional Japanese Teahouse" and this one has
Refreshment Break
been here for over 180-years. The owner, seen in the image on the left, is the 6th generation of his family to have operated this establishment. That's me in the image on the right (not the 4-legged one). The really-interesting thing about the isolated location of this "Ochaya", is that Nara City is just over the hill from here (about an hours cycle-ride). Check-out this link from Diddlefinger Maps (clicking-on the "Hybrid" icon will give you a better idea of the location and isolation).
   I have many other "off-the-beaten-track" experiences I could share with you, but I think you get the idea of where I am coming from (no pun intended). But, in saying that, if I happen to have an experience I feel is worthy to be shared, I won't hesitate to do so.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Shogatsu - The Japanese New-Year.

   I was never one who got involved in all the hype surrounding the New-Year celebrations. To me it is just another day - being a shift-worker, where I have worked on the 1st January more that the ones where I haven't - and I couldn't see what all the fuss was about. That was until I experienced my first Shogatsu or Oshogatsu in 2004.
   The Japanese have been celebrating the New-Year for many thousands-of-years, but it wasn't until 1873, five-years after the Meiji Restoration, that they adopted the Gregorian Calendar, and the 1st January became the official and cultural New-Year. Prior to then, the occasion was timed according to the Chinese Lunar Calendar.
   Preparations for the New-Year begin as early as November, with the making, selection and ordering of the Nengajo, or New-Year Postcards.
New-Year Postcards.
The "Nengajo" come in many formats. The personal postcard can be either created by oneself - generally showing a family portrait or drawing by one of the family - or ordered through a catalogue provided by a Department Store, like the one we have ordered in the image on the left. Before mailing them a short message is included for the recipient. Employers often distribute them to the staff thanking them for their loyalty over the past 12-months. Businesses like to show their appreciation to their clients by including them on their mailing-list. You will notice on the card an image of a Dragon. This is one of the 12 Zodiac Animals that make up the Chinese Zodiac System or, what is known in Japan as Jikkan Junishi. 2012 will be the Year-of-the-Dragon.
   It is about mid-December, and time to get those Nengajo into the post so they arrive on the 1st, making sure you haven't included a card to someone who is in mourning. You would have received a "Mochyuu Hagaki", or "Mourning Postcard", informing friends and relatives not to send a Nengajo out of respect for the deceased. Also about this time people are ordering, purchasing and preparing the contents of their Osechi-Ryori. Osechi come in
boxes known as "Jubako" and resemble the infamous Bento. The quick-and-easy, and time-saving way, is to order these through a catalogue but, as I experienced in 2003, they are best made at home. I had the opportunity to assist my father-in-law (a qualified chef) in constructing our Osechi. The result was a five-layered, delicious work-of-art that fed ten. These are consumed on New-Year's day morning, and washed-down with a warm Sake
   It is now New-Years Eve, or Omisoka, the second-most important day in Japanese Tradition, and it's about to get very-busy. First thing on the agenda is the creation of your Osechi-Ryori (that's if your'e making your own) followed by "Osoji", or Spring-Cleaning. This practice isn't just confined to the home. Schools and Businesses also use the day to clean-up so, upon returning after the New-Year Holidays, they can begin the new year in a fresh-and-clean state. At midnight, Buddhist Temples around Japan will begin ringing their bells a total of 108-times to symbolize the 108 Human Sins in Buddhist belief, and to get-rid of the 108 worldly desires regarding sense and feeling in every Japanese citizen. 
   It is now the 1st January, a new year has arrived and time to introduce you to Hatsumode, Hatsuhinode, the "First" of the year. I will begin with "Hatsumode", or the first trip to a Shrine or Temple. Many people will time their "first" visit at around midnight. Braving the winter cold, millions will stand in line waiting for the signal informing the new year has arrived, before moving-on to pay their respects. For the three days, during Hatsumode, the public transport system will be operating 24-hours ferrying devotees to the many shrines in their area. Fushime-Inari Shrine in Kyoto, recorded some 2.8-million visitors during that 3-day period back in 2008.                                                                            
Yasaka-jinja Shrine Gate.
My first Hatsumode experience was in 2004 when I accompanied my family to Yasaka-jinja Shrine in Kyoto. We arrived at the Keihan Gion-Shijo Station and began making our way along Shijo-Dori Street towards the main gate (image on the left) amongst a crowd that would have numbered in the hundreds-of-thousands (the street, from one side to the other, was one long queue of people). Once inside the  main gate, we were greeted 
Yasaka-jinja Shrine.
by this quite magnificent structure (what you could see of it) where we approached the main shrine and prayed. When completed we then turned-around and departed. This intrigued me, especially after all we had been through leading-up to this moment but, as I was informed, this is all we came here to do. Yasaka-jinja is well worth the visit when in Kyoto and can be combined with a walk through the Gion (Geisha) District that surrounds the complex.
   It wouldn't be until 2006 before I celebrated Hatsumode again. On this occasion it was be a very-solemn moment. In early 2005 Otaasan (Father) died, and this was our first Hatsumode without him. He was a man that I loved and respected very-deeply. And, as a result, the New-Year celebration took-on a new meaning for me. I came to appreciate the occasion and, from that day onward, I take the opportunity to remember those who cannot be with us, think-back over the past year and say thank-you to all those in my life, and think of the year ahead. On this occasion we chose to visit Iwashimizu Hachiman-gu Shrine in Yawate City. We arrived at the complex just on midnight and, already by then, there were thousands of people queuing-up to pray.
Iwashimizu Hachiman-gu Shrine
The history surrounding Iwashimizu Hachiman-gu dates-back to the Heian Period with it's connections to Kyoto and the Imperial Family. Construction of the Shrine commenced in 859 (Jogan ). The Shrine is also a popular destination with families coming here to celebrate Shichi-Go-San.This  wasn't the first time I have visited this complex. In 2003, when we were in Japan on holiday, we spent the day strolling-around the shrine and taking-in the scenery surrounding the area below us. The complex sits-atop a hill, with access via the Otokayama Cable-Car, or the many paths that surround the hill. 
   Hatsuhinode is another "first" that the Japanese like to participate in - the First Sunrise of the Year - and they will go to any extreme to do that. Some will drive to the coast or climb a mountain and some will sit at home and watch it live on television. On the mornings of the new decade and the new millennium, a Japanese television company broadcast live from Kahuitara Point (Map) on Pitt Island. Why. Because it is the first populated location on Earth to observe the new sunrise. The popularity of another "first" doesn't become evident until about October when statistics from the maternity wards are made public.   
Kagami Mochi.
   One more tradition, related to Shogatsu, before signing-off. Kagami Mochi first appeared in the Muromachi Period (14th to 16th Century) and is said to have originated from it's resemblance to an old-fashioned round copper mirror, which also had a religious significance. The Mochi is made up of  two round cakes made-out of rice and decorated with a Bitter Orange. The Mochi are usually  placed in the Kamidana (Shinto Altar) or the Tokonoma (a small decorated alcove in the main room of the home) when, on the second Saturday or Sunday of January, the cake is broken and eaten in a Shinto ritual called Kagami Biraki.
   This post has, I hope, given you a brief outline of how the Japanese celebrate the New-Year. When I say "brief", there are many more activities that are celebrated over this period which I haven't included. The activities covered are the more-important ones. As you will have noticed, it's a hectic time but, when it is all over-and-done-with, most will hit the motorways, the train-stations, the airports, whatever, for a well deserved holiday. But that's another post.
   Oops, I nearly forgot. May I take this opportunity to wish you all a great New-Year, and all the very best for 2012.