My latest Post.

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.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Autumn in Japan.

Autumn Colors along the
Biwako Canal.
    Or, more precisely, the colors of Autumn. I remember my first experience of the Autumn colors in Japan. It was 2003 and my wife and I were here on holiday. It was the Eastern hills surrounding Kyoto City, the ones with Daimonjiyama and Fushimi-Inari on them, and we were on a hiking expedition with my family-in-law. And, to this day 8-years later, the sight still impresses me.
       This post will be images taken over the seven-years of living in Japan.
Yours Truly
Kyotango,Kyoto Prefecture.
Katsuragawa River
Kyotango is an area in the north of Kyoto Prefecture on the Japan Sea coast. Map.
The Katsuragawa River runs through the very-popular tourist destination of Arashiyama. But it's not just the Autumn colors that are abound here, the Sakura are also a spectacle to see/experience.Map.
Hydrangea Flowers

 During my research for my "Everytrail Guide" -
Canal Boat
Takasegawa Canal.
"Chushojima - the Sake Capitol of Japan" - I was fortunate to have visited when there were plenty of colors.
Choken-ji Temple Gate.
Chushojima is a lovely spot to visit which should include a tour of one of the many Sake Breweries. Then,what better way to enjoy that bottle you purchased, with a cruise on the Takasegawa Canal on one of the many canal boats.
 Directly opposite your boarding-point, is the Choken-ji Temple with it's red earthen walls surrounding the complex.Map.
Jizo-in Temple.

Just up the road, or rail-line, from Chushojima, is Uji City, one of my favorite cities in Japan.
Not too touristy, but popular none-the-less.The city was made famous by the novel "The Tale of Genji" where the final chapters are set.
Mountain Road.

Autumn Colors
   Now for something completely different.The above three-images are from a weekend I spent mountain-biking with four others in Shiga Prefecture ("Weekend in Shiga). It was very difficult to concentrate with all the magnificent scenery about but, with some gentle persuasion, I managed. Not only were the colors and scenery a delight to the eye, but the wildlife were something to behold too - wild monkeys, beers and deer.

On the pond
Kaga-Onsen (Map) is set amongst the mountains bordering Ishikawa and Gifu Prefectures. The area is abound with many Onsen, which makes it popular with those wanting to escape the hassles of city life, or whatever, and come and soak-away their troubles. My Wife and I came here for a weekend and found it a delightful wee town with some great scenery. 
Konzo-ji Temple.

You like isolated places?
Gardens, Konzo-ji temple.
Well, if you do, then check the Map. The area is popular with the outdoor enthusiast, like yours truly. I like places like this, especially if I am on foot or bike, as access is through forest and there many options how to get to-and-from here.

Banpakukinenkoen, or the "Osaka Expo Commemoration Park", was created in 1970 to house the "Worlds Fair". Today, the 264ha grounds are used for recreational and educational purposes, with ample lawn and forest for people to picnic, exercise and relax in. Access to the park is via the "Osaka Monorail" which, for those who haven't ridden on train of this type, can be quite an experience. Map.
Gate, entrance
Kontai-ji Temple.
Kontai-ji Temple (Map) is worth a visit at any time of year. If visiting this complex, don't be in a hurry. There is plenty to see. Also many tracks in the area.

   Well I think that just about covers "Autumn in Japan". I will sign-off with one last image that encapsulates all that is Japan, two Maiko amongst the Autumn foliage in Kyoto.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Japan, and it's Tourism Dilemma.

   This article, "Japan after Fukushima", in today's edition of  "Yahoo News" has prompted me to offer an opinion regarding the present dilemmas facing tourism in Japan.
   One has to feel some sympathy towards the Ministry that is responsible for tourism here. After years of declining numbers of tourists to Japan, the powers-that-be, back in 2003, decided to invest millions of Yen to improve the situation, with an aggressive marketing/promotion campaign. Then, in 2010, the investment began to pay off, with some 8.6-million tourists visiting the Japanese Archipelago. The Ministry felt that it was well on it's way to their target of attracting 25-million tourists by 2020. That was until 11th March 2011, when the "Forces-of-Nature" (sorry I couldn't find anything more descriptive to add), and it's aftermath (the Fukushima Nuclear Power-Plant), stepped-in and all that changed. Since that day tourist numbers have taken a nose-dive and the Ministry are scrambling to find answers to turn the trend around.
   I am not going to pour scorn on those who have decided to stay away from Japan, for whatever their fears. I respect their right to make that choice. I too have fears, especially regarding the affects of Radiation Sickness, but I am just as likely to be run-over by a cyclist while walking along a footpath. Which raises the question; Whereabouts on this planet is it safe to travel to? The people on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009, would never have thought that a fellow passenger had plastic explosives in his underwear. Same as the people on the Double-Decker Bus in London on 7th July 2005, would never have thought that they would become victims of a suicide attack. And then there were the tourists standing on the balcony in the spire of Christchurch Cathedral at 12:51pm on 22nd February 2011. There is risk attached to everything we do, I know that more than anyone.
   The present Minister in charge of Tourism in Japan, has come-up with a scheme, where some 10,000 tourists from different parts of the Globe, will have their flights to Japan paid for them in the hope of improving the situation. This comes with a price-tag of ¥1.8-billion and has yet to be approved by the Japanese Government, sometime near April 2012. This is crazy and is throwing good money after bad as their is no guarantee that the scheme will be successful. Already scams are afoot throughout the world to abuse this scheme, as reported in this statement from the Japan Tourist Agency. Also, people who had no intention of visiting Japan, will now do so because their "Mates" living here, have encouraged them to apply. They will come here because it's a "freebie" and not come and appreciate what Japan really has to offer - beauty, fantastic scenery, history, culture.
   If you are considering Japan as your next holiday destination, may I invite you to connect with the "Japan National Tourism Organization", via their "Facebook" page, for information and regular updates.
   So, in the mean time, check-out these photos
Matsuo-dera Shrine, Yamashiro Town.
Kyoto Prefecture.
which shows some of the hidden beauty of Japan.

Konzo-ji Temple, Nagaokakyo City.
Kyoto Prefecture.

Pagoda, Kaijusen-ji Temple.
Kizugawa City.
Kyoto Prefecture.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Four Seasons of Japan.

   People often ask me "When is a good time of year to visit Japan"? My answer is always " Any time of year is a good time to visit Japan, but some times are better than others". The " ....some times...." I am referring to are Spring and Autumn. I will explain why later but, in the mean time, check-out Kigo - Japanese Seasons.
   Different people have different reasons why they visit a country at a certain time of year. The cold months of Winter (7th November - 3rd February) may not suit most but, if you're into Skiing and Snowboarding, then Nagano and Hokkaido Prefectures will be where your little piece of Paradise will be found. If it's the weather extremes you're trying to avoid, then the same could be said of Summer (6th May - 7th August). The Summer months here add new meaning to the terms, hot & humid. And that just leaves Spring (4th February - 5th May) and Autumn (8th August - 6th November). 
   I will now take you through the seasons and, what better way to begin, than with Spring, or what is known as Haru in Japan. This is my favourite time of year. Why? To me Spring represents life. After months of dormancy, plants, along with many other lifeforms, come to life. And the best way for me to express this, is to share with you photos of the Sakura
Himeji Castle.
Gassho-zukuri Minka
                                                Himeji Castle  is in itself a sight to behold, and that is regardless of what time of year you visit. But, when the park surrounding the Castle is in full bloom, the Castle takes-on an even bigger magnificence. On a bus-tour through Gifu Prefecture, back in 2006, we called-into an isolated village (so isolated I can't find the name). It was here that I managed to photo this Gassho-zukuri Minka with a Sakura in full bloom.
Sakura and Torii.
Celebrating Hanami.
   My pride and joy, when it comes to Sakura photos, is this one in the Uji area of Kyoto Prefecture. I was on a hike through the area for my "Everytrail page", when I stumbled-upon this sight. The Sakura were vivid white.
   Before we move-on to Summer, there is one event I want to tell you about that is celebrated here in Japan during Spring - "Hanami". This is where, for a few brief days, millions-of-people throughout Japan will set-up their picnic gear under the Sakura trees, and celebrate the occasion with copious amounts of food and alcohol. The first time I celebrated Hanami I was quite overwhelmed by what took place and it is something I look forward to each year.                                                                                                                                                                                   Now time to tell you about Summer, or Natsu in Japan. Or maybe I should warn you about Summer. There are two ways to describe Summer in Japan - very-hot and extremely-hot. Back home in Aotearoa, if it reached the temperatures it does here, we would all be as Red-as-Beetroots. The overnight temperatures rarely dip-below 25c. Then, during the day, it can top 40c. Outdoor activities require copious amounts of water and short excursions.
Your's Truly
Refreshment Stop.
But, I came up with a way-around cycling on those hot Summer days - get up at 2am and go for a ride.
In the photo on the left, I have arrived at a Japanese Tea-House nestled amongst the hills surrounding Nara City. The establishment has been here for over 180-years. It is 8am, I have consumed 3-liters of water and the temperature would already be 30c+. Further on, on the same trip, I found the heat quite unbearable and I had to take-a-break at this old bridge. By then it was about 10am and getting hotter.
Cooling Down.
As luck would have it, I discovered this water spring that I was able to cool-down under. I was still a long way from home, and it wasn't getting any cooler, but the chance to refill my bottles with clean-fresh water added some relief to my overheating. Heat-exhaustion claims many lives throughout Japan each year, and I am wary of being one of those statistics.
Hanabi Festival.

"Hanabi" or "Fireworks Festival"  is one of the major festivals celebrated in Japan during the Summer. Throughout the country thousands-upon-thousands gather at a venue and, for the best part of an hour, be entertained by the awesome display of fireworks. In Otsu City,  Shiga Prefecture, some 10,000 fireworks will be set-off.                                    
Autumn Colors.
The photo on the left introduces us to Autumn, or Aki to the Japanese and, what better way to introduce this season, than with photos from Komyo-ji Temple in Kyoto prefecture. I came-across this complex quite by accident when I was homeward-bound from a ride in the hills surrounding this area.
   The colors of Autumn continually astound me, and that is after 7-years of living here. This is so picturesque and even the one tree, regardless of the color of the leaves, is still a sight to behold. So, in saying that, can you imagine what a whole hill looks like in Autumn colors? 
Suzumushi-dera Temple.
Sugoi! Suzumushi-dera Temple, in the photo on the right, is a small complex and is famous, apart from other things, for their triangular-shaped Bamboo. But it was the Autumn scenery that drew me to this Temple. November is a very-important time of year for the children of Japan. "Shichi-Go-San", or the "Seven-Five-Three Festival" is a delight to see/experience as parents bring their children, all dressed in brightly-colored Kimono, to a Shrine for the ceremony that drives-out evil spirits and wish for a long-healthy life.
   "Brass-Monkey" Weather, is the term we use down-under to describe this next time of year (you won't hear the expression used much in Japan). Winter, or Fuyu to the Japanese, means snow and icy conditions and can be scary for some - I had a bad car-accident on Black Ice many years ago, and it still haunts me when I drive on ice to this day - and bring great joy to others. Here, in the Kansai Region, we are fairly sheltered from the "heavy" falls-of-snow - in the 7-years I have been here, there have only been two occasions when snow has fallen in a large amount - unlike those living in the mountainous areas further north.
Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route.

The "Snow Corridor in Muroda", here on the left, is a very-popular Winter destination. I have travelled this route, albeit in the cooler Autumn months and, even at that time of year, is a magnificent experience. But, as you can see, the snow hardens so that a corridor is carved-out allowing vehicles to travel-through.
In November 0f 2008 I accompanied four other outdoor enthusiasts for a Weekend in Shiga mountain-biking amongst the Autumn colors but, a few weeks later, Return to Shiga was a very different scene. The area is fairly mountainous and close to the Sea of Japan where the winds from the North Pole turn the moisture in the atmosphere into snow.
   The "Japanese New-Year"  brings with it many festivals. "Hatsumode" - the first Shrine visit of the New-Year - being the most important. Over the three-day period during the New-Year, most Japanese, and Gaijin, visit a Shrine where wishes for the new year are made (in 2006, some 3.5-million people visited Fushimi-Inari Shrine over that three day period). "Omisoka" , will find people very busy preparing for the New-Year, which  includes "Osoji" (I doubt if many of the feminist-movement would consider this "chore" a festival) and "Osechi-ryori", where topics such as Heart Disease, Obesity, Over-Indulgence and Dieting are the least of our concerns. The Osechi-ryori are a work of art and a delight to eat, and are made even more tastier when washed-down with a warm glass of Sake
   Well, there we have it folks. The four seasons of Japan through the eyes of an "Outdoorholic" (that's me just in case you didn't realize).

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sekibutsu - Stone Carvings of Buddha.

   In my post Shrines and Temples, I commenced with the comment "....will notice a common denominator in most of my reports. That is, I have included a visit to a Shrine and/or Temple". But, what I omitted to include, were Sekibutsu  and Magaibutsu. Both Stone Carvings of Buddha.
   So, what is the difference? Well not very much really.It's a bit like asking, what is the difference between a canoe and a kayak? A Sekibutsu is described as a free-standing Buddhist Image carved in stone whereas, a Magaibutsu is a Buddhist image carved on large rock outcrops, cliffs or caves.

The Sekibutsu in the photo on the left, is "Warai", which means laughing/happy/smiling in Japanese. The image is of Buddha sitting in the Lotus Position on a Water Lilly. This is one of the most famous of the stone carvings in the area and, for obvious reasons, attracts a lot of visitors.

The photo on the right is a magnificent example of Magaibutsu and is situated just below the summit of Mt Kasagi, in Kasagi Town, Kyoto Prefecture. It is so tall it is difficult to photograph the whole rock.
   This brings me to their purpose. Which, for some reason, I cannot find any information explaining why. One could say they are a form of Tagging, (please don't quote me on that) as they can be found throughout Japan, with Kyushu having the greatest concentration of these carvings, including the famous stone Buddhas of Usuki, estimated to have been carved in the 12th century. Another theory is that they are a place of worship, which is evident by the small vase and Offerings found at some sites. In some cases caves were carved
with Buddha Images, as in the next photo, large 
enough for worshipers to enter and be used as Temples. These were called Sekkutsu jiin or Cave Temple. This one is located just outside Nara City. There are about three caves like this one in close proximity.

Then there are the Shintou bijutsu, in the image on the left, which were produced and placed at the outskirts of a village to ward-off evil and sickness. On my travels I quite often come-across these. This particular one, on the outskirts of the village of Kasagi, I came across quite by accident. I was on a hike from Kasagi to Kizu when I stopped for a refreshment stop and, there it was.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     
Just as I was about to sign-off, I nearly forgot to tell you about these fellas. The Jizo is one of the most loved of all the Japanese Divinities and you will come-across them everywhere and they come in all shapes-and-sizes. Their main aim is to ease the pain and shorten the sentence of those serving time in hell as-well-as to answer the prayers for the living for health, success, children and all manner of partitions.

Often cute and cartoon like, as in the image on the right, the Jizo can be found dressed in a red apron, bib and cap.
   What is it that make the Sekibutsu appeal to me? As-much-as I appreciate the fact they are religious icons, and places of worship, I regard them more as a work-of-art. Although I don't know the first thing about art - I can't tell the difference between a Monet or a Constable - but, what I do know, is that I appreciate what I am looking at. I am continually fascinated at how someone can take an image, consign it to memory then, at a later date, reproduce this on whatever medium, in this case, rock 
   During my travels I have come across many Sekibutsu (my photo-album of Sekibutsu contains over 60 images) and, as much as I would like to share my images of them with you, this post wouldn't have the space to show them all. So instead, I will share an "Everytrail Trip" I composed. 


The Temple - buildings and etiquette.

    Temples are another of the great complexes I enjoy visiting when out on my travels. And, like the Shrines and Castles, their magnificence and history sometimes leaves me quite-speechless (that's not saying much for my English language skills). In Japan, Temples are places of worship of Japanese Buddhism, with the history of it's introduction dating-back to the late 6th-century, when Crown Prince Shotoku (574 - 622)  introduced Buddhism to Japan. Horyu-ji Temple , the home of Buddhism in Japan, was commissioned by the Crown Prince and was completed in 607AD (my "Everytrail Guide" ).
   For the purposes of this post, I have chosen Yokoku-ji Temple (constructed around 806AD), in the city of Nagaokakyo. From 784 - 794, Nagaoka-kyo was the capitol of Japan. Yokoku-ji, also known as Yanagidani Kannon, is nestled amongst the hills overlooking Nagaokakyo and other parts of Kyoto. And, during the Autumn season, the colors here are truly magnificent with the leaves ranging in color from red and yellow. Also, from June-to-July, the 4,500 or so Hydrangea Plants will be in bloom. It is a very isolated complex (my kinda place) but can be quite busy with people visiting the Temple to savour the very clear spring-water known as Okozui, which Kukai, a famous Monk during the early Heian Period, prayed for by force of will.
   You have arrived at a Temple and, regardless if you are here to pray or visit, you are expected to behave calmly and respectfully. The taking of photos within the complex grounds is usually permitted but, as in the case at some Temples, it is forbidden. If this is the case, there will be signs warning you not to take photos.
The first building you will encounter, will be the gate which marks the entrance to the Temple complex. There is usually the one main gate, but some Temples will have several additional gates along the Temples main approach.
 As you pass-through onto the complex grounds, you will notice a Chozuya, or Purification Trough. It is important to purify yourself before you go to pray. To do this you take one of the ladles and, holding it in your right hand, rinse your left hand. You then repeat this process holding the ladle in your left hand. Next you rinse your mouth before spitting the water into the trough on the ground.

As you approach the main hall you will notice the Incense Burner in front of the building. The smoke from burning Incense (Osenko) is believed to have certain healing powers - if you have an injured shoulder, for example, fanning the smoke from burning incense is believed to provide relief. To participate in this ritual, you purchase a bundle of incense, light them, let them burn for a few seconds before extinguishing the flame. You do this by waving your hand rather than by blowing them out.

You may now approach the Main Hall to pray. Before you commence with your prayer, toss a coin into the offering box first. This is a mark of respect towards the sacred object.
If you intend to enter the Main Hall it is important you remove your shoes beforehand. In some cases a shoe-box will be available, in others you may be handed a plastic-bag for you to take your shoes with you. Also wear nice socks. Main Halls are called Kondo, Hondo, Butsuden, Amidado or Hatto in Japanese. Now lets take a look at some of the other buildings that make up the temple complex.
This is the Lecture Hall, or Kodo in Japanese, and are used for meetings and lectures, plus objects of worship will be on display here. 
The building, in the photo on the right, is situated next to the Kodo. Here you can purchase incense, used in your prayer ritual, plus Omikuji (paper fortune-telling slips) and other assorted religious icons. 
Your Omikuju are randomly drawn and contain predictions ranging from Daikichi (great good luck) to Daikyo (great bad luck).  
The building, in the photo on the right, is used as a rest area or waiting room. Sometimes, if the weather is inclement, people can wait in here, have a bite-to-eat before moving-on.  

The next building to cover is one of my favourites. The Bell. At midnight on December 31st, Buddhist Temples all over Japan ring 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. 
Now for the Piece de Resistance - the Pagoda. This structure has evolved from the Indian Stupa and usually comes in three (Sanju no to) and five (Goju no to) stories and are used to store the remains of the Buddha, such as a tooth, usually in form of a representation. Unfortunately Yokoku-ji Temple didn't have a Pagoda, so I shall show you two famous Pagodas - the one at Gansen-ji Temple in Kyoto Prefecture, and the one at Kaijusen-ji Temple also in Kyoto  Prefecture.
The three-storied pagoda at Gansen-ji Temple sits amongst the lush greenery and hydrangeas that make this sight quite spectacular. On the other-hand, the five-storied pagoda at Kaijusen-ji Temple (my  "Everytrail" trip), offers magnificent views over the Kamo Town plains. The pagoda is classified as a "National treasure"  and is considered to be over 1,300-years old.

   Well, before signing-off, I will leave you with more images from my visit to Yokoku-ji Temple.
   As you approach the Temple, along Route-79, you pass this avenue of concrete lanterns. 
   Within the complex 

grounds there are many buildings allowing the devotees to pray at. Also, throughout the grounds, one will come-across some vermilion-colored Torii. Yokoku-ji Temple isn't a large complex in comparison to some but, the isolation, serenity, picturesqueness and the ability to wander-around the hills that surround the Temple, make this a "must see" when you visit Kyoto.