Monday, June 23, 2014

Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto, Japan

I especially reserved my last day in Kyoto for Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社), my most favorite shrine in all of Kyoto.

Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine is one of the most important shrines in Kyoto. It is well known for the thousands of orange torii leading up Mount Inari. Inari is the Shinto god of rice, and one of the principal gods of Shinto. There are similar Inari shrines throughout Japan, and Fushimi Inari Taisha is considered as the most important among them. A noticeable element in the shrine are the fox statues, which are believed to be Inari's messengers. The giant Romon gate in front of the entrance was donated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1589. Yes, Oda Nobunaga's general!

Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社).

In the film Memoirs of a Geisha, there is a memorable scene of Chiyo running on the stairs leading up to the shrine. The panning shot of the senbon torii was really beautiful, and is my favorite scene in the movie.

Knowing that it is one of the most popular shrines in Kyoto, I woke up very early that day to avoid the crowd. From Higashiyama, I took the subway to Kyoto Station, and then transferred to the JR Nara Line until Inari Station. I think I managed to reach there at around 6:30 – 7:00 am. The morning was still gray. There were few people walking on the streets, and the shops near the shrine were still closed. As expected, there were few visitors inside the shrine very early in the morning. The shrine was very peaceful without the crowd, I enjoyed roaming the place all to myself. I almost jumped when I saw the trails of orange torii at the back of the main grounds. They looked really beautiful. I was alone at that time, so I shamelessly stretched my arms in joy (haha), before walking up the trail of toris. 

Sebon torii.

After a few minutes of walking through the bigger torii, the trail splits into two parallel rows of smaller torii called senbon torii (thousand toris). This is the part of the trail that I liked the most. The orange torii looked exceptionally vibrant in the morning sun, with the rays of sunlight filling the gaps between the torii. At one point, I encountered a priest going up as well. His white robe contrasted very well with the orange torii.

The walk was soothing. The only things I hear were the birds chirping, the buzz of small insects, and my own footsteps. At that point, I think I understood why the people of Shinto find god and holiness in nature. If I had to choose a religion, perhaps I would like it to be Shinto. Shinto in itself is very broad, but I fell in love with the idea of the divine manifesting itself in the form of nature. In that sense, for me, Fushimi Inari is not just a shrine to see, but one to experience. 

At the end of the senbon torii trail is a small shrine. As usual, I dropped a 5-yen coin, this time wishing for good health for my family. I always mention that I normally drop 5-yen coins whenever I visit shrines, but why is it a 5-yen coin? I discovered this bit of information one night while I was sorting out change. There was this gold minted coin without any value indicated on it, just a few kanji characters, unlike the other coins. Curious, I took a picture and sent to K. Immediately, he replied saying that it's a 5-yen coin. “It is believed that five yen is the most effective to bring good luck and chance,” he said. 5 yen, is read as “go” and “en”, homophones for the kanji “go”, a respectful prefix, and “en”, meaning connection or relationship. Hence, giving a 5-yen donation signifies the desire to establish a good relationship / connection with the god of that particular shrine.

Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine.

Amusing votive tablets. This one above with a Titan face from Shigenki no Kyojin!

Mine >:3

As always, I looked at the votive tablets. The ones at Fushimi Inari Taisha were interesting because they were shaped as foxes, so people drew amusing stuff on them. I saw one with a Titan face from Shingenki no Kyojin (I swear, this fandom!). Of course I made one too. I hope someone who visits the shrine will be able to spot mine! *gives internet high five*

I walked further up the torii path, up the mountain, and stopped by several smaller shrines on the way. Some of them looked a bit worn down and deserted, but interesting, nonetheless.

Shrines off the torii path.

The writings at the back of torii are companies and individuals who sponsor the shrine.

Hiragana characters reading "mi-chi" :)

The hike up to the mountain can take up to two hours. I didn't finish the trail, because I was catching a train to Osaka later that day, so I decided to head back when I reached the Yotsutsuji Intersection (this marks roughly half way up the mountain).

There were already a lot of people in the main grounds when i got back from the trail. I was too excited about the torii up in the mountain, so I have not actually taken a look around the main grounds yet. It was pretty busy as there was a ceremony going on. Lots of people were lining up for charms and omikujis. I stayed for a while to observe the ceremony, and went around the shops to look for souvenirs before heading back to Higashiyama.

Entrance to the main grounds of Fushimi Inari Taisha.

Inari Train Station.

Actually, I have already passed by Fushimi Inari on one of the nights I was in Kyoto. Shinto shrines are normally open until very late so I decided to give it a try. I got too spooked to go up the trail though because it was dark and I was alone, so I had to retreat haha.

Fushimi Inari Taisha at night.

I realized I still have time left, so I decided to visit the Heian Jingu (平安神宮), a Shinto shrine dedicated to Emperor Kanmu and Emperor Komei, founded in 1895 – relatively younger than most of the popular shrines in Kyoto. The shrine's main buildings were partially replicated from the imperial palace of the Heian period.

The movie Lost in Translation featured a bit of Heian Jingu too. When Scarlett Johansson went to Kyoto, Heian Jingu was one of the shrines she visited. This is the bit where Air's Alone in Kyoto was played, definitely my favorite scene! I initially did not like that movie when I first saw it, but it kind of grew on me when I watched it again. A friend once told me that there are movies we appreciate better, depending on certain points or phases in our lives. Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray were so “lost” in the movie. Maybe I could identify being somewhat “lost”, that is why the movie resounded to me better than before. Also, the soundtrack of the movie is made of win. 

Heian Jingu (平安神宮).
Lovely foliage. I am going to miss Kyoto!

I walked from Heian Jingu back to Higashiyama, and since it was my last day in Kyoto, I felt like walking along the Shirakawa River (白川) again and having late lunch at Pooh's Cafe, just like on my very first day. I went back to the machiya afterwards to pack my stuff, tidy the room and say goodbye to the family.

The separation anxiety was handled better than expected. Though, I still did feel a little sad leaving Kyoto as I immensely enjoyed my time there. To cheer myself, I bought my favorite Belgian chocolate waffle from Manneken in Kyoto Station before catching the train to Osaka.

It was already late afternoon, I reckon. As the train left Kyoto Station, the buildings and city lights gradually disappeared from view. I slumped back on my seat. I was still in the vicinity of Kyoto, but I was already dreaming of seconds. Someday again, I'm sure.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Nara, Japan

Since I was already in Kyoto, I decided to dedicate a day in exploring nearby Nara. It is mostly overshadowed by the more popular Kyoto, but Nara is an interesting place in itself. Nara has in fact, the most buildings designated as national treasures in Japan. It was previously Japan's capital from 710 to 784, until it was moved to Kyoto. It is located in the Nara Prefecture, in the Kansai Region of Japan.

It was raining heavily that morning, but I decided to head on to Nara, thinking that it will eventually let up. From Kyoto Station, I took the JR Nara Line (Miyakoji Rapid Train) to Nara Station. I missed the first train because I was on the wrong platform! I had to wait in the cold for another 30 or so minutes for the next train. And there I thought I had gotten used to Japan railways! Either it was really tricky, or I was just spacing out too much.

The train going to Nara was not so crowded that morning. I managed to get a coveted window seat and enjoyed the 45-minute ride. I could see the clouds rolling on the side of the mountains, threatening more rain. But for some reason, they actually looked very beautiful. I also distinctly remember this guy with his girlfriend sitting across me. He was wearing a Red Hot Chili Peppers t-shirt, one with their asterisk logo, and I thought, hey nice shirt.

Kasuga Taisha Shrine (春日大社).

Upon arriving in Nara, the rain has tamed a little bit. It's possible to walk from Nara Station to Nara park, but I decided to take a bus. Nara Park (奈良公園) is a vast green space located at the foot of Mount Wakasuka (若草山). Most of Nara's sights are concentrated inside the park. It is designated as a place of scenic beauty and national treasure. It is also known for wild deers (shika) freely roaming around. It is estimated that there are around 1,200 of them. I love the story of Nara Park. According to legend, the god of Kasuga Taisha came riding a white deer from Tokyo to Nara. This is the reason why deers are considered sacred, as they are regarded as the messengers of Shinto gods.

A wisteria tree inside the temple grounds. It must look beautiful during spring.

Thousands of lamps in Kasuga Taisha.

I can only read the kanji for "ai" and the hiragana, but I think this guy wants a girlfriend!

 Deers inside Nara Park.

My first destination was the Kasuga Taisha Shrine (春 日大社). Going there, I passed by the Kasugayama Primeval Forest, an undeveloped forest leading to the shrine. The stroll there was a great experience. The forest was very quiet and peaceful; the deers adding an aura of mystery. Kasuga Tasiha is a Shinto shrine founded as far back as 768. It is famous for the stone lanterns leading up to the shrine. There were thousands of them, and I heard that each individual lantern gets lighted up during the August and February festivals. It must look magical!

Nara Prefecture Public Hall Gardens.

Noh Theater inside the Nara Prefecture Public Hall.

From there, I walked to the garden of Kasuga Taisha where the autumn leaves were looking very beautiful. The rain has just stopped. The clouds were still hazy, but the autumn colors looked as vibrant as ever.

I kept walking until the Todaiji Temple (東大寺), a Buddhist temple founded in the 8th century. It is most popular for housing the world's largest bronze Daibutsu (大仏). It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, regarded as one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara. On the Nandaimon (south gate) stand the 28-feet Nios, the guardians of the Nandaimon. The massive structures were made way way back in 1203! They are believed to be the guardians of the Buddha. The statues are very iconic, I cannot believe I got a chance to see them in this lifetime!  The screen covering the Nios and the dust accumulated on their crevices gave them a sort of 2D feel. Inside the temple is the Daibutsu, which spans almost 50 meters tall and weighs around 500 tons. It looked shorter in person, but perhaps because it was indoors? 

Todaiji Temple Nandaimon.

Guardian of the Buddha.

Todaiji Temple (東大寺).
The famous pillar inside Todaiji Temple.

Inside the temple is also a famous pillar with a hole in the bottom. They say that the hole is about the size of the Daibutsu's nostrils. Whoever can pass through the hole will be blessed with luck and will be able to go to heaven. There were lots of kids giving it a try. I was standing there cheering for them, ganbatte! A lady asked me if I wanted to try, haha, to which I respectfully declined. I wasn't confident... I have been eating a lot the past few days!


My last stop for the morning was Kofukuji Temple (興福寺). It is a Buddhist temple founded in 669 by Emperor Tenji. It used to be the family temple of the Fujiwara clan, regarded as the most poweful during the Heian and Nara periods. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the eight historic monuments of Ancient Nara. The five-storey pagoda inside the compounds is the second tallest pagoda in Japan at 50 meters. It is one of the most iconic landmarks of Nara.

Kofukuji Temple (興福寺) and the Five-Storey Pagoda.

After spending the morning in Nara Park, I took lunch somewhere in Sanjo Dori Street (tempura, rice and miso!). Afterwards, I went around the shops and tried some Narazuke (Nara pickles). They are various kinds of vegetables pickled with sake, and other ingredients. The practice of Narazuke dates back from 1,300 years ago! I tried the daikon (radish), and I liked it very much. It goes well with rice!

I then went to Naramachi (奈良町) afterwards. The area that is now Naramachi was once the grounds of Gangoji Temple (元興寺). It was once one of the most important temples of Nara, however, only two of the original buildings of the temple remain today, Naramachi, literally Nara Town, was previously the merchant district of Nara. Presently, there are preserved traditional buildings, most of them machiya type houses, in the area. They now operate as shops, restaurants, and museums.

Naramachi (奈良町).

I visited the Koshi-no-le Residence (Naramachi Lattice House). It was previously a merchant home, preserved to maintain the traditional machiya townhouse of the olden days. Machiyas are very interesting for me, so it was nice experiencing how the old machiyas were. The common characteristics of machiya houses are their long structural design. The machiya's fronts are usually narrow. I read that the reason behind this was to save on taxes. Apparently, the taxes were previously calculated on the property's street access, rather than it's total area. Another reason for narrow fronts is so that the townspeople can easily keep an eye on the street outside.

Inside, machiyas normally have the naka-niwa (inner garden), hako-kaidan (box staircase), kemuri-nuki (smoke duet), and akari-tori (skylight). I think machiyas are a genius piece of architecture. Not only are they aesthetically good, they are also functional. Every detail and part of the machiya has a purpose. For instance, the hako-kaidan also acts as built-in drawers to provide additional storage area. Take that IKEA! Haha. But perhaps my most favorite part of the machiya is the naka-niwa. Someday, when I build my own house, I would like to incorporate one. 

Koshi-no-le Residence (Naramachi Lattice House).

While walking around the streets of Naramachi, very noticeable are the Migawara-zuru hanging on the doorways of houses. These are quite distinct in Nara, as I have not seen them in Kyoto. Migawara-zuru literally means "substitution monkey", and it is believed that the monkeys will dispel bad luck from entering the home. One monkey is hung per person in the family, hence, some households can have as little as one to as much as ten. There was also a small museum in the neighborhood showcasing the migawara-zuru as well as other artifacts from the old Naramachi.

Another curious thing I noticed in the Naramachi is that some houses have this figure on their roofs, which upon closer inspection seemed to be Confucius! Well, not really. When I got back, I read that these figures are called Shoki. They are guardian statues which are believed to ward off bad luck and bad spirits. It is also said that Shoki is originally from a legend in China -- there was once a time the emperor was sick, he dreamt of Shoki who chased the bad spirits away, thus curing him.

Stone lamp with deer carving.

Traditional mosquito nets. Because they were not as popular as previously, 
they are now being sold as other variations such as placemats, and other household items.


I also went around the Naramachi and looked inside shops. I went inside one selling traditional Japanese konpeito. Konpeitos are candies made up of sugar and usually comes in a bonbonieru box. It's a little expensive, but I really liked the macha green tea flavored konpeitos, plus the packaging was nice -- a bonbonieru with a deer print. I am a sucker for colorful packaging. 

Tea ceremony and red bean!

Afterwards, I went to a shop called Kissakoan where I tried tea ceremony, not as a guest, but as the one making the tea! The predefined movements of tea ceremony were very precise. It pays careful attention to aesthetics -- it's not really just about the tea. Hirano Sensei was the tea ceremony master. He taught me the correct way of pouring water, scooping the tea powder, and properly mixing the tea. Mixing the tea with the bamboo whisk looks easy, but it is really tricky and requires precise movements to get it right. Otherwise, the tea would be bitter and non-frothy. After my turn was done, Hirano Sensei told me it was OK. If it was an examination, I definitely did not get a 100, but at least it was a passing grade. I drank the tea I made, together with sweet Japanese red bean.

Goryo Shrine.

I also visited Goryo Shrine, the main deity of Naramachi, and the deity of matchmatching. I was drawn to it because the omikujis tied on the tree looked beautiful. I threw in the usual five yen coin in the wooden box, despite not having any particular wish. Ew, matchmaking haha. Yet, something at the back of my head told me to get an omikuji because, a) I have never actually had any omikuji during the trip yet, b) I thought the charm would be a nice souvenir, and c) why not? So I randomly picked one. Normally, omikujis with "bad" luck are left in the shrine, tied to tree branches. It turns out, the one I picked was neither lucky or bad. Indifferent. Neutral. But I actually liked what was written on the omikuji. It was more like a reminder, rather than a fortune.

More than I would like to admit, the omikuji really did hit a nerve. I am normally aversive to this topic, but as corny and as unbecoming as it sounds, maybe I have not yet completely given up on loving another person. Maybe it will come someday, but right now I am living my life for myself, doing the things I want to do and going to places I want to go. All my time is for myself, and I am still learning and still growing. So maybe when the right person during the right time comes along, I have already accomplished most of what I wanted to do. I am already my own individual. I just hope whoever he is, we both like the same pizza toppings.

In the movie Before Midnight, there is this one scene that really struck me. I leave the words here.

Achilleas: So what about grandma, was she your soulmate?

Patrick: Well sounds appealing, but actually your grandmother was more rational than that. She took care of herself and asked me to do the same, with plenty of room to meet in the middle.. We were never "one" person, always two, we preferred it that way. But at the end of the day, it's not the love of one person that matters, it's the love of life.
Beautiful, isn't it? 

Naramachi, Sanjo Dori and Nara Station at dusk.

After my long afternoon in the Naramachi, I decided it was time to head back to Kyoto. I traced my way back to Nara Station by walking along Sanjo Dori Street. The whole Sanjo Dori stretch was lively and well lit up. Nara was fun, but with it came the realization that I only had a few days left in Japan. I brushed the thought of it for the mean time, and I continued enjoying the long walk back to Nara Station under the chilly night sky.
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