Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Obuse attractions besides the art of Hokusai (Photo-essay)

As I think my previous Obuse blog posts have made clear, the main attractions of this small town in Nagano Prefecture for me was its connection with Hokusai and the presence in the town of a number of masterworks by him that included paintings (chief among them the largest work he ever painted) rather than just woodcut prints.  But after I got there, I got to discovering how pretty Obuse actually is -- as though its denizens had been inspired by their town's association with the great artist to ensure that there'd be beauty in their surroundings and lives.

There's a part of me that would have considered my visit to Obuse already worthwhile if, after visiting the Ganshoin and Hokusai Museum, I then had spent the rest of my day trip (from Nagano, which is just a 35 minute train ride away) strolling around this picturesque town.  As it so happens though, Obuse is also famous for chestnuts; so I decided that I should have some while I was there.  And as it turned out, I also found time to visit two out of three of the local sake breweries that are open to the public along with a couple of residential gardens which also are open to the public by way of an "Open Gardens" scheme that I think speaks to how safe as well as welcoming the town is, and how lovely Obuse is overall! :) 

 A row of Jizos along a section of the "main road"
leading from Obuse train station to Ganshoin 

In addition to Hokusai, Ganshoin also is associated with
Fukushima Masanori, a daimyo whose mausoleum towers
above the final resting places of others in the temple's cemetery

Puppet Ponyo preferred to lie down on the stone steps
leading up to nearby Jokoji rather than hike up to see the temple
(and, after the previous day's exertions, I felt similarly)!

 In addition to chestnuts, grapes are also grown in Obuse
-- and I saw plenty of evidence of that on my visit!

My substantial lunch set of kuri okawa (steamed glutinous mochi 
rice with chestnuts) along with stewed pork belly and bamboo, 
assorted pickles, handmade soba, and a huge bowl of miso soup! :O

Sake for sale -- and available to sample -- at the

I also sampled some sake -- and this time 
free of charge! -- at Matsubaya Honten

One of the attractive residential gardens that are 
open to the public in beautiful Obuse :)

Monday, May 30, 2016

In the presence of great art at Obuse's Hokusai Museum

The Hokusai Museum is a "must visit" for
pretty much every visitor to the town of Obuse

The museum contains many splendid works by the great artist who

And at the nearby Takai Kozan Memorial Museum, visitors can
see the small studio where Hokusai worked when in Obuse
  
After spending time admiring Hokusai's Great Ho-O Staring in Eight Directions and more at Ganshoin, I took a leisurely stroll into Obuse's town center using a route that further confirmed to me that it is one picturesque settlement.  Predictably, my next stop that day was the Hokusai Museum, which is home to many beautiful works by Hokusai; and not just woodblock prints but also paintings and also the only three-dimensional art that this extremely productive artist created.

Although there appears to be a growing international trend for art museums (including the wonderful Rijksmuseum) to allow photography inside its galleries, the Hokusai Museum is like such as the Adachi Museum of Art (that's home to the largest, and probably best, collection of paintings by Yokoyama Taikan as well as a series of amazing gardens) in still prohibiting photography within their walls beyond the entrance and reception area.  And like the Adachi Museum of Art, I found this well-curated museum's gift shop rather frustrating because it didn't have available postcards and such of the displayed works in its collection that I loved most (but don't appear to be as popular or famous as certain others). 

Don't get me wrong: I stood mesmerized for minutes in front of Hokusai's rightly celebrated Fujikoshi-No-Ryu (Dragon Flying Over Mount Fuji), which I got to appreciating even more after learning via one of the museum's pair of introductory videos that he painted when he was 88 years old, and might represent the artist (who was born in the year of the dragon) still bidding to reach greater heights.  And I did greatly aesthetically appreciate his vibrant Onami (Masculine Waves) and Menami (Feminine Waves) ceiling paintings of festival floats even while being rather amused by how I could see phallic and yonic shapes respectively in those images!

But my absolute single favorite of the works I saw at the Hokusai Museum was the artist's super detailed Landscape with 100 BridgesAnd even while there are undeniably standout pieces among his many depictions of Mount Fuji, I actually warmed more to the prints I saw from his A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces woodblock print series; not least because he was able to depict falling and foaming water in such incredibly varied ways.

All in all, I truly felt privileged to have been able to be in the presence of all that great art, and be able to view them up close and at the pace of my choosing.  (Oh, and it was such a pleasure that the place was generally pretty quiet and uncrowded.)  Still, I do wish I could rely on more than just my memory to remember those masterpieces by, and my words to vicariously share them with this blog's visitors.  

Also, while I did appreciate being able to go and have a look over at the Takai Kozan Memorial Museum (named for Hokusai's Obuse patron) at the modest building where Hokusai lived and worked when he was in town, the real Hokusai-related bonus for me was that the Hokusai Museum happened to have a special exhibition on when I visited which featured works by some of his disciples -- one of whom happened to be his daughter (and sometime collaborator) Oi, whose story I had learnt about late last year via a Hong Kong Asian Film Festival screening of the elegiac Miss Hokusai. :) 

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Summer's arrived in Hong Kong, and/but the hiking continues!

When the sun's out and the sky's blue, the outdoors call
-- and for some people, the beach and sea particularly! :)

If this butterfly had chosen to rest on a brown leaf, 
it'd have been far more difficult to spot!

 And if this colorful caterpillar had been a bit quicker, it'd have 
vanished into the hole before I could get a snap of it! ;)

"Spring is here", my Vermont-based friend sarah sbk announced on her Pictures, Thoughts and Comments blog yesterday.  Meanwhile, my feeling since I returned from Japan -- where it also felt like spring -- one and a half weeks ago is that summer's already arrived in Hong Kong; what with temperatures over here having passed the 30 degree Celsius mark more than once in the past few days!

As it so happens, summer is my least favorite season of the year; and this particularly so after I moved to the Big Lychee and experienced its ultra-hot and humid summers.  And I have to admit to wondering -- and dreading -- how hot it will get over the next few months after the record-breaking summer we had last year, during which temperatures climbed up (very close) to 38 degrees Celsius one particularly baking August day.

But while a number of people -- locals as well as expats -- have told me that they stop hiking during the summer months, I consider my favorite outdoor activity to be something that can be done all year round in Hong Kong.  And as a recent Lamma hike excursion showed, compensations for having to deal with the high heat and humidity come in the form of noticeably higher visibility, a greater chance to see bright blue skies and -- this is something I truly do look forward to -- increased cool critter spottings!

If truth be told: Lamma's very clean-looking Hung Shing Yeh Beach -- and the beautifully clear waters off it on the day that I was there -- called to me as never before that afternoon.  But although the friend I was with and I did go onto it and spent some time in the area admiring the scenery and taking photos, we did manage to tear ourselves away from there and continue with our planned hike.

Along the way, we came across some interesting-looking critters, including colorful caterpillars and the first stick insect I've seen in months.  And at Sok Kwu Wan (where we enjoyed a delicious seafood meal before hopping on the ferry back to Hong Kong Island), we were treated to the sight and sounds of a Cantonese opera taking place in a bamboo theatre set up to continue commemorating Tin Hau's birthday despite the actual festive day having taken place last month as well as the amazing vision of a large tree with so many beautiful flowers -- and lots of butterflies hovering over and around them -- that, as my friend remarked, it looked almost too wonderful to actually be real! ;b     

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Hokusai's great Ho-O and a froggy representative sighted at Obuse's Ganshoin

The Nio guardians at Ganshoin don't look very welcoming!
 
 Puppet Ponyo also was perplexed -- rather than informed -- 
when looking at what was written on the temple's main sign ;b
 
One of the froggy residents of Ganshoin's back pond!
 
On the third day of my recent Japan trip, I went to Obuse -- a beautiful little town in Nagano Prefecture whose claims to fame include being where the great artist Hokusai spent a good bulk of his productive final days.  After arriving in this town (whose foreign visitors a chatty local Tourist Information Centre staff member told me were most likely to hail from France!), I headed over to the attraction farthest from the city center that I wanted to check out: Ganshoin, the Zen Buddhist temple that's home to Hokusai's largest painting, which he painted in 1848 when he was 89 years old.
 
The friendly lady at the Obuse Tourism Information Centre told me that Ganshoin's about 30 minutes walk from the train station and so it proved.  She also told me that I should follow one of the main roads leading away from the train station.  That proved a little bit difficult until I got to realizing that what some of us might consider a country lane is actually considered a main road by denizens of this fairly quiet as well as very picturesque town!
 
It took me a while too to figure out that I had reached my destination when I got to Ganshoin as the temple's name isn't prominently written out in Romaji at the site.  And it didn't help that instead of being referred to as the Phoenix Glaring In All Directions (as I've seen elsewhere), the painting of a phoenix which -- wherever you stand in the room -- always looks to be looking at you that Hokusai painted on the ceiling of the temple's main hall is referred to on Ganshoin's main sign as "Ho-O Staring in Eight Directions"!
 
Thankfully, upon entering the main hall (and paying a small entrance fee), one is given a pamphlet which, among other things, contains the following explanation:  "The Ho-O is said to be an auspicious bird that lives so long that finally various plant grow on its body...The bird seems to stare at the viewer no matter which direction it is viewed from. [T]his is the source of its name 'Ho-O Staring in Eight Directions'."
 
Unfortunately, photographs are not allowed of this magnificent Hokusai creation whose total size is more than 30 square meters (or, for that matter, anything inside Ganshoin's main hall).  But I'm sure you can imagine how this masterwork dominates the scene and really is the kind of art work that one feels a need to stare at for several minutes because it truly is sublime as well as large.  And of course I had to verify that the phoenix in the picture does look like it's staring at you wherever you are in the room.  How Hokusai achieved this effect I honestly don't know but achieve it he absolutely did!   

Along with some really stunning art works, Ganshoin's main hall also contains a number of pretty kitschy depictions of frogs (including ones in pro-creative poses like a pair I saw in action at Okinawa's Churaumi Aquarium!).  Again, the information pamphlet came to the rescue by providing an explanation as to why there seems to be an unusual obsession with the amphibians here: i.e., "Each year in the season of hanami (cherry blossom viewing), countless frogs appear in the small pond in the backyard of the Ganshoin Temple.  The male frogs like to assist the female frogs in their reproductive duties.  There is quite a scramble by the former for the latter, who are fewer in number"!
 
What with it being no longer hanami season when I was at Obuse, I didn't expect to see frenzied frogs milling about at the pond next to Ganshoin's main hall but was hopeful of seeing at least one frog resident about.  And so it proved -- and I have a rare (and consequently prized) frog photo taken by yours truly to prove it! ;b   

Friday, May 27, 2016

Togakushi shrine (trek) thoughts

It takes effort to get up to the Kuzuryusha at Togakushi

 And the Okusha (upper shrine) is a few steps
higher up the hill still

A visit to both of those shrines involves climbing up 
lots of steps -- and this after first walking for 
about 30 minutes along a flatter approach!

Not a sight one wants to see after 

Three related thoughts that first occured to me when I visited the Toshugu Shrine and Taiyuinbyo at Nikko re-entered my mind during visits to such as Kyoto's Fushimi Inari Shrine and Kotohira's Konpira-san.  And I got to thinking (about) them when I was making my way up to Togakushi's Okusha too. 

The first is that the journey really does seem to matter as well as -- and sometimes even more than -- the destination.  The second is that there sure are a lot of Japanese temples and shrines located up on hills!  Consequently -- and here's thought number three -- there often really are a whole lot of steps that one has to climb up to get to the main part of a Japanese temple or shrine, never mind its highest section!

I know many people get deterred from visiting these places because of the sheer physical effort that's required to get to them but there also is an often surprising number of people who seem to take this all in their stride -- and I've been further amazed by how many senior citizens I've seen going up paths that many younger folks deem too arduous to attempt!  I don't doubt that faith is one reason that propels as well as compels many of these elderly Japanese to do what they do.  At the same time though, I think that some of them are like me in finding some pleasure from being in surroundings that often tend to bring one closer to nature (as well as the various kami that are found in nature).      
I'll be honest: I was attracted to Togakushi principally for its ninja connection and only decided to visit Togakushi's Okusha (upper shrine) because I figured (correctly) that it'd be an awesome experience to walk along the avenue of centuries-old cedar trees on the way there.  And after ending up hiking for hours through scenery that allowed me to really appreciate how beautiful this area is, I couldn't bring myself to go up what probably were fewer than 100 additional steps to actually pay a visit to the Chusha (middle shrine) that day.   

Now though, there's a part of me that would like to return to Togakushi to check out not only the Chusha -- located some two kilometers downhill from the Okusha -- but also the Hokusha (lower shrine) -- located some two kilometers downhill from the Chusha, and with some 274 steps of its own to have to climb! -- and the Hinomikosha, which lies in between the Chusha and Hokusha. 

Maybe you can chalk it down to my having a completist streak since I've actually not only already been to the Okusha but also the Kuzurysha (which is s for the recordupposed to be the oldest of Togakushi's shrines -- older even than the nearby Okusha which dates back to the 9th century), and passed by a separate Tenmei Inari shrine located near Kagami-ike, which doesn't get much mention (or even named) in most maps and tourist literature for the area!  But I think it's really more because having found out how gorgeously scenic this part of the world is, I suspect that the trek(s) to the three Togakushi shrines I've yet to visit would offer up still more views that will make one feel so very blessed to be there. :)

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Trekking through sacred space and amidst stunning scenery in Togakushi (Photo-essay)

After spending time inside a Ninja House and more at Togakushi Minzokukan, I crossed the road and headed over to begin a trek that'd take me past hundreds of centuries old cedar trees and several meters uphill to the highest placed of the area's Shinto shrines.  Although this circa 40 minute tramp can prove too much for some people (including a mother and her young child who I saw turn back midway when it got hillier than she must have anticipated), it turned out to be only the beginning of what turned out to be an afternoon's worth of hiking for me.  

Enticed by stunning images I had seen of Kagami-ike (whose "kagami" means "mirror" and "ike" has been variously translated as "pond" and "lake") and mistakenly thinking that the Togakushi Forest Botanical Garden that lies between it and the Togakushi Shrine's thatched Zuijinmon (gate) would be more tame botanical garden than actual wild forest (complete with "beware of bears" signs!), I decided to walk over there. Then, rather than retrace my steps, I decided to hike over to Togakushi's middle shrine along a trail that turned out to be hillier than I would have liked but which I did not regret going on after it took me by the smaller but also beautiful Kotoriga-ike and a mountain lookout point known as Suzuri Ishi with breathtaking views.

Because of the various "beware of bears" signs I saw along the way, I actually went along at a quicker pace than I would have liked, especially on the last leg, when I didn't see any people after I left Kagami-ike until I got to the village area near the middle Togakushi Shrine some 40 minutes later.  Nonetheless, I really did enjoy the afternoon of hiking -- not least because it was in gorgeous weather and some of the most beautiful countryside I've ever been in (as I hope that the following photos can give a sense of)... :b

Pass through this torii and you're on sacred ground

Beyond the Zuijinmon lies an avenue of cedar trees,
some of which are over 800 years old

These trees aren't just impressive because they 
are very old but also because they're so very tall

The Togakushi shrine buildings may be physically modest
but their location and setting is hard to beat

Consider that this is a part of the world where mountains,
trees, rocks and waterfalls can be considered sacred

 The waters of Kagami-ike were not mirror-like that afternoon
but the gorgeous views from its banks still took my breath away
(Click on the image to view an enlarged version of it)

When taking in this scenic view at Suzuri Ishi, I got to 
realizing how far up in the mountains I was, and also 
how lovely this part of the world is

This view from the banks of Kotoriga-ike was all the more 
enjoyable because of the absolute serenity and satisfaction I felt 
from there being no other person in sight, and probably for miles :)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Surprises await at the ninja-themed Togakushi Minzokukan

Puppet Ponyo at the Togakure Ninpo Museum
 
 Puppet Ponyo finally catches sight of the ninja figure
poised above -- and looking ready to leap down at -- her! 
 
  These two buildings have unusual elements built into them
and thus are much more than they appear! :b
 
On the second day of my recent Japan trip, I went on a daytrip to a highland area considered to be the birthplace of Togakure Ryu Ninpo, a venerable school of ninjitsu founded 800 years ago.  Located over 1,000 meters above sea level, Togakushi village is nestled among centuries-old cedars at the base of the rugged looking Togakushi Mountain Range and lies within the borders of Joshin'etsukogen National Park.  A scenic one hour bus ride away from Nagano, I felt like I had been transported to a different world when I arrived at Togakushi-okusha, the stop for the upper-most of Togakushi's five (maybe six) Shinto shrines -- and also for the Togakushi Minzokukan, one of two ninja-themed attractions in the area.

Whereas the Chibikko Ninja-Mura (Kids Ninja Village) seems more geared towards younger folks, the Togakushi Minzokukan looks to appeal more to adults; possessing a traditional-style folk museum (that I suspect would be far more interesting if it had possessed English language information panels) along with a ninja museum filled with photographs of ninja in action and ninja equipment.  At the same time, fun as well as information are to be had at this facility, which has ninja-themed attractions within its compound such as a Ninja House that I reckon is worth the price of admission to the entire place. 
 
After going through the Ninja Mystery House over at the Toei Kyoto Studio Park and then also getting a guided tour of Kanazawa's Myoryuji, an architecturally complex Buddhist temple whose myriad secret entrances, exits, traps and such earned it the nickname of Ninja-dera, I figured that I now knew a thing or two about locating and going through hidden entryways and rooms.  But I still ended up spending a good 30 minutes or so inside what's effectively an intricate indoor maze before I managed to find my way out of it -- and even so, I needed the help of a staffer to locate a particularly tricky opening midway through!
 
In all honesty, locating the "Key to Paradise" at Nagano's Zenkoji was far easier than navigating one's way through the Ninja House in Togakushi!  And the surprises were not over after I exited this building where entryways can be found inside closets, behind scrolls, under irori, and more.  For as I ascended the staircase of a nearby tower with a mind to get a better view of the rugged mountain range peaking out of the trees, the whole structure began shaking so violently that it threatened to saddle me with a bout of motion sickness!  
 
In retrospect, I wonder whether it was a deliberate move on the part of those behind the Togakushi Minzokukan to have its folklore museum -- which is the facility within the compound closest to the entrance and ticketing office -- be the least impressive of its sections as well as to locate its coolest components furthest away from the entrance.  This way, visitor expectations get lowered as they make their way around the place.  Then, when one's thinking it's all rather underwhelming, one'll get very pleasantly surprised at how there actually are some pretty nifty experiences to be had at this area attraction after all! ;b         

Monday, May 23, 2016

"No reservations" dining in Nagano

Shirasu gunkan maki ("warship style" anchovy whitebait sushi)

 Sazae sashimi (raw horned turban shell)

I actually thought I'd be getting just a fish head but
it turned out to be a dish consisting of two big headed fish! ;) 

Before my recent Japan trip, an über foodie friend who would be visiting the Land of the Rising Sun around the same time and I got to talking about our dining plans when we were there.  She also showed me her dining itinerary, which consisted of already pre-booked meals at various high-end restaurants, including various sushi-ya where one needs to make reservations very far in advance and more than one restaurants serving beef (be it as yakiniku or sukiyaki).  

Although I agree with her that sushi -- probably my favorite food in the whole wide world -- is a "must" to eat when visiting Japan, I told her that I prefer to be more spontaneous with regards to deciding where, what and when to eat.  So I had booked only one meal ahead of this Japan trip (more on that in another post) and had earmarked two other places to go eat (but had not booked a specific time and day to turn up there).  And still I think I ended up faring pretty well in the dining stakes!

As an example, my first lunch in Nagano was at an eatery located on Chuo-dori, the main road I walked along to get to Zenkoji.  Looking for a cool as well as light meal to sustain me for an afternoon's worth of sightseeing and walking, mainly in the sunny outdoors, I went into a soba restaurant that turned out to offer handmade Shinshu soba -- a prized regional specialty.  Despite the place looking on the casually furnished side and its prices being very reasonable (with my total bill being 1100 Yen -- i.e., around HK$78 or US$10), I knew this was a serious soba place because it's one of those that, after you finish your dish of cold buckwheat noodles, brings out a pot of soba-yu, the soup in which the soba was cooked, for you to mix with the tsuyu (dipping sauce) and drink!

Although a portion of cold noodles served with not much more than strips of seaweed, grated radish, wasabi (Japanese horseradish) and tsuyu may not seem all that substantial, it not only really hit the spot but sustained me through to dinner time.  While wandering about near my hotel that evening, I spotted big signs for an izakaya (Japanese-style bar-restaurants) specialising in seafood and decided that'd be the place where I'd like to spend a couple of hours happily chillin' as well as filling my stomach.

I never ever figured out the atmospheric izakaya's English name but I was successful in ordering the drinks I wanted (nama biru (draft beer) followed by junmai ginjo sake) as well as some pretty tasty -- even if admittedly strange-looking -- food.  And for those who wonder: actually, I did order a couple of non-seafood dishes along with the seafood dishes pictured at the top of this blog post! 

One of these was the fabled Japanese tomato that's sweet even when raw, and tasty when dipped in either Japanese mayonaise or salt.  The other was a dish of even sweeter crunchy cabbage, seasoned with a sesame type sauce and konbu with a super umami kick, that looked so mundane that I didn't bother to snap a photo of it -- but, unbelievably, actually turned out to be my favorite dish of the night! ;b 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Cool critter spottings made even when I was covered with insect repellent!

View of water, land and sky from Sham Chung

One of the weirder looking bugs my hiking friend and I
spotted on the way to Sham Chung this afternoon!
 
And here's a colorful as well as unusual bug that,
at first glance, I mistook for a flower! ;b
 
While waiting at the bus stop at Pui O after taking part in a beach cleanup last month, I got attacked by midges.  The rashes caused by the midge bites lasted for over two weeks, itching terribly and failing to respond to the hydrocortisone cream I slathered on them daily.  And it wasn't until I got stronger medication from my doctor that my arms and legs started looking far less spotty and way more normal.
 
Determined not to get bitten by midges again while hiking this afternoon, I immediately sprayed insect repellent on my arms, legs and even the back of the neck after getting off the green minibus that had taken a friend and I to today's trail head.  And after my friend proceeded to do the same, I remarked that with all the bug spray on us, we might not be able to make as many critter spottings as usual in this area and at the time of the year.
 
Pretty much every time that I've hiked to or from Pak Sha O, I've caught sight of some pretty interesting -- as well as plain pretty -- bugs.  On an excursion some time back that saw us trekking between this well-maintained Hakka village and Lai Chi Chong, we had come across a whole slew of eye-catching critters.  And another hike buddy and I had a similar experience when we hiked over to Sham Chung from Pak Sha O. 
 
Although I wouldn't have been surprised if it had been otherwise, this afternoon's excursion also turned out be full of cool critter spottings!  At the same time, I don't think I got any midge bites today.  So it seems that the bug spray I use (a natural insect repellent called Mosi-guard) is able to keep annoying bugs (like mosquitoes as well as midges) away from me even while not repelling those critters that I totally welcome getting near when I'm out in the countryside and wishing to enjoy being in nature as well as getting in some enjoyable exercise along the way! :)

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Touching the "Key to Paradise" and more at Nagano's Zenkoji

Six of the several Jizo statues to be found 
within the grounds of Zenkoji

Zenkoji's physically impressive Hondo (main hall) is one of
the biggest wooden buildings in the country


Talk about starting my recent Japan visit with a bang: Not only did I have the good fortune to spot Mount Fuji before my plane landed on Japanese soil but I also managed to touch the "Key to Paradise" lodged in the dark bowels of Nagano's Zenkoji later that day, thereby ensuring my eternal salvation! 

Best known to most non-Japanese for having hosted the 1988 Winter Olympics, the central Honshu city of Nagano is better known to Japanese people as a historic temple town that grew up around the Buddhist temple known as Zenkoji, founded in the 7th century and reputedly home to the first Buddha image ever brought to Japan.  A hibitsu (i.e., "hidden Buddha") since the year 654, just a (13th century) replica of that sacred statue is unveiled to the public -- and only once every six or seven years at that!

Suffice to say that my day's good luck did not extend to my getting to see the hibitsu -- or, for that matter, even its replica.  However, there still was plenty to see (and feel) at Zenkoji, including impressive large wooden gates, a number of statues of Jizo and other religious figures, still other Buddhist works of art housed in Zenkoji's main hall, the upper floor of its main gate and the lower floor of a pagoda (that houses both a historical museum and a memorial to the 2.5 million people who died in wars in the area in the past 150 years or so), and a pitch-black passage running under the main altar known as the O-kaidan that's home to the precious "Key to Paradise".

A popular pilgrimage site for centuries -- not least because it's the uncommon Japanese temple that's been open to women as well as men through the ages -- Zenkoji has both a high priest and priestess, and is considered a place for physical healing as well as spiritual enlightenment.  To this day, many visitors to it make a point to rub smoke from the large incense burner located in front of the Hondo on their bodies for health and good fortune.  They also rub the statue of Binzuru, a physician supposed to be Buddha's most intelligent follower, located inside the Hondo's Outer Sanctuary to alleviate their physical aches and pains; and it was touching to see physically able younger individuals helping frail elderly people who had congregated to do so.

Quite a few folks also do go and attempt to touch the "Key to Paradise" -- but flights of steps leading into and out of the O-kaidan prevent the infirm from doing so, and the light-less nature of the tunnel makes it so that those uncomfortable with spending several minutes finding one's way about in complete darkness would find it quite the scary ordeal.  Alerted in advance that the Key (which actually feels more like a door knob) was embedded in a waist-high space along the passage's right wall, I made sure to touch that wall's surface at all times -- and found this action helpful in keeping me oriented as well as to achieve the goal of those who enter the tunnel.

On my first trip to Japan back when I was a teenager, I decided to take up the challenge of crawling through the narrow hole in one of the large columns at Nara's Todaiji (Great Eastern Temple).  Although I did eventually succeed in doing so (and in so doing, was granted enlightenment in my next life!), at one point I felt like I'd never make it through and, instead, be stuck there forever!  

While I didn't panic near as much at any point while inside Zenkoji's O-kaidan, it was quite the relief to eventually get to the end of what felt like a really long tunnel that was so dark that one really couldn't see anything but pitch blackness throughout one's time in there.  At one point, I accidentally bumped into someone who appeared to have paused to catch her breath and felt so embarassed.  At the same time, it made me fearful that I'd get bumped into by the person behind me and got to quickening my pace even while groping blindly about in the dark! ;S

Friday, May 20, 2016

A Japan trip I figured would be wonderful even before my plane landed! :)

Can you make out Mount Fuji in this photo I snapped as the plane 
I was on was descending down to Narita International Airport?

 And what of the snake I spotted in a tree and managed to take photos
of while strolling around the largest wasabi farm in the world?! :O

Also, it may not look like it but Matsumoto Castle 
(in front of which Puppet Ponyo posed with a friend) 
actually has six floors rather than five ;b

As regular readers may have surmised from my lack of blog posts over the past week or so, I was travelling about once more -- and yes, the Land of the Rising Sun was where I went once again!  What with the historic Tsukiji Fish Market being due to move later this year, I wanted to visit and have a sushi breakfast there at least one more time.  So this trip did see me revisiting old haunts in Tokyo as well as spending time venturing further afield to other parts of Japan that I had never previously been to.      

As is my wont, I had requested a window seat on my flight into Tokyo and was looking out of the window, happily drinking in the views, as the plane I was on gradually made its way back to terra firma.  Seconds before we landed, I happened to notice a beautiful snow-capped mountain in the far distance -- and got to realizing with a start that I was being treated to a rare view of Mount Fuji!  

Although I've been in places where Fujisan reveals itself on clear days (like Hakone and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building Observation Decks), I had never caught sight before of Japan's most sacred mountain.  So I really did feel that my first ever sighting of Mount Fuji was a portend of wonderful things to come on this latest Japan trip.

Consequently, even the first of two trains I needed to take to get to the first city I'd be staying at on this trip getting delayed for so long that I ended up missing my scheduled connection failed to dampen my spirits; this especially as I still did get into Nagano with plenty of time to do such as thoroughly explore Zenkoji, the popular and important Buddhist temple founded in the 7th century around which the city developed.

My good mood continued even after coming across numerous bear warnings while traipsing through a forest up in the nearby mountains the next day, actually spotting a snake curled up a tree a couple of days later, and being in Tokyo the day after, when a magnitude 5.6 earthquake hit eastern Japan, causing the building I was in to shake for a few seconds!  

It helped that I ended up not crossing paths with any bears (only a few hikers with bear bells).  And even though I can't completely subscribe to the Japanese belief that seeing a snake brings good luck (like more than one friend has told me now), I at least now feel more used to the sight of snakes in Japan -- after also having encountered them in Shirakawa-go and on Bitchu-Takahashi's Mount Gagyu!  

As for earthquakes: I've been really fortunate in my experiences of them being far less dramatic than could otherwise be the case.  (More than incidentally, the Kumamoto Earthquakes don't seem to be getting reported anymore outside of the country but one month on, there still is regular coverage of it on TV and donation drives for those affected by it within the country.) 

More than anything, I came away from Japan with many more great experiences.  In the coming days (actually weeks!), I will be sharing some of these with you via my photos as well as words.  Suffice to say for now that, as ever, I saw many beautiful sights (natural and cultural), ate lots of delicious food, drank quite a bit of Japanese alcohol (that goes so well with Japanese food) -- and had more interactions that confirm once more that some of the best parts of visiting the country come from getting to know the people along with their culture and land.      

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The joys of bike riding in Hong Kong's New Territories :)

There are some nicely laid out bike paths in
Hong Kong's New Territories :)
 
One of the older and more interesting looking buildings
I spotted while out bicycling one afternoon

It was hard to drag myself away from the Shuen Wan Typhoon Shelter's
breakwater after seeing the awesome views to be had from there :) 

Today has seen some of the finest weather in weeks, and got me thinking of another beautiful day some time ago during which I went on my second bicycle ride in Hong Kong!  After having thoroughly enjoyed bicycling between Tai Wai and Ma On Shan (after returning from a visit to The Netherlands, where I saw tons of bicycles and bicyclists!), I did some biking between Tai Mei Tuk and Luen Yick Fisherman Village (over by Sam Mun Tsai New Village). 
 
Originally, I had intended to bike from Tai Mei Tuk to Tai Po -- but I got distracted by the sights over by Sheun Wan Typhoon Shelter and also realized that I was happy to prolong my bicycling time by turning back to Tai Mei Tuk and, for good measure, riding up and down the Plover Cove Reservoir's main dam twice for added exercise!  Also, I figured that the scenery on the route I had chosen was so attractive that it was worth checking out twice in favor of passing through Tai Po's industrial estate on the way to its town center!
 
Although I've actually been in the area before, I got to discovering "new" sights courtesy of my going at a pace that wasn't only slower but which I could dictate when biking rather than breezing by on a bus or an even speedier green mini bus.  Among other things, amidst the many newer village houses that have sprung up along Ting Kok Road are to be found some interesting looking buildings which date back to the 1960s, at least one of which has red stars on its front that look to designate a pro-Communist Chinese affliation (like another building from the same period over at Kuk Po).  In addition, I got to see Tsz Shan Monastery and its giant Guan Yin statue from a whole variety of angles!
 
Best of all were the views to be had from the breakwater of Shuen Wan Typhoon Shelter that one can easily ride one's bicycle on to.  While the surrounding natural landscape was pretty stunning, I also was fascinated by the human activity that I saw going about.  Over in Tolo Harbour, there were fishing craft and fishermen going about their business.  And on both sides of the breakwater, boats manned by Country and Marine Park Authorities officers regularly patrolled the waters and a smaller boat puttered by, helmed by an old woman wearing a straw hat that marked her out as a Hakka fisherwoman and made her look like she come out of an old tyme photo of Hong Kong. 

When fellow blogger bluebalu interviewed me a while back and asked me for tips for people who come to the Big Lychee regularly, my reply included the suggestion that, if one wanted to, one could (temporarily) “escape” from Hong Kong's concrete jungle by going to other parts of the territory.  In the case of the bike ride between Tai Mei Tuk and Luen Yick Fisherman Village: not only does it get you into far more rural sections of this part of the world than many people may realize (still) exist -- but it also will show you that Hong Kong's heritage and traditional ways are still alive, and not just confined to such as the exhibition halls of the Hong Kong Heritage Museum or Hong Kong Museum of History! ;b