Saturday, October 29, 2011

Broken (This week's Photo Hunt theme)

Don't bother to look for cracks in -- or broken bits from -- the statues and figurines in the above photos taken at Kamakura's Hasedera Temple (the top most one) and Kawagoe's Kitain Temple (the bottom two). Even if you do find them though, they're not the point of this Photo Hunt entry. Rather, it's the broken hearts and dreams that are behind each and every one of the smaller figurines in the pictures.

Although he is not the main deity worshiped in the Hasadera and Kitain Temples, there are areas in these sacred spaces devoted to Jizo Bodhisattva (aka Ojizi-Sama, Ksitigarbha, etc.). Of Indian origin (like Gautama Buddha himself), this bodhisattva is particularly revered among East Asian Buddhists -- and beloved in Japan, where he is popularly venerated as the guardian of unborn, aborted, miscarried or stillborn infants.

Put another way: every figurine in the photo represents people's unborn, aborted, miscarried or stillborn babies. Looking at them, it's not just their numbers that can overwhelm. For often placed amidst the cold stone or cement statuettes are stuffed toys, tiny shoes and other items associated with babyhood.

Since I don't want to leave readers of this entry's text all depressed, here's ending this entry with a link to a heartwarming Japanese fable entitled Ojizo-san, the The Grateful Statues. I do hope that you will click on that link and read the tale -- because, if nothing else, it will make you realize that generosity and the appreciation of it does cross borders and cultures. (And on a lighter note, please feel free to check out a cute Jizo statue and other kawaii elements of Japan in my previous blog entry!)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Kawaii sights in Kamakura and beyond

An unexpected(ly) kawaii sight encountered
in the grounds of Hase Temple (Hasedera)

Spotted on the road to the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine:
a general Studio Ghibli shop and one devoted solely
to fans of Kiki's Delivery Service (particularly Jiji the cat)!

What do you think of when you see or hear the word "Japan"? For some people, it's Zen -- the austere aesthetics as well as meditative beliefs. For some older folks (particularly Asians who lived through the second world war), it's that terrible conflict and life under Japanese military occupation. And for certain other folks especially after the events of March 11 of this year, it's earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear scares.

However, I also get the sense that for a whole lot of people for some time now, Japan is linked most with the notion of a fondness for the kawaii. And a visit to the Land of the Rising Sun is going to only strengthen this perception -- what with squeals and murmurings of "kawaii-neh!" often peppering the air (including along the paths leading to major temples and shrines like those at Asakusa, Dazaifu and Kamakura) and kawaii sights seemingly being found in every direction that one looks.

I'm not ashamed to admit that some of the kawaii sights I encountered on my recent Japan vacation really did make me go "awwww" and want to squeal with delight myself. And of course I ended up buying my share of kawaii items (at places like Kiddy Land and Tokyo station's Tokyo Character Street) -- both for myself and also as fun gifts for friends.

At the same time, however, there were certain items that took my breath away in terms of their sheer unexpectedness and audacity -- such as cell phone accessories in which the face of the Great Buddha of Kamakura was substituted by Hello Kitty (see an example here) or Doraemon! Frankly, I wondered if they bordered on the sacrilegious. But judging from the reactions, few -- if any -- people who saw them seemed all that discernibly nonplussed about these items' existence,

Still, while I couldn't bring myself to purchase examples of Hello Kitty-faced mini Daibutsus, I have to admit that I did come away with a handkerchief bearing the image of Kitty Chan seated on the lap of the Great Kamakura Buddha (like can be seen here) -- because, if nothing else, it really seemed to say much about as well as encapsulate contemporary Japanese (pop) culture to my mind as well as does look pretty kawaii-neh! ;b

Monday, October 24, 2011

Kamakura sights (Photo-essay)

First, there was a Kamakura-themed Photo Hunt entry. Now, here's following up with a Kamakura-themed photo-essay. And lest there be any doubt: here's stating for the record that I not only enjoyed my (short) visit to the place but I also very much endorse this photogenic city's efforts to be given due recognition by UNESCO and placed on that United Nations agency's world heritage list:-

Kamakura is a city by the sea -- and for those who are
wondering, I (too) couldn't help but think of

he disastrous tsunami that hit Japan earlier this year
when I viewed this actually pretty idyllic coastal scene

The main building of the Hasadera from whose high
vantage point I took this photo essay's first photo

View inside the Benten-kutsu Cave located in the vicinity
of the Hasadera -- and is home to a shrine to
Shinto goddess Benzaiten (who actually
also is the Hindu goddess Saraswathi!)

Trust the incorrigible Puppet Ponyo to be unable to resist
posing for a photo with the tolerant Daibutsu (aka
Great Buddha of Kamakura)!

The Sasuke Inari Shrine is out of the way and has a
steep entryway but is worth checking out
for the sheer
preponderance of fox statues
to be found in its area

The green surroundings of the Sasuke Inari Shrine
in Kamakura also made it so that it was where
I felt
like that
great forest spirit Totoro
was most likely to be found in the vicinity!

Inside the cave area of the Zenairai Benten Shrine
whose visitors are encouraged to wash their money

and hope that doing so will double its amount!

View out to the sea along Kamakura's main boulevard
from the top of the Hachimangu Shrine's main stairs

And should this photo-essay leave you thirsting for more, then this means you'll have some sense of how much I'd like to not only share more photos of Kamakura but also spend more time in that lovely city that's home to many, many temples and shrines but nonetheless feels like it's so very full of life and what human (not just spiritual) life has to offer! :b

Saturday, October 22, 2011

High (This week's Photo Hunt theme)

On the 6th day of my recent Japan trip, I went to Kamakura. Located some 50 kilometers southwest of Tokyo, this small city that's filled with shrines and temples makes for a very pleasant day trip from the Japanese capital -- and I'd go as far as to state that I much preferred visiting it than the apparently more highly thought of Nikko.

Although I only managed to visit five of Kamakura's 65 Buddhist temples and 19 Shinto shrines, I felt I did good for a day -- and enjoyed my day out there so much that I consider it to be one of the high points of my recent Japan vacation.

For the record, the five holy places I managed to go to in that former de facto capital of Japan were the "big three" Kamakura sites of the Hase Kannon Temple (AKA Hasedera), Hachimangu Shrine (AKA Tsurugaoka Hachimangu) and the Kotokuin Temple area that is home to the Daibatsu (i.e., the Great Buddha of Kamakura -- which originally was located inside a temple hall but now is open to the elements, having withstood typhoons and a tsunami even when the temple buildings didn't), and -- via a hiking trail -- a couple of small but interesting and more out-of-the-way Shinto shrines in the Sasuki Inari Jinja and Zeniarai Benten Shrine.

More than incidentally, I don't think it's coincidence that all the sacred places I visited were located on relatively high ground (cf this Photo Hunt entry's top most photo taken in the grounds of the Hase Kannon Temple) and also often required going up a number of steps to get to their main areas (as can be seen in the middle photo taken at Hachimangu Shrine). Perhaps it's thought that one will be more likely to have high minded thoughts when one is up in elevated spaces? Alternatively, it often felt like one was being made to feel some strain and sacrifice while making one's pilgrimage to those sacred places. Alternatively put: no (physical) pain, no (spiritual) gain! ;D

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Of butterflies, dragonflies, birds and more in Japan

Spotted at Rikugien Garden: a moth (or is it a butterfly?)
that one could easily walk pass by without noticing --
but which I think it would have been a shame to do so

Also spotted in the Japanese stroll garden:
a colorful dragonfly perched atop a rope barrier

Taken too at Rikugien Garden: Photo of
a crow perched nonchalantly atop a tree branch

As the weekend nears here in Hong Kong this week, my thoughts can't help but turn to the prospect of hiking out in the countryside once again this Sunday. And for those who wonder: I did go on one (easy) hike when I was in Japan.

Ironically enough though, I actually saw more wildlife when I was in urban Tokyo than when I was on that hike -- which admittedly largely took me through residential sections of Kamakura (along a trail that started meters away from the Daibutsu and led me to a couple of relatively off-the-beaten-path shrines).

More specifically, I encountered interesting butterflies and dragonflies (and spiders far smaller than those I've come across and photographed in recent months in Hong Kong) in the grounds of the Edo-Tokyo Open-Air Architectural Museum and connected Koganei Koen along with the Rikuguen and Kiyosumi Gardens.

But far more prevalent -- or at least noticeable -- than those beautiful small creature in Tokyo were the crows. Be it in super built-up Shinjuku or the (supposed) idyllic Rikuguen, these black birds abounded -- so much so that even if you failed to see them, you couldn't help but hear their loud cawing.

A quick internet search brings up articles in such as the New York Times and blog entries about the crow menace in Tokyo and Japan in general. Frankly, I'm surprised to discover that the crow population is as large as it is in Tokyo and Japan; this not least since one tends to associate crows with areas where garbage disposal and sanitation is in a less advanced state than one would assume is the case in the land of the rising sun.

Fortunately, I never did see crows attacking humans or some such dramatic incident during my recent Japan trip. Indeed, the examples of those cawing birds that I did see and hear while on vacation didn't strike me as particularly menacing -- and the only warning signs I saw with regards to wildlife were ones at Hase Temple warning about kites that were prone to dive down and steal food and other items at a viewing platform there!

Nonetheless, I could see how people in Japan can be bothered by the crows. And it's true enough that I was much happier to catch sight of a butterfly or dragonfly than those large black birds whose rise the Japanese have sought to battle in recent years seemingly to little effect!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Views of/from Tokyo's Rikugien and Kiyosumi Gardens (Photo-essay)

What with the weather being so pleasant (and the skies generally so wonderfully bright blue) for much of the time during my most recent Japan vacation, I couldn't help but want to spend a large part of it outdoors. Thus it was that on day five of my recent Japan sojourn, I ended up visiting not one but two Japanese stroll gardens: one of which -- the Rikugien Gardens in Komagome -- was identified by the Frommer's Japan (principal) author as "probably my favorite"; the other of which, the Kiyosumi Gardens located close to the Fukagawa Edo Museum, I also very much enjoyed checking out.

The following photos consist of four each from Rikugien and Kiyosoumi -- and I'll leave you, the viewer(s), to decide which garden you think is more pleasant and beautiful!

A view to be had at Rikugien Garden --
the strolling, mountain and pond-style garden created
in accordance with six Waka poem elements

An artifical waterfall flows down through a
(similarly artificial?) gorge at Rikugien Gardens

Contemplative scene at Rikugien Gardens
View which takes in Togetsukyo, a stone bridge named
after a famous Waka poem about the view of the moon
moving across the sky with the cry of a crane
in a rice paddy heard nearby

A turtle suns itself while perched on a rock at Kiyosumi Gardens

The grounds -- and views of -- Kiyosumi Gardens include
Taisho Kinekan, a post World War II reconstruction
of a building used in connection with
the funeral of the Taisho Emperor (1879-1926)

Within the grounds of the Kiyosumi Gardens,
there also
is a Ryotei built using the methods of
tea ceremony hall construction
as well as a pond
on whose waters ducks happily float

Puppet Ponyo in her element -- not quite on the cliff
by the sea
but nonetheless on relatively elevated land
a body of water full of colorful fish! ;)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Going to a baseball game in Japan

Watching baseball at Tokyo's Meiji Jingu Stadium

Focusing on the visiting Hanshin Tigers' pitcher

In the stands, the beer girls (and boys) also
are frequently called to action

Puppet Ponyo in the crowd and gamely clutching
two baseball bats (that actually are more for
making lots of noise than batting any balls) ;b

Before I left for Japan three Saturdays ago now, I e-mailed a friend living in Tokyo to arrange to meet. Since we share a fondness for beer and izakayas, I knew we'd be meeting up for drinks and more at those Japanese establishments I tend to think of as Japanese cousins of British pubs and Spanish tapas bars. But over the course of our e-mail correspondence, she also managed to convince me that an evening watching Japanese baseball would also make for a good time and an interesting cultural experience.

Thus it was that I -- whose first sport of choice is association football rather than anything else -- found myself at the open air Meiji Jingu Stadium one beautiful evening taking in a game between the Tokyo Yakult Swallows and the team she supports, the Hanshin Tigers, with her and a group of her Japan-based friends.

Sitting in the Hanshin Tigers fans' section of the stadium, the neutrals among us got into the spirit of things and became Hanshin Tigers fans for at least a night. Because even though the team playing away from home may have been second best on the field that night, their fans amply and admirably demonstrated that their enthusiasm and loyalty were second to none -- that is, when their attention wasn't being diverted towards procuring and downing the plentiful beer on sale in the stadium and munching assorted snacks including edamame and takoyaki along with popcorn!!

Although I happily amused myself watching the crowd and talking with my friend and her friends during some of the time that I was in the stadium, I actually found myself more interested and involved in watching the game than I thought I would be. One major factor was that the overall atmosphere was far more spirited than at the one previous baseball game I had watched live -- decades ago at a game in Beloit, Wisconsin, involving the Beloit Brewers (the Milwaukee Brewers' farm team). Another factor probably was that, even if it did not approached American major league level, the game quality still was higher than than that of the American minor leagues.

All in all, Puppet Ponyo -- who was happy to pose with Hanshin Tigers fan paraphernalia but most definitely was not about to try catching any stray balls that got hit our way, despite my friend's urgings -- and I had a pretty fine time at the ballgame. So much so that we can definitely see why the Frommer's Guide has attending a baseball game second on its The Best of Modern Japan list and would agree that "Watching a game with a stadium full of avid [Japanese] fans can be quite fun and can shed new light on America's favorite pastime." :b

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Public (This week's Photo Hunt theme)


As some of you may know, I'm a museophile with experience working in museums in the US, Britain, Malaysia and Tanzania. So it's only natural that when on vacation, I visit my share of museums -- with my recent visit to Japan involving not only a visit to the Edo-Tokyo Open-Air Architectural Museum in Koganei but also, a day later, the Fukagawa Edo Museum in eastern Tokyo.

A small community museum, the Fukagawa Edo Museum's main attraction is a life-size reproduction of a 19th century riverside neighborhood in Edo (the name for the city that was renamed Tokyo -- which means "Eastern Capital" in Japanese -- upon its becoming the imperial capital in 1868). But while the modest wooden buildings that are part of the walk-through exhibit are entirely traditional looking, the techniques to enhance the overall exhibition most certainly are not -- and, in fact, could be said to be state-of-the-art (not least because the museum had closed to the public in 2009-2010 for one year of renovations) as well as innovative.

Among other things, this public museum's exhibit designers have taken the trouble to put in small touches to enhance the overall atmosphere like a cat on a roof (visible in a couple of the photos in this Photo Hunt entry -- see it?) and birds sitting pretty atop an archway. Even more spectacularly, this installation comes complete with sound equipment that intermittently broadcasts sounds of daily life in 19th century Edo -- such as a vendor hawking his wares along with birdsong and a dog's barking -- and lighting that mimics the passing of the seasons along with a 24 hour day and night cycle!

As my photos show, I visited during what appears to have been the late night/early morning part of the cycle -- when the overall place was tinged with nocturnal blues. And although a part of me was tempted to wait to see the exhibition in brighter light, the truth of the matter is that this wasn't a museum that could keep me within it for more than an hour.

Thanks to the museum itself being located in a charming looking neighborhood of Tokyo that's a mix of residential, small shops and a smattering of public attractions (including Kiyosumi Teien as well as the Fukagawa Edo Museum) though, the trip out there to it did feel worth the time and effort. And, indeed, I did end up spending some time walking around the area and enjoying sights not only at Kiyosumi Teien (where I ended up spending more time than at the museum) but, also, such passing ones as a sumo wrestler (recognizable by his oiled hair and topknot) out walking his dog along with mothers ferrying their small children about on their mamachari and schoolchildren spiritedly exercising in a nearby park. :)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

At the Edo-Tokyo Open-Air Architectural Museum (Photo-essay)

And so it goes: not just The Guardian's coverage of Japan in its Travel section (see here, here and here) but also my own over on this blog... After devoting much of the previous day to visiting sacred spaces in Nikko (and the day before that checking out Asakusa's Sensoji Temple), I decided I needed a bit of a break from visiting temples, shrines and associated places. Alternatively, my visit to Nikko's Tamozawa Imperial Villa left me eager to view more old Japanese buildings.

So after a super fresh and filling sushi breakfast at Sushi Dai, I made my way to the Edo-Tokyo Open-Air Architectural Museum located out in a part of Tokyo's western suburbs known as Koganei. My copy of The Rough Guide to Japan intriguingly described this museum as "a kind of retirement home for old Tokyo buildings" but what got me really wanting to pay a visit to the place was a line in the guidebook about "the museum [having been] the inspiration for the abandoned theme park in Studio Ghibli's Oscar-winning Spirited Away".

After spending time at this very cool museum, I definitely can see its influence on that film. In addition, a charming elderly volunteer docent told me that the Studio Ghibli is headquartered in Koganei, its staff regularly visit the Edo-Tokyo Open-Air Architectural Museum, and the museological institution's green caterpillar mascot character, Edomaru, was drawn by none other than Hayao Miyazaki!

Spotted while walking through Koganei Koen
to the museum -- a pretty, yellow-orangey
Japanese butterfly atop a definitely orange flower

The former residence of Hachirouemon Mitsui,
parts of which were built in 1874 and 1897 in Kyoto,
other parts of which were built in 1952 in Tokyo's Minato Ward

Visitors are allowed into many of the buildings in the
spacious museum -- and here's the view of a couple
other buildings from the upper floor of another

The fallen leaves on the tiled roof top
make for a pretty picture, I reckon! :)

The copper-plated upper front wall of an
early Showa period (1926-1989) kitchenware store

The building to the right of this photo is a public bath house
upon which sighting I couldn't help but think of Spirited Away

Puppet Ponyo posing inside
the beautifully decorated bath house

Another photo of Puppet Ponyo -- this time
atop the bath house's baby (weighing) scales
looking a bit anxious at the possibility that
she could weigh anywhere close to 15 kilograms ;D

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Nikko's Tamozawa Imperial Villa

The 107-room Tamozawa Imperial Villa is
quite a bit bigger than it may look in this photo

Although no where one tenth as decoratively
elaborate as the Toshugu Shrine, the villa still
is not without its own ornamental touches

Nestled amidst landscaped beauty, many of its
windows (be they round, square or rectangular)
offer up aesthetically pleasing views

For many people, Nikko's sacred spaces are about all that they see of the place. Some others (mainly Japanese visitors, I'm getting the sense) also make it a point to check out natural attractions like the Kegon and Ryuzu Waterfalls and Lake Chuzenji. Should I ever venture again to that part of Japan, I'd definitely want to see those natural sights.

On my maiden trip to the area, however, I opted to focus on Nikko's cultural attractions. And after visiting the "big four" attractions of Rinnoji Temple, Toshugu Shrine, Futarasan Shrine and Taiyuin Mausoleum and realizing that I still had time to check out another place before catching the last train out of Nikko back to Tokyo on Tobu Railway's World Heritage Pass, I decided to make my way to the Tamozawa Imperial Villa.

Occupied by three emperors and three princes between the years 1899 and 1947, this 107-room residence is one of the largest wooden buildings in Japan. Originally the Tokyo residence of a branch of the Tokugawa clan, its central core was constructed in 1632. With changes and expansions in the intervening year, the overall building now is a blend of Edo and Meiji Period architecture that seems harmonious as well as pleasing to my admittedly untrained eyes.

One reason why I was motivated to pay a visit to the Tamozawa Imperial Villa is that it appears at the top of Frommer's Japan's The Best Castles, Palaces and Historic Homes list. If truth be told, however, I reckon that the only other place I've visited that's on the list -- Himeji Castle -- is a good deal far more impressive and beautiful as well as plain larger and filled with lots more interesting nooks and crannies to explore.

To be fair though, it may be a case of comparing apples and oranges since one is an imperial villa and the other a (non-imperial) castle. Also, Frommer's Japan's authors (Beth Reiber -- who also wrote Frommer's Hong Kong, an old copy of which I still like referring to every once in a while -- and Janie Spencer) may well have awarded the Tamozawa Imperial Villa extra points on account of it being the only imperial villa that doesn't require a reservation to visit.

In any case, I did like that it is one of those Nikko attractions that, for one reason or other, looks to have remained off the well-beaten path -- with the result that one frequently finds oneself alone in a room (or whole entire section of the villa) and also granted quite a large portion of solitude when venturing about the part of the large memorial park surrounding the residence! :)

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Waiting (This week's Photo Hunt theme)

Message for those waiting for my Photo Hunt return: I'm back! And here's confirming that I was vacationing in Japan when the previous two editions of Photo Hunt took place -- and, also, that I had a great time once again in that wonderful country (which I first visited back in 1982!)!

Those who regularly check out this blog know that this past week's entries have been Japan-focused -- and that a couple of days ago, I put up an entry recounting my visit to Nikko (particularly the sacred area known as Nikko Sannai). Today's blog entry also features images from that part of Japan (that, ideally, would be enveloped by sunshine like its name suggests but, alas, wasn't particularly so when I was there!).

More specifically, it features two pairs of photos I took (of a Torii near Futarasan Shrine's Futara Spiritual Spring and a flight of steps near the Taiyuin Mausoleum's Koukamon Gate) -- with the first of each pair featuring people in them and the others being those I snapped only after spending time waiting for the areas in the photo to be clear of people!

So... which shots do you prefer -- the ones with or without people? I can't decide with regards to the first pair (taken at Futarasan Shrine). Alternatively, I definitely prefer the people-less photo taken at Taiyuin Mausoleum -- not least because while waiting for that shot, I also got time to compose it better (so that, among other things, it doesn't look like the steps at the bottom of the picture are tilting like they are in the "peopled photo" of that same place)! :b