Sunday, September 30, 2012

The main temple complex at Kenchoji (Photo-essay)

If I did things strictly chronologically, I'd put up this blog post before yesterday's which highlighted the tengu statues found on the way to Kenchoji temple's Hansobo shrine (rather than the other way around).  In any event, I think it will be interesting for people to view the two blog entries one after the other -- to see how the Hansobo shrine section that's located several minutes walk away on higher ground than the main Zen Buddhist temple complex visually differs from the part of Kenchoji that most visitors will be most -- and maybe even solely -- familiar with.

For the record: even without taking into account the part of my visit that took in the Hansobo shrine and the Shojoken Observatory (deck) located a few flights of stairs up from the shrine, Kenchoji was indeed the Kamakura attraction that I spent the most amount of time at on my second visit to that very attractive coastal town in Kanagawa Prefecture.  

One reason was because the complex (which includes about 10 sub-temples -- down from 49 sub-temples at its historical peak) was the largest of the four religious establishments I went to that day in Kamakura -- yes, bigger even than the more centrally located and well known Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine, never mind the east Kamakura temples of Hokokuji and Sugimoto-dera.  Another was that there really was so much that was interesting to see in the areas that were open to the public -- and so much so that I ended up not feeling aggrieved by much at all that there also does seem to be significant swathes of Kenchoji's grounds that are not are off limits to (secular) visitors to the temple...

  A photo that gives people some idea of the details that exist
on Kenchoji's structures -- in this case, the entrance area's roof 
whose decorations include the Hojo clan's triangular crest and 
what looks to me like a peach shaped longevity bun sculptures! 

Kenchoji's Somon (General Gate) used to stand in Kyoto
but was brought to Kamakura in 1943

The temple's Sanmon (Main Gate) is an impressive
30 meters high and was strong enough to survive

The central path leading from the Sanmon to the Butsuden (Buddha Hall) 
is lined by juniper trees that are over 750 years old and planted 
by the temple's founder, Lanxi Daolong (AKA Rankei Doryu)

Inside the Butsuden is this large sculpture of 
282 miniature figures of the same religious figure

Inside the Hatto (Dharma or Lecture Hall) located behind
-- and on the same axis as -- the Butsuden are such as
a fasting Buddha statue from Pakistan, a Senju Kannon statue
behind it and ceiling painting of a dragon above them

The Karamon (Chinese Gate) that was (is?) used 
exclusively by imperial court envoys visiting the temple

A sun-lit view from the Shojoken Observatory of Kenchoji's 
main temple complex nestled in the valley below and 
the surrounding greenery (and yes, it gives a good idea of 
how far away the Hansobo shrine area is from the main area!)

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Dodgy and Travel (This week's Photo Hunt themes)

And so my chronicling of sights seen on my recent Japan travels continue... with this entry for Sandi's and Gattina's Photo Hunts offering up images taken on day six of my trip -- specifically in a part of the Kenchoji temple that few people seem to go all the way to.

The first Zen temple erected in Kamakura and considered to be the number ranked of the town's five great Zen temples, Kenchoji was founded in 1253 by Lanxi Daolong (AKA Rankei Doryu), a Chinese Zen master who moved to Japan in 1246.  Although (still) primarily a Zen Buddhist establishment, Kenchoji has some Shinto sections -- along with being an architectural mix of Chinese (specifically Song Dynasty) and Japanese styles.

Some might find this mixed state of affairs to be culturally and aesthetically dodgy but I think it adds to Kenchoji's charm.  Still, this is not to say that I wasn't startled by some of the physical manifestations of this mix -- and particularly when I literally rounded a corner after passing through the torii and going further and deeper into Kenchoji's grounds, and up a hill to the Hansobo shrine erected for the protection of Kenchoji itself.

For suddenly, I was confronted by the startling sight of some un-Zen-like dodgy-looking characters that I later found out -- thanks to the power of the internet! -- are tengu, mountain and forest goblins with both Shinto and Buddhist attributes that are slayers of vanity!! 

After recovering from the shock of encountering the tengu, I continued my trek up the hill -- and was rewarded not only by being able to enter the Hansobo shrine proper but, also, by getting to avail myself of free and refreshingly cold water from a drinking fountain located near the shrine's main building and, further still up the hill, getting grand views of Kenchoji's main complex and wide swathes of Kamakura.  

So if nothing else, the moral of this travel story is: be willing to make the effort to go up a hill (even on a super hot day) and stray off the beaten path -- and you just might get rewarded with unusual and memorable sights, and a tale involving encounters with seemingly dodgy creatures that just might be worth sharing with others! ;b

Friday, September 28, 2012

Kamakura's Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine

The main hall (at the back) and ritual dance stage (front)

Gone but not forgotten: a large gingko tree that 
predated the shrine stood in the area delineated 
by the roped off circle -- until March 2010

On my first trip to Kamakura (back in September of last year), I visited five temples and shrines over the course of a single day.  Although that may not sound like much to some people, I have to admit that it all threatened to be a bit too much for me -- with one consequence being that I wasn't able to appreciate my visit to the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine that's considered to be the most important of all of the town's shrines as much as I would have liked.

Although I actually hadn't planned to re-visit the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine, its central location meant that I ended up walking by it twice on my trip last month to the coastal town that's located some 50 kilometers southwest of Tokyo.  And what with its opening hours being longer than many of Kamakura's other shrines and temples, it once again ended up being the final religious establishment in whose grounds I spent time on a day trip to "the Kyoto of Eastern Japan".

This time around, my impressions of this very popular Kamkura spot compared very favorably with the other places I went to that day.  One reason is that, on an aesthetic level, its buildings have a noticeably brighter color scheme than the other religious establishments I went to that day (including Eastern Kamakura's Hokokuji and Sugimoto-dera). 

A second reason for my more positive reaction on this second visit is because I had re-read and remembered stories associated with the shrine -- such as that which involved Lady Shizuka being forced to dance on the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine's ritual dance stage for the shogun, and an assassination of another shogun by his nephew who hid behind the gingko tree that had stood for centuries next to the flight of stairs up to shrine's main hall.  All of which goes to show that knowledge really can enrich one's experience -- along with a (relatively) less tired pair of eyes! ;b

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

East Kamakura temple sights (Photo-essay)

This time last year, I was enjoying a vacation in the Land of the Rising Sun that saw me visit Kamakura, Nikko and Kawagoe as well as Tokyo and attractions in Greater Tokyo (such as Sanrio Puroland over in Tama Center) as well as the more central sections of the Japanese capital.  This time around, I didn't feel compelled to return to Nikko or Kawagoe but I made it a point to go again to Kamakura -- because I liked very much what I saw on my trip there last year but, also, because I didn't find enough time on that day excursion to venture to the East Kamakura area that's home to some temples and shrines that looked like they'd be great to visit.

In particular, sbk's post and photos of the Hokoku Temple (AKA Hokokuji) had made me want to stroll around in that Zen temple's bamboo grove too.  And since Sugimoto-dera is conveniently located near Hokokuji, I figured that it'd be worth checking out the eighth century religious establishment that is Kamakura's oldest temple as well.

The way things worked out, I ended up having time this time around to visit a total of four temples and shrines in Kamakura.  But in this photo-essay, I'll "just" concentrate on featuring a selection of snaps I took at the two East Kamakura temples I visited on this recent trip:-

smaller than I had thought it would be but 
it most definitely is picturesque and photogenic 

 A lovely butterfly/moth I spotted resting on 
the bamboo grove's path (and near the tea house)

Puppet Ponyo (looking a bit spooked?)
also was about in the bamboo grove

However, there were no traces of the spider that
created this web in the bamboo grove

And should anyone wonder, this is what Hokokuji's
main temple building looks like :)

The entrance to Sugimotodera has a post with 
bilingual messages on it that it'd be great if
more people were to heed them

The age of this temple founded circa 734 
is apparent in its old (thankfully no longer used) 
steps as well as its generally rustic compound

This building houses, among other items, three Kannon 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

An evening to remember at Sasagin

Tatami iwashi -- i.e., dried sardine crackers (and yes,
I think the shiny bits are the eyes of the sardines...)

Grilled sanma (Pacific saury) also was on the menu

But as Puppet Ponyo would attest, the main draw 
at Sasagin is the extensive range of junmai, 

Before I left for my Japan vacation last month, a friendly colleague who had lived in Tokyo for a number of years asked me if I loved sake.  I told her that although I'm hardly a sake expert, I do have a fondness for junmai sake (AKA junmai-shu).  If that's the case, was her response, then you should make it a point to go one evening to Sasagin, a sake bar-izakaya that she had gone to review for Metropolis Tokyo and subsequently become a regular at.

After discussing it with her, a friend who lives in Tokyo told me she'd like to go and try it too. So one evening, off we went to that drinking-dining establishment in the Yoyogi-Uehara section of the Japanese capital city that appears to be off the beaten tourist track but has a selection of interesting eateries and drinking holes.

As we looked at the super extensive (and interesting!) sake menu, I suggested a plan that involved our ordering three cups of sake each and taking a sip from the other's cups -- so that we could come away with having tried six different types of sake by the end of the evening. My friend readily agreed to the proposal and we proceeded to order our first round of sake along with a few dishes of food (including a standard sashimi platter but, also, more unusual food like tatami iwashi (see this blog entry's top photo and its caption), grilled sanma and a really delicious agedashi (deep fried foods in dashi stock) assortment that included a variety of vegetables as well as the more usual tofu).

After the sake arrived and we tasted it, however, we realized that we were in trouble -- because the sake we had ordered and drank was so very good in a thoroughly revelatory way that we couldn't settle for just 3 cups of sake each!  And a couple of hours later, I realized that I was on the soused side -- even though I had taken care to drink fairly slowly and make sure that I did not drink on an empty stomach.  

Fortunately, I was not so far gone that I didn't know that we would have to stop some time (soon) -- and before the trains stopped running (because I most definitely did not want to pay for a taxi in Tokyo!).  At the same time though, soused or not, the truth of the matter was that I really was having such a good time at Sasagin that, as I wailed aloud to my friend, there was a part of me that didn't want to ever leave the place!!

By the time we finally said our goodbyes (in my case) and see you soons (in the case of my friend, who thanked me for having introduced me to a place that she could see becoming a favorite and regular drinking-dining spot) to Sasagin and its genial host-owner, Narita-san, my friend and I had tried Junmai, Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Daiginjo sakes -- and had decided that we liked the middle range Junmai Ginjo best (because the Junmai Daiginjo we had ordered had been -- as strange it sounds -- too pure and refined for our palates even while our palates could appreciate that the Junmai Ginjo we had drank was noticeably smoother, and consequently more pleasant, than the straight Junmai we had sampled).

It was a toss up though as to which of the Junmai Ginjo we liked best of the ones we had tried.  All I can say is that we sampled regular, dry, extra-dry, unpasteurized (nama-zake) and cloudy (nigori-zake) Junmai Ginjo -- and we loved them all, with not a single sake having disappointed in the taste department!

All in all, by far the biggest regret of my recent Japan trip is that time constraints made it so that I didn't get to pay one more visit to Sasagin before it was time for me to return to Hong Kong.  If only it was open on Sunday (which was the first night my friend had tried to make a reservation for, only to discover that Narita-san's establishment is closed that day)... but, then, it probably was good for my liver and wallet things turned out as they did!! ;b

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Escape and Automobile (This week's Photo Hunt themes)

Late last month, I temporarily escaped from my usual Hong Kong routine by venturing to Japan for a too short -- but still fun-filled -- vacation. Over the course of my holiday, I took rides on a variety of vehicles.  For example, on my first full day of my recent Japan vacation, I not only rode on trains that ran above ground and as part of subway lines but also crossed the Edogawa (Edo River) on Yagiri no Watashi, Tokyo's last human-powered ferry ride.  And on a day trip to Hakone, I was transported around the area via Japan's oldest mountain railway, cablecar, ropeway and "pirate ship" as well as far more regular bus.

Furthermore, the day after my Hakone excursion, I took a ride on Tokyo's last remaining streetcar line. The Toden Arakawa Line operates for the most part outside of "touristy" areas and rides along its 12.2 kilometer long route offer up downtown neighborhood views of the Japanese capital city. 

As you can see when looking at the top two photos of this entry for Sandi's and Gattina's Photo Hunts, the streetcars themselves come in different "editions" -- with some looking more modern and others more vintage.  With regards to the second photo: can you also see the automobile in the background?  I sure hope so because, as funny as it may seem to some people, I actually didn't take all that many photos that have cars, vans or such other road-bound vehicles while traveling around in the land of Toyota, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi and co! 

Indeed, when looking this morning at the hundreds of photos I took on my recent Japan escape, I found a grand total of just three photos with automobiles in them -- and in none of them were they the focus of the shot! Instead, the focus in the two photos that feature automobiles that I've included in this blog entry have been on other modes of transportation that this public transportation enthusiast frankly finds more attractive and fascinating: in one case, a Toden Arakawa streetcar; and in the other, one of Tokyo's numerous railways -- some of which go right through the city's streets. 

Perhaps it's because I come from a country whose public transportation leaves a lot to be desired and also have moved about the world quite a bit.  But I cannot emphasize how much I really appreciate and love places with great public transportation systems.  So yes, it's not entirely coincidental that I now live in a part of the world with a great public transportation system (and network) -- and choose to have vacation escapes in places where it's also easy enough for people to get around without needing to use private automobiles, and even taxis! :b

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Tale of Two Tombs at Ueno Park

The Tomb of Shogitai Warriors in Ueno Park

the Ueno Royal Museum that's also located in Ueno Park

When I was a good deal younger than I am now, I dreamnt of becoming an archeologist and going to Egypt and doing such as discovering the final resting place of an Egyptian pharoah like Tutankhamun or Hatshepsut.  Although those dreams have been long since abandoned, I have retained a fascination with Ancient Egypt -- and continue to yearn to visit Egypt (in particular the Valley of the Kings and Cairo's Museum of Egyptian Antiquities) some day.

Meantime, although it may seem like a poor substitute to those who have had the good fortune to go to those legendary locations, I've also treasured the visits I've made to those museological institutions that are rich in ancient Egyptian material culture such as the British Museum (which is home to the Rosetta Stone) and Berlin's Egyptian Museum (which is home to a beautiful bust of Nefertiti).  Still, if truth be told, my Holy Grail -- so to speak -- actually was the famous tomb treasures of Tutankhamun that Howard Carter discovered in the Valley of Tombs one November day in 1922.  

So imagine my excitement upon discovering on my recent Japan visit that the Ueno Royal Museum was playing host to the Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharoahs exhibition of more than 120 artefacts from Pharoanic tombs, including 50 from the tomb of Tutanhkamun himself!  And of course I had to go check out the exhibition -- even if the price of admission to it was a whopping 2,700 Yen -- frankly, the most I've paid to visit any exhibition or museum ever!!

Upon arriving at the museum in Ueno, I found that many other people were undeterred by the high admission price and, frankly, worried that it'd be a zoo inside the Tokyo museum the way it had been in a couple of the galleries of the Picasso exhibition at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum.  Fortunately, things were quite a bit better organized; so even while there were a lot of people intent on viewing the exhibition, the exhibition area was not uncomfortably over-crowded.

I also was impressed by the way that the objects on exhibit were arranged, and the general thematic structure of the exhibition.  At the same time, it's true too that the stars of the shows were the items on display themselves -- all of which were thousands of years old and some of which appeared to be in amazingly good condition, considering their age.  And while the glittering gold artefacts obviously grabbed people's attention, I found myself intrigued once again -- like I had been as a child visiting the British Museum -- by how it was that people who lived thousands of years ago availed themselves of such as perfume (as witnessed by a polychrome perfume bottle that was on display as part of the exhibition).

More than incidentally, while waiting in line (and what a long line it was) to enter the Ueno Royal Museum to view the ancient Egyptian tomb treasures, I found myself at one point near what a sign pointed out was the Tomb of the Shogitai Warriors who had perished in a battle fought in 1868 in the very area where Ueno Park now lies.  Although physically quite impressive, that particular tomb didn't seem to merit more than a glance, if that, as far as most people in the queue for the Tutankhamun exhibition were concerned.   

Still, my curiosity was aroused and after I had toured the Tutankhamun exhibition, I went over to the Tomb of the Shogitai Warriors to take a closer look at it.  While doing so, I came across a plaque put up in the vicinity that stated that the Shogitai were a Shogunate army that had been organized to fight against the Emperor at the end of the Edo period (1608-1807) and that many of its members had died in a battle so fierce that many temples and pagodas that previously had stood in the area where the fighting had taken place were destroyed with little trace.  I also learnt that there actually were two tombstones erected: one by a temple priest one year after the Battle of Ueno and another by a survivor of that battle.

Thus it was that I went to Ueno Park to view treasures from a tomb halfway across the world from Japan -- and, along the way, came to know about another, much less heralded tomb; one with an interesting story of its own -- involving those who perished in a battle and whose side lost the war won by the forces of none other than Emperor Meiji, the ruler credited with having brought Japan into the modern age and set it on its way to becoming a major world power.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Views from and of Hakone's Lake Ashi (Photo-essay)

Yesterday, while two friends and I were having a post-hike dinner in Mui Wo, we noticed that a TV at the eatery was showing scenes of angry, at times violent, anti-Japanese demonstrations taking place in China as part of its evening news program. I don't plan to take sides in the dispute over whether the islands whose sovereignty ostensibly are the cause of the demonstrations and riots are Chinese or Japanese.  However, I'm going to voice my feeling that all this discord is really sad -- and so, too, is the way that some of the protesters are going about venting their frustrations.

Put another way: there is no way I'm going to throw away or damage my precious Panasonic camera that I've used to take the vast majority of the photos found thus far on this blog.  Nor do I plan to be getting rid of my Hello Kittys, Ponyos or other Japanese belongings any time soon.  In addition, I don't plan to start boycotting any Japanese restaurants, particularly my favorites among them, any point in the near future -- and I do intend to continue to put up photos and blog entries about my recent Japan vacation for another week or two.

Speaking of which: the following is a photo-essay showing some more of what I did and saw in Hakone.  In particular, it focuses on one more highlight of my Hakone visit in addition to my Hakone Open-Air Museum visit, and the ride on the Hakone Ropeway and brief stopover at volcanic Owakudani -- one that yielded more grand views and lovely memories of one more part of Japan that I now have happy associations with...

 One of these colorful "pirate ships" transported me
from one end of Lake Ashi (AKA Ashi-no-ko) to another! :)

 I'm not sure if this structure located on the eastern side of 
this large crater lake is a hotel or private palace -- but I do 
reckon it'd be lovely to spend a night (or two) there! :b

Also visible on the eastern side of Lake Ashi is one of th
torii of Hakone-jinja -- the area's most famous Shinto shrine

A more close-up view of the picturesque torii that is quite the
sight and landmark in this beautifully scenic part of Japan 

 If the "pirate" ships weren't a surreal enough sight on 
a Japanese lake, how about these swan-shaped boats? ;b

View of the lake from Hakone Machi-ko 
(Although not at all unpleasant, alas, it didn't
have the bonus of including Mount Fuji in the mix!)
 I scrambled up to higher ground -- specifically that within 
some more sights before the sun completely set that day

Minutes before boarding the bus that'd take me away 
from Hakone, I savored this tranquil lake scene -- 
and managed to capture it for posterity on my camera :)

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Hairy and Glass (This week's Photo Hunt themes)

On my most recent Japan holiday, I went to Hakone -- a scenic area located approximately 100 kilometers from Tokyo.  I had long thought of going there but had been put off for a time by the knowledge that traveling to and around there would involve getting on and off a large number -- and variety -- of modes of transport.  

But after reading the Frommer's Guide's comment that "Getting to and around Hakone is half the fun!", I decided to bite the bullet and get myself an Odakyu Hakone Freepass (which is actually not free but is convenient and would give me unlimited rides, etc. on seven different types of transport in the Hakone area).

Among the different modes of transport that I took in Hakone that day were a mountain railway (the Hakone Tozan Railway), the Hakone Tozan Cablecar (which actually is more like Hong Kong's Peak Tram than the Ngong Ping 360 cable car) and the Hakone Ropeway -- which, to my mind, is more like a cable car than the Hakone Tozan Cablecar, and whose offered ride I felt had its hairy moments! The longest ropeway in Japan (and second longest in the world, in fact), it offers up many scenic views from its cabins that have ample glass windows to gaze through (but, thankfully as far as I'm concerned, no glass bottom).  

The visual highlight of the Hakone Ropeway's 30 minute long ride (if one were to ride it from one end to the other without stopping in between) for many is also accompanied by strong smells -- specifically of something distinctly sulphuric in nature  This is because in the Owakudani area of Hakone over which it goes, there's not only a large crater created during the last eruption of Mount Hakone some 3,000 years ago but because the area remains a starkly landscaped active volcanic zone complete with sulfurous fumes coming out of the ground, yellow sulphur streaked soil, and bubbling, boiling pools of water. 

For an added thrill, visitors can get off at the Owakudani stop of the Hakone Ropeway and go walk along the Owakudani Nature Trail, near whose entrance there's a sign (in Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean) that warns of possibly hairy moments -- and does help to remind one to not take volcanic matters too lightly and not tarry too long in the area.  But while some individuals (like Puppet Ponyo -- making one more appearance on this blog and an entry for Sandi's and Gattina's Photo Hunts!) can get a tad horrified at staying for as long as we did at Owakudani, I have to say that I really did enjoy my visit there -- and am very glad that I made and had time to stop there for a bit before proceeding along the rest of that day's Hakone journey. :)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Hakone Open-Air Museum Photo-essay

On my most recent Japan trip, I went to Hakone -- a popular destination for Tokyoites that lies less than 100 kilometers away from the Japanese capital city and is easily reachable by rail.  But while many Japanese are attracted to Hakone's hot springs, the number one Hakone attraction as far as I was concerned was the Hakone Open-Air Museum that is Japan's first open air museological establishment dedicated to exhibition art.

With more than 100 sculptures displayed in its 70,000 square meter grounds, the Hakone Open Air Museum is one of those institutions where wandering around is a must.  And that is precisely what I did for several hours -- over the course of which I came across many interesting and lovely sculptures but, also, scenic natural landscapes that formed great backgrounds for art -- and a relaxing hot spring foot bath which was as enjoyable as it was popular. ;b

On the other side of this tunnel like structure are
wonderful views and art works! :)

An optical illusion makes it look like an archer is 
shooting at Carl Miles' Man and Pegasus sculpture

 Peter Pearce's Curved Space Diamond Structure is both
a sculptural work of art and a working children's play area

On this giant ball's surface, you can see a self portrait
along with other reflected images :)

Torao Yazaki's Religious Medicant is a rare 19th century 
sculpture that can be found in the grounds of this museum's 
whose collections appear to mostly date to the 20th century

Picasso is big and well represented at this museum

Gabriel Loire's Symphonic Sculpture was my favorite
art work on display within the museum's grounds though

And Puppet Ponyo is a fan of that art work too
-- so much so that she had to be photographed on the
staircase inside the work! :b