Thursday, December 28, 2006


On Christmas Eve day our friends Makiko and Daisuke drove us all down to Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture. Ise Shrine is the center of the Shinto tradition in Japan, and is known as the home of Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess from which all the warmth and light of the world emanates.
Most of the inner shrines cannot be entered and photos are generally discouraged. So here is a borrowed aerial shot (which gives some sense of the layout and architecture of Ise).

Along with Yuki (Makiko and Diasuke's four year old) we learned the proper way in which to make offerrings to the kami (gods and goddesses) of Ise. Because the kami are invisible or absent--always shrouded in kind of mystery--one approaches their shrine and then claps twice in order to capture their attention. Then one throws a coin into the offerring receptacle, and silently announces one's name and place of origin, bowing twice at the end.

The beauty of Ise--and it is one of the most beautiful places I have visited in Japan--is all but impossible to capture in photographs. The grounds of the Shrine are vast and filled with hinoki (cedar) so old and enormous that they easily rival the giant redwoods of northern California. And although there gardens of moss and carefully pruned pines in the walk leading to the inner shrine, all attempts at human landscaping quickly dissapear into the wildness of the hills and rivers that surround Ise.

Here is a glimpse of one of the shrine buildings. In a custom unchanged for some 1200 years, every human-made structure on the grounds have been rebuilt every 20 years. The carpenters employed can use only primitive hand tools and materials are brought from every corner of the Japanese islands.

As the emporer and empress of Japan are said to descend from Amaterasu herself, they are the only two human persons allowed to enter the inner grounds of her shrine.

Here the Japanese flag waves in the distance.

In Shintoism, the color white is sacred and therefore all manner of white creatures are kept on the grounds of the shrine--white horses, white fish and white hens and roosters.

Yuki looking at some koi (not all were white!).

After leaving the SHrine itself, we walked the traditional path leading up to it--a narrow street filled with traditional merchants and their wares.

Christo sampling a kind of fish called sanma (strung up everywhere on lines along the road).

Daikon hanging out to dry for winter pickles.

Loose-leaf green tea from the tea fields around Mie.


On the 21st we left for Takayama, a small sort of tourist town in the mountains that originally served as a hideout for defeated and dishonored samurai after the Battle of Sekigahara. The train ride was quite breathtaking, following a rushing mountain stream through the Hida valley--a fact dampened only by the length of time it took to get there (eight hours as opposed to two and a half by bus).

This was one of the farming villages we passed along the way. The area is famous for its beef, mountain vegetables, river fish, and green tea.

Here is a view down from the surrounding hills on part of Takayama. This part of the town is still maintained the way it was hundreds of years ago--a patchwork of small homes and barns surrounded by vegetable beds and a family grave plot (side by side).

By far one of the best parts of Takayama was the was the hostel--housed within a fully functioning Jodo Shinshu (Pureland) Buddhist Temple. We had a hot breakfast every day cooked by the Priest's wife (miso soup and rice and pickles).
There was also a huge, hot steaming communal bath which we enjoyed tremendously after coming in from the cold. The hostel genkan (main entrance) is depicted at the right.

The rare group photo! On the morning of the 22nd we set out for the old town and folk village with Kate, an energetic Canadian grad student in Japan for the winter break (and our photographer, in this case).

The streets of Takayama's old town are generally preserved as they were one or two hundred years ago. Although so-called "preserved towns" in Japan serve primarily as tourist attractions, they are 'lived' centers nevertheless and keep alive many of the old traditions of Japan, much like Japanese temples and monasteries.
Takayama is spliced by at least three or four mountain rivers, as well, most of which are still contained by old stone flood walls. Cherry trees were everywhere, so the town must be gorgeous in the spring.

Along the way we enjoyed some of Takayama's delicacies--small taiyaki (fish shaped pancakes)filled with red beans and chocolate, gosei mochi (grilled mochi shaped like olf Japanese money and smothered in a delicious miso and sesame seed sauce) and skewers of Hida beef.

This first picture is of me and Bradley out in front of the lake in front of the Hida Folk Village--an "outdoor" museum centered around a number of Gassho-zukuri (thatched) style farmhouses that were slated for demolition during the period of dam-buildingling that lasted from the 1950's to the 70's.

Unfortunately the sun was beginning to set just as we arrived and so many of our pictures came out pretty dark and a little hard to make out.

Christo, Kate, and Bradley warming their hands around a traditional hearth...

Walking among the old houses it was easy to imagine oneself in old Japan, or at least on the set of a Kurosawa film. The day we went, however, the folk villages was almost completely deserted which made me feel a bit like a ghost floating around buildings which would once have been alive with the bustle of huge extended families, bright fires, and the smells of cooking food.

In no other country I have visited is the contrast between the old and the new so pronounced.

Kameoka and Kyoto

On the 16th we left Nagoya for Kyoto. We would spend our first night at a small international zen temple in Kameoka (just outside of Kyoto) so that Christo and Luna could have a taste of the "zen training" life. The temple was nestled in a small farming community and the fields were divided by old stone irrigation canals and farmhouses. Very picturesque. It was nice to finally see another "gaijin" training temple, cold as it was, and the two training monks seemed very genuine and kind. The head "monk" (who was from Russia) was nevertheless relatively kibishii (strict) and the experience made us glad of our freedom to struggle with the problems of our ordinary lives in this "floating world"--as it is poetically referred to (and to wear socks and hats whenever we feel like it!).

Here is the temple itself, though there were other buildings attached to the temple down the road, including a larger meditation hall and a guest house.

A scene from around the temple.

The next day we split into two groups and Bradley and I visited some famous Kyoto sites we'd never seen before: Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji (the gold and silver pavillions, respectively). Kinkakuji has been described by our friend Daisuke as the "interface between heaven and earth" and it truly was a rather breathtaking site, its mirror double floating over a lake filled with koi and small landscaped islands designed by the landscape master Muso Soseki.

Sparkling across the lake.

Me and Bradley looking a bit awestruck. One of those amazing days when torrents of rain suddenly passed and the sun came out just as we were walking up the path to the temple.

Next we stopped by Ginkakuji, which was remarkable more for its sansui (raked sand( garden than for the pavillion itself. Although built in the 16th Century, the garden is eerily postmodern, and was supposedly built by the great landscape artist Soami. The garden represents Mt Fuji and the Pacific Ocean.

Taiheiyo (the Ocean)


We next walked the length of the so-called "Philosopher's Path," named after Nishida Kitaro (the founder of the Kyoto School of philosophy, and a longtime professor at Kyoto University). Since I have spent the last year studying Nishida and his disciples, it was particularly meaningful to, as it were, walk his walk.

Finally we headed up to Kiyomizudera and along the road saw a volley of brightly colored geishas (below).

The next day we set out for Mt Hiei, one of the most famous religious mountains in the world and the sight of the first major monasteries of Mahayana Buddhism in Japan. The temples of Mt Hiei were first built in the 9th Century.

This is part of the original path that goes up (and down) Mt Hiei.

Christo and Luna at a scenic overlook just below the temple complex of Enryaku-ji.

This is arguably the most (historically) important building on the grounds--a reconstructed version of the original ordination hall built by Saisho in the 8th Century. Tendai sect monks are still ordained here to this day.

Christo ringing one of the enormous bells on the mountain.

Here is a (borrowed) picture that gives a glimpse of the inside of the Konpon Chudo Hall. Inside the hall there is an oil lamp that has been continuously lit for 1200 years. The lamp was first lit by Saicho himself (or so legend says). Inside the Konpon-Chudo we wrote out a special ceremonial blessing for our (Christo and my) grandfather on a piece of wood which will be burned in the fires of the inner sanctum and hopefully help in the passage of his soul from this world to the next.

Christo and Luna in Japan

Here are my (Genevra's) favorite pictures from the first few days of C and L's visit. All were taken in Inuyama.

Christo and Luna at a Shinto shrine.

Brother and sister reunited.

Looking down at the sansui (raked sand) garden at an old Rinzai training temple on the mountain.