Triathlons, Temples, Typhoons, Oh-my!

Kamakura

Today the winds have been continuously howling from a typhoon that is offshore, and luckily for me, that translated into an extra–much-needed –day off from work.

Recently a work colleague asked if I wanted to participate in a local triathlon, and since I am training for the Fuji Marathon in November, I decided to take him up on the offer.  I am a distance runner, swimmer, but I don’t have my own road bike at the moment and so that was the one portion of the race I wasn’t sure about.  I actually have never ridden a road bike…well….ever.  Needless to say it was going to be an interesting experience!  There is actually a lot more that goes into doing a multi-event race than just a run, because there is all this extra gear and the placement of the gear.  Some people really take the time to arrange things just perfectly.  Let me tell you how that goes in reality: “Oh my god, oh my god gotta move–going so slow–oh crap is the shirt inside-out?  WHY CAN’T I GET THESE BIKE SHORTS ON?!  Okay getting on the bike…crap, wait I have to walk the bike to the course entrance point…ok run the bike there–ok on the bike.  HOW LONG HAVE I BEEN RIDING??  HOW MUCH LONGER??”  And then my personal favorite is the transition from the bike to the run, because YOUR LEGS FEEL LIKE JELLO.  I ended up hitting all the times I was aiming for, so for a first race it was successful.

Yesterday we headed up to Kamakura because a friend was visiting and we wanted to show him some of the local heritage sites.  We took the enoden from Kamakura station to Hase station and made our way to Kotoku-in, which is the temple housing the Dai-Butsu, or Great Buddha of Kamakura.

Buddha

The structure that stands today may or may not be the original, which dates back to 1252, during the Kamakura Period.  Originally, the Buddha was enclosed in a hall, but a tsunami in 1498 washed it away, and the Buddha has stood in the open air since.  The structure was also orignally gilded, but having been exposed to the elements, it has all but faded entirely.  A notice on the entrance to the grounds reads:

“Stranger, whosoever thou art and whatsoever be thy creed, when thou enterest this sanctuary remember thou treadest upon ground hallowed by the worship of ages. This is the Temple of Bhudda and the gate of the eternal, and should therefore be entered with reverence.”

Our next stop was Hasedera, a temple dedicated to Kannon.  The temple is on the side of a hill and offers some impressive views of the Kamakura shoreline.  The main structure on the grounds houses a giant wooden statue of Kannon.  The legend goes, a monk once carved two statues of Kannon from great tree.  One was enshrined in Nara, the other set adrift to find the place it had a connection with.  It washed ashore in Kamakura and was enshrined there.

ShintoYoung woman in a kimono partakes in purification before ascending the mountain to the main complex.

Hase-dera

 

jizo

 

Jizo

 

Jizo

 

Statues offered by parents mourning miscarried, stillborn, or aborted foetuses to the Buddhist deity Ksitigarbha, or “Jizo” as he is known in Japanese.

Hase-Dera

 

Kamakura

 

 

 

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Ghosts of Kyoto

torii

This past weekend we traveled down to Kyoto.  It is an absolutely ancient place, with human civilization having been established there as far back as 10,000BC.  The prosperous city that we see today is the modern-day version of Heian-Kyo (peace and tranquility capital), seat of the Imperial Court in 794.  It is absolutely full to the brim with culture–tourists are numerous.  Kyoto is magnificent because one can truly see so many different cultural aspects converging; the city itself was built as a scale replica of the Tang Dynasty’s capital, Chang’an.  I will do more features in this blog on Japanese history and the significance of the Chinese and Japanese relationship over time, but for now, just a brushing on Kyoto.  It is very Nihon-rashii (Japanese-like), and another interesting thing is that the people in the region speak Kansai-ben.   I recognized it instantly as I heard a few older gentlemen conversing in the train station.

What in the world is Kansan-ben? you might ask.  In Japanese, many different dialects are used; with the exception of the extreme north (Aomori, Akita) and Okinawa, most dialects do not largely differ.  The standard on television and the news, of course, is the Tokyo dialect, “Tadashii Nihongo.”  Kansai-ben changes some words and emotion-enhancers, and is super noticeable to Japanese people (and for some reason, really entertaining to them).  So Here is an example of standard vs. Kansai dialect:

Standard: “Hontou ni?” (Really?)

Kansai: “Honma ni?” (Really?)

Standard: “Kyo, hontou ni samui da ne.” (Today is really cold, isn’t it?)

Kansai: “Kyo, honma samui ya ne.” (Same meaning as above)

I don’t know why, but this sounds really funny to Japanese people.  Most big comedians are from the Kansai region.

Friday evening we tooled around Gion and were able to spy a few Geisha running here and there to appointments; sadly, as I frantically tried to snap photos with my camera, I didn’t realize I had turned it off and somehow couldn’t manage to turn it on.  My friend was able to steal a lovely photo; I’m honestly surprised we saw so many (2 or 3), considering there aren’t many left.

gion

We sung karaoke, walked around, visited a temple in the snow (too dark for good photos), and ate at a delicious ramen spot called Ippudo.  

The next day we headed out early so we could get in as many sights as possible, starting with the famed Fushimi-Inari shrine.  

inari

The shrine is dedicated to the deity, Inari, who is sometimes male, sometimes female.  Merchants pray to Inari for wealth; hence the famous “thousand torii gates” (they are dedicated by businesses and merchants).

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rainbow

After we left the Shrine, we made our way toward Ryoanji Temple.  Ryoanji is known for its zen rock garden, which may imply a deeper meaning behind the arrangement of the garden.  You can read more about it–> here.

ryoanji

Finally, after Ryoanji, we headed up to the Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion complex.

kinkakuji

kimono

Kinkaku-ji originally served as a villa for a wealthy statesman, and eventually was purchased by the Ashikaga Shogunate and transformed into the complex.  It has a somewhat odd history; in the 1950s a mentally unstable novice monk burned down the pavillon and unsuccessfully attempted suicide.  The structure that stands today is from 1955 (the original was not actually gold).  The gold was added to the current temple as a physical symbol of purification from any negative thoughts toward death.

Visiting Kyoto felt like going through an old photo album; I was there in 2005 with my classmates from Johoku High School on our class trip.  At first it seemed like an unfamiliar place, and then slowly, as I went to these same places–through the streets of Gion, in front of a school for young Geisha, walking on the cool wooden floors of the Ryoanji Temple, standing before Kinkaku-ji with the sunlight illuminating its golden walls, the memories came flooding back and it was familiar once more.  There is an imprint with everything we do; these ghosts that roam the streets remind us of who we once were and how far we have come.

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Just a few shots

The days have been incredibly long at my job, so I can not express just how relaxing it is to come home, listen to Edith Piaf, and have a cup of tea before bed.  Especially when the hours you are working look something like wake up at 5 AM and don’t return home until around 9 PM.  Staying focused has been difficult recently; we’ve been working 7 day weeks and it’s not certain when we will stop.  I’ve dug up a few shots I took awhile back that I’ve always liked, so I’ll go ahead and post them tonight.

So on a completely random note, one of my New Year’s Resolutions was to listen to more music, and now that I have a big-girl-job I can actually afford to download pretty much all the music that I want on itunes.  Recently I’ve been listening to The Who’s Tommy, which I was introduced to through my all-time favorite, Almost Famous.  It’s pretty wild, and if you’re into concept albums like myself, it’s worth a listen.  Totally bizarre.  And on the topic of music, I can’t wait for Mumford and Sons’ new album to be released.  Definitely looking forward to that one.

Hisashiburi! (It’s been awhile!)

It has been quite some time since I’ve written.  I’ve been busy traveling for work (not in any way glamorous) , so it’s been a bit difficult to update.  The weather has also been repeatedly bad on the weekends, but we  finally got two nice days this weekend.  Today I went up to Enoshima Island, which is connected to the mainland by a bridge which you can drive or walk over.

Enoshima Bridge

Before I go, I should note that this week is “Golden Week,” which is essentially a week full of holidays.  It’s like spring break for the entire nation.  What this means for the rest of us is that transiting becomes more difficult as the volume of people traveling drastically increases; malls flood out.  It’s insane–I forgot all this as I made my way to the Enoden line out of Kamakura and was greeted by a massive crowd on the platform.

Somehow I finally get on the train, and it is by far the most packed train ride I have ever experienced while living in Japan.  The Enoden line is an older railway, and it’s electric.  On days when not packed in the three cars like sardines, travelers can enjoy the scenic ride down to Enoshima along the coast.  I reached Enoshima station and started my trek to the island, along with a throng of people.

Enoshima torii

The island is entirely dedicated to Benzaiten, also known as Saraswati in Hindu mythology.  She is goddess of knowledge and arts, representing the free flow of wisdom and consciousness.

Benzaiten

Enoshima

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Ring

The straw ring is called a chinowa, and shrine-goers walk through it as an act of purification.

Enoshima

People offer prayers and wishes to Benzaiten to strengthen their love and relationships.  This ema has spots for literally, “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.”

Love ema

Omikuji (fortunes) offered to Benzaiten.

Omikuji

man feeding cat

Enoshima view

Enoshima also hosts botanical gardens brimming with vibrant florals.

Flowers

Flowers

Wandering around, I came upon a young man performing tricks with a yo-yo and caught this shot as he caught it behind his head.

yo-yo

Monkey

sunshine

Enoshima is a fantastic spot to visit for those traveling in the Kanagawa area, though without a doubt, spring and summer are the best months to go.

Revisiting Kamakura

We’ve been having a recent string of fantastic weather during the weekends, so it’s been quite conducive to travel.  The lighting has also been lovely as well–the only problem is that once the sun begins to set it turns chilly very quickly.

A local favorite spot of ours is Kamakura, which is littered with shrines and temples.  During the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), it was the former de facto capital of Japan, and the seat of the Shogunate and of the Regency.  The center of the city is the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine, but there are a smattering of other spiritual landmarks.  Plum blossom season is upon us here in Japan, but it’s still a bit early to see fully blossomed trees.  The buds are still in their early stages, but most likely within a few weeks we’ll see some beautiful pinks and reds filling the grounds of these complexes.

The first stop on our “Temple Tour” as we dubbed it (there was a senior citizen walking tour we inadvertently ended up joining at one point), was Egara Tenjin-sha.  One of Japan’s three famous shrines dedicated to the deified spirit of Sugawara Michizane, god of scholarship.  In 1104 legend has it that this shrine was built because a picture of the Tenjin god, or the deified spirit of Sugawara Michizane, fell to this place from the sky during a rain storm.  As a result, much like Yushima Tenjin in Tokyo, students from all around flock to pray for success on their school examinations, as hundreds of wooden ema hang with wishes inscribed on them.

Omikuji, “fortunes,” tied and offered up

 

I can’t wait until the trees are filled with these.  Following the Egara Tenjin-sha we made stop number two, at another small shrine, although I can not remember the name.  But pictures to follow:

We made our way towards Zuisen-ji Temple, which was the site we had ultimately been going to see.  Because it is so early, the plum blossoms were still just buds, so we need to come back in a few weeks, but a few flowers had already bloomed.

Our friend M. looking very thoughtful

Our final stop brought us to a temple up a considerable amount of stairs.  Again I will have to look up the name of the temple, but we had a clear view of Mount Fuji at the top.  This was yet another temple dedicated to the goddess Kannon.

The goddess, Kannon

Plum Blossom Festival + Ueno Park

Absolutely gorgeous day out today.  We headed up to Tokyo for the Plum Blossom viewing, which spans from January to March.  For travelers in the vicinity, there are a myriad of sites all over Japan to view the blossoms; we happened to pick Yuushima Tenjin shrine near Okachimachi Station.  Yushima Tenjin is dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane, a plum blossom aficionado and historical figure deified as a Shinto god of scholarship.  There are hundreds upon hundreds of wooden ema, or the wooden plates that people can write down their pleas to the gods.  Students come to ask for success on their high school or college entrance examinations, as evidenced by the myriad of plates crying, “GOKAKU KIGAN” or “Prayer for school success.”

Students looking at ema.

“Prayer for school success to Kitazono High School.”

Vendors at the shrine.

The first sighting of the blossoms.

Following our visit to Yuushima Tenjin, we made our way to Ueno Park.

Peonies with their snow-huts for protection.

Finally, we made our way back to Okachimachi Station, but not without first making a visit to Ameyoko or Ameya Yokocho (candy shop alley or, alternatively, America alley).  In the years following World War II, many American goods were sold here when the street was the site of a black market.  Now a plethora of things are available: candy, 100 yen store goods, clothing, fresh fish, fruit, street food, and much more.

A woman buying “giri chocolate.”  In Japan, it is customary for women to give men chocolate on Valentine’s Day.  If the man reciprocates, he will purchase chocolate for the woman on “White Day” (March 14th).  Quite a clever way for the Japanese companies to rake in more sales.  However, not such a pleasant experience for women, who do not only have to buy chocolate for the object of their affection, but the majority of male colleagues in the workplace.  “Giri” actually translates to “Obligatory.”  The same male colleagues will reciprocate a month later to those who gave them chocolate.

A. contemplating what to buy from a wall of okashi, or “snacks.”

The end to another successful day of sightseeing, until next time!

Reflection on New Year’s 2006

Six years ago I lived in Fujieda city in Shizuoka prefecture.  I was an exchange student (for the 2nd time) and I was living with my host family.  On New Year’s Eve we stayed up late and watched 紅白歌合戦, Kohaku Uta Gassen (Red and White Song Battle) an annual music program which is always broadcast before midnight.  Many popular artists come together and are divided up by female and male participants into the red team and the white team, respectively.  I remember Kobukuro sang “Sakura,” AIKO sang, “Star,” and Ishikawa Sayuri sang “Amagiegoe.”  There were many others, but those are the songs that I remember.  I could have sworn Ketsumeishi was also there singing “Sakura,” but I believe they appeared on television at a later point.

We woke up before sunrise the next morning, I don’t remember what time–maybe about 4 AM.  My host parents, my two host brothers, and myself all piled into our white van and we headed to Shizunami Beach to view the “Hatsu hi” or the “First day’s sunrise.”  We stopped at a convenient store to pick up some snacks and I remember seeing a group of young “yankii” guys hanging out (“Yankii” are usually young, Yakuza-hopefuls).  They all had the trademark blonde hair, mopeds, and piercings.  Moving on, we made our way down to the beach.  It was still dark when we arrived, and still quite cold.  Many others had come as well, some people had started their own fires to keep wam.  A martial arts instructor led the way for his young class, singing cadences.  They commenced their morning exercises clad only in the thin, white gis; it must have been only 35 degrees outside.

It was cloudy but the sky was starting to lighten, and in between the clouds you could see the hues beginning to change.  Twilight beginning to turn into the warm orange of the approaching sun, and then suddenly it came over the horizon, and it was day.

***

At shrines people often purchase little mementoes to write down the wishes they ask of the gods.  In Kamakura, at Tsurugaoka Hachiman-guu shrine, I saw one that read, “Maybe the past has not been so memorable, but life from here on out is abundant.” I try to carry this with me for 2012.