Kamakura Again and Return to Shizuoka

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These past two weeks have been quite busy at work, but definitely not busy enough to stop us from enjoying the good weather and traveling a bit.  To catch up, last weekend we traveled to Kita-Kamakura to visit some famous Zen sites.  We started the day at Engaku-ji, one of the most important Zen Buddhist complexes in Japan, and ranked 2nd among Kamakura’s “Five Mountains,” or state-sponsored Zen complexes.

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This temple was founded in 1282 by a Zen priest at the request of the Regent Tokimune Hojo.  It was built to honor those killed in battles against the Mongolian Invasion between 1274 and 1281, obviously as well as to spread Zen thought.  There are 18 temples on the complex, and it is home to 2 national treasures: the Shari-den (the Reliquary Hall built in the sixteenth century Chinese style, said to house the tooth of Buddha), and the Great Bell (said to be the largest in Kamakura).  You can read more about Engaku-ji here.

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After walking around Engaku-ji we made our way over to Tokei-ji, founded in 1285 by the wife of Hojo Tokimune, who then became a nun after his death.  In memory of her husband’s death, she opened the temple, also making it a place for battered women to take refuge.  If a women stayed at Tokei-ji for 3 years, the state recognized her as officially divorced.  It is estimated that 2000 women took refuge there.

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This weekend I visited my favorite place in Japan: Shizuoka.  A few weeks ago my friend S. came up from Shizuoka to visit me.  We were classmates in Shizuoka Johoku Girls High School (now co-ed).  We met up with a few of our other friends and went to Muse Cafe, which is full of stuffed pandas, chandeliers, and American pop music playing in the background.  For 3000 yen per person you can do free time, with quite a good deal of food and unlimited drinks.  The only caveat: sorry, gentlemen, men are not allowed to enter.  I’m not completely sure why; I think it’s to provide women with an atmosphere to chat and eat together in without the noisiness of men.  In Japan, genders are more segregated than in the United States, so it isn’t that unusual.

Quite a few of our classmates are getting married; we made a video for our friend, wishing her luck and happiness.  Mostly everyone is busy working, buying apartments, and the like.  Some of our teachers are still at Johoku; we reminisced about our English teacher’s class, having to memorize idioms (they memorized the English, I memorized the Japanese).  Everyone seems to be doing well, and it was lovely being able to see them all.  I love Shizuoka City, too, walking down all the old familiar streets I used to ride my bicycle to school on.  Things have changed but somehow still remain the same.

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Ghosts of Kyoto

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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.

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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.  

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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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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.

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

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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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Harajuku + Asakusa

Although it has been cold here, it was sunny all weekend, and so the perfect time to do a little sightseeing. To be quite honest, we’re running out of places to go in Kanagawa, so once work permits I think we’ll try and take some trips down to Western Japan.

Saturday I went up to Harajuku for a little shopping, but before that I made a stop at Meiji-Jingu. Built in 1915 to honor the Emperor Meiji and his wife, it is located in Yoyogi Park and is a pleasant break from the surrounding city.

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Just as I was about to leave the main complex a wedding procession entered:

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After leaving Meiji Jingu I headed into downtown Harajuku for some sightseeing and shopping. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Japan, Harajuku is a quite fashionable–yet highly eccentric–area in Tokyo. On Sundays (and I still have yet to go) many young men and women who are into the quirky fashions get together and hang out near the station, readily providing eager sightseers and onlookers photographs.

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Today we headed up to Asakusa to visit Kappabashi-dori, aka “Kitchen Town.” It’s an area in Tokyo where one can buy restaurant items wholesale. From the famous plastic food items found in Japanese display cases to the hanging red lanterns outside ramen shops and izakaya, if it’s for the food business, chances are you can find it on Kappabashi-dori. All over Kappabashi-dori are images and figurines of Kappa, water nymphs of Japanese folklore. Kappa are creatures which can have natures ranging from innocently mischievous to outright cruel.

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Famous plastic food found in display windows:
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All the ketchup and mustard bottles you could ever need!
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With the Tokyo Skytree and Asahi Beer Hall behind me
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Until next time!

Vanishings

A woman looks out from a two story window as we pass through the streets of Chinatown. Aliens; this entire city is made up of aliens. An old man tells us, “Here, in Singapore, we welcome all people from all nations, races, and creeds. We only ask that you abide by our rules.” Here, in this place, one truly can dissolve into the jungle.

“Where are you going?” They ask. “Where do you come from?”

Travelers congregate in the crowded bars of Boat Quay and Clarke Quay, and I think of the time when Singapore was only a small British trading post, a settlement literally hashed into the jungle. Travelers and merchants came in, perhaps on their way up to Canton to trade Opium for Chinese silk and spices. It still has the feel of a place that men come and go, perhaps because it is still a hub for international trade, only modernized. But within that built-up, glittering world remain the seedy echoes of the under-world, lit by garish neon signs and made sensual by the enticing faces of those certain women, luring businessmen and sailors into the dimly lit, well-worn hallways of their bars and parlors.

We sit at an orange plastic table with yellow plastic chairs in Chinatown, talking with friends of ours who have been away in the Middle East 8 months on business. Funny we should all meet by chance here in Singapore. The waitress comes and brings over cold Tiger beers, along with steaming plates of noodles, spicy chicken, and duck. We talk of our experiences and we drink to the paths that our lives have taken us down. Rain pours down like millions of pearls scattering upon the brick walkways as vendors frantically hurry to cover their merchandise and welcome tourists in from the rain.

I am no one here. I am everyone here. I can disappear into the night and blend into the crowd of 5 million faces during the day. Everyone is a specter that lingers for only a second.


I am a ghost.