Friday, April 24, 2015

Photo Friday #6: Chinzan-so Garden! フォト金曜日#6:椿山荘!

フォト金曜日#6:椿山荘Photo Friday #6: Chinzan-so Garden!

In the past two Photo Friday posts, I contrasted old with new in Kyoto, showing that there's more to the nation's former capital than just temples and teahouses. But what of Tokyo? As I've mentioned in a past post featuring Ueno Park, Tokyo isn't just a concrete jungle: throughout the city are numerous green spaces and parks, and innumerable shrines can be found wedged between skyscrapers and houses. In this week's Photo Friday post, I take a look at another favorite urban oasis:

椿山荘: Chinzan-so Garden
I initially discovered Chinzan-so not because of its gardens, but because of its lodging. Prior to our first trip to Japan in March 2013, we (somewhat spontaneously) took advantage of a deal from Globotours we saw on LivingSocial. Included in the travel package was a round-trip flight from LAX to Narita with Singapore Airlines, plus a stay for a few nights at Hotel Chinzan-so Tokyo, which had just rebranded from a Four Seasons hotel to an independent hotel. As frugal people, we normally wouldn't get to experience something like this--we typically stick to budget airlines and lodging--so we jumped at the chance.

Located in the Sekiguchi area of Tokyo's Bunkyo ward, Chinzan-so and its surroundings--once known as Tsubaki-yama (椿やま), or Camellia Hill--have a rich history. 17th century haiku poet Basho lived nearby, no doubt drawing inspiration from the wild camellias and rolling hills. In the 19th century, ukiyo-e artist Ando Hiroshige featured the area in his series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (名所江戸百景) in the April 1857 woodblock print Basho's Hermitage and Camellia Hill on the Kanda Aqueduct at Sekiguchi (せき口上水端はせを庵椿やま).

Hiroshige's depiction of Camellia Hill

Shortly after being featured in Hiroshige's work, Yamagata Aritomo--an Imperial Army Field Marshal and Japanese Prime Minister--bought the land in 1878, giving it the name Chinzan-so, or "House of Camellia." In addition to his military and political accomplishments, he enjoyed Japanese garden design as a hobby (otherwise seen at Murin-an in Kyoto), and so began shaping the land into the Chinzan-so we know today.

In 1918, Yamagata willed the land to Baron Fujita Heitaro, head of a construction company, who then began decorating the gardens with artifacts from across the nation, most notably a shrine and a three-story pagoda. The Shiratama Inari Shrine (白玉稲荷神社) was relocated in 1924 from Shimogamo-jinja in Kyoto (and is watched over by a Fushimi Inari Taisha deity!), and you can receive your fortune via omikuji (御神籤) from a coin-operated machine there. The pagoda Entsukaku (圓通閣), as seen in the photo above, was moved in 1925 from Chikurin-ji Temple in the mountains of Hiroshima; it was said to have been constructed without nails by Chikurin-ji monks either during the Heian (794-1185) or Muromachi (1338-1573) periods.

Other relics can be found throughout the gardens--stone lanterns, monuments, and more--which the hotel plots on maps both online and on hard copies for guests. With World War II came the destruction of much of the gardens, though the pagoda, shrine, and 500-year-old sacred tree were spared. Reconstruction on the gardens began in 1948, and upkeep on the grounds and its structures continues today.

As you can tell from the smattering of autumnal colors in the photo above, this picture wasn't taken during our first trip to Japan: we returned to the hotel and gardens for a night's stay in December 2014, as a treat during our honeymoon. It seemed appropriate, as Chinzan-so is not only famous for its gardens and hotel, but today also functions as one of Tokyo's most popular wedding sites, offering both Western and Shinto ceremonies. During both of our stays at the hotel, we caught glimpses of a few wedding ceremonies; they're so common that you can see a wedding party in the bottom right corner of the photo above!

Replete with historical artifacts--albeit relocated--the gardens' 17 acres are a picturesque haven from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, and the opulent hotel offers elegant accommodations and an exceedingly friendly, hospitable staff. It's also relatively easy to access: it's a (somewhat steep) 10 minute walk from the nearby subway station, Tokyo Metro's Edogawabashi Station on the Yurakucho Line, or a (somewhat long) 30 minute walk from Mejiro Station on the Yamanote Line. (After a few of those 1.5 mile walks from Mejiro Station--on an unwittingly broken ankle, I might add--we wisened up and learned how to use the buses, a cheaper option than a ~¥750 t
axi ride.)

Taking a leisurely stroll through the gardens, walking under the waterfall, gazing at the serene's all a refreshing change of pace after experiencing sensory overload in places like Shinjuku and Shibuya. Indeed, aside from the skyscrapers looming in the background, it's easy to forget that you're still in the city. Just like there's more to Kyoto than just temples and teahouses, there's more to Tokyo than just concrete and neon.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Photo Friday #5: Kyoto Station! フォト金曜日#5:京都駅!

フォト金曜日#5:京都駅!Photo Friday #5: Kyoto Station!

If you're a regular visitor here, you'll notice that I like to discuss how Japan's juxtaposition of old and new makes the country a fascinating place to explore. As a Millennial American, I come from a country that was still adding states to its roster after my parents were born, so the fact that Japan's oldest companies have been in business for more than a millennium is a concept almost too foreign to comprehend.

In previous Photo Friday posts, I've shared some of my photos of Kyoto with you: first, we visited Heian-jingu, a "new" shrine by Japanese standards; then, we explored Kinkaku-ji at Rokuon-ji and learned about its rich history. Although both of these historic sites feature new construction--fires are problematic for wooden structures!--they're still basically indistinguishable from centuries-old shrines and temples. If I only shared photos of Kyoto's traditional architecture, I'd only be doing you a great disservice and furthering stereotypes about the city. With that in mind, here's this week's photo:

京都駅: Kyoto Station
Considering my previous posts, you might think this is a photo of a busy train station in Tokyo, but it's actually a shot of the interior of Kyoto Station (京都駅 or Kyoto-eki), taken in March 2013. Modern and bustling at all hours of the day, this structure stands in stark contrast to how many people, even today, view Kyoto: it's not all temples, teahouses, and geisha.

The first Kyoto Station opened by imperial decree in 1877, and since then has undergone several facelifts and additions, whether out of necessity--as the station was destroyed by fire in 1950--or modernization--as the subway line opened in 1981. Built in honor of the 1,200th anniversary of Kyoto's founding as the capital of Japan, today's Kyoto Station--its fourth iteration, opened in 1997--is a result of a design contest won by Japanese architect and professor Hiroshi Hara. All of the contest entries were modern in design, and as this 1991 article from The New York Times explains, not everyone was happy about it: its detractors claimed that its ultramodern design didn't represent the old soul of the city, but its supporters argued that such a bold look was necessary to keep the city abreast of changing times.

The photo above is a view of Kyoto Station's Karasuma Gate, the north side of the station, as seen from a couple floors up near Cafe du Monde and Mister Donut. It's busier than the Hachijo Gate on the station's south side, and offers lots of things to see: it's home to Porta and The Cube, two underground shopping malls; an 11-story Isetan Department Store (with two underground levels); souvenir shops and convenience stores; hotels and restaurants; a post office; and the city's bus terminal. In the winter months, the station can get quite chilly, especially in this section: it's open to the elements, and even clerks and shopkeepers wear coats inside their stores.

Google Maps version of a typical Kyoto tourist map
For many Kyoto tourists, Kyoto Station sits at the bottom, or south end, of much of where they'll do their sightseeing, as many of Kyoto's temples, shrines, and places of interest lie northward. Indeed, most of the tourist maps provided free of charge in Kyoto show the station as one of the southernmost areas. The map to the left approximates a real-world view of these tourist maps, which are sometimes squished to fit on a certain size paper or pamphlet. I've added markers for a few places I've discussed here on meauxtaku: the yellow marker at the top is Kinkaku-ji, the brown marker to the southeast is Heian Shrine, the red marker southeast of center is Kyoto Station, and the orange marker southeast of Kyoto Station is Fushimi Inari Taisha. To give you an idea of scale, it's just over four miles (as the crow flies) from Kyoto Station to Kinkaku-ji. Between the city buses, subway, and trains operating out of Kyoto Station, reaching any of these places is a breeze.

Despite the controversy of building such a state-of-the-art structure in a city known for its antediluvian architecture and traditions, Kyoto Station provides the perfect place to disembark on a Kyoto journey: its glass and steel facade is the shining face of modern Japan, its innumerable shops and stores a staggering testament to the country's retail culture...but walk a few minutes in any direction and you're sure to stumble upon one of Kyoto's thousands of shrines and temples, transporting you to bygone eras rooted in ancient rituals. History is alive and well in Kyoto, but thanks to structures like Kyoto Station, perhaps no other city in Japan offers such a stark contrast between archaic and futuristic.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

New logo! 新ロゴ!

新ロゴ! New logo!

Notice something different? Scroll up! That's right: I sat down and finished my blog logo! モタク are the katakana characters mo-ta-ku, which is how you pronounce "meauxtaku." This is the same idea behind the pronunciation of my alias merimeaux, or メリモ: me-ri-mo. Easy peasy!

Old school モタク concept sketch
If you think the image looks familiar, then you might be a fan of home-cooked Japanese food: it's a parody of the Otafuku Foods logo, a company that manufactures Japanese condiments and pantry staples for sale both in Japan and in the U.S. You can't have proper okonomiyaki without Otafuku brand Okonomi Sauce!

Doesn't ring a bell? Perhaps you're thinking it resembles something out of Japanese culture and history, which is also correct: "otafuku" (お多福), which means "much good fortune," was a woman from Japanese mythology associated with happiness. Even today, her likeness can be seen on masks at Japanese festivals and on good luck charms at shrines. Otafuku Foods' own website offers some insight into the history and symbolism behind their namesake. It's an interesting little read!

Still doesn't sound familiar? Well, maybe you've been visiting my Redbubble shop, where you may have come across a similar design. When I was making okonomiyaki one day, I reached for my Otafuku Okonomi Sauce, and realized that the katakana for "otafuku" (オタフク) closely resembled that of "otaku" (オタク)--in fact, one could easily be mistaken for the other--and was thus inspired to create an otaku-fied parody. (Want to see the results? Here's the Japanese version, and here's the English version.) I guess rather than being a parody of the Otafuku Foods logo, I should say that my blog logo is a parody of my redone Otaku design...a parody of a parody. Mind blown.

So what's the deal with all this crazy parody inception? Well, one of the things I do for a living is create and design pop culture parodies. Ever since I was a kid, I've loved taking two seemingly unrelated things, finding some kind of common ground, and combining them to make something new. With my art, I aim to create something that makes people think: whether it's humorous, nostalgic, or a tongue-in-cheek social commentary, I want to invite people to look at our world differently. 

Parodies abound on my desk!
This brings me to another thing I love about Japan: it's basically a country full of parodies. You can call it fan art, you can call it character licensing, but parody is at the heart of all the cute and crazy crossovers. You can't even walk up the street leading to Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto without seeing T-shirts for sale parodying Boss Coffee. (You may have heard of Boss Coffee because of American actor Tommy Lee Jones' longtime involvement with the brand, appearing in commercials, on billboards, and on vending machines.)

The image to the right shows three things I randomly found here in my workroom that illustrate my point: at the top, a sticker of beloved Japanese character Doraemon dressed as Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders (strangely enough, Japanese love McDonald's x KFC fan art); in the middle, Sanrio mascot Gudetama on exclusive train-themed merchandise only available at Tokyo Station; and at the bottom, Hello Kitty as a Cincinnati Reds baseball player (though she could easily pass for a member of the Hiroshima Toyo Carp).

In future blog posts, I'll definitely talk more about Japan's parody culture, but in honor of my new logo I wanted to offer a quick primer on the matter. So, how do you like the new look? It's definitely making me hungry for some Japanese home cooking!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Sakura in my kitchen! めいび~!

I may live thousands of miles away from the cherry blossoms of Ueno Park, but that doesn't mean I can't still enjoy that beautiful Japanese harbinger of spring: sakura are in bloom in my kitchen! Take a look:

Beautiful, two-dimensional sakura...they'll never wilt!
OK, you got me...I don't have a cherry blossom tree anywhere near my kitchen. But April's picture in my Fushimi Inari Taisha calendar on the wall in my kitchen is gorgeous, don't you think?

I picked up the 2015 calendar in January, when we returned to Kyoto's famous shrine. (Even if you haven't been there, it should look somewhat familiar: the background of my blog is from a photo I took during our first visit in March 2013.) The calendar is actually bilingual--flip it one way it's in English, and flip it the other way it's in Japanese--with English and Japanese covers to boot...

Bilingual covers are in English and Japanese
The photo for each month usually has a seasonal theme, too: January's photo was of hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the new year, traditionally done on January 1; February's photo was of the Setsubun Festival on February 3, when dried beans are thrown to cast away demons and evil spirits; and March's photo was of Okushahohaijo, the pavilion where climbers pray for a safe ascent up Mt. Inari (perhaps because temperatures begin to warm up in March with the approach of spring, making a climb up the mountain a little less chilly).
L to R: Hatsumode in January, Setsubun in February, and a shrine pavilion for March
With a Japanese calendar comes a lot of things not seen on other calendars: aside from days of the week and months being marked with their appropriate kanji, there's also the curious text of 平成27年 printed under 2015 (as seen on the middle panel of the photo above). This means "Heisei 27 Year"--or, the 27th year of the Heisei period.

In addition to observing the Gregorian calendar, the Japanese also observe different eras based on the current emperor's reign. The current era began with Heisei 1 on January 8, 1989, the day after the previous emperor, Hirohito, passed away, and his son Akihito took the throne. Hirohito's death marked the end of the Showa period--the name of Hirohito's era, ending at Showa 64--and began Akihito's Heisei period, with "Heisei" meaning "peace everywhere." As per Japanese custom, Hirohito was posthumously named Showa, and is typically referred to as "Emperor Showa" in Japan today; likewise, Emperor Akihito will be posthumously named Heisei.

Want to get your hands on a bona fide Japanese calendar, for this year or next? Aside from actually visiting Japan and picking one up there, websites like J-List will be your best bet: they ship all sorts of goodies from Japan and offer a wide variety of calendars, featuring subjects like anime, Japanese architecture, and traditional Japanese art. I've shopped with them before and highly recommend them! (Naturally, if you're looking for a calendar, it's best to shop toward the end of the year; popular subjects sell out quickly, so their current stock isn't a great representation of what they had at the end of last year.)

Friday, April 3, 2015

Photo Friday #4: Kinkaku-ji! フォト金曜日#4:金閣寺!

フォト金曜日#4:金閣寺!Photo Friday #4: Kinkaku-ji! 

April showers bring May flowers! Spring rain and thunderstorms have finally--well, hopefully!--replaced snow here in the midwest. On rainy, overcast days like these, I'm reminded of my first trip to Japan: during our stay in Kyoto in March 2013, it rained nearly every day. We didn't let that dampen our spirits, though; the rain kept many visitors away from Kyoto's picturesque shrines and temples, leaving us to enjoy their quietude and tranquility. As a plus, we were able to take a lot of great photos without throngs of tourists in them, like this one...

金閣寺: Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)
In a previous Photo Friday post, I wrote about Heian Shrine, a Kyoto landmark in the Okazaki area. It's been referenced in popular culture and is classified as an important cultural property of Japan. However, few places are as iconic and recognizable as Kinkaku-ji, seen in the photo above: it's Kyoto's most visited temple and its grounds are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known worldwide for its opulent golden structure and Muromachi period gardens. Located a few miles north-northwest of Kyoto Station, it's easily accessible by city bus, taxi, or a healthy walk from nearby subway stations.

At the foot of the Kitayama Mountains, the site of Kinkaku-ji originally functioned not as a sacred place of worship, but as an expanse of rice fields. A wealthy politician named Saionji Kintsune purchased the land from a court noble and built Kitayama-dai--his sprawling family residence and shrine--there in 1224, but it fell into disrepair as his family's influence and wealth dwindled under the new shogunate. Saionji's descendants eventually sold the property to Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1397, who lived out his retirement amidst the tranquil reflective ponds. Ashikaga had grand plans for the compound as he worked to restore the estate to its former glory, constructing several buildings on the grounds, including the Golden Pavilion. He planned to cover the entire pavilion in gold leaf, but only managed to coat the top floor's ceiling before his sudden death in 1408.

In accordance with Ashikaga's will--as was often the tradition of these times--the area was then converted to a Zen Buddhist temple of the Rinzai sect and called Rokuon-ji (鹿苑寺, or Deer Garden), taking its name from Ashikaga's posthumous name. (Indeed, Rokuon-ji is the temple's official name, but since the Golden Pavilion is its most famous aspect, the nickname Kinkaku-ji is more commonly known.)

Like many other Kyoto temples, fires destroyed the buildings on the temple grounds through the years, most notably during the Onin War. The Golden Pavilion is the only remaining structure of Ashikaga's estate--and even it was destroyed by fire, most recently in 1950, when a crazed monk burned it down. When it was rebuilt in 1955, more gold leaf was added to the exterior. The gold leaf, while an obvious symbol of wealth and luxury, also carries a symbolic meaning: it's meant to alleviate and purify thoughts and effects of death.

Today the Golden Pavilion continues to function as a shari-den, or reliquary, housing sacred Buddhist relics within. The pavilion itself is not open to the public, but visitors to the temple grounds can peek inside the first story windows for a glimpse of statues of Ashikaga and the Historical Buddha. Visitors will also notice that each of the pavilion's three stories display distinct architectural styles, masterfully blending contrasting styles into one cohesive structure.

To me, Kinkaku-ji's architecture represents a lot of what I've observed of the whole of Japan and its culture: paradoxes and anachronisms are often seen side-by-side, but rather than seeming out of place, they reach a harmonious coexistence. It's something that isn't often seen here in the U.S., and I'll enjoy exploring these observations in future posts.