Friday, May 15, 2015

Photo Friday #9: Zenko-ji! フォト金曜日#9:善光寺!

フォト金曜日#9:善光寺!Photo Friday #9: Zenko-ji!

How about a little geography lesson? Japan is an archipelago, consisting of thousands of islands, but is typically portrayed as four main islands: Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu, north to south. The country is further divided into eight regions consisting of 47 prefectures. For example, Kyoto is the capital city of Kyoto Prefecture, located in the Kansai region on the island of Honshu. Honshu--本州, meaning "main province"--is the largest, most populous island of Japan, making it a popular tourist destination.

In this week's Photo Friday post, we're taking a trip out of Tokyo Station on the Hokuriku Shinkansen, bound for Honshu's Chubu region. Sandwiched between the Kanto and Kansai regions (home to Tokyo and Kyoto, respectively), the Chubu region can sometimes be overlooked as tourists pass through to better known locales, but has a charm all its own. Our Chubu destination may sound familiar; we're heading for Nagano, the capital city of Nagano Prefecture, where we visited this Buddhist temple:

善光寺本堂: Zenko-ji Hondo (Zenko-ji Temple Main Hall) - January 4, 2015
If you're a modern-day tourist in Nagano, you're probably visiting with one main thing in mind: winter sports. Nagano is famous for hosting the 1998 Winter Olympics, and its mountainous terrain is perfect for skiing and snowboarding. Indeed, most of the tourists we saw in Nagano were hauling snowboards around with them, and I felt a little out of place without one. However, I still can't forget how painful it was to break my leg playing softball years ago, or how I lived in daily pain for five years following a back injury. Needless to say, I wasn't visiting Nagano for its outdoor sports. (When I saw an Australian girl in full winter gear on crutches in a Nagano convenience store, I immediately assumed her injury was sustained on the slopes, and my fears felt validated.)

When I was researching where we should go during our second trip to Japan--somewhere other than Tokyo and Kyoto--my friend Miho mentioned Nagano. Miho grew up there and went to school near Zenko-ji Temple. The more I read about the area, the more I wanted to visit and see its scenic vistas for myself. It was only an hour and a half out of Tokyo on the shinkansen, plus its cooler temperatures offered the bonus of potentially getting to see snow fall. We added it to our itinerary and arrived on Saturday, January 3.

After having our Sunday breakfast at the Mister Donut near Nagano Station, we headed for Zenko-ji Temple. It's about 2.2 kilometers, or just under 1.5 miles, from the train station to the temple, and as you approach Zenko-ji the road becomes a little steep. (Note that it's a shorter walk to the temple from Zenkojishita Station, but we enjoyed walking and seeing the city.) As it was early January when we visited, many people were presumably still doing hatsumode (the first shrine visit of the new year), so it was a little crowded. However, something struck me as strange as we got closer to the temple: we were the only Caucasian people in sight.

Japan is known for being a homogeneous country, but we saw handfuls of tourists and expats here and there: we met some Australians at Fushimi Inari Taisha, Germans at Tokyo Station, Americans at Roppongi Hills and Kabukicho, British at a pub in Shibuya, and so on. Even our hotel at Nagano was home base for several Australians eager to hit the slopes. But for some reason, Zenko-ji didn't seem to be a destination for other non-Asian foreigners, and we suddenly found ourselves the objects of a lot of attention.

Just some guy with a blonde in a Carp hat.
A group of high school girls approached us and waved, shyly saying "hello" to us; I said "hello" back, and they all giggled ferociously. An old Japanese man greeted us, asking where we were from; he shook our hands, thanking us for coming to Nagano and the temple. I was used to people staring at me in Japan--there aren't many tall, platinum blondes there!--but I was surprised by how amicably we were treated at Zenko-ji. Although Japanese people were usually friendly to us, nowhere else in Japan did so many random passersby make such a genuine, unsolicited attempt to make us feel welcome. It really left an impression on me. It could have felt awkward to be the only non-Asian tourists in sight, but the locals' warm demeanor put me at ease and really allowed me to enjoy strolling the temple grounds.

I wanted to visit Zenko-ji in part because of its rich history. Built in the 7th century, it predates many of Japan's sects of Buddhism, and thus is managed by two different schools--Tendai and Jodo-shu. Like many other temples (remember Kinkaku-ji?), it enshrines images of the Amida Buddha, but what makes it unique is that it houses what's believed to be the first statue of Buddha ever brought to Japan during the 6th century. To say this relic is sacred is a bit of an understatement: it's so revered that even the highest ranking priests at Zenko-ji are forbidden from seeing it, and has been hidden since 654! Every seven years, a treasured replica of the statue--with the replica itself dating back to the Kamakura Period (1185-1333)--is put on public display for a few weeks during Gokaicho, drawing pilgrims and visitors by the thousands. If you're lucky enough to be in Japan right now, you actually have until the end of May to see the Maedachi Honzon statue in person! (The rest of us can watch this video from a few years ago documenting Zenko-ji, the Gokaicho ceremony, and the preparations leading up to it.)

Zenko-ji's other attractions include the Rokujizo, statues of the six Bodhisattvas, as well as an interesting representation of the "key to paradise" of the Amida Buddha. Hanging on a wall in a pitch black, narrow basement corridor, it's said that devotees who manage to touch this metal key can gain enlightenment. Hungry pilgrims can also enjoy various treats from the food stalls lining the road to Zenko-ji. Seeing these vendors is commonplace at larger shrines and temples in Japan, but I especially enjoyed the regional (and vegetarian!) specialties available near Zenko-ji: piping hot oyaki dumplings and gohei mochi.

Centuries ago, it wasn't uncommon for Japanese cities to grow around castles, but Nagano grew around Zenko-ji. With its great "locals only" feel and ancient traditions, a visit to Zenko-ji should be included on every Nagano tourist's itinerary. As Nagano is surrounded by the Japanese Alps and offers tons of fun winter activities, it's easy to overlook the temple--particularly if you're suffering from temple burnout--but the city simply wouldn't exist without Zenko-ji. I know I'm looking forward to returning to the temple, someday!

Friday, May 8, 2015

Photo Friday #8: Mount Fuji! フォト金曜日#8:富士山!

フォト金曜日#8:富士山!Photo Friday #8: Mount Fuji!

In my past Photo Friday posts, I've only shared pictures from Tokyo and Kyoto. Admittedly, that's where I've spent most of my time in Japan, but there's much more to the country than those two cities! With that in mind, today's post takes a trip out of town, with a look at one of Japan's most famous sights:

富士山: Fujisan (Mount Fuji)
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Fujisan (or Mount Fuji) is located about 80 miles southwest of Tokyo, and can be seen from there on a clear day. With its iconic snow-capped peak, travel to Mount Fuji and its prefectures of Yamanashi and Shizuoka spikes during its official climbing season in July and August. However, views of Fujisan aren't limited to summer hikers: the view in the photo above is similar to one that many tourists will get to see themselves, especially if a trip on the Tokaido Shinkansen is on their itinerary.

Even during Japan's Edo period (1603-1868), Tokyo (then called Edo) and Kyoto were major cities in Japan. The coastal road connecting the two important cities was known as the Tokaido (東海道 : literally "East Sea Road"), and back then, travel along the road was mostly by foot. With the appropriate government documentation, a traveler could walk--or be carried via kago, the jinrikisha's predecessor--from one end to the other, provided the 514 kilometer (or 319 mile) trek wasn't too daunting. Along with the JR Tokaido Main Line, the Tokaido Shinkansen route loosely follows the original Tokaido road...although thanks to shinkansen speeds of up to 300 km/h (186 mph), the journey from Tokyo to Kyoto now takes hours rather than weeks.

Hokusai's "The Great Wave off Kanagawa"
As with the Edo period, Fujisan is easily the most recognizable landmark on today's modern Tokaido route. Not only is it hard to miss as Japan's tallest point at 3,776 meters (12,388 feet--or 2.3 miles), its likeness has also been reproduced countless times in art and photographic prints. Perhaps the greatest contributor to the worldwide appreciation of Mount Fuji comes from artist Katsuhika Hokusai (1760-1849), whose ukiyo-e series "36 Views of Mount Fuji" (富嶽三十六景) helped make Mount Fuji a household name. The series' most popular print is actually its first piece, "The Great Wave off Kanagawa," pictured here. (I have a poster of it hanging in my old bedroom at my mom's house in central Indiana, so I think it's safe to say that Hokusai's art is far-reaching.)

Fujisan's sheer magnitude and beauty has called to people from all walks of life--not just artists and writers--for centuries. The area is believed to have great spiritual power, and the mountain is sacred to the Japanese Shinto and Buddhist religions. Aokigahara (青木ヶ原), a dense forest at Mount Fuji's northwest base, is also (in)famous for being a popular place to commit suicide, and the ghosts of the victims reportedly haunt the trees.

Other modern-day controversies plaguing the area are concerns about garbage littering Mount Fuji's paths, illegally discarded by hikers and others, as well as questions involving when the volcano will erupt again, with at least one estimate naming this year as a possibility. It's easy to forget that Fujisan is indeed an active volcano, as its last eruption was recorded centuries ago in December 1707.

A classically Japanese landmark, seeing Mount Fuji for the first time--even while speeding past on a shinkansen--is truly awe-inspiring. In future trips to Japan, I'm definitely hoping to get a closer look at Fujisan. I won't claim that I plan on climbing it--that's a bit ambitious for a non-hiker like me!--but I'd love to see it while relaxing at onsen in Hakone, or view it during a ride on the Mount Tenjo ropeway. Mount Fuji is such a culturally significant site that merely passing by at 186 miles per hour just doesn't seem to do it justice.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Photo Friday #7: Harajuku shopping! フォト金曜日#7:原宿の買い物!

フォト金曜日#7:原宿の買い物!Photo Friday #7: Harajuku shopping!

Last week, I wrote about Chinzan-so Garden, the serene urban oasis in Tokyo's Bunkyo ward. When thinking of Japan's capital, however, one is probably more apt to picture things that better invoke visions of a bustling metropolis: packed commuter trains, heavy traffic, and rows of skyscrapers that seem to go on forever. For today's Photo Friday post, I'm sharing a view from the ground of one of Tokyo's countless streets--albeit one that isn't for cars:

竹下通り、原宿: Takeshita-dori (Takeshita Street), Harajuku - March 23, 2013
In keeping with Japan's retail culture, Takeshita-dori is one of Tokyo's pedestrian-only shopping streets. A short walk from Harajuku Station on the Yamanote Line, this area is where fashionistas come to play, spending their yen on everything from crepes to false eyelashes to selfie sticks. While Takeshita-dori lacks the polished, upscale aesthetic of Omotesando-dori, the popular neighboring road to the south, it and its many side streets form the true heart of Japanese street fashion and counterculture. It's gritty, it's crowded, it's's effortlessly cool.

Bordered by the gorgeous green spaces of Meiji Jingu (or Meiji Shrine) and Yoyogi Park on its western edge, Harajuku's innumerable tiny shops on narrow alleys help fuel the rise of the hottest Japanese fashion trends. From decora to visual kei to sweet lolita, there's a little something for everyone. And if you're less into style and more into comfort (and cheekiness), you can still find an irreverent new T-shirt like I did, designed by Gokigen Factory.

In recent years, Harajuku has received a lot of attention, due in part to publicity from western entertainers. In her 2004 solo debut "Love. Angel. Music. Baby." Gwen Stefani heavily referenced Harajuku (though unfortunately mispronouncing it), drawing inspiration from its unique fashion scene. She co-wrote the song "Harajuku Girls" and hired four Japanese backup dancers--also known as the Harajuku Girls, going by the names Love, Angel, Music, and Baby--to appear with her in music videos, on tour, and in interviews. Even her fashion brands, particularly Harajuku Lovers, showcase her affection for the area.

Not surprisingly, Stefani's affinity for Harajuku is also shared by other pop songstresses. Lady Gaga always makes it a point to visit Dog--one of the many boutiques tucked away in basements--when she's in Tokyo; Nicki Minaj celebrates Harajuku's eclectic style with one of her alter egos; and just last week, Katy Perry was seen in the area wearing a fuzzy mask, akin to those made by gonoturn, with a schoolgirl outfit. (The article claims it was a "'look-at-me' ensemble," but honestly, it was pretty mild [dare I say...basic?] compared to most things seen every day in Harajuku.)

Western celebrities aren't the only ones highlighting Harajuku: from fashion blogger to model to singer, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu has evolved into an international superstar, casting a spotlight on Harajuku in the process. With viral hits like PONPONPON, her debut album, もしもし原宿 ("Moshi Moshi Harajuku"), came out in 2011; since then, she's released three more albums, and continues to work with Yasutaka Nakata (the producer of Japanese bands Capsule and Perfume). She's absolutely everywhere in Japan, appearing on variety shows, in magazines, and in commercials. I'm not ashamed to say that the decision to buy the New Nintendo 3DS while I was in Japan was strongly influenced by Kyary's Nintendo ads. かわいい だ よ!

In the 2009 video below, you'll see a 16-year-old Kyary ("Carrie" in the subtitles) on the streets in Harajuku...and then at home, quarreling with her mother about her fashion choices. After interviewing Kyary, the program profiles an American expat who fell in love with lolita fashion while stateside. And, bonus: five minutes in, you'll meet Minori, the most popular shironuri artist today. (Be sure to watch from 6:50 til the end for more Harajuku looks, too!)

With Shinjuku Station--the world's busiest train station--two stops to the north and Shibuya Station--a bishoujo/bishounen shopping mecca--one stop to the south on the Yamanote Line, Harajuku and Takeshita-dori may seem like a blip on the average tourist's radar. Sure, Harajuku Station is a little grungier than others, and the area holds the dubious honors of both being the only place I saw a rat in Japan (apparently rats love crepes too!) and the only place I felt threatened (ok, but let's keep it relative: it's still Japan, so the passing fear I felt on that random back street is still less than the fear I feel in my own U.S. neighborhood), but visiting Harajuku gives you a raw, firsthand look at the youthful undercurrent of modern Japanese society, far removed from anything you'll see in America.

...well, maybe you will see it in America, but it'll be five years from now--ten if you're here in the midwest--and Japan will have already cycled through a dozen new trends by then.