A Japanese Holiday – Himeji Castle

 

Himeji Castle. JapanA short stop on our various trails in Japan was Himeji Castle. As usual, I was carrying my son on my back, and I must say that despite the extra bulk around my waist those days, I managed to carry him up and down all the five floors of the Himeji Castle. I must say, however, that my huffing and puffing must have distract my companions from enjoying the castle in the way that they would have enjoyed. It certainly did prevent me from stooping and taking photographs of some of the more detailed sections inside the castle. I was a bit worried that, if I were to bend over, the young fellow would fly through the carrier and land on his head in an ungainly manner.

Himeji Castle is considered to be one of the most interesting and spectacular castles of Japan. Now, when I first saw the castle, I was a mite disappointed. I was expecting something more spectacular and dramatic. Yet, when I walked around, and looked at the harmonious manner in which the castle has been constructed, the true beauty of the castle slowly dawned on me.  The map below shows the route from Roko Island to Himeji Castle, for those of who may be interested.

The Castle has been named as the “White Heron Castle”, because of the white plaster that it has been covered with. While the castle itself is made of wood, the white plaster is fireproof and must have played a significant role in it’s preservation. The castle has never been destroyed.

For those who are arithmetically inclined, the castle has been built on top of a hill that is 45.6 meters above sea level. The main tower is 46.4 meters high, making the top of the castle an exact 92 meters above sea level. I don’t know if there is any astronomical or religious significance in this, but it is an interesting enough mathematically.

This is an old fort indeed, and considering it’s antiquity it has been really well maintained. I must say that this is a hallmark of much of Japanese architecture – the impeccable maintenance. You could almost swear that it is new. Think: the history of the castle starts in 1333 AD, when the fort was first constructed by Norima Akamatsu. In 1581, a three story castle was built by Hideyoshi Toyotomi, and between 1601 and 1609, Termumasa Ikeda built the 5 story structure. This makes it close to 700 years old from the first construction, and just over 400 years old from the time that the five story building was constructed. This is indeed marvelous.

From there, we went to the Tottori Sand Dunes.

No photographs here. Only a map! These are spectacular sand dunes. I say this, and I am not really inspired by sand. There is about 16 kilometers of coastline. The sand dunes are about 2 kilometers wide in section, and reach up to 50 meters in height. We did not go to the sand museum. I was, in any case, tired.  I was pooped, especially after racing up and down the dunes with my son on my back. I was really paranoid in parts, as I was sure that I was going to do a Humpty-Dumpty act on the way down. I did not, and I boasted about this for the rest of the day! Me, the dune conqueror!

However, in my more humble moments, I must admit that all I was trying to do, was to race up and down a dune that was supposedly left behind after a huge tsunami hit the coast. This is what I was told anyway. Now, this is something that is to be considered carefully. Think of the huge power of nature that can deposit this massive range of dunes, and leave it for tourists to enjoy. When we enjoy nature, live with it, and respect the Grand Old Mother (Nature), then we live in harmony. When we fight it, then we have problems. Real problems.

True living only comes in living in harmony with nature. This is something that keeps coming back to me whenever I think of the Tottori Sand Dunes. ‘

Live with the Grand Old Mother. Respect her, and live in harmony with her. Don’t fight her.

 

A Japanese Holiday – Shigaraki

 
Pottery

Next stop was Shigeraki, and once again, I shall insert a map into the post, but I shall do so at the end. I had never heard of Shigeraki, and I wondered why the hell we were driving to this strange place to make earthen pots. But, we did. We drove to Shigeraki. It was some distance from Roko Island,  and we had a few stops on the way. We took turns driving, so while I was in the navigator’s seat, I took some photos of the road. It was a wonderful drive. The chaps at the toll gates were wonderfully polite and punctilious in their behaviour.

The road was lined with green trees, and the hills were absolutely fantastic. It was a rainy day, but the air was crisp and fresh, and if it weren’t for the fact that I did not want to get wet, or get my fellow passengers wet, I would have opened the windows and let my soul melt in with the warm, spring rain.

 

OnTheRoad To ShigarakiSo, we reached Shigaraki. I sniffed with derision as the group sat around the table, as the master potter showed us how to make some nice pots. Then, I laughed as the group stumbled their ways through the pottery class. I was convinced that the clumsy pieces would be discarded as soon as we left Shigaraki, but no! Ours arrived at our home in Shanghai a month later, and the man had painted over the work that we had done. While the shape was still ungainly, the way that it was painted, the colour scheme made it look pretty damned good! I was stunned and had to eat a stack of humble pies!

Now, Shigaraki has an old tradition of pottery, going back about 1,250 years and, is known for its clay. It has some of the oldest kilns in Japan, and with this sort of deep tradition, they continue to churn out masterpieces! The name Shigaraki comes from “Shigeri Ku”, which means woody, dense mountain.

I was pretty impressed by the artisans there. While I was publicly sniffing in derision as the class and demonstration was going on, I was secretly very impressed. Only, I was too damn proud at that time to admit it. The pieces that I saw were truly impressive and really artistic.

Once, I heard a speech, on tape, by Osho Rajneesh, on creativity. He quoted a Japanese master who said that when he has to make a table, he spends some time meditating on the trees, feeling them, their texture and spirit. Then, he cuts the tree, and chooses the wood. Once this is done, he meditates upon the block of wood, and when he feels the wood, the table ‘forms’ itself.  The carpentry is then effortless, and allows him to create masterpieces. The table forms itself under his hands. He does not have to fight the wood. The wood and he are one with each other, and the table.

This is something of the spirit that I experienced in Shigaraki. The spirit of the clay being formed into wondrous and marvelous shapes under the hands of generations of masters who truly understand the clay.

 

A Japanese Holiday – Nara

 

GangojiOur next stop was at Nara, which was almost two hours or more from where we were staying. This entailed a change of train, but the train system is really fantastic in Japan. Maybe, a map should be inserted here, to give everyone an idea of where Nara is actually located in Japan. So, here goes.

Since I had two hours in the train, I decided to look around. Looking around or looking straight at people, I was told, was rude. It invaded their privacy, and was simply unacceptable behavior in Japan. So, the man or woman next to you could be reading hard core pornography, but that was their problem, and you were not expected to gawk at the words or photographs in the hope of some quick excitement. Some of the trains have these “silent coaches” where you are expected to be absolutely silent. Not the place for noisy Indians with noisy kids.  The ticket checkers would come in periodically, bow as they entered the cabin, and bow to the passengers as they left the cabin. This was  done with unfailing regularity, and without any expression of boredom or, “Why the “F” do I have to perform this unholy ritual”. The preciseness of the routine, and the solemnity with which it was always carried out was something that I always loved to watch. Simple acts, performed with perfection and honesty take on a form all their own that is almost an art at times.

Nara, as I discovered, was the ancient capital of Japan. Its glory as the capital was short-lived indeed. The capital was established in Heijo (Nara) in 710. It was moved out in 784 due to the growing influence of the city’s powerful Buddhist monasteries. It definitely seems that the influence of religion in the affairs of the state is a global phenomenon, and not restricted to certain parts of the world. Perhaps, the love for power is something that is endemic to human nature.

The Gangoji Temple (pictured above) is an old temple. I must say that this is not one of my favorite pictures. The Gangoji was an old Buddhist temple in Asuka and was shifter to Nara in the 8th century. The orange tiles used in the building are about 1,400 years old, and it may very well turn out that the temple may have some of the oldest temple timbre in the world.

The temples in Nara lost their influence during the Muromachi period between 1331 and 1572. Now, we did go to another temple in Nara, but I got lost.

 

Street Lamps. Nara. Japan

 

 

 

I was wandering around with my son on my back, taking in the wonderfully new experience of digital photography and suddenly, poof! I was alone!!  Anyway, so I decided to look around at the old street lamps.

To me, these were cool and quaint, and they looked so damn good. Well, okay, they looked damn good to me.

Again, it is strange that while, under normal circumstances the sight of old lamps hanging perilously from wires, but they did.

Do I sound like some sort of Japanphile?

 

 

 

Flowers By The Gate

 

 

And, as we walked around, I also noticed the way that people had decorated the gates of their homes with flowers. I did notice that the homes that people have are rather small, quite unlike the homes in Delhi (for instance). Yet, the way that the residents had managed to brighten up the small places that they had at their disposal was rather amazing.

It is cool really, and this is coming from me, who is not a flower guy!

Nara is a small town, especially when compared to the sizes of Indian towns, but the one thing that I did learn when looking closely at the gardens, was that you can do great things with small places.

Yay me, the guy who likes Japan, but struggles to understand the culture of the country.

More on my musings on the culture later

A holiday in Japan – Kyoto

 

 

 

 

KinkaikujiThe first place that we visited during that wonderful holiday, was Kyoto. It was an Indian invasion, of twenty odd Indians swarming into the local train, and marching into Kyoto. Now, Kyoto is a quiet and rather good looking town. This is amazing, if you consider that, during it’s history, it has been destroyed several times  due to fire and war. It was on the list of towns to be bombed during World War II, but it was dropped from the list. This is really a good thing as much history would have been completely destroyed by the dropping of just one atomic bomb on the city. This is not to say that what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was good. It is not. War of any kind is horrible, and nuclear war is completely horrible.

Kyoto was the capital of Japan, and was the home of the emperor from 794AD to 1868 AD. It is, today, the seventh largest city of Japan

We did not visit the old palace, but in the one day that we had, we did visit two temples. The first, in the northern section of Kyoto, is the Kinkakuji. This is the temple pictured above. It is an amazing temple. The Kikkakuji, the Golden Temple, is amazing, in part, because the top two floors are covered in gold leaf. This structure was formerly known as Rokuonji, and was the retirement home of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu.  The building was constructed to reflect the extravagance of the Kitayama culture of the times. After his death in 1408, it became a temple of the Rinzai sect, and a temple it has remained ever since.

There is almost perfect harmony in the construction of the temple, but I must confess that it took me some time to warm up to it. It was too perfect. Seriously. It was just too damn perfect. I looked for something to be out of place, but no. This is a great place to visit, to be at peace, and to meditate. There you have it.

The temple also served as the inspiration for the Ginkakuji, the silver pavilion. This was made by the grandson of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. Ashikaga Yoshimasa completed the Ginkakuji a few decades after Kinkakuji.

The other temple that we visited was the Kiyomizudera. This means, literally, Pure Water Temple and is one of the most famous temples of Japan. This temple was founded in 780 AD, at the site of the Otowa waterfall. The temple was originally associated with the Hosso sect, one of the oldest sects in Japanese Buddhism. The temple is well known for it’s wooden platform that juts out from the hillside. This allows you, the priest and the visitor, to stand in peace, look at the hills above you, and also down at the cherry and maple trees. I have been to Japan during the season of the Spring Blossom, and standing there on the platform, you would stand there and drink in all that is good and pure in nature.

Mountain Stream. Kiyomizudera

At the base of the temple, you come to the Otowa waterfall. The waters are divided into three streams, each of which gives a different benefit. One, for longevity, one success at school, and one for your love life. Don’t drink from all three streams – it is considered greedy. Anyhow, when we saw the people drinking from the cups that are attached to the long poles, our first reaction was, “No way!! We are gonna end up with some sort of a water borne disease.”

Then, our host, jumping up and down in mock anger exclaimed, “nooo. Infidels! Philistines! This is Japan! Drink!”

With that one sentence, we knew that he really did love the country of his residence at the time.

We drank, and never felt better! Maybe, it is the spirit of the old Buddhists that flows through the water. Maybe, it is the spirit of Nature that flows through the water.

Whichever spirit flows through the water is immaterial. It is  good.

A Holiday In Japan – Rokko Island

 

 

 

 
Pier. Roko Island. Japan

Years back, when the world was a younger place, I went on a holiday to Japan with my family, and a bunch of friends. We all shacked up at my friend’s house at Rokko Island. There were, as I remember, about 25 of us, from babies to adults, staying together in my classmates home. How is family managed to squeeze us in is one of the mysteries of our times.  We were with him and his family for three or four days, and when I look back, I can only marvel at the considerable planning that would have gone into making that trip a success, and it is a tribute to the great hospitality of his family.

So, there he was, this Indian expatriate living the good life in Rokko Island, near Kobe, in Japan.

When we walked around Rokko Island, we discovered that it is a really good place to stay. While it does have its share of karaoke bars (and, I actually croaked out one line from Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” one night), it may not be the most exciting place to live. Yet, it is an absolute marvel.

Now, when I look back at those times, and I think about Rokko Island, I once again marvel at the standards of excellence that the Japanese habitually set. This is amazing. I will come to their concept of harmony later in these travels. However, the island, if no one had told me, is an island that I would never would have believed is a man made island. It opened in September 1992, after twenty years of reclamation. This is amazing. 580 ha of complete reclamation, with a 130ha centre, with complete facilities for people to live.

It took us Indians twenty years to build the famous Bandra-Worli Sea Link in Bombay, and this was a flawed piece of work. In Japan, they created a pristine piece of land, a place for people to live in the same amount of time. Now, I am not going to bitch about us Indians. God alone knows that this is one thing that we Indians are really good at: cribbing, bitching and moaning about our country, instead of doing something positive about it.

Yet, during the one or two evenings that we gamboled about in the parks of Rokko Island, I marveled.

This trip was a bit of firsts, actually.

The first holiday for my son.

The first time that I did digital photography. My preferred medium is still black and white film, but it is almost impossible to buy the stuff, and have it processed.

My first time in Japan.  I would have liked to have gone there more times than I did. It is an absolutely fascinating country, with fascinating and complex people.

The journey will continue!

 

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