Archive for March, 2011


I planned to spend three nights in Okayama, and the first day I had set aside for a visit to Kurashiki, a city about 15 minutes away by train.  It’s noted for a group of historic buildings around an old canal, many of which are now in use as shops, museums, restaurants, and ryokans.

On my way to the canal area, I stopped off at the restored Ōhashi House, which dates back to 1793.  Built by a well-to-do merchant, it’s very well preserved and well worth the visit if you’re in town.

The area is very touristy in feel – somewhat like the Distillery District in Toronto might be on an afternoon.  Aside from the buildings themselves, the canal made for some great photos as well.

Wandering the back streets nearby, I found some interesting buildings to photograph.  The clash of old and new in these historic areas makes for some great finds.

Circling back, the cancel came with a couple of interesting habitants that I chased around for the better part of an hour – Swans and a Heron (Crane?).  Surprisingly, they let you get pretty close, but then I suppose they’re used to tourists.

This is also where I purchased my first piece of pottery – bizen-yaki.  I’ll be heading to Imbe tomorrow, where most of the Bizen-yaki (Bizen pottery) is made, so resisted the temptation to pick up too much just yet.

Back to Okayama, a quick dinner, and a few photos as night closed in.  Next up – laundry.

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Kōya-san to Okayama

This morning started similarly to yesterday – early meditation followed by vegetarian temple breakfast – there was no formal tour of the Treasure(s) this time, but we were allowed to wander around them self-guided so-to-speak.  This time there was a family of four in attendance, the other guests presumably having checked out the previous day.

It was, as before, cold – enough that I needed to break out the cold weather gear again.  This time, however, I’d be wearing it all day.  Packing everything up, I went downstairs and left my baggage in the office and headed out to take some photos.

I had been saving Oku-no-in for this morning to get some actual daytime shots, and wandered about for most of the morning.

And just in case you thought you’d turned in your last project at work when you ‘retired’, the company you work for offers you a spot in their corporate grave where you can continue to put your hours in.

I paid my respects at the Kūkai mausoleum, took note of the tour groups starting to show up, and decided to get some lunch.

Some Soba Tempura and I was off to get my luggage and head for Okayama.  It ended up being a little over three hours, end-to-end, but there wasn’t a lot of waiting around thankfully.  On the way, I passed through Osaka where I’ll be visiting later, and got a feel for the city and its transit system.

Arriving in Okayama, I was glad that I had booked a hotel near the station – I was tired and had had enough walking, particularly with baggage in toe.  My room actually overlooks the station as the trains come and go, including the Shinkansen line that runs from Osaka to Hakata I arrived on.  I’m still not sure if the windows are supposed to open or if it’s just for emergencies – I tried, but it felt like the whole window might pop out so I gave up fearing a costly disaster.  No photos, I guess.

Heading out for dinner, I did my best to find the “entertainment district”, typically where the majority of good restaurants are going to be.  I’m not sure I found it – Okayama seems to shut down pretty early on a weekday, and just about everything was closed with no apparent concentration of restaurants or bars.

I ended up heading back towards the station, and stumbled upon an Izakaya/Yakitori style restaurant – small, cozy, and built for the locals.  I just wish it hadn’t taken an hour to find, but the food was great and they threw in some extra sake as “service” (free).

On the way back to the hotel:

Time to change the lights...

Bicycle Lock-up - $1/24 hours (I think)

When staying at a temple, your schedule is somewhat set – and that includes getting up in the morning for 6:30 meditation.  Somehow, I made it in time – and I’m glad I had my winter wear, as the pond outside had an ice glaze on it, having frozen overnight, and it was cold – very cold.

Meditation lasted about 30 minutes, after which we were given a tour (in Japanese mind you) of the treasures of Shojoshin-in, the temple where I am staying.  There were five of us at meditation – a grandmother, mother, and two sons, and another foreigner.  After meditation, the other foreigner left, presumably to go to breakfast, whereas I hung back with the japanese and as a result got to go on the tour.  We headed to breakfast afterwards (which they serve the same as dinner – in your own ‘meal’ room, different than where you sleep but just as private.

Today was to be a day of travelling around the mountain top, visiting all the major temple and museums on offer.  A few kilometres of walking (I generally avoid the easy option – the bus) and snapping photos of:

The temple where I stayed (Shojoshin-in):

It was cold and I needed I warm drink – corn or red bean?  I went with the one on the right.

Tokugawa Mausoleum – can’t see through the fence, unfortunately

Nyonindo Gate

Kongōbuji

The Garan – Dai-tō (Great Pagoda), Kondō (Main Hall), Sai-tō (Western Pagoda).  Met a middle-aged japanese couple here, the husband ran a photo shop and was interested in the camera I was using.  He only had a point-and-shoot with him, having left his SLR (too inconvenient).  With tripod in toe, I attract attention somehow…

Daimon Gate

and finally Reihōkan (Treasure Museum) (no pictures allowed inside!) and Karukaya-dō.  I’m somewhat surprised I could fit it all into one day, but some of the guidebooks did say you could do Kōya-san as a day trip, although it wasn’t advised.

Few more shots of the temple (Shojoshin-in) in late afternoon.  Definitely recommended if you come to Kōya-san and want to be close to the cemetery.

After dinner and onsen, I decided to brave the cold and the Oku-no-in cemetery again – only this time, I would approach it from the main entrance, which is about a kilometre up the road.  Upon entering the main approach to the temple, the path was quite a bit wider and well lit – far fewer feelings of someone jumping out from behind a tombstone (or within one).

Eventually though, the path joined up with the other one, and the way ahead lay in darkness – I’m not sure if they light up the Tōrō-dō (Lantern Hall) or the Kūkai mausoleum, but I decided tonight was not the night to find out and headed back.

Some night shots of the temple (Shojoshin-in) on my return:

As luck would have it, I missed the early morning ferry.  Getting up early enough to catch a 5:55am ferry simply wasn’t in the cards, I guess.

On the plus side, while I might have lost a few hours sightseeing, I also saved some $$ by taking the bus instead of having to grab a taxi to the port.  The ferry is a couple of hours, followed by another three on the train to get to Mt. Koya.  Not the fastest way to get there but the best option considering where I’m coming from.

The last leg of the trip included a cable-car ride up the side of the mountain, and a bus to get to the temple I was staying at.

Meals were included, and happened at set times, so with an early dinner I decided not to waste the afternoon and headed out to the nearby Oku-no-in Cemetery, one of the highlights of any visit here.

I walked all the way to the Kūkai Mausoleum (no pictures allowed in the inner shrine area), and then headed back so I would make it in time for dinner.

Dinner was a traditional Buddhist vegetarian affair – lots to eat, hardly any of which I knew what it was, and given the variety and quantity you really didn’t miss the meat.  This was followed by onsen – bath time is restricted to late afternoon to early evening, so it was now or never.

Aside from getting to bed early, the one thing I wanted to take a walk and try was some night photography at Oku-no-in Cemetery.  The first hand experiences I had read said that as night falls and the temperature drops, you get some really great atmosphere.

Well, night wasn’t falling – it had already fell.  It was after 9pm by the time I got there and started my walk, and in some places the lighting was almost non existent.  I didn’t walk the whole way, instead I spent an hour wandering around in the cold, dark, and eerily quiet atmosphere that only a cemetery can provide.  I wouldn’t recommend doing it alone.

The good news is I got to finally try out my cold weather gear, to combat the frost bitting temperatures up here.  I knew there was a reason I was still carrying them around…

One of the reasons I arranged my schedule as it is was to ensure I was in town during the Sunday Market.  So this morning I headed out into the throngs of people and looked for two things – great photos, and lunch.  I managed both.

Break Time

Arriving I Tokushima, I checked into the hotel and went out for dinner.  Along the way, I took in the city at night, the only time I was apt to see it.

A dinner of shashimi moriwase, kaki, and edamame.  Tomorrow, I’m off to Mt. Koya via Wakayama on the early morning ferry.

Kōchi and Godaisan

A few kilometres from town is Godaisan, which happens to include a lookout over the city from a few hundred metres up, Chikurin-ji, Temple 31 of the 88 along the pilgramage, and the Kōchi Prefectural Makino Botanical Gardens.  I decided to spend the afternoon wandering around this area, and took the bus up.

The lookout point had a restaurant and shop, of course, but from the 3F level you had good views out over the city.

 

Apparently this is a popular spot for getting engaged.

Leaving a lock is supposed to symbolize the relationship lasting forever.  So…. who gets the key?  😉  And, what exactly does a combination lock signify?

Wandering through the temple grounds, I took in the five storey pagoda and Jizō.

The Botanical Gardens ended up chewing up a lot of memory card space.  A lot to see and take in, both inside and outside.  Cherry Blossoms were not yet in season, so most of these are of flowers.

I headed into town on the last bus, and decided to grab some dinner before heading back to the hotel.  Time to pack…

Kōchi Art Blocks

I wasn’t really sure where to place this one, so I am putting it in a separate blog entry.  While on my way to the Friday Market area as indicated on the tourist map, I walked by a school – and whether these are related or not I can’t say for sure.  But the first couple sparked my interest sufficiently that I decided to capture the entire set.  Perhaps those of you with Japanese skills can help me translate the captions for the rest of us.  But even without the translation, you should still find them interesting.

Presented in chronological order:

 

Kōchi is a city in the southern part of Shikoku, in a prefecture of the same name.  Looking at the rail system, a trip from Matsuyama to Kōchi via Uwajima might have been a better plan, but I wanted to be in Kōchi on the weekend when the bus service would be running more frequently and I could catch the Sunday Market.

I decided to grab an early morning train from Takamatsu so I could maximize my stay in Kōchi.  Ideally I wanted three days here, but to make my connection to Mt. Koya I would need a stopover in Tokoshima on Sunday.  Arriving around 10:30am, I dropped my luggage off at the hotel and headed out for some sightseeing.

Under the railway through town

 

First stop was the castle, Kōchi-jō, originally built in the 17th century and mostly intact – only one of about a dozen in all of Japan.  Looking at the map, I decided to take a detour on the way and head towards the location of the Friday market to see if anything was still going on.  Mostly a fresh produce market, there were a variety of items available for purchase – mostly food in one form or another.  What struck me was the women staffing the various stalls – they seemed almost from another time, like they’d been doing this for as long as the market had every been open.

From the market to the castle there were two shrines and a temple on the map – so I figured I might just as well take them in too.  Nothing too much of note different than other shrines and temples around Japan.

In case you’re wondering what the difference is, Temples are associated with Buddhism and tend to be larger and more elaborate, while shrines are associated with Shinto, a religion native to Japan that has more to do with day to day life than the afterlife.

A few blocks away I entered a park on the northwest side of the castle and wandered around for a bit.  A few photos of flowers, but nothing specific of interest.  Making my way towards the back entrance of Kōchi-jō, I could here a lot of yelling, some shrikes, and the distinct sound of two wooden staffs coming together.  Just outside the park area there appeared to be a five storey building with a lot of activity inside.  I can’t read the sign, but if I had to guess I’d say it was a martial arts training centre, and the activity I had heard was a group of women doing naginata.  Perhaps someone with Japanese skills can translate the signage for me to confirm.  That said, as a sport in grade or high school this sounds a heck of a lot better for you than wasting time playing dodgeball….

A hike up the hill to Kōchi-jō was next.  It was nice to see an actual castle with some original structure left to it, rather than a partial or complete reconstruction (please, stop it with the concrete).  The view from the top out of the city really helped confirm that we were literally surrounded by hills and mountains.

It was getting rather cold outside, and so I decided it was time to head out.  For those that don’t know, Kōchi is the hometown of renowned historical figure Sakamoto Ryoma, and the subject of a recent NHK JDrama (Japanese Drama) series I had been watching.  I wandered by his place of birth, and then headed to the museum around the corner.

Kōchi is a pleasant city to wander around in, with a nice vibe – big enough, yet with a small town kind of feel to it.  I met someone from Vancouver who was travelling around Japan as well, and from our discussion it sounded like he was thinking of staying in Kōchi to look for a job teaching english – he was that impressed with the city.

After the museum and checking in at the hotel, I headed out for dinner.  The speciality in Kōchi is katsuo tataki (lightly seared bonito fish).  I found a spot and for a change had fish – the special, plus some saba (mackeral) sashimi.

On my way back to the hotel, I took some photos of the locals doing their thing – cooking up sweets, cycling home, playing music, or drawing/painting.

While Takamatsu was well laid out for tourists, it held little in the way of sights, and the castle, Takamatsu-jō, was now a park.  It was also under construction, and so I decided to skip it and head to Kotohira instead.

Kotohira is a small village, and its main street near the train station is somewhat devoid of vehicles most of the time.  The reason most people visit here is to go to the Shintō Shrine, Kompira-san, which is dedicated to mariners.

On the way to the shrine, I stopped off at the local sake museum, Kinryō-no-Sato, for a tour.  The museum itself was quite large, and the video at the end showed the entire sake making progress.  Unfortunately they did not appear to be providing tastings that day.

Aside from the shrine, the other reason I wanted to come to Kotohira was to visit the Kanamaru-za, Japan’s oldest kabuki playhouse.  Built in 1835, when not in use you can tour the entire facility.  They were cleaning the facility when I arrived.

My next stop was Kompira-san itself, positioned on a hilltop 1368 steps to the top.  Snapping photos along the way, my only goal was to keep pace with an elderly couple also making the climb up.

Arriving at the top, and not satisfied with the exertion, I decided to wlak the additional 500 steps up to the Inner Shrine (Oku-sha), which it seemed to me was harder to do than the first climb.  Arriving at Oku-sha, I was able to see the village below surrounded by rolling hills nearby.

Having made it this far, I decided to invest in a fortune which I will need help deciphering later.  On the way back down I stopped in at the main shrine and wandered around.  Things were closing, so I made my way back down from here and ran into an overly affectionate feline who, unlike many other cats, appeared more domestic than wild.

Back to the train station, and a return trip to Takamatsu.  The area around the train station was lit up at night, so I grabbed a few photos and then headed back to the hotel.

With the earthquake in Tohoku affecting my first two planned activities (Sake no jin, Niigata, and Anime Festival, Tokyo), I had had to rework my plans.  Today, I found out that the annual spring festivals (matsuri) in Takayama and Furukawa had also been cancelled, which I had not been anticipating.

While certainly understandable, it means I will now need to re-plan the last half of my trip here.  Time to do some more research…

Setting out from the hotel, I grabbed the local tram service to the JR station and headed out.  Takamatsu is about 2.5 hours from Matsuyama by train, so I grabbed some take-out lunch at the station.

Arriving at the JR Takamatsu station, I got my bearings and decided to walk to the hotel and drop of my luggage there.  It was early afternoon and rather than waste the rest of the day I immediately headed out to one of the two sites in town I was interested in, the Ritsurin-kōen, which apparently dates from the mid-1600’s and took more than a century to complete.

The garden was quite impressive – one of the best I’ve visited in Japan in all my trips, and I wandered my way through the park for two and a half hours before heading to Kikugetsu-tei, the largest tea house in the park for some matcha and sweet.

With the sun setting and the park closing, I headed back to the hotel and out to grab some dinner.  The speciality in Takamatsu is Udon, so I figured I should try that the first night.  Wandering around the entertainment district I finally located one of the recommended places.  About to wander inside,  a girls sports team of some type exited the restaurant and seemed startled by my (gaijin) presence.  I guess they don’t get many gaijin in Takamatsu.  They paused for a bit and we exchanged greetings and the typical “where are you from” type questions before their coach came out of the restaurant (presumably after paying the bill) and they wandered off with sayonara’s.

I ordered the curry udon with tempura and watched them make the noodles while eating dinner.  While it was good, I think I still prefer ramen.

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