Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Castles! Castles! Castles!

Our trip to Nara over the summer was sandwiched between two short diversions to see castles, one of which is considered Japan's grandest. Once I sat down to write about them, I realized that I'd never actually written about our own hometown castle yet — Hiroshima Castle. So let's do that first.

A view of Hiroshima Castle from across the moat.

The word for "castle" in Japanese is actually "jo", so of course Joe and I always have a good time introducing him to new Japanese comrades as "Hiroshima Joe", same as the castle. They never forget his name!

Introducing the real Hiroshima Joe...

Would the real Hiroshima Joe please stand up?

The other Hiroshima-jo up close. Can't compare, I know.

I swung by the castle the other day and finally took a tour of the museum inside. It is mildly interesting, at least more-so than other castles I've toured since many of the exhibits have English explanations. It focuses mainly on the history of the castle and displays some historic artifacts.

I liked that you could actually step out onto the open-air tower for a low view over the city — nothing too spectacular as this castle isn't on a mountaintop, but there was a very pleasant breeze.

Decorative windows in the castle tower.

Hiroshima Castle was originally built in the 1590s but it was destroyed by the atomic bomb in 1945 and later rebuilt in 1958.

The castle's nickname is Carp Castle. The reason for this is that the area where the castle was built was called Koi-no-ura (Koi Sea Shore) back then. "Koi" means carp in Japanese — hence, Carp Castle. And of course, Hiroshima's professional baseball team is now the Carp, too — with the same red uniforms and "C" logo as the Cincinnati Reds (and the bad luck to match, too!).

Interestingly, the construction of the castle also had something to do with the name of the city itself. When the castle was built, Hiroshima was not known as Hiroshima. The area was called "Gokamura", which means five villages in Japanese. It was decided that a more appropriate name was called for when construction of the castle began. The new name was formed by borrowing the character 広 (hiro, which means wide) from the name of Oeno Hiromoto, an ancestor of the Mori family, which ruled the area at that time. Then 島 (shima, which means island) was taken from Fukushima Motonaga, who guided the feudal lord Mori Terumoto to the site.

And so you see why Hiroshima's nickname is the Wide Island — hence the name of the Hiroshima JET webzine I edit, the Wide Island View.

There's also another tradition that states that Hiroshima's name originated from a wide island at the mouth of the Otagawa River that runs through the city.

One of the things I found interesting about the castle was the way it was constructed using the river in its defense. The banks of the islands on which the castle stood were built up higher than the opposite banks. In the event of an attack, the plan was to destroy the smaller banks, thus flooding the enemy camp and throwing them into confusion.

The guys on horseback would be blindsided by a sudden flood of water.

Personally, I don't think Hiroshima Castle is as pretty as a lot of other reconstructed castles. It's got less decorative ornamentation, looks older and seems to be not as well maintained. But maybe that's intentional to make it look more like the original?

Wikipedia tells me there used to be around 5,000 castles in Japan. Most of these wooden castles were built between 1467 and 1603, when Japan was going through it's "Warring States" period. Feudal lords built the castles as military defense in the areas they ruled.

Today, there are around 100 castles left and of those only about a dozen are originals (including Kochi Castle, which we visited last year.) Many were destroyed as relics of the past during the Meiji Period (in the late 1800s) after Japan opened itself to the West, and many more met their demise during World War II.

One of the reconstructed castles is Osaka Castle, which was just restored in 1997. To get to Nara, Joe and I had to take a bus to Osaka first, so we stopped for dinner and took a stroll through the castle grounds.

Rising from a 100-foot high stone block foundation, Osaka Castle is pretty impressive — in my opinion, anyway. Traditionalists may look over their noses at these "fake" castles, which they say are built just for the tourists, but whatever. I still thought it was very pretty, and the crouching golden tiger decorations were a nice touch.

We didn't have time to tour the museum inside since we were just pausing on our way to Nara, and from what I've read the exhibits aren't in English anyway, so it seems that we didn't miss much.

On our way home from Nara, we took a detour to Himeji Castle, which is considered the finest castle in Japan. I have wanted to see Himeji ever since seeing our first castle in Iwakuni, which displayed pictures of castles from all over Japan. Every time I pointed out a beautiful picture, it turned out to be the same castle — Himeji. Built in 1609, it is one of the few originals remaining, and it is the best preserved castle in Japan.

Himeji Castle

A view of the castle grounds and city from the top.

View of the inside.

A "heavily fortified" wooden door that closed off the area where the women lived.

Shrine at the top.

Himeji had some interesting features, like hidden rooms in the attic and small holes where you could drop stones or boiling water onto attackers who tried to climb the walls. (Or perhaps just shoot them or wing a spear at them.)

I found out recently that Himeji is due to undergo a five-year renovation soon, during which time it will be encased in scaffolding, so we're lucky we saw it when we did.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Trip to Nara: Temples, temples, temples!

Nara deer lying around munching stuff.

A couple weeks after our trip to Hagi and Tsuwano, Joe and I took off for Nara, a city near Kyoto that is famed for its ancient temples and an overabundance of tame deer. As the capital of Japan in the 8th century, Nara was considered the cradle of Japanese culture, arts and crafts, and several of its ancient temples are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Needless to say, we went prepared to see temples... lots of 'em.

The first thing you run into in Nara, though, is the deer. With somewhere around 1,200 of them in Nara Park, its not hard to see why deer are considered a symbol of Nara. In fact, they are even designated as a National Monument of Japan. That may sound bizarre to us, but you have to understand that, unlike for you or I, the deer represent more than just a road hazard to the Japanese.

According to a little tourism guide I picked up, back in the year 768, an ancient historical record was found in one of the shrines in Nara, the Kasuga Grand Shrine. This record stated that a deity riding on a sacred white deer appeared on a mountain behind the shrine. After that, people started to worship deer as a sacred symbol and started looking after them.

And so now, like Miyajima, Nara is teeming with deer. The main difference is that the deer in Nara are healthier and more aggressive. They have not resigned themselves to eating tourists' paper maps and cigarette butts like the Miyajima deer, which rather look like overgrown rats with patches of hair missing here and there. No, the Nara deer know you're probably a big enough sucker to buy the little deer biscuits sold by street vendors, and they waste no time letting you know that they will not wait around while you decide you're ready to feed them. They are going to take what's rightfully theirs, dammit!

One deer tries to snatch someone's purse while other deer chase a poor Japanese woman.

No sooner had I bought some biscuits then the deer were literally trying to rip chunks out of my shirt and gore me with their horns. I'm not joking when I say they actually chased me around the park. I think they might have ripped off a finger if I'd actually tried to hold a biscuit out and feed them nicely. Dumb deer. So uncivilized!

A deer scopes out its next victim.

Having learned the tough way that the deer are to be avoided, not coddled, we spent the rest of the time admiring Nara's gardens and ancient temples. It would be overkill to talk about them all, so I'll just highlight a couple of my favorites.

The grandest of them all was without a doubt Todaiji Temple. Originally, its construction was completed in 752, but it's burned down twice over the years and was last reconstructed in 1709. Despite being just two-thirds the size of the original, the current structure is touted as the largest wooden building in the world. And, it is pretty awe inspiring.

In Todaiji's shadow, people look like ants.

Inside the temple is an impressive, gigantic Buddha statue giving us all the hand.

Giant Buddha

Some wooden statues of kings stand guard on both sides of the Buddha. It's a little surreal to be next to these things in real life, feeling like they are staring down on you.

This old stone monument was leaning up against a wall on the inside. Rather creepy. Reminded me of the Joker.

The last really notable thing about Todaiji was this totally wicked statue out front, next to the giant doors.

This wooden statue is from the 18th century and the plaque labeled it as one of the disciples of Buddha. This disciple excelled in the mastery of occult powers. The common belief is that if you rub part of the statue and then rub the corresponding part of your own body, an ailment there will disappear. I didn't try it so I can't vouch for it.

After Todaiji, the next most fascinating place had to be the Kasuga Grand Shrine — that's the one I mentioned earlier where the deity appeared on the sacred white deer. The structure itself is pretty though probably not so extraordinary. What makes this place special, though, is its 1,000 bronze lanterns and 2,000 stone lanterns.

I very much admired these intricate old lanterns and only wished I could be there on one of the two nights a year when they are all lit. It would be a sight to behold.

There were many other temples and a few impressive pagodas, but these two sites were my favorites. All in all, a pleasant trip for the memory books, though by the end it's safe to say Joe and I were definitely "templed out".

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Sports Day Bon-Odori

Batgirl and Yukatagirl, Defenders of English!

This is a picture of me and my favorite student. (Oops! Am I allowed to admit that? I'm not technically her teacher anymore now that she's a senior, so it should be OK, right?) She's wearing a yukata, which is basically a cotton summer kimono. She's dressed up for our school's Sports Day last Sunday. Every year on Sports Day, the senior girls all don their yukatas and perform a traditional Japanese bon-odori (dance) on the school's field.

This dance is probably my favorite part of Sports Day. It's so beautiful to see all the girls dressed up in the yukata. I feel privileged to witness it. I have to admire the way the Japanese hand down these traditions from generation to generation. These girls aren't just learning some dance to entertain people for short time — they're learning the kind of traditional dance performed at Japanese festivals throughout the ages. I really respect these kind of deep traditions so unique to the Japanese, traditions that tie them all so closely to their history and culture.

Of course America has its own traditions, but nothing quite like this, so formal and elegant. What could compare — the senior prom? There is no comparison. It is this sort of thing that I know I will fiercely miss after leaving Japan.

My students, elegant and adorable at the same time.

Here's a short video clip of their performance for the memory books:

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Let's Drink!!!!!!

You can get COOL!!

This ad brought to you by my neighborhood kaiten sushi restaurant. If you drink enough, you could even become gaijin!!

This is actually a framed poster hanging on the wall of the restaurant, but they've also laminated smaller versions and placed them on every table, as well. Just to tempt you. In case you're worried you're not cool enough. You know.

Monday, September 7, 2009

All Aboard!

My big cheesy mug before boarding the steam locomotive in Tsuwano.

One of my fondest memories from childhood is watching Dad play with his Lionel model train set in the basement. Dad had a huge set-up — at least, it seemed huge to my 6-year-old eyes — and I remember watching with glee as the trains chugged all around the set, hauling little Lincoln logs from the lumber yard to the saw mill. Dad had this nifty-looking control panel with a throttle that you could pull to control the speed of the trains. There was even a feature you could turn on to make smoke come out of the train as it choo-chooed along.

Needless to say, Dad's a big train buff, and though his extensive train knowledge didn't really rub off on me, I do think trains are cool. So when Joe and I found out that a few rare steam engine locomotives were still in service in Japan, we made plans to go for a ride. The ride was, in fact, what motivated us to plan the trip to Hagi and Tsuwano in the first place.

So first, for those who don't know (and I didn't), here's a little background on steam engines. The first steam locomotive was built in 1804 (the year after Ohio became a state). Their popularity peaked in the 1930s and 40s, at which time Japan had around 8,700 steam locomotives on the rails. But diesel powered trains began to take their place after World War II, and by the 1950s most of the steam locomotives were gone. By 1976, there were none left on the tracks, according to the Japan Times.

The particular train we rode was the SL Yamaguchi C571, built in 1937.

The SL Yamaguchi C571

According to the Modern Transportation Museum, this train was affectionately nicknamed "The Lady" because of its beautiful style. It was the most commonly used steam locomotive of any of the steam locomotives run by Japan Rail.

The Lady came back into service in 1979 and now runs the 39-mile stretch of track between Yamaguchi and Tsuwano once a day, back and forth. The train's top speed is 68 miles per hour.

It was a lot classier than I expected it to be. Our car had large, plush blue velour seats decorated with stained glass at the top, chandelier lighting fixtures and classy brass type lamps and curtain rods. It even had air conditioners with decorative grates. I was impressed.

Our car

Stained glass lining the top of the seats

I was surprised to discover that each passenger car was different. The locomotive pulls five cars, each carrying a different historical period name with corresponding interior designs. The carriages are divided into Meiji, Taisho, Showa and Western styles and a viewing car, according to Yamaguchi Prefecture's website. Here are a couple of the other cars — definitely not as posh as ours.

The train left late afternoon and our stomachs started growling shortly after we pulled out of the station. Lucky for us an attendant pushed a cart down the aisle to sell snacks and souvenirs, and we snagged the last Japanese bento lunch. Joe even got a beer to wash it all down. Know what kind of suds you drink when you're ridin' in style on the steam engine train?

Malt liquor, baby!

It was a very pleasant two-hour ride through the countryside to Yamaguchi, with scenery of rice paddies, old Japanese houses and mountains. In a lot of places, residents of small towns would wave to the train as it went by and take photographs, which was charming.

We even crossed over at least one river along the way. That was a little bit of a rush.

Here's the video I took of the inside of the train. I really wanted to add music to it, "Love Train" or something, but I didn't because I figure YouTube would just delete it for copyright infringement.

It actually was somewhat difficult to get good pictures and video of the ride because the train rocked a bit, as though it were a ship on the sea.

We were pretty tired by the time we made it to Yamaguchi. Once we realized it would take a few more hours to make it home on the local trains, we opted instead to just take the Shinkansen bullet train, which got us back to Hiroshima in just half an hour. That ride came at a steep price — around $45 a piece I think — but we didn't feel too bad about it for one reason: we actually basically got a free ride on the locomotive! When Joe went downtown to buy the SL tickets in advance, the agent sold him the seat reservations for around $5 a piece, but not the actual tickets, which I believe run around $30. We thought we'd have to purchase the tickets themselves in Tsuwano, but when we tried to get them from the train station clerk, he said the reservations we showed him were sufficient. This really confused us and we asked him twice, insistently, if it was all we needed and he just kept saying yes... So... free tickets for us!

Though we hadn't planned it that way, it was pretty cool switching from the old fashioned train to the ultra-modern bullet train on the way home. The perfect way to ride home in style.

The bullet train. It travels up to 190 mph! It's awesome!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Mysterious time flows in this town

The title of this post is the quote on the front of the tourist brochure for Tsuwano, a little backwater in Shimane prefecture dubbed the "Little Kyoto of San'in". Engrish for sure, but there's a certain poetic quality to it that is just perfect for this picturesque place tucked in a long, narrow valley between rolling green mountains.

Tsuwano was our next destination after bidding farewell to Hagi, and we traveled through the deep inaka by bus to get there. As our bus ran along the high ridge of a mountain I spied houses far below through breaks in the trees. Across the valley, rising up the mountainside above the town was a long tunnel of vermillion torii gates leading to a large temple complex. It looked like something out of a storybook, such an idyllic setting. I tugged Joe's sleeve and motioned out the window.

"I wonder what that place is!" I said. "Wish we could go there!"

No sooner had the wish left my mouth, then the bus began snaking its way back down the mountain and drove right into town. Before we pulled into the bus station I actually saw a church steeple sticking up above the old traditional Japanese houses.

Tsuwano Catholic Church

Welcome to Tsuwano. This was a place with stories to tell. Besides being famous for its beautiful washi, traditional Japanese paper, Tsuwano also is known as the end-point for the old steam locomotive that runs from Yamaguchi City. It was the steam engine that lured us here, but what I hadn't anticipated was just how charmed I'd be by this little town.

The first thing we did was walk across town on the main drag trying to figure out where our minshuku (Japanese inn) was. We couldn't find it. It started to drizzle, so we ducked into a tiny flower shop to avoid the rain and ask directions. Rather than simply telling us where to go, though, the shop owner insisted we pile in his delivery van and he took us there himself. Stunning hospitality. Think about that for a moment. Could you even imagine such a thing happening in America? Picture it: A, say, Mexican couple that speaks almost no English walks into a Springfield business asking directions to some hotel. Does the business owner give them a friendly smile and drive them there himself? Yeah, right.

The owners of the minshuku were very welcoming and showed us to our room, which boasted an air conditioner and a flat-screen TV alongside the futon bedding and delicate paper sliding screens on the windows.

This minshuku (Tsuwano Lodge) was awesome. First of all, we had the option to pay for dinner at the inn, which we did. At dinner time we gathered with several other guests and ate a huge Japanese meal home-cooked by the owners. In true Japanese style, there were lots of little servings of each dish, and I ate all of it. After dinner, I spent a good long time sitting in the massage recliner in the guest rooms' common area.

The other noteworthy thing about this place was the shower. You probably think it's strange to mention a shower, but this place did not have just any shower. Before dinner, Joe and I were eager to clean up since we were both a sweaty mess. We gathered up our shower things and went in search of the owner to ask him which shower to use, since we actually saw two shower rooms on the first floor. That's when he grabbed some slippers and umbrellas for us and ushered us outside in the drizzling rain.

I thought, "What on earth? This guy's shower is outside??" He led us up a short path on a hill and showed us into a small building the size of a shed. There we saw shelves where we could put our clothes, and an entry-way into a large stone enclosure where we would shower outside! This may sound primitive, but it was actually really cool — clean and very nice! I'd never showered outside before — especially not in a light rain! It was really refreshing, and I didn't have to worry about being seen because it was built up on a hill surrounded by trees. There was even a hot spring, a large stone bath kind of like a hot tub built into the ground, filled with steaming opaque milky water. It looked so inviting. I was really looking forward to having a nice soak, but it turned out to be too hot for either of us to get in. Still — how cool is that!

Enough about the minshuku for now. On to Tsuwano itself. The first thing Joe and I did after dropping our stuff off there was borrow the owner's bicycles (for free) and ride back into town to the shrine I'd seen built into the hillside from the bus. Like the Fushimi-Inari Taisha in Kyoto, the entrance to this shrine came at the top of a long stairway covered by a red torii tunnel zigzagging up the mountain. There are more than 1,000 torii gates. The shrine at the top, Taikodani Inari Shrine, is one of Japan's greatest Inari Shrines. (Recall from my Kyoto blog entry that Inari is the god of rice...or cereal grain, if you'd rather go by the Lonely Planet.)

I wish I could have taken more photographs, but this was all I could manage in the rain.

Visitors to this shrine pray for a good harvest of rice, prosperity of business, improvement of fortune or protection from evil.

Back down at the base of the mountain, we explored the town and took some pictures during pauses in the rain. Like Hagi, Tsuwano has preserved many of its old samurai residences and historic buildings.

Lending even more old-world charm to the streets of Tsuwano are the channels filled with carp that line the town's streets. According to my Lonely Planet guide, townspeople bred the carp to provide a potential source of food in case the town were ever beseiged. The feared attack never came, and the fish have thrived, reaching a population of around 65,000 (more than 10 times the number of people living in Tsuwano!).

I was happy just to wander around the streets and duck in and out of souvenir shops, which sold quite an impressive variety of handmade paper products. There were so many beautiful things it was hard not to empty my wallet, but I ended up settling on a glasses holder to put by my bedside and some traditional Japanese paper masks. Joe got a paper/bamboo decoration and a little paper box full of washi.

In one shop, I even got to watch a guy stirring pulp in a big vat of water as part of the process of making the paper. I would have liked to go to Tsuwano's paper museum to learn how the washi is made, but with the torrential rain we just couldn't make it there. At one point when it seemed to let up we did hike up a hill to see Otome Toge St. Mary Chapel, only to get caught in the rain again once we were there, so we ended up hanging out at the chapel for a while. I was interested because you see temples everywhere in Japan, but it's so much less common to see churches, especially in a town as small as Tsuwano. It was a very tiny little building, just big enough for four pews.

The story behind it, according to JapanVisitor.com, is this: After Japan opened itself up to the West, Christians who had been hiding their faith emerged. However, Christianity was still illegal in Japan in the late 1800s, so the government rounded them up and sent them into exile around Japan. A group of 86 Christians from Nagasaki were imprisoned and tortured in Tsuwano. In 1951, a German priest built this tiny chapel as a memorial to the Japanese Catholics who were martyred.

There are a number of other interesting sights around town that we missed, but hopefully we can make it back another time, perhaps next cherry blossom season when they have a festival featuring horseback archery. Actually, one of the town's summer festivals, the Gion Matsuri, was beginning the same day we were leaving, but unfortunately not till after we were due to leave on the train. This would have been a sight to see, as the highlight of this festival is a 400-year-old dance ritual performed by people dressed as white herons, like this:

I'll talk about the train ride in my next post, but I couldn't end this entry without a mention of one of my fondest memories of Tsuwano — the minshuku owner's dog. He had this fat, old Shih Tzu with the most mellow demeanor and the softest fur. (Those who understand my love for fat, ugly animals understand how this dog instantly endeared me to this inn.) I'm not sure he moved from the front step the entire time we were there, and he put up with me petting him for quite a while. When it was time to go, the owner picked him up and carried him to the van, where he snuggled up against the windshield for the ride to the station. I was utterly charmed. Chou Kawaiiiiiii! (Super cute!)

Chapi, the adorable dog who stole my heart.