Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Shikoku Henro Pilgrimage

While in Shikoku I learned about a pilgrimage that people make to visit 88 of the temples on the island. It is believed that the Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi visited them all and that doing so can bring the pilgrim good luck and/or remove bad spirits. The pilgrims are called Ohenrosan ("O" being an honorific, "Henro" being the pilgrim, and "san" a title like Mr./Ms./Mrs.). The long trip was traditionally made on foot but today people are using vehicles to do it quicker.

It is a belief held in Japan that the 42nd year (41 years old) for men and the 32nd year (31 years old) for women is a bad year. A Shikoku pilgrimage is a way for people to try to minimize the bad spirits that they have at those ages. Being currently in my 42nd year, this was a great opportunity to make my own pilgrimage! Unfortunately, I was on a bus tour where I couldn't dictate to stop at each temple so I had to make due as I could.

Here's an old photo that I found on the internet that shows some Henro:

The whole pilgrimage is steeped in tradition. From the outfit that is worn to what you do at each temple is set. For example, on the trip around the island you'll see many Henro walking to the next temple along the road. You can spot them easily due to their white clothes, straw hats (sugegasa), walking sticks, and bags. This illustration shows the traditional outfit, which is still commonly used today:

Pilgrimages are not just made by men and women of a set age. You'll see all types of people out walking. All are doing it for different reasons but some common ones are when someone wants a special wish granted, good luck in a new venture, a change of fortune, and so on. Also, the clothes that people choose to wear can be flexible too. I found this picture showing the variety of people and clothes that you might see (maybe the guy on the right is from the U.S. as we're the only ones who wear shorts when traveling???):

Along with the clothes, the ritual that is performed at each temple, tradition says, must be done exactly the same. If, for example, you buy a candle and donate 100 yen at the first, you must repeat this at each temple you visit. As I mentioned, I was on a bus that wasn't stopping at each temple so I had to do what I could. :-) Each time the guide told us we were passing one of the temples, I did a small, seated bow and waved my right hand towards the temple. I'm not sure if this will qualify for completing the pilgrimage but I figure it can't hurt.

Oh yeah, I (sorta') did the Shikoku Henro Pilgrimage and I DID get the shirt! Are you jealous yet?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Shikoku Bus Tour

Hmm... Organized bus tours... I'd say they're really not my cup of I was on a bus with 45 Japanese people taking a four-day, 900-plus-mile (1500km) tour. The tour bus left from Osaka and set out to drive the perimeter of Shikoku island (shown in pink), which is a large island west, southwest of Osaka:

It was interesting to be with the large group for a few days. I managed to get some laughs out of them several times during the trip just by being the goofy foreign guy. Here's the group at one of our first stops. Note the guide/leader with the flag at the front of the line:

Shikoku means "four countries" (they were formerly independent kingdoms but are now prefectures) and is the smallest and least populated of the four main Japanese islands. It's probably best known in Japan for its famous 88-temple pilgrimage, which I'll write about in my next post. As with a lot of the coastline of Japan that I've seen (that isn't port), Shikoku had lots of pretty beaches and great views. The bus stopped at several over the course of the trip. Of all the pictures I took of the beaches, I ended up liking this one of a small island with the Torii gate. Very peaceful and very relaxing.

Towards the end of the first day, we stopped in Aki, which has several famous folks counted among it's current and former residents. This is the house where Yataro Iwasaki grew up. He was the founder of the company that eventually became the Mitsubishi Group.

The morning of day two found us visiting a Ryoma Sakamoto statue in Kochi. Ryoma is a interesting and impressive guy. To a great extent, he was responsible in the mid-1800s for the push to modernize Japan away from its feudal past. Ryoma's also credited with being the mentor of Iwasaki (above) while the two lived in Nagasaki as well as being the first Japanese person (along with his wife) to go on a honeymoon. He's pretty much everywhere in Japan right now (especially in Shikoku, Nagasaki, and Kyoto where he lived for at least a little while) partially due to a current, super-popular TV series. I have a few pictures of me behind various Ryoma cardboard cut outs (the ones where you stick your face through a hole where the character's face should be). In a more respectable way, here I am in front of the statue:

Later, during the second day, we stopped for a boat ride on the Shimanto river, which is the longest river in Shikoku. The river apparently periodically floods so they've built many of the bridges that cross it with no railings to reduce the likelihood that they'll wash away. It was interesting, to say the least, to watch cars drive across them. The boat guide/driver was full of old-guy jokes and the brief ride ended up being fun. Here are some of my bus mates on the boat:

Our next-to-last stop on day two was in Ashizuri, which is famous for another native son. In 1841, a fisherman was shipwrecked near the area and a passing American whaling ship picked him up. The man, who was later known as John Manjiro, became the first Japanese person to visit America. He lived there for about ten years eventually returning during Japan's closed period when doing so resulted in death. Manjiro not only was spared execution on his return but ended up serving as the official translator (as the only Japanese person who also spoke English) when Admiral Perry's black ships forced Japan to open itself up to the world.

We stopped at this underwater viewing spot. You pay about $5 U.S. to enter then walk down about 40 steps to look out at some local fish while the staff feeds them from above. It's not super exciting but it was definitely different. By the way, it's a pretty strange looking thing (the building too):

Day three's stops included one at a mountain-top wind farm that had some nice ocean views. I've been to other wind farms but the sound the blades make as they spin is always surprising.

The afternoon stop was in Uchiko town, which is located towards the western end of Shikoku. It used to be a wealthy town that was famous for wax and paper manufacturing. The main street has been preserved to look as it did during the town's peak about 100 years ago.

I came across this poster for kid's sumo wrestling, which I thought was funny and cute:

Near the old area of Uchiko is this large statue of a sleeping buddha, which, apparently, appears on no tourist information about the town, including the English map that I picked up. The perspective of this photo doesn't really show you how big the statue is. My guess is that his feet alone are about four-feet long. It's pretty big...

Our last day was spent mostly driving across northern Shikoku back to Osaka. The highlight of the day (and one of the highlights of the trip) was a visit to the Konpira shrine. This beautifully located shrine is on a forested hill at the end of the approximately 1,800 steps that it takes to reach. It's quite a hike and I noticed that only the heartiest of the bus group made the trek to the top. Here's the view not too far from the top:

The bus tour ended up being lots of fun even though I really couldn't understand most of what was said by the guide. It was definitely a great chance to spend some time with some locals and see a part of Japan that I probably wouldn't have ever gotten to see otherwise.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Fiesta Mexicana - Osaka

Yes, that title is correct. I attended a honest-to-goodness Mexican fiesta right here in the heart of Osaka, Japan. When I heard about the event I thought for about 0.2 seconds before I decided that I needed to go. Up to this point I had only seen two things in my life that combined Mexico and Japan. The first was a Mexican-Japanese taco shop in Santa Ana, California where you could buy a chicken-teriyaki burrito. The other is my friend Enrique who is Mexican-American, spent some time in Osaka as a college student, and speaks Japanese. He liked the combination so much that he even went so far as to get a Japanese wife so that he could make a few Mexi-Japanese kids. :-)

The fiesta was pretty standard fare. They had a stage set up at one end where folklorico dancing and live music was taking place:

At the back end of the seating area were some food stands that were run by a couple of local Mexican restaurants. This one was called Tacos El Nopal and was owned by a Mexican expat woman:

...and the menu:

As a reference, tacos cost about $5 U.S. (4 euros) and burritos were about $8.50 U.S. (7 euros). In other words, expensive like pretty much everything in Japan but definitely worth the money as the green salsa they had was incredible. I definitely want to go check out the restaurant now.

The event was held in the central plaza of the Umeda Sky Building, which itself is a local landmark that I had wanted to visit. The buildings have a cool roof-top observation deck and tube-shaped escalators between the two towers. Here's a shot from the ground:

This is a shot I took from inside the escalator tube looking towards the other tube and the ground. It's kinda' hard to show in the photo how cool it feels to be riding up an escalator between two buildings while being so high off the ground.

The view from the roof-top deck is awesome. Since the building is one of the tallest in Osaka, you can see pretty much everything in the area. This is the view towards the direction where I'm living. If you want to get really detailed, I'm living about two blocks from the tan building just to the left of and way behind the building with the domed/curved roofs that's just in the center of the photo. Good luck...

The highlight of the event was the performance by a (small) mariachi band from Mexico. They played a couple of the classics like Cielito Lindo. Every time I see mariachis live I hope that they play Mariachi Loco, which is my favorite. These guys delivered for me! Here they are during "my" song:

What can I say? Yep. Pretty strange combo for sure but definitely a fun day. Mariachi loco quiere bailar! マリアッチ・ロコ・キエレ・バイラー!!!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Nara Japan

Kyoto might be the more famous historical city near Osaka (especially because of the climate treaty that was signed here a few years ago) but Nara, which is another city located about one hour away, is also a definite must-visit place. It was the location of the first permanent capital of Japan and is currently celebrating the 1300th (!!!) anniversary of the establishment of the capital. There's a lot of excitement about Nara in Japan right now so I decided to take a day trip and check it out.

The highlights of the area are Nara Park and Naramachi, both of which I visited with a guide. I've actually become a fan of using local tour guides, especially in places where I am unable to speak the language, because I end up getting a lot more out of the visit. In this particular case, I got really lucky and ended up being the only person taking the tour that day. I had the guide all to myself!!!

Our first stop was Nara Park, which is a large public park that contains a whole bunch of historical and religious sites. My guide did a great job explaining to me the difference between the two major religions of Japan while we were there. The two are Buddhism and Shinto and they coexist and sometimes overlap all over Japan. As far as super-high-level (for site-seeing) purposes, all the temples you visit are Buddhist and all the shrines are Shinto. You can tell if its a shrine or a temple by the presence of a Torii gate like this one, which indicates the presence of a Shinto shrine:

If you zoom in on the above photo, you'll see a ton of lanterns lining the sides of the path. My guide said that there are something 1800 or so in the park and that in the past people would go around and light them all but I guess they only do that a couple of times a year now.

All over Japan at the shrines are places where people hang wishes that they've written out. They are called "Ema" and I particularly liked this one that is for lovers who are hoping for good luck with their relationships.

This next photo is here just because I thought it was a great contrast between the red wood of the shrine on the left and the natural wood and screens on the right. If you look on the left side, you'll see some of the probably 200 or so lamps that are hanging. They are the same as those hanging between the buildings.

Next on the tour was a visit to what is the highlight of Nara Park, the Todai temple. To get there, you walk through this gate, which itself is huge:

The gate has giant wooden guardians, one on each side. They're there to protect the entrance. Oh, yeah, that's a deer walking through the gate. More on that later...

The Todai is a Buddhist temple that is the largest wooden building in the world. It's a beautiful and impressive structure. (The scaffolding on the left side, which isn't normally there, is part of the setup for a special event that was going to take place.)

Here's a shot of our aimless world traveler in front of the temple. To give the building some scale, the walkway that I'm standing on is the same width as the two gold "horns" that are on the top of the building. Yeah, it's BIG!

Inside the world's largest wooden building can be found the world's largest bronze statue of the Buddha. The ears of the statue are over eight feet (2.5m) tall! The whole place is just massive and it's really difficult to grasp the scale while you're there since everything inside is so big.

I loved this next thing. One of the columns that holds up the roof of the temple has a hole cut in it. Legend says that if you can pass your body through it you can become enlightened. I think the idea is that if you're a child (or perhaps just small???) that it is easier for you to become enlightened. Yes, I tried to get through it. I was unable to do it as I'm an average sized guy and not particularly flexible. My guide did say something that made me happy though. When I said that I wasn't able to do it he told me "the important thing is that you tried". I want to be more like that.

Did I mention the deer? There's tons of them in the park area and they're super people friendly. They hang out right near food and drink stands all day waiting for people to feed them "deer biscuits" that the stands sell. The story goes that one of the gods arrived on a white deer and ever since they've been treated like heavenly animals. The funniest thing is that the deer actually bow to you if you bow to them. It's an amazing sight.

My guide and I left Nara Park and went for a quick visit to the roof of the local prefecture office located about a block away. The roof-top viewing area is open to the public and apparently unknown by anyone that isn't a local. You have a full 360-degree view of Nara. Here's a shot of the towards the five-story pagoda:

The pagoda is "modern" take on the original burial place of the Buddha. It takes some explanation to see the relevant features but they're there. This is a close-up of the Goju-No-To (five-storied) pagaoda:

Another block away we took a quick break at the Yoshikien Gardens. This garden is free to foreign visitors, has three types of Japanese gardens, and is very beautiful. Here's a shot from a hill inside:

The last part of the tour was a walk through the Naramachi, which means Nara Town. It's basically the "old town" area of Nara and it has lots of historical buildings like this old pharmacy:

In Naramachi, we went to a Machiya, which is sort of an industrial townhouse (the original live-work loft?) constructed from wood that were used by craftsmen as both their home and and place of business. Evidence of these types of houses goes back almost 1000 years. Because taxes were assessed based on street-frontage width, they tended to be long and narrow. The first floor has a kitchen, a business-style office, a garden area, and a detached back building/room that served as the workshop and/or storage area. Bedrooms and other private rooms were located upstairs. This is the view from the garden area out towards the street:

The final thing I wanted to share was this photo of something that was hanging outside of quite a few houses in the area. My guide told me that each of the rounded things represents a different member of the household. It reminds me the stickers that people put on the back of their cars (at least in southern California) that show each member of the family. They are something that the family likes and I've seen Disney ones, surfboards, and even flip flops. I'm thinking that these are there for some sort of protection or something.

I had a great day visiting Nara and I think a big part of it was my guide Ken. If you find yourself in Nara one day, you should take one of their tours. Thanks Ken!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Story Telling Festival - Ikukunitama Shrine

I recently got to go to a Rakugo festival at a local shrine here in Osaka. Rakugo is a story-telling style that is practiced in Japan where the speaker must tell a long, complicated, and funny story. Each story and its wording are precisely defined and the story teller uses only their voice, limited body gestures, and tempo to vary it and make it their own. The story teller also uses a small hand fan and a small towel as props. For example, the folded fan could be used as chop sticks and the towel as a bowl of rice.

The Rakugo story tellers practice for years to become experts. Much like in the Sumo tradition, they join a "family" where they live in a house with others who are practicing the art. They learn from a master and are responsible for chores and other things. They graduate to higher levels as they refine their art. The festival at the Ikukunitama Shrine is an annual event where they get to showcase their talents.

Unfortunately, I was unable to get any decent pictures of the performers telling stories but this is a shot from the side of the stage towards the end of the day:

This one shows the stage from the back of the crowd:

The event itself is like a fair and was held on what was probably the hottest day of the year here in Osaka. I think it was over 105F (40C) with 95% humidity. The folks in attendance were in really good spirits considering the weather. This is the central walkway area where there was food and other types of displays:

I got to see a couple of kids games that I had seen on TV while here. Both are fishing style games with the first using balls and small hooks:

The second was my favorite. Kids are given a small paddle that has a paper "net" in it. The paper seemed to be like tissue. The idea is that they can scoop up (and keep) as many fish as they can before the paper rips. It was fun to watch the different techniques. Some kids tried to basically push a bunch of fish into their bowls while others tried to pick up individual or small groups of fish. Not being an expert or anything but, if I were playing, I think that I'd go for the one-big-scoop method as the paper only seemed to last for about 30 seconds before it ripped. Here's one little girl playing the game:

The Ikukunitama is a Shinto shrine that is somewhat unique in Japan. It combines several different types of shrines that are usually in separate locations into one place. I liken it to a convenience store where it's a one stop shop. :-) The next photo is of a couple of the shrines with the "wish" boards out front:

Finally, this is the back corner of the whole complex that shows some more Torii Gates and shrines:

This festival was fun for me (even though the heat was enough to kill) because it was another chance to see daily-Japanese life and culture up close and to learn more about shrines in general and about the Rakugo story telling.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Tachinomiya - Japanese Standing Bar

The topic of today's post will seem very familiar to my friends in Spain and they're bound to ask "so what?" (¿Y que?) when they read it.

Typical Japanese restaurants and bars have tables and chairs (of course) but Tachinomiya are different. Meant as a place where a salary man can grab a quick after-work drink and snack (think tapas), they tend to be pretty simple. What makes them unique is that you stand up instead of sit. As I said, this is very familiar to my friends in Spain since there are tons of places like it but here it's kinda' different.

This is the view from the outside of one tachinomiya that's about three blocks away from where I'm living:

Here's the inside view:

I like that the customers are all middle-aged men (do I look that old???) and that they've used the beer crates and pieces of scrap lumber for tables. These guys were pretty cool and were attempting their best drunken English for me. Anyway, not very earth shattering but I'm sharing it as an example of my daily-Japanese-life experiences.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Sake Brewery Tours

Kobe Japan is a part of the Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto megalopolis. It's located a little less than a one-hour train ride north-west of downtown Osaka. Just east of downtown Kobe is an area called Nada that's famous for having a large number of Sake breweries in a very small area (map). On Saturday I had the opportunity to visit a couple of the breweries and take the tours.

The first stop was at the Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum. Apparently this is a very large and famous sake company. Their museum was a two-story mannequin display of how sake used to be made in the past along with video screens (in English!) showing how it's done today. This is one of the displays:

Sake is alcoholic beverage made using a very complex process. Many people think of sake as a wine but the process to make it is closer to how beer is made. In the past, it was only done in small batches during the winter months but today the product is made all year in large factory breweries.

First, the rice is polished, which removes all the oils and proteins from the rice and leaves behind only the starch. After the polished rice sits for a while (soaking up some moisture from the air), it is washed, soaked, and steam cooked (not boiled as with normal rice preparation). Next, the rice is allowed to cool and is then mixed with yeast and koji (rice that's cultivated with a special type of mold), which is really the art in the process. The mix is then allowed to ferment over four days. Once this is done, the rice mash sits for 18 to 32 days when the sake is then pressed out of the mash. The pressed sake is then filtered and blended depending on the variety being made. Finally, it's packed up for shipping.

This scene shows the old way of packing the sake in containers wrapped in fabric (for protection):

This museum was pretty good since the materials were available in English. It gives a great overview of both the old and new ways of making sake. The tasting room and shop were okay. The staff was very helpful though so I'd recommend a visit if you're in the area. The one bummer is that you can't visit the actual factory, which is next door.

Mandatory "here I am shot" out front of the Hakutsuru museum and factory:

The next stop was about five blocks away at the Kiku-Masune Sake Brewery Museum. They offer an audio guide in English but I chose to join in with a Japanese group that was just starting their tour when I arrived. Let's say that I didn't understand much of what the guide and group were saying. Having just been to the other museum I wasn't overly concerned. Here's a cool carving made from a single (giant) piece of wood along with some sake containers that are located in the entry way:

The museum was a smaller version of the other one but was just as thorough. The guide seemed to have a fairly dry sense of humor as he was laughing (alone) at all his own jokes. In Japanese, they say "oiaji gagu" (oy-ah-ji gah-gu) for this type of humor. It means pretty much "middle-aged guy jokes" and applies to (I'm thinking) 95% of the jokes that I try to tell. (Note that gagu is a adaptation of the English word gag.) That's him just to the left of the center with the white shirt facing the crowd:

This next photo is a relative close-up of the giant device they used to use to press the sake out of the rice mash. The mash was placed into burlap-type bags and then squeezed until all the liquid was out. What's cool (to me) is the size of the handle, which is probably 20 feet long and extends much farther out to the right of the photo. At the other end are giant rocks tied to ropes that I'm guessing were used to help squeeze out the sake.

Finally, and most importantly, the tasting room! This tasting room provided many more free samples than the first museum. It was a fun experience to try "fresh" (or young) sake that they are unable to ship because it needs to be consumed the same day it's produced. I also got to experience the sake more like at a winery. Very interesting to be able to tell the difference between a sweet/fruity sake and a dry sake.

There are about 12 sake factories in the area. Some have museums and others are just a store front where you can buy product. It's definitely something you should do if you're in the area. And, another location...another photo of ME! Note how happy I look after all my "tastings". :-)