Saturday, May 28, 2016

Osaka, Japan: May 25-27, 2016

Osaka's Dotonbori reminded me of New York's Times Square. Dotonbori is the entertainment district, and it was crowded with people, neon signs advertising entertainment, and restaurants.

Our full day in Osaka was another free day. Dan and I again wandered visiting a rose garden, a ceramics museum, a castle, and the Umeda Sky Building.

Osaka's rose garden is on Nagano Island between the canals. The roses are labeled and we even found a rose called St. Cecilia.

Osaka Castle

View from Osaka Castle

The next morning our tour concluded; Dan and I took the amazing bullet train from Osaka to Tokyo for our last few days.

Hotel Granvia Osaka perfectly located between the JR Osaka Station and the Harshen Umeda Station and within a shopping mall, of course.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Dorogawa, Japan: May 23-25, 2016

Table setting and starters for dinners at Yado Hanaya Tokubei Hotel in Dorogawa

Sandwiched between snoring men, I barely slept last night. Separated from our neighbors by paper-thin (truly paper) shoji screens, the guy in the tatami room next to us snored and the guy I was sleeping with also snored. Our first morning Dan asked for a different room. The room change came with a cost, but it was so worth it. We were put on the 3rd floor (stairs only) with our own balcony, an ensuite toilet and onsen bath with a view. We still slept on futons on the floor (we piled up 3 layers each), but everything else felt luxurious and definitely worth the price.

The meals at this hotel have been wonderful. At most places one of the little starter plates is sashimi. Dan refuses to try raw fish so anyone who sits next to him benefits from all the things he refuses to eat. With his limited input of calories and extra exercise, he has already lost a few kilos.

Last evening we strolled around Dorogawa and attracted by some shouting, we found ourselves at Ryusenji Shugendo Temple. Following the noise, we found a European Shugendo student "hardening" himself under a waterfall while shouting a mantra.

Searching the internet, I found Professor Mark Schumacher's website that explains: 
Shugendō (also spelled Shugendo) can be loosely translated as "path of training to achieve spiritual powers." Shugendō is an important Kami-Buddha combinatory sect that blends pre-Buddhist mountain worship, Kannabi Shinkō (the idea that mountains are the home of the dead and of agricultural spirits), shamanistic beliefs, animism, ascetic practices, Chinese Yin-Yang mysticism and Taoist magic, and the rituals and spells of Esoteric (Tantric) Buddhism in the hope of achieving magical skills, medical powers, and long life. Practitioners are called Shugenja or Shugyōsha or Keza (those who have accumulated power) and Yamabushi (those who lie down in the mountain). These various terms are typically translated into English as ascetic monk or mountain priest. 
Ryusenji Temple is a training ground for Shugendo practitioners and evidence of training methods litters the grounds. According to Prof. Schumacher's website, "this sect stresses physical endurance as the path to enlightenment. Practitioners perform seclusion, fasting, meditation, magical spells, recite sutras, and engage in austere feats of endurance such as standing/sitting under cold mountain waterfalls or in snow."  Besides the waterfall, there is a large, heavy iron pole that Shugendo followers attempt to lift and carry to prepare to walk the pilgrim's trail to Omine. There is also a pair of 50-pound iron sandals for strengthening toes, feet, ankles, and endurance. We slipped our feet into the sandals, but they budged nary a millimeter.

Fierce, warlike male figures inhabit the temple grounds. This is a sect of males. In fact, women are discouraged from climbing The Yoshino-Ōmine area is considered one of Shugendo's most sacred areas. This is a males only sect and women are prohibited/discouraged from walking on or climbing Mt. Sanjō one of the mountains above Dorogawa in the Omine Mountain Range.

Our first full day in Dorogawa was a free day; we hiked some of the trails above and wandered the streets of Dorogawa. The town is quite lovely and quickly became one of my favorite stops.


View from inside our hotel of Jenny and Tai on the main street of Dorogawa

After breakfast on our second morning in Dorogawa, our baggage traveled by vehicle to a bus stop in Kawai. We traveled on foot hiking through the beautiful, lush Mitarai Gorge to the bus stop in Kawai. 

We bussed from Kawai to Shimoichiguichi station from where we caught a train to Osaka.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Asuka to Yoshino, Japan: May 22-23, 2016

After a full Japanese breakfast, the day began with a sightseeing walk around Asuka. Asuka was the capital from 552 to 645 CE. The first stop was at Tachibana-dera whose structures date to the Edo period. This is the birthplace of Prince Shotoku. I mention Prince Shotoku because a lovely statue of him is at a subsequent stop at the Asuka-dera. I think the horse statue represents Prince Shotoku's horse.
Mourning Statue of Prince Shōtoku depicted as a bodhisattva in Asuka-dera, Asuka, Nara
Further into the Tachibana-dera site, another structure called Oh join has a ceiling with 260 lovely floral paintings. A sign invites visitors to lie down on the tatami mats and relax while looking up at the ceiling. It was relaxing with flowers above and the grassy fragrance of the tatami mats below.

Continuing on we snacked on fresh strawberries from a farm stand. 

Reinvigorated, some of us (not Dan) took a steep side trip up a mountain for a view of Asuka and the surrounding mountains. The hazy view at the top was underwhelming after the steep, sweaty climb up.

The Buddhist temple at Asuka is the first temple in Japan; it was founded in 596 CE. The priests at this temple were also the friendliest and most welcoming of any we visited in Japan. One priest explained the history of the temple and invited us to look around. Photos were permitted and there was even a sign asking visitors to "like" them on Facebook. Amazing!

The Asuka Great Buddha (left), a bronze from the Asuka period, is the oldest Buddha statue in Japan. It was created in 609. This Buddha has survived fire, ruin, and neglect until the temple was rebuilt in 1632 and 1826.

On the right is a wooden sculpture (Fujiwara period) of Amida Nyorai.

Leaving Asuka behind, we took a train to Yoshino in the Kii Mountain Range. Several sacred sites connected by pilgrimage routes are found in this range. One site, Yoshino/Omine, is the birthplace of the "Shugendo" (a sect of Buddhism) religion. Shugendo Buddhism stresses feats of physical and mental endurance, such as hanging off cliffs or sitting under waterfalls, as a path to enlightenment.

Kimpusen-ji Temple (shuttered for the night)

Up the mountain from the train station Kimpusen-ji, a Shugendo Buddhist temple built with cypress bark, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and possibly Japan's second largest wooden building. The temple is the start of the pilgrimage trail to the sacred Mount Omine. As we arrived monks were beginning their evening worship service. We were invited to enjoy the service that included taiko drumming and the sounding of the horagai (giant conch shell). When the service was finished, the temple doors were shut for the night and we continued our own up-hill pilgrimage to the cable car.

At the end of our short cable car ride, we continued walking up hill to our accommodation at the wonderful Kama Kama hotel in Yoshino. Our bed was the usual mattresses on the floor. We had our own en-suite toilet and sink but baths were taken in an onsen--a traditional Japanese communal bath fed by hot springs. Quite a lovely way to relax after a long day of walking!

The next day we continued our walk toward Dorogawa village on the fairly steep Omine (great peak) trail through the woods of fir, pine, and cedar and across a cable suspension bridge.

We arrived in Dorogawa in the late afternoon. At our lodging we were reunited with our baggage, and we will stay here for two nights.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Ancient Yamanobe Road, Japan: May 21, 2016

With our luggage sent ahead and a day pack with a toothbrush (that was our guide's suggestion) and some things that I consider essential, we caught a train to Tenri Station in the Nara Basin to begin our walk along the Yamanobe Road. The Yamanobe Road is Japan's oldest transit route; it connected Japan's 6th century capitals of Miwa and Nara.

Today's walking journey began with a stroll from the Tenri Rail Station through a mall to the Tenrikyo Church. Tenrikyo or Tenriism is a monotheistic, Shinto-derived new religion established in the 19th century based on the teachings of a Japanese woman named Nakayama Miki. Tenrikyo teaches/promotes the Joyous Life cultivated through acts of charity and mindfulness. Today there are about 2 million followers worldwide with 1.75 million of those in Japan.

Tenrikyo Church and Headquarters
The walk continued through the peaceful landscape of Japanese cedars surrounding the Shinto Isonokami Jingu Shrine. This statue of a cow is the abode for a Kami (god, goddesses, ancestor, spirit). The place that a kami lives is sacred and indicated by a rope festooned with sacred white paper (a shimenawa). The cow's nose is well polished from the hands of worshipers.

A cow statue as the abode for a Kami
Leaving the Isonokami Jingu Shrine behind, our walk began in earnest. We walked through amazing orchards of persimmon, peach, and orange trees with scarecrows dressed in traditional Japanese clothing. 

A peach tree with each peach protected by a bag
At one of the peach orchards, Dan was mesmerized by the bagging by hand of each peach. No wonder Japanese produce is displayed like fine jewelry with commensurate pricing.

There is a shrine to sumo along the Yamamobe no Michi trail. This is believed to be the place that sumo originated and the legendary wrestler Nomi no Sukune (1st Century BCE) is possibly enshrined here.

Oomiwa Shrine  is Japan's oldest shrine. The object of worship here is Mount Miwa behind it. Mt. Miwa is a sacred mountain in the Shinto religion and is revered as the mountain of the Gods.

Shrine Attendants

We walked the Yamanobe no Michi trail north to south about 14km/8.7 miles on a hot day and the trail was mostly exposed as it wound its way through fields and orchards. This walk would be much more pleasant when it is cooler in early spring when rice has been planted and fruit trees are in bloom or in the fall when deciduous trees wear their autumn colors. Because we were all pretty exhausted by the heat, we left the trail earlier than planned, took a train to Sakurai Station and then another one to Asuka where we were met by our hostess who took us to our night's lodging. We stayed in her lovely home with its beautifully landscaped grounds. 

While this house looks like it is in suburbia and they even had WiFi, behind the house is acres of farm land.