The Best of 3 Worlds
31 May and 1-2 June
This Friday we passed by Tokyo and Yokohama again to pick up our visas for Russia and to continue our trip through Japan – now going South! The Tocco-Watanabes joined us on the first leg of “Japan South” by going camping with us at the foot of Fuji-san. It was great!!!
Kii Hanto – Visiting the Land of the Gods
3-4 June 2013
From the base of Mt Fuji we drove south and crossed over with a small ferry to the Kii Hanto peninsula. This is an area where the Shinto religion of Japan has deep spiritual roots and the mountains are full of sacred shrines and pilgrimage routes.
In Ise, we visited the Ise-Jingu shrine, one of the most important shrines of Japan. It is so important, that its high priest must always come from the Japanese imperial family. The shrine is dedicated to the goddess of the sun and the universe. She is also the “mother” of the imperial family. Since around the year 690, the shrine buildings have been destroyed and rebuilt every 20 years as an act of purification and as part of the Shinto belief of the transient nature of all things. The last rebuilding was in 1993 and so this year, 2013, is the year of the rebuilding number 62. This is the best time to visit as the new shrine buildings are erected next to the old ones. The architecture and the way of building the structures is exactly the same as 1300 years ago and it is fascinating to see the exhibition on how the shrine buildings are produced without the use of a single nail. Every piece has to fit into the other pieces like a grand puzzle made with huge precision and hand tools by skilled carpenters.
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On the photo below is one of the minor shrines where it was possible to get a little bit closer and to take photos. The new shrine building is erected on a site next to the old shrine building, and like this the location is alternating every 20 years. Once the new building is complete and the inauguration ceremonies have been performed, the old shrine building is destroyed and the site is left empty for the next 20 years.
And finally we arrived to Kumano Hongu Taisha, one of the 3 major shrines on the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes. It is built in the old style, similar to the Ise-Jingu shrine.
The “stampo” is an extremely important part of Japanese culture. You can collect stampos at temples and shrines and for 300 Yen you can even get a hand-written one by the monks directly in your “stampo book”. But you can also collect stampos at resting areas along the express ways or in tourist offices as well as at other cultural attractions like japanese gardens, castles, museums etc. There are even TV shows of people running 300 km and collecting stampos along the way. Stampo stampo!!! So….we bought our own stampo book and started our collection!
Following our successful pilgrimage, we soaked our bodies in the only UNESCO world heritage hot spring onsen in the world, the small and very old Yunomine onsen. It is built into the river bed and covered by a wooden shed. You can see it in the photo below, at the far end of the river.
5 June 2013
Nara is the old capital of Japan. It lies just south of Kyoto, which became the new capital in the year 794. It is an area packed with culture and some of the greatest national treasures of Japan.
Finally inside, you get the first view of the immense main temple of Todai-ji. The temple is still the largest wooden building in the world, even if the present structure (rebuilt in 1745) is only 2/3 the size of the original temple which was founded here in 745.
At the back of the temple we found a looooong queue. When we followed it to the end it turned out that there was a hole in one of the big wooden pillars and all these people were waiting to squeeze themselves through the hole! We loved it! It reminded us of Central Asia and some of the ancient rituals you can find there. We did not go through the hole though, the queue was too long….
All in all, we enjoyed almost as much to watch people as we enjoyed the great temple of Todai-ji!
6-9 June 2013
After Nara we needed to get away from the crowds. Shikoku was the right place to go. We took a couple of long bridges from the main island of Honshu to Shikoku, the fourth largest island of Japan. The northern part of the island was onion land and it was harvest time.
We went to visit the Kompira-san, a major pilgrimage destination on Shikoku. Here is a group of chic female pilgrims in black. They climbed 785 steps to get this far so they have a good reason for the photo shoot.
We found a more comfortable mode of transport when we stumbled across a secluded ryokan (hotel) and onsen (hot spring) in the narrow and beautiful Iya Valley. The ryokan was a bit too expensive for our pockets but we decided to go for the open air onsen. It was incredibly nice! First we had to descend about 170 m from the ryokan down to the river where the hot spring flows. It took about 5 minutes with this nice old cable car.
This is the Iya Valley from above! The hot spring is located down there by the river.
The hot spring water was milky white with sulfur and was naturally carbonated so your skin got covered in tiny bubbles and the water felt like silk on your body. This was the view to the river from the bath.
At night we drank too much umeshu and had a visit by this small guy who stayed with us for a while. It was our one year anniversary for getting on the road – one year ago we picked up Frida in Montreal just before closing time and went to sleep in a park. A lot of memories!!!
We spent a couple of more days driving through the Shikoku Island. There are not a lot of spectacular or famous tourist sights, but as always with Japan, we enjoy just as much to discover “our own” small places and to enjoy the villages, the valleys, the forests, the small shrines and whatever turns up on our way.
Kyushu – Hell and Paradise in One
10-16 June 2013 – Beppu, Aso, Udo-Jingo shrine, Sakurajima, Unzen and Nagasaki
From Shikoku we took a ferry to Beppu on Kyushu, the southernmost of the main islands of Japan. Here the land is steaming and fuming like nowhere else and it is the most volcanically active region of Japan.
Jigoku (literally “Hell”) are mud pools, geysers and super-hot hot springs which would scold you to death if you jumped in. In fact, in the old days, it did occasionally happen that some unfortunate Christian or others got executed by being thrown into a Jigoku.
From Beppu we drove to Aso. The city of Aso is located inside a huge caldera formed by a giant collapse of an ancient volcano. The volcano is still active through a crater in the central part, but the main collapse of the ancient Aso volcano happened some 10,000 years ago. Here a Japanese cow is peacefully grazing on the slopes of the central volcanic complex with a view to the flat caldera floor below.
The next day the weather was much better and so we climbed the Taka-date and Naka-date again from a different route. And we enjoyed the views.
We wanted to visit the Udo-Jingo shrine, a cave-shrine on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. We arrived early morning as the first visitors, surprising the nuns and monks in their morning cleaning activities.
The entrance to the shrine is through the red tori-gate.
Heading for Nagasaki, we stopped by the hot spring town of Unzen and had a good run with a very good bath afterwards. Probably it was the best onsen/hot spring bath we tried in Japan. We went to a public bath house, nothing fancy, 300 Yen per person. The sections for men and women were in two adjacent octangular wooden buildings and the water was milky and steaming hot. It was fantastic! Here Marco is enjoying a good espresso on the morning after.
We went to Nagasaki to visit the Atomic Bomb Museum. As with the museum in Hiroshima, it is shocking. Afterwards we went to sample the local cuisine. The sashimi was great but what made it really memorable was the fresh wasabi, grinded at the table.
Eternal Love and The Art of Japanese Gardening
17-18 June 2013
From Kyushu we drove north again to the main island of Honshu. We were heading straight for Izumo and the important Izumo Tasiha shrine dedicated to love and happy marriage!
Izumo Taisha shrine, the shrine of love and happy marriage. The original shrine was built by the Sun Goddess herself, according to legend. Here an eager husband is ready to make his prayers….
The shrine is very nice, built in the old and more simple style, before too much chinese style influenced the architecture.
But after making our wishes for a long and happy marriage, we found out that the important action was going on behind the scenes (as always). Behind the main shrine complex was this small wooden shrine, not looking like anything special, but there was a long line to go behind the shrine and touch/rub the rocks which are exposed there. We joined the line and rubbed the rocks the best we could! Sorry for the dark picture, the shrine was hidden in a dim corner between the trees.
But the action was not finished yet. On the side of the main shrine, couples were writing down prayers and attaching them to the trees. Marco made a very nice drawing and hid it well under the bark of one big tree. Now finally, our marriage should be secured!!!
From Izumo we drove down to the Adachi Museum of Art. Even if it is a bit out of the way, located close to a small village in the hills, the museum is well worth a visit. It has a nice collection of Japanese art but the most impressive thing is the garden. Voted the #1 garden in Japan for years, it is such a pleasure to view.