Gion & Higashiyama

DSC00566

May 25, 2017

Gazing between the drawn curtains, I knew something had changed outside. The morning light was dim. A light fog had settled in during the night and rain was pouring down. No one wanted to go outdoors in the current weather conditions. Knowing this was our final day in Kyoto, I was opposed to staying in the hotel, but I could tell the kids were worn out from our previous sightseeing schedules (a lot by foot), so I deferred to them.

It was close to noon before we left the hotel. The air was humid and heavy, but the rain had diminished. Familiar with the rail system near our hotel, we walked along a quiet residential street. Weeping willows, ferns, and grasses lined a mountain stream that cut through the neighborhood. We came across what looked like a photo shoot of a couple in Kimono by the stream before we found the subway entrance in a commercial district. We were heading to Gion and Higashiyama.

DSC00552 (2)

DSC00553

Gion was what I had envisioned old Japan to be, low one- and two-story buildings, with Japanese lanterns hanging at entrances. Tiled roofs curved up to meet at a high point in the center. Drapes hung over doors. Densely packed against one another, the discreet teahouses, restaurants and Geisha establishments were quiet this time of day. It was hard to believe that we were in a city of over 1.4 million. Meandering through the narrow, paved streets, we noticed that most businesses were closed. This was a place that came alive in the evening. Unfortunately, we would not see it.

DSC00561

My husband and the boys thought we were lost. Why are we walking down such a deserted street? they asked.  I explained that this was a place that produced many stories about Japanese women, called Geisha.   They ignited the imaginations of those who didn’t know much about their world.  I had to see this part of Kyoto that was the Geisha capital of Japan. My boys gave me the “huh?” look.

“Do you know the term, Geisha?” I asked. They had no idea what I was talking about. I might as well have popped out of a time tunnel and spoke an ancient language to them!

I asked, “have you ever seen a picture of a Japanese woman with white face makeup, red lips, hair styled in an up-do and in a Kimono?” A light twinkled in their eyes. Yes, they had. When Japanese women dress up like that they are called Geisha, right? I was off to a rough start. I silently noted that they wouldn’t take the initiative and read about a woman’s story. It was up to me to enlighten them. Sharing my female perspective throughout their developmental years, being open about my point of view never waned. I hoped the stories of women would be of value to them.  I believed that they would be better men because of it. But my sons will always gravitate towards their instincts and habits. “Wired male” would always pose differences.

 

As an outsider, all I could do was pass on what I had read over the years. “Geisha is a profession that Japanese women can choose if they so desire,” I told them. “They are schooled in the arts and use these arts as a form of entertainment in places like teahouses and restaurants. Their skills run from hostess to singer or musician, to performing dance and providing stimulating conversation. They entertain small parties of men. Maybe some women are involved too. I’m not sure. Their line of work calls for discretion, so they never talk about their jobs to anyone. This is why there is an air of mystery surrounding them.”

“Why don’t they talk about their work?” asked my youngest.

I wondered, what I could say so that he would understand but not draw any wrong conclusions? Were Geisha’s the equivalent of “Call-Girls” in the U.S.A? There were rumors of abuse in the Geisha world a long time ago. What was it like today? So, I came up with this. “Geisha’s work with people that prefer their privacy for many reasons. They may be powerful businessmen or celebrities who don’t want their lives talked about by the media.  So its the Geisha’s job to be very discreet with the clients that come into their establishments.”And I left it at that. The world would reveal itself to them in its own time.

We followed our Google Maps, the rented pocket wifi never failing us(mentioned in my first post, “We’re Going to Japan”). As we moved closer to the Higashiyama District, the streets started to fill up with pedestrians. Here were some of the most impressive structures yet. As a foreigner, I couldn’t help be surprised and dazzled by things that were rarely seen in the United States and certainly weren’t as old. The five-story, dark brown Pagoda that stood near the Yasaka Shrine was one of them.

DSC00564 (2)

As we turned a corner following our maps like a compass, we were surprised to encounter the ancient wooden structure looming in front of us. Multiple roofs, stacked on top of each other reached their way to the heavens, eaves curling upward like hands in praise. Why was it there? What was it used for? Here we were at a loss. With a language barrier on our part, all we could do was admire its architecture. Later I learned that it was called the Yasaka-no-to Pagoda, also known as Hokanji Temple built around 592. Visitors can enter the pagoda up to the 2nd floor. It was closed when we saw it.

We soon fell into a throng of tourists and school children as they made their way past the many souvenir shops, restaurants, and teahouses on Matsubara Dori(street). We were all heading for Kyoto’s famous Kiyomizu Dera Temple. The energy was high. This was the Japan I recognized. We climbed the picturesque Ninenzaka steps to the temple. Although Kyoto is filled with many temples and shrines, this particular temple got my attention. Sitting on a slope along the base of Kyoto’s eastern mountain range, the Main Hall commands a breathtaking view of the city. A wide wooden verandah juts out, held up with a network of beams piercing the ground below. Tourists enjoy expansive views of the city and mountains from here.

DSC00572

Kiyomizu Dera means “pure waters.” The Otowa Waterfall, located at the base of the temple draws folks from near and far. The waters are claimed to have special benefits for those who touch or drink from them. Pilgrimages are made to visit this special place.

DSC00595

As we finished our climb on gradual sloping, cobblestone streets, a towering red and white gate flanked with lionlike deities stood before us. Was this Kiyomizu Dera?  Where was the large brown, wooden temple pictured on websites I had seen? There were no signs written in English that I could spot. Without an interpreter, we relied on our maps. I was at a loss, the boys confirmed with their smartphones that we had indeed arrived. I could only see a pagoda behind the gate and a sacred bell. I insisted that we hadn’t found the right temple. I began to walk away. Google Maps showed the temple moving away from me. We circled back and decided to enter the grounds. To my chagrin, my kids were right! The grand temple that I had seen on the internet was hidden behind a slew of scaffolding! It was under renovation, but visitors were still allowed in.

DSC00578

We paid a small entrance fee and began our journey to the Main Hall.  The sun broke through the clouds and brightened the buildings like a cluster of shiny jewels against a velvet green carpet. The grounds are extensive. One can easily spend hours here. Busloads of people were buzzing around. Kiyomizu Dera is by far the busiest place we had encountered in Kyoto. I was overwhelmed but not distressed.

Passing under a second gate, the Middle Gate, that stood further inside, we walked through a covered passageway and into the Main Hall where the veranda skirted one side. I took in the views while the rest of the family did their own exploration.  On the opposite side was the sanctuary. Shoes were sitting along the floor. To enter, you had to leave your shoes behind. My youngest son noticed this and quickly slipped his off and disappeared inside. Photos are not allowed. However, on the internet, the official Kiyomizudera site, https://www.kiyomizudera.or.jp/en/visit/thousand-day_pilgrimage/ walks the viewer through the Hall showing the sacred Kannon that we weren’t allowed to photograph.

DSC00587

Making our way outdoors, we walked to Oku-no-in or Innermost Temple that afforded another great view of Kyoto and the surrounding mountains, its large veranda also extended over the hillside. From here we could see the massive structure of the Main Hall and the scaffolding that crisscrossed on the face of it like fish netting.

DSC00592 (3)

Everything that embodies the Japanese spirit could be felt. Temples with names like Aborted Fetus Temple Dedicated to the God of Mercy, The Achievement Temple, the Pagoda of Easy Child Birth, and The Hosho-In Temple were a few of the worship structures on the temple grounds. Many halls and lecture rooms were scattered throughout. Statues were viewed along paved pathways, and a monk stood patiently waiting for alms.

DSC00583 (2)

 

Walkways led deeper along the mountainside.  Woods surrounded us. We decided to explore more of the mountain and eventually found ourselves in an area where crowds ceased to go. A sign indicated another temple. I was game for a little exploring. It seemed like we were going “where no one had gone before” (yes, I’m a Star Trek nerd). We deviated from the itinerary I had put together and hiked in. Paved walkways turned into a narrow footpath covered with leaves. Japanese maples, ferns, mixed with pine surrounded us. Any minute I imagined a Samurai jumping out of the forest in front of us. The outdoors grew quiet. Alone in our thoughts, we walked for about 20 minutes.

Another sign posted along the path announced Seikanji Temple just ahead.
What kind of temple were we going to see? Why was it hidden in the forest? Suddenly the dirt footpath turned to pavement, and a flight of stairs appeared. At the top was a large, open wooden door, flanked by white walls and a tall fence. We walked through it. Like a land lost to time, we saw monuments in grey stone topped with crowns and covered with moss at their base. The garden around them had stunted trees expertly cut in the traditional bonsai method. A bell hung under a pavilion off to the left. A small shrine in white and brown wood stood in the center. A long, thick rope hung from the eve. What would happen if we pulled on it? Who would we summon? We decided to leave it alone.

hiddentemplehigashiyama2

Each of us spanned out into the garden; I went back to where we entered and stood among the monuments. I noticed a large rock fenced off in front of me. What did it mean? Why was it special? I could see Kyoto in the distance. I turned back and saw that two of my party had sat down in front of the shrine. My youngest was walking around the back of the shrine. We had the place to ourselves. It was a welcome retreat.

DSC00594

Sometimes it’s nice to follow a whim. After we rested, we made our way towards Nijo Castle. It was the last tourist attraction I wanted everyone to visit. It was a Shogun’s residence. We were on the go once again making tracks towards the west side of town. According to open hours listed, we would have plenty of time to get to it. There was one thing, however, that I didn’t consider. Nijo castle is so popular and busy that a policy of closing off entrants 30 minutes before closing hours was in place. We arrived 30 minutes before closing time. Bummer! We were all disappointed.

I had a plan up my sleeve. The Imperial Palace was by our hotel. We headed back and had time to enjoy its beautiful grounds. Surrounded by pine trees and lovely manicured gardens this was a nice place to end our day and our brief stay in Kyoto.

 

Arashiyama Park and The Golden Pavilion

DSC00489May 24, 2017
Started the morning at a leisurely pace though I couldn’t wait to get out and see more of Kyoto.  The boys slept in(as usual). It’s their vacation too so I want everyone to enjoy it.  We had breakfast at the Hotel. The interior covered courtyard is a pleasant space to start and finish a day of sightseeing. A sense of comfort encourages one to linger, from the colorful garden and sunken bar that sit in the center, to the well-appointed dining areas that spill out into the courtyard.  Many sofas and chairs are scattered throughout to relax in and carrying easy conversations.

The boys were quiet this morning as we ate. I wonder if they know what an honor and gift it is to travel to this marvelous country. Have they considered that this may be the only time they will ever visit Japan?  Probably not.  They’re young.  Life seems endless to them.  I know it did for me at one time.  I don’t know when or if we will ever be back so sleeping-in is the last thing I want to do.

At 7:00 am, I was up reviewing printouts I had brought along from websites on Kyoto. My favorite is “visitacity.com”. It puts together an itinerary for free, with suggested sites and timelines for the day. I customized the itinerary to meet our needs.  We enjoy vacationing at an easy pace.  I focused on just two areas for the day, Arashiyama Park and The Golden Pavilion.

We used the hotel’s free shuttle to take us to Nijo Station. This train station is located a few minutes away from the hotel and has a local JR line that goes to Arashiyama Park. We saw four of Kyoto’s top sites, Tenryu Ji Zen Temple, Iwatayama Monkey Park, Kyoto’s most iconic bridge, Togetsukyo Bridge and the Bamboo Forest.

The train ride was comfortable. Seats are in pairs with padded fabric. At 10:30 in the morning, it wasn’t crowded. We passed buildings and homes in shades of brown and grey wood until we reached our stop. From the Arashiyama Station we stepped onto a street that placed us close to Tenryu Ji Zen Temple. A designated UNESCO site, it is one of five great Zen Temples in Kyoto and considered the most impressive. For 500 yen each, we entered the extensive complex and were not disappointed. At the temple, a large room off to the left is used to store your shoes before entering the sacred space. Stepping onto bamboo mats that line the floors, we walked the perimeter of the Temple, glancing into large, airy rooms where sliding Shoji Doors had been opened.

GOPR0056_Moment(2) A minimalist approach is taken. Large rooms lay barren but for the bamboo matting. A few lights hang from the dark beamed ceiling and a sacred alter stands in the middle of connecting rooms. A large earthenware incense burner stands off to the side. The temple layout is a single straight line that includes a Buddha Hall, Lecture Hall and Hojo(Abbots) Quarters. Doors were opened on the opposite end of the rooms revealing a lush, manicured garden and pond beyond. It is a picturesque scene. The gardens are mesmerizing. So meticulously cared for we sat and just gazed at them. Many folks took a moment to meditate in a room overlooking the gardens. My youngest son and husband joined them.

DSC00464

Leaving the complex, we walked through a quaint shopping district made up of eateries, boutiques, and sweet shops. Like something out of a history book, the two-story buildings are rustic townhouse like- structures built side by side. We found a restaurant on the second floor in one of them and enjoyed a bowl of udon noodles. It was a great break that energized us for our next adventure, the Iwatayama Monkey Park that laid hidden on Arashiyama mountain.

A wide, peaceful river separates the village of Arashiyama from the mountains. We walked on the Togetsukyo Bridge, that spans the river.  Many woodlike piles support the bridge and contribute to its original look that was constructed hundreds of years ago. The bridge has many romantic stories surrounding it. Togetsukyo means a pathway to the moon. Stories say that an Emperor gave the name to the bridge, enchanted by its length and the moon that rose above it. It’s used in many of Japan’s traditional paintings and for movie sets. We stopped on the bridge and just took in the view. A long fishing boat floated in the middle of the river, two men stood on each end using their poles to move through the water. Thick, green forests rose up on one side of the river while villages lined up on the other.

DSC00522To the right, we found the entrance to the Monkey Park after crossing the bridge. In tandem with a small temple, we passed through red torii gates up a small hill. Unhampered by fences, we zigzagged up into the mountain, everyone huffing and puffing. My youngest son began to complain, “wasn’t this supposed to be a relaxing day?” I countered by replying, “What? Can’t keep up with mom? Why don’t you take your turn carrying my backpack for a while.” I knew full well that this distraction would minimize his complaining. We had decided earlier that backpacks would come in handy and that two of us in the family would carry them. They carried water and snacks, sunscreen and hats, our rain jackets along with a few other necessities.

A layer of clouds kept us cool as our stroll turned into a serious 20-minute hike. When we finally made it to the top, we were pleasantly surprised. Lots of monkeys had come down from the mountain to enjoy food that was available at the monitoring station. They sat in front of this single-story building or climbed on top of it, waiting for a tiny morsel. Some scampered beside our feet as we walked around the grounds. How marvelous to be among them!  We had never experienced this kind of interactive freedom. These Japanese macaque monkeys or Snow Monkeys(as I know them) were obviously comfortable with humans. They either sat contently or moved fearlessly around us.

There were posted signs, however, that listed certain behaviors to abide by. Visitors were asked not to stare directly into the monkey’s eyes(this was a sign of aggression), no feeding the monkey’s unless inside a designated room and avoid leaving your belongings unattended(the monkeys were thieves).

 

dsc00505.jpgDSC00514DSC00499

A panoramic view of Kyoto is also enjoyed from this spot. The city spreads out like a grey, blue carpet among the green rolling hills and mountains. Temple tops pop up here and there. A cluster of high rises run along the more modern part of the city. While I was taking in the view my younger son decided to try the limits of the monkey’s character. Curious to see what would happen if he stared at a monkey, he found one sitting alone, nibbling on a piece of fruit. Apparently, he approached the monkey and stared him down.  The primate was not happy. In a few short seconds, the monkey’s eyes grew large and its mouth moved into a big O shape. This was an immediate signal that the monkey was ready to take on my son. Immediately my youngest looked away but again tested the waters, this time videotaping the whole exchange. Later he shared the video and his story with me. I wasn’t happy that he had broken one of the rules.

Back down the mountain we crossed the Katsura River and made our way to the Bamboo forest, one of the highlights of the park. Wide paved pathways follow the river. Couples rented Japanese long boats for romantic and leisurely rides. Groups of school children and families explored the park, while retired couples walked hand in hand. Turning off the promenade along the river, we followed the signs(written in English) and found the bamboo grove. Towering above our heads, the forest was impressive.  A path cutting through it brought us back out onto the street where we caught a cab to our final destination of the day, the Golden Pavilion.

DSC00530A gentle rain began when we arrived but that didn’t stop us or the other tourists from exploring this beautiful complex. After paying an entrance fee, we followed a gravel path that led us to a viewing platform. Even in the late afternoon, we had to gingerly make our way through a throng of people. No wonder!  It is a sight to see!  The villa is as brilliant as the sun.  Covered in gold leaf inside and out, it stands like a shining light against forest green.  It was hard for me to believe that this was once the residence of a Shogun.   It seems otherworldly.  Later, the Shogun bequeathed it to a Buddhist order.

DSC00538The gardens are beautifully manicured like most Buddhist compounds. Ponds and small waterfalls enhance the peacefulness of the area. We followed pathways, skirting around the pavilion.  Inside access is not allowed. The rain ceased and we continued our exploration.  Signs directed us along walkways that meandered through forested areas.  The crowds thinned out. We slowly took our time enjoying the grounds. Stone statues of Kannon sat behind wooden fence rails. Coins laid at the feet of the statue.  Seeking a blessing, both boys tossed coins as well. It was a final act to an active day.

The damp weather seemed to be the right conditions for a warm Sukiyaki meal. After arriving back at our hotel, I scoured Yelp for recommendations while everyone else took showers. I found a place near us, Sukiyaki Kimura. Reading the comments, a contributor gave us a great tip that we took. He suggested that when ordering sukiyaki several grades of beef were listed on the menu. To enjoy this meal to the fullest, order the “high end” wagu beef.

We took a cab to the restaurant.  In traditional style, we left our shoes at the door! We took the stairs to the second floor. Tatami seating(traditional low tables on a matted floor) appeared on our left while private partitioned rooms were on the right. We sat on the floor in the open dining area. Japanese hospitality never ceases to amaze me! The hostess’s first concern “was I comfortable on the floor?” She had a small seat to elevate me if I would like it. I did note the slight pressure on my knees, sitting in a crisscross fashion but I was in for the full experience so I told her I was fine.

Sukiyaki is comfort food. Over a gas fire that is placed in the middle of your table, vegetables, tofu, beef, and broth are heated up. Our hostess guided us through the preparation of the dish, first filling a large bowl of broth with vegetables. While the vegetables were cooking, we whisked a raw egg in bowls placed in front of us. Next, the tofu was added with the beef following soon after. When the meat turned a light brown, it was time to take our chopsticks and grab a combination of the ingredients and dip them into the raw egg. I have to say it is a delicious combination of flavors. This was a meal that we all enjoyed.

IMG_4933Tomorrow takes us to Higashiyama Ward. Looking forward to seeing the Kiyomizudera Temple, Gion(Kyoto’s famous Geisha district), the Fushimi Inari Tori Gates and a shogun castle, Nijo.

Kyoto in Two Days-Part I

DSC00614May 23, 2017
Traveled to Kyoto. Yesterday we dropped off our luggage in the Hotel’s lobby to be shipped to our next destination.  It was a relief to walk through the busy train terminals without carrying our bags.  The charge for four suitcases was $50. The last five days in Tokyo have been thrilling! From strolls around Meiji Shrine where lush patches of forest break up the concrete landscape to enjoying an afternoon matinee at the dramatic and elegant Kabuki theatre at the Kabuki-za in Ginza, from visiting hipster shops in Shibuya to taking in expansive views on the 60th floor at Sunshine City, we have covered a lot of ground. It is time to get out of the city and see more of Japan!

We took the Shinkansen(Bullet Train). It was by far the preferred mode of transportation for many traveling in Japan. We had gone to the Shinjuku station the day before to secure assigned seats. The line was short at 10 am when we found the JR window. Our English-speaking attendant took our vouchers that I had purchased before arriving in Japan and processed them into round trip tickets. Without asking, she assigned seats in the nonsmoking car and placed us on the side that had a view of Mount Fuji. She seemed to be intuitively connected to our needs! I was grateful for her consideration.

Riding on the Shinkansen is an experience in itself. These sleek, futuristic trains can reach up to speeds of 200mph. We paid for economy class and I was apprehensive. Were we going to be packed in tight? Was it going to be crowded? Uncomfortable? My experience using economy class at home and abroad has developed these unpleasant views. To our surprise, the train was spacious. It is modern, sleek and clean. Recessed, low lighting runs along the ceiling and upgraded carpet on the floor. Set in rows of three and two seat configurations, the paired seats have both leg room and elbow room. Nicely padded, the seats also have a white drop cloth on the head rests. There are electrical outlets to charge your devices located by your feet. Trays are built into the backs of the seats. An attendant came through the car, offering food and drinks off a cart. I’m not a big fan of mass transit, but I could get use to this.

 

00069_Trim_Moment_MomentOnce we left the concrete environs of Tokyo and Yokohama, the landscape changed into multiple facets of green. Flat fields of rice paddies spread out along the track with homes and villages scattered near and far. Then we saw rolling hills, lush with trees and vegetation. We passed through long tunnels that cut through low mountains and finally at one point saw Mount Fuji in the distance. Its volcanic cone draped in snow stood like a guardian over the land.

DSC00439

 

DSC00616Our trip took over 2 hours, so we had purchased food at one of the many food markets before boarding at Shinagawa Station, one of only two stations in Tokyo that serves the Bullet trains. Rice rolls, crepes, bento boxes and much more were displayed behind glass counters. Everything looked yummy and we had a hard time choosing. Descriptions were written in Japanese labeling the food.  Unfortunately, the young lady working behine the counter didn’t know English. This made it difficult to know what we were really getting so we decided to spread our odds by buying four different items. I opt for the crepes and their creamy fillings, my husband bought a bento box whose items were beautifully displayed and the boys each bought meats covered in batter. We scored three out of our four purchases(assumptions in appearances weren’t always correct).

DSC00419

The Kyoto train station is smaller than those found in Tokyo. We hailed a cab and left the busy traffic around the station and headed north. As the tall commercial buildings receded in the back, we drove into a quieter part of the city. Following a wide four lane boulevard, trees lined one side of the road while low set commercial buildings interspersed with residential flanked the other side. I noticed an aqueduct below street level marked with park benches, paths and manicured landscape. The running, clear water looked like a nice reprieve from the busy street above. We turned onto a narrow road lined with one- and two-story homes, cars were parked in garages or behind walls. Did our driver understand me when I said, “Hotel Brighton mah deh, kudasi”? Which is “go to the Brighton Hotel, please”. We made another turn and to our left rose the six-story hotel. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Arriving in the late afternoon, we rested in our hotel room until dinner time. We enjoyed the Matcha tea setting that was waiting for us. Kyoto is the Matcha tea capital of Japan and we were excited to try this unique tea. There were instructions beside the tea but they were written in Japanese.  Step-by-step sketches were drawn, however, in preparing the tea.  We gave it our best try.   A green powder, it is poured into a bowl where it is whisked with a small amount of water. Once it has dissolved than more water is added. The taste is a bit grassy and a little on the bitter side. Hard candied sweets were paired with it. As something entirely different, I enjoyed it. For the rest of the family…not so much.

DSC00451

By dinner time, we were ready to explore our surroundings. Still daylight outside, we decided to walk to a restaurant I had found on TripAdvisor, Menbakaichidai Fire Ramen. We walked eight blocks, enjoying the neighborhood with its mix of homes, tiny intimate bars, a random vending machine that had beers to purchase. My boys were flabbergasted! “Wow, look at this!” They exclaimed. (Of course they were the first to notice this). The next question was, “how do they prevent underaged kids from buying a beer?” My husband and I didn’t have an immediate answer.  I finally suggested, “you know the Japanese are a very honorable people. May be out of honor, the kids don’t buy it.” It was hard to figure out if my sons bought that answer. There was simply silence afterward.

We crossed a busier part of town, passing over the aqueduct I had seen earlier and the wide boulevard our driver had taken. When we arrived at Menbakaichidai, we lucked out in getting the last four seats (another reason to visit Japan off season).

Menbakaichidai prepares its Ramen in an unusual way. The cook sets the Ramen on fire as he serves it to you. They put on a great show as they prepared the Ramen. With pots flying and noodles sliding into bowls, the small restaurant lit up like a Pyrotechnics show. We didn’t know if we should laugh or run. The heat was intense as we sat in our seats! The whole experience was a delight. The staff spoke English and they enjoyed interacting with the patrons, asking where we were from, did we enjoy Kyoto and volunteering to take photos and videos of our culinary experience. The small group setting created an intimacy among strangers and the Ramen was absolutely delicious.

00094_Moment00090_Moment

A Day in Kamakura

DSC00339 (2)

 

The Great Buddha

….And whoso will, from Pride released,

Contemning neither creed nor priest,

May feel the Soul of all the East

About him at Kamakura.  By Rudyard Kipling

May 21, 2017

The hour ride from Shinjuku had worn us out.  We had taken a commuter train where seats were scarce.  We ended up standing most of the way.  I watched the landscape slip by the windows, changing from concrete and glass to forest green.  Homes, in distinctive Japanese architecture, were tucked into the folds of the forested hills.  I was looking forward to a change of pace.  Kamakura, a coastal town, was our destination.  Considered a favorable “day” trip from Tokyo, it is known for its many temples and shrines, hiking trails and relaxed atmosphere.  It had left a profound impression on Rudyard Kipling when he visited the city in 1889.  His poem, “Kamakura” still aptly conveys a sense of the place.

When we stepped out of the Kamakura Train Station, we joined a current of tourists that ebbed and flowed on Komachi street which stretched behind the station. The paved path, only open to pedestrians was lined with ice-creams shops, candy shops, souvenir shops, boutiques of every kind and restaurants.  It was a prelude to the attractions that laid ahead.

DSC00268

 

We meandered down the street, mesmerized by all the activity.   Merchants coaxed passersby to shop in their stores.  It was close to noon and I was busy scrolling through my Yelp page, looking for a restaurant.  I found three that were popular.  With Google maps, we found the dining establishments but to our dismay, lines spilled out of their doorways.  After circling around an adjoining street, we were back where we started.  Finally hooked by a salesman(woman in this case)holding a menu and claiming that her restaurant was fabulous,  we ducked in behind a curtain that hung in the doorway and climbed wooden stairs to the second level.  Another line formed on the stairs but the wait was short.  Like most restaurants in Japan, the space was small.  As I glanced into the dining area, I mentally noted what people were ordering.  I was here for the total experience and eating popular local dishes was one of them.

Piles of dried, white, pencil-thin fish garnished most plates.  Um, I guess we should try this, I thought.  I coaxed my youngest son to order a plate that came with these sardine-like fish called Shirasu or Whitebait.  He was up for the full experience while I chickened out and went for the safe Katsu dish.  Trying the Whitebait off my son’s plate, I found it crispy and airy.  Dissolving in my mouth, it had a light “fishy” taste.  Not my “cup of tea”.  But, hey, it was a popular local delicacy and at least I can say that I tasted it.  In fact, we all tried this delicacy and were in similar agreement.  Once was enough!

DSC00271

At the end of Komachi Street, we escaped the throng of people and emerged into a large intersection.  A bright red Torii gate towered above us.  It was the entrance to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine.  One of the main attractions in Kamakura, this shrine has an impressive avenue leading up to it.  For several blocks starting near the coast, Torii gates line up along a long promenade and create an impressive procession towards the grounds.  Torii gates, I found out later, are used to separate the secular spaces of daily life and create a holy area.

DSC00275 (2)

As we proceeded onto the grounds, arched bridges spanned across ponds.  Beautifully manicured gardens touched the watery edges and graceful structures in vermillion rose out of the forest.  There is a sense of peace, calm and restfulness felt here.   As we neared the Main Hall, we heard flutes, drums and wooden clappers.  It was Sunday and we were fortunate to come upon a wedding in progress.  We stood and witnessed this sacred event taking place in an open-air worship hall below the Main Hall.  I glanced around and saw that tourists were proceeding up the grand staircase that began in front of the worship hall.  We soon joined them.

DSC00281

This Shinto Shrine is dedicated to Hachiman kami, Japanese deities.  The Main Hall stands on top of a hill and has a commanding view of the avenue of Torii gates that progress down to the coast.  Purifying ourselves at the water well, we entered the sanctuary.  I caused a bit of a stir with my camera.  Unaware that a service was in progress, I was trying to capture every moment of our trip.  Suddenly a guard stepped in front of me with his arms crossed over his chest which in Japan means, “no”.  The camera was put away immediately.

We veered off to the gift shop beside the main sanctuary. Various items of religious importance could be purchased.  Amulets enclosed in bright silk fabric possessed various properties.  Written in English, we bought according to our needs.  My oldest son found one for “successful studies”.  I bought one for “good health and happiness”.  With our sightseeing nearing an end, we exited the grounds to the left and found a narrow blacktop street and sidewalk leading into the forested hills.  My Google maps showed another religious complex about a mile away.  It wasn’t on my itinerary but it was a beautiful day in May for a walk, so we went for it.

Passing through a traffic tunnel, we emerged to find a sacred compound on our right called Kenchoji. The crowds grew smaller as we walked further from the center of town.  Unlike Tsurugaoka Hachimangu which was free, we paid a small fee (300 yen) to enter this complex. There were no lines and with the English pamphlet we were given, we explored the extensive grounds.

KenchojiGate2

Kenchoji is a Rinzai Zen temple and ranks first among Kamakura’s Five Great Zen Temples.  These sacred grounds were marked with towering gates(signifiying our passage from the outer world into sacred space), beautifully manicured gardens, shrines, Dharma Hall, Grand Gate, a monastery, a Zen garden, a large Buddha Hall and Bell Temple designated as a national treasure.  My oldest son found the incense burner standing in front of the Buddha Hall mesmerizing.  He bought a stick to burn, an offering to Buddha.  In Zen Buddhism, this also meant a symbol of unity.DSC00294

DSC00300

As we viewed each structure, reading its historical importance, I discovered that a 20 minute walk further into the compound would take us to a lookout that would give us a view of Mount Fuji.  Were we up for the task?  We had been on our feet for about five hours starting with our commute.  Not willing to show that their mom could out walk them, they said, “of course!”  Heading further in, we skirted beside two massive wooden buildings with typical steep sloping irimoya roofs.  The path was paved, stretching deeper into the woods.  We past under smaller Torii gates, tall headstones engraved with writings, bronze statues that seemed to stand as guardians, to begin our slow ascent.  Reaching the final platform on the hillside, we found ourselves in front of the last shine on the compound, Hansobo Shrine. The view was well worth the climb.  For miles we overlooked forested hills, the Buddhist compound and somewhere hidden in the hazy horizon was Mount Fuji.  Kenchoji was well worth a visit.  It managed to instill a peace that all of us appreciated.

DSC00306

DSC00309

Hailing a cab, we had just an hour to see one of the most iconic statues in Japan, The Great Buddha, before the grounds closed.  My heart started racing.  I didn’t want to miss this colossal bronze Buddha that had moved so many including Rudyard Kipling during his visit in 1800’s.

We drove through tunnels and zigzagged through narrow residential streets sometimes pulling to the side, allowing an oncoming car to pass.  Would we make it?  The question loomed over me.  Our hour was whittling away and as I glanced at my Google maps, a popup warned me that the sanctuary would close in 45 minutes.  A feeling of dismay began to wash over me.  I told myself that it was O.K. if we missed it.  I was the only one who really knew its history.  The rest of the family had not gotten involved in researching the sites of Japan(other than Japan’s anime mania).  They drifted happily along, relying on my leadership.

With 30 minutes to spare, we stopped in front of a small nondescript entrance, flanked with trees and two deities housed in towers.  Our cab driver confirmed we had arrived.  Walking down a long, gravel path, the Buddha grew larger as we neared.  Towering over us, we stopped at the base.  The presence of the statue stilled us and we found a sense of peace within ourselves.  Even the boys couldn’t deny the effect the Buddha had on them.

DSC00354

Walking back to the train station, some streets closed off traffic to allow locals and tourists to stroll down their centers and visit shops whose doors were open for the evening.  It was peaceful.  I’m a dog lover by nature and during my trips, I can’t help but take snapshots of dogs when I’m away from home.  Below were these two cuties gazing out of one of the shops.DSC00353

 

Sensoji Temple

DSC00121 (2)

Asakusa district, home of the Sensoji Temple, had many attractions and surprises for us! We disembarked from the Toei subway line, benefiting from the train attendant’s help back in Shinjuku, and climbed out only a few blocks from the Buddhist compound. Facing the Sumida river as we emerged, a wide and pristine promenade ran along the water’s edge. Pedestrians strolled along the walk, others stopped to gaze at Tokyo’s highest tower, the Sky Tree standing across the river. The breeze off the water was refreshing and like kids easily distracted, we veered away from our intended destination(the Sansoji Temple) and walked over to the river.

DSC00088

With google maps directing us to Sensoji, I momentarily ignored the day’s itinerary. The view of the river was captivating. We were immediately drawn to the riverboats docked nearby. As we walked over to the promenade, a gentleman approached us, offering a river excursion for $6.00 each. We couldn’t pass it up. It was a 30- minute ride and he assured us it was well worth it. Our schedule was flexible so we went for it.

His English was good but we were in for a surprise when the narration began on the motor boat. As we intently listened to the tour guide speak Japanese over the loud speaker, we began to realize that he had no intention of following up his narration in English. A couple from Australia began to chuckle and soon the man commented, “I guess that’s what you get for $6.00!” We all appreciated the humor and a friendly banter broke out between my husband and the stranger.

What the ride lacked in information, it made up in scenery. Tokyo’s Sky Tree and Asahi Brewery were seen at various angles from the water. We cruised under historical bridges and by the charming Yakatabune boats with their hanging red lanterns and traditional low-slung design. The opportunity to simply relax and allow the cool, humid air brush against our faces was welcoming. It reenergized us. Later, I looked up the significance of the bridges we floated past on the internet. They were the Azumabashi, the Kototoibashi and Sakurabashi bridges. All with a unique history of their own.

DSC00098 (2)

 

It was an easy walk to the entrance of the Sensoji grounds. Milling with a lot of people, I privately noted that I had made a prudent change in our itinerary the proceeding night. Experiencing a nagging sense that I needed to revisit some information on Sensoji, I grabbed my ipad and stumbled across an events calendar for the complex. A very large festival was taking place starting Friday. It was called the Sanja Matsuri, scheduled each year in the third week of May. The event was expected to attract up to 1.5 million people. Did we really want to see the temples in such a large crowd? I moved the tour up a day.

Sensoji has two impressive gates to walk through. The first one called “the Thunder Gate” stands at street side and is flanked with two fierce looking deities. I later found out that they were the gods of Thunder and Wind. Protectorates of the compound. The second gate further in is the “Treasure House” and is noted for its massive hanging lantern that you can walk under.

DSC00100
A long, wide avenue stretches out after the first gate, marked with vendors on each side. We walked by food stalls, merchandise stands, restaurants. The smells from the food were enticing. We stopped and tried a deep-fried donut hole filled with bean paste. It was delicious. As we proceeded, I noticed an omikuji stall. I had some information on this from a YouTuber.  Omikuji is Japanese fortune paper. Metal canisters sat on a shelf in front of a cluster of wooden drawers. By paying 100 yen, my youngest son picked up the canister and shook it as if he were shaking up dice in a crap game (Remember I’m from Las Vegas). Then tipping it over, one stick finally slipped out from a tiny hole in the canister. A number (in Japanese characters) is written on the stick. By matching up the number to the drawer that has the same, he opened the drawer and pulled out a sheet of paper. The fortune is written on the paper. Only the kids tried it. (I was busy filming it all). We lucked out! Both boys had a good fortune. However, if you end up with a bad one, there is a rack of metal wires beside the fortune stall where you tie your fortune. This is supposed to release you of your bad fortune with an intervention from the gods.

00010_Trim (2)_Moment

As we approached the main hall, I informed everyone that we could participate in the cleansing ritual that was customary before entering the building. It consisted of standing in front of a large caldron and allowing the burning incense to pass over us. The smoke is said to have healing properties. Next, devotees washed their hands and cleansed their mouths from a well of running water that stood beside the main temple. The ritual was very soothing.

DSC00116DSC00125

Soon the big moment was upon us as we climbed a few steps to the entrance of the main temple. No photos were allowed. A large golden alter with intricate design work, rose before us dedicated to Kannon, the goddess of mercy. Beautiful and inspiring, we stood in silence as we gazed at the splendor before us.  The first temple was built in the 600’s making it Tokyo’s oldest temple.  The story is that two brothers pulled a Kannon from the Sumida river.  The chief of the village, understanding the importance of the statue enshrined it so that people could come and worship the deity.

I used a handful of sites to plan this itinerary.  But my favorites can be found on YouTube.  They are by TokyoCheapo, “A Beginners Guide to Asakusa” and Okano TV, “Exploring Tokyo”.  Enjoy!