Dissension in the Charlie's Angels camp
|Akko was not happy about being left with the Drew Barrymore character.|
|Akko was not happy about being left with the Drew Barrymore character.|
|Nara's famous lacquer statues come under the scrutiny of Rhod.||As he tosses about the idea of his very own statue...||...he also toys with the kind of pose that would best be suited to him.|
|Crowds! Crowds! Crowds! Beautiful yes, but worth the mad rush to snap any hint of colour on the trees? Well yes and no. We have trees in England too you know. They also change colour.|
|A little way south of Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, along a stretch of Ichijo-dori, scores of little youkai line the pavement. These youkai are often made by the shopkeepers and advertise the ware inside (moulded around traffic cones). What was once an annual festive event has materialised into a year long fad, a parade of ghostly monsters more cute than frightening. For a short stretch of road, Ichijo has been renamed Youkai-street. Youkai are Japanese mythological creatures, ghosts, demons and spirits, all grouped together and often humanoid in nature. In recent years youkai have become extremely popular, depicted in anime and advertisements. Hinata looks less than impressed with the little monsters, but then again he was more fascinated by Rhod's beard.|
|From left to right, top to bottom, here are some snapshots of our trip to Nara: A giant end tile originally from the roof of Todai-ji, I (the small matchstick-man) am dwarfed by the largest wooden building in the world (Todai-ji), and a deer peers out from one of the tablets lining the approach to Kasuga Shrine.||The autumn colours of Japanese maple trees look like those big apple flavour candy you could buy from the jars behind the counter in newsagents. Rhod growls under one of the giant guardian gods within Todai-ji, I don't quite reach the big buddha's toes and Rhod looks up and into the giant bell used to toll out evil spirits and hail in the new year.|
|A rather tiny Rhod looks out from the verandah of Nigatsu-do, built onto the side of Wakakusa-yama. From here it is easy to look out across the city. I pose on a small arbor set on one of the ponds south of Kofuku-ji. Rhod stops to take a breather on one of the small shrines of Kasuga. Walking through the primeval forest was haunting and deathly silent, except for the occassional deer.||Finally twilight falls on the pagoda of Kafuki-ji and Sarusawa Pond. Uneme (a court lady) drowned herself in the pond after losing favour with the emperor, whom she loved. A shrine was built to appease her soul, but during the night it turned away from the pond out of sadness for Uneme. Thus her shrine has its back to the torii gate.|
Taking the train East of Ise, brings you to the coast and Pearl Country (Toba, where Mikimoto Kokichi produced the world's first cultivated pearl). The small town of Futaminoura is a sober little hamlet of old souvenir shops and grand saloon-style ryokan. As the path curls around the peninsular, you come to Meoto-iwa, the 'wedded rocks', that sit in the shallows. Cormorants smother the coast, making use of the small torii gates and hefty ropes that join the two rocks. The rocks are said to represent male and female, the gods Izanagi and Inazami, and between May and August, the sun rises between them.
Walking the streets of Futaminoura was peculiar. The town is most notable for the above-mentioned rocks, but has padded the experience with an 'old-Japan' theme park and the saddest, most camp aquarium in Japan. Despite these undeniably prime(!) attractions, there was barely a soul on the traditional, age-worn streets. Or perhaps there were many, all invisibly going about their otherworldly business in the unmanned, open fronted shops. Really, it felt like the inspiration for Miyazaki's beautiful ghost-world in 千と千尋/Spirited Away. The rocks themselves were certainly worth the short journey from Ise-shi. Picturesque, and with uncharacteristically subtle decoration (for the Japanese), they served essentially as an interesting focal point for the scenic coastline.
In contrast to the tranquil streets and the lovely nature, the surrounding souvenir shops had a well practiced and exceptionally off-putting hard-sell routine for locals and foreigners alike. "Japanese Green Tea!", I was informed with a forceful yell from a storefront stall, was free to try. Just as I finished my sample and put the cup down, a spritely old chap darted out of the main store and dragged me to look at the postcards. I actually wanted some of these (though didn't require the coersion) but I ONLY wanted the postcards, and that seemed to aggrivate the owners, who then declined to take my money, insisting it could only be changed 'next door'. A simple ruse to make sure that every trinket, every local delicacy (many, not actually that local) and every overpriced handkerchief met with my hassled glare. It eventually proved too much for me, and as the lady offered me a lantern, I replied with a stern 'I live in Kyoto. We have plenty of better lanterns'. She took my money, wrapped the postcards, and we were done. Thankfully it was more amusing than it was upsetting, so overall our time in Futaminoura amounted to a really nice, laid back few hours.
Before Emperor Kammu, every single time an Emperor died the capital (of the foundling Japan) would be moved away from the bad luck and evil spirits that would follow in death's wake. Buildings would be torn down and rebuilt, the entire mechanics of the Imperial Household uprooted and resettled, and untold fortunes squandered on settling a new home for Emperor.
Skimming over the history of Nara brings more adventurous tales to the fore and unlikely stories: the high priest that seduced an Empress and tried to seize a country (Dokyo in 769); the ranks of scuffling warrior priests that held sway over the temples (often battling each other and involving themselves in politics); the undertaking of a monumental statue of buddha that would suffer fire and earthquake (not to mention decapitation); the largest wooden building in the world (rebuilt to only two thirds of its original size); the courtesan who drowned herself in one of the most famous of Nara's ponds after falling in love with an Emperor; the messenger deers sent from the shinto gods (who mysteriously began to vanish, possibly to peoples plates, in war-time) of Kasuga Shrine. All of this in a mere 75 years, before Nara's flame was extinguished and the Emperor Kammu wrestled power away from the religious houses and established his new home in Kyoto in 784. A burst of energy much like the Renaissance in Europe, except much much earlier, when art and aestetics blossomed to such dizzying heights. Then in barely a few generations it was all left behind, perfectly preserving Nara as an untouched museum, still able to awe when Kyoto sometimes gets lost in its own concrete jungle.
Nara (Heijo) is translated as the Citadel of Peace, and it truly remains so. It is the Kyoto that never was, and I think we can all be thankful for that. A night staying at a small ryokan in Nara-machi (an area of traditional, lattice-fronted shops) was a breath of fresh air.
|This poor guy has survived his head toppling off during an earthquake in the 9th century and the melting of his right hand during a fire in 1180. A phenomenal achievement even by today's standards, the giant Cosmic Buddha has been impressing crowds since his eyes were symbolically opened in 752. And boy is he big. So big in fact that it took the construction of the biggest wooden building in the world to house him.|
|Elephant seals and a walrus, dancing to YMCA, is not something I imagined I would ever see. Not something I imagined at all, in fact. Overtly camp - and with perfect timing - on instruction from their masters the unwilling performers would feign sadness, limp wrists, and that old chestnut, the imaginary handbag.||There was something quite astonishing seeing these beautiful and massive creatures totally gay it up for the crowds, and the trainers themselves clearly had great affection for their charges. The seals looked pretty happy with their lot -a bucket of fish might have helped with that - and I must admit I was almost taken in, so awed was I to be so close to them. However...|
|...the gormless faces, the constant photography, and the awful 'stepped out of Roald Dahl' children broke my mood. This sad excuse for an aquarium had floors of shops and restaurants, yet the tanks were absolutely minute. The decaying feel of the whole place (and numerous dead fish floating in their prisons) was enough to drive anyone mad...||Especially the poor Swordfish, unable to even turn in his tank. Like Kyoto zoo, the place was a disgrace. Though the lighting made it hard to snap fish in motion, I hope I did some justice to just how spectacular the sea creatures are in the photos. We were a stones throw from Ise's Wedded Rocks, and I just wanted to bust all those poor animals out of there.|
|[Don't want the history? Just want the photos? Uncultured swines, this way please...]|
As the story goes, the god and goddess, Izanagi and Izanami, made love and from the fruits of this passion Japan was born from the oceans. Izanami died giving birth to the god of fire, and Izanagi journeyed through the afterlife to find her. This story does not have a happy ending, for the lovers were not to spend out the rest of eternity in each others arms. Izanagi became impure and thus threw himself to the oceans to cleanse himself, Izanami damning the husband that had abandoned her. Their mortal forms were lost forever. Another tale has the lovers lay down to form the twin valleys of Ise.
Ise was a small town of little worth amongst the ancient cypress forests of Shima Hanto (Mie prefecture), until the sun goddess Amaterasu's mirror (the very mirror which she gave to her grandson Ninigi-no-Mikoto when she sent him to rule Japan) was moved from the Imperial Palace. The sacred sword -now at Tokyo's Imperial Palace-, beads -now at Nagoya's Atsuta-jingu- and mirror of the Imperial line were considered too important to be kept in a house, no matter how glorious that house was. Amaterasu (from whom all Japanese emperors are descended) went on a journey, which ended in 4 B.C when the imperial princess Yamatohime no Mikoto decided Ise should be the permenant home of the daughter of Izanami and Izanagi. A shrine was built to hold the mirror.
Four centuries later and on the outskirts of the town, a second shrine was built to the god Toyouke. As god of farming and industry, she was placed a few kilometres from Amaterasu so that she could provide food and offerings. Since this time Ise has become the most sacred place in Japan, a town to which all Japanese are supposed to pilgrimage once in their life.
Geku, the home of Toyouke, is a quiet enclave of peace and calm, surrounded on all sides by city life. The small forest is made up of huge cedars, sweeping the hillsides, holy paper wrapped around their trunks, and each containing their own gods (likewise, many rocks have been taken from the coast and arranged in the shrine grounds, thought to also contain deities). No-one speaks loudly, each person respectfully walking the sunlight dappled paths with respect. Small shrines scatter the woodland, each a protector of the main shrine. Every morning and afternoon food offerings are made to Amaterasu. Photos are forbidden in the main shrine, which means Rhod's accidental photo is something rarely seen.
Naiku (at the foot of Mount Kamiji and Mount Shimaji) contrasts sharply to its younger brother. A recreated Edo-era merchant town lines the main thoroughfare, bustling with steaming food, live entertainment, restaurants, toy shops and the more tacky souvenir vendors. Naiku is in many ways the exact twin of Geku. The bold designs of the shrines themselves are uniquely Japanese (free of Korean and Chinese influence) and covered with the barest hint of gold. As ancient as the forest is, the shrines are new. Every twenty years the shrines and Uji Bridge (that crosses the picturesque Isuzu River) are torn down and rebuilt (their remains sent to shrines across the country) on ajoining sites. The symbolism of renewal reminds the Japanese of the gods immortality.
The empty site of the previous shrine (the kodenchi) is strewn with large white pebbles. The only building left on the site, which keeps its sacrity for twenty years (until it is time to build a new shrine on this spot), is a small wooden hut (oi-ya) inside of which is a post about 7 feet high known as shin-no-mihashira (the heart, or sacred central post). The new shrine will be erected over and around this post, which is essentially the most mysterious object in Ise shrine (they always remain hidden out of sight). The present buildings reproduce the original temple built by Emperor Temmu (678-686), the first Emperor of Japan, and then torn down and rebuilt by Empress Jito in 692. Cedar and sakaki (a small shrub similar to the tea bush) are important and can be found at every turn in Naiku.
Ise town wears its sanctity lightly. It is a somewhat disappointingly ordinary place, though the shrines are unquestionably awe-inspiring in their simple myticism. Well it all sounds like awful twaddle until you yourself join the hundreds that journey to the shrines every day. The simple thatched roofs of the shrine and high wooden fences hark back to a simpler time when gods walked amongst us.
I had wanted to surprise Rhod with a trip for sometime, and because our anniversary would be on Culture Day, I got Misako to help me book a hotel (fantastic little place, with an ancient old couple overseeing a decaying B&B of the 70s) in Ise. I knew that it would be exceptionally laid back and relaxing, and I guessed that there would be no rushing around as Ise really only has the shrines and very little else. The city was much like any other Japanese provincial centre, except devoid of people. The ghost town like quality of the city really did take us by surprise. Shops would be open but without customers or shopkeepers, few cars would pass and the station was mysteriously silent. For all its beauty, Ise remains a puzzle. A day trip town with an invisible population.
|For the reasons why, check out the next post.|
|Fruit still hanging on branches come the first frosts of Winter, not yet withered and rotten.||Butterflies swarming in November, soaking up the warmth of an Indian Summer, refusing to die.||The world is not so certain of its seasons any longer. No more snow in December. Times are a-changing.|
This must seem a little silly to write down, but I care very little for sounding foolish or dramatic right now. My most amazing, beautiful, wonderful, excellent pal, best friend, and partner in crime died yesterday. My parents called to tell me that Rhea did not have long left, that she was in no pain, but that she was simply old (18 and a half no less) and slipping away. No drama, no mad rushes to the vet, just a calm slip into night. And although she made no sound, my mum brought the phone up to her ear and I said goodbye. In fact I said very little, because it is only just sinking in how much she meant and means to me. And always will.
Rhod and Ki's tour of life in Kyoto, Japan.