New Year Feature (Part 2) – Okayama’s Black Beauty

Exhausted from our pre-dawn excursions, including a two-hour maroon at a train station, we decided to sleep in on New Year’s Day, and woke up for lunch. It had been an eventful New Year’s Eve for us, having started the day as early as 8 a.m. The original plan that day had been to visit Okayama Castle (岡山城), bright and early so we could avoid the crowds.

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Standing majestically over the Asahi River (旭川), Okayama Castle (like many castles in Japan) is a reconstruction, the original structure having been almost totally destroyed during the Second World War. Only the Tsukimi Yagura (月見櫓), which translates literally as the “moon viewing turret”, remains from the original 1620 construction. However, what separates Okayama Castle from the others is that it is one of only two jet-black castles ever constructed in Japan, the other being Matsumoto Castle in Nagano. Their black facades have earned them the moniker “Crow Castle”.

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As luck would have it, Okayama Castle was closed on New Year’s Eve. We consoled ourselves that the inside of the castle probably looked more or less like the dozen or so other castles we have already visited before, and left after taking a few selfies with the castle as backdrop.

Crossing the ugly steel bridge which connects to the castle, we arrived at Korakuen (後楽園), ranked as one of the top three most beautiful landscape gardens in Japan (the other two being Kenrokuen (兼六園) in Kanazawa (金沢) and Kairakuen (偕楽園) in Mito City (水戸市), Ibaraki Prefecture. Korakuen (後楽園) was actually one of my bucket lists of places to check off for Japan.

Except, as I stood on top of a tiny knoll (with Okayama Castle behind me) surveying the monochromatic landscape before me, I couldn’t figure out how the gardens earned its three stars in the Michelin Green Guide. In fact, I felt as if I’ve just been transported back in time to a period when all photos carry a sepia tinge.

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I’ve definitely seen more beautiful gardens in Kyoto and Tokyo!

Granted, the expansive lawns, ponds, intimate walking paths make for a relaxing amble. But beauty is not a description that comes first to mind. I decided to blame it on the season. After all, it’s a frigid winter morning. I’m sure a visit during summer or autumn would have done the gardens more justice.

What I did enjoy though, was sitting at one of the wooden benches littered along the banks of the Asahi River and admiring the imposingly majestic black beauty, that is Okayama Castle.

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I’m sure if my fingers weren’t threatening to dislodge themselves or that my belly people weren’t threatening a revolt, I would have liked to linger around longer, possibly with a cuppa in one hand and a book in the other. Summer time, perhaps.

Just then, the heavens poured.

Fat drops of rainfall on a freezing winter’s day. You couldn’t have planned this day better (sarcasm fully intended).

We took refuge at the entrance of a public restroom, looking cold, sheepish and hungry.

Our not-so-happening happening New Year’s Eve had just begun.    LS

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In The Mood For Haiku

I hope you have enjoyed the trio of haiku (俳句) from my previous posts. It’s actually my maiden attempt at writing haiku . In fact, I’ve had to read up on the rules and conventions / stylistics of writing haiku before giving it a crack myself.

Native Japanese speakers or non-native speakers proficient in the Japanese language may even find the grammar or my choice of words used in the haiku somewhat strange, and I can only apologise for my own language shortcomings.

What I do try to convey through each of these haiku is a state of mind or an emotion that works symbiotically with an accompanying photograph to capture or express those thoughts / feelings / emotions at that point in time (i.e. when the picture was taken).

Instead of three parallel lines, I chose to present the haiku in a single line in the classic Japanese way, like the script on an omikuji (おみくじ) strip.

However, I have deliberately left out any explanation of the haiku in all my previous posts, so that you can draw your own meaning or interpretations.

I hope to come up with more of such posts in future, as and when inspiration strikes.

お願い致します。 LS

New Year Feature (Part 1) – Ringing in the New Year at Chayamachi Station

I promised to get out of Japan in my previous (and last post of the year) in 2018 but seems like there are still a few stories left in my shelf that I haven’t been able to pull out. In the words of the great Italian-American actor Al Pacino “Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.”

And so I present to you this post, which was inspired by a fellow blogger’s comment (Do check out her travel exploits in Japan. Jennifer has probably covered more places in the Land of the Rising Sun than me, and her photos are so gorgeous your eyeballs will be glued to her blog).

But first things first…

HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!!!

Here’s wishing all my readers a Prosperous Year of the Pig in 2019!!! (Excuse my Chinese-ness. Chinese people love prosperity above all things). *sings* Money, money, money… Must be funny… In the rich man’s world…

Of course, prosperity is not restricted to money and fortunes. So here’s wishing you prosperity in all areas of your life, be it health, family and career!!

I spent my New Year in 2018 at Chayamachi Station (茶屋町駅).

The reason?

My friend and I had intended to catch a train from Okayama Station (岡山駅) to visit the celebrated Kibitsu Shrine (吉備津神社) of Momotaro fame for hatsumode (初詣, a tradition observed by my Japanese on the first day of the new year to pray for safety, peace or well-being in the new year).

But… we ended up taking the wrong direction.

A quick check with the few commuters on board after our gut told us that something was not quite right about confirmed our initial suspicions.

We had taken the wrong train!!

Instead of taking the Momotaro Line (桃太郎線), we had hopped onto the Seto-Ohashi Line (瀬戸大橋線) bound for Shikoku (四国).

So we hastily got off at the next random station, and found ourselves at Chayamachi Station (茶屋町駅).

When the clock struck twelve, we could hear temple bells ringing from different directions (each temple bell is supposed to ring 108 times by the way, to symbolise the cleansing of the 108 worldly desires of the flesh according to Japanese Buddhism) at the station, creating a discordant symphony of sorts.

It was a surreal experience, given our original intention was to catch the ringing of the bells live at the temple itself.

Midnight at a deserted train station, just my friend and I. We didn’t kiss in the New Year, unfortunately.

When the return train to Okayama Station came, after having waited for almost 2 hours, we were so excited (and relieved) that we jumped for joy on the platform.

When we finally got off at our desired station, which shares the same name as our destination temple (吉備津駅), it was almost half past three in the morning.

However, to our pleasant surprise, we found ourselves in good company. No need for Google Maps as all we had to do was to join in the steady stream of Japanese making their way to the temple from the station.

There was still quite a queue up to the main hall of the temple but it could have been worse.

I offered to buy us some snacks (piping hot sweet potatoes) from one of the food stalls that have been doing brisk business next to the temple’s car park.

We soon found ourselves moving at a steady speed up the stone steps, and soon we were standing before the main altar.

We clapped twice, whispered our prayers, and bowed.

I prayed that I won’t take the wrong train again in 2018.     LS

P.S.: This post is dedicated to Alicia Loh, who counted down 2018 with me at Chayamachi Station, and also braved the freezing morning chill to queue for our first omikuji of the year.

Spiritual Sojourns (Part 3) – ‘Power’ Up in Ise

It’s impossible to talk about spiritual spots in Japan without including a discussion of Ise Jingu (伊勢神宮) or Ise Grand Shrine. After all, this shrine is widely acknowledged by many Japanese as one of the most scared Shinto shrines in Japan.

I have known about the shrine from Lonely Planet and various travel blogs on the Internet. I have also heard a fair share of stories from my friends in Japan. One recounted that her mother insisted they make a pilgrimage there when she was plagued by a series of nightmares. Another gushed about how she met her fiancé while on a solo trip to Ise Jingu (伊勢神宮). The shrine holds different meanings and experiences for different people I spoke to, it seems. But all agree that this shrine is one of the most powerful spiritual spots in Japan.

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Therefore, while planning my last hurrah of sightseeing around Japan (before moving back to Singapore for good), I deliberately reminded myself to pencil in a day trip to Mie Prefecture (三重県), even though the journey was an inconvenient four hours to and fro from downtown Kyoto, where I was based at that time.

A few months prior to the trip, however, I received a message on Facebook from a friend, who asked me where exactly this spiritual spot in Ise Jingu (伊勢神宮) is, and how to feel the energy. I was stumped by the question, because I haven’t been to the shrine up until then.

“What do you mean where is the spiritual spot? Isn’t it something you feel naturally while you’re there?” I asked her.

Well, apparently, no.

My friend felt nothing at all, and complained that the shrines were swarmed with people, and how it was almost impossible to take a clean shot of the shrines without having strangers ‘photo-bomb’ you left, right and centre.

She even said she was a little disappointed and felt ‘cheated’ because the shrines looked very simple and ‘nothing special’ in their design.

That’s really missing the whole point about Ise Jingu (伊勢神宮). Because, what distinguishes Ise Jingu (伊勢神宮) from all other Shinto shrines in Japan are the clean, down-to-earth lines, devoid of ornamental carvings or decorations. This minimalist design is the defining characteristic of Ise Jingu!

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A few facts first before we proceed, Ise Jingu actually comprises two shrines. There’s the Geku (外宮), or Outer Shrine and the Naiku (内宮), or Inner Shrine. “外” is the Japanese kanji for “outside” while “内” is the kanji for “inside”.

The former is about a 5-minutes’ walk south of the Ise-shi (伊勢市) train station while a bus from the stop opposite the Geku (外宮) takes you to the latter.

The Geku is dedicated to the goddess of food, clothing and housing, Toyouke (豊受大神), while the Naiku is dedicated to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu (天照大御神様), the most important god in Shinto.

That should give you a clue as to which of the two shrines is the more “powerful”, spiritually speaking.

Except that, it doesn’t.

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When I finally made my pilgrimage there, I recalled the question my friend had asked me about where exactly this famed spiritual spot in Ise Jingu (伊勢神宮) was. And I realised what she had meant by that question.Because both shrines are immensely popular with both Japanese and tourists, they are often swarmed with people. Now, whether you believe this or not is another matter, but I would like to propose an answer to my friend’s question. In crowded places teeming with people, you are highly unlikely to feel any spiritual energy.

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Does that make sense?Spiritual energy is diluted or negated by the presence of humans (who carry with them an energy called “yang” in traditional Chinese beliefs) while spiritual energy is “yin”. These two types of energy are antithetical to each other.

In addition, spiritual energy is not a hot spring. It’s not something that gushes out from a single point / location / source / cave / aperture, like in an onsen. So don’t go looking for these places when you are in Ise Jingu.

So, what about my personal experiences? Did I feel anything there?

The short answer is yes, but only in pockets.

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What does that mean? You must know that both shrines cover an extensive area, and there are several smaller shrines housed within each area. In other words, in those smaller shrines, where there are fewer tourists, you are more likely to feel this energy.

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Perhaps, that’s why many tourists choose to visit the shrines near closing time, when the crowds throng the exits. The catch is that there are possibly hundreds of other Japanese who think the same way.My personal take when you visit Ise Jingu is not to go searching for this energy, but instead just do the normal “touristy” things – take pictures at the entrances (and try your hardest not to be “photo-bombed”), sit at one of the benches at the pavilion near the entrance of Geku (外宮) and gaze at the beautiful pond, or wander the busy shopping street just outside Naiku (内宮).And while ambling around the various shrines on the grounds, feel free to roam and explore the smaller paths when you spot one. Follow your gut, instincts, sixth sense (whatever you call it) and ‘dive’ right in. And there, you will definitely feel this energy you are looking for.

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One tip I will give you though, look for the miniature ‘shrines’ while you are there. I found myself inexplicably drawn to them when I was at either of these shrines.     LS

I’m in the midst of preparations for a major trip (about 3 months) to another part of the world in the coming year, and I’m so pumped up for this upcoming trip! Stay tuned for updates!!

P.S.: This post concludes the last of the series on Spiritual Sojourns for 2018, and while there are definitely hundreds (even thousands) of other spiritual spots that have not been featured but worth visiting in Japan, I’m going to take a short break and leave Japan for a while.

In the meantime, continue to travel and explore the world out there. Stay healthy and bubbly. Here’s wishing all you guys out there Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year in advance!!! 😁

Spiritual Sojourns (Part 2) – Bewitched in Chikubushima, Lake Biwa

“Chi ku bu shi ma” (竹生島).

Now, say this again more quickly: “Chi-ku-bu-shi-ma”.

Repeat this five times.

竹生島! * 竹生島! * 竹生島!! * 竹生島!! * 竹生島!!!

This tongue twister of a name is NOT a joke. Not only is it a real island, but also one that happens to be one of the top three spiritual spots located in the mysterious yet enchantingly beautiful Lake Biwa, in Shiga Prefecture.

Measuring only two kilometres across, the first thing that you will notice as your ferry from Nagahama (there’s also another ferry that goes to this island from Imazu Port in Takashima City) approaches the island is this ashen-white torii gate, called the Ryujin Haisho (龍神拝所), dedicated to the Dragon God or Ryujin (龍神). For me, this torii gate exudes an inexplicably strong aura of energy, and its cliff-like perch over the emerald waters resembles a gateway for the spirits.DSC08609To get here, however, you would need to ascend a long flight of stone stairs – 165, to be precise – which make up what is called the Inori-no-Ishidan (祈りの石段), or literally translated “Stone Steps of Prayer”.

Thankfully, there’s a right fork midway up the stairs that leads straight to the island’s main Shinto shrine, Tsukubusuma Shrine (都久夫須麻神社). Built in AD420, the shrine’s main hall (本殿) is a designated National Treasure. DSC08607DSC08608Directly opposite (or facing) the shrine is a wooden pavilion that houses the Ryujin’s miniature altar, and the lookout onto the Ryujin Haisho, littered with thousands of clay dish fragments.

The myth goes that if you are able to toss two dishes (one with your name written on it while the other bears your wish) through the torii gate, Ryujin will grant you your wish.

I didn’t buy or toss any clay dish, however but it was just as enjoyable watching others try their luck.

A wooden corridor, called the Funa-roka (舟廊下) because it was supposedly constructed from Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s boat, leads to the Kannon Hall and Karamon Gate (#30 spot on the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage 西国観音参詣), now undergoing major restoration.DSC08634Emerging from the hall, you will be greeted by the imposingly massive Hogon-ji (宝厳寺), whose construction dates back to AD724 upon an imperial edict during the reign of Shomu (聖武天皇) after supposedly having received a divine message from the Sun Goddess.

The temple is thus dedicated to the Benzaiten (弁才天), God of wealth, music and eloquence, who according to the divine message, descended on the island. It’s only one of three temples in Japan dedicated to the Benzaiten, the other two being Itsukushima (厳島神社) in Miyajima (宮島) and Enoshima (江ノ島)  in Kamakura (鎌倉).DSC08630If you haven’t tossed your wish at the Ryujin Haisho earlier, why not jot it down on a piece of paper and then encapsulate it in one of these adorable red darumas (達摩). It’s tempting to bring one of these home but unfortunately, you would have to leave it at the altar for your wish to come true!!

And just to make sure no spirit follows you on your way back to the ferry jetty, do not look back over your shoulders as you descend the stone steps of the Inori-no-Ishidan (祈りの石段), past this massive eroded torii gate.    LSDSC08642

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Spiritual Sojourns (Part 1) – Lake Biwa, Shiga

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Fall is almost over in Hokkaido, although you wouldn’t know that here in sunny Singapore. (To be honest, me neither. It’s almost two months since I moved back for good from Japan).

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Fall is the best season to visit Hokkaido or anywhere in Japan in my opinion, because the islands (save for Okinawa) will be slowly clad in a mesmerising patchwork of crimson, mandarin and golden hues from north to south, beginning with Hokkaido. With Halloween round the corner, fall is also the best season for ghost stories (although some believe summer to be the best). Whatever your seasonal/spiritual inclinations, this post is a discussion of neither.Rather, it’s the second series of a feature titled “Spirited Away” that I first penned this April. Just a quick recap, that feature seeks to introduce some of the so-called “power spots” in Japan, places where one can experience a spiritual energy. However, in place of “power spots”, I have proposed the term “spiritual spots” because although these sites do exude a particular energy, said energy may not be the positive or zen-like calmness expounded in other sources.

I would also like to reiterate the disclaimer that experiences at these ‘spiritual spots’ are purely personal, so if you are an atheist, just read it with a spoonful of salt.

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Continuing from my summer trip around the Greater Kyoto area in Japan, I spent the last one and a half weeks circumnavigating Lake Biwa or Biwa-ko (琵琶湖), as it is locally known. Now, if you’ve never been to Lake Biwa or Shiga Prefecture, please seriously consider it for your next itinerary in Japan.Covering an area of 670.3 square kilometres – that’s almost the same size as the whole island nation of Singapore – Lake Biwa is the largest freshwater lake in Japan. It’s also possibly one of the most beautiful places in Japan to enjoy the sunset. Its name came from the lake’s resemblance to a traditional Japanese/Chinese stringed instrument of the same name.

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Lake Biwa also happens to be one of the top spiritual spots in Japan, from my experience.Not surprisingly, there are many folklore associated with the lake as well. One such story tells of fireballs being spotted at the lake, and that used to destroy fishermen’s boats in a bygone era. Another tells of a girl who drowned while carrying out her vow to sail across the lake on the 25th of February (apparently, that’s when the lake is at its most choppy self) in a bathtub to meet his lover – a priest!!One of my main reasons for visiting Lake Biwa is the Shirahige Jinja, or Shirahige Shrine (白鬚神社), and its enchanting floating torii gate. In Japanese shinto, torii gates mark the entrance to the sacred, or holy grounds. Most visitors to Japan are familiar with the floating vermilion torii at Itsukushima Shrine (厳島神社) in Miyajima, off Hiroshima. However, the Shirahige floating torii is probably the least known of the three, the second one being Hakone Shrine’s touristy showpiece in Lake Ashinoko, Hakone. Shirahige’s relative obscurity also means that unlike Kyoto’s Fushimi-inari (伏見稲荷大社) or Miyajima’s Itsukushima Shrine, there’s no well-trodden path that leads to it. In fact, if you do not have your own set of wheels, the trek to this lakeside temple might even be a potentially life endangering affair.While making my way there on foot from Omi-Takashima Station (近江高島駅), I had to tread carefully along the side of an expressway, staying as close as I could to the fenders. And even so, I had to admit, I was intimidated by the speeding cars and my heart skipped several beats when container trucks thundered past me.

Notice that the entrance to the temple opens straight onto the expressway (please see photo above). The safety cones have been strategically placed there so that visitors do not walk straight into oncoming traffic. Compared to the floating torii gate, the main shrine actually felt like an abandoned relic.

On the day I visited, there was no beautiful sunset, unfortunately. In fact, ominous black clouds blanketed the evening sky, and I sensed a storm brewing over the lake. Thankfully, the weather held up well enough, and only a drizzle accompanied me while I was there.

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Even amid the darkness, I couldn’t help but sat there gazing at this for a good one hour.   LS

Farewell Japan Summer Trip 2018 (Part 5) – N(onsen)se in Kinosaki

DSC06717_editIt’s 35 degrees just after three as the train slowly chugged into Toyooka, pronounced Toh-yo-oh-ka (豊岡). If I’m being honest, I didn’t have much of a choice in Toyooka as my base camp for the next three nights. Ideally, I would have snagged a room in one of those atmospheric ryokans lining the banks of the scenic Kinosaki River.

The original plan was to do some onsen hoppin’ in Kinosaki Onsen (城崎温泉) and use it as a base to explore the surrounding locales. However, most ryokans were already fully booked half a year in advance by the time I was looking for accommodations back in March this year. Hence, I had to re-route my plan to Toyooka (豊岡), only two train stops away.DSC06748The idea actually sounds absurd if you think about it. In the simmering Japanese summer heat, who in their right minds would wanna soak in an onsen?

Apparently, plenty.

There are many crazy Japanese out there, and even crazier foreigners.

DSC06778The day involved a lot of moving around, so by the time I checked into my basic but adequate business hotel in Toyooka, I took a quick nap for half an hour after downing a can of Asahi (a much appreciated welcome drink from the hotel’s reception). With not much daylight left, I was just glad to check myself in to Kouno-yū (鴻の湯), the oldest onsen in this vicinity, and soak my fatigue away. It didn’t make sense to go onsen hopping given the approaching twilight.

Maybe tomorrow, I reasoned…

After a good night’s soak at Kouno-yū (鴻の湯), I checked into an izakaya and treated myself to some sushi and local sake.    LSDSC06798DSC06793

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