Spirited Away (Part 2)

Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto

DSC03862From those previous two experiences at the Fuji Sengen Shrine and the Fushimi-inari Shrine, I realised that perhaps, I am more sensitive to the ‘spiritual’ aura of a place. At the risk of sounding bonkers or hallucinatory, especially to those skeptical of the existence of ghosts or the paranormal, I shall let you, the reader decide if you believe or not.

Of course, not all temples and shrines in Japan are spooky. Take Kyoto, for example. Feudal Japan’s ancient capital probably has the largest concentration of temples and shrines in a single city. However, on one of my visits to a temple, a Buddhist monk actually told me a very interesting fact about the temples in Kyoto.  According to him, many of these temples have a secondary function. They serve as auxiliary military outposts, where armies can be gathered / hidden, and also from which armies can be deployed to launch a surprise attack on the enemy.

DSC03845Many temple grounds in Kyoto are uncannily palatial and are often built with ‘secret’ chambers or passageways. I’m not sure about your reaction but a light bulb instantly switched on in my head when I heard this. Of course it all makes sense to me now!! Temples are not only meant for monks or shinto priests. They may even have served as the secret hideouts of fugitive lords.

Many temples and shrines in Kyoto are designed like forts, if you think about it. Consider Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺, literally “Pure Water Temple”), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A long passageway lined with stalls (i.e. the Higashiyama District) is now a bustling tourist attraction. However, during the days of yore, it may have served as both a merchant town and important ‘refueling’ stop for the feudal lord’s army. Kiyomizu-dera’s outstanding feature, a massive wooden stage that offers spectacular views of the old capital, could have served the dual role of a lookout in its halcyon days.

DSC03857Looking out from the stage, you can feel the calmness and serenity of the vast temple grounds. The same tranquillity can be keenly felt in the other shrines and features, for example, the Jishu Shrine famous for its matchmaking prowess, the Otowa Waterfall, whose waters are said to bestow longevity and prosperity, or the vermilion Zuigudo Hall. The positive energy that exudes from Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺) makes this a powerful ‘spiritual spot’ in Kyoto.   LS

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(to be continued in Part 3)

Any images published in this article, unless otherwise stated, are owned by the author. Any unauthorised reproduction or use of these images in any form is strictly prohibited. Please kindly write to me for permission to use any of the images. Thank you very much. 😊

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Spirited Away (Part 1)

DSC03904I’ve been toying with the idea of this post for a while, but haven’t really got down to penning it until today. Spring vacation has just started, and it’s a much needed welcome change to see more of the sun. It’s also a time for many going away for short trips to recharge their batteries.

I’m not sure how this idea fits in with spring or cherry blossoms but nevertheless, if you’re planning to visit these spots, just read this with a light heart. What’s all this mystery ’bout, these spots, you might ask. I’m of course referring to power spots in Japan. Now you may have come cross this term from your research on the Internet, Tripadvisor or Lonely Planet. So I’m going to put forth a few disclaimers before we dive right into them.

Disclaimers:-

1. The term “power spot” started gaining traction in Japan since the 1990s, and as defined by All About Japan.com, these are sites that exude a particular energy based on concepts of feng shui. You don’t have to possess a ‘sixth sense’ to feel this spiritual energy. The site goes on to list the top 20 power spots in Japan. Now, this post is not about those ‘power spots’, although some of the listed sites may also be classed as such. Therefore, I would like to propose the term “spiritual spots” when referring to the spots I’m going to introduce in this post.

2. Those who are familiar with the concept of ‘power spots’, or who have read articles on them may find that the sites I’ve listed are not the same as the ones they have read or come across. Again, let me reiterate that I would prefer to call these sites “spiritual spots” instead of “power spots”. These sites do exude a particular energy. However, this energy may not be the positive energy associated with ‘power spots’. In other words, or in more layman terms, some of these sites are possibly ‘haunted’.

3. The experiences at these ‘spiritual spots’ are personal and are based on my own experiences on my travels. However, based on other articles I’ve read or researched, I can say with a certain degree of authority that these experiences are legitimate. You, the reader, have the choice to believe it or not.

4. It’s no surprise that many of the spots listed in this post are temples or shrines. After all, many of these revered places of worship have a history dating back hundreds or even a thousand years. In addition, many temples and shrines also serve as the final resting places of the deceased. Temples and shrines are used to refer distinctly to Buddhist (temples) and Shinto (shrines) respectively.

With these disclaimers in place, let’s jump right into these sites.

(Kitaguchi Honguu) Fuji Sengen Shrine, Yamanashi Prefecture

IMG_4306I first visited Japan in December 2011. That was also the year of the Great East Japan Earthquake that decimated a huge area of the Tohoku region and placed Japan on every traveler’s warning list for countries to avoid, not so much due to the possibility of another major earthquake or tsunami but rather the nuclear fallout from the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in Sendai. However, I went against convention because air tickets to Japan plummeted that year. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity of finally visiting the country of my dreams.

Like any first-time visitor to Japan, I headed to Tokyo and took a day trip out to see Mount Fuji. Knowing that it’s early winter, and that hiking trails to Mt. Fuji were closed, the sole purpose of my visit was just to see Mt. Fuji from afar and to explore the Five Lakes area round Mt. Fuji, that is, Kawaguchiko (河口湖).

IMG_4269Not sure how this shrine appeared on my itinerary, but I remembered reading about it somewhere that the entrance to one of the hiking trails to Mt. Fuji actually starts from the shrine’s backyard. Sounds like an interesting place to explore, doesn’t it? A Japanese colleague to whom I recently spoke to about this shrine as a ‘spiritual spot’ did a search on the Internet, and burst out in laughter. Apparently, according to what he found online, this place is also famous as a “love shrine” – one of those shrines that are popular with women seeking a romantic or marriage partner. Hmmm…from these pictures I took, I could never have known. Could you?

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Fushimi-inari Shrine, Kyoto

DSC03890I know what you’re thinking when you see this name. Of course, this has to be a ‘power spot’. This is probably one of the top three most popular shrines in Kyoto, and possibly also the most photographed besides the Golden Pavilion Temple. However, I would like to offer my own take on this shrine to you. This shrine is really really creepy!!

Most tourists to Fushimi-inari Shrine (伏見稲荷大社) are fascinated by the thousands of crimson and vermilion torii gates that wound around the hill on which the shrine is situated. Do you also know that many tourists do not make it past the half-way mark up the hill? Because, frankly speaking, the shrine grounds are huge, and the trek up the hill takes some effort. Most tourists make it as far as a pond which leads to a cave-like path that is dotted with fox (or kitsune) figurines. I say “cave-like” because the fox shrine is dark even during daytime. There’s even an urban myth that you should not go beyond this point.

For those who have, however, you will soon reach a cemetery built on the hillside, so there are steps leading to the tombstones, many of which are guarded by these fox figurines. Foxes or kitsune, have a long storied history in Japanese folklore. They are believed to possess supernatural abilities and are said to be able to shape-shift, taking on human forms. Some stories tell of fox spirits with nine tails, and possessing wisdom and magical powers. You can easily do a search online for spooky tales regarding these parts of the Fushimi-inari Shrine.

My own experience tells me that perhaps on hindsight, I should not have taken pictures here. I definitely felt the creeps here, and ‘power spot’ or not, I would advise you to be very respectful if you’re exploring these parts of the shrine.    LS

DSC03942Any images published in this article, unless otherwise stated, are owned by the author. Any unauthorised reproduction or use of these images in any form is strictly prohibited. Please kindly write to me for permission to use any of the images. Thank you very much. 😊

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(to be continued in Part 2)

Hokkaido, Is Home

IMG_20180216_150556It’s that time of the year again, when winter puts up a valiant fight with spring in a tenacious tug-of-war that manifests itself in the daily temperatures in Japan. Last week saw a violent blizzard pummel the whole of Hokkaido, forcing schools to close and kids to stay at home. (Teachers, of course, report for work as usual. Don’t ask me why, because this is Japan. Logic doesn’t hold much sway here).

That same weekend, in the aftermath of the blizzard, temperatures rose across Japan, hitting as high as 21 degrees Celsius in Kagoshima. To put things in perspective, 21 degrees is equivalent to early summer temperatures in Kyushu. But we are still, apparently, in the throes of winter.

IMG_20180129_081012I can’t wait for winter to pass. Winter sucks. I hate being woken up by frozen toes in the early hours of the morning. I’m sick of having to do a merry dance to the toilet, which for some reason only the architects in Japan know, is situated next to the door to my apartment. I resent having to pile layer upon layer of clothing, and yet my fingers still freeze every time I head out. In a nutshell, I hate winter, and I’m more than happy to see the last of it. Yet, every evening when I watch the news on TV, I’m reminded that I live in Hokkaido, where winter lasts half a year. Even as daily temperatures rose across Japan, here in Hokkaido, we are still mired in sub-zero temperatures.

But Hokkaido is winter. Winter is Hokkaido.

IMG_20180211_210634Its powder draws avid skiers and snowboarders around the world to its numerous ski resorts. The annual Sapporo Snow Festival is a top tourist draw, transforming Odori Park into a winter wonderland. Many cities and towns in Hokkaido, too, have their own mini version of snow / ice / winter festivals, not so much to celebrate the cold as to find an excuse for debauchery.

IMG_20180210_131734In February this year, the Winter Olympics was held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Olympic fever gripped Japan, its athletes dominating daily news headlines in a country that is always eager to celebrate and worship sporting excellence. The press hailed the graceful performances of male figure-skating champion Hanyu Yuzuru and praised female speed skater Nao Kodaira for her display of sportsmanship in embracing a tearful Lee Sang-hwa.

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter OlympicsChinami Yoshida (second from right) celebrates with Japanese skip, Satsuki Fujisawa and other members of the Women’s Olympic Curling Team after edging Britain to the bronze medal at the Pyeongchang Olympics, South Korea. Source: Reuters Pictures.

Hokkaido, too, crowned its own sporting champions. A group of young women from a nondescript city in Hokkaido propelled the profile of a nondescript winter sport (at least where Japan is concerned) to the national psyche. That sport, in question, is curling.

The Japan Women’s Olympic Curling Team may have only bagged a bronze medal in Pyeongchang, but their sporting achievements have struck gold back home. All five members on the team hailed from Kitami, a city with a population of just under 120,000. Average attendance in the city’s curling facility spiked during the Games. In the city’s souvenir and pastry shops, you can find the cherubic faces of the women curlers plastered all over boxes of Kitami omiyage, including the cheese cake that the ladies were filmed snacking on during their breaks. There’s even a shrine where you can pick up an omikuji (a Japanese fortune-telling charm) in the shape of a curling stone.

curling charmsSource: Kyodo News.

In the words of Chinami Yoshida, a member of the Women’s Olympic Curling Team (pictured above): “Never in my dreams did I imagine that one day, I would be an Olympic champion. In this town where there is basically nothing. However, I’ve learnt that it doesn’t matter where you’re from. It matters to have a dream. And that dreams do come true.”

I definitely do not share the same lofty ambitions or dreams as Chinami, but I do remember that my personal little dream is to experience living and working in Japan since deciding to study the language more seriously more than five years ago. Cliché as this may sound, I’m currently “living my dream”. In addition, I’m living in Hokkaido, a popular holiday destination choice among my fellow countrymen back home. Yet, here I am, lamenting the freezing winters in Hokkaido. I suddenly realized I have many reasons to celebrate and to be thankful, even in the freezing depths of winter.

Like the people of Hokkaido, I find myself unconsciously cheering for the curling team as one of my own. And as much as I hate the cold and the fact that we have six months of winter here in Hokkaido, I’ve also come to realise that Hokkaido, is home.   LS

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