New Year Feature (Part 3) – Kurashiki Canals, Japan’s Miniature Venice

Leaving the depressing gardens, we went in search of shabu shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ), because my friend was craving it. It didn’t seem such a bad idea at all. Nothing like some steaming hot broth to warm up freezing bodies, I thought.

A light rain accompanied us en-route to the shabu shabu restaurant, as we navigated through some winding (and partially hidden) alleys in search of the hotpot paradise, aided by Google Maps.

Suddenly, the heavens decided to throw a tantrum, and it started pouring buckets!!

Just then, we spotted the shabu shabu place from across the street and dashed for it, only to be greeted by a wooden sign hanging on its door that read “定休日” (meaning “designated rest day”).

We collapsed on the bench next to the entrance of the restaurant, exhausted and convinced that our day must have been cursed from the start.

There’s nowhere to go for now, because of the rain. So while waiting it out, I browsed Tripadvisor in search of the nearest place that might interest us.

I suggested this authentic (presumably) Indian/Nepalese diner that had some pretty good reviews (Besides, naan and curry were a slice of home for us). If we couldn’t have soup, something spicy could do the trick.dsc04833_blogSo there we checked in (after about half an hour of waiting), when the torrential rains slowed to a drizzle. The restaurant’s interiors are surprisingly simple, sparse even. No ornate paintings of Hindu gods hanging on the walls or wooden sculptures of Krishna or elephants.dsc04832_blogMy friend couldn’t help ogling (yes, shamelessly ogling) at the young dashing Indian waiter who served us, so much so she decided to ask for a selfie with him after we had finished our meal. The naan and curry we had were superbly done, crispy around the edges while not losing its chewy texture. And the curry was deliciously spicy – nothing too overwhelming but enough to give you that kick.

Many Indian restaurants in Japan would give you a scale of spiciness from 0 to 10 to choose from to cater to the generally low spice tolerance of Japanese.  I went with a 5 while my friend opted for a 4.

Sufficiently (and satisfyingly) fueled, we ventured out onto the streets again.

We made our way back to Okayama Station, with the smell of rain (and curry) lingering  on our noses.

Our next stop was Kurashiki (倉敷), a mandatory visit if you are in Okayama.

Only 15 minutes from Okayama Station on the JR Sanyo Line, followed by a 10-minute walk down south from Kurashiki Station along Motomachi-dori (元町道り) or via a sheltered shopping arcade that runs parallel to it, you will be instantly transported back in time to the Edo Period (1603-1867) at Kurashiki Canals (倉敷美観地区).dsc04839_blogNot quite Venice-beautiful, but nonetheless picturesque, Kurashiki Canals (倉敷美観地区) used to be an important rice distribution centre during its halcyon days.

Populated by rice storehouses, built round a network of narrow canals to facilitate transportation, these storehouses, painstakingly preserved, have been converted to museums, cafes, boutique hotels and shops selling local sweets or Japanese handicrafts.dsc04835_blogdsc04841_blogThere’s even a specialty store that sells all things sesame – you have to check it out!! We went omiyage (お土産) window-shopping, tasting the different Japanese sweets but not buying any of them. Very cheeky of us I know (and perhaps not very nice) but hey, Japanese omiyage can be very expensive!!!dsc04847_blogThere’s also the incongruously Western-looking/Romanesque Ohara Museum of Art (大原美術館), apparently Japan’s first museum of Western art, featuring works by Picasso, El Greco, Gauguin, Modigliani, Rodin, Klee, Pollock and Kandinsky among others.

We decided to skip the museum, since neither of us was into art.

My friend wanted to go on a gondola ride but it seemed like New Year’s Eve was not a day for gondola business.

One tip for visitors is to come early, because we noticed that all the shops started to close for the day at around six in the evening.

So if you arrive after sundown, there’s really nothing to see or do except to stroll along the eerily quiet canals.

But if photography (or taking selfies) is your thing, Kurashiki Canals is most alluring in the soft evening glow.        LS

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. 😊dsc04856_blog

 

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.dsc04775_blogStanding 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”.dsc04781_blogAs 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.dsc04817_blogdsc04797_blogI’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.dsc04826_blogI’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

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.dsc08634_blogEmerging 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).dsc08630_blogIf 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

DSC03788Fall 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).DSC03819Fall 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.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.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!!DSC08685_blog.jpgOne 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.dsc08715_blogIn 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.

Even amid the darkness, I couldn’t help but sat there gazing at this for a good one hour.   LSdsc08693_blog

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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Farewell Japan Summer Trip 2018 (Part 4) – Ine Beauty

DSC07232As the ferry left the somewhat makeshift dock, the birds started circling round us. And I realised that’s why packets of prawn crackers are being sold for 100 yen per packet at the dock. People were holding prawn crackers aloft for the birds to swoop in for the ‘kill’.

Obviously, some got scared before the claws could reach out and ended up nervously throwing the crackers into the water, inevitably causing feathers to ruffle (literally) in the aftermath of their actions. These birds must have been conditioned to depend on these crackers for their daily feed.

I wondered if we are slowly killing them.

DSC07243The birds swirled around us all the way as we took in the sights of the funaya (舟屋). Only about 200 of these traditional “boat houses” remain in the sleepy fishing village of Ine (伊根), about 5 km north of Amanohashidate (天橋立) in the northern coast of Kyoto.

A little note on Amanohashidate (天橋立) before we return to the funaya or boathouses.DSC07438Amanohashidate (天橋立) is a narrow sandbar at the mouth of Miyazu Bay (宮津湾) in the northern coast of Kyoto Prefecture. Its name means “the bridge that connects the Heavens”.

With more than 7,000 pine trees dotting either side of the sandbar, it ranks as one of Japan’s top three most scenic views. This 3.3 km strip of sand makes for an ideal leisurely stroll at sundown or the perfect place for a summer camp anywhere along the whole stretch of sand.DSC07167I actually made Amanohashidate my base camp for the 3D2N that I was there, in order to explore the surrounding coastal region.

The fishing village of Ine can be explored as a day trip from Amanohashidate. Hourly buses ply the route from Amanohashidate to Ine, and takes you there in about an hour for 400 yen (one way).

DSC07361Most of the boathouses in Ine are “live-in” residences, although some have been converted to guesthouses and restaurants to serve the increasing wave of tourism to this area.

I saw two boys do back-flips as they plunged into the crystalline waters from their backyards. One of them started waving at us when he spotted our boat cruise by.

I wondered how it feels like to have the Sea of Japan as your personal swimming pool. Wouldn’t it be amazing to greet every sunrise and sunset like this, sipping coffee or beer in your own backyard?

DSC07382Luckily for me, I chanced upon one with an amazing view, a converted café, selling coffee at Starbucks prices. I sat there with my iced Americano, watching the birds circling the pint-sized sightseeing boats, watching the skies darken and the heavens pour. I realised that, just like the birds, we are slowly killing this village with our presence.

Time stood still that day.     LS

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