Several months ago I submitted a short story to a local writing contest. While it didn’t win, I was granted a unique experience with an Urushi-san (see my post from this past spring). I thought it might be fun to share the piece here.
What do you want to do when you retire? Maybe you’re already there and living life the way you want. Maybe you’re in university and can’t even imagine what being retired looks like. Or maybe you’re someone who feels they’ll never stop working, no matter what.
The other day I talked with an older Japanese gentleman who was excited to be leaving the workforce. When I asked him what his plans were post-retirement, he beamed and produced a booklet that I recognized as one that’s often sold at temples. “I am going to visit every temple and shrine in Kyoto. After that, maybe I’ll branch out to the Kansai region, but this book only covers the “Kyoto pilgrimage”. He eyed it fondly for a moment before returning it to his bag. “I’ll start the first weekend after my retirement party.”
This sort of plan is not uncommon in Japan; should you find yourself at a train station early on a weekend morning don’t be too surprised to find a whole bunch of older folks with hiking paybacks, walking sticks, and pamphlets for the latest popular hiking location in their hands. It’s something I greatly admire about folks in Japan; this motivation to get out and see things like they’ve probably dreamed of for decades, but only now have the chance to do.
Another reason I think it’s so cool is that there are so. Many. Temples. Especially in Kyoto. Stay here a week and try visiting nothing but temples and shrines and I guarantee you’ll burn yourself out. You think you’re done after Kiyomizu, Kinkakuji and Sanjuusangendo? What about Nishi and Higashi Hongwanji temples? Shimogamo Shrine? Eikan-do? That tiny neighborhood temple you’ve walked by ten times already whose name you can’t find or read?
I’m not nearly as gung-ho about hitting up every single temple like that gentleman, but I do like having new things to do. And places to visit. And despite living in Kyoto city, do you know where I almost never venture unless it’s for work?
I emphasize that it’s part of the city because for the longest time I didn’t realize it was. You go through a mountain to reach it from Kyoto Station, after all! But Yamashina is a quieter, suburban area compared to downtown Kyoto and as such tends to get overlooked by tourists unless you have friends In The Know.
There is a lot to do in Yamashina; remember when I was taken to meet an Urushi-san? That was only a few minutes away from JR Yamashina station by taxi. There’s the canal that leads all the way into Lake Biwa. And tucked away, only a fifteen minute walk behind Yamashina station, is one of many gorgeous places to take in the autumn leaves (and some Japanese history)– Bishamon-do temple.
Bishamon-do is said to enshrine one of Japan’s Seven Lucky God’s of Fortune, Bishamonten. Given I had no idea, I was confused at first when I arrived and saw all these signs saying the latter name and assumed it was another name for the temple. (I admittedly dropped the ball on researching the before going, as my main goal was to see pretty leaves.) Bishamonten, by the way, is the Lord of Treasure and Wealth. The more you know, right?
Anyway, the place was established in 703 and wasn’t always in Yamashina- it was originally up around the Kyoto Imperial Palace until a few hundred years ago. It is well-known for not only autumn leaves but also for it’s cherry blossoms in spring.
When you reach Yamashina station on basically any train line, exit the gates and look for the Starbucks. There’s a pedestrian tunnel next, to it you can take to get behind the JR station. After that it’s a simple matter of following the signs and going uphill till you reach it. If you cross over the canal, you’re going the right way!
Admission to the temple grounds is free but if you want to enter the main hall, it’ll run you 500 yen (and require you to take off your shoes). We opted to forego entering the hall but still spent a good two hours admiring everything the grounds had to offer.
There are a number of smaller temples nearby, as well as a cemetery. You can enter the cemetery but please don’t take pictures! Admire it and move on– there is no shortage of other cool things to snap photos of.
There were not many foreign tourists there but I did see some signs in English, including on the signs that point you to the temple in the first place! If you’re in town and want to check out some nature or some history away from the throngs of people at bigger-name places, go check this place out. Especially on a weekday, you’ll get a breath of fresh air, and maybe make a friend or two in the shape of some locals.
Did you go anywhere to see autumn leaves this year?
Every few months or so, my taiko group goes through the basic forms/movements when playing the drums. Some of them are fairly straightforward: your stomach must be in line with the drum, not turned to one side; when hitting the drum, your drumstick should be angled down toward the drum, not parallel to it, and that sort of thing.
The hardest part for a lot of people, however, is the act of actually hitting the drum.
Learning to make local food is always a highlight for me when I travel. In Korea, I learned how to make dukbokki and not only ended up with a heap of delicious food, but with the satisfaction that I had learned about new ingredients and how to use them.
So when my friend came to visit me, we figured that trying some traditional Japanese food would be a great idea. The question was: sweet, or savory?
…Actually, I lied. That wasn’t a question at all. We both have huge sweet tooths.
In the midst of befriending a Japanese local the other day, he asked if it was okay to look me up on Facebook. I gave him permission, and he had a look through it, reading my name aloud. However, he suddenly came to a stop and said, in a puzzled tone, “Why is ‘Yoshitake’ listed as your nickname?”
Up until this past April, my taiko performances have been purely indoors. I’ve performed at Biwako Hall, Rohm Theater, and even out in Uji at the Community Center. But that all changed on April 29, when I was asked to join my group and perform at a little place in Yawata-shi, Kyoto.
As I mentioned before, I went to multiple places during my Golden Week. Afterwards, I brought photos of my adventures back to work to share with coworkers and students alike. They tended to ooh over pictures of Kibune, aah over shots of Mt. Koya, then… tilt their heads in puzzled confusion.
“Who is that?” they would ask, pointing at a statue of a man giving a speech.
“Well, he was President of the US for eight years…” I’d reply.
They would, inevitably, go, “You went to Obama?! In Fukui? But why?”
The last time I went to Iga-Ueno to check out the ninja museum there, I went on my own and stayed only long enough to wander the grounds and see the museum itself. This, I have decided, is a tragedy–one I’m glad I corrected, because there is plenty to do in this place.
I know, who can believe it.
In a previous post, I mentioned that I had been to Okayama prefecture on a daytrip from Kyoto before. Okayama is both a prefecture and city name, in the Chugoku region of the island of Honshu in Japan. It’s a castle town with gardens and tasty goodies to experience, so why don’t you and I take a look at it together?
First of all, as I mentioned in that previous post, a one-way ticket to Okayama on the bullet train from Kyoto will run you about 7,010 yen if you don’t mind an unreserved seat. It’ll take you an hour on the Nozomi, the fastest of the available bullet trains. In my case, I opted to go in the late morning on a weekday, so I had a whole row of seats to myself to enjoy my indulgent brunch bento.
Upon arriving at Okayama Station in Okayama City in Okayama Prefecture (boy, the addresses there must be repetitive!), I stepped out and was immediately greeted by Momotaro, or the Peach Boy, along with all his traveling companions.
Now, for those of you not in the know, Momotaro is one of the famous tales in Japan, featuring a boy (shocker) who was born from a giant peach. He then goes on to have a lot of great adventures, dealing with ogres, picking up friends along the way. There are many variations of the story, but if you ask your average Japanese person they’ll be able to tell you at least a bit of the tale. Momotaro is said to have come from Okayama, so as you can imagine, peaches are very much a thing here. Peach-flavored everything is available, as well as the fruits themselves. Help yourself, but watch out for shocking price tags!
Anyway, once you say hello to the statue, you’ll be on your way to several attractions that are easily reachable on foot. The first place I hit up was Korakuen Gardens. If it means anything, it’s supposed to be one of “Japan’s best three gardens”. I think it deserves that title, because it’s one of the biggest and loveliest places I’ve strolled through since I got here. Despite being in Okayama City, it feels very much like you’re in another place when you walk through it. There were several places within the gardens where you couldn’t see the surrounding city at all, and were able to pretend you were out in the countryside.
Entrance to the gardens will run you about 400 yen, but if you’re planning on going both there and to the castle nearby, get the combination ticket that’ll be about 560 yen. It’ll save you some hassle later on, and hassle is the last thing you need when you have views like this.
Anyway, once you get your fill of the gardens, pop out and head over to Crow Castle. Yeah. The big black castle that’s looming nearby, watching you enjoy your garden experience. It’s also a short walk away, and since you were smart enough to get that combination ticket (right?) it’ll be no trouble to walk right on in and check things out.
Okayama Castle (or crow castle, as it’s nicknamed) is a large, impressive building that is six stories tall. There’s a lot of stuff in it- folding screens, videos, etc.- that give you the history of the place, some of it even in English. But what was nice about it was the view looking down at the gardens you just left.That said, it doesn’t take long to go through Crow Castle at all; maybe an hour at most. So if you have energy left over, it’s a great chance to check out museums and other things in the area. Or get some food; food is always good.
In my case, I checked out those two places, had a sit-down dinner, then headed back to Kyoto because of all the walking. I got home around 6 or 7 p.m., and thought the trip was worthwhile. You might have more energy and be able to hit up several more things than I did; maybe you’ll just have energy for the gardens. Whatever the case, it’s a lovely area and definitely worth checking out!