Saturday, September 13, 2014

My Pilgrimage to Ise-jingu. Part 1 - Geku, the Outer Shrine

On this last business trip to Osaka, I scratched another item off my "religious sites to see in Japan" bucket list.  
I had been to Hieizan's Enryakuji and the Vatican of Shingon Buddhism, Koyasan. 
Now Ise-jingu, most important and most revered Shinto shrine in Japan was my target for the day.  
Shinto means "way of the gods" and it is Japan's largest and oldest religion.   
Unlike other religions, Shinto does not have teachings nor does it have a holy book.  
It is rooted in life forces such as trees, wind, rain, mountains.  It is different from Buddhism, Japan's other major religion.
It seems that most Japanese practice both.  My Japanese colleagues and friends tell me that they go to Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines depending on the occasion.

Ise-jingu is in Ise City in Kansai and is a convenient and easy two hour train ride from Osaka's Namba station.  Japanese trains are efficient, punctual to the minute and very comfortable, specially if you're riding on an all reserved seat train like the Kintetsu Limited Express.  This is the fastest and easiest way to get to Ise-jingu from Osaka.

I love the drain hole covers in Japan.  Instead of being boring and plain, they are works of art -- all you have to do is look down and you see the story or the main feature of the town.  In Ise City, site of the Ise-jingu Shrine, the colourful drain hole cover depicts henro or Japanese pilgrims, on their way to the shrine.
I was happy to be here, as a gaijin henro.

Ise-jingu is composed of two shrines.  Geku or the Outer Shrine is a mere 500 meter walk from Iseshi Station where I got off from the train.  It was quite early in the morning, not even 8 o'clock and I was happy to find the entrance nearly empty of visitors.

There is no one at the Tezimusha or the place where pilgrims need to ritually cleanse themselves before they enter the shrine.  I knew the drill -- dip the bamboo dippers in the cold clear running water and pour water over your left hand then your right.  Then, with the remaining water, pour some in your hand to rinse your mouth.
These ablutions are necessary for pilgrims to any shrine or temple.

This is the very large unpainted torii that marks the entrance to Geku.  The Outer Shrine is dedicated to Toyo'uke-no-Omikami.  A kami is a Shinto god.  Toyo'uke-no-Omikami is the "handmaid" of Amaterasu-Omikami, the Sun Goddess and top among all kami in Shinto.
As handmaid, Toyo'uke-no-omikami is the companion to Amaterasu and provides her with sacred food.  
Pilgrims to this shrine are blessed with abundant harvests and daily provisions such as food, clothing and shelter.
Before I pass through the torii, I follow my fellow pilgrims and bow and clasp my hands together to honour the kami in Geku.

It is a quiet and cool early morning inside Geku.  Past the  entrance, more torii line the gravel path.
I am glad I left Osaka very early, on the first train to Ise.  There are few people about and I enjoy the tranquil and reverent atmosphere.

Very tall, very old trees are found inside Geku.  Ise-jingu as a shrine has been around for around 1,500 years so I wonder how many centuries old these trees are.

I have been told by my Japanese colleagues that Ise-jingu is the number one spiritual "power spot" in Japan.  A power spot is a place flowing with strong vitality and energy, and of course spiritual power. It is where you can recharge your "qi" or life force.
In both Geku and Naiku, many spots have these white banners symbolising lightning bolts -- these are "power spots" within the entire powerful area where you can stand and allow the power and energy to flow through you.
There are many of these banners all throughout the shrine -- some are on walls of structures, on tree trunks, on torii, on wooden posts, etc.

The main sanctuary in Geku is not accessible to pilgrims but is hidden deep behind wooden walls.  Only the high priests and certain members of the Japanese royal family may enter the main shrine buildings.  For the rest of us, there are areas where we can see priests offering daily prayers.

This is the outer portion before the hidden main sanctuary.  Here, we are allowed to enter through the torii, to pay our respects and say our petitions and prayers.

There are many jinja or Shinto Shrines inside Ise-jingu, both in Geku and in Naiku.  This is
Tsuchi-no-miya, a jinja dedicated to the kami who protects the entire shrine of Geku.    According to my map, this kami was enshrined in this place even before Geku was established.

Across Tsuchi-no-miya are about one hundred stone steps leading up to another ninja.
I fear for my left knee which after an accident a couple of months ago, is still not in 100% condition to climb or descend.  The stone steps are moss covered in some areas and seem damp with dew.
But, I am here as a henro and I know I must climb.
I am sure the kami will protect me (not to mention Buddha, who I can feel is also with me on this trip).

I make the climb very carefully, watching out for uneven and wet stones.  To make sure my clumsy self does not rise (and fall)  to the occasion, I keep a firm grip on the wooden balustrade.

After more steps to climb, I finally reach the top, where the jinja is dedicated to Taka-no-miya, another vigorous spirit of Toyo'uke-no-Omikami.  It is indeed a vigorous spirit as I survive the climb and the descent without a fumble or fall.

It is time to leave Geku and move on to the more important, and some Japanese say, impressive Inner Shrine, Naiku.  On the way out, I pass by the Kaguraden, a hall where pilgrims can say their personal prayers and where ceremonial dance and music are played.
Part of the the Kaguraden has been transformed into the ubiquitous gift shop.

The  Shinto priest at the gift shop stamped the shrine seal on my shuincho along with the date of  my visit.  The seal on the right page is the seal for Geku.

As I exited Geku, I stopped for a while to check out the Sengukan or the Shrine Museum.
I never made it inside as I preferred to sit in quiet contemplation from my vantage bench looking over Magatamaike Pond.
It was a morning very well spent at Geku.  I loved the simplicity of the shrine and felt the raw and primitive force that seemed to flow through the place.
Despite the fact that I had not been able to eat breakfast, I did not feel hungry nor did I feel tired from the thick humidity and heat that had now taken over  the early morning breeze.
In fact, I felt reenergised and revitalised --  ready to continue my pilgrimage to Naiku, the Inner Shrine of Ise-jingu.

Friday, September 12, 2014

How to get from Osaka to Ise-jingu on the Kintetsu Ltd Express

Travelling solo on a train in a land where I hardly speak the language -- that's exactly the kind of travel that I love.
On this last business trip to Osaka, I stayed an extra day so I could do just that,  meander off on my own, on a short day trip, out of the comfort zone of the city.
Thanks to Hyperdia, that fount of information on the Japanese train system, I was armed with all the details on trains, stations and timetables that I needed for this day trip to Ise-jingu, the most important Shinto shrine in Japan and just a two hour train ride away from Osaka.

My journey started very early.  I wasn't sure how easy it would be to navigate my way around Namba station -- a vast underground maze where it would be so easy to get lost in.
I took a cab from the hotel and asked the driver to take me to the Kintetsu Station in Namba and was  surprised that he dropped me off in this building, a block away from the main station.

But it was a pleasant surprise!  The Kintetsu and Hanshin train lines share this easy to get to entrance.  No need to enter busy Namba station at all!

Because Ise-jingu is a major destination for tourists, directions and instructions were well marked, in both Japanese and English.

There are quite a number of ways from Osaka to Ise-jingu but the fastest way is via the Kintetsu Limited Express which will zip you to Ise City in just under two hours.
Because it is a Limited Express train,  it is reserved seating all throughout and costs 3,120 yen for a one way ticket.
In my excitement, I got to the station way too early for my planned 7:05 a.m train and thus, ended up making it in time for the first trip at 6:05.

The platform is just below the ticket station.  I had barely gotten down when the train pulled in, making me miss out on one of my favourite train rituals in Japan -- buying the eki-ben or the special bento box sold chiefly in train stations.  I would have no breakfast on the train.
Zannen desu ne!

From my window seat,  I looked out on bucolic and tranquil scenes of rural Japan -- a far cry from skyscrapers and concrete roads.  This is why I always try to squeeze in an out-of-town day trip every time I am in Osaka or Tokyo.  And thanks to the fast and efficient Japanese train system, I am able to see some of the beautiful countryside whenever I can.

 Before long, the train had stopped and dislodged us at Iseshi, the station closest to Geku, the outer shrine of Ise-jingu.  This grand Shinto shrine is composed of two shrines -- Geku is the Outer Shrine and the more important shrine is Naiku, or the Inner Shrine.

From the station platform, signs point travellers in the direction of the exit towards Ise-jingu or Geku.

The Kintetsu Limited Express stops at the platform designated for Kintetsu trains but the exit for Geku is closest to the JR trains exit.

It was not even 8:00 a.m. when I exited Iseshi Station.  Again, I was glad to note that there were prominent signs pointing to Ise-jingu.  Dear reader ... trust me.  It is impossible to get lost  if you travel by train to Ise-jingu.

The outer shrine or Geku is a mere 500 meters from Iseshi Station. This huge signboard is hard to miss.

There is also a large map of Ise City, showing where you are in relation to Geku, Naiku and other places of interest.

A large unpainted torii marks the exit to the station and leads you to the street that will take you to Geku.  The torii is made of cedar and I actually got a whiff of the fragrant wood as I passed by.

Since it was early, the souvenir shops, restaurants, cafes on the street leading to Ise-jingu were still closed.

It was a short walk to get to this wide avenue -- the crosswalk led me to the entrance of Geku, the Outer Shrine of Ise-jingu.

There were just a few of us at this hour at the shrine.  The small bridge you see on the left side marks the entrance to Geku.  There is no payment or entrance fee to the shrine.   I even got a free map in english when I stopped at the small guardhouse.

After my visit to Geku, it was time to head to Naiku.  The Inner Shrine is 3.5 kilometres away and there is a  bus that you can take from right across Geku.  Again, the destination is clearly marked. There were quite a few people waiting in line for the bus.

 To Naiku, the fare is 420 yen.  Pay as you exit by dropping the exact number of coins in the little box beside the driver's seat.

After a 20 minute ride through Ise City, the bus made its final stop at Naiku, right across the entrance to the shrine.  Since this was much later in the morning, more tourists and pilgrims had arrived.  The temperature had also shifted from an early morning cool to a blistering and humid mid-day heat.

After my visit to Naiku and lunch (more about that in a later post), it was time to head back to Iseshi station where I planned to catch the 12:52 train back to Osaka.  To take the bus back to the station, I bought my tickets first from the shop directly across the bus stop.

 Buses going around Ise City come around every 15 or 20 minutes so I didn't have to wait long before my bus bound for the train station arrived.

I took my seat right by the exit and  dropped my ticket in the payment slot.

I got back to Iseshi Station with plenty of time to spare.  However, instead of being able to buy a straight ticket to Osaka Namba station where I had gotten on earlier this day, I had to make a transfer at Osaka Uehommachi and take the regular Kintetsu tram to Namba.

From Osaka Uehommachi, it was one level down to the platform for the Kintetsu Nara Line which dropped me off at Namba.  I was back in my hotel before 3 p.m.
Thanks to the efficient train system and the many directional signs in English along the way ...
going solo to Ise-jingu was easy and worry free!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Taking a Turn on the Hep 5 Ferris Wheel in Osaka

Roller coasters have never been my thing. Why pay and wait in a long line for a few seconds of gut wrenching misery?  I am a ferris wheel kind of girl ... the slow, steady ascent to an eye popping view.  
I cannot pass by a ferris wheel without stopping for a ride.

I had always wanted to take a spin on the bright red wheel atop the Hep 5 Mall in the environs of Osaka Station.  I had caught glimpses of it from past trips and wondered when I would be able to get on board.  This last business trip to Osaka -- before the business part actually commenced, I found myself right outside the entrance of Hep 5.  There looming above me was the ferris wheel, framed against the darkening Osaka sky.  Of course I walked right in.

Don't be surprised to  find a huge red whale once you walk into Hep 5.  A colossal cetacean dangling from the ceiling probably lures shoppers in.

 An elevator took me  to the 7th floor where I boarded the ferris wheel.  I was afraid there would be a queue and was happy to see that on this Wednesday night, business was relatively slow.

What a thrill to see the city scene from my air-conditioned gondola.  I got to appreciate the architecture of Osaka Station, seen from this vantage point.

Far off in the distance, squeezed between those two buildings is the Osaka Tower.  Much closer and right smack in the centre of the photo above is  H&M -- where I had just been window shopping.  I'll take a slow ferris wheel ride over shopping any day!

 I tried to capture a panoramic shot of my view, catching even part of the giant red wheel in the frame.

It was a beautifully clear night -- perfect for a ferris wheel ride.  After a while, I stopped  taking photos and just sat and enjoyed the view.

All too soon, it was time to get off.  My sweet and slow ride took just 15 minutes.  But it gave me the time to exhale,  release all the tiredness from work and put me in the right frame of mind for the business meetings to come.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Comfort me with food -- Remembering Bambi over dinner at 27th Bascon, Bacolod City

Sometimes, food is the only thing that can make you feel a little better.  A few weeks ago, I lost a dear and wonderful friend -- too quickly and too suddenly.  No one had the chance to say good bye.
Bambi Borromeo, friend for over 35 years, was a true blue "Bacolodian" and in a serendipitous turn of events, suddenly found himself immersed in a second career after retirement -- as indefatigable and much sought after tour guide in his beloved hometown. 

These past years I had been to Bacolod to visit Bambi and had taken his tours a number of times -- he put a lot of effort and work in planning the perfect itineraries for me -- and yes, it always ended with a fantastic, sumptuous Ilonggo meal.

I discovered Emma Lacson's most scrumptious pili tarts through Bambi, who whisked us up to the owner's kitchen to see, to taste and yes to buy.

Thanks to Bambi, my friends and I were able to gain access to places that no ordinary tour guide could have arranged for --  such as the esteemed Rev. Monsignor Gaston's ancestral home, Hacienda Rosalia.  Because Bambi was a good friend of the Monsignor's, we were treated to a feast of the family's favourite recipes, not the least was the Monsignor's very own french onion soup.

From a Spanish era hacienda to a seaside kubo (native hut) on stilts over the mudflats of Balaring Bay ... every meal with Bambi was a discovery of the richness and expansiveness of Ilonggo cuisine.

And throughout each meal, Bambi gamely discoursed on the origins and back story of what we were eating or who owned the restaurant and what its history was -- always told with the perfect blend of information and entertainment.   

Here's a photo of Bambi and me at Pendy's in Bacolod -- probably waiting for our batchoy to be served.  I am grateful for all the inasal, piaya, mango tarts, laswa, tinola, etc etc that we shared together. 
Not to mention the bottles of wine and beer from our "salad days" as Will Shakespeare would have said (and Bambi would have agreed, being the erudite Atenista and English Lit major that he was). 
So I am sure, as I write this with a heavy heart,  that Bambi approves of my having found comfort and solace in a good meal during my short trip to Bacolod to attend his wake.  
He would have understood the fact I made the time to have a good dinner, in a place that he definitely would have endorsed.  
Forgive me ... this is a hybrid tribute and food post but it's hard to separate Bambi from my Ilonggo food memories as he gave me so much to taste and treasure.

It made perfect sense to have a pre-wake dinner at 27th Bascon, which was right across the funeral parlour.  It may seem gruesome but as Bambi would have said in his own inimitable fashion ...
"Hala Mamoosh,  go!"

The menu is of a blend of both  Ilonggo and spanish-influenced dishes.  We had their version of a black paella which interestingly had the black rice and the squid set off on opposite sides of the sizzling plate.  The squid was marinated in a slightly sweetish spicy sauce which made me think of chinese food.  It may have been a slightly confused dish but no matter -- it tasted good.

We  ordered the Ilonggo standard -- KBL or kadyos (a black bean), baboy (pork) and langka (green jackfruit).  The soup was pleasantly sour and the pork was very tender.  I loved the langka but I wished there were more of the kadyos.

This was my dinner mate and another of Bambi's dearest friends.  Abe Florendo is one of the country's foremost  feature writers  and has been a lifestyle editor in many major publications.
We had hoped to toast Bambi's life and friendship with a good bottle of wine and some cheese but 27th Bascon only had beer.
I guess our wine and cheese party in his honour will have to wait.

As we were in the sugar capital of the Philippines, it would have been remiss and thoughtless
(and Bambi would have been aghast) if we did not end our meal with dessert.
In addition to the restaurant, 27th Bascon has a cafe right next door specialising in sugar laden cakes, pies and desserts.
Abe and I shared a mango pavlova -- plus strong black coffee to fortify ourselves through the rest of the night.

I spent just about 12 hours in Bacolod.  I was up at dawn to catch the first flight back to Manila.
A short but much needed trip -- comforting to have paid my last respects to an unforgettable friend and comforting too to have enjoyed a good meal in his honour.

Bambi Borromeo 1950 - 2014
Till we meet (and eat) again