Sunday, December 9, 2018

The White Egret ... impenetrable, impregnable Himeji-jo

When I think of castles, I think of Sleeping Beauty who lived in a castle and Cinderella who met
her Prince Charming in one.  I also think of Dracula who had a real life one and Mad Ludwig who probably had the most spectacular looking one.
In my mind, I had both the Disney version and the Transylvania version.
And then my friend Meiko san took me to visit Himeji Castle.  It completely erased all other castles from my mind.

As you step out of the JR Station in Himeji,  Himeji-jo or Himeji Castle appears like a vision in front of you.  Standing massive and tall, seemingly taller and more imposing than the mountains behind it,  it is also known as the White Heron because of its colour and its elegant sweeping lines.
Don't let the bird reference fool you though, this was not built for show -- this is one of the most well fortified and strategically built castles you will ever find. 

Himeji Castle, built by Akamatsu Sadanori in 1346  is one of the ten biggest castles in the world. 
It covers over 100 sprawling hectares including the hilltop where the main buildings look down on the city below. 

Visitors enter the castle grounds via the huge gate called the Otemon.  Himeji-jo is celebrating its 25th year as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the very first in Japan to have been awarded this distinction.

Upon entering Otemon, you will come into the third bailey called the Sannomaru.  From here, you get an impressive view of the main tower.    A stone path is lined with cherry blossom trees making this a very popular sakura viewing spot during spring.  Locals frequently jog and even walk their
dogs in this area as there is no entrance fee up to this point.

Himeji-jo is composed of 83 buildings and is the most famous and most visited of Japan's 
12 "original" castles, i.e. those that have survived relatively intact since their construction.  
Himeji was so well planned, with a maze of passages and entryways that any daring (and reckless) intruder could be brought down from any point of the castle.  

Hishimon is the main entrance to the inner courtyards and the main towers.  Shall we pretend for a moment that you and I are 17th century Japanese samurai leading 100 soldiers, intent on breaching Himeji-jo's ultra secure walls?  Half of them would probably not make it through the gate as the castle's defenders would have hit us with their arrows or guns from the arrow loops along the wall. 

But luckily, you and I and a few dozen men made it safely through! However,  we would still be shot at by the castle's men, guarding the next gate. See the gaps above the stone wall?

How about if we tried our luck and climbed the stone walls?  If you notice the construction, small stones and large stones are loosely piled on top of one another.  There is a reason for this -- enemies trying to scale the walls will all of a sudden find the wall crumbling and blocking the path forward. 

Quick!  There are still a dozen of us left alive.  We run up the sloping path, still trying to avoid the arrows aimed at us from the windows on the bailey walls.  However,  we would definitely have 
been slowed down because in the 17th century, this smooth stone path was nonexistent. 

Instead, we would have been sliding and losing our footing along this long grass, the leaves of which are very slippery.  Slow moving targets for the sharp shooters along the bailey walls.

By some miracle, ten of us made it this far!  More arrows and perhaps even bullets from matchlock guns would have picked a couple more of us off.

As we ran up this incline, we would have come face to face with Himeji's defenders who would 
have all been positioned at these windows along the walls.  We would have had to go mano a mano with them to get through. 

Can you see just how difficult it would have been to try and penetrate through Himeji's calculated defences?  Even if we made it through to this point, we would have run into this very low gate, hit our heads and been knocked unconscious.

You can see that my head touches the top of the gate and I'm a really short 5 foot 1 inch person. Someone careening through and making a dash for this gate would have hit his head on the thick wooden door.  Himeji has all these amazing twists and booby traps that no wonder, in its entire history, no enemy was able to penetrate its elaborately complex structure.

Oops, we just lost two of our last men on this stretch.  The defenders threw down rocks from the windows above and knocked them off their feet. 

We have not come this far completely unscathed.  You and I have been grazed by bullets and I have valiantly removed an arrow from my thigh so we continue to blindly stumble on. Somehow, missing the volley of gunfire from both sides of the turrets. 

We made it!  You and I climb right up to the steps of the main tower!  Tired and gasping, we look up to see this friendly guard  who tells us ... "Sumimasen, the main tower is closed for the day".

Have I now  proven to you just how solid and strong the castle's fortifications are?  
In its entire history, it was never ever successfully attacked or invaded.
Standing here right under the Donjon or main tower is just as breathtaking as seeing it from 
a few kilometres away. 
The main tower is six stories high.  It is made of wood with white plastered exterior walls and has graceful  "wings" along its many levels.   Guests can enter and climb all the way to the top to get a sweeping view of the castle  grounds and the city down below.

Since we arrived too late to enter the main keep,  I had to contend myself with this view from Bizenmaru, the courtyard directly in front of the tower.   You will note that the grounds are so expansive, be prepared for for quite a long walk. 

While walking through the castle,  Meiko san brought out interesting facts about the construction of Himeji-jo. The castle was built at great expense and sacrifice by the people.  
At one point, stones became very hard to come by and the daimyo called on the people to donate whatever they could to help build the castle.  
By the Bizen Mon, you will see this huge slab of stone on the right.  This was part of a stone coffin which came from a burial mound.  This was not the only stone coffin used in the construction of Himeji-jo.

Small mill stones which people used for grinding grains were used as fillers in between the larger rocks.  Can you see the small millstone protected by a screen in the photo above.
The story goes that it was donated by an impoverished  widow who had nothing else to give.
It reminded me of the biblical story of the widow's mite.   The best gifts are given by those who 
have very little themselves.


Visiting Himeji-jo was an incredible experience, made even more meaningful because our dear friend Meiko san was with us to  explain the history and construction of Japan's most impressive castle. 
On the way out, we met these young Japanese and their teacher.  
Members of an English speaking club, we had a nice time helping them practice their language skills.
While I will always remember the magnificent grandeur of Himeji-jo,  that memory will also include this personal and heartwarming encounter. 

Friday, November 23, 2018

An almost vegetarian lunch at Haduki on Mt Shosha

Buddhists believe in doing no harm to any living creature  that's why most of them do not eat any  meat, poultry or fish.   In Japan,   Buddhist monks prepare vegetarian cuisine or shojin ryori --
it's served in temple restaurants or in temple lodgings.

Engyo-ji has both temple lodging or shukubo and a restaurant.  The Engyo-ji Kai-kan, just past 
the Nio-mon is a shukubo where  guests and visitors to the temple can also enjoy a shojin ryori meal.  
For day visitors, reservations for lunch are sometimes necessary, particularly during the temple's 
busy season.  
However, there was no one in the reception area of Kai-kan when we walked in so regretfully we were not able to try the shojin ryori lunch. 

 Meiko san promised a more casual and just as delicious meal just a little further on.  Across the Maniden is this cafe cum souvenir shop called Haduki.  According to Meiko san, the cafe served simple vegetarian meals but its specialty was oden.  That perked me right up!

Haduki looks like a Japanese home converted into a restaurant.  There were just seven items on the menu -- mostly hot udon or soba with either mushrooms, vegetables or yuba (tofu skin). 
Except for the oden, which came with chikuwa or  fish sausage and one of the noodles that used a
fish broth,  all the other dishes were vegetarian. 

Souvenir items such as amulets, charms and specialty foods are sold at Haduki.  If you want something else to drink aside from the free green tea,  there is a cooler stocked with bottled water, 
juices and surprise, surprise --  cold beer.  Does this mean that Buddhists are not alcohol averse?  

Jay opted to go full vegetarian with his bowl of udon noodles with seaweed and yuba
The heart cut-out was a kawaii touch.

Meiko san and I split an order of plain onigiri (rice balls).  One was sprinkled with sesame seeds
and the other was topped with dried shredded akajiso or Japanese red shiso leaves. 

Naturally we had to have the oden and yes,  Meiko san was right -- it was superb. 
Every ingredient in that oden was made right in Haduki's kitchen.  The chikuwa  and
the egg were the only non-vegetable elements on this plate. 
Beer is made with barley, hops and yeast so it definitely counts as vegetarian fare!


Right outside Haduki is a small pond stocked with vari-colored koi.  For 50 yen, you can buy a 
small tray of fish food and treat them to lunch.  
Gomen nasai, I whispered.  I'm sorry for eating the chikuwa in my oden.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

A Thousand Years Away at Engyo-ji in Himeji

Many tourists who visit Kansai seldom go outside Osaka or KyotoNara will sometimes make
it to their list if only to mingle with the passive-aggressive deer in the park.
But not too far away from Kyoto is Himeji City in Hyogo prefecture - home to two amazing, must-visit sites .... one of Japan's most impressive, original castles and a  stunning Buddhist temple located on top of a mountain. 

I must admit that I was one of those who had not ventured out to Himeji -- at least until this trip.  Even my very good friend Meiko san, who lives in Kyoto was surprised that I had not been to
Himeji at all.  You must go, she insisted.  She knew my penchant for Buddhist temples and clinched the deal with a promise that Engyo-ji  would be one of the most beautiful temples I would see.
So one sunny morning a couple of months ago, we took the JR Rapid Express from Kyoto Station to Himeji City -- 98 minutes away.

Our first stop was to buy the combined bus and ropeway ticket that would get us from the station to Mt Shosha, where the temple is situated.

There is a convenient ropeway service  from the bottom to midway up the mountain.  The view 
from the cable car shows a city much larger that what I had originally perceived  it to be. 
The landscape is dotted with hills and you can see the Harimanada Sea in the distance. 

As we exited the ropeway station,  we saw this post which Meiko san said was one of her 
very favourite Buddhist sayings.  Loosely translated, she read it as  "Light up your corner".  
What an uplifting reminder!  All of us need to  shine a light in our corner and we'll make a 
difference in this world.

The ropeway will take you halfway up Mt Shosha.  There is a 500 yen entrance fee to the mountain.  For those who do not want to hike the remaining one kilometre up,  mini buses will take you to the top and back down again.  A round trip ticket is also 500 yen.  Almost everyone we rode with in the cable car hopped into the bus but we decided the hike up would be a much better option. 

When you visit a Buddhist temple, you are supposed to ring the bell to announce your presence. 
This huge bell at the entrance is Jihi no Kane, the Bell of Compassion.  It reverberated with a loud clang that seemed to echo throughout Mt Shosha.  Jay said he did not mean to hit it so hard and that he actually thought he had cracked the bell!  

The walk up Mt Shosha is a gentle ascent on a smooth earth-packed path.  
The bus goes up via a different route so our walk was uninterrupted and absent of unnatural sounds.  We only heard our own soft conversation and  the sound of birdsong and crows cawing.  
Engyo-ji is number 27 on the Saigoku 33 Kannon Pilgrimage.  On the way up at regular intervals,  you will see all 33 statues of the different temples on each side of the path.  

A break in the trees gave us another sweeping view of Himeji City down below.

It is just a  kilometre to the top and before I realised it, we were almost halfway there.   
I was really happy that we did not take the bus -- the  hike reminded me of some of the mountain paths we trekked  through when we did the Kumano Kodo.   Particularly the wider and easier ones.

The entrance to Engyo-ji  is marked by a large wooden Niomon gate.  This dates back to the 17th century and is guarded on each side by Nio-zo, the traditional guardians of Buddhism.  

Once past the gates, the visitor is officially inside the mountain's sacred grounds. It was a lovely 
day for a visit as there was hardly anyone walking up the mountain.  Those who took the bus missed seeing the different important buildings and sub-temples that we saw along the way. 

These steep stone steps lead up to a side entrance of Juryo-in, an important sub-temple in Engyo-ji.  The temple building which dates back to the 11th century was dismantled for repair and restoration in the 1960s.  Unfortunately, this building which is also a National Important Cultural Property is closed to visitors. 

Behind these high walls stands Jumyo-in, another National Important Cultural Property. Like 
Juryo-in, it is closed to the public and opened only during special occasions.

Just as in other mountain temples,  Engyo-ji  exudes an atmosphere of tranquility.  I was very much aware of my surroundings and mindful of each minute that I was on the mountain.  Mountain meditation is a wonderful way to find stillness and inner peace amidst your surroundings.  
Engyo-ji is an ideal place for that.  

I envied the beatific smile on this jizo.  How many centuries had he been in meditation, here in 
the peaceful environs of Mt Shosha.

The path descended to this small wooden bridge, the Yuya-bashi rebuilt in the early 17th century by the lord of  Himeji,  Honda Tadamasa.  It leads to the Maniden, just across the bridge.

Surrounded by the forest of Mt Shosha, this is the Maniden, which can be reached by a tall stone staircase. 

A couple wearing the traditional hakui  slowly  goes up the stairs.  
Because of how they are dressed, I  can only presume that they are henro or pilgrims
doing the Saigoku 33 Temple Pilgrimage. 

The Maniden's architectural style,  its wooden deck and  its support beams remind me very 
much of Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto which is also one of the 33 temples of this pilgrimage.

This temizuya with a dragon stands in front of the Maniden.  I saw a very similar one in Okubo-ji, temple 88 of the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage. 

Engyo-ji is rich with buildings designated as National Important Cultural Properties.  
The Maniden, with its intricate carvings was one of the earliest structures, built in the 10th century.  
Miraculously, it stood for over a thousand years until fire destroyed most of it in 1920.

Using the surviving structures and details from the original structure, the Maniden  was rebuilt with precise accuracy and finished in 1933.  I can imagine the meticulous craftsmanship that went into its reconstruction but more than that, I believe Kannon in her mercy, blessed and guided the hands 
that restored the Maniden so faithfully.

The Maniden is dedicated to one of Kannon's incarnations,  Roppi-Nyoirin-Kanzeon-Bosatsu.  
The image is hidden and is shown only once a year on January 18 which marks an important event in the Buddhist calendar.

Standing at the wooden deck that wraps around the building, I was again reminded of Kiyomizudera in Kyoto.   Looking out at the lush green forest,  I thought that this is how the view from Kiyomizudera must have looked like too, a thousand years ago. 

From behind the Maniden,  we continued on the trail as it climbed,   steeper and narrower this time.  

This cluster of buildings is the Honda Family Mausoleum. Honda Tadamasa was the first daimyo 
of the powerful Honda clan to rule over Himeji Castle and he and his family extended their protection and support to Engyo-ji.  

Across the Mausoleum is a wide open space bordered by three magnificent wooden structures .  
On the leftmost is Jogyo-do which was the training hall for monks.   In the middle is the Jiki-do
the dormitory where the monks lived and worked.  And on the right most is the Daiko-do, the Main Hall of Engyo-ji.  If these buildings look familiar, it is because this is where many of the scenes of the movie The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise were shot.  

While Jogyo-do and the Daiko-do are closed to visitors, you can enter  the Jiki-do and see where the monks lived and worked, a thousand years ago.  Visitors may copy sutras on the first floor and view some architectural pieces like actual centuries-old wooden posts and the fish shaped ornaments that adorn both the top of the temple buildings and that of Himeji Castle. 

The Jiki-do was constructed in the 12th century and dismantled for repair and restoration in 1959. 
It's amazing that the building lasted so long with just minimal repairs.  The Jiki-do is forty meters long, with a second floor wooden deck that runs the whole length of the building.

The second floor houses some of the treasures of Engyo-ji such as these wooden statues and other valuable Buddhist artefacts. 

At the back of  Jogyo-do you can find a window that looks into the inner room of the building. A figure seemed to shine in the darkness so I climbed the steps to look inside.

The room was dimly lit but the image of  Joroku-Amida-Nyorai-zazo can be seen, the soft and compassionate features visible through the darkness. The original statue was carved in 1005
more than a thousand years ago by Anchin, who also carved the statue that is enshrined in the Maniden.   This statue however is a replica and the original has been transferred to the Daiko-do.

Behind the Jiki-do and Daiko-do is a of cluster of wooden structures that make up the Okunoin, the cemetery and inner sanctuary of Engyo-ji.   To the leftmost is the Goho-do Haiden, the worship hall.  
Partially hidden in the middle is the Kaizan-do, built in 1007 as a memorial to the priest 
Shoku Shonin, founder of Engyo-ji.  His bones are kept inside the temple.  
The Kaizan-do burned down but was reconstructed --what you see today dates back to the 17th century.  The two small buildings on the right are shrines called the Goho-do, dedicated to the deities who are protectors of Shoku Shonin.  
The Goho-do were built in the 16th century and these are still the original structures.
It is awe inspiring to view all these beautiful wooden temples that make up the totality of Engyo-ji. Most of the temples have been restored from their original structures.  What we walk through and marvel at today is almost the same as how visitors saw them, a thousand years ago.

As we looked at the intricate roof and eaves of the Kaizan-do, Meiko san pointed out a small figure, tucked in one corner.  Can you your sharp eyes spot him?   She said that the sculptor cum carpenter who built the Kaizan-do also carved four small figures of sumo wrestlers,  one on each corner of the building to help hold up the roof.

It was mid afternoon when we ended our visit to Engyo-ji.  The way down was sometimes 
steep and sometimes slippery.  I wondered how many had walked this same path through the 
past thousand years.  I was just thankful to be tracing their footsteps.


And here we are, back into the present, waiting for the bus that would take us back.  I cannot say thank you enough to our dear friend Meiko san who gave us this gift of a visit to Engyo-ji. 

Ki ni shite kurete arigatou!