Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Seven Shots of Sakura in Kyoto

I may have been too early to see sakura in Tokyo but two weeks later, I found myself in Kyoto, right at the peak of their sakura season. All around me, cherry blossoms in all colours were showing off with reckless abandon.   Here then are seven of my favourite shots of sakura from this trip.

1. More people than sakura at Sannen-zaka

This was my first time to be in Kyoto at the height of sakura season and I could not believe just how crowded it was.  Right in the middle of usually quiet, pretty Sannen-zaka, hordes of tourists had their cameras out, taking photos of this single towering sakura tree in full flower.

2. Vermilion pagoda and sakura at Kiyomizudera

As I was trudging my way up to the temple,  I looked up and saw Kiyomizudera's 
3 storey pagoda perfectly framed by light pink sakura blooms.  
Thanks to careful cropping, I was able to block out the crowds.

3. Sakura by the Shirakawa

All it takes is an instant and the right angle and I have a photo that looks as if I was
 the only one strolling by the Shirakawa in Gion on this lovely spring afternoon. 
 This is my favourite among all the photos that  I took.  

4. Up close and personal with the sakura

This is the 5- petaled Somei Yoshino, the most common and numerous of sakura varieties in Japan.  
The flowers range from the lightest, most delicate pink to pure white.   This particular tree was just one of many along the Shirakawa area in Gion.  

5. Under the sakura 

This stunning canopy of sakura blossoms is just the right setting for a memorable photo -- particularly  if you and your friends are all dressed up in traditional Japanese kimonos.  

6. Sakura and tea house in Nijo-jo

This almost looks like a painting -- specially if you are sitting in the tea house, contemplating 
this traditional Japanese garden accented by a riotous burst of pink sakura flowers.  

7. Falling sakura blooms at Daigo-ji 

It is fitting to end with this photo I took at Daigo-ji, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  
This temple is well known for a sakura viewing party hosted here by the great shogun 
Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1598.   I was standing by these sakura trees when a light breeze shook a shower of pink petals on all of us -- I had sakura petals on my hair, on my clothes, on my shoes!  
  Perhaps this enchanting experience was a gift from Buddha and yes, maybe Hideyoshi san too. 
And now, will you bear with me and read this haiku I wrote about the sakura?

Pink and white petals
Light breeze whispers through the trees 
Tiny dots of bliss

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Temples and Shrines off Tokyo's Tourist Track

Tokyo --  fast, frenetic and ultra modern is not a place you would normally associate with temples and shrines.  There is Tokyo's oldest temple,  Sensoji in Asakusa and Meiji Jingu in Harajuku but these are just two.  In my mind, Tokyo is not at all like Kyoto which boasts of over 2,000 temples and shrines.  
But surely, there would be places in Tokyo that a temple and shrine goer like me could enjoy.
On this last trip, I set off to look for places visited by the locals -- those certainly not mentioned in the tourist guidebooks.

To start off my temple exploration, my Japanese colleague Kobayashi san brought me to his temple -- the place he regularly goes to.  This is located in Monzen Nakacho,  a rather traditional residential neighbourhood quite removed from the towering buildings of Tokyo -- although it is just a couple of subway stops from busy Nihombashi.   
Exiting the subway, we were greeted by this huge red torii marking the entrance to the street leading to Fukagawa Fudoson.  This temple is a "branch"of the famed Shinshoji Temple in Narita City.

The street leading to Fukagawa Fudoson is bordered by small shops on both sides -- selling all sorts of things like tsukemono, furikake, mochi cakes and other traditional sweets, seasonings, spices, even bento boxes if you're too lazy to cook dinner at home.  
Needless to say, I had to stop by each and every shop so that it took us quite a while to traverse the short 200 meter walk from the subway exit to the temple gate.  
Here we are taking a group-fie along "temple street".  Kobayashi san is our Japanese colleague who so kindly brought us here.

The temple grounds are expansive.  There is a new and modern building right beside the older structure.  We had wanted to attend the traditional goma or fire burning ritual but there was none scheduled when we visited.  So I ended up visiting the temple shop where I couldn't resist the amulets and good luck charms.  Fudoson is a "traffic temple" where people pray for safety from road accidents so most of the charms were dedicated to that wish.

Like in most Japanese temples, Buddhism co-exists with Shintoism.  There is a small Shinto shrine located right within the temple grounds.  I saw the familiar foxes guarding the plain stone torii so this must be an inari shrine.

Walking back from Fukagawa Fudoson,  we chanced upon this open gate leading to a small temple. And serendipitously,  Kobayashi san told me that it is a Koyasan temple and belongs to the Shingon sect of Buddhism which Kobo Daishi founded.

And true enough, tucked away by the side were two small jizo standing by a tablet carved with the likeness of Kobo Daishi.  It was good fortune or perhaps Kobo Daishi's doing that led me to this small temple so that I could say a quiet prayer to him.

The next day I had a few hours before heading to the airport so I set off to discover more "local" temples.  I started the day bright and early  by hopping on the Oedo subway line, which was right in the basement of Park Hotel.  I was bound for Kasuga station to visit the Denzuin Buddhist temple in the Koishikawa area.  It was a 15 minute walk, most of it uphill before I found this temple on a side street off  Kasuga dori.

I had read about Denzuin from the book The Tokyo 33 Kannon Pilgrimage which lists the various temples in Tokyo dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy.
Sensoji in Asakusa counts as temple number one and after this visit to Denzuin, I can now claim that I have gone to two temples for this pilgrimage -- just 31 more to go!
The temple is marked by this impressive wooden gate that is quite new.
While Denzuin was founded in the 15th century, everything was destroyed in the second World War, and the buildings have been completely rebuilt in the last 30 or so years.

It was early when I visited so there was hardly any one around.  The pathway from the gate leads directly to the main hall.

Denzuin has quite a big cemetery.  Perhaps the most famous person buried here is the mother of Tokugawa Ieyasu, one of the (as I irreverently think of them) "big three" of Japanese shoguns (the other two being Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi).
It was so peaceful to walk through the silent stone markers and graves.

It was not yet sakura season but there it was at the end of the path -- a single tree in full bloom.
So appropriate to be reminded here in this cemetery about what the sakura stands for   -- one brief brilliant burst of glory before being detached from the branch and dying at the peak of its beauty.

After my visit to Denzuin, I headed back down the street towards Kasuga station and came upon this sign pointing to the direction of the Koishikawada Jingu shrine.  So of course I turned left.

I nearly walked past it -- the shrine is hidden inside this building.  Only the small lanterns at the gate gave me a clue that this was indeed the place.
The windows on the right open in to the shrine office where you can buy ema or the wooden plaques for wishes and where I was also able to get a temple seal for my shuin cho.

This shrine is completely surrounded by buildings on all sides.  A temizuya stands in front where I was able to make the purification ritual.

 The 33 Kannon pilgrimage mentioned a small temple in the area called Genkakuji.  Not at all connected to the Ginkakuji temple in Kyoto, this temple is not a Kannon temple but is dedicated to the god for healing of the eyes.  Perfect for  me as I  have worn glasses all my life.
Genkakuji is on the street intersecting Kasuga Dori and is nearer the subway station.

One interesting detail about Genkakuji are these jizos made completely of salt.  Here they are, tucked away in their own little protective shed.  I read in the book that these jizos are dedicated to those who lost their lives at sea, particularly those who perished in the Battle of Saipan in World War II.

On my way out of Genkakuji, I saw this big bronze bell called the Pan Pacific Temple Bell.
Beside it is a figure of a compassionate looking bodhisattva. The plaque by the bell lists dates from 1690 to 1974.  I wish I could read the Japanese text so that I knew its significance.
But there is no one to ask and I have a train and a plane to catch.
Meandering through these un-touristy areas of Tokyo gave me new appreciation for this mega-city. Just by going off the tourist track, I have seen bits and pieces that continue to make Tokyo so fascinating for me.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Shibamata and the Taishakuten Temple -- a very local Tokyo experience

What does Tokyo look like beyond its skyscrapers?  On this last trip, I decided to venture out from the tourist trail -- I would go and see what the other side of Tokyo looked like.

 I asked my Japanese friends to recommend a place and they suggested I visit Shibamata,  50 minutes out of Shinjuku.  They assured me that it would be exactly what I was looking for.
To get to Shibamata,  I took the JR Yamanote train to Nippori and transferred to the Keisei Line headed for Takasago.

Exiting Takasago,  I transferred to the Keisei Kanamachi line that goes to Shibamata.

  On this Saturday morning, I practically had the train all to myself.

The Keisei Kanamachi line has just three stops.  I had barely warmed my seat when it was 
time to get off.

The Shibamata station looked like it had been trapped in a time warp.  It was just 50 minutes from Shinjuku station but I felt 50 years removed from the present.
Aside from its Buddhist temple, Shibamata is famous for playing a major role in the longest running film series in Japan.  Called "Otoko wa Tsurai Yo" or "It's tough being a Man", this film which debuted in 1970 and had 48 serials until the 1990s,  was all about the life and times of "Tora san",  a characterisation of the Japanese everyman.
In the film, Tora san hails from Shibamata and while he has adventures all around Japan, he always finds his way back home.
A bronze statue stands right by the station and shows the traveling Tora san, wearing a suit and slippers and carrying a suitcase. He looks as if he is about to catch a train for somewhere but still looks back at his hometown.

A quaint, pedestrian only street lined with shops and restaurants is the main road to the temple.
Dripping with  atmosphere and nostalgia, this shopping street evokes a time that is long past -- I have not watched the film series but this must have been what Shibamata looked like in the 70's, during Tora san's time.  I love these vintage style Japanese shopping streets, more than any of the high rise gleaming department stores and architecturally cutting edge malls.

They say that sometimes you can see characters dressed up as Tora san, walking along.  
For now, I am happy enough to see his photo in this sweet shop that played a prominent role in the film series.

Tora san was played by the late actor Kiyoshi Atsumi, who because of his iconic portrayal was never able to play any other character.  It's a good thing he starred in 48 Tora san films -- he must have enjoyed a successful career.

I get caught up by each and every store that I pass by -- even the items for sale seem to belong to another era. Colourful candies in glass jars remind me of the sweets I used to enjoy as a child "lima cinco sa sari sari store" (5 candies for 5 centavos from the corner store).

Of course there are the ubiquitous packs of senbei or rice crackers, in all shapes and flavours.   
Some of them are even stamped with the likeness of Tora san -- thus making them the perfect omiyage from Shibamata.

Even the little curios and knick knacks are of the vintage variety.  They bring to mind simple 
and easy times.

After much dawdling and loitering, and yes shopping -- I finally come to the end of the street and see the  temple gate right in front of me.  The green tiles on the roof make a striking contrast with the dark patina of the unpainted wooden gate.

I pass through Nitenmon, the main gate.  It stands tall and graceful and is beautifully carved with very detailed and intricate decorations.

This is the main hall of the temple, the Taishakudo.  
Shibamata Taishakuten is the popular name of this temple,  but it is also known formally as 
Daikyo-ji.  Established in the 1600's, it did not do well through natural disasters like earthquakes and fires.  Thus the main buildings have been rebuilt and are only about one hundred years old.  
This massive pine tree with its branches spread out stands guard in front of the Taishakudo or main temple.  
Called the Zuiryu no matsu or Lucky Dragon, this tree is spread so wide that it actually needs wooden beams to support the weight of its branches.

The treasure of Taishakuten is kept in the inner temple of the Taishakudo.  There is a fee that includes entrance to both the inner temple and the garden.

The inner temple has incredible wooden panels featuring very elaborate carvings of scenes from
the Lotus Sutra.  My photo does not do it justice at all -- each little figure, each part of the scenery is so detailed, so lifelike that you just cannot help but stand mesmerised  in front of each one.  

It's very helpful that there is an English description of what is depicted in each panel.  This is something that is not usual in most Japanese temples and shrines.

The panels cover this huge "gallery" in the middle of the building.  As I walked around these amazing works of temple art,  I was reminded of the stained glass windows inside old Catholic churches all over Europe.  Like these wooden panels, the stained glass windows depicted stories from the Bible and were used to both inform and educate the faithful.

Aside from the carved wooden panels in the inner temple, Taishakuten  has a lovely little garden in its backyard that is definitely worth seeing.
A covered wooden pathway takes you all around the garden.    I felt as if I was walking down an extremely long red carpet -- albeit devoid of crowds and paparazzi.

A central pond, carefully placed rocks and greenery -- Taishakuten features the essential elements of the traditional Japanese garden.  
There are few visitors on this spring day so I truly relished the silence and the serenity.

The temple bell outside Taishakudo was rung 12 times to signal the noon hour.  
Time to take my leave of this charming and delightful temple discovery.  

But first, a sip from Taishakuten's "divine" waters.  This spring  flows naturally and has been part of the temple since the 17th century.

What a well spent Saturday morning!
It was a fascinating glimpse into a side of Tokyo that I had not yet seen.
While there are more well known and popular destinations in this megalopolis that tourists flock to, this was a distinctly local and native experience that I very much enjoyed.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Cutting edge Japanese cuisine at Itamae Bar in Ginza Tokyo

I was looking forward to a traditional  Japanese dinner this cool Sunday evening in March with my long time gourmet friend Abe san.  However,  he ended up surprising me by bringing me to his latest restaurant discovery - a trendy, cool bar somewhere in the side streets of Ginza.

Itamae in Japanese means cook or chef.  Such a basic, simple name for a place that Abe san said was quite new,  now very popular and hot with the Tokyo dining crowd.

Itamae proudly proclaims what it offers ... Japanese Food / Sake / White Wine.  Oh dear, it seemed quite hipster-ish and young to me.

Looking around the casual, "industrialised" interiors of this modern izakaya,  I laughingly told Abe san that we were the oldest patrons in the place.

Counter seating was available,  conducive to watching the itamae or chef prepare and plate the dishes.  As it is essentially an izakaya or bar, Itamae serves mostly "otsumami" -- the Japanese version of "tapas" -- lots of small dishes meant to be enjoyed while drinking.   
It's what you would call a gastro-pub.  This being Tokyo, I was sure the pub fare would be superb.

When drinking in Japan, it is normal to start with a cold glass of nama or draft beer.
Then you can move on to sake or shochu or in the case of Itamae, something from their carefully chosen selection of white wines.
We were started off with a small amuse bouche of a shiso leaf wrapped around bits of stewed tofu, bamboo shoots, greens and diced potatoes.  The sauce was sharp, vibrant and refreshing.
A single pink blossom garnished this appetiser -- perhaps to evoke the coming sakura season.

 Abe san ordered one of Itamae's specialties -- grilled awabi or abalone, sliced and artfully presented on the shell.  Along with the awabi were fresh vegetables like baby corn,  a surprisingly sweet and tasty no-heat little red pepper,  cucumbers and daikon.
Everything was beautifully presented on a large glazed dish that mimicked the sheen and shape
of an abalone shell.

A dark green sauce accompanied the dish.   Made of abalone liver and fat, it delivered a
straight umami kick right to my unsuspecting palate.  This dip was decadently delicious --
rich, with a light hint of bitterness and deep overtones of the briny sea.
So silky smooth with a complex, satisfying taste.
My Pinoy sensibilities secretly wished for a small bowl of  hot kanin or rice to slather all this superlative sauce on.
Extra rice please!

Itamae puts its modern, contemporary take on regular Japanese food.  From recent forays to non-traditional restaurants and bars in Japan, I note that cheese is used more and more in Japanese dishes.  This dish Abe san ordered was camembert lightly dusted with herbs,  fried up as a tempura and then wrapped in a thin, nearly translucent slice of fresh, uncured ham.
Pork and cheese -- definitely not kosher but oh so delicious.

It must have been all the richness -- from the ambrosial abalone dip to the mouthwatering camembert tempura but I was all of a sudden,  "onaka ippai yo" or quite full.
But it just took a little bit of persuading for me to agree to a one-for-the road order of assorted sashimi.
Abe san and I enjoyed fatty toro, slices of tai or sea bream,  succulent kampachi or yellowtail tuna, slivers of raw squid that slithered down my throat -- all these artfully presented on a bed of greens, twigs, julienned radish and yes -- a small dish of "nitro" for that  foggy molecular gastronomy effect.
I am happy to say that nitro or not, the sashimi was the star of the show.

An evening spent in wonderful company,  excellent contemporary Japanese food, beer and sake -- it was the perfect way to end the week-end, fully recharged for the meetings ahead.
I walked back to the hotel, enjoying the bright vibrant lights of Ginza and feeling grateful for new memories made -- of another great food experience with a dear old friend.