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!

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

A quiet walk, unspoiled at Ritsurin-koen

It was our last morning in Takamatsu and we had not yet visited its most famous attraction, 
Ritsurin-koen, said to be one of the best gardens in Japan.  Since we had a couple of hours 
before catching our train to Kyoto, we set out very early to see what we could of Ritsurin.

From our hotel, it was a two kilometre walk to the garden, cutting through the Minamishinmachi 
and Tamachi shotengai.   If you take the JR Kotoku line from Takamatsu station,  get off at 
Ritsurin-Koen Kitaguchi and the garden is just a three minute walk away.

There is a small entrance fee of 410 yen to Ritsurin-koen.  The garden covers over sixteen hectares, 
and is definitely not a place that one should rush through.   We stayed nearly two hours yet were 
able to cover only the area I have encircled in the map above. 

Thank you to the feudal lord of the Ikoma clan who started this garden in 1625.  However, construction was soon taken over by the Matsudaira clan and it was this family that would see the garden to its full completion in 1745
Ritsurin koen remained in the Matsudaira family for more than two hundred years before it was turned over to the prefecture and opened to the public in 1875.

There are six ponds in the garden, the largest of which is Gun' Ochi Pond where generations of  daimyo went duck hunting.  The garden is located at the foot of Mt Shuin which acts as a 
majestic backdrop.  This is typical of a Japanese garden landscape and is called "borrowed scenery".

The pond winds its way gently through the northwest side of the park.  As you walk, the scenery changes and you see the garden with always fresh eyes.

 The garden opens at 5:30 a.m during the summer months.  We arrived very early and aside from 
a few maintenance staff,  we seemed to be the first visitors at Ritsurin, on this lovely September morning.

Hokko, the second largest pond in Ritsurin  is located somewhat in the middle of the grounds,  dividing the garden between north and south.  I assiduously avoided all camera angles that were marred by the sight of buildings so that I could capture the garden as it was seen by the  eyes of 
the generations of daimyo who had built it. 

Bairin-kyo Bridge, with its bright red colour stood out in contrast to the dark green of the trees and shrubbery around it.   It was such a luxury to wander around without any crowds.  It was as if we 
had reserved Ritsurin-koen for our very own private viewing.

Late blooming pastel hued lotus flowers floated lazily in Fuyo-sho pond.  How could something be 
so simple and yet so awe inspiring at the same time?

Senkanchi is one of the smallest ponds in the garden.  Its clear flowing waters come from 
Mt Shuin,  a reminder that while the garden may have been shaped by human hands and minds, nature was its primary creator and architect. 

I am sorry that we just had a couple of hours to enjoy the tranquility of Ritsurin koen but I am grateful that we made time to visit.  
My photos cannot do it justice.  You will have to come and experience this remarkable garden --
it's a good enough reason to visit Takamatsu on your next trip to Japan