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Off the Map

Off the Map

We usually use those small local tourist maps when getting around in new towns and cities in Japan, and they’re usually handy.  But on a trip to Koya-san we ran into an unusual problem… the city is small and the map seemed pretty good, but it turns out that with one wrong turn or misread of a path, you are quickly off the map.  And because of the scale, we didn’t realize it for quite some time.   But getting off the map can yield some great results – we found ourselves at a wonderful temple that had no visitors and was a sea of calm on a very busy holiday weekend in this mountain town.   The stillness of the late afternoon, the half-hidden temple almost overgrown with plants, the prayer papers lining the trees and the vibrant fall colors (which didn’t translate into the photos, alas) were a wonderful...
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Reigando Cave

Reigando Cave

Took a visit to Reigando Cave, the site where Miyamoto Musashi, the famed samurai and swordsman, wrote the Book of Five Rings.   This cave is located way outside the small city of Kumamoto, up in the mountains – windy road there, then, once we got to the turn off (by some beautiful terraced rice fields), there was another climb up a very windy road to the entrance way.  There is a small shrine right at the front – where we were greated by a pilgrimmage couple beating an hypnotic rhythm on a drum and chanting in preparation for their entry into the sacred space.   Then there is a bit of a climb up and over several large rock formations to get to the actual cave.  Very slippery when wet, these seemed  to form the perfect metaphor for the end of spiritual quest, which often gets more difficult the closer to the objective you get.   The route is lined with hundreds of sitting Buddha’s that were placed there several hundred years ago and now are in quite disrepair after earthquakes and weather.   The  story is that each person can see themselves in one of the Buddha’s faces – as our guide pointed out, this was more likely before westerners started arriving.   The cave itself is a large, shallow cave that opens on to a view of trees.  There is a large central rock, on which someone has places a small statue, some alter-like area and stairs and wooden floor built in to make it more accessible.   For those with a serious interest in samurai studies, this is a must see destination, well worth the personal pilgrimage to...
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Kumamoto Volunteer Guide

Kumamoto Volunteer Guide

Some of what my last trip to Japan was about was exploring some places where American tourists don’t generally go (well, at least not on their first trip).   Kumamoto is a small city located on the western edge of Japan, about halfway down the west coast of Kyushu island.   My visit here included the first time I’ve had a chance to use the volunteer guides that are often found throughout Japan.   We had a wonderful day exploring Kumamoto Castle and Reigando Cave with Kano-san.   Despite the dreary wet weather that day, the castle was wonderful – very accessible, featured lots of information and exhibits, was very picturesque and is well worth the visit, even if it’s out of the way.   Here is a picture of our guide – Kano-san, showing us his name on the small wooden placques that honored donors to the castle’s restoration fund.   Kano-san was a fabulously enthusiastic guide who clearly loved his city and the castle.  One of our fond memories, though, is about our lunch encounter.  We ate lunch in a Chinese restaurant that, for some totally unexplainable reason has olive oil on the table.  Since I normally eat olive oil on rice, and after days of traveling really missed it, I took the liberty of dousing my perfectly fine Japanese rice with olive oil.  “Unbelievable!” exclaimed Kano-san.   He was truly dumbfounded that these crazy Americans would put olive oil on rice.   Soy sauce is considered quite gauche, so you can imagine how olive oil seemed.   Probably about the same as putting motor oil on it.  Oh well…   I wasn’t eating like the Japanese that day.   Here are some nice pictures of the castle (Hokosawa Family; original about 1607; this is reconstruction.   More about Japanese castles at...
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Knife Making in Takefu

Knife Making in Takefu

There are lots of places in Japan to see various artists and artisans, but one of the more unusual is Takefu – where you can go to a forgery where a wide variety of artists create knives.   These aren’t just regular dinner knives – but knives taken to a new level of mastery. Various artists work here, creating works of art with unique patterns created through special forging and polishing techniques.  To get there, you take a cab ride some miles out of town (from the train station).  You’re dropped off at a large, free-standing building in what seems like the middle of nowhere.   Upon entry, there’s an open area with displays of the history of some of the artisans and a wide variety of products on sale.   There’s a self-touring area where you can watch the various works in progress, from the steel creating to forging and polishing.  It’s got some great photo opportunities – here are a few samples.  The most interesting part about this is that, as with so many aspects of Japan, you will find a group of artists who are dedicated to their art and continuing it on to the next generation.  There’s a wall picture that depicts the various masters and their students – a profound way of sharing their pride in both craft and...
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Naoshima Island

Naoshima Island

One of the places that you won’t find in guidebooks, but is fairly well-known to people in the art world, is the Benesse House Art Museum on Naoshima Island in the Inland Sea. This isn’t a typical Japanese place, nor is it reminiscent of traditional Japanese culture. This is a place where you actually spend the night in a museum. The rooms are all integrated into the museum, so after closing hours, you can wander amidst the various works of contemporary art located throughout the complex. Getting to the island involves a (too-short) ride on a ferry from the port at Uno which arrives at the island town of Miyanoura Port. A bus from the hotel whisks you off to one of the various properties in the complex, where you go from the general hussle-bussle of travel in Japan to the serene quiet of an island retreat. There are several places to stay in the complex, but the most appealing are in the Museum itself or, even higher up the hill, in the Oval. The views from the Oval are magnificent: In addition to the Oval, the views from the Museum (slightly lower on the hill) are just as great. Here’s a picture from Room 302: There are two different places to eat in the complex, a Japanese restaurant and the Terrace restaurant, that has more western-style food. After 15 days in Japan, it was great to have another meal that surprised us with it’s variety and freshness. Almost all the food in Japan was good, but the food at the Terrace restaurant was a special treat. Finally, there’s the art. Even for those not especially interested in contemporary art, it’s a very unique experience to view the variety of pieces in the quiet reflection of evening. The place is so quiet, and so big, that it’s easy to feel like you’re the only people there – even though I knew the hotel was completely sold out for our stay. So maybe it is a good thing that the guide books haven’t found this place...
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Gardens at Night

Gardens at Night

Kyoto is known for its gardens, which date back for centuries and create a foundation of silent wonder in this very busy city.   But what you may not know, is that during two seasons of the year (fall foliage and cherry blossoms), many of the gardens and temples are open late into the evening with gardens and buildings alight to show off the special seasonal transformation.  Each site’s schedule is different, so you’ll need to check with the garden before going.  However, some hotels (the Hyatt Regency Kyoto, for example), create a list of all the gardens with their opening and closing times as well as the best way to get to them.  Below are some pictures from a trip this fall, which features three separate sites (gosh, wouldn’t it be great if I could name them… but I don’t...