03 August 2010

A few more photos for good measure

Here are pictures from my camping trip this past weekend.  Before going, I thought the name the Japan Alps was some sort of folksy hyperbole, an appealing and well-intended, but perhaps dramatic title.  Like Greenland.  I couldn't have been more wrong.

I've never seen mountains like these before, and before climbing Okuhotaka-dake, Japan's third-highest peak, I didn't understand the term mountaineering, or the reason all Japanese hikers have trekking poles.  In my lifetime, I have walked to the top of many mountains, but summiting Okuhotaka was an entirely different experience.  The trail consisted of boulders and hardscrabble with spraypainted suggestions for directions.  Chains were bolted to rock faces in particularly difficult places so that one might pull oneself up or rappel back down.  And I found out later that I took one of the easier ways up!

It was all worth it at the top, though, where, in the thin air, a diminutive Shinto shrine crowned the monumental peak, a reminder of the mystical quality of great heights and wide horizons.




02 August 2010

Photos galore

I've only got ten days left in Japan, and unfortunately I don't expect to have much time to update.  

My blog got off to a good start, but lost momentum down the stretch.  Here are some photos to make up for my lack of diligence:









I've also got pictures of the Japan Alps that I'll try to upload at some point, because the mountains are spectacular.

Thanks for reading, despite the infrequent updates!


28 July 2010

The story so far

I've not updated in a very long time, and with only two weeks left in my trip, I'm beginning to doubt  that I'll get caught up before I come home.  I lost my journal recently, which had my entries for the next few cities drafted, along with a few essays that I wanted to post, none of which I have the motivation--or time--to rewrite right now.  Instead, here's part of the letter that  I wrote to the administrators of my fellowship, catching them up on my progress to date.

I've been traveling for 7 weeks now.  Even just reading that is incredible to me.  The time has flown, and I have had one incredible experience after another.  From London to Tokyo to Busan and beyond, it is almost surreal to me how much my paradigm has been expanded by not just learning about cultures but experiencing them.  I've taken part in a esoteric Buddhist fire ceremony; I've partaken in an impromptu party of Koreans who didn't know one another; I've met travelers embarking and returning from yearlong trips; and I've been questioned by the police in a language I don't remotely speak.  And for all these experiences, I am a different person.

In London, I saw Big Ben, and sat in on sessions of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.  I watched America draw England in a World Cup match while standing outside of a pub, cheering with fellow expats.  I saw Buckingham Palace and I rode the London Eye, to see the massive old city spreading out on both sides of the Thames below.  I also missed my flight after lingering a little too long in the Tate Modern art gallery.

In transit to Japan the next day, my flight out of the Beijing airport was canceled due to weather.  My flight was one of some 600 flights canceled on the day, and I was one of many thousand people trying  to figure out how I was going to get to where I needed to be.  It's true that everyone at the Beijing airport speaks English, but unfortunately, that only extends to about a half-dozen words.  The experience of navigating a procedure that's complicated in one's own language was a nightmare in Chinese, but in retrospect, it tested my resources and wits in a beneficial way.  I found out early that with patience and diligence, I could overcome language barriers and worse.

In Tokyo--I did make it, finally--I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people, and by the scarcity of English.  I've studied Japanese for two semesters, but because of the proliferation of kanji, characters borrowed from Chinese, I have an extremely low level of Japanese literacy.  Having studied hard for a year, it was at the same time disheartening and amazing not to be able to read the names on a map.  The mass of humanity that occupies Tokyo also boggled my mind.  Tokyo is the most densely populated urban center in the world, and it's impossible to forget while there.  Sidewalks of people that flow like rivers, dammed conveniently at traffic stops only to let the mass of automobiles take their turn flooding through the city.  I climbed a 55-story tower in Tokyo's chic Roppongi district, and saw urban expansion as far as the horizon: flashing red lights marking sky scrapers like fireflies on a summer night.  I watched Japan lose to Holland in the World Cup on a giant screen in the Olympic Stadium and learned how to cheer in Japanese and how not to be discouraged when we lost.

In Kamakura I wandered the beach and was given an umbrella by a kind hostel proprietor.  I saw 800-year old temples, and was caught in a downpour in a traditional Buddhist garden.  I stood inside one of the largest bronze statues in the world, and I wandered through a sacred garden of beautifully blooming wisteria, flat petals glistening with fresh rain drops.

In Nara, I toured even older temples, 1200-year old sites which have been maintained and at which worship has happened continuously since their founding.  I petted sacred deer that wander the streets, and I strolled the forest grounds of an ancient Shinto shrine as still night settled creepily over the land.  I climbed a mountain via an unexpected trail and I saw the entire city spread out below me, and all I could hear was the train station's announcement echoing up incoherently from the valley.

In Koyasan, I visited the most sacred Buddhist sites in Japan, and I saw the many-acre graveyard where every serious Buddhist in Japan has some of themselves interred.  I saw the headstones for many of Japan's most influential historical figures and I saw the tiny memorials of average citizens, some dating back 1,000 years.  I spent the night in an actual, functioning temple, and I took part in meditation, worship, and a fire ceremony where I saw some of the majesty that ritual can bestow upon something as ubiquitous as fire.

In Kyoto, I wandered around Japan's ancient capital, marveling at the juxtaposition of 1980's skyscrapers and temples that date back to before Western Europe had any idea that North America existed.  I reunited with a Japanese-American friend that I made in Tokyo, and I learned about Japanese culture from him.  I learned about the dichotomy between inner and outer self that explains how Japanese can be some of the most polite people in the world, but also how you might never know exactly what a Japanese person is thinking.  I bathed in a neighborhood public bath, soaking in the blazingly hot water, and drawing stares from curious Japanese men and boys, unused to seeing westerners in such a Japanese institution.  I also lost my camera, my means of documentation, and spent two days trying to make myself understood to shopkeepers and policemen, chasing every lead I could find.  I never recovered it.

In Kojima, I spent a day on a beach that I had entirely to myself.  I swam in the Pacific Ocean for the first time, and gazed off at one of the largest suspension bridges in Japan.  I got sunburnt, and I bouldered across sea cliffs to get a better  view of the bay.  After missing the last bus on arrival, I walked 3 miles from the train station to the hostel in the dark, along precipitous streets, wearing only a headlamp to alert drivers to my presence.  I was the only resident of a hostel that was a converted old hospital, complete with pale green floors, light blue and pink walls, and an echo that could only be heard at night.  I was given sake and fish jerky by the proprietor, who didn't speak English but drove me to go sightseeing the following day.

In Hiroshima, I spent my nights in internet cafes, where one rents a computer-equipped booth just large enough to stretch out in, and can stay as long as twelve hours for less than the cheapest of hostels.  I saw Peace Park.  I read John Hersey's unrivaled Hiroshima, the account of the atomic bombing to which an entire issue of the New Yorker was devoted only a year after the blast, moving closer to the epicenter with every few pages.  I saw the atomic bomb dome, the standing skeleton that is a testament to the most dramatic act of violence ever perpetrated by humans.  I wandered through a museum of material remains of obliterated lives.  Clinical and dispassionate exhibits like 'Shirt of a schoolboy' or 'Skirt and jacket of a young girl' charred fabric that once clung to innocent children.  They did not survive.  Many of them made it home to their parents, but they did not survive.  I learned that since 1945, the mayor of Hiroshima has handwritten a letter for every test of nuclear weaponry, begging world leaders to disarm and to prevent another Hiroshima, another Nagasaki.

In Iwakuni, I saw the military base where my grandfather was stationed in 1973.  I took photos to send to him only to be asked by the friendly Marine guard to delete them.  I was told that this was for security purposes, and that this prerogative overrides any fundamental right to freedom of expression, either at home or in foreign countries.  I walked across a bridge once reserved for samurai, appreciating its arches as much for their former exclusivity as for their formal elegance.  I made great friends with an Osakan family man who used to backpack and who insisted on buying my meals and admission fees, suggesting I do the same once I was in the position.  I slept through torrential flooding only to wake up and find trees down, roads closed, and trains inoperational, only to find residents largely undeterred, used to such flooding in the rainy and typhoon seasons.  

In Shimonoseki, I had whale sashimi at a fish market and the potentially lethal pufferfish at a local restaurant.  Both were delicious.  I rode a ropeway up a tall mountain, and I looked down at the peninsular city, its strait, and Kyushu island spreading to the south.  I walked along the harbor and I got sunburnt again, sitting on a pier and writing for hours.  I also mailed my Kyushu rail pass home by mistake, ending my plans to head south and explore the southernmost main island.  Never to be discouraged, I seized the opportunity by finding a cheap ferry to Busan, South Korea.  I unsuccessfully tried twice to catch said ferry, before making it the third day.  After missing it once and scrambling for accommodation, I met a seemingly Japanese man who didn't speak Japanese, and could only tell me in English that he was a Harvard Divinity School teacher.  He grabbed my arm at every opportunity and followed me to my hotel where he tried to insist on staying in my single room until I explained to the receptionist that he was a stranger.

In Busan, I made incredible friends.  Unprepared of a sightseeing itinerary, and unable to speak more than three words of Korean, I spent my days hanging out with fellow international travelers.  I saw a Hollywood blockbuster in IMAX with Korean subtitles.  I went for a swim at the most popular beach in Korea.  I twice atevery recently dead octopus that wriggled and sucked on the way down.  I lost my journal, only to have two amazing friends insist on accompanying me while we retraced every step at 3:30 in the morning.  I returned with said friends at 4:30, only to be accosted by an incredibly drunk Korean hostelmate.  Convinced that our stealthy entry to the dormitory masked our theft of his belongings, he yelled for some time in incoherent English, Korean, and French before he slapped my friend and we managed to lock him out of the room.  Once locked out he called the police, who responded and, despite his obvious intoxication, pursued his claim and questioned the three of us.  Luckily, one friend was Korean and he explained the situation.  I learned quickly how intimidating a legal system you don't understand can be.

And now I'm in Osaka.  I have two weeks left, and in those two weeks I intend to climb the fourth highest and the highest mountains in Japan, and do some camping along the way.

So far this trip has allowed me to see things that I never would have seen had I stayed at home.  I've experienced very different cultures from my own, and I've interacted with people and made meaningful connections in a completely foreign environment.  My paradigm has been expanded beyond my own expectations, as much by the little things, like always giving and receiving things with two hands, to the huge, like unwavering respect for the elderly, a tradition born from centuries of religious and cultural beliefs.  If there is one thing I've gained from this trip so far, it's an unremitting desire to see even more of the world.  We inhabit such an enormous place--a fact we often lose sight of in today's globalized world--and the diversity of ways we've learned to engage with our environment is mind boggling.  

One of the most valuable things about this trip has been seeing that the obstacle preventing me doing this was solely financial.  This fellowship gave me the financial head start and the impetus to go.  I recognize now that all it takes to be a true world traveler is the money and the wherewithal.  Going forward, I intend to spend and consume less, in order to travel more.  Without this trip, I would have continued to see more of the same things that I see day in and day out, and I would have never really understood the vastness and complexity of our world.  With modern media, it's tempting  to believe that with documentaries or with research we can really understand a place or a people.  It is now my firm belief that experience trumps knowledge every time, and going forward, I won't rest until I've experienced as much as I can.

14 July 2010

Nara (June 23-24)

In the category of undisputed former capitals of Japan, Nara has a pretty safe spot.  For 74 years, from 710 to 784, Nara was the seat of power until it moved to Kyoto, first to the outskirts for a decade, and then in 794 to its long-term home.  During Nara's brief supremacy--a time aptly known as the Nara period--Buddhism began to captivate the upper classes, and Nara's numerous Buddhist temples reflect this growing interest.  Many of the city's most historic sites were ransacked during a bout of anti-Buddhist sentiment during the Tokugawa shogunate in the 19th century, but a diligent preservation effort has restored or reconstructed many works of art (mainly statuary) that could have been lost for all time.

The easiest way to get to Nara from Kamakura ended up being via Tokyo, so I rode the train back, only a day after having said goodbye, and caught an overnight bus, called the 'Youth Dream Nara'.  The youth means budget, and the bus was decidedly lacking in the amenities department.  Two of the most touted features of the Dream Nara in comparison to its counterpart are bigger seats, and a blanket.  Not fully appreciating the latter of these two services, I boarded in my shorts and t-shirt, having stowed my luggage under the bus, and subsequently realized my mistake.  The bus was cold!  And the seats were tiny!  I probably should have seen it coming.  Luckily, I didn't have a seat partner, so I was able to stretch out horizontally and catch some winks.  The ride was a little surreal, since the shades were drawn over all of the windows, I lost all sense of space, and dozing in short bursts, I quickly lost track of time.  Nine hours later I stepped out of the bus in a mental haze, not fully comprehending how far or in what direction I had come.

Soon enough, though, I shook off my fog, checked into my guesthouse, and went exploring.  One of the most interesting things about Nara, and the aspect of the city that preoccupied most of my first day is the fact that deer roam freely about the town.  The main shrine in the city worships a kami who supposedly rode from the forest on a white deer.  As a result, deer have been sacred in Nara for more than a thousand years.  As it turns out, a thousand years is plenty of time to embolden woodland creatures.  The cheeky deer spend their days harassing tourists for shikai (deer) senbei  (rice-based crackers), which are sold throughout the common areas.  The bucks' antlers are dulled every year to prevent accidents, but the deer still know how to use them for leverage.  The male deer were on the whole a little bolder, and didn't hesitate to gang up to intimidate.  I saw more than a few tourists try to give one senbei to one deer, and end up nervously tossing a whole stack to escape as other eager deer surrounded them, sometimes nudging with antlers, and sometimes trying to eat clothing.  In the most highly trafficked areas, deer don't even need the hint of senbei to investigate, and I played a game of petting the deer without feeding them for as long as they would tolerate me--rarely longer than a minute, it turned out.  Below:  Deer, like most animals, love to be scratched behind the ear, apparently.

That night, I spent several hours talking to the wonderful couple that operated the guesthouse. A quick word on guesthouses--they mostly, but not always, feature hostel-equivalent accommodation, but are usually run by a family, and in the house in which they live.  They offer a nice alternative to the sometimes sterile environment of the hostel, and Guesthouse Naramachi, run by the Anzai family, embodied this distinction.  Both of the Anzais spoke English well and were eager to practice it, and we talked well past the lights-out curfew that they mandate.  Mrs. Anzai is a retired schoolteacher, and Mr. Anzai was a salaryman with Sharp, before retiring.  Last year they bought and began operating the guesthouse, and they seem like they couldn't be happier.  After they found out my next stop was Koyasan, Mr. Anzai brought out the family's mandala and told me about Japanese Buddhism, and about the particular sects, Shingon and Pure Land, that are prevalent in and around Koyasan. After realizing how late the night had gotten, we all retired, and I set my alarm for early the next morning to get a jump on all of the sights.

The temples around Nara are incredible, mostly thanks to the ancient artwork within.  As a a general rule, few buildings in Japan are more than 400-500 years old.  Since buildings were traditionally constructed of wood in order to survive earthquakes, fire was a constant threat in ancient Japan, and most buildings have suffered fire at some point or another.  As a result, many temples with incredibly old histories are comprised of buildings from the last few centuries.  In contrast, much of the statuary within the buildings, and particularly within a museum erected over an old temple site, dates back to the actual Nara period.  Seeing incredibly intricate wooden statues that date back over a millennium was amazing to me.  The museum at Kohfukuji housed the most interesting statuary, but didn't allow photography.  There are pictures on the website, but its menus are in Japanese.  I've not been able to find my favorite statue, but here's one of 12 different mythical generals, and I believe they're from the twelfth century.

After temple-hopping throughout the day, and seeing most of the main sites, I wandered north from Todaiji, the biggest temple complex (Home to what I mistakenly called the largest Buddha statue in Japan in an earlier post.  According to this list, its actually sixth.  My bad.)  Behind the northernmost building of the complex I spotted a small path, and a temizuya (lit. hand water place), the water basins at which one purifies before entering any Shinto shrine.  Intrigued, I washed my hands, first left, then right, rinsed my mouth, carefully poured the last of the water over the handle of the dipper, and then embarked on the trail.  I expected the trail to lead a few hundred yards to a small, personal shrine.  I passed a few grave markers, but the trail continued to climb.  As I ascended, the trail became progressively harder to follow, and the bugs intensified.  As the blisters in my sandals began to become raw, I repeatedly considered turning back, but always one to be motivated by sunk costs, I persevered.  

I began periodically to pass covered, red, steel barrels dug into the ground and filled with water, and I realized that I was on a poorly maintained firewatch path.  By about the third barrel, I could see sky ahead, and the trail began to open up.  Soon, I was looking up at a grassy ridgeline.  I continued along the path as it switchbacked up the hill.  Two more fire barrels, and a lot more climbing, and I had arrived:

High Above Nara from Mitchell Brooks on Vimeo.

On the side of the mountain grazed two or three dozen deer much less accustomed to human activity.  One screamed as I approached, and any sudden movements during my half-hour on the ridge were sure to incite flurries of movement as deer sprinted to maintain a safe distance.

Afterward, I descended from the other side of the ridge--along a much more well-kept path, and found myself in the Kasuga Taisha primeval forest, dedicated to the aforementioned deer-riding god.  The forest is a sort of counterpoint to the spacious complexes of the Buddhist temples, and serves as a sprawling Shinto complex, complete with dozens of small shrines networked by trails and trails.  It was nearly seven, and the light was fading fast.  I lingered, discovering quickly that a primeval forest littered with shrines and stone lanterns is a pleasantly creepy place to wander around dusk.  

I emerged just at full dark, and began making my way back to the guesthouse.  It had sprinkled off-and-on throughout the day, but only as I began walking did it begin to rain in earnest, and, already tired, I was quickly ready to be dry and in bed.  So of course, I got lost.  I realized when I saw a road sign indicating the direction to Nara that I had gone astray somewhere.  Frustrated, wet, and hungry, and with slim pickings for eateries I stopped in a somewhat seedy-looking ramen shop to regroup and refuel.  Inside, I was met by an incredibly friendly older couple who gave me a heaping portion of ramen, and then treated me to an unexpectedly tasty concoction of peanut butter and cider.  By cross-referencing my maps, I soon realized that I was not far off-course.  After my meal, warmed by the noodles and hospitality I was ready to set out, but before I could, the old lady proudly gave me a gift, a small jingling bell surrounded by folds of fabric.  They sell similar charms at temples, and I think they're good luck charms.  She pinned it to the pocket of my zipper, and I bowed low as I left.



12 July 2010

Kamakura (June 21-22)

Kamakura is about an hour's train ride south of Tokyo, but the distance doesn't do justice to how different the two places are.  Kamakura's a small beach town with a pretty significant history.  It's often called a former capital of Japan, and historical sources make reference to the Kamakura period in the same way they refer to the Nara, Kyoto, and Edo periods--eras defined by the location of Japan's capital.  According to Wikipedia, however, Kamakura was neither a de jure nor a de facto capital, merely the residence of the Shogun for a time, during which Kyoto was still the capital.  There's no arguing Kamakura's historical or cultural significance, however, and in fact in 1250 CE it was the fourth largest city in the world in terms of population (also according to Wikipedia).  During this time, Buddhist temples in the area developed and thrived, many of which are still in good shape today.

Knowing Kamakura's reputation as a beach town, I was excited to arrive on a bright, sunny afternoon, and after finding and checking into my hostel I asked for the nearest beach and hustled to take advantage of the remaining light.  Walking from the road to the small bay not five minutes from the hostel, I saw surfers galore, validating my beachy ambitions, and I made double-time down the steps of the public access, only to find a rather unappealing beach.  The bay itself was beautiful, but the beach was rocky, and littered with debris, of both the seaweed and trash varieties.  Walking down the beach in hopes of finding a better spot I found two dead and bloody seagulls, effectively killing the remainder of my beach desires.  I contented myself walking up and down the shore, looking for sea glass, on special request from Sarah.  Above: The view from the beach 

As dusk crept on, I ventured back up to the road to read on a bench and watch the sunset--over the land, disappointingly enough--and on my way I passed a 'Beware of Hawks' sign, which explained both the dead seagulls and the paucity of sunbathers.  Looking overhead I did see several hawks hovering effortlessly and looking out to sea, taking advantage of the last of the day's thermals rising from the beach.  Above: The sun sets on a monument near the beach

The next day I toured all of the major temples in the area and was blown away by the architecture and the scenery.  The majority of the temples are located to the north of the actual town, nestled into the mountainside, and can be connected via a hiking course.  It rained throughout the day, and the lush green mountains' peaks were usually obscured by fog, lending an otherworldly feel to the  sacred spaces.  This was negated somewhat by the flocks of tourists.  It's common practice for elementary and junior high students to get steep discounts at religious and historical tourist sites, to promote field trips, and it is an incredibly effective policy.  In the course of the day I saw no less than 30 school groups.  The students look very serious in their uniforms, but this solemnity is quickly corrected by the chorus of enthusiastic 'hellos' I got from a third of the students.  After an acknowledgement, either through a wave, or a greeting, they would inevitably bid me a formulaic--although equally enthusiastic--farewell of 'see you'.  Above: Hard rain falls on the garden at Engakuji temple

One temple I visited had the most beautiful hydrangeas I've ever seen, and had rows upon rows of them in their gardens, but the place was so popular that moving through the gardens was like waiting on line at Disney World, and getting a photo without a tourist's disembodied limb was a challenging task.  Nevertheless, the sights were incredible, particularly the daibutsu, the great Buddha, statue, which at the time I thought was the largest Buddha statue in Japan.  I would discover my mistake a few days later, in Nara, at the actual largest Buddha statue in Japan.  Nevertheless, the daibutsu in Kamakura is no slouch, being in the open air actually makes it feel larger than its counterpart in Nara, and being able to go into the hollow interior of the statue gives it extra points in my book.  Above: Me with the daibutsu.  I'm standing too far forward to get a good sense of scale--plus, I'm pretty tall.  This statue is massive.

Overall, Kamakura was a beautiful town, and a great experience, even if I didn't get my beach time!

More photos:

10 July 2010

Tokyo (June 18-21)

Tokyo is an overwhelming place.  For all of London's quiet splendor, Tokyo has a swaggering extravagance that constantly asserts its modernity.  Districts like Shinjuku and Akihabara in Central Tokyo feel like they were taken straight from a science fiction movie.  Video billboards dominate major streets, and architectural wonders of steel and glass are on every other corner.  Advertisements are bold, colorful, and huge; consumer culture dictates the aesthetics of public space.  In the trendier districts, masses of humanity flock from department store to department store in what Lonely Planet's Japan guidebook calls "contented consumer mode."  Wading down sidewalks every so often one's path leads by a ubiquitous pachinko parlor as someone emerges into the open air, leaving behind the roar of music and the tinkle of hundreds of thousands of yen converted into ball bearings.

And yet outside of the city center it couldn't be more apparent that futuristic Tokyo was built in the increasingly removed past.  The bulk of construction in Tokyo happened in the 1980s, during the country's most successful bubble.  In the 90s the bubble burst, and the rampant and widespread urban expansion slowed.  While the most popular districts in the heart of Tokyo showed no sign of halting construction, the surrounding business districts remain frozen in the speculative future of the '80s.  Science fiction author William Gibson says it best in Wired Magazine:

You can see more chronological strata of futuristic design in a Tokyo streetscape than anywhere else in the world. Like successive layers of Tomorrowlands, older ones showing through when the newer ones start to peel.

In his fantastic article Gibson captures teriffically the spirit of Tokyo's trendy center.  He draws a comparison to Blade Runner, and the analogy is an inevitable one.  Minus the the whole dystopian aspect, Tokyo really feels like a distant future dreamed up in the not-so-distant past.

One of the things I most enjoyed in Tokyo was going to the top of the the Mori Tower in Roppongi, Tokyo's hip and international-friendly cosmopolitan district.  On the 52nd floor of the tower is an  observation deck, from which one may look over Tokyo in 360 degrees.  I went at night, and it was incredible to see the lights of skyscrapers as far as the eye could see in every direction.  I was completely unable to see the end of Tokyo's urban sprawl.  It was an experience which really made me appreciate mankind's ability to change and dominate its environment, and in an incredibly short period of time.  Two centuries prior, Tokyo was a fishing village, and now as far as the eye can see its rooftops mingle with the clouds.  Of course, I forgot my camera, so its an image that will have to live in my memory, unless I manage to go back on my return to Tokyo.

The tower's top floor houses Mori Art Museum, a museum which focuses primarily on multimedia installations, and which was interesting to say the least.  My favorite installation was one in which a Japanese artist, Aikawa Masaru had intricately recreated the cover and packaging of 50 or so of his favorite British and American rock albums, and then recorded his own versions of each of the albums, singing unaccompanied and making up the lyrics where he didn't know them.  A poignant example:  "I once had a girl, / or should I say / shi sha la la."  I liked that the piece spoke about how manufacturing and distribution processes fundamentally alter how we view and consume art, but also that the artist didn't take himself too seriously.  Check out his website for artwork.

Despite all of the fantastic metropolitan scenery, another favorite experience of mine was dedicating a bright, warm Sunday to wandering through Yoyogi park, and seeing Tokyoites take advantage of such wonderful weather.  The park was packed, with musicians, dancers, revelers, and even jugglers, and it was refreshing to see people out enjoying nature and one another's company, especially coming from the expensive and at times seemingly shallow urban center.  In the park's sports facility I got to watch some street and pickup basketball--in my hiking boots, watch was all I did--and tried double dutch jump rope for the first time, thanks to the urgent insistence of some friendly kids. (Above:  Yoyogi park.  Below left: Street ballers showing off.  Below right: My new friends, for whose jump rope I was much too tall.)

Right next to Yoyogi Park is the Olympic stadium built when Tokyo hosted the 1964 Olympics.  I was lucky enough to get to watch Japan's World Cup match against the Netherlands there, and I was one of very few foreigners to do so, a slightly vain point of pride.  Unlike the performance at Trafalgar, this one went off without a hitch, and my buddy Yuma and I had a great time, despite Japan's unfortunate loss.  I learned some of Japan's fight songs, and was excited to get to experience some sports-induced nationalistic fervor.  I didn't realize how popular soccer is in Japan (the Japanese call it sakka, not football!), but kids everywhere seem to play it, and the country followed Japan's unfortunately shortlived run into the tournament with great excitement. (Below: Shinjuku skyline and a rapidly filling stadium)

When it came time to leave Tokyo I was a little disappointed.  I realize now that I could have easily spent seven weeks in Tokyo and never run out of things to see.  I've got a lot of stuff on my to-do list for when I return for a week in August.

Thanks for reading!  Follow my Twitter for more, ah, current updates.


More photos:

08 July 2010


Japanese religion is an interesting, syncretic blend of two different traditions: Shinto and Buddhism.  Shinto is the ancient, animistic religion that has existed on the islands in its current form since around the 7th century, but which existed long before that in various forms and traditions.  Shinto recognizes spiritual forces (particularly in nature), and deifies those forces as kami, spiritual forces at work in the universe.  It is important to note that kami are not gods, per se, although some manifestations take the form of figural deities.  Rather, kami are spirits that can take an active or passive role in the goings-on of every day life.  The Wikipedia article compares them to the ancient Roman numina, referring to a sort of spiritual potential in everyday objects, and this comparison feels apt, although kami is a much more encompassing concept, one that I am still trying to come to grips with.

Worship, through prayer, offerings, and ritual, happens at shrines.  Shrines are typically fairly simple structures built on a raised platform.  In visiting a shrine, one stands at the base of the steps of a square building with vaulted roof and looks up into the inner sanctum wherein there is usually some sort of ornate design or pattern.  Shrines themselves rarely contain any sort of figural representation, with the exception of guardian statuary near the entrance, usually in the form of ferocious lions.

Torii gateways (lit. bird perches) are emblematic of Shinto shrines and embody the idea of thresholds as they represent doorways through which both humans and spirits must pass in transitioning between the sacrosanct area of the shrine and the secular area beyond.  Shrines and torii litter the Japanese countryside and from what I've been told most Japanese today still participate in some Shinto traditions, even if only culturally.  Left: Many torii line the path to a high mountain shrine just outside the entrance to Koyasan.

The prevalence of Shinto is not unintentional; Japan's creation story is an important element of Shinto mythology, and its intrinsically tied up with the Imperial line.  To create Japan, greater Kami dipped a spear into the sea and droplets falling from the spear created the archipelago today known as Japan.  Further, the imperial line began as a direct descent from the first founder of Japan, given authority by these divinities.  Today's emperor comes from a direct lineal descent.  As such, the emperor is known as a 'son of heaven,' and throughout history the Shinto beliefs have been used to maintain the authority of the imperial regime.  

Buddhism was imported to Japan from China not long after the codification of Shinto, and the two religions have been in constant dialog since.  Depending on the tendencies of those in power, Buddhism has alternately thrived and suffered in its 1200-year development in Japan.  At times Buddhism was persecuted by the emperor, who saw it as a threat to the divine mandate that Shinto provided the imperial throne.  As late as the mid-19th century Buddhist temples throughout the country were razed to the ground, and many historical sites were destroyed.  Eventually, however, a balance was struck, and now Buddhism and Shinto coexist peacefully.  Most Buddhist temples even contain Shinto shrines, and many of the deities within Japanese Mahayana Buddhism are treated as kami--a prime example of how fluid the concept can be.

Buddhist temples are much more complex and elaborate structures than the typically simple Shinto shrines.  Complexes can span acres and include grand, elaborate buildings with specific, compartmental purposes like worship, ritual, or even religious debate.  Temples usually include a great deal of artwork: statuary, paintings, mandalas; that feature prominent bodhisattvas, (Japanese: bosatsu) who are worshiped like deities within Mahayana Buddhism.  Right: Jizo bosatsu statues in a Buddhist graveyard at Koyasan.  Jizo bosatsu is the guardian of children; a child stands at the foot of each statue, and each Jizo holds a golden, unborn embryo.

There's a short introduction to the two main religions of Japan.  Religious sites are some of my top priorities in my travels, so I'll be writing about specific locations.