Over a long period of time covering 2013, I stopped posting here, and just put photos up for a smaller contingent of friends and family on Facebook. Eventually, I got tired of the site’s lossy image re-sizing and photo ownership policy, and wanted to share things with more people (I keep my FB profile private).
I saw and photographed some cool stuff in 2013, so it would be a shame not to put it up here.
From reading my posts, you may have gathered Nara Prefecture is a place where a lot has happened, the traditional heartland of Japan.
The city of Kashihara, on the other hand, is a very modern invention. An unremarkable semi-rural suburb of Osaka on the south end of the Nara plains, it was created by merger in the 1950s from older towns. The area, however, has a significance in Japanese history that goes back thousands of years.
For one, this is the place where the Age of Gods ended and Japan was founded.
Well…in the annals of mythology, that is.
The 8th century CE creation myths Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, the two earliest known pieces of Japanese writing, tell of a man named Kamu Yamato Iwarebiko no Mikoto (people had very long names in early ancient Japan). He was a mortal man born of the gods in the 8th century BCE, the direct heir to the sun goddess Amaterasu. He sailed with his people from southern Kyushu to find a new home, made landfall in the Kinki area, and conquered it. With this he became Japan’s first emperor. This marked the end of the Age of Gods and dawn of the Age of Men. He was posthumously named Jinmu, the name by which he is known nowadays.
This all was very important to the 19th century Meiji government, who were promulgating a Shintoist nation-state centered around the emperor. They established February 11th, the supposed date of Jinmu’s ascension as a major national holiday celebrating the foundation of Japan, and built Kashihara Shrine to enshrine him in 1890, at the base of Mt. Unebi where Jinmu is said to have died.
With its connection to the mythos of the imperial state, the holiday was abolished after World War II. It was reinstated in 1966 as Foundation Day, only with vastly reduced significance, festivities, and overt political-religious tones. Nowadays, it’s mostly only hard-right nationalist groups who make a big deal about tying Kashihara, Jinmu, and Foundation Day together.
Of course, Jinmu’s very existence is unproven, and the account of his life is pure myth. Even if he actually existed and was a seminal leader of his people, calling him the first emperor would be a bit of a stretch, since the ancient conception of a chief or ruler of the Yamato tribe was undoubtedly very different from even the 8th-century CE concept of an Emperor of Japan, let alone the 19th-century interpretation.
Certain elements of the myth do ring true however, such as the likely migration of the Yamato clan from Kyushu, and the vital significance of the Nara region as the foundational cradle of the imperial state.
This early imperial state was semi-nomadic, with the emperor’s palace and thus the center of power burned down and moved around Yamato every time the emperor died, or omens and signs suggested it was time to change location.
When the Japanese state transitioned to a more Chinese-inspired administrative model in the 7th century, their first attempt at a fixed capital city wasn’t Kyoto or even Nara. It was here in Kashihara. Of course it wasn’t called that yet.
Fujiwara-kyo was the great capital city only briefly, however. A series of fires and illnesses was blamed on a vengeful spirit, and the site was completely abandoned for Heijo-kyo (Nara) in 710. Archaeological excavations still continue at the site, as its largely incomplete history is slowly filled in.
Think about it, though. If it weren’t for one angry ghost, Kashihara might have been the grand city, and Kyoto might have been a big grassy plain.
A thousand years later, Kashihara became significant in a rather different way. It was the site of Imai, a wealthy town of traders and merchants that served as a hub for traffic on the inland highways of Nara.
As foot and horse traffic through Nara lost its importance for the Japanese economy after the Meiji era, Imai faded from the scene. Perhaps because it was no longer significant, it was never developed or razed. Now the entire former town is a cultural property, a rectangle-shaped historic district on the east side of central Kashihara.
A few people still actually live and ply their trades there, though I’m sure there are lots of rules and regulations that come with historic preservation.
A pleasant autumn day back in Nara, heart of the Japanese polity in the 8th century, when Kyoto was just an open plain!
I always walk through Kofukuji when I’m in Nara. One of the grand original temples of the Heijo Capital, it retains many of its renowned national treasures despite losing some of its ground to the fires of war over the centuries.
But on this particular day, I wanted to seek out some of the fainter traces of history, places where only a little is left.
Gangoji, another of the original city temples, was a truly gigantic compound more at the southeast corner of the old capital. The fires erased almost all of it. One small priests’ dormitory on the east side of the temple survived to become the new main hall of a greatly diminished Gangoji in medieval Nara Town.
As my earlier comments suggested, there was a bit of discontinuity between the ancient capital of Heijo and the medieval town of Nara, even though the area was continuously populated throughout its history. The old town of Nara is still the heart of the city, around the ancient temples and downtown area. But the original capital was actually a bit further west, a little removed from the modern cityscape.
Oddly enough, it was Kofukuji that contributed to the end of the Heijo Capital. Heijo was home to the main “Six Schools” of Buddhism, and Kofukuji was headquarters of the influential Hosso sect. A priest named Dokyo got very close to the reigning empress after healing her, gathering power until he managed to get himself selected to be the new emperor. The court managed to intervene and get him exiled, and it was decided that the imperial capital simply had to move away from the power center of the religious institutions to retain its independence.
It was this that lead to the founding of Heian (Kyoto), and the state approval of the emergence of Mt. Hiei‘s Tendai Buddhism and Mt. Koya’s Shingon Buddhism, as new religious sects that could take power away from the old temples. With these shifts, Japan entered a new era in the 9th century.
Without the imperial court, the town of Nara re-centered around its temples, leaving the capital lands to the grasses and winds.
When my family came to visit, I knew I’d have to go hiking with my sister. I decided on Hiei because it meant the rest of the family could join us at the top later. I’ve gone into detail about this holy mountain before, but it definitely warrants another post from another season, especially since I didn’t talk about the trail much last time.
I only had a little time in the temple of Enryakuji itself. See my older Hiei post for more.
I’ve posted about Arashiyama a few times here, even posted some of these very same vistas before. But every time, every year, is a little different. Sometimes dramatically so. And it’s been too damn long since I dropped by.
After a brisk hike filled with giant bees(!), I rented a bike to ride out to the very northwest corner of town, where Arashiyama narrows down to one mountain pass.
With the evening growing late and rain slowly rolling in over the mountains, time to soak my feet at an open bath and head home.
The area around Fukuoka has a long and multilayered history I could never do justice to. In fact, it predates written language in Japan to the extent that the early chapters are still hazy and told mainly through archaeology. This may be where the Yamato tribe originally held sway, before sailing to what is now Kansai to gradually develop into the imperial Japanese state. So while Kansai was the heartland of Heian Japan, the Fukuoka area had some very close old ties to the imperial court. As Kansai’s centers of power were Heian (Kyoto) and Heijo (Nara), this region had Hakata (Fukuoka) and Dazaifu. While Hakata was the major city and port of call, Dazaifu was the administrative center, a sort of “secondary capital” with authority over Kyushu and a prestige that lasted even after the fall of the old imperial order in the 12th century.
Slowly fading into obscurity during the Edo Period, it became a small rural village, until the expansion of metropolitan Fukuoka turned it into a burgeoning suburb on the city’s southern edge. The old capital district is now an open field, but the grand shrine Dazaifu Tenmangu remains.
Dazaifu Tenmangu is one of the most significant shrines to Tenjin, originally the 10th-century aristocrat Sugawara no Michizane. Exiled from the court at Kyoto in a power play, he died here in Dazaifu- following which death, fire, and storms reputedly stalked his rivals. It was said he had returned as a god of thunder, and he was enshrined to placate his vengeance. The main shrine is Kitano Tenmangu in Kyoto, but Dazaifu is also very important for being Michizane’s gravesite.
Back in Fukuoka, we made our way to the west side of downtown to the old feudal part of the city.
Fukuoka (or Maizuru) Castle was a very large fortification built on the site of a former Heian consular house, a unique layout with rambling, asymmetrical walls and a lagoon on the western edge. Most of the buildings were demolished in the anti-feudal frenzy of the new Meiji government in the 1870s, and the castle grounds are now covered with baseball diamonds and tennis courts. The fortifications themselves are not very well-traveled.
Two historic structures survive, however.
The castle offers a pretty good view of the cityscape.
Then an exhausted walk back to the station to fly home.
An interesting, vibrant city with old history and great food. I’d love to come back for a longer stay, especially when it’s warmer.
Occasionally, some great deals crop up in Japanese air fare and lodging. My wife is pretty savvy to deals and discounts, so we seized the initiative to travel to Fukuoka City for our second anniversary.
This was my first ever visit to Kyushu, the southwestern of Japan’s main core islands. Fukuoka, on the northern coast of Kyushu, is its most populous city and one of Japan’s major urban areas. It’s also one of its fastest-growing major cities.
People were just out on the streets in numbers after dark, even on a weeknight. Even small, alleyway restaurants looked nearly full. The crowds had a very different feel from other major Japanese cities I’ve been to- a lot more young working men, rather than older office workers or fashion-conscious youth. There’s another thing that’s famous about Fukuoka nightlife, though…
Yatai are essentially temporary little restaurants set up along the river, able to accommodate a handful of people. They’re a Fukuoka institution, specializing in local cuisine like pork ramen, charcoal roast chicken and pork, and mentaiko (spicy cod eggs). After sampling as much as I could, it was time to rest before a day of history.
Fukuoka is a very ancient history, but after centuries of change, the anti-feudal demolitions of the Meiji Reformation, American bombing of the city, and madcap postwar construction, not a lot remains in the city itself. Fukuoka does boast one of the three Hachiman shrines celebrated as Japan’s greatest since the Edo era, though. Funny thing, I had just visited one of the other two earlier.
As an aside, it’s interesting that the Edo Japanese were really fond of making lists of stuff they liked. Rather a lot like the internet these days…
The Hakozaki area was on the outskirts of Fukuoka during the war, and so avoided damage.
There’s a lot more to see, but I don’t want to make this post too long. Soon enough, soon enough.
I live relatively close to Kyoto, the unofficial capital of Japanese heritage. I’ve always cherished the city for its accessible nature and ancient sites- but I’ve discovered lately that even smaller and more obscure locales boast their own, more underrated treasures.
Enter Yawata, a small city right on the border between Osaka and Kyoto prefectures. Developed in the 1970s as a suburb of Osaka and Kyoto, Yawata is actually a lot older as a town, if not necessarily well-known. The old town wraps around a lone hill called Otokoyama- and that is where I came on a hunch.
Otokoyama is the site of Iwashimizu Hachimangu, a sprawling shrine to Hachiman dating back to at least the 9th century. Hachiman is an interesting and complex figure in Shinto/Buddhism, an ancient Japanese god of war who became reinterpreted as a more peaceful bodhisattva, a guiding and tutelary figure in Buddhism whom several emperors were said to be avatars for.
Though not famous by any means, Iwashimizu is considered an important national historical site as almost all the structures in the complex, even small wooden shrines, date back to the 17th century.
Now that I know what underrated sights wait just off the beaten path, I ought to make a point of visiting more of Kansai’s “boring” suburbs in search of old treasure.
In the last few centuries, cities have been places where Stuff Happens. This is possibly because cities are places where there is a lot of Stuff, a lot of people to make something Happen, and a few influential people to order something to Happen. This was the case in Edo-period Japan, when each fiefdom and domain had a central castle town in which lords were required to keep all their Stuff. This was also the case of Kyoto, the ancient planned capital where all sorts of people from emperors to priests put their best Stuff in order to make something Happen.
In ancient Japan outside Kyoto, though, things were rather different. Kyoto was known as The City because people generally didn’t live in cities back then, so much as scattered settlements in a landscape imbued with semi-mythical history. In such an environment Stuff could Happen anywhere, especially if someone wanted to circumvent all the Stuff Happening in the capital city.
Enter Mount Yoshino.
A mountain at the end of a little valley in the southeast of Nara Prefecture, far up the river Kinokawa that flows past Hashimoto (gateway to Koya) and eventually empties into the ocean at Wakayama City. An outpost in the vast, very sparsely populated mountain country that refutes Japan’s reputation as one big city. The Stuff that has happened here, in this place considered remote even by our 21st-century cyborg standards, is the Stuff of Legends. And because Yoshino is remote enough to have escaped turmoil and development, but admired enough to remain cared for, it’s all still there.
Like Koya, Mt. Yoshino is a holy mountaintop community unto itself, only much smaller.
This torii gate of bronze has long been considered one of the three great and distinctive torii of Japan, along with the stone gate of Shitennoji, and the wooden gate of Miyajima. Now I have laid eyes on all three.
From roughly the 7th century Mt. Yoshino became an important site for Shugendo, an eclectic and arcane religion associated with Shinto and Buddhism, known to this day for its ascetic mountain men, tests of fortitude, and secretive rituals. Yoshino became (and still is) the first station on the winding pilgrimage to Mt. Omine, the great center of Shugendo.
The main site on Mt. Yoshino is Kinpusenji, a Buddhist temple whose Shugendo significance shows in its dedication not to an aspect of Buddha or a typical bodhisattva like Kannon or Jizo, but to a bodhisattva called Zao- a fierce-looking divinity of obscure and unclear Japanese origin particular to Shugendo.
Then there’s Yoshimizu Shrine. Originally a small Shugendo monastery, this place has seen some serious history.
Now turn the clock back to the year 1185 CE. The House Minamoto had defeated its foes the House Taira in the Genpei Civil War, the legendary struggle that ended the old imperial order and gave rise to the age of shoguns and samurai. Minamoto no Yoshitsune was the celebrated warrior and hero of the war, as recorded in the epic chronicle Heike Monogatari, but his brother Minamoto no Yoritomo was the leader. It would seem Yoritomo turned against his brother in order to rule unchallenged, and Yoshitsune was forced to flee.
He took refuge in Yoshimizu with his comrade Benkei, warrior monk of legendary strength, and his lover Shizuka Gozen. Soon he and Benkei would be forced to flee far north to Mutsu, now known as Tohoku, leaving her behind along with all they could not take.
Yoshitsune and Benkei are certainly figures veiled in a thick haze of myth and embellishment, but they were real people. When Yoshitsune left this place, he left behind his armor.
Fast forward to 1333 CE. The Kamakura Shogunate established by the Minamotos had been slowly weakening, while the imperial throne had long been agitating against them. Emperor Go-Daigo fomented the final rebellion that swept the Minamoto from power, aided by Ashikaga Takauji, a former general of the Shogunate. Go-Daigo’s goal was to restore the old imperial order, but Ashikaga, believing in warrior rule, turned against him, establishing the Muromachi Shogunate and setting up a puppet emperor in Kyoto in 1336. Go-Daigo and his loyalists regrouped, though, and set up their own imperial court here, the so-called Southern Court.
Although the court moved around somewhat, it was so associated with this place it was sometimes just referred to as “Yoshino” in the same way the US federal government gets referred to as “Washington.” The Southern Court remained independent until 1392, when its last emperor simply abdicated in order to peaceably unify the throne again.
200 years later, Yoshino had another eminent visitor. In the interim, the Muromachi Shogunate fell, warring factions struggled in an anarchic power vacuum, Oda Nobunaga defeated them all before being betrayed, and his rags-to-riches loyalist general Toyotomi Hideyoshi avenged and succeeded him and now controlled the country. In 1594, Hideyoshi came to Yoshino in the last years of his life to relax and experience nature. He and his entourage stayed at Yoshimizu, in this building already redolent of history. He had the building renovated and restored for his stay, which contributed to its high standard of preservation.
Mt. Yoshino is the sort of place it will take me multiple visits to “digest.” This place has meant so much to so many people for centuries, tied up in the history of the nation itself. I wonder what sort of ghosts wander here at night.
On the west edge of Kyoto, south of Matsuo where I once lived as a student, is a little cluster of Zen temples. I’m surprised I never visited them until now- they’re a modest walking distance from my old homestay- but you know Kyoto, there’s always something else to discover.
Me and my wife went there in the height of sakura season. It’s about time we traveled a little more.
The main temple in the area, known as Kokedera (the “Moss Temple”), is of ancient but obscure origin, abandoned and then reinstated in the 14th century. It’s gardens are legendary. We didn’t go. Not because we passed it over, but because it’s actually really hard to visit. One must write a postcard, wait for a reply, and do a little monking in order to wander the grounds. We should really do that sometime, but this was a bit too spur of the moment to make it.
Downstream from Kokedera is Suzumushidera (the “Cricket Temple”), a very small but well-visited 18th century site. People are attracted by the temple’s reputedly potent wish-granting powers, though there are certain stipulations regarding what and how you can ask for such things. Don’t want to be greedy, after all. Crickets are the other specialty of the temple, kept in large numbers for their ringing song in a practice that goes back at least a thousand years.
Uphill is Jizoin, or Takedera (“Bamboo Temple”), an independent 14th century site established by the Hosokawa, a powerful samurai family under the Ashikaga Shogunate. It’s quiet and tucked out of the way, and lives up to its name.
Now, I just have to save a date for an appointment to Kokedera, eh?
One thing I have noticed about the Japanese is their personal approach to history. In the West, many people think of history in the abstract and temporal terms of eras, dates, movements, and trends. The Japanese think of history in terms of characters, like a fictional story. Whenever anyone from Japan asks me about my knowledge of Japanese history, the first thing they invariably ask is who my favorite character is- a question I struggle to answer because I never learned or considered history in that way.
Different cities and regions can have their own particular favorite characters. Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the feudal regime that pacified Japan and ruled for more than two hundred fifty years, is a favorite of Nagoya and Tokyo. Nagoya, because that is where he was born, raised, and began his martial career. Tokyo, because Ieyasu founded it and brought it to glory as the new de facto capital of the nation.
Kansai folk, though, could care less about him. Tokugawa Ieyasu more or less began the still-smoldering rivalry between east and west Japan by repeatedly snubbing Kyoto and setting up his own city as rival capital. Folks from Kyoto and Osaka prefer Tokugawa’s predecessor: Toyotomi Hideyoshi. As I might have mentioned in a much older post, Toyotomi was also from what is now Nagoya. He was a peasant who rose through the ranks as a soldier of Oda Nobunaga. When one of Oda’s trusted generals killed him, Toyotomi acquired Oda’s newly unified Japan by being the one to avenge his master. Tokugawa Ieyasu was one of Toyotomi’s trusted generals in turn. Toyotomi ruled over a unified country for a few years, but when he died, Tokugawa decided to seize the country rather than serve Toyotomi’s heir.
Even though Toyotomi Hideyoshi was not born or raised in the area, he has become something of a “native son” of Kansai. He was the last de facto ruler of Japan ever to reign from the west, his capital being in present-day Kyoto. And Osaka Castle was the Toyotomi house’s last stronghold before their destruction in 1615.
The eastern edge of Kyoto is full of Hideyoshi’s posthumous traces. After his death, he was deified, and Toyokuni Shrine was established for his worship.
There was also a massive Buddhist temple as part of the complex, featuring a gigantic bronze statue even larger than the one in Todaiji in Nara. When the Tokugawa seized the shogunate, they struck Hideyoshi from the pantheon, outlawing his worship. The great temple remained a popular destination for travelers, but when it burned down in the 18th century, the Tokugawa neglected to restore it.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi was rehabilitated as a historical figure in the late 19th century, after the fall of the Tokugawa government, and he was re-deified.
Up the steep slope from the shrine was Hideyoshi’s actual mausoleum, on the top of a mountain. In the Tokugawa era, visitation of the tomb was strictly forbidden, and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the site was rediscovered and restored.
I’m really not sure what it was I experienced there, in that brooding, silent tomb. I’m a little worried about one thing, though. There’s a voluntary donation of 50 yen to visit the mountain: a rusty moneybox with nobody around to tend to it. I only could make 49 yen. I’m a little worried that the spectre of Toyotomi Hideyoshi is after me, searching for the missing one yen.