Postcards from Nihon


Since my PhD program is starting up here in New York, I have decided that it is time to put Kyoto Chronicle on hiatus. I plan to return here from time to time to share some new insights or anecdotes related to my Fulbright year in Japan, but for now, I will leave the blog with a showcase of postcard-like photos taken in my travels across Japan. Though not all the cities and sites I visited are represented in the video, I believe the slideshow highlights, among other things, the interaction between the four seasons and traditional culture, the continued importance of festivals, and the ever-present tension between old and new that pervades all aspects of Japanese society.

I would like to thank the Fulbright U.S. Student Program and, of course, Fulbright Japan for making this experience possible. And I wish all the new cohorts of incoming Fulbrighters the best of luck in the adventures that await them. Until next time, thanks for reading! またね!


O’ Yamazaki Distillery

One of the last things I did before moving out of my apartment in Kyoto was take a free tour of the Suntory Yamazaki [Whiskey] Distillery (山崎蒸溜所), nestled in the hills of Oyamazaki in between Kyoto and Osaka. Southern Kyoto Prefecture’s unique, high-humidity climate (due to its location in a mountain valley) and good water supply made Oyamazaki an ideal location to set up a distillery in 1923. The hour-long tour featured an explanation of the wash back and still rooms, a tour of the warehouse where barrels are stored (including the 1923 No. 0001 barrel) and the whiskey is aged. Japan being a land of enshrined spirits, behind the facilities there was a “sacred waterfall” that is credited as the source of Yamazaki’s award-winning flavors, and a small shrine in the woods that houses the deity charged with protecting the spring. The tour culminated with a complimentary highball tasting, where visitors are encouraged to try Yamazaki 12 and 18-year single malts, as well as the Hakushu 12-year variety. Hakushu (白州) refers to a relatively new distillery Yamazaki opened in the Japanese Alps, featuring a particularly dry and oaky single-malt whiskey only sold in Japan (though a blended version is available in the U.S.). It was nice to also interact with the businessmen who were attending on lunch break, who all seemed to be in agreement that the Hakushu highball was the best.

Thatched Roofs and Vine Bridges

Another stop on my tour of Northern Shikoku was the small town of Yashima (屋島), Kagawa Prefecture at the foot a flat-topped mountain. About a 15 minute train ride from the city of Takamatsu on the Seto Inland Sea, Yashima was the site of an important battle in the twelfth century Genpei War (源平合戦) between two rival noble clans seeking control of the Imperial court. Other than a connection to this brief moment in time, there is not much going on in Yashima, which, like many places in Japan that still contain the word ‘island’ in their name, is now a peninsula due to land reclamation.

Yashima provides the backdrop for Shikoku Village (四国村), a unique open-air museum at the base of a path ascending the mountain presenting scenes from rural villages across Shikoku in the Edo and Meiji Periods. Some of the farmhouses are complete reconstructions done in a regional architectural style featuring thatched roofs; many structures are actually an original piece that was restored and relocated to the museum grounds. The most dramatic of these reconstructions is a vine suspension bridge that typifies those still in use in the remote Iya Valley in the center of Shikoku. One must cross this bridge to enter the museum before being left to wander along a suggested route – a rarity in a country where everything is usually so perfectly manicured that there is only one officially authorized route – through a forested area dotted with cartooned signs warning visitors to be wary of pit vipers and wild boar. (I didn’t see any, though I did see a scorpion.)

Beware the Vipers!

Other curiosities include a series of buildings housing a mechanical apparatus for producing soy sauce, one of the last surviving communal sugar storehouses, a relocated stone bridge (another rarity in Japan), and a reconstructed village kabuki theatre. Tucked away in a corner at the far end of the park is a small modern gallery building and garden designed by Tadao Ando, featuring Persian Silk Road artifacts and a couple Monet and Gauguin paintings. The entire experience underlines the historical reality that for all of Japan’s leaps and bounds during the industrialization of the Meiji Period, life in rural communities remained largely untouched (c.f. The Soil by Takashi Nagatsuka). I learned quite a bit about a way of Japanese life I hadn’t encountered elsewhere thanks to the many bilingual explanatory signs and the accommodating museum staff.

#51: Stone Hand Temple

As I write this I am already back home in the States, after a week of travel that took me to Kyoto, Tokyo, London, and Paris. Things got kind of busy wrapping up my life in Japan in the second half of June, but I would like to recount some of the final events that marked my Fulbright grant tenure. In mid-June I took a 3 day trip to one of the four main islands of Japan, Shikoku, stopping at Matsuyama, Takamatsu, and finally Okayama on Honshu before returning home to pack.

This post focuses on Matsuyama, which is a popular tourist destination for Japanese because the city is the setting for Natsume Sōseki’s novel Botchan (坊ちゃん): a book, I am told, that is assigned as required reading for middle-schoolers in Japan. Semi-autobiographical in nature, the novel focuses on a city boy from Tokyo who moves to Shikoku, still considered by many to be a relative backwater, to take up a teaching post at a middle school. Though not the main point of the novel, the tension between city and rural life is a source of comic relief within the story. People in Shikoku may not fit the ‘country bumpkin’ stereotype portrayed by the protagonist in Natsume’s novel, but both cities I visited on the island have a distinctly rural atmosphere. The two largest cities of Matsuyama and Takamatsu have a population of only 400,000-500,000 each.

Woven into this tableau of untouched natural landscapes is the history of the 88 Temple Pilgrimage (八十八カ所巡り) of Shikoku. On a hill down the road from my guesthouse in Matsuyama was a primeval forest that hosts Ishite-ji (石手寺), #51 on this pilgrimage circuit. Already fairly unique because most temples on the circuit are outside city limits, for anyone who has visited their share of Japanese Buddhist temples this place is just bizarre and kind of creepy. Rusted and decaying Boddhisatvas guard the entrance to the ‘Inner Temple,’ at the base of a hill separate from the more orthodox main temple grounds. Across the road next to a kindergarten is a 200m long, dimly lit cave that provides access to the site from the other side of the hill. Dominating the landscape at the top of the densely forested hill is a huge statue of Kōbō Daishi (a.k.a. Kūkai), the Shikoku-born founder of Shingon Buddhism and  founder of many of the pilgrimage sites. If you can manage to touch the top of Kūkai’s statue, you are apparently exempt from having to complete the pilgrimage.

Food Highlights: Conclusion

Since my January Food Highlights post dealing with savory foods, I have had many other culinary adventures in Japan. This post showcases regional specialties (名物) from Nagoya, Nikko, Kyoto, Fukuoka, and Nagasaki – just about every place I have visited in the intervening months is represented here. I’ll summarize the background on some of the dishes here, since it might be a bit difficult to tell just based on pictures what is each dish.

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Starting in Kyoto, we have Okinawa cuisine from popular restaurant Goya on Imadegawa near Kyoto University: fried tempeh and champuru, a stir fry dish consisting mostly of bean sprouts, bitter melon and egg topped with bonito flakes. In Nagoya, I tried a popular variation on the tonkatsu (トンカツ), or Japanese deep-fried pork cutlet, served with a sweet and spicy miso-based sauce. I also experienced kishimen (棊子麺), a flat udon noodle in a hot pot dish loaded with an extremely spicy kimchi-based broth and meats. Another highlight was visiting Kurosuke (上七軒くろすけ), a kaiseki (懐石), or haute-cuisine, tofu restaurant in the neighborhood of machiya near Kitano Tenman-gū Shrine. Kyoto is known for taking its tofu very seriously, and apparently there is a legend of a hidden underground stream that allowed some ancient restaurants to produce incredibly delicious tofu. The main component of the meal was yudofu (湯豆腐), squares of tofu boiling in a small hot pot over an open flame [not pictured]. The octogonal set pictured above shows small amuse-bouche dishes that feature whitefish, a grilled baby sea bream, and leftover parts of soybean used in tofu production (おから).

Finally, turning to Kyushu, in Fukuoka I visited a traditional yatai (street food stall with seating) and ordered a spicy mentaiko tempura (辛子明太子天ぷら) set – marinated cod roe wrapped in shiso leaf and fried in a light batter. Nagasaki being a portal for foreign influences in Japan, their cuisine is often characterized by a noodle dish that is believed to be from Fujian Province in China called champon (ちゃんぽん): a mixture of various seafood, fried pork, vegetable, and meat bones brought together in a thick broth. The word can also be sometimes used as a noun or verb that describes a random mixture or jumbling of disparate elements. 

The Prince of Moss

To continue with the Zelda theme in my last post, a few days ago I toured a place popularly known as the ‘Moss Temple’ (苔寺). Although the official name of this Zen Buddhist temple is Saihō-ji (西芳寺), for many tourists the religious significance of the site is overshadowed by a grove adjacent to the prayer hall where the earth is saturated with over 120 types of moss that were cultivated in the Meiji Period. The grounds also have the distinction of being an original site of one of venerated Prince Shōtoku’s seventh century villas; the land is tucked in between the Western border of Kyoto city and the former aristocratic resort town of Arashiyama. This Prince guy apparently traveled quite extensively, and many places in more backwater areas of the country are landmarks because there is record of the Prince visiting (e.g. Dōgo Onsen in Matsuyama).

Even though the garden has received international recognition as one of Kyoto’s 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, to help preserve the moss, some measures have been taken to limit pilgrimages. First, there’s an admission fee of 3000 JPY (~$30), which is roughly 5 times the average entrance fee for a garden/temple in Kyoto. Second, tours are only administered once per day, and you have to mail in a two-sheet postcard (往復はがき) – one sheet is used for the reply – with your reservation request (in Japanese) at least a week in advance. Thirdly, before gaining admittance to the moss grove, guests are required to participate in a prayer ritual by writing their name, address, and a wish on a cedar prayer stick. Sticks are then collected and subsequently burned (護摩) so that the wishes may come true. In the past this last part also involved copying a sutra with a calligraphy brush, but it seems that the managers have axed this procedure to accommodate foreign guests unfamiliar with Chinese characters.

In any case, as the pictures above demonstrate, the magical, shimmering green views make all the effort worthwhile.

Return postcard

Basically, the date I originally requested was already booked up.

On the Stage of Dreams

Last weekend I visited Awaji, Japan’s largest island in the Seto Inland Sea that separates the main island of Honshu from Shikoku. To get there, I took a bus from Kobe across the scenic Akashi Kaikyō Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world at about 4 km in length. Awaji is perhaps not known for much other than as the location of the fault line which caused the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. In part as a memorial for the over six thousand victims of that earthquake, renowned Kansai architect Tadao Ando designed Yumebutai (夢舞台), or literally the “stage of dreams,” on a plot of land that was originally torn up to reclaim the part of Osaka Bay that is now home to Kansai International Airport. A convention center, Yumebutai is a collection of minimalist, concrete structures with curved staircases that open into empty spaces. One could easily spend a whole day exploring the shadows between the staircases and the fantastical collection of rare and exotic plants in the “Greenhouse of the Miracle Star” (奇蹟の星の植物館), which is laid out like a party scene from Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby film. Perhaps the most photographed part of the complex is the “Hundred Stages Garden” (百段園), composed of 100 tiny terraced gardens cut into a mountain slope overlooking Osaka Bay. I am not sure if I would describe the overall experience as ‘dreamlike,’ but the whole place did certainly remind me of Hyrule Castle in the Zelda video game series; some of the empty chambers with winding staircases felt like the kind of creepy place that Link usually enters right before he has to fight a dungeon boss.

Anyways, speaking of Zelda, about a 30ish minute walk from Yumebutai through rice paddies and tea fields is a place that is known simply as the Water Temple (水御堂). Originally the site of a 14th century Shingon Buddhist temple by a different name, the Water Temple was created in 1991 when Tadao Ando built an annex temple behind the main hall and cemetery of the initial temple. To get to the Water Temple, you walk up a steep hill towards what looks like a typical wooden Buddhist prayer hall with more hilly fields in the background. However, when you walk beyond a little path behind the prayer hall, you are met with a curved concrete dividing wall. On the other side of this wall is a reflecting pool filled to the brim, which creates a ‘borrowed scenery’ (借景) effect common in Chinese and Japanese garden construction. An ominous staircase dividing the reflecting pond then takes you to the boss’s lair circular inner sanctum of the temple, which is saturated by a vermillion red hue. After visiting places like this, it’s definitely easier to understand how Japanese video game designers come up with their ideas.