Friday, July 26, 2013

Temples, shrines, museums and others

My last days have been dominated by Japanese history. I've spent time in Kyoto, Hiroshima and Osaka. Kyoto is the cultural Mecca of Japan. The city was Japan's capital for more than 1,000 years before it moved to Edo (renamed to Tokyo in 1868). Furthermore, Kyoto was spared from bombings in the Second World War. As a result, it still remains many original temples and shrines (about 2,000 across the city), which makes Kyoto a worthwhile destination for every traveller.

These places are fascinating, not only because of the buildings and gardens, but also how the environment such as the arrangement of mountains or other geographic features are integrated in the overall architecture. I have to admit that when I came to Japan, I didn't know the difference between temples and shrines. If you are in the same boat, check this article, it provides a good introduction.

At the Ryōan-ji temple, I was lucky that students from Kyoto University intercepted foreign visitors at the entrance to give them a tour in English. I had even three tour guides who explained me the temple highlights. Very interesting, thank you! This Zen temple is particularly known for its beautiful stone garden. The garden contains fifteen stones composed in five groups, but only fourteen can be seen when looking at the garden from any angle. It is said that only through attaining enlightenment one is able to view the fifteenth stone.

The Fushimi Inari shrine provides the ultimate torii gate experience. These traditional Japanese gates are only found at the entrance of Shinto shrines, and symbolize the transition from the profane to the sacred world. This shrine (Inari is the Shinto god of rice) has thousands of torii gates, and stretches into the forest of the sacred mountain Inari. There are many hiking trails lined with torri gates in the woods, and I did a fun hike to the summit of the mountain. You see fox statues everywhere as they are thought to be Inari's messengers.

From Kyoto, I did a day trip to Hiroshima and Miyajima, a small island near by Hiroshima. Standing at the place where the first of two atomic bombs in war exploded was depressing (Nagasaki is the second city). About 150,000 people lost their lifes in this horrific event, and many more suffered in the aftermath. I visited the museum dedicated to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and the suffering of the people at this time is unimaginable. The insanity that countries still possess weapons of mass destruction or pursue them is absolutely incomprehensible.

Miyajima is less than an hour away from Hiroshima. The island is most known for the giant torii gate, which seems to float on the water at high tide. It is a beautiful island accommodating many temples and shrines, and the surrounding area offers spectacular scenic views as well as great hiking trails. Unfortunately, I didn't have enough time to explore the island in more depth, because I wanted to go back to Kyoto that night.

Miho Museum is called the museum on the mountain, because it is literally in the mountains. I had to take a bus for 50 minutes from the closest train station. The museum was the dream of Mihoko Koyama, one of the wealthiest women in Japan, and opened in 1997. It mainly shows Mihoko's private collection of Asian and Western antiques including a standing statue of Siddhartha Gautama, or simply the Buddha. The way to the museum is pretty cool; it combines futuristic architecture with extensive natural surroundings.

Kyoto is also beautiful at night. I figured that I always discover the nicest places when I just wander around without having a destination. My last night in Kyoto I had dinner at a small restaurant serving tasty local cuisine. By accident, Patrick, a guy from the US living in San Francisco, had the same idea, and we had a fun evening with great talks (we didn't take a picture though, somehow forgot it).

Kyoto's train station is an impressive building. It is huge! Feels almost like an alien object in historical Kyoto. In general, life is happening in and around train stations in Japan. This seems to be the focal point for many shopping malls, restaurants and other stores. It makes sense, because almost everyone uses public transportation, and a striking number of people go through Japan's train stations every day. For example, Tokyo's Shinjuku station is used by approximately 3.5 million people per day. The busiest train station in the world.

Osaka was a positive surprise. I somehow didn't expect too much from the city. It doesn't have the mega-city image of Tokyo or the historical significance of Kyoto. However, I had a great (although short) time. Osaka's aquarium is one of the largest in the world, and shows habitats from the Ring of Fire area in the Pacific Ocean. The Ring of Fire is associated with a 40,000 kilometer (25,000 miles) long belt including 75% of the world's active volcanoes, which surprisingly provides a very life friendly environment and habitat.

Osaka has a vibrant nightlife that is amazing! The Dotonbori area is unbelievable. It feels like it is a never-ending party zone. I was walking around absorbing the atmosphere, and had dinner at a Yakitori place. Yakitori is a Japanese type of skewered grilled chicken. I ate chicken thigh, skin, liver, heart, gizzard and tail, and drank beer and sake. Great dinner! Also, I listened to some street musicians randomly playing in the neighborhood. 

In Osaka, I stayed at a so-called capsule hotel that provides cheap overnight accommodation in small rooms with no-frills. However, the Osaka capsule hotel was luxury compared to my capsule "room" in Tokyo (for almost the same price). In my opinion, these hotels are great and offer exactly what I need - an affordable place to sleep. Furthermore, they are organized very efficiently, and it is fascinating to see how hundreds of people are quickly getting ready in the morning using the large bath rooms (also many business people use capsule hotels).

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Japanese friends

The last days I had a great time with old & new Japanese friends. I met Satoko (blue dress) four years ago in the US, and we have remained in contact with each other since then. Of course, I wanted to meet her while in Japan, and also get to know her husband Yuki (white T-shirt). They offered me to stay at their house in Kamakura, which is about an hour train ride south of Tokyo. We had two awesome days together!

At a bar in Kamakura. Yachin, a friend of Satoko and Yuki, joins us as well.

We have lunch at Naruto-ya, a great place focusing on healthy vegetable dishes. A friend of Satoko works there. Yachin's wife, Emiko, joins us for lunch and the rest of the (fun) day.

Last night in Kamakura and I have one of the best meals ever. We are at a tiny Soba (Japanese thin noodles) restaurant in Kamakura that has just a few seats at the bar. We eat great food, drink a lot of Sake (Japanese rice wine) and celebrate life.

Kamakura used to be the political center of Japan for almost 200 years (12th and 13th century). Therefore, the city has many historical sites, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. For example, the Great Buddha (Kamakura Daibutsu), a bronze statue of 13 meters height on the grounds of the Kotokuin Temple.

On the train heading to my next destination. A word to Japan's public transportation system. It is just awesome! Trains are on-time to the minute, and it feels that there is always one waiting for me. There is no need to plan a trip beforehand; just go to the train station and hop on the next train. Particularly Japan's bullet train Shinkansen is a fun ride; comfortable seats and very fast. It has the advantage of using its own tracks, so there is no interference with slower traffic. The average delay per train from schedule is about 30 seconds! (This picture doesn't show me in the Shinkansen though, it is a regular train.)

The next stop is Hida-Takayama meeting friends of Satoko and Yuki and staying at their house. The area around Hida-Takayama is called the Japan Alps and lies about 4 hours south-west of Tokyo. A few years ago, Asako and Tatsuya moved from Kamakura to this rural part of Japan and started a new life chapter. 

Asako and Tatsuya spoil me with great Japanese food. Asako is a great cook, and she always prepares our meals with fresh ingredients. Oishii! (this means "delicious"). I also try new dishes such as Nattō, which is a traditional Japanese food made from soybeans fermented with bacteria. Interesting taste..

Tatsuya has his own rice field where he grows rice for own consumption and friends & family. Perhaps, I was a traditional Japanese rice farmer in a former life. :) 

Eating good food, drinking tasty Sake and having great company. This is life!

Thank you Asako and Tatsuya for your hospitality! My stay was not only very relaxing, but also triggered some general thoughts about life. Asako and Tatsuya used to live the city life but deliberately chose a different life style in a rural area close to nature. It is a life choice, and I appreciate their courage to follow it through.

I believe that in today's world making your own choice for life can be difficult. Our society builds pressure and sets expectations on how a "good life" should look like. People are socially conditioned in their thoughts and beliefs that going to a well-recognized university, finding a well-paid job, starting a family, building a house, and saving money for retirement to finally enjoy life in the future is the right way for everyone. I think this is an illusion that doesn't necessarily lead to happiness and fulfillment.

Life has an infinite number of possibilities, and it is more important to choose a life that recognizes someone's individual talents and desires instead of fulfilling expectations of others. In my opinion, this is also the only way to tap into the full personal potential allowing to make a bigger impact in the world. Watch the following video from Steve Jobs. It is from 1995 and less than two minutes long. Very inspiring thoughts!