Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

May 26, 2013

Tokyo's Mountain Shrine - Mitake Shrine (Tokyo, Shrines)

The Mitake Shrine which sits on the top of Mt Mitake (929 m) west of Tokyo, just inside the Chichibu and Tama National Park, traces its origins to an unbelievable antiquity that never was, except in myths. The mythical hero Yamato Takeru visited here and buried a cache of arms. The country around it was therefore called Musashi (written with characters meaning "military storehouse"). The next visitor was not mythical, but highly legendary: the peripatetic priest Gyoki, who is credited with setting up a statue of Zao Gongen here in 736. What this shows is that the shrine was a syncretic establishment (both Shinto and Buddhist, with the latter element perhaps even stronger) of the shugendo priests, ascetic priests who practiced in the mountains.

Watching over the wide plain, Mitake Jinja
[Lion-dog statue watching out over the Musashi plain]

This shrine of the mountain cult was supported with gifts by various shoguns. Later, the shrine came to be regarded as a patron deity of the Edo/Tokyo area. In Meiji, when gods and Buddhas were split by the new government, the syncretic establishment was turned into a Shinto shrine. The Haiden (Prayer Hall) was donated in 1700 by the Tokugawa shogunate and is in the ornate Gongen-style of the Nikko shrines.

Mitake Shrine, Tokyo
[The Shrine Hall on the mountain top]

That the shrine was highly regarded by those in power is attested to by the many gifts they donated. Part of these are on view in the two-story Treasure Hall. The shrine owns two national treasures: a piece of gorgeous armor (yoroi) with lacing of red thread (12th c.) and a saddle decorated in mother-of-pearl inlay with a design of circles (13th c.). The armor is counted among the three best pieces of armor in Japan and was donated to the shrine in 1191 by the military man sitting on horseback (and in bronze) in front of the museum: Hatakeyama Shigetada. The saddle is regarded as an exemplary item of horse gear from the Kamakura period.

Other items in the museum include a portable shrine (mikoshi) from 1700; a metal plate with an effigy of Zao Gongen on it (these plates called kakebotoke were hung on the walls of temples); and a set of large cups to toast with before going into battle. In short, this is a cache of armor and Buddhist art worth to climb the mountain for.

Mitake Shrine, Tokyo
[Shrine Museum with statue of Hatakeyama Shigetada]

The most interesting way to visit is to hike from Mitake Station. Cross the bridge over the river and go up a steep road under a red torii. Skip the cable car and instead take the footpath leading away to the left. This is the original pilgrim's path and recommended if you want to get a taste of the ancient atmosphere. The wide path zigzags up the mountain slope under enormous cedar trees. It will be quiet - almost all other people take the cable car. After about an hour the path merges with a paved road and you will suddenly be joined by the crowds who have been carried up by cable car.
Where: Take the JR Chuo Line from Shinjuku and transfer 
in Tachikawa to the Ome Line to Mitake Station (on Sundays there are some direct trains as well). If you don't feel like walking, take a bus from the car park opposite Mitake Station to Takimoto at the foot of Mt. Mitake, where the cable car starts. 
How much: Grounds free. Museum 300 yen, 9:30-16:00.

May 14, 2013

Quietude of Zen - Myoshinji Temple (Temples, Kyoto)

Myoshinji ("Temple of the Wondrous Mind") is one Kyoto's major Zen temples. Its 13.5 hectare large grounds lie in the northern part of the city, and like those of Daitokuji, are always open to residents who want to take a pleasant shortcut home. The area is called Hanazono or "Flower Garden," and was the country residence of the abdicated Emperor of the same name. In 1337 the Emperor wanted to turn his villa into a temple and asked his teacher, the Zen master Shuho Myocho (1282-1337), to suggest a suitable first abbot. Shuho recommended his disciple Kanzan Egen (1277–1360). After Shuho's death, the Emperor continued his Zen practice under Kanzan.

Colors of Buddhism
[Curtains under the roof of the Hojo - colors of Buddhism]

After Kanzan's death, the temple went into decline, and in 1467, during the Onin Wars, nearly all buildings were destroyed. The temple was rebuilt by the 6th head, Sekko-Soshin Zenji (1408-86) and received the patronage of the powerful Hosokawa family and later also from the Toyotomi and Tokugawa, ensuring its continued prosperity. Most buildings we see today were built from the late 15th through early 17th centuries. The temple expanded over the centuries into a labyrinth of sub temples, of which there are now 47, concealed behind their earthen walls.

Quietude of Zen
[The quiet precincts]

The first abbot Kanzan was renowned for the simplicity and austerity of his lifestyle, and that is perhaps the reason that unlike Daitokuji, Myoshinji does not recognize worldly pursuits as the tea ceremony. It also stood outside the Gozan system. As a consequence, it does not possess the many exquisite tea houses and roji gardens found at Daitokuji. All the same, there are many paintings, hanging scrolls, sliding screens and other art treasures in the possession of Myoshinji and its sub temples. Myoshinji belongs to the Rinzai Zen school, of which it is the largest branch, as big as all others together - nationwide it has more than 3,000 affiliated temples and 19 monasteries. It also operates Hanazono University, set up in 1872.

Making waves
[Zen in the sand (from the dry garden of Taizoin)]

The garan with its formal array of seven buildings on a north-south axis is found at the southern end of the precincts. Starting from the south, these are the Sanmon (Mountain Gate), Butsuden (Buddha Hall), Hatto (Dharma Hall), and Hojo (Abbot’s Quarters); to the east of this axis stand the Yokushitsu (Bath House) and the Kyozo (Sutra Library) and to the west the Sodo (Monk's Hall). Many of the buildings in Myoshin-ji are National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties. Near the main temple one also finds some gorgeous black pines (kuromatsu).

The ceiling of the Lecture Hall (Hatto) boasts a painting of a dragon by Kano Tan'yu, whose eyes follow you all around the hall. It is one of the best dragon paintings in the country, made around 1661. The dragon is not only a symbol of the life force of nature, but also as a water animal a magical protection against fire. The temple bell preserved here dates from 698, making it the oldest documented one in Japan and a National Treasure. Obviously, originally it belonged to another temple. It won't ring anymore - it has been fatally cracked, but it possessed a beautiful tone, as old records tell us, the sound of impermanence itself. Of interest is also the Bath House (Yokushitsu), a steam bath built in 1656 by the uncle of Nobunaga's assassin Akechi Mitsuhide. It was not so bad to be a monk here!

Bathing for Satori
[Myoshinji's bath house]

Visitors find the sub temples by venturing into the warren of winding paths. The major one is Taizoin (founded in 1404), standing conveniently west of the Sanmon Gate, famous for its two gardens: a traditional dry garden attributed to the painter Kano Motonobu, who once lived here, depicting a stream flowing between cliffs, and a modern garden with a pond, rocks and luxurious plantings such as azaleas blooming gorgeously in May, designed by renowned garden architect Nakane Kinsaku in the mid-1960s.

[The modern garden of Taizoin]

Keishunin was founded in 1632 and contains three small gardens, including a rare tea arbor; Daishinin (1492) has a modern garden again designed by Nakane Kinsaku. This finishes the list of sub temples that are normally open to visitors. Three more are of interest, but usually closed - you have to wait for a special opening around Culture Day etc. These are: Shunkoin, which owns the church bell of a Jesuit church built in the 16th c. in Kyoto and a garden of boulders based on the Ise Shrine (Shunkoin also hosts meditation classes); Reiunin featuring the oldest shoin structure in Japan, an Imperial Visit Room (Goko no Ma) dating from around 1543, as well as a fine dry garden; and Tenkyuin possessing rooms decorated with gorgeous screens by Kano Sanraku and Sansetsu.
Where: Myoshinji's South Gate (Sanmon) is a short walk north of Hanazono Station on the JR Sagano line; the North Gate is a short walk from Myoshinji Station on the Keifuku Dentetsu Kitano line. 
When: From 9:00 to 15:40 there are tours of the Garan (Hatto and Yokushitsu) with 20 min intervals, except around lunch time. Closed April 1 and April 8-12. 500 yen. 
Taizoin: 9:00-17:00, 500 yen. 
Daishinin: 9:00-17:00, 300 yen. 
Keishunin: 9:00-16:30, 400 yen.

May 6, 2013

The Gardens of Jonangu (Kyoto, Gardens, Shrines)

The site of the Jonangu Shrine, one the east bank of the Kamo River in what is now the southern part of Kyoto, once was the extensive Detached Palace Emperor Shirakawa and his successors. When the palace was built in the 11th century, it stood in a pastoral river landscape south of the capital. The name, "Jo-nan" points at the shrine's location as it simply means "South of the Capital."

Stone lantern and azalea, Jonangu Kyoto
[Haru no Yama Garden]

It is not clear how old the shrine is. The shrine's own history makes a link with the myth of Empress Jingu and her just as mythical conquest of Korea, and also mentions that the shrine guarded the southern direction when Emperor Kammu set up the capital here. But the shrine is not mentioned in the 10th century Engishiki, which covers all important shrines of the country, so it seems logical to assume it was founded later than the 10th c. Indeed, its first mention in a reliable historical text is in connection with the Toba detached palace of the 11th c. The shrine apparently formed part of a temple-shrine complex inside the palace, and was called the "Myojin of Jonan Temple." The shrine's deity may have been seen as a protector of the detached palace.

Pond garden, Jonangu Kyoto
[Heian Garden - the pond]

The shrine shared the fate of the tragic destruction of said palace, but was later reconstructed. It seems to have been a fairly small and insignificant facility, a pious reminder of the imperial villas that once stood in this area. The last Kyoto emperor, Komei, visited the shrine and like all things imperial it rose in standing in the Meiji Period. The present buildings date from the late 1970s, when the shrine was rebuilt after a fire. It is in pleasant and simple State-Shinto style, with unpainted wood and cedar bark roofs, what again points at its modern origins.

There are five gardens at Jonangu, and they are all new just like those the Heian Shrine. They were designed in the late seventies by the famous landscape architect Nakane Kinsaku (1917-1995).

Meandering path, meandering stream, Jonangu Kyoto
[Heian Garden - the meandering stream for Kyokusui no Utage]

The first garden is called Haru no Yama or Spring Hill. There is man made hill from which a brook flows, there are plum trees, camellias, azalea bushes and a bamboo grove. The stream is the location for a purification ceremony, Hitogata Nagashi, held between June 25 and 30 (people transfer their pain and sorrow to the cut-out figure of a human and let that flow away in the stream). You will also find plantings of flowers mentioned in the Genji Monogatari.

The second garden is the centerpiece at Jonangu and is called Heian Garden. It's main element is a large pond with an artificial hill at the back, many solitary stones simulating islands in the pond and again a stream leading out of the pond into the garden. This is a very attractive and well composed garden, with lots of details. The plantings add color in all seasons.

Islands in a pond, Jonangu Kyoto
[Muromachi Garden]

The meandering stream leading out of the pond is the location for the twice-annual "Kyokusui no Utage" poetry festival. Held in April and November, people in Heian-period court costumes float cups with sake in the stream and have to compose a waka poem when the cup reaches them. A colorful spectacle that is worth visiting.

The next garden is called Muromachi Garden. This garden is again dominated by a pond, divided in half by a stone bridge. At the edge stands a tea house (where you can have matcha). There is again a lot of interesting rock work. Plantings include azaleas and small pine trees. At the back of the pond you will see a stone torii gate.

Rocks on a lawn, Jonangu Kyoto
[Momoyama Garden]

The fourth garden (connected with the third) is the Momoyama Garden. This time we find a wide lawn with a rock garden and trees and neatly clipped hedges at the back. This a garden that feels very modern in spirit. It is a sort of re-interpretation of real Momoyama rock gardens. The lawn is a European influence and replaces the raked sand. There is a good balance between all elements. This is perhaps the most interesting garden at Jonangu.

Finally, the fifth garden is called Jonan Rikyu Garden. This one is smaller than the previous ones. It consist of areas of monkey grass and white gravel, a nice contrast. In the green grass stands various rocks. It is an abstract garden, but also symbolizes the arrangement of the various palaces in green gardens at the banks of a large lake (the sand).

Palaces on a lake, Jonangu Kyoto
[Jonan Rikyu Garden]

A 15-min walk south-west of Takeda Station on the subway and Kintetsu lines. Walk south along the line and turn west at a sake shop where you also see the pagoda of the Konoe Tomb. Turn south to the large road with traffic lights and follow this road in a western direction. Pass under the ramp of the expressway. After seeing the area with love hotels on your right, you will find the white walls of Jonangu on your left. Go around to find the entrance. Gardens open 9:00-16:30 (last entry 16:00). 500 yen. Shrine grounds free. 

May 5, 2013

A Prayer for Safe Sea Travel - Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine (Osaka, Shrines)

The Sumiyoshi Shrine in Osaka is one of the great unknowns among foreign tourists, who flock to the ferroconcrete castle and neglect this beautiful shrine with its "national treasure" class structures. The only excuse is that it stands a bit eccentric, in a southern corner of the city. Originally, it stood at the coast but due to land reclaiming projects in recent times, the sea is now a few kilometers removed and can not be seen because of intervening apartment blocks (incongruously, an old lighthouse still stands beside one of the flats, just south of Suminoe Park).

Sumiyoshi Shrine, Osaka

The earliest historical reference to the shrine dates from 686, when emperor Temmu visited to make an offering. It is possible the shrine dates back a few centuries earlier, when contacts with Korea grew and ships bound for the continent set out from the port of Suminoe (a name that can also be read as Sumiyoshi). The shrine served to pray for safe sea travel.

Sumiyoshi Shrine, Osaka 

Sumiyoshi became the most important shrine in the Osaka area and also received support from the court. Its powerful supporters donated many treasures to the shrine, but the real treasure are the buildings themselves. The NT Main Hall (1810) is in fact a series of four halls. Three are dedicated to the three Sumiyoshi deities, who appeared when the Creator God Izanagi washed the impurities from the Underworld away; the fourth is given to the mythical empress Jingu, who led a campaign against Korea. At that time the Sumiyoshi deities guided her ships to the continent and gave her the necessary protection.

Sumiyoshi Shrine, Osaka 

The three Sumiyoshi-deity shrines stand in a neat row, one behind the other as a convoy of ships, while the building for the deified Empress stands to the side of the first shrine structure - as if it was added as an afterthought. All the four sanctuaries have the same building plan. Inside are two rooms, the second closed off as it houses the deity. The red pillars and white plank walls provide a nice contrast, also with the many trees in the shrine grounds.

Another interesting structure in the shrine is an arched bridge that is indeed very steep. Not for nothing it is a popular playground for the neighborhood's children. The bridge was originally given to the shrine by Yodogimi, the widow of Hideyoshi.

Sumiyoshi Shrine, Osaka

The shrine has several popular festivals, among them the Rice-Planting Festival (Otaue Matsuri) on June 14 and the Sumiyoshi Matsuri, the shrine's summer festival, from July 30 to August 1.

Sumiyoshi park, just south of the shrine, is interesting to walk into, not only for the Basho haiku stone standing to the left of the path after entering it from the shrine side, but also for the many pine and camphor trees it harbors. These trees originally graced the beach, in the good old days that humans still respected nature (or were not powerful enough to destroy it).
Where: 3-min. walk from Sumiyoshi Taisha Station on the Nankai Main Line, or from Sumiyoshi Torii-mae Station on the Hankai Line. When: March-May and September: 6:00-17:00; June-August: 6:00-18:00; October-February: 6:30-17:00. How much: Grounds free. 

May 4, 2013

The Lost Glory of the Shoguns (Edo Castle, Kaneiji and Ueno Toshogu)

The Tokugawa shoguns ruled from Tokyo (then called Edo) for almost three centuries. You would think there was still a lot to remind you of them, something like Louis XIV and Versailles... Well, forget it: the castle from which they ruled was destroyed when they fell from power in 1867 and the land is now occupied by the imperial palace; one of their two grand ancestral temples in Edo, Kaneiji, was destroyed and made into a public park - the Ueno Park of cherry blossom fame (although the blossoms were already famous when Kaneiji still stood here!) - the temple's sad fate is clear when you realize that its pagoda now stands in the Ueno Zoo... The second ancestral temple, Zojoji, in its turn was cut up to make space for Tokyo Tower and a bowling hall and the mausoleums of the shoguns in that temple were bombed to pieces in WWII - all the more tragic since the second shogun once occupied a mausoleum of the same class as those in Nikko, one that now would have been a national treasure. And, finally, the shrine where the founder of the shogunate, Ieyasu, is revered, stands in a forlorn and almost forgotten corner of Ueno Park. Let's have a look at the remnants of the shoguns... 

Toshogu, Ueno, Tokyo
[Three hollyhocks within a circle is the emblem of the Tokugawa shoguns]

Edo Castle 
Edo Castle was the biggest castle in Japan - something now difficult to imagine. As with all destroyed castles, only the giant walls stand as a silent testimony to former greatness. The castle at which feet the city of Edo grew up (and to which it thanked its very existence) was first founded in 1457 by the warlord Ota Dokan. He built it on a hill adjacent to Tokyo Bay. It was also known as the Chiyoda Castle, a name still reverberating in the ward encompassing the castle grounds.

In 1590, Tokugawa Ieyasu took over that castle and in 1603 turned it into the centerpiece of his new capital Edo. It would remain the political center of Japan for the next 250 years of Tokugawa rule. It had a total circumference of 16 kilometers, an area within which also the shogun's palace and government offices were enclosed. The castle originally boasted a black donjon that looked down upon Edo like a soaring eagle. This towering structure burned in 1657 and was never rebuilt. By that time, Tokugawa power was secure and this type of fortification had become unnecessary.

Imperial Palace Higashi Gyoen, Tokyo
[Moat and tower of Edo Castle]

The shogunal palace, which stood in the Honmaru area (the first citadel) was destroyed in 1863. In its heyday, it covered an area of 33,000 sq. m. One can get a glimpse of the beauty of these palatial quarters in the Nijo Castle in Kyoto, the only case where such a ceremonial palace has been preserved intact. The only remaining original Honmaru buildings are the Fujimi Yagura and Fujimi Tamon (a small keep and defense house).

The Ninomaru or second citadel contained shogunal residences as well - usually the heir apparent lived here. These buildings were also destroyed in 1867 and now we only have the Hyakunin Bansho (a guardhouse for 100 samurai) and Doshin Bansho left as sad remnants. After Edo had become Tokyo, the empty shell of the castle was partly filled by setting up the imperial palace in the grounds of the Nishinomaru. The Kitanomaru site, the northern part of the castle grounds, has become an open park, with the National Museum of Modern Art and the Budokan.

Imperial Palace Higashi Gyoen, Tokyo
[Location of the donjon of Edo Castle]

Since the early sixties of the 20th c., also parts of the Honmaru and Ninomaru were restored and opened to the public. Together these are now called the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace or Higashi Gyoen. There are green lawns, a Japanese-style garden, and impressive, crumbling walls, but above all it is a welcome oxygen break in the city. Don't miss the small but fine museum housing the imperial collection, called the Sannomaru Shozokan. Almost next to the museum is a rest house with a small shop where a good English brochure of the East Gardens is sold.

One enters by either the Otemon (one of the original castle gates, built in 1620), Hirakawamon or Kitahanebashimon gates. All three are in the masugata form, meaning there is a square-shaped enclosure between two separate doors, like the security gates in modern buildings. In the central part of the gardens, large blocks of stone have been put in place where once the donjon rose into the sky. Once one could look down upon the city from here, but now the surrounding office buildings soar much higher, so it takes some effort to dream them away and imagine the donjon and, in the grassy field in front of it, the shogunal palace (a small-scale model of this palace is on view in the Edo-Tokyo Museum). Anyway, you need a lot of imagination of you want to see old Edo in present-day Tokyo...

Imperial Palace Higashi Gyoen, Tokyo
[Remnants of the Ninomaru Garden of Edo Castle]

The carefully landscaped Ninomaru garden of Edo Castle was restored in the 1960s. It lies at the foot of the Shiomizaka slope and is thought to incorporate a garden originally laid out in 1630 by Kobori Enshu. There is not much left of that old garden; in fact, it would be correct to state that the old pond has been used as a starting point to lay out a completely new garden. In part of the Ninomaru area, also 260 symbolic trees from all of Japan's prefectures have been planted and there is a small teahouse to make the refined atmosphere complete. The Honmaru, by the way, has spacious lawns and thus provides the contrast of a more Western-style garden. The East Gardens are not at the pinnacle of garden art, but this is as close as one can come to nature in the center of the metropolis.

There were two shogunal temples in Edo: Zojoji and Kaneiji and both have fallen on sad times. If you think the fate of Zojoji is hard (having had to give up much of its land to the Prince Hotel, a bowling center, and the obscenity of Tokyo Tower, now towering over it like a modern pagoda), then you have not seen Kaneiji yet. Kaneiji has been so much split up and scattered that it seems as if there never was a temple here. Its Main Hall has been tucked away behind the heavy barrier of the Tokyo National Museum, and its pagoda has ended up right in the middle of Ueno Zoo.

Kaneiji, Tokyo

Kaneiji Temple was established in 1625 by the Buddhist priest Tenkai, on the request of the Tokugawa shogun. The temple was located to the northwest of Edo Castle, a direction that was considered to be unlucky and therefore needed some spiritual protection. The temple complex was enormous, covering more than a million square meters, and possessing dozens of buildings. It was one of the most important temples of the Tendai sect, with headquarters on Mt. Hiei near Kyoto, and therefore was called the "Hiei of the East." In its glory days it was twice as large as Ueno Park today. Its buildings were almost all destroyed by fire during the short war that raged here when the shogunate fell in 1867, as some of its troops used the temple grounds to make a last stand.

The rather simple, present temple buildings were brought from the Kitain Temple in Kawagoe in 1879; they stand north of the park. In the park itself, only two of the original buildings still survive: the Kiyomizudo Temple, a smaller imitation of the Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto, including the stage; and the Five Story Pagoda (Goju no To) standing forlornly inside Ueno Zoo.

Kaneiji, Tokyo
[Gate to Shogunal graveyard, Kaneiji]

As all buildings have disappeared, one could say that all that is left of the shoguns, are their graves, and even these are not intact. Except for Ieyasu, the first, and Iemitsu, the third shogun, all others were buried in Edo, in either Kaneiji or Zojoji in Shiba. War and real estate development have taken their toll of both places. In both locations the dead shoguns were literally bombed out of their graves in WWII. In Zojoji the shogunal remains were moved with what was left of their tombs to a new cemetery at the back of the temple. Precious buildings, on a par with those of Nikko, were destroyed; close to Zojoji still one of the gates remains in half dilapidated state.

In Ueno their fate was not much better - here the cemetery lies next to Kaneiji, right behind the Tokyo National Museum. The cemeteries, by the way, are usually closed; the one in Zojoji I once found open on one of the temple's festival days (September 15), but there was not much to see.

Toshogu, Ueno, Tokyo
[Ueno Toshogu]

Ueno Toshogu 
What is left is the Ueno branch of the Nikko Toshogu shrine, where Ieyasu has been deified. Such branches, all on a smaller scale but often as gorgeously decorated as the original, were in the 17th century set up all over the country. The shrine, built in Gongen style like the ones in Nikko, was erected in 1627 and the elaborately decorated buildings were remodeled in 1651. The 50 stone and bronze lanterns that line the approach were gifts of daimyo. The best part is perhaps the Karamon or Chinese-style gate in front of the main building, which has been attributed to the famous 17th century sculptor Hidari Jingoro. With its delicate wood carvings and golden screens it is the only place where one can get a glimpse of the splendor of the shoguns - the splendor that dominated Edo but which now has faded into oblivion...

Toshogu, Ueno, Tokyo
[Lanterns donated by daimyo, Ueno Toshogu]
East Gardens of the Imperial Palace
Where: 5-min. walk from Otemachi Station (exit C13b) on the Chiyoda and other subway lines; 15-min. walk from Tokyo Station (if one enters via the Otemon gate).
When: 9:15-16:15. Cl. Monday, Friday, Year-end and New Year period. The gardens may also be closed unexpectedly for court functions.
How much: free

Where: 15-min. walk from Ueno Station on the Ginza and Hibiya Subway Lines or JR Line.
When: grounds open in daytime
How much: free

Ueno Toshogu
Where: 10-min. walk from Ueno Station on the Ginza and Hibiya Subway Lines or JR Line.
When: 9:00-17:30 (summer: 18:00)
How much: ¥200