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January 28, 2017

The Best Three in Japan

Pythagoras calls three the perfect number, expressive of “beginning, middle, and end,” and he therefore makes it the symbol of the divine. The Japanese, too, are fond of this number, and the Japanese-language Wikipedia has an enormous page with lists of "the best three... (fill in what you like) in Japan," ranging from nature, architecture, religion, food, history, to life and entertainment.

Here is a selection:

[Mt Fuji - photo Ad Blankestijn]

The Three Sacred Mountains (San Reizan)
  • Mt Fuji (3,776m), the perfect conical volcano at the border of Shizuoka and Yamanashi Prefectures that is the symbol of the whole country. In the course of history, there have been 18 eruptions, the last one in 1707. Since ancient times, Mt Fuji has been regarded as a sacred mountain by the Japanese. 
  • Tateyama, a group of peaks in eastern Toyama Pref., with snowy ravines and beautiful alpine flora (the main peak is Mt Oyama at 2,992m) forms the NW outpost of the Northern Japanese Alps. 
  • Mt Hakusan (2,702m) is a famous volcano on the border of Ishikawa and Gifu Prefectures, and like the other mountains above two, a pilgrimage center. The Shinto shrine Shirayamahime near Kaga-Ichinomiya Station stands at the foot of the mountain and affords a good view of its peak in clear weather.
[Kegon Falls - photo Ad Blankestijn]

The Three Great Sacred Waterfalls (San Dai-kotaki)
  • The Nachi Falls (133m) in southern Wakayama Pref., in the Yoshino-Kumano National park - contrary to what you would expect, a thin, wispy thread of a waterfall; but very photogenic when seen with the vermilion-colored, three-story pagoda of nearby Seigantoji temple in the foreground.
  • The Kegon Falls (97m) in Nikko, draining into a gorge from Lake Chuzenji, is probably Japan's most spectacular waterfall; the falls have such a sheer descent that wind and air tear the water apart into a lace-like drapery, which gives the falls a phantasmal beauty.
  • The Nunobiki Falls in Kobe, only 45 meters but famous in classical poetry (see my post about the Nunobiki Falls). The falls were a popular retreat for Kobe residents, but are now hidden behind Shinkobe Station, so that only hikers find their way here. 
[Ukimido at Lake Biwa - photo Ad Blankestijn]

The Three Largest Lakes (San Daiko)
  • Lake Biwa (672 sq km; circumference: 277 km; deepest point: 104 m), taking up 1/6 of Shiga Pref. As the lake is shaped like the musical instrument named biwa, a sort of lute, it has earned its present name. There are several small islands in the lake composed of volcanic rock; the most famous is Chikubushima, dedicated to the goddess Benten and a stage on the Saihoku Kannon Pilgrimage.
  • Lake Kasumigaura in Ibaraki Pref. (168 sq km; circumference: 137 km; depth: 7 m). At its SE extremity, the water flows through a canal into another lake, Kitaura, which is connected with the Tone River. On the SE shore of lake Kitaura stands the famous Kashima Shrine.
  • Lake Saroma in northern Hokkaido (152 sq km; circumference: 90 km; depth: 20 m), in fact a lagoon on the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk. It abounds in salmon, trout, herring and pond smelt. Adjacent is another lagoon/lake called Notoro; the nearest town is Abashiri.
The Three Greatest Onsen (San Dai-onsen)
  • Atami Onsen in Shizuoka Pref., a large resort with hundreds of springs, already popular since the 8th c. The name Atami means "hot sea," and the whole Atami area is part of an extinct volcano. 50% of the mineral content of the water is common salt, while the remainder are chlorines and sulphates. The springs are said to be helpful in the treatment of rheumatism, skin diseases and nervous ailments. 
  • Shirahama Onsen in Wakayama Pref., a white beach fronted by hotels; the springs are just at the waterfront, so that bathers are splashed by the ocean waves. The alkaline waters, impregnated with chlorides, are said to be effective in the treatment of diseases of the throat, stomach and intestines, as well as rheumatism and neuralgia. 
  • Beppu Onsen in Oita Pref. has 8 major hot springs called "the eight hells of Beppu." This town is so garish that it is almost fascinating. One of its onsen hotels features a giant bath complete with slides, exotic pavilion, a torii gate, and tanks with tropical fish. Everyday 100,000 kl of hot water boils up from 3,795 different openings; the waters are said to be efficacious in the treatment of a whole variety of illnesses. 
[Taiko no Yudonokan Museum, showing Hideyoshi's bath house in Arima Onsen 
- photo Ad Blankestijn]
The Three Oldest Onsen (San Koto)
  • Arima Onsen on the N side of Mt Rokko in Hyogo Pref. was already discovered in the 7th c. There are two kinds of springs, one (kinsen), which has water colored yellow-brown from iron and salt, the other (ginsen), which is colorless and contains radium and carbonate. Arima was popular with the warlord Hideyoshi, whose bath has been excavated and now is a museum. 20th c. literary giant Tanizaki Junichiro was also a frequent visitor; he enjoyed the rustic atmosphere of the old inns. Today, the nicest place in Arima is the area around Onsenji Temple, with the Tosen Jingu Shrine, Gokurakuji Temple and Nembutsuji Temple all standing close together. 
  • Shirahama Onsen (Wakayama Pref) - see above.
  • Dogo Onsen in Ehime Pref., in the outskirts of Matsuyama, is already mentioned in the Manyoshu. There is a majestic public bathhouse built in 1894. Natsume Soseki used it as a location in his comic novel Botchan. Matsuyama is also known for other writers, as the poets Masaoka Shiki and Santoka. The water is alkaline, transparent, colorless and tasteless. 
[Kumamoto Castle - photo Ad Blankestijn]

The Three Famous Castles (San Meijo)
  • Himeji Castle (Hyogo Pref.), located in the center of Himeji. The best castle in Japan and one of the very few still in its original state (i.e. not a modern reconstruction). Built in 1603 by Ikeda Terumasa. The five-storied keep took nine years to construct. On purpose, a system of walls creates a labyrinthine approach to the castle. With their curved and pointed gables, the turrets are very elegant. The mansion where the castle lord lived, stood at the base of the main tower.
  • Kumamoto Castle (Kumamoto Pref, unfortunately heavily damaged by the 2016 earthquake). The original castle was destroyed in 1877 during the Satsuma Rebellion, and the keep was reconstructed as a museum in modern times, but the original fortifications and castle walls are still there and very impressive. The walls are remarkable for their stone-dropping vents and overhanging eaves (so that invaders could not climb over the wall). These can still be seen on eleven surviving turrets. 
  • Nagoya Castle (Aichi Pref.). The original castle, built between 1609 and 1614, was one of the greatest fortresses in Japan. It was unfortunately destroyed in WWII, not only the keep, but also the daimyo's living quarters with beautiful screens. The keep has been rebuilt in concrete. Also visit the Tokugawa Art Museum elsewhere in Nagoya, which exhibits bit by bit the superb collection of the branch of the Tokugawa family that ruled from the castle. 
[Kintaikyo - photo Ad Blankestijn]

The Three Famous Bridges (San Meikyo)
  • Nihonbashi (Tokyo). Nihonbashi was a major mercantile district developed by the Mitsui family, as well as a fish market. The first bridge was built in 1603 to span the Nihonbashi River. The bridge became extra famous as it was the terminus of the Tokaido, the highroad between Edo and Kyoto, from where all distances were measured.
  • Kintaikyo (Iwakuni). A historical wooden arch bridge, built in 1673 without the use of nails, spanning the Nishiki River in a series of five wooden arches - an undulating span that is thought to resemble a brocade sash. The bridge is located at the foot of Mt Yokoyama, at the top of which stands Iwakuni Castle; the Nishiki River separated the quarter of the samurai from that of the commoners. The bridge could only be used by samurai, commoners had to take a small boat.
  • Meganebashi (Nagasaki). The "Spectacles Bridge," a double arch which when reflected in the water, suggests a pair of spectacles. Built in 1634 by the second abbot of Kofukuji, introducing a Chinese-style stone arch into Japan. 
 [The torii of Miyajima - photo Ad Blankestijn]

The Three Views of Japan (Nihon Sankei)
  • Matsushima, a group 260 small scenic islands in scenic Matsushima Bay, Miyagi Pref, near Sendai (don't miss National Treasure temple Zuiganji here). Most of the islands were formed by strata of volcanic tuff; some of them are mere pinnacles, others appear like battlements; again others have caves and tunnels hollowed out by the waves. On most of them pine trees cling to the scanty soil in all sorts of fantastic positions. 
  • Amanohashidate, a 3.6 km long sandbar with interestingly gnarled pine trees in western Wakasa Bay near the Tango Peninsula, northwestern Kyoto Pref. The sandbar is connected to Monju near Amanohashidate Station via a bridge. The best view is from Kasamatsu Park on far side. Behind Kasamatsu Park stands the old Buddhist temple Nariaiji, one of the temples on the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage.
  • Miyajima (also known as Itsukushima), a forested island in Hiroshima Bay that is home to a National Treasure shrine famous for its huge vermilion torii gate standing out in the bay. Miyajima was already in the 6th c. considered as an island sacred to the sea deities. In the past, worshipers approached the island by boat through its torii. The many deer roaming freely on the island are considered as messengers of the kami. 
The Three Major Night Views (San Dai-yakei)
  • Hakodate seen from Mt Hakodate (accessible by cable car). This is also a good view by day, as the location of Hakodate, on a narrow isthmus with the sea on both sides, and Mt Hakodate at the tip, is very interesting.
  • Kobe and Osaka Bay seen from the Kikuseidai park on Mt Maya (accessible by Maya Cable Car);
  • Nagasaki seen from Mt Inasa (accessible by ropeway). This view is also good by day, as the whole city with the bay, as painted by Kawahara Keiga for the Dutch who had their trading post on Deshima, lies at your feet.
[Kenrokuen - photo Ad Blankestijn]

The Three Famous (Daimyo) Gardens (San Mei-en)
  • Korakuen in Okayama, established in 1702 by daimyo Ikeda Tsunemasa and an example of the Kobori Enshu school of landscape gardening - the garden is adorned by tea houses, ponds, waterfalls and a noh-stage (13.3 hectares). The black castle of the Ikedas looms in the background of the garden. Patches of rices paddies and tea bushes provide a rustic touch. 
  • Kenrokuen in Kanazawa, the capital of Ishikawa, laid out in 1822 by daimyo Maeda Narinaga and famous for its beauty in all seasons, plus for possessing the oldest fountain in Japan (10 hectares). No expense was spared in creating the pond, streams, and hills of this garden, or in moving the rocks and planning the gnarled pine trees. The best daimyo garden in Japan.  
  • Kairakuen in Mito, the capital of Ibaraki, known for its forest of plum trees (ume) and established in 1842 by powerful daimyo Tokugawa Nariaki (7.5 hectares). There is a nice pavilion in the center of the garden.
[Gion Festival - photo Ad Blankestijn]

The Three Great Festivals (San Dai-matsuri)
  • The Sanno Festival of the Hie Shrine in Tokyo, celebrated from June 10 to 16 - the deity Sanno Gongen was the guardian of Edo Castle; the festival culminates in a stately procession on the 15th, led by an ox-drawn sacred carriage and accompanied by mounted samurai. Note that the main version of this festival is only held in even numbered years, alternating with the Kanda Matsuri. 
  • The Gion Festival of the Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto, famous for the parade of giant, wheeled floats on July 17, although held during the whole month of July; originated in the 9th c. when halberds where carried to a pond and dipped in as a supplication to end a plague. The famous floats first appeared in the Muromachi period (1336-1573).
  • The Tenjin Festival of the Tenmangu Shrine in Osaka, held July 24 and 25 and featuring a procession of festival boats with drum beaters aboard on the River Yodo.
The Three Great Sacred Places (San Dai-reijo)
  • Osorezan (Mt Terror), a mountain on the Shimokita Peninsula in Aomori Pref. considered by locals as the gathering place of souls of the dead. It is a desolate volcanic landscape sacred to blind shamans (itako); the temple here (Bodaiji, also called Entsuji) is of relative recent date (1522) and the itako cult is even more recent - an interestingly creepy place, but qua historical and cultural importance Osorezan can not stand in the shadow of the next two sacred places:
  • Mt Hiei, northwest of Kyoto, with Enryakuji, the headquarters of Tendai Buddhism, founded in 788 by Saicho (Dengyo Daishi). The mountain is studded with temple halls, divided into three separate precincts. The main hall is the Konpon Chudo (Fundamental Central Hall), a national treasure dating in its present form from 1642. If you stay on the mountain (there are no temple lodgings, but there is a central "hotel" called Enryakuji Kaikan), you can early in the morning observe the Buddhist service in this hall. 
  • Mt. Koya in Wakayama Pref., the headquarters of esoteric Shingon Buddhism. The complex was founded in 816 by Kukai (Kobo Daishi). Besides the head temple Kongobuji and Okunoin, the mausoleum of Kukai, there are more than fifty temples on the mountain, many of which offer lodgings. More than a million pilgrims visit Koya-san every year. Besides the central compound (garan) and the Tohokan Treasure Hall, especially the huge cemetery lying under a canopy of ancient trees, on the way to the Okuno-in, is impressive.
[Fushimi sake breweries - photo Ad Blankestijn]
Three Great Sake Producing Clusters (San Dai-shuzo)
  • Nada in Hyogo Prefecture. The sake area of the Five Nada Districts stretches from Nishinomiya to Kobe (skipping Ashiya), with in all about 25 large and small breweries. Today, it is not such a beautiful area as it has been densely built up in a haphazard way with flats, outlets and warehouses, but you will forget this once you stand inside the breweries which often feature buildings in historical style. Several breweries operate brewery museums or have shops.
  • Fushimi in Kyoto. Gekkeikan and other breweries operate beautiful old warehouses here and there is also a sake museum. There are 17 breweries in Fushimi. Except for the big, nationally operating Gekkeikan and Takara Shuzo, these are mostly smaller breweries that have dedicated themselves to brewing premium sake. 
  • Saijo (East Hiroshima) and Takehara in Hiroshima Pref. There are 9 sake breweries in Saijo, often housed in historical buildings. In Takehara, another historical town, there are three more breweries. The National Institute of Brewing is also located in Saijo.