SYNOPSIS:  About a temple, a rundown shrine and a missed one, a famous bridge and tea.

Uji is a small town between Nara and Kyoto that nobody would pay much attention to where it not for four things all at once: some of the best tea is coming from the Uji region, ten chapters of the famous Tale of Genji are taking place in Uji, and a whopping two of the 17 UNESCO monuments that are usually rolled together as the “Kyoto world heritage sites” are actually from Uji, which attests to its historical importance as the link between Nara and Kyoto.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY



SYNOPSIS:  Walking in the emperor’s footsteps.  About the Imperial Palace,  Katsura Imperial Villa, and Nijo Castle.   About permits and bureaucracy.


Walking in past emperors’ steps can be an awesome experience.  I am thinking of Versailles, for example, where the sheer size of the palace, the glittering opulence, the never-ending rooms, staircases, alcoves and hallways permeate the ego of the emperor to this very day.

If you come with expectations like this, you will be very much let down at the Imperial Palace of Kyoto.  And if on top of that, you have already seen a number of important temples, aristocratic residences, and gardens, you might — I am not kidding — skip the site all together.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY



SYNOPSIS:  About Kamigamo, Shimogamo, Heian Jingu, and Fushimi Inari Taisha.   


Temple saturation level has been reached, even for me.  So, what shall we do today?  I have a great idea:  let’s do shrines!  I realize that the concept of a “great idea” varies from person to person and that you think I am kidding, but I am not.  Shrines it is today.  I promise, at least one of them will be awesome even if it is one that did not make it onto the world heritage list.  It’s everyone’s favorite.

Shrines is what you bump into in Kyoto as you do temples.  At a ratio of one to four (that is 400 shrines and 1600 temples) that is about right.  I have bumped into a few shrines so far:  The Yasaka Shrine on the first day in Kyoto, which is a big, flashy one in the center of the Gion District, and the heart of the Gion Matsuri festival.  Then there was the silly Jishu Shrine filled with teenagers trying to walk blindfolded between two love stones which I stumbled on when I visited the Kiyomizudera Temple.  And in Uji there will be the Ujigamo Shrine, a site I will visit since it is close to the Byodo-in; it would not warrant a special trip on its own.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  About a flea market, about sand, bees, an out of place art gallery, a Buddha who turns his head, an unexpected aqueduct; all in the context of a few temples such as the Ginkakuji, in the Okazaki area. 


There wasn’t a flea in this market and I regretted having gone through all the effort and time to get here in this excruciating heat.  I even took a taxi for part of it!  Of course, 33° Celsius does not come even close to the 50° I had to endure in Mali last year. But here, at this time of the year, and today in particular, the heat was coupled with 85% humidity and every part of my body inevitably was dripping.  Too late; I found myself at the Chionji.  This was solely, because the guide book had recommended its “flea market”.  At best you can call this an arts and crafts market.  There is hand-made jewelry, clothing, woodworking and ceramics.  But all of it was made yesterday and the souvenir shops in town are full of this wherever you look.  No need for more, no need for a market, at least not for me.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  About the most famous of all temples, the Kinkakuji, and a few others, and about Japanese Manga.


Ninja Museum was a note I had scribbled on my map.  All I remembered was that it was about popular culture.  And all I can think of when I think of popular culture in Japan is the Ninjas.  I figured that at some point in my temple marathon, I would need some comic relief.  The time had come.

Don’t get me wrong.  Today was an awesome temple day.  It seemed like I was on UNESCO fast lane.  Almost all of these temples were part of the world heritage list.  Today included the absolutely most incredible building in all of Kyoto:  The Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion.  And they are not kidding.  It’s not a little gold here or there; the entire three storied building, save the lowest floor with its white sliding doors, is gold plated.  As you enter the garden in which it is located and you expect to be led around various paths to the temple climax and then — it is literally the first thing you see as the path opens up — you can’t help but be awestruck!… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  About temples that play hard to get, about a bamboo grove.   About a failed date.


I had a date tonight!  After a full day of temple visits I had gone home to prepare.  I washed my hair, put on nice clothes and if I ever would use lipstick, this would have been the day I would have put it on.  Since I could not have a date with a person, I had decided on a date with the theater.  I would have a night out in Kyoto!

Imagine my disappointment when I reached the famous Gion Corner and found myself before a sign that simply stated:  We are closed today.  We are happy to welcome you tomorrow.VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  About technology and about the lack thereof.  About temples (in the post script) and one hall that boggles the mind and that should not be missed.


I did not think I would witness a low-tech scene like this in high-tech Japan.  So far I had been impressed by airport control systems that would scan my innocent milk-tea bottle and allow me to take it rather than force me to throw it out — why don’t we have something like this?

I was floored when the boisterous host of my kitchen hotel, Kaiza, whipped out her I-Pad, plugged in a little device and swiped my credit card.  On her phone!  It was phenomenal.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY



SYNOPSIS:  About Geishas, Kyotites, temples and shrines (in the post script). 


Geisha for a day?  Probably not.   Kyotite for a day?  It seems to be a booming industry.

I finally figured out why there were so many kimonoed young girls who were tipping around in their wooden clogs and open slippers and were constantly photographing themselves.  They weren’t geishas or truly traditional women.  They were dressed-up Japanese tourists (I also saw one Western girl).  For $30 per day plus tax, you can outfit yourself to look like a maiden from the Edo period.  And if your man goes along with it, you can put him into a Jukata and clogs, too.  And to leave nothing to be desired, these outfits exist in all sizes, as I spotted entire dressed-up families today.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  About Nara archaeology at Nara Palace Site.  Transit to Kyoto where I will be living in a kitchen…!   About the downfalls of booking accommodations from afar.


If you have nothing but time on your hands in Nara and you have seen all the temples and shrines of significance, head out to see a big wide open field with some shrubs and yet two more vermillion-white buildings which by now will look a lot like all the other stuff you have seen…

Well, I had 1/2 day to kill and did just that.  This is the final part of the world heritage cluster of buildings in Nara.  Nara Capital was only the seat of power in Japan for about 85 years.  Because the Buddhist temples had gained too much power and many Buddhist monks were actually quite militant, the government had no choice but “to run”.  They settled in Kyoto next where they remained for over 1200 years before finally ending up in Tokyo.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  Not about temples — only in a P.S.   An interview with Kazu, owner and designer of Guesthouse Nara Komachi.


After Horyuji, Horinji and Hokiji two days ago; Kofukuji, Todaiji, Nigatsudo and Sangatsudo yesterday, it was Daianji, Gangoji, Fukuchi-in, Shin-Yakushiji and the Nara National Museum today — I knew it!  Your eyes are glazing over.  I am having the time of my life, exploring all these fabulously old temples and museums, seeing the only surviving one, the biggest or the oldest of this or that but I do realize, that this is of interest mainly to me…

Let me tell you, it is not easy to write a blog in a country where there are no hardships or challenges other than rain; plenty of that, today!  I had to seek shelter for 1/2 hour twice today since my small umbrella is just not fit to protect me, my backpack and my camera.  Not in heavy rain like this.  But who cares?… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  About two more temples in the Southern part of Nara.  About an interesting ceremony at the Yakushiji.  About a keyhole tomb.  About making a scene at a bank. 


Mount Fuji loosened its grip. Only when there was a step was I reminded that I had dome something quite foolish, yet amazing.  It was almost a joy to be reminded of it.  No more red eyes, no more unhappy muscles.

Nara is a beautifully compact city and has something interesting to offer in each of its four corners.  Most people focus on the North-East, the big Buddha and Nara Park, but the South-West has two temples that should not be missed.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  A quick run-through of some features of Buddhist architecture.  About huge bronze Buddhas and deer that pull on your pants if you don’t feed them.  More temples and big crowds of people.   About “classical” Nara.


Nara is often done as a one-day excursion from Kyoto.  How, that is beyond me.  But if you have that little time, there is but one thing to do:  dash up to Nara Park, ooh and ah at the freely roaming deer, if you are daring, buy some deer biscuits and watch what happens, and then throw yourself into the sea of humanity that seems to be on a pilgrimage towards something behind a humungous red, wooden gate.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY



SYNOPSIS:  About the headquarters of the Shotoku sect and one of the oldest temples in Japan.  About a long walk, three pagodas, national treasures, getting lost, and meeting a woman who does not want to be remembered.


When every muscle in both legs hurts every step and every movement becomes an act of mindfulness.  I was glad, I did not have to talk to anyone today, at least not while walking.  Yesterday it was my face.  Today, there were my legs.  That mountain keeps on giving…

I am in Nara, I should do Nara, but Professor Kane would not approve.  Before Nara, there was Horyuji.  And since I have the chance, I might as well do this in chronological order, do it “right”.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:   Transit to what might likely become my favorite town and one of my favorite hotels.  About the aftermath of Fuji.  Since transit is boring, also about a horrific hotel story which I have left out so far.  


If you would not have to get around all of Mount Fuji, the crow or the Shinkansen could fly from Kawaguchiko to Nara in a pretty reasonable time.  But with the local trains, the Shinkansen in between, more local trains and all the unavoidable layovers, it took most of the day.  I don’t mind these transit days at all.  They are down time, even though I am moving.  And once in a while I even get to work if I am on a train for more than an hour.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  A continuation of yesterday’s blog.  About the final push up and the slippery slide down.  About the overall appearance of Fuji when you look at it up close.  For reassurance:  Not as long a blog as yesterday.   Some travel specs.


Where was I?  Yes, I had crawled into to the sleeping bag with all my wet stuff around 8 PM.  I generated so much heat and the arctic sleeping bags we had were trapping it well, that by morning I had dried out all of my clothes and the shoes on top of it.  This was a promising new start.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  About climbing Mount Fuji.  About challenges and conditions.  Getting from the 5th station to station 8.5.  About meeting people who each met their challenges.   Most likely a lot more information than anyone cares about.  A  lot of thoughts and reflections.   This is a long blog…  I apologize, but it was a long hike.   More images are inserted in the text.


Five minutes of beauty — seeing the crater of Mount Fuji under a blue sky was the payoff for two days of challenges and the unfolding aftermath.  Was it worth it?

The internet abounds with stories about climbing Mount Fuji.  Many of them claim how easy it is, some of them talk about challenges and hardship.  Don’t believe any of them!  And that goes for the one I am about to write.  Mount Fuji is not one thing or another.  It unfolds to each and every one of us differently.  The sum of all the factors that make up the Fuji experience differs in so many ways that only one option remains to truly find out: you have to go yourself.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY



SYNOPSIS:  Procrastination — why?  About an embarrassing admission.  Where the hell is Mount Fuji anyhow?  About the “Musical Forest” and the inclusion of the handicapped population into daily life.

Sightseeing in Kawaguchiko — that’s what I will do.  At least that’s what I told myself.  The original plan was to hike up Mount Fuji today, down tomorrow, and do sightseeing on the last day here, but when it came time to booking the hut to stay the night, I had booked it for tomorrow…

What kind of sightseeing was there?   You could take a cable car up the mountains for a lot of money and a great view of Mount Fuji — if it were visible.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY



As scheduled, the typhoon was supposed to come down as heavy rain two nights ago in Central Japan.  If it did – I slept through it.  Now it is hot (30-32  degrees Celsius), very humid and the weather ranges from sunny to cloudy to the inevitable daily showers.  That the season!  Definitely not recommended as travel season, but nothing compared to Mali.   Happy sweltering whereever you may be.  ET… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  About the second wrong pick of a hotel.  No redemptive qualities this time.  About the forgotten corner of the five-lake area and a wannabe Ryokan.

From Hakone to Mount Fuji it is, as the crow flies, a mere hop.  With a Shinkansen at hand, this would have taken 10-15 minutes.  Given the terrain and the different domains (private trains, JR trains, bus monopolies, etc.) it took several hours and multiple transfers with substantial layovers.  But I arrived at the specified Hanbali station at Yamanakaku.  The area the bus had recently traveled through seemed pleasant enough — lake front hotels, golf courses, boat rentals.  All this spelled vacation resort.  But now I had reached the northern shore of Lake Yamanakaku and all of a sudden things looked neglected.  No more resort feel.  All of a sudden, this was a low-income fishing town.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY




SYNOPSIS:  About a unique and powerful way to experience sculpture and nature.  About  the first open-air art museum of Japan.  


Did I really need to see Picasso, Moore, Rodin and other contemporary Western art in Japan?  I was not sure and honestly came with very low motivation.  Once before in Takamatsu, I had opted out of visiting an island full of modern art galleries.  And without the urging of my daughter-in-law Vanessa, I would have never swung out on this detour to Hakone either.  But I could not let her down, could I?  Thanks, Vanessa, for this wonderful day today — this was a great suggestion!… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  An almost uneventful long day in transit, except for bizarre weather changes and another “cult” train, the Hakone-Tozan Rail, that tops even the previous ones I have seen.  About conductors and their work.

Where in the world is there a train where you pay for special pleasure night rides going back and forth?  The point is to enjoy the lit-up flowers that line the tracks and that are in full bloom just now.  I had not heard of one until today.  To make it a real touristy thing for which you can charge extra, you paint one of the trains very nicely, equip it with a slick-looking viewing car front and back, call it Romance Train and you are in business!… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  The cult of the emperor — where two of the Tokugawas rest as gods…  About some of the few gaudy Baroque shrines and temples which once littered the Edo landscape.  About the three famous monkeys and an even more famous cat, and a lot about rain…


When my camera started to malfunction and to fog up from the inside at about 5 PM in the middle of a forest where I had decided to go for a hike — am I crazy?, I am in a downpour! — I almost got mad.  I had been biting my tongue about being soaked up to my knees, cold and wet to my bones, and aching all over — all in the name of… duty, I guess.  I was here for one day.  If I would not see these sights today, my already tight schedule would fall apart.  I could not afford that.  Nikko was important.  But I definitely could not afford to sacrifice my camera.  Not for anything!… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS: A day that started with the usual uneventful transit turned out to become a day that finished with the successful completion of a shipping mission and shopping for woodblock prints.  The beginning of a huge downpour and about meeting two American ladies and drinking a lot of sake.

For weeks I had been looking to find any of the famous woodblock prints I most of all associate with Japan.  No luck.  I was surprised how few antique stores I had seen overall and nowhere, not even at that famous Nagoya flea market, had I seen any woodcuts.

I arrived in Nikko in the afternoon; too late to do anything, too early to do nothing.  After shipping the umbrella home — yes, at this tiny post office, the third I tried to get rid of that darn umbrella — there was finally a solution:  custom-made sake boxes!… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  A day off, doing nothing, almost.  About a hotel and about EON, the Japanese “Walmart” and most of all, about going with the flow.


What on earth was I thinking when I booked this hotel?!  Most likely nothing.  It was beyond me how I had managed to book a hotel way the hell on the outskirts of a town which itself was miles away from my next UNESCO site and had nothing to offer that could have been of interest to me.

Picture a Motel Six at any highway exit at any larger US town.  A street lined with gas stations, car dealerships, lumber yards, McDonald’s, fast food restaurants, and hotels, miles from the city center.  That’s where I was!  This is the place you go to when you have a car and get off the highway late at night.  Not the place where you go with a heavy suitcase after you get off a train.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  About a UNESCO site which leaves to be desired, and a vision that deserves admiration.  About a golden building from the 12th century.


Did somebody have a cousin at the world heritage committee, or what?

OK, I did enjoy my visit of the Chuson-ji in Hiraizumi, the center of the Tendai sect — I don’t want to deny this.  One of the most spectacular architectural gems of all of Japan can be found on this mountain at the end of a path lined with various lackluster halls, including the Chuson-ji itself, smaller temples, shrines, and a belfry:  the Golden Hall, the Konjikido, dating from 1124.  Indeed, it is a structure completely covered in gold, filled with golden statues sitting under a gold-plated canopy.  Everything, aside from the hipped roof is golden or, as the four central beams, inlaid with shells and covered with gold-sprinkled black lacquer.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY



SYNOPSIS:  A full day in transit as uneventful as ever.   If you look on the map, I covered more ground than ever coming from Takayama, the middle of the Japanese Alps; going up way north to Ichinoseki in the Tohoku region.  No blog today.  I am taking the day off.  :-)  Enjoy some images about what blooms and crawls in Japan.  VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  Catch-up day in Takayama.  Meeting Sylvia from Portugal.  About finding the key to paradise.

As wonderful as the “grasshopper villages” were, they were too expensive.  At $90 a night and cash only, I had to get out sooner than I would have liked.  I urgently needed a day to catch up writing and working on photos — the first computer mishap was haunting me: my external backup drive was “no longer readable” by my computer.

Reformatting the drive, reloading thousands of pictures from various camera chips, relinking them all with Lightroom and catching up with two days of writing was promising to take a full day.  But if that was all I had to worry about, no big deal.  Just a matter of time.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  More about the specific architectural features of the gasso-style farm houses.  In many ways a continuation of yesterday’s blog.

One day I spent exploring Ogimachi, but since I had the time, I decided to visit the other two villages in the triad on the next day, even though they were a bit harder to get to.  A convenient World-Heritage bus which ran three times during the day, took me out there alright, but then I was stuck and had to wend my way back via the local bus, which after all was not such a big deal, except that you can’t miss the last one or you are left there.  Nothing goes anywhere after 6 PM…

All three of these villages are nestled in a small valley surrounded by tall mountains.  If you take the time to hike up to a well-marked view point, in each case you will be rewarded with breathtaking looks across the entire village.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  About the trinity that makes for the UNESCO grasshopper villages:  Ogimachi, Suganuma and Ainokura.  About language and living in an interdependent community.  About a shrine which offers sacred sake, and about a unique fire drill.


Of course they are not called “grasshopper” villages!  But how am I supposed to keep the flood of all these foreign words each day straight in my head?  At the beginning of this trip I had the lofty idea that I would remember a new word in Japanese every day — which would make for a nice 70 words at the end — forget it!  Perhaps, if I were twenty, or one of those language geniuses or if I would not be occupied every day for hours with photos and writing, or if I had a Japanese speaking friend with me, or, or — I don’t know what else, but it ain’t gonna to happen.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  About nothing much.  A day in transit.  Nothing going on.  About the ride into the Japanese Alps.


I exchanged my 3-tatami cubicle room at the Eco Hotel in the fourth largest town, the shopping capital of neon-lit 21st century Japan, for an 8-tatami room in a traditional thatched farmhouse in the remote village of Ogimachi, which for all practical purposes, had gotten stuck in the 18th century and which has a mere 600 residents.  For a few days I replaced my carton juice, yoghurt, banana, or pre-packed sushi meals, with the home-cooked local cuisine.  The neon lights of Nagoya made room for the stars of the Japanese Alps.  And the annoying advertising trucks which blasted advertisements and sports news across town gave way to the slightly less annoying frogs which trumpet their news across the ponds.    I am not complaining.  :-)

To get here, my limited express train named Haida had to maneuver narrow steel bridges, balance along the edges of mountains and ride along in gorgeous valleys, which an English announcer at one point likened to the Rhine River.  Now there was an unexpected comparison!  For a brief moment it felt indeed like some German landscape.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  An ancient tradition of fishing and how it feels to watch it in the modern world as it is exploited as a money-making tourist industry.


I have raised this question before, most recently with the rebuilding of Ise, so I apologize if I sound like a broken record: how much nonsensical or barbaric behavior can one justify by either tradition or religion?  It is a question that permeates the 20th and 21st century perhaps more than any time before, as we have set worldwide standards through declarations of human rights, women’s rights, animal rights, prisoners’ rights, etc.

Yet, here and there practices slip through which seem to either go unnoticed, and/or unchallenged; why?  To me the tourist attraction of cormorant fishing which is popular in this region falls into such a category.  I did not know what to expect, but I was curious.  And in general I love the preservation of traditions, so I signed up.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  The world of the Meiji Restoration as it presents itself in a vast open-air museum.  From a prison to the doctor’s office; from a sake brewery to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel (no kidding).


There is a lot to be learned (by me) about the Meiji Restoration, a relatively short period dating from 1868 to 1912, which despite its short life, seems to have had far-reaching consequences for Japan.   I have been baffled a bit by the term “restoration”.

So, it wasn’t a revolution, nor a coup, not a reformation either, but a restoration.  From what I understand it was the ruling class, some aristocrats, who restored power back into the emperor’s hands and away from the shogunates, the military class who had ruled Japan for 250 years during the preceding Edo period (1603-1868).  Something does not seem right about this picture.  Some day I will do my research on this.  For now, I come to this history from a very hands-on perspective, judging it purely through the affects it has on the arts.  And for that, the Meiji Mura Open Air Museum in Inuyama seemed perfect.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:   About a castle which still has a traditional town, and about this town and the cruel and not so cruel traditions it fosters.  Meeting a nice Japanese couple.  A few words about Japanese and the English language.


It’s a tiny little dot on the map:  Inuyama, but it’s worth a trip if you have the time.  The castle of Inuyama — yes another castle! — is the oldest in Japan.  That should count for something and it justified my visit.  And it is one of the few castles which still has a town to go with pretty much the same as it had a town at the time of its conception.  That is definitely something that counts.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  There are cultural sites in Nagoya, not just shopping — a castle, a garden, a museum, and a famous craft center, but no theater this time of the year.  About Nagoya’s cultural side.


By American standards Nagoya is as much a cultural hub as it is a shopping center.  Only by Japanese standards and by the standards of one American teenager does it fall short a bit.  In Okinawa, my first stop after Tokyo, I met an American guy at the hostel who had spent 6 months at Nagoya as an exchange student.  When I asked him what there was to see his answer was: there is really nothing going on there!… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  About shopping in Japan.  About a train station to behold!

Nagoya is known as the second shopping capital (Tokyo beats it) of Japan.  And when I arrived at the train station of Nagoya I had no doubt.  But I also know myself — shopping the way it’s understood by most:  going to the mall — is not my thing.  I get completely overwhelmed and then cranky and just can’t do it.  I will do my best and work up some courage to perhaps go department store shopping in Tokyo at the very end.  Maybe.

Just to give you an idea of this train station and some of the shopping:  first it is not one but technically six stations combining the hubs for four private train lines, the state-run JR line, and the subway.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY



SYNOPSIS:  About the origin of the cultivated pearl industry on Mikimoto Pearl Island in the town of Toba.


First Japan turns out to once be the largest silver producer in the world, now it turns out that cultivated pearls originated from right here.  All the things I did not know…

Outside of Ise, just 30 minutes away by local train is the little town of Toba.  From the station it takes a mere five minutes along the inland bay before you reach a covered bridge announcing the entrance to Mikimoto Pearl Island.  $15 entrance fee is not cheap, but this island museum was well done and even though highly commercialized — a huge sales shop is strategically placed and an overpriced restaurant is hoping to entice you — the museum displays were fascinating, tangible and bilingual and the landscaping and layout of the island a masterpiece of Japanese garden aesthetics.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY



SYNOPSIS:  It may not be the most impressive shrine for tourists, but it is the most important Shinto shrine for Japan and one of the most austere and authentic ones, so I had to go:  About Ise, the imperial shrine.  About the question what it takes to justify unbearable costs.  And about the discipline of school children.  For some reason this is a very long blog.  I am sorry…  It’s just another shrine if you boil it right down.


Even the mighty Egyptians had to give up building pyramids at one point, most likely because the costs of creating one extravagant tomb per emperor whose construction would take decades — tying up most of the labor force of Egypt annually for four months (during flood season), and about 10% of the labor force for the rest of the year — was unsustainable.  We may associate Egypt foremost with pyramids, but in its 3000 years of existence, pyramids were only built for about 400 years.  The tomb construction at the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens that followed was sumptuous enough but could be accomplished at a fraction of the cost.  Who ultimately convinced the Egyptians of the new ways?  Were they even asked?  Was there resistance among the pharaohs?  What religious and doctrinal hoops did the priesthood have to jump through to accomplish this shift?… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY



SYNOPSIS:   Stuck in Shingu.  Another day in transit.  A few words and some images about food.

I had the choice to listen to a wise old monk who told me that the way to the Ise is to go North via Osaka, just the way I had been coming down here.  Boring but faster.   Or, I could follow the two girls who stood next to me this morning waiting for the parade, who suggested to go South along the coast of the Kii Peninsula.  Beautiful but slower.

Deep down I knew I was making the wrong choice.  But I so very much hate to retrace my steps if there is new territory ahead and if it promises to be scenic, then the better!… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  About a circus that was no longer Buddhism.  Or was it?  Kobo Dainichi’s birthday.  About parades and drumming bands and a special fire ritual.

The festivities started last night and focused around the main plaza.  There was also some singing in town at various temples before the main event, but the poster I had gotten hold off was all in Japanese and not very intuitive.  And “my monks” don’t speak English.  So I went for the safe spot.

Vendors had set up in the afternoon and there were interesting food specialties, knickknack shops with religious paraphernalia, and other booths selling such items as Nintendo games or comics.  Old and young had gathered in anticipation of the parade.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  About the other five parts of the UNESCO monuments that comprise the Koyasan Mountain cultural site: a gate, a stupa, two tombs, the Shingon headquarters, and the training center for future monks.  About a nightly adventure at  the monastery and  Buddhist morning ceremonies.  About statistics that make your head spin.  But all of this not in this order.


In 1832 as one of my sources notes, there were 1812 temples on mount Koya.  Today, only (!) 117 are left.  And that for town a fraction the size of Ann Arbor.  I can only wonder how many active monks there are in town.  2000 perhaps?  Even 5000 would not surprise me.  52 of these temples are known as shukubo, providing lodgings and food for visitors following the old tradition of taking in pilgrims and wandering monks.  I lived in temple #51, the Sekishoin, definitely not one of the first choices for most visitors and guide books, and one of the more run-down temples, but the cheapest one I could find.  I had no complaints:  my room was spacious — you count rooms here by the size of the tatami mats, that means I had 8+2, that is 8 mats plus two feet of wooden space, I had a private bath, one of those fancy heated toilets, even a heated mirror (yes!), a closet, a nice window ledge, a pleasant view into the temple garden, and there was the public bath downstairs.  I was provided with a Japanese jukata (bathrobe) every day, towels, tea, and a traditional breakfast.  I had a TV — useless as there is no English-speaking channel anywhere — and most importantly, I had on and off wifi.  A Buddhist temple with wifi even if it did not work reliably — we have come a long way!… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  About a knockout cemetery and a hike with Glen along the pilgrimage route which here reaches its climax: the place where Kobo Daishi did not die, but is believed to live in eternal meditation until the day of universal enlightenment.  


This cemetery literally took my breath away.  I have never been in any place like this.  I hope that the images can convey some of the mystic quality of this graveyard, since I will have a hard time doing it with words.

Mature trees hundreds of years old, some believed to be older than 1000 years, line a 2 km path from the Ichinohashi Bridge to the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi.  Moss covered stones, pagodas, and stupas of about 200,000 or more graves are arranged left and right, above and below the path.  Every serious Buddhist will at least dream of  being buried here since at the day of enlightenment, if I get this right — there will be a final sutra revealed which conveys ultimate truth and enlightenment.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY



SYNOPSIS:  About a twelve-hour journey in which I made nine transfers, used ten different modes of transportation and reached the holy mountain Koyasan.  This blog is mainly about a few observations on the various ways of getting around.

By the time I arrived in Koyasan it was 8:30 PM, but this little mountain town was already asleep.  Nobody on the streets, no sign of life, no open store, no restaurant, no traffic.  The full moon was hanging over the mountains and this sleepy mountain village at 857 meters elevation promised to be a special place.  After all, I had gone out of my way to get here and this was the special headquarters of the Shingon sect.VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  About becoming a henro for a day and making a pilgrimage to three of 88 shrines; about a cable car, the Matsuyama castle and a late night party.


I did my part today to fuel the pilgrim industry.  As I mentioned in the Yashima blog, the Shikoku Island is known for one of the most famous pilgrimage circuits in the world.  Pilgrims embark on visiting 88 temples, ideally, in consecutive order and in one stretch.  It takes an estimated 40-60 days and costs around $4000 to do so.  The old way, to which quite a number of pilgrims still adhere, is to walk in solitude or at best along with a few other pilgrims or heron.  But few these days make the entire trip on foot and not everyone completes the full circuit.  The use of buses or trains or a rental car in between the larger stretches is not frowned upon and to complete only part of the journey is OK, too.VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY



SYNOPSIS:  Where you can go shopping and even dine out in your bathrobe.  Where the rich have a lot of fun and the poor can enjoy themselves, too.  About a spa, a town, and Japanese bathing culture.  About my new hotel, a Ryokan and a most unusual roommate.

It took me a while to figure out why I would see clusters of people who strolled around in matching bathrobes and stylish colour-coordinated vests. This was a different kind of town than any other I had seen before.  First I thought this is a cute “couple’s look” — but Japanese do like to be cute.  Then I would see four women, for example, or three men in their matching outfits and I figured these must be organized spa tours where part of the package is the uniform outfit.  But then I got it: each of the many hotels in town has its own style colour robe and vest and guests rent them, including the wooden or plastic clogs that go with it.  I would have bought my hotel’s set if the vest had been included.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY



SYNOPSIS:  About a visit at the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Mure.   Transit to Matsuyama.

You are supposed to reserve 2 months ahead of time, a confirmation letter (the old fashioned snail-mail style, is promised in return), tours are only given three times per week, and the tickets cost over $20.  I had expected something more than ordinary in return.  Granted, two months ago I did not even know this place existed, so the required reservation was out of the question.  When I first called two days ago, nobody was there.  When I called again yesterday, nobody spoke English.  I stated my name and said that I was coming today — I have no idea how much of that was understood — but I figured there must be room for one single person and there was.  I had to write my name, nationality, and age on a sheet of paper — it felt like checking into a hotel.  A video about his life was playing at the information centre — all in Japanese.  Not even subtitles.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY



SYNOPSIS:  About a visit to the Shikoku Mura, an outdoor museum preserving historical structures from around Shikoku.  About one of 88 holy temples and a pilgrim tradition which makes Shikoku famous.

No Noguchi today — the Garden Museum is  open only three times every week.  Still, I don’t feel motivated to go to Naoshima Island, filled with contemporary art — for some reason that sounded a lot more exciting when I had considered it in Michigan.  I chose another local attraction instead, an outdoor museum.  I guess for those of you in Michigan, it is a bit like the Henry Ford Greenfield Village outdoor museum.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  About three things out of sync — about the fatigue factor…  About a famous garden.  About forgetting why I was here and about manifesting the answer.  About my new hotel.

It had to happen sooner or later: I got on to the wrong train.  The woman at the information booth had clearly said “track one” but then she had pointed straight ahead and so I went straight ahead and sat down in one of those local trains — it looked right and it felt right until I got out after the second stop and was in the middle of nowhere.  Back I went to the starting point — I had been on track 4.  Come on!  I realized that I had paid zero attention and just gone straight.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY



About the Engakudou Hostel, firefly watching, an evening gathering and hostel culture.

I could see the relief on Muro’s face when I told her on the first evening that once I go to bed I put in ear plugs and I won’t hear anything.  She is my roommate in the three-mattress Japanese-style dorm room.  On the first night it was just the two of us; on the second night we had another roomie.

Her face lit up and she said that “they”, that’s five of the nine kids who are checked in with me at the Engakudou were going to “drink a little” and have a small party.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY



SYNOPSIS:  About manifesting Taro.  About a half-restored castle, a garden, a view and an English speaking volunteer guide with a  few insights into Japanese culture.

This morning I found myself sitting under a shady tree not far from the castle trying to figure out a good game plan for the day.   Museum first?  Castle first?  Garden first?  Anything else of interest?  — when I heard a voice saying:  This is a nice spot to sit, isn’t it?  And before long a very agile, talkative and fidgety 70ish year old guy sat next to me chatting.  It was a bare ten minutes later when I had half of his life story:  He was originally from Seattle, but had come to teach English in Japan some 23 years ago, where he met his second wife, another Japanese English teacher.  And now, in semi-retirement he gives tours at the castle and places around.  He loves travel and photography and has documented the 5 year restoration progress and captured some of the beautiful seasonal changes in this, one of Japan’s most important castles.  So, look out for the link on the right side of the blog — when I figure out his site, I will post it there for you to check out.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY


SYNOPSIS:  About Shinto shrines, their common features and worship practices; about a very expensive “house-shrine department store”, and about wine.  

The mountains were steaming moisture and the clouds hung so low that it was clear this would be another day for the umbrella.  But today that was much easier, since Kyoro-san was driving and except for the actual sightseeing there was very little of the getting cold and wet I had between sites which I experienced yesterday.

Shintoism is the indigenous Japanese religion, a religion which was only loosely organized until it came into contact with the Chinese import of Buddhism; it goes back to the beginnings of human settlement in this region.  In a nutshell, it is the veneration of ancestors, nature spirits and a multitude of gods which personify natural phenomena such as rain, rocks, trees, mythological characters, or even historical figures .  There was no founder, there was no scripture.  Buddhism and Shintoism have coexisted and influenced each other greatly.  Often, Buddhist temples were erected right into Shinto shrine precincts and priests would serve both religious needs.  Buddhism took on quite “un-Buddhist” features through Shinto practices and vice-versa.  It was only in 1868 that a decree demanded the strict separation of the two.… VIEW PHOTOS AND READ THE WHOLE STORY