I find Japan fascinating; a thoroughly modern country interwoven with a living history dating back thousands of years.
Some Different Sights in Japan
Japan will remain in my memory as a land of contrasts, where the past and present melded to make a world coloured by legends. In the most unexpected of places, I stumbled across the unusual and totally unexpected, as if all those around me saw the world in a different way.
Simply by wandering and getting myself totally lost, I was witness to everyday events where I found things which I thought existed only in a mythical world long vanished. At times I felt I had walked into a dream—or a black and white movie.
If You Go
To reach Arashiyama from Kyoto: approx. 15 min by train from Kyoto Station, or else bus #11, #28, #71, #72, or #73
1) A Rare Sight: Traditional Fishing in Japan
Of the three unusual sights I came across in Japan, this was perhaps the most magical. The earliest mention of cormorant fishing dates from the Sui Dynasty (A.D. 581-618): In Japan they suspend small rings from the necks of cormorants, and have them dive into the water to catch fish. In one day they can catch over a hundred.
I thought such tales belonged to a bygone age, one filled with magic, yet on certain nights during the summer, the cormorants can still be seen at work in the fishing village of Arashiyama.
The town is only twenty minutes by bus from Kyoto. It is a place of temples and forest walks (resplendent in the autumn) but this night coloured lights lit the narrow streets, and lanterns hung amongst the trees. I half expected to see some Omiyabito (or court nobles) sitting by the shore. Their arrival to watch the cormorant fishing marked the start of summer during the Heian Era (794 to 1185 AD).
The Literary Traveller
Arashiyama and Her Cormorant Fishing
A fat orange moon climbed into view as I crossed the Togersu-kyo, or Moon Bridge. Balls of fire floated on the bay: the fishing had begun. Barely visible in the darkness, small wooden boats (or ubune), floated across the water as they have done for over thirteen hundred years.
A metal brazier hung over the bow, the burning wood showering sparks over the water. The fishermen (there are usually three) still wear the traditional dark kimono, a straw skirt to repel water, and a linen cloth wrapped around their heads to protect them from sparks.
Attracted by the light from the brazier, fish swim close to the boat. With a splash the cormorants tumbled into the water. They swallow small fish quite easily, but the ring prevents them swallowing anything larger—these they bring back to the boat, often given a smaller fish as a reward. A leash is attached to their collar, and with some dozen cormorants per boat, it takes remarkable skill on behalf of the fisherman to prevent these leashes from becoming tangled.
When finished, the birds rest on the sides of the boat, silhouetted against the light of the brazier as they stretched their wings to dry.
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Afterwards, what else but a meal of fresh fish in one of the many restaurants in the town?
Should You Go:
Reaching Nara: From Kyoto Station, either the JR Nara Line or the Kintetsu Limited Express (both under an hour)
From Osaka Namba Station: Kintetsu Nara line, approx. 45 min
Tourist Information Offices are at both major train stations in Nara, otherwise http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/regional/nara/
2) Nara: Where the Deer Link Heaven and Earth
Barely reaching my shoulder, the lady looked somewhere around 100. She ran a stall filled with food for tourists to buy and feed the deer. Remarkably tame, over one thousand deer (or shika) stroll freely through the 1300 acres of Nara Park.
Founded in 710, Nara became Japan’s first permanent capital. It was believed the mountains here divided Heaven and Earth, thus creating a home for the gods, and for many this area of Japan remains sacred.
As do the deer, for they are the messengers of the gods.
I entered Nara Park through the little-used Tegamon Gate, and within minutes, I’d spotted my first deer. Soon I saw them everywhere, some condescending to be patted, others scampering away should any venture too close. As I walked, paths and secluded walkways enticed in all directions. There are more than enough temples to satisfy the most ardent visitors; tea houses to partake of refreshment, vending machines for cold drinks and ice-cream, and manicured lawns stretching down to lakes for simply relaxing. I even stumbled across some vegetable gardens and a few small rice paddies, all grown by the monks who live in the temple complexes.
Nara's Kasuga Grand Shrine
Not to be missed is the Kasuga Grand Shrine, one of Japan’s most photographed Shinto shrines. Originally built in 710, until 1863 it was demolished and an identical shrine rebuilt every 20 years, in accordance with Shinto strictures of purity and renewal. Around the shrine are some 3000 stone and bronze lanterns, donated over the centuries as tokens of thankfulness and faith.
Everywhere I walked, the deer were relaxing in the shade, nibbling the grass, or simply wandering at leisure. (I even found some later wandering the main street of the town, and using pedestrian subways to cross the road.)
Finally succumbing to their doe-eyes, I bought a bag of wafer-biscuit food. Suddenly they were no longer shy. Even the youngest ones surrounded me, demanding their share, more than ready to head-butt me in the back should I be too slow to hand out the food. One had the temerity to approach the food stall; immediately the tiny old lady whipped out a broom and chased it away. The deer may be sacred, but they don’t get free biscuits.
Should You Go:
To reach O’Hara from Kyoto, catch bus # 17 or #19. They stop at the terminal outside the main entrance to the town, where a return time-table is posted
3) View a Blood Ceiling
I knelt on the wooden floor and gazed at the ceiling above me. It was a Chi-tenjo, or ‘blood-stained’ ceiling, complete with the faint outline of a hand. Elsewhere I made out a footprint. In 1600, defeated by overwhelming odds, a group of samurai in Fushimi Castle committed harakiri. The bloodstained floor panels were later moved to the Shorin-in Temple in O'Hara, placed on the ceiling for the nuns to pray for the repose of the dead.
A small town in the hills above Kyoto, O'Hara is even mentioned in The Tale of the Genji. After a bus ride of some thirty minutes, I alighted to the sound of quiet, a refreshing change to the noise and humidity of Kyoto. Rice paddies and vegetable gardens stretched down the mountainside and into the forest.
O’Hara is famous for her temples. Some are in the town, while others are linked by a forest walk, particularly beautiful when the trees don their autumn finery. Small shops line the street to the Sanzenin Temple, O'Hara's most famous temple, built during the Early Heian Period by the revered monk Saicho. Another temple is the Jikko-in, which boasts a beautiful moss garden complete with statues dating back to the 10th century. Other temples lie scattered through the surrounding forest.
The Shorin-in Temple was founded in 1013 as a training hall for Tendai Buddhist chant. A sub-temple of Shorin-in is the Hosen-in, which is where I knelt gazing at the outline of a bloody footprint. In the garden outside stands a 600 year-old pine tree resembling Mt Fuji.
The magic of O'Hara deepens as evening falls and most day-visitors leave. A few ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) have natural hot springs, perfect after a day of sight-seeing. With the lights of Kyoto hidden by the forest, O'Hara lies locked away in a different time, where even a bloody footprint can be a symbol of peace.
Off the Beaten Track in Japan
It may be as simple as pausing beside a stone basin with a bamboo ladle, or finding a forgotten temple which never makes it onto the tourist list but is crowded with worshipers. Elsewhere there is a quiet courtyard, where the hectic pace of travel is forgotten in the tranquility; or the sound of crickets greeting the rising full moon. A small restaurant, the soft light enticing through a rice-paper screen; the sound of bells calling the monks to worship at 4am.
Simply wander, and find; Japan begs for that spirit of travel.
© 2015 Anne Harrison