Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Mother's Day - Japan Style

This mother's day Jeff asked - would you like to go to brunch somewhere? Well, actually I had in mind a little something different ...

Kamakura has fast become one of my favorite spots here in Japan. I love the temples and shrines, and the peacefulness that surrounds them. I have enjoyed all my outings in Kamakura and know that our good weather days are coming to a close. Rainy season is days away, followed by the three dreaded HHH's ... if you're from the south you know what's coming - hazy, hot and humid. Whenever we move, it has been in the summer - I politely meet our new neighbors and then say "I'll see you in the Fall, when the weather breaks, when the three HHH's go away." Most people are amused, particularly when they find out I grew up in Atlanta - but I've done my time, thank God for ac.

So with a beautiful forecast, I convinced my family that a hike from KitaKamakua station to Kamakura would be fun! Temples to see, shrine's to visit, fresh air and sunshine followed by the promise of soba noodles at one of the best noodle restaurants in Kamakura. What more could a mom want?

We started our day by taking in the Jochiji temple - 4th ranked of the 5 Great Temples of Kamakura. The 1923 Kanto earthquake destroyed much of the temple and there has been a steady reconstruction of the temple and the grounds since that time. We saw the main icon, Sanzebutsu Nyorai - which is actually three statues of the Gods Amida, Shaka and Miroku - symbols of the past, present and future. We sought out Hotei, located behind the cemetery, who is one of the Seven Lucky Gods - if you pat his belly you will receive much luck.

From there we headed to Kencho-ji - the head temple and first ranked of the Five Great Temples in Kamakura. I was fortunate to come here in the Fall for an Ikebana International program and it was nice to have the opportunity to wander around a bit more, this time with my guidebook in hand. We saw the Jizo Bosatsu located in the Butsuden (Buddha Hall). The Jizo Bosatsu holds a cane in his right hand and a treasure ball called a Hoju in his left. I'll have to come back here sans family ... the natives were getting restless and I missed my opportunity to enjoy the garden located behind the Hojo.

Off we headed to the trail that would take us over to Kamakura-gu (where I had been on May 5th for the archery demonstration). Thank goodness it was a moderate day - because I was certainly getting my workout with the stairs! There was a set of very steep stairs leading up to the Hanzobo Shrine and from there we picked up the trail, over the mountain and down into Kamakura. We were able to enjoy a fabulous view of Kamakura, with Sagami Bay off in the distance. Mitchell picked out Kamakura Station - our final destination point - and we could see the grounds of the Hachimangu Shrine. It was quiet, the birds were chirpping, the kids saw many caves they could peek into, we passed by bamboo groves ... it was perfect.

Once off the trail we tried to go to Kakunoji - but this is a closed temple with guided tours (in Japanese) once an hour. We had just missed the tour (lucky kids) but I'm glad we took the detour, because we saw one of the most beautiful houses that I've seen since arriving in Japan. What then ensued was a lot of discussion about architecture - schools that are known for it (go RISD!!), balance and understanding between right and left brain ... appreciation of form and function. If we'd just hopped on the bus (that we just missed because of the detour) we would have missed out.

The outing ended with a fabulous lunch at a soba noodle restaurant in Kamakura - lucky for us the Western seating was full - we got to sit on Tatami mats at the low tables overlooking a lovely garden eating our noodles, and yes, I even let the slurping go ... only while we're in Japan!

This was probably one of my best mother's days ever - the gift of time spent with my family, experiencing our host country and enjoying a glass of sake over lunch. I couldn't have asked for more. Till next time, sayonara.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Fuji (Wisteria floribunda)

North of Tokyo, in Koshigaya, stands a 200-year old wisteria thats twisted and turned gnarled branches have wound their way through an arbor at the Hisaizu Shrine since 1837. For a several days during Golden Week, the shrine celebrates the blooming of the wisteria by holding a festival – a group of us decided to venture out seeking the heady fragrance and beautiful grape-like clusters of blossoms while they were at their optimum.

To get to the shrine from the train station you follow along a river lined with a 500-meter long tunnel of wisteria, inspiring this group of explorer’s with the sweet fragrance wafting through the air and the blossoms gently swaying in the breeze, to keep moving forward to reach the final destination of the Hisaizu Shrine. Crossing over a lovely arched walking bridge, you enter the shrine grounds with a shimenawa rope hung at the shrine’s entrance. There is a long pathway leading to the main hall that is lined with tall dawn redwoods. I have included a picture of one of these – my fellow master gardener’s from Maryland would shudder looking at the way these trees have been amputated, an American arborists nightmare. I do not understand the philosophy behind this type of “tree surgery” but you will see this all over Japan.

We could smell the sweet aroma of the wisteria before we caught sight of it, once past the festival vendors there was the old fuji – it’s vines intertwined and reaching up and spreading out over the arbor like a huge violet-blue web. It’s pea-blossom shaped flowers, hang like many clusters of delicate grapes swaying in the breeze. There’s a lovely pond next to the arbor with a walking path, and benches under the arbor where you can sit and close your eyes and inhale the intoxicating fragrance.

After we had our fill of photos and fragrance we turned our attention to the festival food vendors. I did not feel adventurous enough that day to try the “fish on a stick” but I did sample the custard cakes that were delicious.

Wisteria is one of my favorite floral aromas, it marks the beginning of my litany of spring time fragrances that I look forward to each year. We have never lived in one place long enough for me to plant and enjoy wisteria, it can take more than seven years before the plant blooms, so for now, until this Navy gig is over and I can finally plant my own roots, I will continue on my quest to seek out wisteria and enjoy it’s sweet fragrance and the violet-blue pendulous blossoms for the brief period of time it graces us.

Till next time, sayonara.

For more information on this shrine and the festival go to: http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20010503se.html

Monday, May 3, 2010

Odawara Castle

Yesterday was a beautiful Spring day and so the kids and I decided to head out and go to Odawara Castle. This is about an hour twenty minute train ride and given that it's Golden Week here in Japan we got an early start to try and beat the crowds. Only a 10 minute walk from the Odawara Station we found it easily and made our way to the top where there is a beautiful view of Sagami Bay.

The castle was originally built in 1706, abandoned in 1870, suffered substantial damage in the Kanto earthquake of 1923 and was restored in 1960. There's an interesting museum located inside the castle with artifacts from the Edo time period and Samurai armor. 26 gates, 14 towers and 5 bridges by the time the Edo period ended (recited by Wrenn - they do actually retain some of the information on these trips!).

My favorite thing I learned that day was about the Shachi which are dragon-like fish that adorn the roof tops of the castles. They are symbols of good luck to ward off fires. They are usually in pairs, one male and one female facing towards each other.

After we enjoyed the view we headed to the grounds below where there were a number of vendors selling food. Wrenn and Mitchell enjoyed fried sweet potatoes dipped in sugar; Walker, Mitchell, and I tried the Yakisoba; all three kids went for the soft serve ice cream. It was a fun outing and a warm up to our upcoming trip to Kyoto and Hiroshima at the end of this month where we'll have the chance to see two more castles.

Till next time, sayonara.

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