Himeji Castle: Top Secret Ninja School??


“There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.” ~Gilbert K. Ches

A Castle in the Clouds

A Castle in the Clouds

James Bond:  “Do you have any commandos here?”  Tiger Tanaka:  “I have much, much better. Ninjas. Top-secret, Bond-san.  This [Himejijo] is my ninja training school.” ~You Only Live Twice

kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-armored-door-and-internal-passageway-wmNinja training school or not, Jody and I recently made our way south from our stay in Kobe, Japan, to visit one of Japan’s most iconic castles:  Himeji.  Compared with Nijo castle in Kyoto (see The Last Samurai’s Castle for more), this is much more like castles with which most Westerners would be familiar.  Thick walls full of loop-holes for shooting.  Narrow passages and numerous gates armed with watch-towers and reinforced locking doors.  And a tall, hill-top Keep, full of weapons racks and murder holes through which heavy rocks and boiling oil could be dropped on invaders….

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-couples-selfie-with-the-white-castle-in-the-skyHimeji Castle (姫路城 Himeji-jō) is a hilltop Japanese castle located in the city of Himeji, Japan.  Regarded as the finest surviving example of historic Japanese castle architecture, it is comprised of a tight defensive network of 83 buildings dating from Japan’s feudal period.  The castle is often locally referred to as Hakuro-jō (“White Egret Castle”) or Shirasagi-jō  (“White Heron Castle”), because of its brilliant white finish and resemblance to a bird taking flight – a somewhat vague analogy in my opinion.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-castle-rooflines-wmHimeji Castle started as a small hilltop fort in 1333.  Replacing the fort was first a castle called Himeyama  in 1346, which was then remodeled into Himeji Castle in the 16th Century.  In 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the same Samurai that built Nijo Castle in Kyoto, awarded the castle to another feudal Lord, who happened to be his son-in-law.  He, in turn, completely rebuilt the castle in the early 1600s to what we see today.  For over 400 years, Himeji Castle has remained largely intact and well-maintained, even throughout the extensive bombing of World War II and the 1995 “Great Hanshin” earthquake, both which seriously damaged nearby Kobe and the surrounding area.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-climbing-steep-stairs-wmIn fact, the city of Himeji was specifically targeted for bombing in World War II because an important rail terminal and line was located there.  On July 3, 1945, 107 B-29 bombers took off from airfields on captured Guam, Tinian, and Saipan to bomb Himeji.  During the raid, 767 tons of incendiary bombs were dropped on Himeji, destroying almost 65% of its urban area.  Himeji Castle, however, remained remarkably unscathed, even after one firebomb, which failed to ignite, was dropped directly on its roof.  As word of this seeming miracle spread, the castle became to be known as divinely protected.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-jody-on-the-way-to-visit-the-castleHimeji Castle is the largest and most visited castle in Japan, and is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It is a masterpiece of construction in wood, combining martial function with aesthetic appeal, both in its elegant appearance of white plastered walls, and in the subtlety of the relationships between building dimensions and the multiple layers of rooflines.  In 2015, over 2.8 million people visited, so the castle can be quite crowded.  Our recommendation is stay away during Japanese National holidays and the New Year, and arrive early before tour buses start to que for the afternoon.  On busy days, numbered tickets are issued to control access based on scheduled admission times.  At times, the castle will run out of tickets.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-jody-under-an-internal-gate-wmHimeji Castle was abandoned during the Meiji Period in 1871 and some of the castle corridors and gates were destroyed to make room for Japanese army barracks in the ensuing decades.  The castle was next auctioned to a private citizen who wanted it destroyed in order to redevelop the land.  Demolition proved much too expensive, and Himeji was spared.  However, it’s fate still unsecured since Japanese castles had become obsolete and their preservation costly and not a priority during post-WWII recovery.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-jody-smiles-at-the-castleThe 6-story main Keep has two massive supporting pillars, one standing in the east and another in the west, each originally single trees of fir and cypress with diameters over three feet.  The inside walls of the Keep are literally covered with weapon racks (武具掛け bugukake), originally for holding matchlocks (17th firearms in Japan) and spears.  Numerous openings below windows can be found in the Keep called “stone-throwing platforms” (石打棚 ishiuchidana) strategically situated over the winding pathway up the hill.   Similarly, angled chutes called “stone drop windows” (石落窓 ishiotoshimado) are found here too, enabling stones or boiling oil to be rained down upon the heads of attackers below.  Within the Keep are small enclosed rooms called “warrior hiding places” (武者隠し mushakakushi), allowing defenders to hide and attack by surprise.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-shinto-shrine-on-the-top-floor-wmOne of the castle’s foremost defensive strategies is found in the design of the confusing maze of narrow pathways leading uphill to the castle’s Keep, as much a psychological barrier as a physical one.  Unable to scale up or penetrate through the steep and tall castle walls, attackers are necessarily funneled into a long, spiral pattern around the keep, an approach covered by loopholes and murder holes the entire way.  Originally there were 84 gates to slow intruders, but today only 21 remain.  Roughly 1,000 loopholes (狭間 sama) in the shape of circles, triangles, squares, and rectangles are still found throughout the castle today.  Partly due to this focus on strong defense, Himeji Castle was never even attacked.

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The castle has been featured extensively in foreign and Japanese films, including the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice (1967), and Ran (1985).  In the television miniseries Shōgun (1980) it served as a stand-in for the fictitious feudal-era Osaka castle featured in the series.

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kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-wooded-view-of-the-castle-wmWhile the castle is exquisite from a distance, and impressive from the outside, touring the Keep’s innards is an exercising in climbing up and down steep staircases.  While a visit here is in no way something that should be skipped, just don’t expect much in the way of explanation…or interesting things to see.  In other words, from an architectural and design perspective, seeing a 400-year-old original structure is amazing.  However, the castle is culturally void, having been stripped bare…which is how it is presented today after an extensive rehabilitation earlier this decade.

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That said, Himeji Castle still remains the most spectacular example of an original Japanese castle still in existence.  Even for someone who is not particularly interested in castles or history, a day-trip from Osaka or Kobe to Himeji-jo can be fascinating and well worth the expense and effort.

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Even if there really isn’t a Bond-san ninja training school located there….

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Hemiji-jo

Hours:  Winter 0900–1700, Summer 0900-1800 (April 27–August 31)

Closed December 29-30

Address:  68 Honmachi, Himeji City

Phone:  079-285-1146 (Himeji Castle Management Office)

http://www.himejicastle.jp/en/

Access:  Himeji Castle stands about one kilometer down the broad Otemae-dori Street from Himeji Station.  The castle can be reached from the station’s north exit via a 15-20 minute walk, or five minute ride by bus (100 yen one-way) or taxi (about 650 yen one-way).

The Last Samurai’s Castle: Nijojo


“I’ll tell you how he lived.”  ~Nathan Algren, The Last Samurai

A young Japanese Emperor Meiji is featured in The Last Samurai, surrounded by his court in an immense and minimally-appointed tatami-floored hall.  The palace is unquestionably Japanese, with sliding door panels adorned with gilded scenes of cranes in flight and tigers crouched for an attack never to come.  But his is no movie set; these scenes were filmed in the historic 400-year-old castle of Nijo, located in the heart of the ancient Japanese capital city of Kyoto.

The Last Samurai as filmed at Nijojo

The Last Samurai as filmed at Nijojo

Nijō Castle (二条城 Nijō-jō) is a low-profile castle built on the flatlands of Kyoto, Japan.  Although nothing like a castle in the Western classic sense of tall turreted guard towers and heavy drawbridges, it does boast two concentric rings of fortifications and thick stone walls, substantial palaces and several gardens.  The complex is sizeable covering about 70 acres, but with only about 85,000sqf of buildings to explore.  It is one of the seventeen Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, all which have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Guard Tower Overlooking a Moat

Guard Tower Overlooking a Moat

In 1601, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first of the Tokugawa Shogunates, ordered all the feudal lords in Western Japan to contribute to Nijō’s construction, which was completed in 1626 by his Grandson after the former’s death.  Although Edo (modern-day Tokyo) was considered the country’s capital, this castle served as the Kyoto residence and Court of the Tokugawa Shoguns (basically military dictators).  It continued in this role for 260 years until the Shoguns surrendered power to the Meiji Emperor in 1867, and today it remains an eloquent testimony to a bygone era of Shogun power and prestige.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, Founder of Nijojo

Tokugawa Ieyasu, Founder of Nijojo

Jody and I really enjoyed the expansive, well-kept grounds and gardens, and spent much of our timeat the castle wandering slowly through their various paths.  Groves of plum and cherry trees are found here among peaceful ponds and carefully-placed ornamental stones, and the castle serves as a prime blossom viewing spot in the spring when the time is right in late March and all of April.

Beautiful Japanese Gardens

Beautiful Japanese Gardens

Building as the Japanese did primarily out of wood and paper, though, has its drawbacks, as evidenced by a sad history of destructive fire at most old Japanese heritage sites.  Nijō’s original 5-story central Keep was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in 1750; the foundations can still be explored around the inner ring’s southwest corner.  In 1788, the “Inner Ward,” the area encompassed by the inner moat, was destroyed by a city-wide fire and remained empty, more or less, for the next 100 years.  After the fall of the Shogunate to Imperial rule, an Imperial residence was moved there where it remains today as the Honmaru Palace.

Chinese Kamon Gate

Chinese Kamon Gate

After entering the castle grounds from the outer east gate, visitors will soon find the Chinese style Karamon Gate, the entrance to the Ninomaru outer ward secondary circle of defense.  The castle’s main attraction, the Ninomaru Palace, is located here.  This Palace served as the residence and office of the Shogun.

Stylized Paintings in Nijojo

Stylized Paintings in Nijojo

Surviving in its original form, the architecture and artwork found at Nijojo are arguably among the best surviving examples of Japan’s feudal era.  The palace consists of a series of separate buildings that are connected by an interestingly clever defensive design, the castle’s famed “nightingale floors,” corridors with flooring specifically designed to squeak aloud when stepped upon, alerting guards and occupants to potential intruders.  The rooms are floored with tatami mats and feature elegantly decorated ceilings, elaborate wood carvings, and beautifully painted screens on sliding wooden-framed doors (fusuma), all intended to impress visitors with the power and wealth of the Shoguns.

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These fusuma paintings, dating to 1626, include some of the most well-known masterpieces of original Japanese art, most notably the painted screens of the main chamber (as featured in The Last Samurai).  These depictions were painted by artists of the Kano tradition, which employed rich colors and large amounts of golden gilt to depict flowers, trees, birds and tigers.  The look and feel of this particular palace is routinely reproduced on Japanese movie and TV sets when there is a necessity to depict a wealthy Samurai, and were also replicated for our own Western-produced mini-series Shogun.

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But there is some fact to The Last Samurai’s fiction.  In 1867, Ninomaru Palace, located in the castle’s “Outer Ward,” served as the site of handover of power in Japan from Shogun to the authority of the Imperial Court in early January 1868.  That year also saw the installation of the Imperial Cabinet at Nijojo, and the castle was declared a “detached” palace for the Emperor.  Honmaru Palace served as the location for the enthronement banquet of the Showa Emperor (Emperor Hirohito) in 1928, and is not normally open to the public.  A scamper up the stone foundation of the former castle keep located nearby provides fantastic views of the castle grounds.

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In 1939, the palace was donated to the city of Kyoto and opened to the public the following year.

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There is a reason why The Last Samurai was shot on location.  Visiting Nijojo, one is transported back to a different time and place, one when powerful Shoguns and revered Emperors ruled Japan in opulence.  One can imagine, indeed, “how one lived…”.

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Nijojo

Address:  541 Nijo-jo-cho, Horikawa-nishi-iru, Nijo-dori, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto City

Phone: 075-841-0096

Access:  JR Kyoto Station/Hankyu Railway Karasuma Station, or Tozai Subway Line Nijo-jo-mae Station

Hours:  08:45-16:00 closing at 17:00

Closed:  12/26-1/4 and Tuesdays in July-August & December-January

Fees:  600 yen, discounts for school children

What a Hoot:  Owl Cafes in Japan


 “Don’t count your owls before they are delivered.”  ~J.K. Rowling

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But count them when you see them!  It seems that animal cafes are becoming much more deeply ingrained in Japanese culture.  While still rare on Okinawa, it’s not hard to find a “Cat Café” in most any major city one can visit in the main islands of Japan.  But that’s only where the idea just began.  Snakes, lizards, goats, penguins, rabbits and squirrels all have their places now at cafes where animal lovers can call.

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kobe-2016-owl-cafe-owls-head-wmkobe-2016-owl-cafe-owl-pet-carrier-wmHowever, what is NEW, at least to Jody and I, is the idea of an “Owl Cafe.”  Many say the popularity of the Harry Potter series has helped in creating this new expansion.  The Japanese, undeniable leaders in the strange and novel (see Kawaii Monster Café and Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto for more of Japan’s cutting edge culture), have managed another kawaii-cute breakthrough featuring owls!

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The BiBi & GeorGe Kobe Fukurou (Japanese for “owl”) Café is a small establishment located just outside Chinatown in Kobe, Japan, and offers a number of different types of owls from around the world.

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kobe-2016-owl-cafe-bibi-george-owl-cafe-automated-ticket-venderkobe-2016-owl-cafe-bibi-george-owl-cafe-signageThe experience of one’s visit begins with attempting to operate a ticket vending machine outside on the ground, street floor.  Here you can purchase tickets and prepay for drinks ahead, but you’ll need help, to which the staff is only too eagerly and happy.  I believe the minimum amount of time is 1 hour, which costs 1,000 yen (about $10 USD), perfectly reasonable for a chance to see rare birds up close and personal.

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kobe-2016-owl-cafe-owls-purr-wmkobe-2016-owl-cafe-owls-perch-wmThe cafe has three floors.  Entering the narrow shop, you’ll meet Sakura, apparently the café’s greeter…who is apparently unimpressed with the guests and all passers-by.  The first floor seems to be just an entrance lobby for the café, but does include a varied and eclectic selection of owl-related goods that has to been seen to be appreciated.

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kobe-2016-owl-cafe-petting-a-petite-owl-wmkobe-2016-owl-cafe-petting-a-new-feathered-friend-wmAfter climbing a very narrow stairway, the second floor is attained.  Here there are no owls, only seats for guests to enjoy any beverages they may have bought with their entrance.  The prime attraction – owls, await you on the third floor, and after leaving your bags on the second, another narrow set of stairs offers access.  The main aviary is there where about 15 or so resident birds are located.

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kobe-2016-owl-cafe-petting-owls-wmkobe-2016-owl-cafe-petting-an-owl-3-wmKobe‘s first owl cafe boasts a wide array of owls, including Western Screech, Eagle, Snowy, Barn and Tawny owls.  The room was long and very narrow, but clean and tidy, and numerous staff were on hand to help with and discuss the various owls, but only in very broken English.  Bright sunlight was streaming unchecked through the room’s windows, and the overhead fluorescent lights seems to be unnecessarily too bright for nocturnal animals with such sensitive eyes.

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kobe-2016-owl-cafe-proud-tall-owl-wmkobe-2016-owl-cafe-proud-owl-wmBehind each owl is a montage of kawaii-cute pictures of that particular bird, along with some basic information, like name, weight, and type of owl and their habitat.  Most of the information is in Japanese, but there is some basic English offered.  Each owl is featured on the café’s website, where English can be selected as your language, but most of the detailed information remains untranslated.

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kobe-2016-owl-cafe-small-gray-owl-wmkobe-2016-owl-cafe-sleepy-owl-2-wmWe received some quick instructions on how to properly interact with the owls, like only gently pet them on the top of their heads, and leave them alone if they don’t wished to be touched.  The guidance is provided via a handout, in English.  One of the owls was “on break,” and was not to be touched for his/her hour off the clock; still others were sleeping.

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kobe-2016-owl-cafe-unlikely-owl-house-wmkobe-2016-owl-cafe-squat-owl-wmThe assorted owls have beautiful feathers of all colors and patterns, and are much softer to the touch than I would have imagined.  Although at first you may be timid about their long talons and sharp beaks, there really was no issue of potential harm from either.  While each owl has their own unique personality and responds to touch and attention in different fashion, they all seemed perfectly unaggressive.  A flapping of large and strong wings was all it took for guests to prudently withdrawal their hands!

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kobe-2016-owl-cafe-jody-holds-an-owl-friendkobe-2016-owl-cafe-jody-holding-a-new-feathered-friendA staff member will offer you an aviary glove and place an owl on your arm for photos.  Such animals seem to offer an almost universal mystique, and some are adorable while others are downright beautiful.  With their haughty attitude, they really are cats, but with wings.

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kobe-2016-owl-cafe-momo-chan-princess-owlkobe-2016-owl-cafe-petting-an-owl-3-wmIt certainly is a unique opportunity to see and touch all these beautiful creatures.  But unlike a cat café, these animals are not domesticated and probably not tame, and it is not normal for them to be kept inside as, well, prisoners, chained at their ankles to bars, negating not only their getaways, but even their movement about the space.  I feel bad enough about keeping my cats indoors (and they are all indoor/outdoor cats), but for these wild animals, it seems, in a sense, juts wrong.  Especially since they are such nocturnal creatures who are forced awake and on display primarily during daylight hours.

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The owls seem to be well-fed and well-care for, however, something that can be quite challenging from what I’ve read.  The fact, though, that they can’t fly free, seems so repressive (see Whale of a Time for more on a similar situation).

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But the chance to get up close and personal with these magnificent creatures is a novel opportunity that shouldn’t be missed…at least once!

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Bibi and George Owl Cafe

Phone:  078-391-2960

Opening:  Tues-Sunday 11am-7pm (last entry 7pm)

Cover charge is Y1000 for one hour

Chuo-ku, Kobe, Sakaemachi-dori 1-2-14, Umifuku Bldg 1-3F, located in Motomachi

Reservations are accepted via the shop’s website or by phone, or you can just show up.

Strolling with the Spirits: Okunoin Cemetery


“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” ~ Stephen King

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“Spirit, are you there?” I find myself tentatively whispering in my mind not wanting to ignore the screaming silence as Jody and I stroll the depths of the massive and picturesque cemetery in Japan called Okunoin.  I have always wanted to experience a “ghost.”  Not a poltergeist or the terrifying experiences as depicted in TV’s A Haunting, or like those in the book The Amityville Horror, but an interaction that could easily and with some certainty confirm that there is something more to this life than the here and now….

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My inclination was no different when Jody and I visited Okunoin, one of Japan’s most popular and largest of cemeteries located in the sacred mountaintop town of Koyasan (see Sacred Stay atop Mt. Koyasan for more).  Along a meandering cobblestoned-path surrounded by immense and enchanted ancient rustling cedar forest, I hoped for an encounter with souls of those departed long ago.

If it only was the easy to catch an apparently playful ghost....

If it only was the easy to catch an apparently playful ghost….

27882656570_c8ce23b86d_bI have always been fascinated with the idea of the supernatural.  I was the kid that would take the creepy shortcut at college through the cemetery in the rolling hills not far away from campus.  I am that guy that seeks out the reportedly most haunted places in New Orleans, and then goes to them, taunting spirits to appear.  But my intrigue didn’t stop there; while flying and at sea with the US Navy during my 20-year military career, I was constantly scanning the skies and heavens for something not of this world.  I guess you can say that I want to believe.  But I remain doubtful.

Tombstones and Rock Memorials at Okunoin

Tombstones and Rock Memorials at Okunoin

According to the Shingon sect of Buddhism, there are no dead in Okunoin, only spirits.  Spirits awaiting the arrival of Miroku, the proclaimed “Buddha of the Future,” at which time Kobo Daishi, the founder of the Shingon religious community will arise from his eternal meditation and raise all those around him in order to realize enlightenment.  The number of graves in Okunoin, well in excess of 200,000, continues to increase, making it the largest cemetery in Japan.

My Thai Spirit House, in Pensacola ~2006

My Thai Spirit House, in Pensacola ~2006

27548767373_602d8d1b0c_bThe idea of spirits and the spiritual world is very different in the Far East.  I first was drawn to the Thai Buddhist idea of “spirit homes,” structures one can find place property lines of domiciles and businesses alike.  Literally, the edifice is a “house” in which spirits can live, and to which offerings are brought to appease those spirits.  In other words, spirits are everywhere, so might as well live peacefully and respectfully among them.  This resonated so well with me that I purchased one that has stood in every home I’ve lived in since 2000 (except for my time in Japan).

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28109931581_ec74da80b2_bAnd at the highest point within the graveyard is found Okunoin (奥の院) Temple, the most sacred site for followers of the revered Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi, the central pillar of their faith.  His mausoleum is located here, but the monk is said to not have died but instead entered a deep and eternal mediation, praying for collective salvation, awaiting the Buddha of the Future.  Eons ago, Okunoin was a gathering place for samurai warriors.  Today it is one of the region’s primary tourist attractions and as one of the most sacred places in Japan it is a very popular religious pilgrimage origin and destination (see Pilgrimage of Eat, Pray, Bathe for more).

A Spirit House Combined WITH Protective Lion-Dogs!

A Spirit House Combined WITH Protective Lion-Dogs (Thailand)!

In other areas of the Far East, specifically China, Japan, Okinawa and to some extent Korea, the idea of protective lion-dogs is ubiquitous.  These are referred to by various names, including Shi-shi, Shisa, and Foo depending on the region; see Guardian Shisa for more.  While in Japan, my spirit house is replaced by shisa (see Intimidation for my latest set of protectors).

Sorry, Couldn't Find a Good English Map....

Sorry, Couldn’t Find a Good English Map….

28129834416_23d80c1afd_bThe walk through the cemetery starts with the crossing of the Ichino-hashi (一の橋) bridge (first bridge), the historic and traditional entrance to the site.  Prior to crossing, visitors should join their hands together and bow to show their respect to Kobe Daishi.  This bridge marks the entrance and the start of a pleasant two kilometer walk through the enchanted cedar forest found here which lines the well paved cobblestone path.  The neatness of the trail however is surrounded by the ordered disorder of the cemetery’s vast and varied collection of moss-covered gravestones.

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Across the bridge starts Okunoin‘s cemetery, where a quarter of a million tombstones line the winding approach to Kobo Daishi‘s mausoleum.  Wishing to be close to their religious leader in death to receive early and constant salvation, many people, including prominent monks and feudal lords, have had their tombstones erected here over the centuries.

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28083984472_5a00a5e330_bOnce across, the atmosphere changes dramatically.  The dizzyingly-tall cedars on either side of the cemetery’s main twisting pathway blot out much of the sky and obscures what lays ahead.  The almost countless graves, tombs and memorials vary tremendously in style, creating a scenic sensory overload in every direction.  While the finer details of the graves can be easily lost to the sheer size of the place, the most spectacular cenotaphs do demand attention.  Massive monuments and tall memorial pagodas of famous and powerful feudal lords and samurai warriors from across the ages are sprinkled here for those who wish to seek them out.  But then there are also the unexpectedly interesting ones, such as a monument one insecticide company dedicated to all its termite victims.

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Innumerable excursions can be taken from the main path via trails left and right, where visitors can venture among seemingly forgotten tombs, constructed of now eroded stones, covered with thick, moist green moss.  At their furthest recesses, nature is well on her way to reclaiming what remains ultimately hers.

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Conversely, the site’s more modern entrance, located across from the Okunoin-mae bus stop, not only shortens the journey through the place by about half, but also transverses the more recent additions of the dead, complete with refined granite polished to mirror finish, quite incongruous with the feel of the more ancient aspects of the graveyard.

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There are various accessories which adorn the almost incalculable number of Buddha statues found here.  Most often found is a vermilion bib, an offering left by mothers to help protect their living children in this life, and to bring them luck in whatever comes next.

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The two paths through the cemetery both lead the to the Gokusho Offering Hall where a row of Jizo statues called Mizumuke (water-covered) Jizo are found.  Jizo is a popular Bodhisattva (enlightened being) that looks after children, travelers, and the souls of the deceased.  Pilgrims and the faithful leave paper and wood offerings here at their feet and then throw water upon the effigies while praying for departed family members and loved ones.

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28164150725_4469ec55db_bThe Gobyo no Hashi Bridge crosses a stream which runs immediately behind the Mizumuke Jizo, and serves as not only the cleansing waters used at the temple, but as a physical separation between the innermost grounds of the temple from the rest of Okunoin.  In a very real sense, it is a break between the spiritual realm of the dead from the sacred dominion of Kobo Daishi.  Visitors should again clasp their hands and bow before crossing, and photography, food and drink are strictly forbidden beyond this point. To the left of the bridge are a group of wooden markers placed in the stream as a touching memorial to unborn children and those lost to drowning.

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28085563811_9b3ae63336_bLeaving the bridge, a short way down the path, visitors will find on the left a small wooden cage-like structure that houses the Miroku Stone.  Legend has it that this stone, when lifted, weighs the sins of the person lifting.  Through small gaps in the walls, the stone can be manipulated; it is customary to lift it with one hand only and move it from the lower platform to the upper shelf.  The stone is said to be much heavier to those who sins bear burden, and much lighter to those who remain more saint-like.  In what I will consider a good omen and not a testament to either my American heft and strength or any pretense of sainthood, the stone was, for me, relatively easy to move.

miroku-stone

The Miroku Stone…which made me a saint…of sorts….

Leaving that test behind and continuing up the path, the temple’s Toro-do Hall (燈籠堂), the main area for worship, emerges through the trees.  Originally built by the second generation successor of Koyasan, Shinzen Daitoku, it was further enlarged and refurbished in 1023 to its present-day appearance and size by Fujiwara no Michinaga.

Torodo, the Hall of Lamps/Laterns

28059896532_15b162f49d_bThis “Hall of Lamps” houses tens of thousands of luminous lanterns, some of which are said to have been burning continuously for almost 1,000 years.  Many if not all of the lanterns found here were donated by worshippers, some which include past Emperors and members of the Royal Family of generations past.  Such lamps include the Kishinto, a lantern offered by Kishin, the Shirakawato, one offered by Emperor Shirakawa, and also the Showato, a lantern dedicated by the Emperor and Royal Family during the Showa period.

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27572325303_5945aebc52_bBut perhaps the most moving involves Hinnyo-no-Itto, a poor Japanese woman of age-old times who cut and sold her precious long black hair to purchase a lantern to donate to the temple; it remains proudly and prominently displayed to this day. The lanterns all remain lighted 24/7, and together the lamps create a sacred shimmering space, the last area visited before visitors reach the holy heart of the complex, the ultimate destination of one of Japan’s most famous pilgrimages, the mausoleum and eternal dwelling of Kukai, the Kobo Dashi.

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Behind the Toro-do is the mausoleum called the Gobyo (御廟), which houses the famous monk in deep and eternal meditation.  Each day, meals are deposited at the Gobyo’s door to provide sustenance for the monk within, while living monks and laymen reflect in silent support while chanting sutras in a low voice.  It is not uncommon to see pilgrims in deep reflection here.

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28085560281_0883df3543_bWe found that one visit wasn’t enough to grasp the extent and discover even a handful of its secrets.  That and our first visit was at night, a time I would highly recommend if you want to wander among the spirits completely alone!  I found the nocturnal tranquility of the complex very soothing, for not just me and the residents alike.  In the day expect to find many visitors; at night after about 2100, expect no one to be visiting (we were there in July).  A night time visit indeed provides a special atmosphere that is quite different from that of a day time visit, but note that some parts of the path are poorly lit.  It is possible to venture all the way to the mausoleum during the night none of the temple halls are open.

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Although there was no paranormal activity noted at Okunoin, I need look no further than inside to find all the ghosts I ever need to worry, and sometimes indeed they do win.  However, here there is a spiritual energy collecting from wishes and prayers that has the power to cleanse souls.  A stroll through this Garden of Stone is a must if you visit Koyasan, and a stop I would make even if you find yourself visiting only this region of Japan.

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Dinner at Ar’s of Shiodome, Tokyo


“All four elements were happening in equal measure – the cuisine, the wine, the service, and the overall ambiance. It taught me that dining could happen at a spiritual level.” ~Charlie Trotter, American chef and restaurateur

Modern Shiodome City District

Modern Shiodome City District

Shiodome (汐留) is a district in Tokyo recently developed at the turn of this century, redeveloped and remade into an attractive, somewhat upscale area full of shops, eateries, and businesses.  Its spectacular skyscrapers are the home of the headquarters of Nippon Television, but more importantly for tourists to the city, a large variety of cafes, theaters, hotels and the subject of this blog – “Sky-View” restaurants.

Shiodome (pronounced shee-oh-dome-eh, meaning “halt the tides”) was originally a tidal marsh sitting between the Imperial Palace and Tokyo Bay.  During the Edo Period in Japan (1603-1867), the marshes were dried up and reclaimed as land for the then many feudal lords hungry for space.

Redevelopment and Revitalization of Shiodome

Redevelopment and Revitalization of Shiodome

In 1872, Shiodome was chosen as the site of the Shimbashi rail station, originally the Tokyo terminal of Japan’s first railway line.  When the modern site of Tokyo station was developed as Tokyo and rail in Japan grew, Shiodome was basically converted into a train freight yard, a state and function in which it remained well into the 1980s.  Today the district is unrecognizable, featuring all the modern aspects of city planning with motorized pedestrian traffic, elevated walkways, and underground passages that connect most of the densely packed buildings in the area.

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Ar’s Italian Cuisine, one of the Sky View restaurants located in Shiodome, was recommended to us by our hotel’s very helpful concierge.  A short but cold walk away, our journey was made easier by the pedestrian ways connecting all the buildings in the area.

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tokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-dinner-with-jody-and-a-viewshiodome-sky-viewAr’s is located in a modern skyscraper above the 40th floor, providing amazing views of Tokyo and the famed Tokyo Tower from a warm and tastefully decorated space.  But there is a much richer experience to be had here than just enjoying the view.  Ar’s is an upscale eatery, and although there were only a couple of other groups there upon our arrival at about 2000, everyone was dressed in business formal, all men wearing coat and tie and ladies in dresses and heels.

Jody with Our Sky View

Jody with Our Sky View

tokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-dinner-with-a-viewtokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-delicious-kobe-beef-with-a-fancy-knifeOur wait staff was headed by a man who spoke actually very good English.  Tatsuhiko Tochimoto, the establishment’s Assistant Manager and true professional in terms of service, acted as our interface to the rest of the facility, providing detailed explanations of our menu in terms of ingredients and preparation.  We had reserved a table by the windows, not realizing that almost every table had a fabulous view.  Jody and I both ordered full course meals (see their menu for more) and a bottle of wine, and while the food was absolutely delicious and presented as creative works of art, what will stay with us for the rest of our lives is not the food but the way we were treated.

Appetizers

Appetizers

tokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-conger-eel-souptokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-baked-fishThe service at Ar’s was outstanding and very attentive.  It seems that there was a staff to customer ratio of about 1 to 1, which meant that we never asked for anything.  Water and wine was poured as if on que, and Tochimoto-san stopped by often between courses to chat, and with each course to explain our food in great detail.  While at time I would find this overbearing, especially being during date-night with my lovely wife, Tochimoto-san made us feel warmly welcome, much like family would.

Fabulous Friends & Food

Fabulous Friends & Food

tokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-seafood-pastatokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-picture-souvenior-with-dessertAt one point he came up with a camera, and asked if he could take our photo.  “Sure,” we said, somewhat confused.  What does he want with our photo?  He mentioned something about taking pictures of their special guests….  An hour later, delivered with our courses of sweets and dessert, was a small framed photo of me and Jody there at dinner; the staff had printed and framed the photo as part of our dinner!  Such a uniquely fabulous touch to an already first-rate dinner.

Our Framed Keep-Sake with Dinner

Our Framed Keep-Sake with Dinner

tokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-kiss-in-the-wedding-chapeltokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-fancy-dessertsThen, after we finished dinner, Tochimoto-san asked if we had a few moments.  Again, “sure” we said, this time with some eager expectation.  He brought us to an area down the hall from the restaurant, into a wedding chapel that they work in combination with.  This chapel is “special” we were told, because it overlooks both the Tokyo Tower AND the newer, taller landmark, Tokyo’s SkyTree.  He offered to take photos of our quickie wedding ceremony over the city lights of Tokyo.  His business card states “A to Z Dining,” and that is no exaggeration.  Such a fabulous night in Tokyo for us both!

Wedding Chapel with a View

Wedding Chapel with a View

Full disclosure:  this level of service and quality of food does not come cheap in Japan.  And while we spent a relatively enormous sum eating dinner at Ar’s, both Jody and I will tell you, without hesitation, that our experience there was worth every single dollar.  And email Tochimoto-san directly at “tochi0905@gmail.com” to reserve your own unforgettable spiritual dining experience.

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Ar’s Italian Cuisine & Sky Bar SPADE

Lunch starting @ 3,000 JPY, Dinner @ 10,000 JPY

03-5537-6431 (+81-3-5537-6431)

Dinner 17:30-23:30 (last order 22:30) and Lunch 11:30-15:30 (last order 14:30)

Rail:  Toei Oedo Line to Shiodome Station, take Exit 4-minute walk

Address:  41F, 1-5-2, Higashishinbashi, Minato-ku, Tokyo, 105-7102

http://ars-dining.com/

Yushukan…or…Just a Nationalistic Scam??


“Each article displayed in this museum is filled with the wishes…and sincerity of enshrined deities who devoted themselves to building ‘a peaceful nation’.” ~ Passage from the Yushukan museum’s brochure discussing the “Noble Spirits of Fallen Heroes”

Tojo at the Tokyo Trials - not such a peace-loving guy....

Tojo at the Tokyo Trials – not such a Peace-Loving Guy….

Wait, what?  “Peaceful Nation”??

There is good in the world.  Over 2,466,000 souls are enshrined as kami at Yasukuni Jinga (see Enshrining Japan’s War Dead for more), a total which includes not just members of the military, but hundreds of thousands of civilians as well, specifically women and students who were involved in relief operations on the battlefield or worked in factories in support of the war effort.  There are neither ashes, bodies or bones in the shrine, and enshrinement is not exclusive to people of Japanese descent.  And many more millions of kami of a much wider array of nationalities are enshrined at the Chinreisha, dedicated to all those who lost their lives in conflicts worldwide.  Remember the dead of those cherished but lost is a good thing.

Prayers to the War Dead

Prayers and Respect for the Dead

But there is bad in the world as well.  At immediate issue is that 1,068 of the enshrined kami at Yasukuni are convicted war criminals, some of whom were charged and found guilty of heinous crimes.  Depending on your frame of reference, this may not suffer much cause for concern.  The wider, larger, more looming issue in the Far East is that enshrinement as a kami typically carries absolution of earthly deeds, no matter what those deeds entailed.  More significantly, it elevates those enshrined souls literally to deity status, where the deceased are worshiped as gods.  Some, maybe even many, suffer concerns of varying degree over such passive pardon.

Class A War Criminal #1. How did THIS GUY escape judgment??

Class A War Criminal #1. How did THIS GUY escape judgment??

And then there is ugly, what I’ll classify as an insidious evil.  Central to the Yushukan is that it actively attempts to whitewash Japan’s history of crimes against humanity and wars of aggression of the first half of the 20th century in classic Nationalistic fashion.

I have discussed in other blogs the importance of remembering and even honoring the dead when warranted (which holds the bulk of the time), and the situation in Japan, with all its complexities rife with ethical dilemmas (think our own country’s heated debates over Confederate memorials), is no different.  No matter your politics or religion, I argue that the vast majority of the almost 2.5M souls enshrined at Yasukuni were poor, uneducated “Joe-Jui-Jitsu Six-packs” who died for the cause, a cause to which they were shamelessly indoctrinated from birth.  When the rich wage war, it is the poor that suffer and die the most.  In this vein, the crimes of the very few should not outweigh the ignorant innocence of the many.  The greater good, in my opinion, should take precedence.

However, I am not so compassionate, understanding or forgiving when it comes to the Yushukan museum of war history, a museum operated by the shrine.

Japanese A6M Type 0 Fighter in the Museum's Lobby

Japanese A6M Type 0 Fighter in the Museum’s Lobby

This museum, and in more modern times their website, make clear and unequivocal statements criticizing the United States for “convincing” the Empire of Japan to launch an attack on the United States in order just to justify war with Imperial Japan.  There is no discussion of a wider world war in the 1930s and 1940s; rather, Japan’s war of aggression throughout the Pacific is referred to as the “Greater East Asia War.”  A documentary-style video portrays Japan’s conquest of East Asia during the 1930s as an effort to “save” the region from imperial advances of the colonial Western powers.  Japan foresaw a “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere,” a moniker for their own expansionist agenda.  Displays portray Japan as a “victim” of foreign influence and meddling, especially the undermining of trade by the United States.  It goes on to highlight what it considers “the negotiations to avoid the war with the United States,” an accidental admission which in and of itself insinuates a forgone conclusion to go to war!  Notably missing, the museum fails to acknowledge any of the many atrocities committed by the Japanese, including the Rape of Nanjing (see Japan’s War Crimes for more), the abhorrent treatment of POWs, and the sacrifice of the Okinawan people and culture writ large.

A Steam Engine used on the Thai-Burma "Death Railway," the cause of death of over 12,500 Western POWs, and over 100,000 Asians

A Steam Engine, used on the Thai-Burma “Death Railway,” displayed in the museum’s lobby.  This was the cause of death of over 12,500 Western POWs, and over 100,000 Asians used as slave labor in its construction.  The museum only mentions what an incredible engineering feat it was, and accomplished by the Japanese….

For instance and specifically related to Okinawa and the Typhoon of Steel which was endured there, there is a moving display of “articles left behind” by the Kinjo sisters, who served as part of the famed Okinawa “Lily Corps”.  These high school students were drafted to serve as nurses’ aids and were assigned to cave hospitals around southern Okinawa.  These girls, in reality, were abandoned by the Japanese military, and many were pressure to end their lives through mass suicide.  However, the museum submits a revisionist version that Okinawan’s roil at:  “On June 18, 1945 an order to disband the student corps was issued during a severe cleanup operation by the American forces.  However, the Third Surgery bunker was besieged and more than 40 staff members lost their lives.”  High school students can barely be thought of as “staff,” and this particular loss of life is egregious by any measure.  The monument to these lost girls is one of the most-visited and moving places today on Okinawa, exactly because of Japan’s cold-blooded desecration of her most valuable treasure – her youth….

Monument and Cave where the Lily Corps Girls Lost their Lives

Monument and Cave where the Lily Corps Girls Lost their Lives.  They were pressured and brain-washed to kill themselves rather than face rape and torture by the Americans.  Or so they were told….

The museum clearly portrays Japan as diligently negotiating to avoid war at every turn – even as they planned the attacks on Pearl Harbor and throughout the wider Pacific basin, and America as being the unreasonable bully hell-bent on controlling and containing Japan.  There is no portrayal of aggression by the Japanese.  In its place is only a weak, flaccid claim of Japanese self-defense against American and European Imperialists.  The museum goes on to claim that Japan went to war with the intent of creating a “Co-Prosperity Sphere” for all Asians, with aims of ejecting various Western powers who had colonized parts of Asia and the Pacific.  This argument is nothing more than a thin, transparent veil attempting to cover their unjustified expansionist wars of the 1930s in Korea and China, and the 1940s in Burma, Indonesian, the Philippines, and throughout the Pacific.

Japanese Artillery Pieces used in the Battle of Okinawa

Japanese Artillery Pieces used in the Battle of Okinawa

Because of this Nationalist stance and odd-ball justification of the slaughter of over SIX MILLION (some estimates put the figure over 10M) Chinese, Indonesians, Koreans, Filipinos, Indochinese, and Western prisoners of war, the Japanese Government has been widely criticized by China, South Korea, and Taiwan as being revisionist and unapologetic about the events of World War II.  My experience throughout Japan and the Ryukyu Islands has been one of peace, gentleness, and wholesale value for life, but my visit to this museum provides a hint at underlying currents of gross nationalism still present in many dark corners of the Japanese psyche.  And while I appreciate being able to see the rare military hardware on display here (sorry, pictures inside not allowed), and many of the relics of those lost are quite moving and well displayed, it is the general feel of this place that lives me, a Westerner, questioning what many Japanese really know about the War, but more importantly, how they feel.

Weird Nationalistic Homage to Dissenting Judge at the Tokyo Trials

Weird Nationalistic Homage to Dissenting Judge at the Tokyo Trials

Finely, and perhaps in one of the most insulting aspects of the museum, outside of its main entrance is a memorial plot that one might easily miss.  It is homage to Dr. Radha binod Pal, the judge representing India at the Tokyo Trials in 1946.  The pamphlet provided, in English, goes on to state, “Dr. Pal detected that the tribunal…was none other than formalized vengeance sought with arrogance by the victorious Allied Powers upon a defeated Japan.  Consequently, he submitted a separate opinion recommending that each and every one of the accused be found not guilty of each and every one of the charges….”  The text further characterizes the trials as “…the Allies’ craze for retaliation….”  While there is some argument about the due process afforded those accused during the war crimes trials in the East (as compared and contrasted against the Nuremberg Trails held in the West), the top Japanese leadership found guilty as Class A War Criminals were, beyond a shadow of a doubt, GUILTY of crimes against peace through the planning and direction of war.

Nationalism is Alive and Well in Japan, like most other Nations Today in the World

Nationalism is Alive and Well in Japan, like most other Nations Today in the World.  Picture at the Yasukuni Shrine, 2015.

But regardless of politic viewpoint or an inherent revulsion at revisionist history, there is no other comprehensive venue in Japan where someone – Ministers and Emperors included – can pay respect to the fallen in such an embracing fashion.  In other words, for many Japanese there is a strongly compelling reason to visit this shrine.  And what about those who find the conflict in the adjoining museum’s nationalistic point of view and alternative account of dirty deeds so troubling?  Well they can deliberately avoid entering the museum so that their visit remains religious rather than political.

Liberalism and "Truth" are Sometimes a Scary Combination.

Liberalism and “Truth” are Sometimes a Scary Combination.  I’m pretty sure Japan started a War of Aggression with the United States….

Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister, recently visited the shrine which sparked wide admonition from Asian governments.  In an official statement, Abe explained that he wished to “report before the souls of the war dead…the pledge that Japan must never wage a war again.  It is not my intention at all to hurt the feelings of [other Asian] people.”

Monument to War Widows

Monument to War Widows

Can’t fault the man for that.  There is good in the world.  And it’s high time for the curators of the Yushukan museum to do their part in fulfilling Abe’s pledge.