I was told that Himeji (姫路市) would be incomplete without a hike to the temple complex of Shoshazan Engyō-ji (書寫山圓教寺) atop Mt. Shosha (書写). A bus ride and a ropeway got me up to the top of the mountain where a good chunk of The Last Samurai was shot. Being there on the second day of the Japanese New Year / shōgatsu (正月) made for another cultural experience.
I made it up the mountain around 10 a.m. to photograph under the morning sun. I watched as many families followed but to pay respects and spiritually prepare for the upcoming year.
I always like being in the mountains. I just know I will end up living at the base of or amidst mountains. The light was just wonderful, and the mood of the site was really positive. There was a lot of smoke from some fires burning all day. I heard monks singing prayers. Gongs rang every five or ten minutes. And, surprisingly, as a tourist, I did not feel that I was trespassing. There is really something to say about a culture that does not convey any suspiciousness (if not show signs of welcome) on such an important holiday, especially when I am on spiritual ground.
There was more than just elevation beneath my feet, and so I thank you, Shosha.
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On the first day of 2010, I packed up my things after a charming breakfast with Aaron & the Sumidas and wandered out to explore Japan on my own. They needed to be with the family for Japanese New Year / shōgatsu (正月), and I wanted to be on my own to dive into Japanese sites and culture on my own for a little bit.
I took a train from Kobe (神戸市) down the coastline to Himeji (姫路市). I checked in, and jumped straight into the tourist mix at Himeji Castle (姫路城). Himeji seemed smaller, but I think that was mostly due to the fact that nothing was open in the town, except those shops closest to the tourist attractions. I had perfect weather to shoot the Castle, and I could not have asked for better photo-friendly clouds. People were also abound (being a holiday with free admission), and I liked having some bodies around to use for framing. The castle structure is so impressive, and the state that the building is in demonstrates that there is quite a cultural value to the building.
I did not realize until the middle of the afternoon that this was a 'castle' where samurai (侍) would protect territory. My mind had previously been caught up in a vision of the castle where the Anglican queen or pretty princess might be held up as men with pikes and straight swords would take their watch (all very Western). There was also a turning point when I realized that I would not have been able to run up and down the stairs of the mulit-leveled castle with stairwells not fit for someone with the height of 6'2"+.
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The night was slow in Himeji, and I was forced into my first McDonald's meal. No other establishments were open due to the family obligations of the first day of the Japanese New Year. I took my cheeseburgers and settled down for the night with American 'cuisine'.
We needed a day of rest. At lunch with Face's host parents, I was invited to two (if not three) meals that are truly of cultural importance during Japanese New Year (正月). First, I was to share dinner with them on New Year's Eve, and then I was to come to breakfast on the morning of the New Year. The Japanese New Year or shōgatsu (正月) is a three day celebration that reminds me a lot of Thanksgiving mixed with the American New Year. In the next few days, I saw a lot of family unity, many thanks for the old year and some purification of this year to get things off ont he right foot. With that cultural weight in mind, Face and I decided to lay low around Kobe (神戸市) on New Year's Even (and also to save up some energy for the night itself).
We took in a couple of the shopping areas near the bay area of Kobe, including really diving into the depths of the shopping avenues around the Sannomiya (三ノ宮) district. We saw some interesting takes on American Western stores. We saw Chinatown in a Japanese city and did some light shopping before heading back for dinner.
Dinner was explained to me as almost something of a purifying experience. Many of the traditional Japanese foods came out here. I really took my time. The Sumidas were very hospitable, explaining everything that came to mind about the foods that I would pick up. And, I managed chopsticks pretty well.
I didn't take many pictures of dinner, but I sure did of breakfast. I really liked everything I ate in Japan, and I was doing fine eating everything that came in front of me until this morning. Imagine: New Year's morning and all you have is raw fish, raw fish eggs and some warm sake (酒). I am proud to say I tried everything and kept up with Aaron, but I did leave some Herring eggs and some carmelized fishies behind on my plate. There was some ham and eggs brought out, and I jumped on that real quickfast. The Sumidas were very understanding and took both of our eating habits pretty lightly; they said that even many of the foods are not seen again until a year later. I think that there might even be some inside humor about is eaten around this holiday.
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