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'.
December 28 Borrowing some bikes, the four of us (Aaron, Chad, Malia & myself) biked Kyoto from top to bottom. On our agenda began with an unsuccessful stop at Nijō Castle (二条城) due to New Year's preparations. We proceeded to Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺)/ "the temple of the Golden Pavilion" in northern Kyoto (京都) where there was a photo festival and then scurried (as best we could) to get completely across the city (about 11km straight from where we were at the time, not counting lost meanering) in order to get up to the mountains and to Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社) before sundown. There, we saw over 10,000 torii (or gates) donated by local businesses to Inari, god of prosperity. They wound up the mountain to some awesome overlooks of Kyoto and her night lights at sunset.
The last-minute sprint up the mountain that Face and I made resulted in us becoming tremendously off-trail on the way back down the mountain. Yeah, we got lost, but that was in one of the most impressive neighborhoods I had seen in the mountains of Japan. I found comfort in that loss, like I have many times before in the neighborhoods of other countries.
Many photos were taken, and by the end of the day, everyone earned a trip to onsen later in the week to relax.
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December 25 & 26: Traveling to Japan on Christmas day had its interesting moments:
- My brother wrote me a going away note with a drawing of Godzilla attacking Japan.
- There was the fact that I wore a Santa hat the entire day.
- In my mind, I said goodbye to America while I was stuck between some genuine white trash in line at the San Francisco Airport Burger King.
- I sat next to a guy on the flight over the Pacific who kept ordering milk whent he beverage cart came by... while I was watching Inglorious Basterds. (If you don't know what I would have been afraid of, check out the movie.)
- The Santa hat did not garner much attention, but I managed to talk my way into emergency row seats (major cha-ching! for us tall folk).
- There is a real lack of garbage cans or containers in Japan. I ripped some plastic wrapping off of the backpack I had checked, and as I stood at the baggage claim spinning around in a scan for a trashcan, an airline agent came springing to take it from me so she could dispose of the wrapping.
- I learned that each city in Japan has its own etiquette standards regarding which side of the escalator you stand on.
December 27: Kyomizu-dera was the first outing in Kyoto. Face and I visited the site in the morning and had company the next day when his friends from his Japanese program, Chad & Malia, came in to adventure with us.
I saw prayer postcards for the new year; bad fortunes on trees that were to be returned to the wind; drank some purifying water (which I was jokingly told would bring me easy childbirth); and I walked between two rocks blindly (in order to guarantee I would find my true love). The sunsets were all just grand while I was in Japan, and we were fortunate to see a full moon eventually as well.
I adore Kyoto, and this is probably one of my top cities to have been to. This is where I felt a pulse of Japan, aside from the urban sprawl, etc.
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My (United, -cough, cough-) flight back to Chicago was delayed by over four hours last night. Instead of landing around 8p.m., we touched down sometime after midnight. I actually stopped paying attention to time since it was so relative when traveling over the International Date Line (and, no, that is not an 800 number).
Editing photos will take a while, as will writing all the many posts for which I have travel notes. This will be a long process, and I am not one to post works in progress. (Thoughts in progress are a whole 'nother ballpark when compared to travel capture.)
Activity coming soon.
We departed our condo on Dana Point's Strands Beach today. But not without a quick morning rush back to the beach.
Our Friday was spent in Dana Point Harbor with some tandem kayaks. Thinking ahead, my aunt packed a waterbag with a tow line for my mother and her to pawn off some labor -- only my youngest siblings were foolish enought to get close to the ladies' kayak. My aunt also had a sweet little waterproof Sanyo digital camera. I snapped a few worthy photos, but, more importantly, had a cool toy to bring to the beach (yes, video will come of the Pacific surf). Then, Friday night, we took to little bit of tradition when we all piled into Macaroni Grill for our last night's meal. My kid brother spilled creativity all over the table in the form of crayon depictions of our favorite N64 Super Smash Brothers characters. I took a last spin through the Orange County hills with my other brother and my cousins in my cousin's pimpmobile. Needless to say, that was fun.
Upon arrival back in Illinois, I first notice how heavy and stale the air feels. There is a speed limit under 45 on residential streets. There are no hills. For some reason, there is no summer season in Illinois anymore.
I will never say "the OC". I am going to dump the mandals for some better flipflops. Freakshow in Venice still awaits. No complaints otherwise.
Quote of the week:
"How do they trap the sunlight in there?" (in reference to the LED reading lights in the rental van)
Yesterday, my parents took off for Catalina Island while the chilinz, my cousins and aunt took off for Laguna Beach part two. My cousin and his girlfriend were dead-on when they suggested going to Victoria Beach in Laguna.
The morning there was shared with an uncrowded beachfront, a supermodel photoshoot and a group of junior lifeguards. Out of nowhere a wife came up to me to ask me if I could do a sit-up without my feet being pressed down (her husband thought she was a freak for being able to do one herself). He thought "normal people" can only do one with their feet being pressed down. So, he challenged her to find anyone on the beach who could do one without an anchor. I obliged and succeeded in two in a row, just to be like that. There was ten dollars riding on this bet, but I let her keep her cash in the end because we ended up drawing the stares of many beachgoers (fortunately...). No pictures there, sorry.
However, on a walk around the bend, there were a couple of really neat coves just filled with mussels (and, as mentioned, a photoshoot looking for some privacy... blame overprotective boyfriends or models who just want to flaunt their stuff to hundreds of pages as opposed to hundreds of real eyes). I snapped a lot of natural stuff off over there but also stole some of the photoshoot in my background when we were all distracted by an platoon of junior lifeguards swimming through the rock formations there. The (incredibly fake) model was really pissed -- there must have been an hourly contract situation. We all laughed, but away from the sight of ripped-out, tattooed boyfriend. I also saw a smirk from the photographer out of the corner of my eye.
In the afternoon, we headed over to Main Beach in Laguna to see what all the population was there for. There was a lot of strolling to be done; the beachfront stretched a great while. The water was just filled with seaweed even so far out into the water as to be up to my neck, and I am not sure they the sand is raked there at all (in contrast to beautiful Victoria and the Dana Point beaches). I saw more people at Main (and a lot more reale estate lining the shoreline), but would much prefer Victoria.
The night was charmed by a quick stroll through Dana Point Harbor after sunset.