Thursday, December 17, 2009

Sokoku Temple Kyoto: photos

Adjacent to the lovely campus of Doshisha University is the temple complex of Sokokuji.  I just happened to stumble upon the temple and was rewarded for my waywardness.

Shorenin Temple

While in Kyoto I went to Shorenin Temple for its illumination. The interior and temple grounds were beautifully illuminated, but my ignorance of my camera's functions prevented me from taking more photos than the ones of the bamboo grove I've uploaded.

The Campus of Doshisha University, Kyoto

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Kyoto: The Monks

While waiting for a traffic signal to change at a busy intersection, I was passed by a procession of monks, noiseless in their straw sandals (waraji; 草鞋). 

Kyoto: No Painting the Town Red

In Kyoto the color "red" has traditionally been considered showy and in poor taste.  McDonald's outlets in the city demonstrate this aesthetic, for the outdoor signs substitute brown where we would expect to find the offending color.

Kyoto- Kiyomizu Temple (清水寺) Photos

On a recent trip to Kyoto I visited one of its most famous temples, World Heritage site Kiyomizu. The temple was established some 1,200 years ago; the present buildings date to 1633. The site is home not only to the temple but also to a number of Shinto shrines, among which the most important is Jishu (founded the year 701), sacred to Okuninushi, god of love and matchmaking. The photos: (upper left), the main gate; (upper right), a three-storeyed pagoda; (lower left), the main hall; (lower right), the aforementioned pagoda, as well as another of the temple complex's halls.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Michael Moore to Corporate Japan: Don't Become Like the U.S.

In Japan to promote his latest film "Capitalism: A Love Story", award-winning director Michael Moore exhorts the Japanese not to create a society in which companies replace full-time employees through out-sourcing or with part-time hires.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Detour

Aerial views of Ogi (above) and Shukunegi on Sado Island, Niigata, show a few roofs protected from strong winds blowing in off the Sea of Japan in the traditional way, with stones.
***See the previous post for a photo of a cedar-shingled roof protected in this way.

Scenes from the Year's Last Ride

There was plenty of lovely scenery in extreme northern Niigata on a Saturday in late November.
The roads in this area are closed for winter from Dec. 1-Mar. 31. Fortunately, the weather cooperated on the 29th of Nov. to allow me to do this ride, which had had to be postponed several times earlier in the year.
*** The stones atop the woodshed are unusual for an inland area, in my experience; when seen at all they tend to be found on roofs in coastal areas that are subject to strong winds.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Ryokan on Greed

Ryokan, the great monk of the Soto Zen sect of Buddhism, on greed.

One morning death comes before

They can use even half their money.

Others happily receive the estate,

And the deceased's name is soon lost in darkness.

For such people there can only be great pity.

18th Century Japanese Zen Poet Ryokan on Greed

Once again, many greedy people appear

No different from silkworms wrapped in cocoons.

Wealth and riches are all they love,

Never giving their minds or bodies a moment's rest.

Every year their natures deteriorate

While their vanity increases.

Ryokan-sama's Hermitage and Poetry

Recently I've been reading John Stevens's Zen Poetry of Ryokan. Ryokan was born 251 years ago in Echigo Province, as Niigata was then known. A couple of years ago I visited his birthplace, Izumozaki, as well as the nearby hermitage Gogo-an, where he spent the latter part of his life. The late novelist Yasunari Kawabata as well as the renowned author of books on Zen Buddhism, Daisetz Suzuki, have said that one who wishes to understand the Japanese psyche can do no better than read Ryokan-sama. The following poem is one of my many favorites:
My hut lies in the middle of a dense forest;
Every year the green ivy grows longer.
No news of the affairs of men,
Only the occasional song of a woodcutter.
The sun shines and I mend my robe;
When the moon comes out I read Buddhist poems.
I've nothing to report, my friends.
If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after
so many things.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Japanese Primary School English Education

English will be a mandatory school subject for 5th and 6th graders in Japanese elementary schools starting April, 2011 (year 23 of the current imperial era). To assist homeroom teachers of these grades, the Ministry of Education has published the two-volume textbook series English Note. While not perfect, the books are far better than nothing for most teachers, who are not specialists in teaching or speaking the language, and the texts' arrival at schools was eagerly anticipated by educators in Niigata earlier this year. But now comes word from the Ministry of Education that the texts will likely be discontinued the year English becomes a required subject. Why this about-face? In the words of members of the Finance Ministry working group studying this and other Ministry of Education outlays, the texts are muda (無駄) or "an utter waste", quite harsh and direct language for Japanese. If you are concerned about the fate of English Note, you can contact the ministry at the

A Traditional Japanese Boat

In 2001 I had the good fortune to meet master wooden boat builder Douglas Brooks, a friend of a then Japanese teacher colleague of mine. Mr. Brooks was in Japan to build replicas of Japanese wooden boats thanks to a grant from the Japan Foundation, and he had come to Niigata Prefecture to learn the art of taraibune (たらい舟;tub-boat) construction. At that time six fishing villages on Niigata's offshore island of Sado were the only communities in which the once-common boat was still in regular use, and the sole remaining craftsman on the island was in poor health. Mr Brooks spent weeks on Sado learning the art from its only practitioner, and at the end of his stay he visited the junior high school at which I and his friend taught at the time. Mr. Brooks had managed to bring a taraibune with him, and what a treat it was to see the beautiful craft up close!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Japanese Miscellany: Otafuku (お多福)

The balloon-faced mask painted a spectral white with ruby lips and depressed nose is called otafuku (お多福). As her name indicates, she is a symbol of good fortune, literally meaning "lots of luck". She dates from the Muromachi era (1336-1573), when chubbiness in women was indicative of wealth, as indeed it was until well into the 20th century. Traditionally otafuku masks were worn by dancers at festivals, and nowadays the masks are occasionally seen in commercial establishments. In modern-day Kyoto new building sites are blessed in the name of otafuku prior to construction.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The SL Aso Boy

Twelve years ago my wife and I traveled to the main southern island of Kyushu. I was something of a Japan Rail fanatic at the time, and I wanted to ride the length of Japan on the country's rail network, which is operated by the regional Japan Rail companies. Thus it was that we flew from Tokyo to Fukuoka in November of 1997 and rode the JR Kyushu Tsubame Express as well as the steam locomotive SL Aso Boy. JR is one of the better ways to see the country, and for tourists, the JR Pass is the cheapest mode of inter-prefectural travel.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Tsurigane, or 'Hanging Temple Bell'

The massive hanging bell struck by a pendent wooden mallet at Japanese temples is called the tsurigane. The oldest tsurigane was cast in 733, during the Nara Era, and is to be found at World Heritage Site Todaiji, in present day Nara prefecture.

Thanks, Japan Rail East


Don and I were exhausted after our longer and harder than expected cycle trip to Kitakatta (see previous posts). So, after ramen and sightseeing, we made our way to the station, purchased tickets, and waited for the down train to arrive- rather than cycle back. Meanwhile, Don packed his bike into a carrier, while I simply removed my front wheel and begged the station master to let me through the gate- which he promptly did. The regional Japan Rail companies, offshoots of the former nationalized Japan Rail, do not charge passengers extra fare for such items as skis, snowboards, or bikes, provided the items are properly stowed. But as my experience shows, JR staff, whom I have invariably found to be kind and helpful, will sometimes waive the rules. Don't, however, attempt to take even a collapsible bike with you on a crowded commuter train.