Thursday, January 21, 2010

Hiroshima, Japan

Whew.. Thanks for hanging in there with us on this trip. It has been really fun to look through all of the photos and select a few to put here on the blog.

Our last stop in Japan was in Hiroshima. We were hoping to arrive there earlier, but sadly enough Himeji Castle (previous post) was very busy and coming and going was very slow, so we arrived after dark. We went for a walk that evening to see the sights. Unfortunately the museum was closed.

When we arrived at the sight of the A-Bomb dome it was really strange to have in front of us a picture of what we had seen in so many history books growing up.

We walked around the Memorial Peace park and observed all of the memorials. One that we found to be particularly interesting was the Children's Peace Monument, dedicated to children who were killed or whose lives were effected by the bombing on August 6, 1945.

We were reminded of the story of
Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who suffered from the radiation of the bombing. She believed that if she folded 1000 paper cranes a wish would be granted to her and that was that she could be made well. The story goes, that she was too weak to complete all of the cranes, so her classmates completed the rest after her death and she was buried with them.

To this day, children all over the world fold paper cranes and send them to Hirshima with dreams of world peace. The cranes are placed on display by the memorial. There were thousands upon thousands of cranes of all sizes and colors.

It was a quick but memorable stop in Hiroshima, but one that we were glad to have made.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle dates back to 1346. It is one of the best three castles in Japan used for a very important defensive position for the Tokugawa shogunate government. It has undergone a number of reconstructions, restorations, and additions since it was first built. It miraculously survived World War II when the surrounding area was bombed. It is now a UNESCO world heritage site and is proud of its unchanged for over the last 400 years.

A marvelous stop in our tour through Japan.

Upon exiting the train station we came to the main street , and there was the "White Heron" peering down on us. The white walls give it the nickname after the bird. The plaster walls protect the building from fire and add strength to the walls.

We entered the main gate and wandered through mazes of walls and gates. We followed the crowd and made our way to the entrance.

The architecture was stunning and the fortifications looked strong and ominous even after many years of age. We were glad that we were not attackers but simply onlookers. The white walls protect the building from fire and add strength to the wood frame work.

Himeji Castle has made appearance in a number of movie including "The Last Samurai."

We were allowed to enter the keep. We took off our shoes and wore soft soled slippers. I believe it was to reduce the amount of wear to the stairs and the floor.

Strong doors and secret passageways abounded. Storehouses and numerous wells were located within every wall of the castle, including the main keep, for times of siege.

The main beams inside were really impressive.

All of the windows were barred to prevent intruders.

Having spanned many centuries, the castle saw many forms of weapons: bow and arrow as well as musket. The walls were covered with places for muskets to be stored.

It was fun to peep through and check out vantage points, through the arrow loops which came in all shapes and sizes.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

New Years Eve in Japan

What we had originally thought New Years in Tokyo would be filled with excitement. As it turns out, through our research, we learned that there were no large firework displays, large gatherings, or any huge countdown parties. There are only smaller gatherings at the temples to greet the new year. Many remain at home with their families and do not go out. This is why we decided to spend New Years in Kyoto, where many temples are, rather than Tokyo.

One thing for sure is that there were plenty of lanterns hanging about warmly lighting the chilly night. We chose one of the temples which was located in close proximity to our hotel, and near the shopping district.

An older couple paying a visit to the temple for the last time in 2009.

Dimly lit streets, but not shady, were warm and inviting, and great for an evening stroll through town.

Above the doorways and on the doorsteps were many different kinds of creative bouquets and wreaths to greet the new year. They were made of all sorts of natural materials including bamboo, rice straw, pine branches, and folded paper.

Yasaka Pagoda carefully keeping watch over the sleepy houses and ryokans surrounding it. It was first built in 1191 but was burned and then reconstructed in 1440. Click here for photos of Kyoto in the 1910s.

The temples were much busier than the quiet winding streets. Many people came and went through the giant gates. In the past, it was the custom to come to the shrine and light a straw rope from the lanterns (or try to obtain a few embers) and go home to light the hearth for the first meal of the new year. Many people carried around these ropes which they were handing out freely. I doubt that they were lighting fires at home though.

We watched as sticks with prayers written on them were slowly burned in numerous lanterns.

Vendors were set up around the perimeters and sold everything from herbs to hamburgers.

Miniature candy apples. MMM.

I believe that most of all we enjoyed walking about and looking at cozy houses that evening. The warm lights that night showed off the artistic culture in the streets, revealing the beauty of their simplicity and history.

The Streets of Gion, Japan

They say, if you only have one day in Kyoto you should roam the streets of the Gion district. We took the advice and would agree. Temples and trinkets stores lined the narrow streets. Traditional architecture abounded. The atmosphere was rich.

We wondered into a temple yard. It appeard to be a type of cemetary or moseleum.

I am sure that we looked like curious tourists as we peeked around corners and into doorways. Many people came and went offering sacrifices of insence and tossing coins into the wooden boxes infront of the statue of buddah.

One young boy interested in the fire and insence, much like myself.

A pretty tight graveyard. I believe all of the markers were for cremations as there was no space to bury a casket here.

On down the street we went. Stopping at a small place for lunch.

An excellent bowl of noodles was what we had. Udong, as they are called in Japan and Korea. We found them to be a staple at the restraunts. Also are also an affordable alternitive to many pricy options.

Chelsie inspects, tastes, and buys a box of cinnamon rice cakes. There were many to try. Bean, pumpkin, green tea, peach, strawberry and more. You were given a nice glass of green tea upon entering the store. Such fun shopping in Gion.

Busy streets are a great place to people watch.

Trinkets including stationary, stamps, pottery, chopsticks, fans, masks, banners, and many other forms of art could be exchanged for a few yen. We settled on some delicate blue bowls.

Chelsie and Amber pause amongst the bustle to smile .

Thanks for pushing the button Amber. It was great to have you along.

Gion is the origional Gaisha district, and although it is very rare and unusual to spot a real Gaisha, who have dwindled in number, you occasionally see young ladies who have payed to be dressed up in the traditional attire. They kindly posed for a candid shot.

As evening came we began to see people hurredly prepare for the New Years celebrations.

There were a plethera of lanterns hung on the temples waiting to be lit once dusk fell.

Chelsie found the largest.

A group of young ladies dressed up were touring the temple. We took some pictures for them, and then they wanted our picutres with them as well.

The above photo is of prayer wheels. Traditionally the mantra, a group of words that are considered capable of "creating transformation", is written in Sanskrit on the wheel. According to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, spinning such a wheel will have much the same meritorious effect as orally reciting the prayers. For more on these wheels click here.