2020NYinJapan Part 4: Iki

That narrow corridor of water between Japan and continental Asia, the confluence of three seas — East China, Yellow, and the Sea of Japan — is called the Korea Strait. It is about 200km wide, and is bisected by the long and narrow Tsushima Island. From Tsushima, on a clear day, it is said one can see Korea across the Western Channel. In the opposite direction, across the Tsushima Strait, it is a mere 65km jaunt to Kyushu, one of the four major islands of Japan.

The Tsushima Straight bears a heavy historical significance for Japan. It is over Tsushima Strait that a metaphorical “bridge” stretched from Japan to Continental Asia through the ages. The Jōmon Peoples crossed the Straight 14,000 years ago, one of the first settler groups to the Japanese archipelago. Thousands of years later Buddhism and all sorts of Chinese culture crossed over. The straight was plied by wakō pirates for centuries, and the Mongols crossed it a couple times in their attempts to invade. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the “great unifier” of Japan struck out across the Strait on his failed attempts to invade Korea. At the turn of the 20th century, the Straight was the site of a decisive battle between Japan and Russia — the first time an Asian power defeated a Western power in the modern era.

There has been more than just pirate ships, Mongols, and gunboats floating in these waters. In legendary times there was a magical island that roamed around called Iki Island (or Ikijima). The gods decided that was inconvenient and pinned the island within eight pillars (one in the shape of a giant monkey).

In the final foray of our New Year’s trip around Japan, we headed for the “Lucky Island” of Ikijima.

Continue reading “2020NYinJapan Part 4: Iki”

2020NYinJapan Part 3: Ise

In a time before time, the sibling deities Izanagi and Izanami (who were married, but that is a different tale) stood on the Floating Bridge of Heaven. They had a jewelled spear which they dipped into the ocean below. After pulling it out, the drops from the spear formed the islands we know today as Japan.

Later, Izanagi was washing his face. When he washed out his left eye he “begat” Amaterasu — the goddess of the sun. Amaterasu’s brother, the god of the wind named Susano-o was begat when Izanagi was washing his nose.

Susano-o was a bit of a bully, and did some really mean things to his older sister. Once, when Amaterasu couldn’t handle things anymore, she hid herself in a cave. This was problematic as she was the sun goddess, so the other gods got together in the dark with a plan and tricked her into coming out using a mirror. There is obviously lots more to the story, but the mirror is important: it becomes one of the three Imperial Regalia of Japan.

Amaterasu comes out of the cave
Amaterasu comes out of the cave (Source)

Much later, about 2000 years ago in our history, the daughter of the emperor of Japan at the time set out to find a permanent location for the worship of the Sun Goddess. She settled on Ise, in Mie prefecture, a beautiful area with spectacular sunrises. Two millennia later Ise Grand Shrine (Ise Jingū) is the most important of Japanese Shinto holy sites, considered the “home” of Amaterasu, and houses the mirror from the myth. It is a primary pilgrimage destination for people all over Japan. Ise Jingū is actually two complexes consisting of 125 shrines to various deities.

We travelled to Ise on the Shimakaze, a very fancy sightseeing train. The weather was fairly chilly, but we warmed ourselves multiple times a day in the hot springs of our hotel, the Kashikojima Hojoen. We ate very well (lots of Japanese spiny lobster — or “Ise Shrimp”) and I took a ton of photos of sunrises.

Continue reading “2020NYinJapan Part 3: Ise”

2020NYinJapan Part 2: Kyoto

Kyoto was a short stop during this trip. We did all of our regular traditions when visiting home: met with family for our own New Year’s, went for hatsumōde at Yasaka Jinja, visited the family grave.

Sun rays on Kyoto tower as we visit the grave
Sun rays on Kyoto tower as we visit the grave

One day I had a couple of hours alone time so I decided to take a little walking tour of a couple of spots that I had recently read about, but had never visited. The first stop was Otafuku, a cafe I have walked by countless times, featured in Merry White’s excellent book Coffee Life in Japan. I had a little jam-toast and a cup of coffee and live-tweeted my observations.

Once fortified with magical java juice, I walked westward down Shijo all the way to Omiya, checking out what was new (Kyoto Apple Store!) and listening to the familiar street sounds of Kyoto. While travelling and walking I never put in my headphones to listen to audiobooks or podcasts. I want the full sensory experience.

From Omiya I turned north and headed towards Nijo Castle, famous for its Nightingale Floor (mentioned in another post). This time I stopped at Shinsen-en, the oldest existing garden in Kyoto. This was the private garden of the Emperor built in 794. But that is not the reason I wanted to visit.

A couple of years ago, during New Years 2017-18, I travelled alone to Mount Kōya, one of the holiest mountains in Japan. (Unfortunately I never wrote a travel log of this amazing experience, but you can see the obligatory Koya-san photoset here). Koya-san is a sprawling temple complex of the Shingon tradition of Buddhism. It was masterminded by the tradition’s founder Kūkai in 819. Kūkai was an amazing person with many legends surrounding him. In fact, his body is still sitting in meditation on Mt Koya right now, 1185 years after his “death.” I spent a lot of time researching him before visiting Koya, and that’s when I learned about one such event in Kyoto.

Kūkai was very famous in his time, and was tipped to run Toji, a very important temple in Kyoto. In 824 there was a long drought in Kyoto, causing all sorts of fear about crop failure and famine. The emperor called on Kūkai for help. It was here, at Shinsen-en, where Kūkai performed the rain-making rite, calling upon the Dragon King who lived in this pond. The temple area of this garden is small, but there is quite a bit to see in the details since it is a curious mix of Buddhist, Shinto, and Taoist symbolism and architecture.

After leaving Shinsen-en I walked down Oike, a street I used to live on, and stopped by a very crowded “Money” shrine to pay my respects for the previous year (when I finally became debt free) and the future (who knows!). The crowd was insane, so I just gave a quick bow and word of thanks across the street from the gold torii. From there I walked to Teramachi, swung by Honno-ji to see Nobunaga’s mausoleum and this really creepy statue before heading home.

So much to see in a mere 5km jaunt! I really love Kyoto.

See all photos of Kyoto on Flickr →

2020NYinJapan Part 1: Tokyo

We spent less than a day here, getting up early on Jan 1st — known as gantan (元旦) in Japanese. A friend who I had not seen in many years picked us up from the hotel, and we all went for hatsumōde together. My friend lives mostly in Dubai where his three kids go to British school. His brother-in-law also came with us with his two kids who are schooled in Singapore. My kids obviously are educated in Canada. It was amazing to see all the bi-racial kids, educated in totally different countries, interact with one another at a shrine in the Yoyogi area of Tokyo. The became fast friends, griping about how difficult Japanese school is. 😂

While my buddy and his family were gathering over some osechi ryori [sidenote: get a nice binaural intro to osechi at the Uncanny Japan podcast] we took a quick jaunt to the New National Stadium, a 1 billion dollar multipurpose stadium built to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. Walking through the streets of Tokyo in the morning, I was struck by how empty it seemed. Of course most stores were shuttered, and people would be at home having New Year’s meals with their families, or be outside of Tokyo in their hometowns. Yet “empty” Tokyo was a little spooky. That said, we still had to line up for 30 mins for the local shrine.

We took a taxi to the Olympic Village where in front of the official Olympic Museum there is a display of giant Olympic rings that people lined up to get photos with. It was pretty busy around this area. The New Year’s cheer and Olympic fever was in the air. Everyone was really helpful, politely offering to take photos for other people. We were able to get a family shot, and then quickly headed to Tokyo Station where saw the countdown clock for the 2020 Olympics before catching the bullet train to Kyoto.

The weather was amazing: clear blue skies. I was happy to be sitting on the right side of the train because we would get a clear view of Mt Fuji. However, the only clouds in the sky had gathered around that mountain obscuring the view. Alas, the only good photo I got of Fuji-san from the Shinkansen was this one.

2020 New Years in Japan recap

In just 10 days we covered quite a bit of the country.
In just 10 days we covered quite a bit of the country.

This year I celebrated New Year’s in Tokyo for the first time. We landed at Haneda on New Year’s Eve, stayed in the airport hotel, and over the next 10 days crossed about 2200km of the country. As I summed up on Twitter:

  • 🏟️ 1 Olympic stadium
  • 🚤 1 Hydrofoil
  • ⛴️ 1 Ferry
  • 🎂 2 birthdays
  • 🤝 2 Handshakes with politicians
  • 🚄 3 Bullet trains
  • 🌅 4 Amazing sunrises
  • ✈️ 5 Airplanes
  • 🎥 58 Videos
  • 📸 538 Photos

Over the next four posts I will share some of the highlights of this whirlwind trip. If you would like a preview you can see the pruned album of 160 photos and 27 videos on Flickr here →

UPDATE: List of all pieces of this series