Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Attaching pictures here

I can't get them to the Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy's Facebook page, but they're on mine.  I am also working on getting them right here.  Let's hope it works!  Ueno castle, ninja working wear, a deer who knows where to find food at the source, a tiny shrine on the grounds of Kasuga Taisha shrine, and the main hall at Todaiji.

Maddeningly, I can't get to other photos of this trip. Try MY FB page if you want to see the Daibutsu's Giant Hands, the Shrine drums, and my snack at the Todaiji museum.  Frustrating, this.

Nara, World Heritage Sites, Tourist Temples and dinner!

Nara, definitely worth a visit, has almost as many World Heritage Sites as it has of its famous bowing, and sometimes pushy, deer. One nibbled at my teal L.L.Bean parka and also tried for a bite of my Louis Vuitton purse.  It got its nose slapped for its trouble.  Only polite deer get Shika Senbei -the special nutritious and tasty deer crackers, which are all they are supposed to be fed.
The deer are highly protected as they are said to originate from a particular famous white deer who bore a kami from Kashima Shrine to the new Kasuga Shine, founded by the Fujiwara family in the 8th Century.  The shrine is still there, still operating, and is not only a World Heritage Site, but home to many national treasures, continuing important Shinto Ceremonies and an interesting museum.  This had a display of swords when I visited it.  The swords were listed by the maker of the blade when the blade was signed.  One, a national treasure, was listed as the property of the principle kami of the shrine, who presumably was not displeased at its display.  There was also a modern replica of one sword located during excavations, displayed next to the original.  It was gorgeous, with gems and mother of pearl on the scabbard and hilt, and of course a blade that can only be called a work of art.
There are also two gigantic taiko, one Phoenix and one Dragon, male and female, used in a ceremony in which the kami is transferred from one shine to another, at night, annually.
This being Japan, there is a well-made video of this ceremony, which beats standing out in the cold, and perhaps rain, to watch in person.  The original drums, though beautifully preserved and maintained, are now housed in the museum, and replicas are used in the ceremony.
Horyji temple includes the oldest wooden buildings in the world, dating from the early 8th Century, though it was founded in 607.  It is amazing to see the methods of construction, still used today.
In Japan, things are often closed on Mondays, including Christmas Day, which is not a holiday in Japan and generally not celebrated.  There are few Christians in Japan, and Santa, bearing fried chicken, wears thin, with Christmas vanishing overnight as the big build up to New Year's, Japan's seasonal holiday period, begins.  This was true of a number of museums that were on my list.  The National Museum was closed, to reopen January 1 with a new exhibit, for example.
Kofukuji was open, though its museum was similarly closed, and the main structure was enveloped in a superstructure to allow for renovation of this historically significant building in a protected environment.
Todaiji is the Big One.  It has what it claims is the largest temple entry gate in Japan.  I could be wrong, but Taisekiji's Sanmon is very nearly as large and of similar construction.  Todaiji's is unpainted wood, and crowded with tourists and deer.  The big attraction is the largest wooden building in the world; though it used to be larger and was reduced by one-third at its last reconstruction, it is still the record holder.  This is the home of the enormous Daibutsu, a statue of Shakyamuni, flanked by huge statues of Kannon and (I think) Amida.  This temple was founded in the 700s.  One of its museums was closed for a new exhibit, but the other was open, and out front are full-sized replicas of the hands of the Daibutsu.  The museum cafe offers very good traditional snacks.  I had o-cha and tiny lotus root buns.  Excellent!
The actual temple is filled with not only altars and a very few people trying to actually practice some form of Buddhism but also with souvenir shops (want a deer hat?  A t-shirt?), amulet sellers and fortune tellers, all wearing a Todaiji uniform.  It was impossible to tell if they were clergy or not.
To me it is very sad to see what I think of as "Tourist Temples," which are primarily viewed as places of historic significance with no actual relevance today.  Yes, it's nice to see all the tourists (mainly Chinese, from the language -- Christmas is an ordinary workday in Japan; the holidays come after New Year's) admiring the beauty, but it seems to me the purpose of the temples has been lost.  Taisekiji, home of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, is not only historic but contains important historic buildings and is also the home of an active and vibrant world religion with a consistent and singular practice since its founding.  No admission is charged, and while thousands and thousands of people visit every year, Taisekiji is not set up as a tourist attraction. Rather, it clings to the actual purpose of a Buddhist temple -- to teach Buddhism and help people attain enlightenment.
In Nara, I also visited Gangoji, which is the oldest Buddhist Temple in Japan.  Timbers and roof tiles have been dated to 588CE.  It was originally located in Asuka but was moved in 710 when the capital of Japan was moved to Nara.  Although this World Heritage site charges admission, it is also attached to a monastery where nuns and monks study and practice several forms of Buddhism, which is something I found rather confusing, but at least it felt like a working temple, and neighborhood people dropped in to pay their respects; it was not crammed with cell-phone bearing tourists and felt peaceful and nice, if confused.  It is clearly a rich temple; the buildings, gardens and grounds are beautifully kept, the museum is very good, and it is attached to the Ganjoji Research Institute for Cultural Property, which studies the various artifacts owned by the Temple and other historic sites in Nara.  One can see x-rays of early statues of Prince Shotoku, responsible for bringing Buddhism to Japan somewhere between 538 to 552CE.  The dates vary by source, but that was very long ago.  Because of this connection, the museum was very interesting.
It's hard to be a vegetarian in Japan, because dashi (fish stock) is everywhere, and I can't eat it.  But I passed a ten-don place on the way back to the station that offered vegetable ten (tempura) don (served over rice in a bowl) and I was hungry, so I stopped for dinner.  After a couple of false starts, the chefs managed to produce a delicious selection of vegetable tempura and a small jug of sake, accompanied by an irregular sauce that did not include dashi.  It was great and I was full!
I barely scratched the surface of Nara.  I've been before, and I want to return to see even more of Japan's early history and culture, carefully preserved.
Photos are still troublesome.  Please check The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy's Facebook page for those.  I think I can get them there.

The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy's Facebook Page

This is the main hall at Todaiji.

Trains, Ninja and Basho

Trains in Japan range from the fantastically fast Nozomi Shinkansen (2 hours and 10 minutes from central Kyoto to Shinagawa in Tokyo -- YES!  I got to ride it!) to funky little tourist trains like the one that takes you to Uenoshi station, location of Iga-ryu, on the Iga-Tanabe line.

Iga-ryu is where the largest and most famous ninja museum and show are held.  The train is a few cars, colorfully painted with ninja symbolism.  One is blue, the other pink.  I have a photo but am still having problems I can't seem to solve in uploading them here.  Please check The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy's Facebook page.  I can get them there.  Mostly.
This train runs through a mountain range with rivers, campgrounds and fishing lodges as well as rice paddies and gardens, all small, and forests.  Then it descends into a large valley, where Ueno castle  rises above the plains and Iga-ryu is contained within the grounds.

Tips for navigating castles:  they are tall.  There are many stairs.  They are steep.
If you have a tendency to vertigo or wear progressive glasses, take the glasses off so you can see the stairs clearly when descending, and you might want to try going down backwards or sideways.  The views from the top are usually worth the effort.

When regarded strategically, Japanese castles are exceptionally difficult to attack, as they are positioned on high ground, with steep walls, often have moats, and have narrow entries.  Only a guerrilla force of stealth fighters could climb the walls to attack from within.

This maybe why this ninja center is so close.

However, the preferred method of attacking castles was to infiltrate a kunoichi -- a term specific for female ninja -- into the castle so that she can simply open a door.

Basho is a famous, probably the most famous, haiku poet ever.  He wandered the country writing poetry, much of which is preserved, and which serves as not only good reading material but also as a model for many students of haiku.  Though simple, just 17 syllables arranged in lines of 5-7-5, there are rules for constructing this kind of poetry.  There should be a natural image, and it should evoke and emotion.  It's not just any 17 syllables.

Basho was born right in the confines of what is now Ueno park, and his home is preserved as a museum.  Unfortunately, I don't read kanji well enough to truly appreciate the poetry in its original form but I definitely appreciate the translations.  I like formal poetry, and I often write haiku, so this was a treat!

Ueno is a word often seen in Japan.  It means "above the field," so it is a location that often occurs. These locations often back on hilly woods or mountains, so they are good places to build defensive structures like castles.  Ueno-jo is worth the trip, as is the rest of the day-long experience.

Including riding, as I did, local trains in a great circle route all around the area.  If you like trains, and I do, this is a fun way to get there.

The Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy's Facebook Page

Thursday, December 14, 2017



 This is a French word that means a little extra, like that 13th doughnut in a bakers' dozen.  I got one today.

Since I have been in Japan (5 months, almost, now) I have been wanting a veggie burger.  Oh, they have meat burgers, but I don't eat meat, so what am I to do?

I have been too darned lazy to make my own from scratch.  They don't seem to exist in the frozen department of any grocery store.  Freshness Burger appeared to advertise one (I only got a glimpse) but on investigation, failed me.

Today, I hopped off the bus in front of Ootorijinja, the big Shinto Shrine at the corner of Yamate-dori and Meguro-dori.  It's the closest stop to the Cupboard Over the Stairs.

Sometimes, in Buddhism, we get a little conspicuous benefit or reward for practice.  I have heard these called "cookie" benefits, like the universe gives you a cookie for being good.

There is a Mos Burger on that corner by the bus stop and for no good reason I stopped to look at the menu.  Something said "YASAI" (dammit, auto-carrot, I know what I want to say) burger (yasai means vegetable) so I thought I would go in and inquire.


I'll take it.  And have one for dinner tomorrow.


Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Only in Japan!

I'm too much of an Old Japan Hand to have many of the usual "only in Japan" moments.  I had one today, and it's had me laughing for the past couple of hours.

In years past, when in Tokyo I have stayed in Shinagawa, so I could easily attend Myokoji, the Nichiren Shoshu Temple that's been my temple in Tokyo for over 25 years.  This has meant that going to and from the Nichiren Shoshu Head Temple of Taisekiji was most easily accomplished by Shinkansen between Shinagawa Station and Shin-Fuji station, with a cheap bus or expensive cab connecting the dots between the train and the Temple.

There is a direct bus service, called the Yakisoba Bus, between Taisekiji and Tokyo Station.  It's not expensive and many people love it.  It hasn't been convenient for me and the one time I tried it, it killed my back, so I never did it again, no matter how frantically it was urged upon me.

But I've moved.  I'm quite close to Myokoji, by a single quick bus, and I could even walk, if I felt like a half-hour hike.  I'm attending Myokoji a couple of times a week, and liking the convenience of this very nice neighborhood.

I'm making the pilgrimage to Taisekiji this weekend, and as I may have mentioned, I've been sick.  I'm on the mend, but trying to put together the transportation has been too complicated for my weakened brain.  Once I realized that attending Myokoji for morning Gongyo (services) before leaving this Saturday morning was simply not a good idea, the network of buses, cabs and trains I'd put together was not going to work very well.

I thought about the Yakisoba Bus.  One telephones for a reservation.  Yesterday, I tried.  And tried. And tried.  The call went through each time and I was informed, by a recording in Japanese, that I had reached the JR East Bus Reservation Center.  Hurray!  It then asked me if I wanted to make a reservation.  I most certainly did.  However, it did NOT say they were closed Wednesday.  It did NOT say that the office was closed at this time (and I made sure I was calling in hours).  It did NOT say "Press 1 for English."  Nor did it tell me HOW to make said reservation.  It merely started over.

So, after asking a friend who has given up and treks over to Tokyo station to make her reservations in person, I thought I would ask for help.

I went to Myokoji and after evening Gongyo (service) and some power shodai (practice), I asked the college-aged priests at the front desk for help.  Nichiren Shoshu's seminary college is in Tokyo, so Temples in Tokyo are full of delightful young priests more than eager to help.  They were.

It took an HOUR of diligent telephonic effort on their part, followed by a trip to the closest 7-11 (what can't it do?) on mine where the nice young clerk was happy, based on the reservation number, to sell me the actual tickets!  I returned to the Temple to show the wonderfully helpful young priests -- who admitted that this was a difficult process even for them -- that VICTORY WAS OURS!  I had bus tickets!

🚌 🎟

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Moving to Meguro -- Black Cats RULE!

I now live in the Cupboard Over the Stairs, an apartment roughly the size of a walk-in closet in any American suburban house.  I think it's just a hair larger than the broom closet (yes, it was really a broom closet) in London that sold for over a million pounds quite a long time ago.

It was easy to move:  I called KuronekoYamato transport company.  Their logo is a black cat carrying a kitten, which has proven so popular that it's now incorporated into their name, kuro being black and neko being cat.  I packed the things, they came and got them at the promised time, loaded them into a mini-containerette and they vanished, in the space of some 15 minutes, to reappear when and where I wanted them.  It was cheap, too.  Black cats ROCK!

A Butsudan is a Buddhist altar.  They come in all sizes and range from simple to fancy.  Often, the Butsudan itself (where the object of practice resides) is quite small, and everything else that encompasses an alter must be incorporated through the use of other pieces of furniture.  Sometimes everything comes in matching sets, but it's several pieces of furniture. can get an all in one unit.  The one I ordered is cabinet style, about as tall as I am.  Closed, it is a tall cabinet. Open, there is the actual Butsudan, with doors, and all the shelves, some of which pull out, to make the complete set in one tidy package.  Mine is ebony.  It is lovely.  It fits in the World's Smallest Apartment nicely and looks elegant and respectful.  I wish I was a decent photographer, but I'm not.  Imagination is a wonderful thing.

The maker shipped it via KuronekoYamato.  It was to arrive the same day as the rest of my things.  Imagine my surprise when both the Butsudan and the mini-containerette arrived together, on the very same truck!  Black cats RULE!

When Japan does things right, they are superbly right.

I wish I could upload a picture!