A Monk in Nara

Well, it’s been a few days since my last post. Sorry about that! My job, which involves about four solid hours of walking a day, really tired me out my first week. But I’m a little more used to it now, so the blogging can recommence! And what better way than with a Japan photo?

A Monk in Nara

A monk begging in Nara, near Todai-ji.

Buddhism (仏教/Bukkyou) is one of Japan’s two primary religions (the other is Shinto). It was introduced from China in the sixth century and, though it’s been in decline since the end of WWII, roughly 70% of the population still identifies as Buddhist. I could devote a very long post just to discussing Japanese Buddhism, but I’m not going to because I doubt most people would be very interested in the details. The short version is that there are still multiple schools – including Amidist, Shingon, and Zen – and Buddhism and Shinto in Japan are syncretic, meaning that they overlap and are not mutually exclusive.

But the real point here is to explain the picture! It’s very common in Japan to see a Buddhist monk begging. They stand or sit with a begging bowl in public places, chanting mantras. It’s a safe guess that the above monk is a practitioner of Shingon Buddhism because that’s the school Todai-ji is associated with. It’s interesting from a western perspective because we associate begging with people who are out of work, or attempting to scam you, whereas in Japan it’s typically a religious practice.

I’ve always liked seeing monks because, after a while, places normalize and you stop looking at them actively. But whenever I came across a sight like this, it was like a reminder that, oh yeah, I’m still in Japan. Always very cool.

Family in Japan 05: Kansai

This took a while to recap, with my job and actually maintaining some sort of social life, but we’ve finally arrived at the last part of my family’s great Japan adventure: Kansai!

My family on the shinkansen.

We left Tokyo at 11:30 (ish) on Saturday. It wasn’t much time for Kansai, just Saturday evening and all of Sunday, but it was a good way to end the trip. Something a little less frenetic than Tokyo, with fewer crowds and a slower pace. They actually preferred Osaka to Tokyo and my mum said that, if she ever comes back to Japan, she’ll base the trip out of Kansai and only go to Tokyo for a couple of days. Reverse the itinerary. Osaka is undeniably a fabulous city, so I totally understand the love. We also had a great hotel. It was kind of inconvenient, in that we had to take a couple of subway lines to get to Namba, which happens to be the best train station ever, but the room was really big and nice, overlooking a river. So that was lovely.

Saturday evening was devoted to Osaka itself. First, we did something I’d never done, or thought about doing: the Umeda Sky Building.

The Umeda Sky Building.

As you might have assumed from the name, it’s near Osaka-Umeda (it’s at 1-1-88, Oyodonaka, Kita-ku, less than 10 minutes from the station on the Yodobashi Camera side) and it’s amazing. My mum loves architecture, which is why she wanted to see it (as you can see from the picture, it’s two skyscrapers that connect at the top floor), but it’s so worth visiting for anyone. It’s 173 meters (~568 feet) tall and you can go all the way up to the top, which gives you a 360-degree view of Osaka. First, you go up in a really fast elevator, made of glass, then up a glass escalator, then you pay ¥700 (for adults) and can go up to the rooftop open-air observatory. We went early evening, before sunset, but apparently it’s open till 10:30, so you can also get a night view.

Whee!

It was so cool, one of the coolest tourist-y things I’ve ever done anywhere. If you’re in Osaka and have a free hour or so, I really recommend it. The view is spectacular and the building is fascinating. A winning combination for this kid.

After the Sky Building, we went to Namba to eat at my favorite Japanese chain, Italian Tomato, then went on to Dotonbori. I’ve talked about Dotonbori before, so I went go into detail on this one, but it was fun to take them because it’s so famous and interesting. My sister won more UFO catcher prizes, because she rocks those things and was a little obsessed, then we called it a night pretty early, so we’d have enough energy for Nara.

She won us matching mini-alpacas.

I know this is kind of an unusual decision, but with only one day left I decided to take my family to Nara rather than Kyoto. This is mostly because I prefer Nara to Kyoto, but also because it’s less crowded and Todaiji is amazing. They were pretty worn out and the crowds at Kyoto tourist spots are always going to be worse than crowds in Nara, which is just as lovely, but less famous. Actually, I think Nara is more beautiful than Kyoto overall, but it doesn’t have as many well-known sites so fewer foreigners go if they only have time for one.

The park is so beautiful. And it was a beautiful day.

As I expected, despite being tired and hot (it was really hot that day), they enjoyed Nara. We didn’t feed the deer, but we certainly saw enough of them, and my mum in particular was impressed by the Daibutsu. It’s just so big, you can’t help but be a little awe-struck the first time you see it. It’s one of those things, you know? Despite knowing how big it is from guides or whatever, you can’t quite realize it until you’ve seen it in person. There were a ton of school groups, mostly junior high and elementary school sixth graders, but it wasn’t too bad overall and we had plenty of space to take pictures and have a good time.

And that was it! We headed back to Osaka mid-afternoon, ate a late lunch at Namba, and did a bit of shopping. Then, on Monday, I got them back to the airport and headed off alone to Matsuyama. I ended up crying in the airport, and being really sad for a few days afterwards, but that’s all right. It was just such a fantastic 12 days, exhausting and full, but brilliant. We saw and did so much and, despite a few pitfalls along the way, they really liked Japan. In fact, my mum said she’d like to come again, if I end up back here for any significant amount of time, which is likely. So, I don’t know about you, but I’d call that a success! Now I’ve got about nine weeks left in my contract, which means about nine weeks till I head back to the States for a while. That means there’s a lot going on in my life, and Japan Version 2.0 is coming to a close, but I’m okay with that because it just means I can move forward, towards a proper career and, yes, Japan Version 3.0, because, despite being done with ALT work, I am still not done with Japan.

With things like this, how could I get bored?

So that’s it for the trip write-up series. I’ll be back soon, hopefully sooner than these posts were coming out, with other things going on right now. Some good, some bad, and no doubt some very weird. You know, business as usual in the land of the mikan.

Kansai in March: Part 01

As you may or may not know, Saturday (March 5) was my birthday. I turned 23 and, rather than spend it in Matsuyama, I took Monday the 7th as vacation and spent the weekend in Osaka/Nara/Kyoto with my foreign student friend Lauren. It was an amazing weekend, the timing worked out brilliantly for everything, and I don’t think I’ve taken that many pictures in one weekend (over 200) in a long time. If ever. So let’s get started with the recap, shall we? First I will be covering Saturday, when we went to Nara and Kyoto.

Todai-ji on a gorgeous day.

We went to Nara solely to go to Todai-ji (東大寺, or Eastern Great Temple). Pictured is the hall of the great Buddha. It’s the largest wooden structure in the world, dates from the 8th century, and, as you might suspect, houses the world’s biggest bronze Buddha statue. It’s a World Heritage Site and famous for a reason: it’s awesome. The building was much bigger in the past, but it’s still massive and amazing, and the park it’s in (which is technically the 東大寺 temple complex, but is often referred to casually as the Nara deer park) was surprisingly not full that day. So we got to see a lot of the little temples and shrines and, of course, feed the deer.

Sacred deer like cookies (featuring Lauren).

The deer at Nara (also on Miyajima Island in Hiroshima) are considered sacred messengers to the gods, so there are tons of them just wandering around. You can buy cookies from little stands to feed them. It’s very cute and fun, but, as you can see in the photo, once you start feeding one, more will come. The deer eating cookies in the photo was so tiny. Just a baby and absolutely adorable.

We managed to get rid of all the cookies without getting completely mobbed before heading into the Buddha hall, because I had never seen the Buddha before and you can’t go to 東大寺 without seeing him. He’s just that impressive.

See? Big Buddha.

Apparently a person can fit inside one nostril. The whole hall is cool, though, with guardian statues and other awesomeness. I wholeheartedly recommend going to Nara, if you’re in that part of Japan. You won’t be disappointed.

But we didn’t stop with just Nara! After wandering around the park a bit more, taking some more photos, we hopped on the train to Kyoto to go to Fushimi Inari-Taisha (伏見稲荷大社), which is a massive Inari shrine (fox gods, mostly) in Kyoto. It’s really famous because it’s the shrine with all the torii gates that everyone has seen at least one picture of sometime in their life.

There are a lot of torii.

We were both super psyched to get to go because we’d both wanted to see it for ages and never had. It’s actually not just one shrine, though – as you go through the paths (there are several) you find a ton of smaller, similar shrines all over the mountain. And, of course, there are a lot of fox god statues, including the scariest one ever:

We called him the ZOMG Fox.

It was so great, I can’t even tell you. We just walked around for over an hour, taking pictures and being flaily over how cool it was.

Pictures like this!

I have nothing but good things to say about 伏見稲荷, to be honest. It’s free, it’s massive, there are loads of paths so you can actually manage to avoid having strangers in every single picture (a rarity in Japan), and it’s just one of those places that you should see in person if you ever get the chance.

How can you go wrong visiting a place like this?

And then, just to finish the day, we went to Gion, which is the geisha district in Kyoto. We didn’t see any maiko, sadly, but we did get to see the district itself. Almost got hit by taxis while I took photos, got annoyed with the people around us, it was one of those times. But fortunately Lauren and I never got mad at each other. Just at taxi drivers and crowds. So, to close up part one, which was more photos than proper review, I’ll leave you with a shot of Gion in the evening. It was a lovely, lovely day.

Gion

Gion in the early evening.