Miyazaki #4: Legends of Old Japan (手力雄命)

Okay, I’ll admit it. I’ve been putting off making this post forever because it is going to be a LONG one! Most postcards on this blog are pretty easy to explain. They often represent a place like a shrine or temple, a food like fruit or vegetables, or a person famous from the area. However this particular postcard isn’t that easy because it takes a bit of background knowledge on Japanese history and legends to understand just who the guy on the postcard is, and why he was featured. But today, I’m rising to the challenge!

Let’s start at the beginning.

The oldest books in Japanese history are the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, in which the myths and legends of Japan are written. It is said that Izanagi and Izanami, after creating Japan (and I guess the rest of the world), created three children as well: Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun; Tsukuyomi, the god of the moon; and Susanoo, the ocean and storm god.

Amaterasu didn’t exactly get along with her siblings, but in her defense, Susanoo especially seems like he was a bratty little brother, even throwing a flayed horse at her while she sat quietly weaving. In a rage (and probably in defense as well), she hid herself in a cave, denying the world of her light. The other gods and goddesses were concerned as the earth began to die, but no amount of pleading could bring Amaterasu out from her cave. Finally, the goddess of laughter, Ama-no-Uzeme started dancing wildly, and the other gods and goddesses laughter finally brought the curious Amaterasu peaking out of her cave. The god of strength, Tajikara Onomikoto, took the giant rock used to block the cave, and threw it all the way to what is now Nagano Prefecture, where you can see it today somewhere near Zenkouji. (Look, that’s the legend okay, I just report it how it is).

So in Takachiho we’ve allegedly got the cave where Amaterasu hid herself, the cave where the other gods and goddesses met to discuss what to do, and the origin-place of a rock that is now in Nagano.

Tajikara Onomikoto’s statue in front of the Amano Iwato Shrine

A bit clearer of a picture

The ema of Amano Iwato Shrine showing Amaterasu emerging from the cave.

The Amano Iwato Shrine’s inner shrine is actually the cave where Amaterasu hid. You can ask the priests at the temple for a view of it, and they will explain the legend and take you to the look out area to spot the cave, but no pictures are allowed of the viewing platform or the cave itself, which you can’t actually go in. However you can see the cave where all the gods met, which is down a river path about 5-10 minutes from the shrine.

The cave in which the meeting was held by the other gods to discuss what to do about Amaterasu

At the Takachiho Shrine, nightly Yokagura dances are held to explain the story. There are actually 33 dances, but the whole story is only performed on weekends in winter. During the rest of the year, a shortened version of the story is performed.

The goddess’s dance which made the other gods and goddesses laugh, and Amaterasu curious

Tachigara Onomikoto about to move the giant rock from the cave

The shrine during the day is a really beautiful place as well

So there’s the story. Around Takachiho there are many statues and sacred places, and I wish I had had more time to explore, but it was informative in even the short time we stayed. It is a bit difficult of a place to get to, but you can check here for some options.


Yamaguchi #2: The Kintai Bridge (錦帯橋)

Hi everybody! I’ve been neglecting this blog, which I apologize for, but for a great reason! In October I will participate in the We Love Japan Tour 2015 put together by Japan-Guide.com by blogging along the Northern Route. I’ll travel the entire month of October from Hokkaido down to Niigata, and of course, I’ll be collecting postcards along the way and posting about them here! I hope that anyone interested will follow along with me, both here and on Japan-Guide.com.

Meanwhile, let’s take a look at the opposite side of the country to Yamaguchi Prefecture, home of the Kintaikyo. This beautiful bridge crosses the Nishiki River in Iwakuni City, and is made entirely without nails! You can read more about it here!

When I went it was a Saturday, and around the Shin-Iwakuni shinkansen station there were no open post offices, so I visited the bridge, and then found a post office where I could buy my cards. Here are some pictures of the bridge:

The bridge with the castle on the hill in the background

Getting closer

Looking at it from the other side of the river

I like this one!

Kintaikyo is definitely worth a visit for those in the area!

Okayama #7: Kurashiki Traditional Buildings (倉敷美観地区(倉敷考古館と中橋))

Today’s postcard is from Okayama Prefecture, and features the old traditional buildings in Kurashiki’s Bikan District. This old merchant district features a beautiful canal lined with striking white buildings with black accents, as well as several Western-style buildings. The building featured in the postcard is the Archaeological Museum and the bridge leading to it. It’s a truly wonderful area, and I recommend a visit to anyone passing that way!

Building and postcard

A canal tour boat heading under the bridge

You can read more about Kurashiki and its historic buildings here!

Gifu #2: Sarubobo Doll (さるぼぼ)

Gifu’s second postcard features the bright red Sarubobo Doll. Sarubobo (which translates to “baby monkey”) are red, faceless, human-shaped dolls traditionally made by grandmothers for their granddaughters as dolls, and for their daughters as charms for a good marriage and good children. Traditionally red, now they come in all colors and sizes, and can be found all over Gifu, but especially in Takayama and the Hida region. The white kanji on the tummy is “HIDA”, while the writing on the little purse its holding is “Omamori”, the general name of amulets, charms or talismans sold at shrines.

A giant Sarubobo by Takayama’s Hachiman Shrine

These were found in the shop at Gujo Castle

Now you can buy many different colors, each of which has different meanings. But I still got a red one… I like the traditional ones the best!

You can read more about Sarubobo at wikipedia here. There is also a Sarubobo Shrine in nearby Gero Onsen. I didn’t have time to go to Gero, but you can see some pictures of this shrine here! It looks really neat! Next, Sarubobo can be bought all around Gifu prefecture, but if you want to try your hand at making one, join a course at Hida no Sato in Takayama! Read more about that here. Finally, you can read more about Sarubobo and my Gifu trip here!

Gifu #1: Shirakawa-go (白川郷)

I recently went on a road trip to Gifu Prefecture, and was able to see and do a lot related to my postcards! I’ll be posting the full set of 6 cards in the upcoming posts, starting with Gifu’s first postcard, depicting the famous Shirakawa-go!

Shirakawa-go is an extremely famous area in the Gokayama region of Northern Gifu. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site featuring Gassho-zukuri style farmhouses, some of which are over 250 years old! Gassho-zukuri are traditional style thatched-roof farm houses whose roofs resemble hands together in prayer like a Buddhist monk, hence the name. These thatched roofs are rare and becoming rarer in Japan, as people forget how to make and care for them. To thatch a roof is also a community-wide effort, and as many cities, towns, and villages around Japan are losing their younger generations to big cities like Tokyo, and the remaining residents become older, thatching a roof becomes more and more difficult. So there are very few places around Japan that still feature this style of house that people still live in.

Shirakawa-go is famous with tourists both Japanese and foreign. You can stay in some of these farmhouses, and this is popular especially in winter, when the town is covered in a light blanket of snow and the houses are lit up at night. Even in summer though, the area is very beautiful!

Just imagine the snow there…

Paths, streams and rice fields among the houses

I lost the sun in this picture

Looking out over the town from a viewpoint

Shirakawa-go is reached easiest from the nearby city of Takayama, also famous for its festival and the subject of a postcard I’ll be posting about soon. However if you don’t have time to go all the way up to Shirakawa-go, but still want to see Gassho-zukuri houses, there are several places in the prefecture you can see them, including at the Hida Folk Village in Takayama City, and at the Otaki Caves near Gujo City. You can read more about the area here at Japan-Guide. I also posted a blog post about my trip to Gifu on my personal blog, which you can read here if you’re interested!

2015.01.20: NHK World’s exploration of World Heritage Sites includes this video on Shirakawa and surrounding villages. Not only does it show some interesting details of the Gassho-zukuri style houses, but also highlights the community way of life, especially when everyone gets together to thatch a new roof. I found it very entertaining and enlightening, and encourage a watch!

Osaka #3: Osaka Castle (大阪城)

Another castle I visited in 2009 was Osaka’s magnificent castle. When we visited it was late afternoon, and the light and clouds were really beautiful with the castle in the forefront. The castle is a reconstruction, but it is still interesting and nicely done! You can read more about Osaka castle here.

Osaka Castle is also a famous place to see cherry blossoms. I’ve visited during cherry season once, but I was more focused on Kyoto at that time, so I don’t have many good pictures of the castle with cherries. Another time!

Osaka Castle

Slightly from the side

A neat tiger inside the castle

Looking out over Osaka

2015.01.20: NHK’s Fudoki series, 5 minute videos about various places and things of Japan, also has a video on Osaka castle. I recommend giving it a watch here.

Gunma #6: Yakimanju (焼きまんじゅう)

So my city’s summer festival was this past weekend, and despite the frankly torrential rains both days, I managed to find time in between being tossed around on a mikoshi and running to shelter in the downpour in geta and yukata to take pictures of my FAVORITE summer festival food, Yakimanju!

Okay, so it isn’t technically a summer festival food… you can actually eat it at little shops around Gunma all year round, and any time there is a “yatai” food booth throughout the year, you’ll find yakimanju sold. So what is it? Yakimanju are soft bread buns brushed with a yummy sweet and salty miso sauce, then grilled, then coated some more. They are SERIOUSLY good!

Woo Yakimanju booth! Okay, 200 yen for a stick of 4, here we go…

That’s the stuff!

The ladies liked my postcard after they noticed I took this picture!

YES! Why did I only get one stick?!

If you’re ever around Gunma, do yourself and your tastebuds a favor and look for a yakimanju shop, or an event that sells them. You wont be disappointed!

Hydrangea Flowers (Kanagawa 6 – Hakone Mountain Railway (箱根登山電車))

This post is going to be a little different from the others I’ve posted so far. Instead of talking about this postcard as a whole, I want to focus on a smaller element of it. But since I’ve never introduced the card before, I’ll give some background about it:

Kanagawa’s 6th postcard features the Hakone Mountain Railway (Hakone Tozan Densha), which travels from Odawara to Hakone-Yumoto, where it switches to a small mountain train, then continues on to Gora, which gives access to the Lake Ashi Cablecar.

Although the train is popular in general and runs year-round, the most famous time to ride it is during June and July, when thousands of Hydrangea (ajisai in Japanese) bloom along the tracks. These rainy season flowers are lit up during the night, and special night trains are added to the schedule during this time. You can read more about the train here.

A poster detailing the train times and ticket information in Shinjuku Station

Right now is the perfect season to ride this train and see these beautiful flowers. Although I’ve never ridden that train, I have ridden Enoshima’s Enoden (the subject of Kanagawa’s 2nd postcard in fact!) and the hydrangea along that line are beautiful as well.

So let’s talk about these flowers. Hydrangea range in color from the lightest pinks, blues, and purples, to the darkest of these colors, depending on acidity of the soil. Because of their bold colors, they are very striking! They are also one of my favorite seasonal flowers, and are currently in full and spectacular bloom here in Japan.

I could have sworn that postacollect featured these flowers on a number of postcards, but as I looked through, I only saw the one. Kanagawa is certainly famous enough for them; the temple of Meigetsu-in in Kamakura is one of the most famous places to see hydrangea in Japan, along with the Hakone Mountain Railroad. I hope next year’s set of cards has a few that feature hydrangea too!

Along with the Hakone Mountain Railroad and Kamakura’s Meigetsu-in, there are numerous other places in Japan to see these flowers, especially around Tokyo. Here are just a few of them:

Ohirasan, Tochigi City, Tochigi
Hasedera, Kamakura, Kanagawa
Mimurotoji, Uji, Kyoto

Let’s enjoy these beautiful flowers now!

Ishikawa #4: Senmaida Terraced Rice Fields (白米千枚田)

Today, let’s head out from the Kanto area into Ishikawa and the rural Noto Peninsula. I went on a road trip here during Golden Week 2 years ago and enjoyed the wild beauty of sea and sky. Of course I bought my postcards, but I didn’t take any pictures with them and the sights because despite running this blog and constantly thinking about it during my free time, I pretty much remember to take photos with the actual postcards only about 30% of the time.

However since it is unlikely I’ll be able to go back anytime soon just for that photograph of the fields with the postcard, I’m going to go ahead and post about it anyway. If anyone actually goes, takes a picture with the postcard, and doesn’t mind sending it to me, I will upload and post it will full credit and copious praise. Meanwhile, let’s learn about these interesting fields!

The Senmaida rice fields are located in the Shiroyone area near Wajima City in the rural Noto-Hanto (Peninsula) area of Ishikawa. Many tourists are familiar with the beautiful city of Kanazawa in Ishikawa, but few venture into Noto as a car is 100% necessary to get anywhere anytime soon. Actually, the amount of Japanese people I’ve met who have traveled in this area has been maybe one. It isn’t popular. But that makes it all the more interesting!

Anyone who has lived or traveled in Japan know that space is an issue. You’d think a place out in the middle of nowhere like Shiroyone would have plenty of room for rice fields, but actually rice can be pretty difficult to grow. As such, farmers in the 17th or so centuries found that the best place was the steep hill between mountain and ocean, and terraced the rice fields of Senmaida for that purpose.

Because the fields of Senmaida are so small, only the top few allow any sort of automated planting machine to be used, as you can see one man using it in the pictures below. Usually rice is planted with big machines these days, and only school children plant a little by hand just for the experience… but with the exceptions of those few top fields, the rest of Senmaida must be planted by hand. We came a little early in the season to see that; I’m sure a few more days and there would have been many people out there planting. Actually, you can even rent a plot to try the experience of planting yourself. What a great way for the farmers of Senmaida to give enjoyment and experience to tourists, and also get out of the work themselves!

Coming up on the rice fields

An information board explaining a little about the history

Looking down on the fields from the road

Another view while walking along the paths

Planting rice in late afternoon

Saitama 5 – Kangiin Shotendo (歓喜院聖天堂)

Saitama postcard number 5 is the building called “Shotendo” at the temple Kangiin in Kumagaya City, Menuma area. Although it is a well known shrine in and around Saitama, it is difficult to get to and is far away from other popular sights, and therefore is relatively unknown to Japanese living outside the general area, and completely unknown to tourists visiting Japan. As such, it is hard to find good information on it in English. Luckily Saitama’s tourist info site has a good English description of it. You can read about it in English here, and the official site of the temple is here (Japanese only).

Kangiin is nicknamed “Little Nikko” because of the beautiful and ornate craftsmanship of the inner building. It is truly reminiscent of Nikko to those who have visited both, and was declared Saitama’s first “National Treasure Structure” (最初の国宝建造物) in 2012.

Unfortunately, when trying to find this temple, I was sidetracked by a different one very close to it, and as a consequence was too late to take the tour to see the building up close. So these pictures are very bad ones! I will have to go back when I can (earlier this time!) to take better pictures to post here, but meanwhile, here is what I have:

Gate at Kangiin

The main shrine area; Shotendo is attached to the back of it.

Since I was too late to get in, I had to content myself with peering behind the fence at it

This was the best I could do… oops!

Around the corner… still can’t get a good view!

Oh well, it’s only an hour from me, I’ll go back for better pictures another time!