Category Archives: Japan – Places of Interest

3 Sillies

Sengen Shrine is surrounded by enormous cryptomeria trees and features one, standout, ancient ginkgo tree. There’s a main structure which, I heard, is usually closed and only open for special occasions. There are a couple of other structures, as well as trails leading off up the mountain slope. I was interested in seeing the interior of the main building because I heard there was a four-hundred-year-old mandala inside that served as a map of the route up Mt. Fuji. As fortune would have it, because today was the ceremony of the opening of the pilgrimage route for this year, the main shrine building was open, and we were permitted to go inside.

Sengen Shrine

The mandala hung on the wall on the left side at the back. There was a small altar in the middle at the back and behind it was a room with several artifacts displayed. On the right was an illustration of silhouettes of each of the items displayed behind the glass and an explanation in Japanese about them. These, I learned, were all things that previously had been set upon Mt. Fuji, mostly statues of Buddha—some beheaded—and some other statues of stone or wood. All these items had been carried back down off the mountain and were kept inside the shrine.

 

Upon close inspection, the mandala turned out to be a copy of an original, which made sense as a painting created in the late 16th/early 17th century is nothing to sneeze at. It was still interesting to study. The work was very detailed and depicted life below the mountain and the route all the way to the summit. There were pilgrims heading up to the peak or staying in rock shelters; men doing mizugori and people at shrines and accommodations along the way; and a river with people crossing. Emi and I were talking about it and we asked a man some questions. He called over another gentleman who explained in much detail about the mandala. I’m afraid my Japanese is not good enough to comprehend everything when talking about history and Buddhism.

Another similar illustration hung on the wall inside the front door but there were some differences. Emi noticed how one shrine below and to the west of Sengen Shrine looked much larger in this second mandala. She asked a man in official robes (he turned out too be the head of the shrine) if this other shrine was the head shrine since it was larger. He very sternly replied that Sengen Shrine was the head shrine and there were no mistakes to be made about that.

After we exited the structure, I asked Emi to verify what I thought I had understood. She confirmed that he indeed had stated that Sengen Shrine was the head shrine of the pilgrimage route and on this side of Mt. Fuji. She told me that some other shrines around the mountain also claimed head status or that their route was the oldest pilgrimage route. I recalled that the director had said in an email to all of us that we had to be careful about what we said about the Murayama Route and anything connected to the history and religious background of the area. We couldn’t declare things like, “This is the oldest…” or “This was the very first…”. Superlatives and exactitude were out. If rivals heard such things, there would be claims against NHK.

On the altar in the shrine I had seen an illustration of two men arm-wrestling with the English caption, “Do not gloat; Do not pout”. I asked Emi if she had seen it and what it said in Japanese. She confirmed that the Japanese had expressed the same idea: do not feel pride and do not be a sore loser. I said that it was ironic because it seemed that the people here who were claiming that their shrine was the head and their trail was the oldest route were doing so in pride and did not look kindly upon any notions that they were incorrect. The folly of pride indeed!

The beheaded Buddha statues were a curiosity to me. Why would anyone vandalize statues of the Buddha in a country that practices Buddhism? It was explained to me that during the Sino-Japanese war, Buddhism was considered the religion of the enemy and so the statues were beheaded. I later found several more examples at the summit of the mountain. Of course, once the war was over, Buddhism was acceptable once more.

What bizarre thinking! Buddhism, which came too Japan around 1,500 years ago and became in intrinsic part of Japanese beliefs and culture, was suddenly reviled out of the convenience of war, and then welcomed once more. Not that much earlier in Japanese history, Christianity had been regarded as a foreign enemy and crosses were stamped upon and Christians killed. But in the early years of the Meiji Period, Japan was allies with the West, so Christianity was then alright. I told Emi that this reminded me of George Orwell’s 1984 where there were three supernations and two were always allies fighting against the third. But near the end of the book, the “allies” abruptly become the enemy and the previous enemy now the ally. Real life is stranger than fiction.

A third case of puzzling human thinking was explained to us, but because of my ill confidence in my Japanese comprehension ability, I can’t be certain if I understood everything perfectly. The objects on display at the back of the shrine could be accessed by simply opening two sliding wood-framed doors fitted with windows. Of course we didn’t try to open those doors, but I later heard that they were alarmed because a theft had occurred in the past. The thieves were Koreans who had stolen the artifacts under the pretense that since Buddhism had come to Japan through the Korean peninsula, these items were in rightfully the heritage and property of Korea. This seemed completely ludicrous to me as everyone knows that Buddhism began in India and had come to the Far East through China. Korea was a convenient route to reach Japan.

So the story was that Koreans stole the artifacts and brought them back to Korea where the thieves were then tried in a Korean court and found not guilty because the court sided with them, agreeing that these items were indeed a part of Korean heritage. It sounds so utterly ridiculous that I really have to question whether or not I misunderstood some of what was said or if it was a story concocted to vilify Koreans (as that kind of thing does happen in Japan). Nevertheless, the doors were alarmed and the shrine usually closed to the public.

angry

Within a short time, people began gathering at the shrine, and a busload of junior high school students arrived. The ceremony to open the pilgrimage route for the year was about to begin.

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The Pilgrimage Begins!

I climbed Mt. Fuji once. It was way back in the summer of 2000. My girlfriend (now my wife) and I took the bus up from the Yamanashi side up to the Fifth Station and followed the Yoshida Route to the summit. We left around ten in the morning with clouds around us and took the switchback path to the summit. I recall it taking longer than I had planned and trying to run up the path in spots. But I became quickly short of breath. At the summit, we stopped to eat, but my stomach felt queasy. A headache developed and without going to the true summit, we went back down, passing the final stations in the waning twilight as a bobbing line of zig-zagging lights swam up against us through the gloaming. I never felt that I had truly made the climb to the summit of Fujisan and vowed to one day return and do it properly.

Konnichiwa! I greeted my guide, Emi Kamimura, at the seashore in Tagonoura. She turned from the sea, smiled and greeted me back. We introduced ourselves and shook hands.

The seaside seems like an odd place to meet one’s guide. Why not at the train station or somewhere a little easier to narrow down to a point? But this was the script for the program and the seashore was where we were to meet because it was here that our journey would begin.

It was not my first time to meet Emi. She had been a porter on my trip to the Kita Alps two years ago. She is really easy to talk to and a very cool woman if you like tough yamagirls with a warm, friendly atmosphere. She was not the only one from that trek who was along this time. Mr. Otani was lead camera this trip and had been the sound and mic man last time. Mr. Komatsu, a porter for us on this Mt. Fuji trek had been our porter in the Alps too. He also worked as a guide but not for us this time. And our driver, Mr. Fujiwara, from two years ago was at the wheel again. Since the last time, I had learned that he runs a business called Awesome Barbecue, and they do “glamping” (glamorous camping), outdoor weddings, outdoor events that may include barbecues, and even commercials. They are on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. New to me were the other camera operator, Mr. Nii, who had lived in Canada before and was really a cool guy to talk to, and Mr. Koyama who handled sound recording this time. He was modest and a little quiet but still of warm and friendly disposition. Along with the director, we were seven to head up the mountain, though we’d be joined by a Mr. Nakayama later on.

Emi and I splashed sea water in our faces as a rudimentary cold water ablution ritual (mizugori) and then I followed Emi’s instructions and took a stone from the beach. Our first stop from here was the Fujizuka, a heap of rocks purportedly built up over the centuries by pilgrims who left a stone from the sea here and prayed for a safe journey. What we saw was disappointing though. It was a flattened concrete cone in a mock shape of Mt. Fuji and had large boulders of roughly equal size neatly arranged in the concrete. I’m sure no one carried such large rocks up from the seashore. Though there was a small pile of stones at the very top, I heard that once the pile became too large, the stones were removed. In fact, by tradition, the stones were meant to be removed after the pilgrims’ safe return.

Emi and I went up the steps to the small wooden shrine at the top, placed our stones, and said a prayer. This was most certainly starting off with the sense of a spiritual journey, unlike my previous visit years ago.

As the TV crew recorded some scenes in the area, an elderly man approached Emi and me and began telling us about the mound. He took us around to the backside and here, beneath the skirts of the concrete structure, was a lot of sand with hand-sized stones in it. It looked as though the concrete mound had been dropped on top of the sand mound. I asked the man if that was the original Fujizuka and he confirmed it was. He also pointed out a rectangular and vertical concrete door-like shape in the back of the concrete mound. He explained that just last year the mound had been cut into and several large urns bearing coins from the late Edo Period had been found inside. This story was much more interesting to me!

Fujizuka

We had a long way to walk and more things to see. Some ways out of town and climbing the slopes of the mountain into the rural landscapes between city and nature, Emi pointed out a stone marker that indicated when the road forked which way to follow the Murayama Route. The rocks were small volcanic boulders that had been inscribed with lettering, but it was the simple triple-peaked outline of Mt. Fuji that intrigued me. It was a neat symbol that one would associate with modern travel and not. I became suspicious as we encountered two more such boulders, both painted with bright white letters and the triple-peaked Fuji symbol. The rocks may have been the original markers but the engraved letters and symbol now seemed very modern.

Our final destination was Sengen Shrine. Tomorrow we would come to witness the annual opening of the Murayama Route where it led from the shrine into the forest. It was going to be quite a big ceremony with lots going on.

A Fujisan Pilgrimage (?)

Fujisan and Clouds

It was with relief as well as excitement that I read the message from the Journeys In Japan director. He was asking if I would be available in July to climb Mt. Fuji for the program, and for me that meant he was giving me another chance after last year’s “learning experience” at Taisetsusan in Hokkaido. During that trip, I learned towards the end what was expected of me as a reporter for the program, as the director and I chatted on the last night, and he explained what I had not been doing and what was necessary. No one ever took the time to tell me all those things before, and I worried that I may have blown any chance of working for Journeys In Japan again. So when I opened the email back in March, I was indeed relieved and of course, thrilled to be going out once more.

The message was brief but addressed my first and only question as though the director had anticipated my thoughts. Why Mt. Fuji? “Perhaps you’ve already climbed Mt. Fuji and don’t think it’s particularly interesting to do so again. But this program will focus on an old pilgrimage route called the Murayama Route which until twenty years ago had been forgotten.”

Murayama route

Part of the Murayama Route

The Murayama Route is one of the oldest (if not the oldest—there are debates) pilgrimage routes up Mt. Fuji. The mountain route begins at Sengen Shrine on the southern slope of the mountain; however, a proper pilgrimage up Mt. Fuji should begin at the seaside, and thus there are several stone markers along the route leading up to the shrine. The pilgrimage route is officially opened with great ceremony in July and closed in September. Though the Murayama Route was used for centuries, it eventually lost favour to a newer route and fell out of memory of most. The route was used by Rutherford Alcock, the first westerner to climb the sacred mountain, back in 1860. This though was more of a matter of authorities steering him and his entourage to that old, unused route in order to avoid having them disturb the dedicated pilgrims who were still climbing the mountain. The Murayama Route lay otherwise in relative obscurity, and once a paved road permitted the motor vehicle to transport climbers in ease and comfort to the fifth station at 2,400 metres, there was no longer any necessity to remember that old historic pilgrimage route.

That was until 20 years ago when a local mountaineer, Sohachi Hatakehori (畠堀操八), discovered the ancient route over a period of many years by following old texts that described the route. His efforts were published as a book, “富士山・村山古道を歩く” (“Fujisan: Walking the Ancient Murayama Route”). This was to be the context of our episode of Journeys In Japan: climbing Mt. Fuji via the old Murayama pilgrimage route, starting from sea level and going to 3,776 metres.

Fuji by the sea

Fujisan from Nagonoura. The seaside view back in Edo times surely was much different.

Holy Schist, Batman!

If Saitama has a popular natural tourist attraction, it’s the gorge at Nagatoro. Nagatoro Town, situated along the Ara River and enclosed in the Chichibu Basin, has done all it can to benefit from this natural wonder. There are river rafting and “line” boating (these are long wooden boats that carry many passengers) trips down through the gorge; there are shops selling kakigori (shaved ice) using natural ice from the mountains; there are numerous souvenir shops including a Gibli store; there’s Mt. Hodo with its blossoming tree gardens and cable car that goes up to a monkey park at the top, and a natural history museum. Because of Nagatoro’s abundance of exposed metamorphic rocks, it also holds claim to being the birthplace of geology in Japan.

The rocks at Nagatoro form part of a belt of metamorphic rock known as the Sanbagawa Metamorphic Belt. It is named after the Sanba River in Gunma Prefecture where those rocks are also exposed. This particular belt is quite long, extending from Kyushu and roughly following the Chuo (Median) Tectonic Line. The belt is gently curved with the curve of the Japanese Pacific coastline, but near the Izu Peninsular, it takes a sharp turn inland. This is because the Izu Penunsula is acting like a miniature India and pushing its way into Honshu, bending the Sanbagawa Metamorphic Belt inland in the process.

The metamorphic belt was formed long ago during the late Jurassic and early Cretaceous as coastal sedimentary deposits, largely mudstones, which were later subducted by forces of plate tectonics, heated and pressed deep below the surface, and then uplifted by the same tectonic forces. The rocks are exposed anywhere that rivers have cut through or the rocks have been uplifted. Though I’m unfamiliar with this rock belt in other parts of Japan, there is a Sanbagawa Gorge between Gunma and Saitama Prefectures not far from Nagatoro and a smaller Sanbagawa Gorge park in Tokigawa Town, also in Saitama.

The rocks have different appearances depending on the type of mud stones, varying in colour from blues and greens to browns and dark, ash greys. In many places, quartz veins can be seen in the rocks, and indeed much of the belt is comprised of schists.

Though Nagatoro’s “iwadatami” (rock tatami) is the most prominently recognized formation, a trip to the riverside from Kami Nagatoro Station offer views of many more varieties of schist. In fact, it is possible to follow the river from Kami Nagatoro Station to Nagatoro Station, a delightful walk with beautiful riverside scenery and a natural exhibit of fascinating rocks.

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Saitama is 44th!

Recently the annual ranking of Japan’s prefectures based on overall attractiveness was released, and Saitama ranked at number 44. This is not a surprise as Saitama usually ranks in the 40s and only ever achieved a ranking of 39 once between 2009 and 2017. The ranking is conducted by Brand Research Institute Incorporated (a translation from Kabushiki Gaisha Burando Sogo Kenkyusho – 株式会社ブランド総合研究所) and is based on a number of aspects such as a prefecture’s landmarks, scenic places, tourist attractions, promotion and advertising, appearances in dramas and movies, and attractiveness as a place to reside.

Topping the list as always were Hokkaido, Kyoto, Tokyo, Okinawa, and Kanagawa. Bottoming out the list was Ibaraki Prefecture, which proudly holds the 47th position year after year, except in 2012 when it came in 46th. Some prefectures continuously hold a certain position such as Nagasaki, which can always be found somewhere between 9th and 11th position except in 2015 when it peaked at 5th place. Other prefectures float around, like Miyazaki, which has drifted between 12th position in 2015 and 25th position in 2014 over the years between 2009 and 2017.

Why am I concerned with Saitama’s ranking? Because it has been my place of residence for 18 years. Located just north of Tokyo, Saitama has acquired the image of being a bedroom community for Tokyo workers and students. On a TV program a few years ago comparing Saitama and Chiba, TV personality Matsuko Delux of Chiba barked a claim that Saitama had nothing and reeked of potatoes. Saitama has also the unfortunate nickname “Dasaitama”, which incorporates the pejorative term “dasai” – uncool, unfashionable, outmoded, and even clumsy or loser – with the prefecture’s name. But all things considered, it maybe can’t be helped that Saitama ranks so low.

The bedroom community view is unavoidable. With the densest area of population being in the Kawaguchi/Warabi/Saitama City area, just north of Tokyo, and the two main train lines, the Takasaki and Utsunomiya Lines, running straight through the prefecture and heading off to Gunma and Tochigi Prefectures respectively, it’s easy to understand how Saitama can be seen as a residential area for workers, students, and shoppers of Tokyo. Historic sites such as the old buildings of Kawagoe City or the tumuli of Gyoda simply do not have the same pull as Kanagawa’s Kamakura or even historic sites in Tokyo. Saitama’s mountains and narrow river gorges are of the same mountain orogeny and rock types as those of western Tokyo and also neighbouring Yamanashi. Add to that the fact that there is only one train line that connects Tokyo to Saitama’s mountain city central Chichibu and that once in Chichibu it’s not so convenient to reach the areas of natural scenic splendor, and you can see that Tokyo residents are not likely to be pursued to make the effort, especially when they can enjoy similar nature in western Tokyo. Besides, Tokyo has its own attractions such as Sky Tree, Asakusa, the Imperial Palace, or Tokyo Disneyland, which is actually nearby in Chiba. For day trips, Tokyoites are more likely to visit Chiba or Kanagawa than Saitama’s more difficult to reach places. For longer holidays, the hot springs, mountains, coastlines and cuisine of the Tohoku, Hokuriku, or Kansai regions are also going to be more alluring. As for the rest of Japan, those visiting the Kanto area will likely have their sights set on the nation’s capital, Disneyland or the beaches of Chiba, or Yokohama and Kamakura in Kanagawa. Saitama is just a throughway and the final passage to reach Tokyo.

Nevertheless, don’t let that convince you that Saitama has nothing of interest. The populous south eastern corner includes Saitama Super Area where concerts and large-scale events are held, Saitama Stadium for soccer matches, and Seibu Dome, home of the Seibu Lions. There are many lesser-scale historic sites and hilly parks and zoos replete with green forests. We find three of Japan’s Hyakumeizan – those 100 distinguished mountains – in Saitama and one of the hyakusen (one hundred selected) waterfalls. Nagatoro boasts being the birthplace of geological study in Japan and visitors can enjoy riding in large wooden canoes down the Ara River past cliffs of metamorphic rock.

As a long-term resident of Saitama, I can add to the list of natural attractions many river gorges and countryside and mountain views, though I have noted that a lot of places I have discovered are not well known and rarely if ever promoted. Some places are discoveries I made by turning down a winding mountain road or clambering through the trees to reach the riverside. By coincidence, I decided late last year to make my next book project and exploration of hidden and lesser-known places of natural beauty in Saitama. The tentative title was “Secret Saitama”, though I am now considering calling it “That’s Saitama”, a play on the near-phonetic similarity to “Dasaitama”. Watch this space for more news as the year progresses.

Looking at the 2017 prefectural ranking list again, we notice Gunma and Tochigi Prefectures just above Saitama. This is perhaps more surprising as Gunma is home to many mountains and waterfalls and one of Japan’s three biggest hot spring towns, and Tochigi is home also to many famous mountains and falls, lakes and natural scenic areas, and Nikko, which must be among the top three historic sites in Japan. I can understand by this that Saitama is with very good company then.

I leave you now with a few of the photos that are earmarked for this next book-making project.

Futagoyama 02

The West Peak of Futagoyama

19 Arakawa

A hidden gorge along the Ara River

02 Chichibu

Bukozan at dawn

05 Tokigawa

The Toki River

02 Saitama Mountains

Dawn somewhere in the mountains

08 Saitama Mountains

A hidden waterfall

Formally Introducing “Waterside”

Musician Devin Townsend has stated in interviews that once he’s completed an album he loses interest in it. He says that creating the album is part of an emotional experience and once it’s done, he is ready to move on from the emotions behind the album and looks forward to the next thing. I can relate. I’m often very excited about projects coming to fruition but once they’re done my interest rapidly wanes and I begin to think about what is to come next.

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Sea cave at Onamitsuki Coast in Chiba

Sadly, this means that the energy I have to put toward promoting my projects is quickly sapped. Take my latest book project, Waterside, for example. I worked on it for nine months, making special trips out to places for the sole purpose of filling out the project to a nicely rounded representation of landscapes featuring water. When I received the book, I was very pleased. It is, quality wise, perhaps the best project I have done using Blurb dot com. I eagerly showed it to adult students at the English school where I work. I sat down with my wife to let her look at and comment on the photos. And then I just left it on the shelf. The next project already coming together in my mind.

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The Daigaku Pond at the Taisetsu Highlands in Hokkaido.

Naturally, I should have given this book a very nice introduction on my blog, here. So, here it is!

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The Ara River at Aketo in Fukaya City, Saitama

Waterside is a collection of landscape images featuring bodies of water, including seasides, rivers, lakes, and ponds. It began after I moved to Kumagaya City in Saitama and started thinking about where I could continue to do early morning photography as I had done for my previous project, Little Inaka. I started with visits to nearby Arakawa – the Ara River – and also drove a little farther away to the Ranzan Gorge. By January of this year, I had a small collection of riverside photographs which I thought would look good in print. I looked through my digital photo files and selected images from Yakushima, the Arasaki Coast in Kanagawa, other places in Saitama, and the Kita Alps of Japan. I was very pleased with my selection and began putting the book together.

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The Upper Kurobe River in Toyama

Originally I wanted to do a small project of 60 to 80 images. Little Inaka was a whopping 180 pages and was more of a vanity book. I wanted something small, less expensive and beautiful. But I noticed something: I had only two seaside locations and only one lake. So, this spring the plans were set in motion to visit three more locations, and in addition to that, I was going to Hokkaido for the NHK World program, Journeys in Japan. I considered a couple of more locations but it became clear that it would be easy to keep adding places to photograph and end up with another 180-page book.

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Kumonodaira Plateau and Suishodake, Kita Alps

I decided to organize the book by locations. Because each outing produced at least a few images I wanted to share, having a location as a feature with anywhere from 2 to 12 photographs would allow me to organize the book with some text and use a few shots from each outing. I am satisfied with the resulting work.

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Tilted sedimentary rock at the Arasaki Coast, Kanagawa

Waterside is available at blurb.com as are my other blurb books, Little InakaThe Japan Alps, and This Little Corner, which is a book of film photographs from British Columbia, Canada. Discounts become available throughout the year, so anyone who is interested can leave me a comment and we can discuss about the discount codes when they become available.

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The Upper Anbo River in the mountains of Yakushima

Up and Running!

Before I take time to write a proper blog entry, I wish to make a quick announcement about my latest book project, “Waterside: Photograph’s from the Water’s Edge“.

I began working on it early in the year, or perhaps late last year, when I decided that I had a number of very nice waterside-themed images from around Saitama, Japan, and other places in the country, as well as some good ones from Canada.

As the project developed, I decided to add more locations and I began setting out very early in the morning or even the night before to reach locations that were a little far from my home. Last weekend, I finally made it to the last location for the project, the Onamitsuki Coast in Chiba.

Only 30 minutes ago, the finalized book was uploaded to the blurb.com web site and it’s ready for previewing and ordering.

In other news, the NHK World program, “Journeys in Japan” episode about Taisetsusan in Hokkaido is available for view-on-demand at the web site. You can watch the incredible scenery, the wild flowers, bears, and me!