#44 Zen Garden

For some inexplicable reason, I have more than just a passing obsession with carefully laid out rocks.

Now, in case you’re thinking about what a strange and rather sad obsession this is, let me just say… you’re not wrong.

It takes a special kind of person to have the ability to derive so much pleasure from pieces of nature that can’t be smoked. Yes, that kind person is me, but you’d be surprised at how many other normal-looking people also flock to famous places to silently ogle for an hour at raked sand.

Zen gardens are definitely very high up there in my favourite kinds of Japanese landscape (yes I have mental list of such things), which is quite impressive if you think about the kind of things Japan offers – glorious snow-capped mountains, miles of cherry blossoms along riverbanks and huge cities glowing with the neon lights of urban life.

Zen garden near Koya-san, Wakayama prefecture

I can’t say exactly what it is about these gardens that get me going except that there’s something about the fact that even though they are man-maintained, they still have a strong sense of natural beauty and an air of tranquillity about them.

Unlike gardens one might find in Britain (the kind I’m more used to seeing) Japanese gardens don’t try so hard to aim for perfection outside of nature’s ability to create it. This is a generalization of course, but it’s not uncommon in England to find hedges that are trimmed to at perfect right angles (and/or any ridiculous bear/snowman/phallis shape), red roses cross-bred for generations and lawns trimmed more carefully than one would their fingernails.

The Zen garden of Ryōan-ji, Kyoto

Whatever the reason, I for one really appreciate the thought that must have gone into arranging the gardens, even though to the untrained eye they may look as random as having been offloaded from the back of a truck. For example, in Ryōan-ji (pictured above) there are fifteen stones carefully placed so that no matter from which angle you can look upon the garden, you will never be able to see all of the rocks at the same time.

There are many interpretations but to me it simply means “that’s life”.

And if that wasn’t enough to blow your mind, I checked out Wikipedia (my reliable source for everything I know) and found this utterly fascinating piece of knowledge:

According to the researchers, one critical axis of symmetry passes close to the centre of the main hall, which is the traditionally preferred viewing point. In essence, viewing the placement of the stones from a sightline along this point brings a shape from nature (a dichotomously branched tree with a mean branch length decreasing monotonically from the trunk to the tertiary level) in relief.

The researchers propose that the implicit structure of the garden is designed to appeal to the viewers unconscious visual sensitivity to axial-symmetry skeletons of stimulus shapes. In support of their findings, they found that imposing a random perturbation of the locations of individual rock features destroyed the special characteristics.

For that kind of genius the I give the Anonymous who designed Ryōan-ji a non-patronising slow clap of respect.


#66 Nara

Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 when it used to be the center of Japanese religion and politics until the Emperor Kammu moved to Kyoto, ending the Nara period in 784.

Since then, although it’s lost some of it’s former glory, it still remains as one of the finest cities in Japan, deeply steeped in history and beauty. People from all over the country and the rest of the world still flock to Nara to appreciate its World Heritage site – Todaiji amongst it’s other world famous pagodas, gardens, towns and other temples.

Nara, like most other cities in Japan, relies heavily on tourism and should you happen to go during some of it’s busiest months (ie. cherry blossom season) you won’t find it hard to bump into more gaijin than Japanese people as you jostle your way towards the main attractions. I really recommend getting a guide or someone who knows what they’re talking about to really get the best out of this wonderful city.

Being the otaku Japanologist that I am, I arrived early one day to grab front row seats to Nara’s most spectacular show – the sacred Omizu-dori matsuri, also known as the ‘Fire Festival’ that happens just once a year. It happens in March and is really a must see if you’re in the Kansai area during this time.

On the way, you may see street vendors selling freshly baked sweet potato. There probably aren’t that many requirements that are compulsory to be a successful street vendor – except to be very old, because it’s those sad wrinkled faces that stir up the kind of guilt that make you want to buy such overpriced food – but at least it’s delicious and you could use the skin scraps to feed the deer…

Don't underestimate these beasts

Deer are believed to be sacred creatures, and have been protected for hundreds of years in Nara. It is illegal to harm or kill them, so it’s a good thing they’re all tame. They roam freely all over the city (and sometimes cross roads as cars wait patiently for them to make it to the other side) occasionally nudging tourists’ elbows for shika senbei (deer biscuits).

Be warned however, if a deer manages to sniff you up and discover that you’re hiding a delicious piece of recycled paper (or whatever it is the biscuits are made from), they’ll be after you like a herd of bees. You can tell who are the more seasoned travellers and who are the tourist newbies about to be terrorized because something like this always happens:

  1. Person sees Deer and exclaims “aww, how cute!” (or sometimes, just “kawaiiiii!“).
  2. Deer approaches timidly, and makes cute eyes.
  3. Person feels sorry for the Deer and buys a small pack of biscuits for them.
  4. Deer nibbles politely… but just as Person starts to smile or pose for a picture…
  5. Deer opens it’s jaws and snatches pile of biscuits straight out of the person’s hands quicker than you can say “Holy *%$& Bambi!”.

I’ve seen deer grab entire stacks of biscuits straight out of toddler hands and run away, leaving kids who were giggling just a second before wide-eyed with shock and now empty handed. It’s a cruel world.

If you find yourself being pursued by insistent deer, there are several ways I have learned (from experience of being chased by a half a dozen deer) that can get them off your back:

1. Drop everything. Scatter any/all of the biscuits you are holding onto the floor and walk away quickly. Try not to throw them at the deer, this may not be received well if there are Japanese people nearby.

2. Put your hands up in the air like you just don’t care! No, actually do it exactly as you would if a cop told you to “FREEZE!”. If you can speak Japanese, grovel profusely that you don’t have any food or else repeatedly apologizing often works. There are some deer that will grant your mercy.

3. Take cover. Dash into the nearest shop and hide behind some shelves… the old shop ladies know how to deal with stalker deer. In fact, old ladies in Japan (the elite obaachan) run the entire country. I wouldn’t be surprised if they control politicians and yakuza alike, so they can probably handle wild animals just fine.

Follow these tips and you should be able to get away from even the most desperate deer. If all else fails, deer also like to eat coats (see the deer teeth marks on my trench coat) and maps (since these seem to be plentiful in Nara) – you can drop these behind you and hope your enemies will be stalled long enough for you to get away…

… not unlike Mario Kart really.

#65 Miyajima

Miyajima is a small island off the coast off Hiroshima and is most famous for it’s ‘floating’ torii gate and shrine. The shrine is built on wooden foundations in the water, so when the tide is up, it literally appears as if it is drifting on the sea.

It was softly raining on the day we went, creating a beautiful misty mountain backdrop to the busy town. We walked along the shrine’s open platforms, taking in the view of the sea. We stopped every now and again to take photos and to read the wishes people had written and hung up in hope that they would come true.

A wish for world peace

We then took a walk up the mountain path, eventually being invited for tea outside a small shop. The view from above was even more beautiful, and we sat for a while taking in the sea air with the warm tea bowl in between our hands.

Sipping matcha from a tea house on the mountainside

The smell of freshly baked momiji manjuu (a leaf-shaped confection) lead us on as we descended back down again and explored what the town had to offer. We walked through the busy streets, stopping to admire the local wares. I don’t usually buy souvenirs, but a beautiful little Japanese style tea-cup imprinted with autumn leaves caught my eye and I couldn’t help myself.

The feel of the town was lively and the shopkeepers chatted with kind voices and forgave our gaijin ways with a smile on their faces.

An old lady preparing the region's speicality - grilled oysters

Miyajima is a charming little town, which is easy to reach by ferry boat. There’s lot’s to do and see, from stroking wild deer to riding a cable car between the mountains. For a tourist spot, prices are sort of reasonable, which is always a plus. The torii gate is an iconic image of the beauty of Japan, making it a must-see for ‘quintessentially-Japanese’ photo addicts like me.

#57 Hiroshima

Hiroshima is known for being the first city in the world to have been hit with an atomic bomb by USA during WWII. However, apart from one remaining structure, you wouldn’t be able to tell that the ground you are walking on was once obliterated to rubble and on it crawled thousands of people dying from burns and radiation.

It’s an eerie thought, and one that you are reminded of as you walk by the A-bomb Dome at night. It was decided that it was to be left it standing to remind the world what happens when humans let war get too far.

I visited the City Museum and Memorial Hall, which in my opinion, all did a good job of being as fair as possible when describing the events of the war. They acknowledged that Japan wasn’t entirely guilt free when it came to the terrible things it committed during war-time, but neither were the countries exactly heroic angels either.

Walking amongst the tattered remains of kid’s school uniforms and packed lunch boxes burnt black from fire, rusted toy bikes and stopped watches, photos of burn victims and pieces of walls splattered with shards of glass or with black rain streaked solemnly on the sides of them, one begins to realize how destructively far humans can go.

It’s almost impossible to believe that it was even true. It felt so far fetch’d that I almost couldn’t fathom that it had actually happened right where I was standing, just a couple of decades ago.

In any case, the objective of the museum wasn’t to bash on other countries, it was to try and spread the message against nuclear weapons. The people of Hiroshima believe that as long as nuclear weapons exists (or even the threat of it) peace cannot be made between humans on earth when we can just blast our enemies into oblivion with a push of a button.

I can’t say I disagree with this point of view, and although some may say that the bombing of Japan might have been ‘necessary’ to stop the war, when you’re reading the stories of dead little girls your view tends to shift a little. I just couldn’t have helped thinking that there must have been another way, any other way, apart from this kind of devastation.

Hiroshima before the bomb

Hiroshima after the bomb (the red line marks where the bomb fell)

It was a bitter couple of hours spent, but it was necessary to remind people of the real horrors of war, something a lot of us thankfully have never witnessed in real life. It’s definitely an emotional experience that everyone should go through, if not out of respect for those that died.

Cranes are a symbol of peace in Japan

Whichever side you lie on the nuclear debate, one thing is true. We are all aiming for the same thing. A world where there is no war and fighting, a world where children can enjoy their childhoods and adults can live without worrying about rationing for the war effort or whether they’d live to see their kids grow up.

We’re all aiming for world peace. Will we live to see it happen?

#94 Shinkansen

Japan is a big country. In fact, it’s so big that it stretches across three different climate zones. Most of the big cities lie along the coasts, often separated by miles and miles of countryside, forests and mountains. Japanese people can’t spend all day travelling, so short of the technology to invent teleportal machines, they decided to invent the fastest train in the world instead.

Yep, in Japan if you want to go somewhere far, you can get there very fast – on the (appropriately translated) bullet train.

Since it was built 45 years ago, it has carried 7 billion passengers and has not suffered even one casualty, despite the fact that Japan is a country that doesn’t do too well on the natural disasters front. Engineers have taken great care to make it an extremely safe way to travel, by installing brakes and other fail safes to stop the train should they detect a problem with the track.

Taking the Shinkansen isn’t cheap, but you get what you pay for. It’s smooth, comfortable and the time really does go quickly. With good friends to chat with, the journey goes by before you even settle down to read a book. It took just over an hour to travel from Kobe to Hiroshima.

However, depending on where you go, your view can range from the beauty of Mt. Fuji to the boring blackness of miles of tunnels. Either way, although a pretty view would be nice, the shinkansen was built for speed and will take you whichever way is the shortest route to get there.

The Shinkansen runs so on time that it’s almost scary, and when it arrives on the platform don’t dawdle, you  better hop on that thing because the doors close just a few seconds after letting the previous passengers off. Everything about the Shinkansen is about efficiency and speed which is kind of refreshing compared to the laid-back approach public transport tends to take back at home.

They’re constantly working on expanding the reach of the Shinkansen within Japan, and it’s good to know that tourism and business in many smaller towns and villages are being reivived because people can access them much easier.

It’s exciting to think about all the wonderful places you can be in just a few hours from the Shinkansen entrance.


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