Sunday, August 14, 2005

Planes, trains and automobiles... minus the planes and automobiles

That's about the best way to sum up the past 3 amazing days. To those of you who don't recognize the title of the movie referenced in the above title... too bad.

As Matsuo Basho so eloquently stated after visiting Matsushima, some beauty cannot be put into words. I know that's an odd opening line for a post which will likely take up a couple of pages, but all I'm saying is that my words (or pictures for that matter) cannot do the scenery we saw over the last few days justice. The Tohoku region of Japan is absolutely amazing, there's no other way of putting it. And thanks to Japan's wonderful train system, most of it is quite easily accessible, though travelling can take some time. Just a quick tally in my head here tells me I took about 20 different trains, including the Shinkansen 4 times totalling over 10 hours of time on the rails... This means 2 things: 1. I am quite comfortable with the Japanese rail system now and 2. I don't want to see another train for a LONG LONG TIME!

Anywho, so here's the story of the final 2 days of my trip to Sendai, starting Saturday with a day-trip to Hiraizumi.

After having an adventurous day on Friday, we slept in a bit on Saturday but when we finally got rolling we decided to head to Hiraizumi where Takashi (one of Scott's students with whom we go out every Wednesday) suggested we visit one of only 2 gold covered temples in Japan, the other being in Kyoto. Unfortunately, a footwear malfunction from the previous day riddled my poor footsies with blisters, but I just grinned and beared it... now's time for healing... lol Not sure what the heck happened, I was wearing my hiking shoes which have taken me on multiple multi-km trips in Japan and back in Canada... maybe my socks bunched up or something and I didn't notice... anywho...

So we hopped on a local train heading to Ichinoseki from Sendai and actually got a seat, for which we were quite pleased. However, as we approached a station about halfway into the trip, we noticed a large amount of people suddenly making their way to the front of the train... we were in one of the last cars and found this very odd. Within a few minutes, we were just about alone back there, with the exception of two Europeans looking just as confused as us and a couple of dozing Japanese folks... Having travelled so much the previous day, I thought nothing of heading to the back of the train and asking what the heck was going on. Using as little language as possible, we found out that the train was about to split into two and only the first 4 cars were going on to Ichinoseki. DAMN! Had we taken seats in the front of the train we could have kept them... but now we had to make our way into a crowded, standing room only train for the next 45 minutes of riding! The crowd eventually thinned out and we did end up getting seats again.

After arriving at Ichinoseki and making our way to the proper platform we were quite impressed when our train arrived. Seems this must have been an old long-haul train, the seats were comfy and the car we entered was empty.... BUT! There's always a but, isn't there... Shortly after departure for our 17 minute trip to Hiraizumi, a conductor came by asking for tickets and soon made it clear why this car was empty... it was the reserved seating car... for which you pay extra. Of the 3 cars on this train, only the middle one was non-reserved seating... and there were no seats available, while both "reserved" seating cars were devoid of even one measly passenger. So we stood for 15 minutes... no big deal... just odd we were asked to move on from the reserved car since we were going such a short distance and there was nobody there...

So we finally arrived at our final destination, Hiraizumi and after stopping by the tourist info section and getting an English map\guidebook thing we headed out into the town. We quickly found a little restaurant where Leah's reading ability came into play and we were able to order some quite tasty Chicken Soba before making our way out on foot towards the temple, a few kilometers away.

This is the hill on which the temple is located, just off to the side from the highway.

Having read a little about this place in my lonely planet guide, I knew to expect a meandering path into the hill through a pine forest, and was not disapointed. This is a shot of the gate to what ammounted to be more of a Temple complex than a single temple... they were all over the place.

We quickly diverted off the main pathway, attracted by the presence of a Shinto gate in the woods. Here's the small footpath we followed for a while... the forest was great!

We soon found ourselves in front of a nice little buddhist temple\Shinto shrine area, all by itself in the woods off the beaten path.

For those of you who have forgotten\don't know... these are Tori gates, and serve as a passageway between the normal and spiritual world.

Another nice shot of the isolated site.

Seeing as the area is mountainous, we did get to see some hills once in a while through the mist. There were also multiple viewing spots on the trail leading up to the top of the hill.

When we finally made our way to the top, we were amazed at what we found. While I didn't take many pictures (I sometimes feel odd taking pictures at certain religious sites so I don't, and it was forbidden in certain areas) it was an absolutely beautiful area and totally worth the travel. We came upon multiple temples, in the search for the one "Gold" temple, one of which had this cool Dragon's head water spout providing worshipers with water for the purification ritual.

Slightly further from these temples, we finally found some of the major attractions of this religious site. The first of which is a large treasure house where multiple artefacts from the 12th century are kept. These artefacts included statues, furniture and artwork decorated with gold and/or mother of pearl. It was an amazing glimpse into the dedication of the people from this period in time. Absolutely gorgeous designs and writings in actual gold on paper and silk were my favourite.

After touring the treasure house, we made our way on to the next building in the Chusonji temple complex which housed Konjikido, the famed Golden Hall, of which only 2 exist in Japan. It certainly wears its name well, with every inch (including the floor and the pillars holding it up) except for the roof covered in a layer of gold. Within the temple are numerous statues and artwork which serve to protect\give hommage to the 4 generations of Lords entombed within. Shortly after our arrival, we were surprised to hear an English version of the explanation begin, no doubt played especially for us by the staff guarding the door... THANKS! This visit to Konjikido pretty much made the trip for me so far... the amount of work put into the building of this thing is mind-blowing, there's no other way of putting it.

After spending some time in awe at the golden marvel before us, we decided to move on down and came upon this neat path heading up to a temple... the roots of the surrounding trees seem to act as stairs... very cool, and one of my favourite pictures so far in Japan.

So after making our way down from the temple, and stopping in to a gift shop to buy some post cards, we slowly made our way back to the train station while checking out places of interest on the way. Interestingly enough, I found out that for the 3rd time since my arrival in Japan, I was following in Haiku Poet Matsuo Basho's footsteps. In the 1600s, he toured Japan, writing poems as he went. My first encounter with him was in Nasu at the Killing stone... my second was on Friday at Mount Bandai where he wrote after visiting a shrine:
Tranquil hush -
a cicada's voice
permeates the cliff

Hiraizumi has an interesting history as the hiding place of the rival-brother of the first Shogun of Japan who finally ended up murdering his family and committing suicide when his brother attacked the city with plans to kill them all. The area never recovered from the death of such an important leader and when Basho visited, grass fields grew where mansions once stood. Due to some language confusion in the tourist brochures and signs, I had to look it up to make sense of the story but he was inspired to write this haiku:
Summer grasses -
all that's left
of warrior's dreams

So we hopped back on our train after a minor episode where Leah decided to stand outside in the rain instead of inside the small station which was absolutely covered in spiders... Not that they frighten me or anything, but I did keep her company... mainly since I had an umbrella of course... ;-) Upon arriving in Sendai, I had a little tiff with the JR staff when I tried to adjust my fare. They were trying to charge me more than double what I should pay for the trip to Hiraizumi! I'm 100% certain the confusion was my fault, I must have pressed the wrong button the the ticket machine when I bought the ticket but I was not paying 1700Y when I should be paying 650... Leah went through fine of course, and I was eventually able to clear it up that I hadn't come from some far away station I'd never heard of... I'm glad I have some Japanese ability to complement the JR staff's slim English abilities. It took 4 different people, but things eventually got sorted out, I paid my 650Y and we headed out on our merry way. I decided not to try the famous Gyu (cow) tongue since there was a lineup out the door of the restaurant and instead we headed to a pretty good Mexican place before heading home for some rest. So that was Saturday, another fantastic day.

Now, for today, the final and I think most amazing day of my trip into Tohoku! The plan for today was hopping on the train for a quick ride out to Shiogama and then taking a ferry in to Matsushima Bay, which has one of the most beautiful and scenic views of Japan. We again slept in, but that's no biggie because we didn't have far to travel... In fact, we pretty much timed things perfectly weather-wise since the sky was clearing up as we were heading out. The one wish I had for this trip was for relatively clear weather when visiting Matsushima... and I got my wish!!!

So we headed in yet again to the Sendai train station where I left my bag in a locker and hopped a train to Shiogama. Unfortunately for us, we hadn't realized that there were two different train lines heading in to Shiogama and that we took the one which had us the furthest from the marina and the boats bound for Matsushima. As we stepped out of the station with no ocean in sight... we started to wonder... lol We walked into a kind of information\library building and the staff there was quite helpful and with the help of a map and their 3 words of English, helped us on our way to the bay, a few kilometers away. The sun was shining, the sky was blue and on occasion, we could feel the cold breeze coming off the water.

We finally made our way down to the Marina, where this couple was doing some fishing.

With 5 minutes to spare, we bought our tickets, something to drink and hopped on the ferry for the 50 minute trip to Matsushima Bay. Thanks to the sun, we got to see some lovely scenery one the way there and I can see why Matsuo Basho was so inspired here and had trouble finding the right words to describe the scenery. Matsushima translates as "pine islands" which are in fact the bay's most striking feature. The wave erosion on some of the islands is quite fantastic and makes for some interesting scenery.

As the ferry cut it's way around the bay, we got a slight glimpse of the open sea. I was quite content to stand on the front of the boat and feel the wind whipping at me as we headed towards Matsushima. I spent a few quiet moment pondering life as one does when faced with such timeless things as the ocean and once more came to the same conclusion I usually do... life is good.

The ferry took us around many of the small islands and the sun did cooperate for a large part of the journey.

The open sea. Having lived inland all my life, with only a total of 2 trips to Florida, I am still in awe every time I see the Ocean. Today was the first time I get a real good look at the Pacific. 2 Oceans down, 2 to go... lol

At around the halfway mark of the trip, the clouds started to come in which made for some interesting sky\water effects.

Here's one of the most photographed islands in Matsuhima... very odd erosion pattern...

Cool island with caves carved out by the waves.

More funky sky\water things.

Decided to try out the sepia setting on my camera... I think I'll fool with it some more from now on.

As we were docking, we came alongside our ferry's counterpart, the dragon.

Our ferry was the Phoenix, on the right.

As we disembarked from the ferry, the sky openned up and I had my final dry moment of the day. For the first time on this trip, I didn't bring an umbrella around, so I resolved to get wet along with Leah... who actually enjoys the rain. After a quick lunch, we headed out to check out a few of the islands which are connected by bridges.

This is a stone marker on the first Island we stopped on.

This is the long red bridge which connects the main island to the mainland. The island was covered in lovely hiking trails which had frequent observation decks and a lovely park.

Said park...

By this time it was getting dark, but again, the sky was doing funky things.

So after a lull in the rain, it started coming down pretty hard again as we tried to navigate our way to the train station. Thankfully, due to Leah's and my fabulous sense of direction (and the help of a gas station attendant and a bus driver) we found our way to tiny Matsushima station and were ready to head home. While I did spot some spiders at this station as well, there was nowhere to avoid them so I didn't mention them to Leah... lest she waits on the tracks themselves for the train... While we were waiting we also met an elderly couple from Cypress who were in Japan visiting their son who lives in Tokyo. We gave them a little help with the trains. It felt quite good to use our experience and help others out.

The train ride back to Sendai was pretty quick and I was just about on time to catch the 6:58 Yamabiko Shinkansen back to Utsunomiya. Bought my ticket, grabbed my bag, said my goodbyes to Leah and made my way onto the platform. Unfortunately for me, the train was packed and no one who got on in Sendai could get a seat. I found myself seated rather comfortably on the floor of a small cubicle used to wash your hands near the washrooms. Broke out Dogs and Demons and did some reading. I was pleasantly surprised when the announcer said we would be making only 2 stops before Utsunomiya, my train in to Sendai made 6 and took 2 hours. This time around I was in Utsunomiya by 8:00, where I hopped a taxi (due in part to the driving rain and in part to the constant pain from my feet... damn blisters...) best 660Y I ever spent! And I was quite proud of myself, able to give directions to the taxi driver in Japanese to my place... Kencho-dori, eto, hanawada, eto, Daily Yamazaki? Hai! Woohoo!

So all in all, I had a fantastic time in Sendai, thanks of course to Leah, my host and travel companion. Did we make some mistakes while travelling? Of course... did they cost us time and energy? Of course.... But you know what they say, it's the journey, not the destination that counts in the end. And we had a hell of a journey!

So I have another 2 days off before work starts up again on Wednesday... I think tomorrow will be spent relaxing a bit, though I may try to plan something with someone if anyone's in town right now... I've been keeping in touch with Scott who is somewhere in the wilds of Hokkaido (Northern most section of Japan) and having a blast I'm sure. It was very nice to get away from the Kanto crowds\concrete\traffic\etc. for a few days. Tsukuba Steve asked Leah tonight if she thought I would be interested in touring Tokyo with him a bit, and I'm glad she said no... again, I don't want to see any trains for some time now... lol Any time anyone is up to coming on down to Utsunomiya though, please do feel free. We're on the JR Tohoku line, very easy to find. Come on down and I'll take you to Nikko... maybe we can spot some mountain monkeys!

Great big thanks to Leah, who put up with me for three days, even though she just quit smoking too! It's been a week plus one or two days... keep it up Leah!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the immortal words of Bassho.
Matsuhima, Mastushima ah matsushima
been there three times in the last four years and I want to go again.
Breath taking place.
scott from Kuroiso again via Eric blog

1:37 AM  

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