Blog: JAPAN – a mysterious and intriguing destination by Douglas (Part 2)
Part 1: Tokyo can be found here.
Day 6 Matsumoto
Today I bade farewell to Tokyo. What I missed most about Tokyo was the satisfying food such as baked sweet potatoes, sushi, hotpots and the bizarre structures that lined the metropolis. Our next stop was Matsumoto.
In Matsumoto we stayed in Marrumo Inn, a very nice traditional Japanese ryokan/inn where you could truly immerse in Japanese culture. Our room had tatami mats, futons (portable beds you can roll up to save space during daytime), a low table with small cushions around it and paper walls. It was stocked with a few surprises including sweets and yakata (traditional Japanese robes). Inside the Ryokan was a nice Japanese indoor garden and outside there was a river with bridges spanning across it. There was also a traditional Japanese communal bath, where you were required to wash yourself very thoroughly before getting in. After using the bath you were required to put wooden planks on top of it to conserve the heat. The traditional breakfast they served was just delicious and would light up your day. We had salted fish, awesome omelet, rice, fruit and some other appetising things.
Day 7 Matsumoto Castle
Today I visited Matsumoto Castle, one of the most unique treasures of Japan. Matsumoto Castle was a magnificent five story fortress with a main wing and two adjoining wings, made of timber and white stone. Its true eternal strength was concealed behind a mask of deception. If it was assailed the castle would morph into an impregnable and imposing fortress intimating its enemies. Matsumoto Castle was truly a marvel of Japanese ingenuity and architecture with its elegant arched roofs and complex design. On the top of the Castle there were two dragon-headed fish called shachi lining the top roof tile and elaborate Japanese carvings lined each overhanging curved roof; each roof carvings bore a distinct design. The castle was surrounded by a moat and on the land surrounding the moat a garden flourished with the blooming cherry blossom. At the entrance was an imposing and solid gate and beyond that there was a courtyard containing delicately shaped shrubs among various trees. The interior itself was mostly made of timber and stone. Inside there were very steep stairs to save space and narrow windows through which archers could fire arrows on the enemies. Later as technology evolved instead of bows samurai’s would fire guns and cannons through the windows. Signage showed how weapons like muskets and pistols functioned. Signage also displayed the manufacturing of ammunition for weapons such as cannons and muskets. There was also a curious arsenal of weapons including ancient rockets, a knife with an under-slung gun barrel, a whopping twelve chamber pistol and a stunning, intricately woven mythical samurai armour. I think the creators of the Star Wars movie imitated the unique design because it had a striking resemblance to the Darth Vader suit. At every major Japanese tourist site there would be an official stamp for marking your brochures and while stamping my brochure I also decided to stamp my hand. My brother insisted on doing that and instead he betrayed me by stamping my forehead as well which was extremely humiliating.
Day 8, 9 and 10 Hakuba
We went skiing the next 3 days in Hakuba. After renting skis which were far more cheaper than in Australia we took the gondola up to the Alps. The views from the gondola were truly breathtaking with the village slowly diminishing into the horizon and the true glory of the magnificent mountain was revealed. Although it was the end of the season the snow was still quite reasonable. Along with the common tracks were extra bumpy segments carved into the snow; these segments were extremely difficult yet exhilarating and very rewarding. While skiing you could just admire the beauty of the rugged snow-capped mountains and the small, peaceful villages scattered across the landscape.
Day 11 Kanazawa
Today upon arrival in Kanazawa Station we were greeted by what looked like a magnificent wooden Shinto gate. The whole gate was made of wooden planks coiling inextricably around each other. Beyond the Shinto gate was a fountain resembling a digital clock that surprisingly manipulated jets of water into words or the current time. Our hotel was an amiable Ryokan on a well preserved and ancient traditional Japanese street; the street was one of the most photographed in Japan. At the entrance was a large solid wooden gate with metal studs reinforcing it and the interior had very steep stairs fitting the description of old Japanese houses. Our room was on the second floor and was just sensational, bearing all aspects of traditional rooms with tatami mats, a small table with cushions, futon and paper walls. Outside of the room was a very nice indoor garden. The accommodation is truly worth it and is of great quality. The landlord and landlady were very friendly. After that we explored the ancient streets and unearthed various shops selling goods such as sweets, delicious biscuits,small glass samurai helmets, gold leaf smartphone cases, gold leaf covered animals, chopsticks with distinct designs and one design in particular was transparent with gold leaf threaded in the interior.
Day 12 Kanazawa
Today in Kanazawa we went to the massive Omicho market and unearthed an assortment of shops. Some shops sold delicious goods, we ate with relish such as an appetising dried seaweed snack, sushi and sweets, etc. Some shops sold some some things that will seize your attention such as live crabs, delicious fried squid and grilled fish. Unfortunately the weather was particularly cold this day so our hands were freezing. After we had eaten a filling lunch we set off for Kenrokuen a beautiful garden.
We then entered Kenrokuen and were transfixed by the eternal beauty it held. Ancient trees, shrubs and delicate flowers were spread out among the whole garden contributing to the sense of calm and tranquility. The peaceful pond and natural formations of rock also added to the serene atmosphere. Stone lanterns, miniature Pagodas and stepping stones were also among the bridges and trees. The flowers and cherry blossom blazed with spectacular radiance. Bamboo pipes diligently supported shrubs and trees so that their branches would spread out; the leaves taking on a single circular shape on each branch. Situated in the middle was the Meiji Monument, a huge bronze statue with stones delicately fitted underneath it to form a small podium supporting the statue. It is believed to be the first modern bronze statue ever created in Japan and was erected to honour those who died in the Seinan battle.
When the rain began to clear we went to the 21st Century Contemporary Art Museum. Various art exhibits were displayed but two in particular seized my attention, one where you get to enter the bottom of a pool and observe the world from a fish’s perspective and another where you can push a wheel-less trolley along a dense array of flipped over trolley wheels.
Day 13 Kanazawa
Today the landlord took a few pictures of us in the ancient streets where swallows whistled cheerfully. We discovered swallow nests on top of a few houses including the Geisha house we were visiting. Geishas were easily recognizable with their makeup, Kimono and were renowned entertainers who danced and played musical instruments for wealthy merchants. Inside some rooms were instruments the geishas played such as the Shamisen, a banjo type instrument, and a set of large drums behind a rice paper screen. Ceremonial objects such as a solid gold dragon head holding a gold ceremonial sword in its jaws, a tinted glass box containing a small meticulously carved Buddha with illustrations were some of the unique objects in the Geisha house. Rice paper illustrations also lined the walls. The building also had a well preserved kitchen and it was like stepping back in time because the room itself as well as all the utensils and bowls were in its original state. Displayed inside glass cases were various artifacts such as vases, seals, remains of bowls and other things.
After that we went to the samurai district, Nagamachi district where we saw houses surrounded by mud walls. When we went into a Samurai house we saw some delicately woven Samurai Armour. Some objects displayed were weapons like the awesome Katana, blunderbusses, and also some withered scrolls burdened with secrets. A Buddha inside a case with small intricate carvings and illustrations was also displayed. The indoor garden was blossoming with small meticulously shaped shrubs and slim and delicate trees. A pond swarming with carps split up into small waterfalls among the gracious garden. Among the lush undergrowth were stone lantern and bridges. This garden projected the perfect image of a Japanese garden.
After we went to a mysterious temple called My?ry?-ji .There was more to this temple than meets the eye. Nicknamed Ninja-Dera and reputable for all of all the deceptiveness and secrets it held My?ry?-ji was a military outpost disguised as a temple for defending the city. The tour is conducted in Japanese but there was an alternative option of an English translation booklet. I had a vague understanding of all the tricks in this temple though my experience would have been more complete if there had been a guided tour in English. Although the temple resembles a two storey building it had in fact 5 layers of floor. A few demonstrations of some of the tricks were a ceiling that can to be lowered, a wooden donation box embedded in the floor that is a drop of a few meters. It is rumoured that the well is actually secret passage to Kanazawa castle but this theory has never been actually proven.
On the way home we entered a shrine. Upon entering the gate you would see elegant and highly skilled wooden carvings of swans next to lush forests that were just purely astonishing at how it captured the spirit and beauty of nature itself in one image. Inside the temple courtyard was a statue of a Samurai mounted on a well carved horse that looked like it would blaze into life any second.
Day 14 Shiragawa-Go and Takayama
Today after departing from Kanazawa to Takayama we stopped in the middle to observe the unique thatched roofs of Shiragawa-Go. The thatched roofs were remarkably produced out of strong grains of Pompous Grass lashed together into a rigid shape. This destination is a UNESCO heritage site because of its distinct design and significance to Japanese culture. The construction of the houses themselves was a laborious task , requiring the meticulous lashing of Pompous grass on a roof. The whole village assists each other in many ways ; neighbors would assist each other in re thatching the roofs and each year Shirawaga-Go High School would harvest the sturdy pompous grass for the re-thatching of the houses. These traditional houses are hundreds of years old and I was truly privileged to have entered one of these aged houses and to see the aged interior. The house had three stories, the top floor was used as storage space for agricultural tools such as a rice grinders, rope makers and other interesting machinery.Signage depicted the production of rice from the planting and then to the harvesting. The inedible stem of the rice can be made into rope and other things. The only heated area in the house was the kitchen where the members of the household would gather around. The stove was a small area filled up with ash and soot where a small metal pot was held up by a cylindrical metal object.Up above the whole expanse of land was a vantage point where you could observe all the beauty of the ancient thatched roofs of Shirawaga go.
After that we went to Takayama where we stayed at the Zenkoji Temple Inn, modeled after the Zenkoji Temple in Nagoya and it contained a replica of an ancient lock from Nagoya’s Zenkoji Temple. Apparently the ancient lock forgave all your sins if you ventured into a small and extremely dark passage and touch the lock. My brother and I tried it and we were truly enlightened.
Day 15 Takayama
Today we visited Takayama-Jinja, the first government house and it was a vast complex bearing various artifacts. The complex included an interrogation room with signage depicting excruciating torture techniques. One in particular involved the victims legs being forcefully tucked under with the shins on top of sharp wooden grooves and the victims lap stacked with heavy wooden planks. I could just imagine the agonising pain the victim would be experiencing as the grooves ground against his shin bones. Ancient Japanese toilets were also featured in a few rooms and the toilets had signage forbidding use to prevent an idiot from using them. A massive natural tree trunk formation was used as a sturdy support for the roof and I was intrigued by the natural twists and turns of the formation. Vases, traditional Japanese kettle, cutlery and scrolls were some artifacts featured as well as awesome samurai armour with perfectly placed spikes around the helmet. The helmet also bore a circular halo like ring blazing with eternal glory. Traditional Japanese roof tiles were placed on some stands so you could see the small details of the tiles.
After we had a delicious breakfast of squid cooked on a leaf over burning charcoal in a clay pot and an assortment of other things, we threaded a path through the ancient streets of Takayama and discovered it was a haven for ancient crafts. Some great examples of the ancient arts was a shop that sold incredibly detailed small wooden carvings of lunar calendar zodiac animals, small masks with hilarious expressions, wooden samurai swords and delicately carved wooden miniature pagodas and temples. Another shop sold adorable statues of dogs with begging expressions, various small animal carvings, rubber sea creatures shuddering uncontrollably on a rack, etc. My mom decided to purchase a set of monkeys with expressions such as see nothing, hear nothing and say nothing which she thought was great. I highly recommend you purchase one of the lunar calender zodiac animals because they are of great quality but I warn you they were on high demand.
We then went to the Kokuban-Ji temple, the oldest temple in Takayama and saw an ancient 1200 year old tree; it was in great shape for a tree that age and I could just feel the wisdom retained in the trunk. Upon entering the temple there was a large bronze bell tower and beyond that was a three-storey pagoda looming above the temple. At the front of the temple steps was a wooden fortune box with a small hole on one end and it contained bamboo sticks each inscribed with a number. The steps to tell your fortune was to ask a question then shake out a stick and read about your fortune from a piece of paper matching your number from the stick.
Day 16 Takayama
Today we visited Takayama Yatai Kaikan, a museum housing floats used in the autumn and spring festivals each year. In Japanese yatai means float.These iconic floats were just phenomenal with skilfully woven images, huge wheels and were of massive scale.I could just perceive the great labour it would require to construct these frankly astonishing structures. On top of the float showering the whole structure in glory and grandeur were solid gold animals such as dragons and phoenixes that were intricately sculpted. The skilfully gilded images depicted demons and fearsome warriors. Suspended on the yatai were puppets that could be operated with 36 strings and can accomplish great acrobatic feats. In the autumn and spring festivals a child would be seated on each float while men carried it.
Another museum displayed a model of the original Takayama Castle. A huge chamber contained this replica and it was extremely detailed. If the castle had not been burnt down it would just be massive and would have dominated the landscape. The miniature structures were just sensational displaying all aspects of the once glorious castle with incredible seven story pagodas, magnificent traditional Japanese structures and one in particular was the reputable emperor Tokugawa’s resting place. Shinto gates and small lanterns lined various areas of the replica temple.On the edges of the chamber were cases with small dummies holding up miniature floats and they lit up each second. One particularly elaborate small gate featured statues of samurai and fierce lions guarding the castle. Complex carvings of demon heads and people huddling as well as riding on boats lined the beams. Near the top of the gate dragons with open mouths fiercely watched over the area and swans were carved in meticulously on the overhanging beams. On the apex of the roof was a prestigious dragon head.
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