Thursday, December 19, 2013


While Kyoto exudes the old-world charm and Osaka glaringly contrasts as the modern melting pot, Nara is a wonderful getaway - quaint, tranquil and green - that bespeaks the harmonious coexistence of its rich history and the contemporaneous lifestyle. Host to eight World heritage Sites in Unesco's listing of Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara, the town is a walker's paradise. Navigating through the different sites is no difficult task, and strolling down the serene paths and exploring the nooks and corners is in itself  a refreshing experience.
Ambling down the Sanjodori Street, admiring the old wooden houses standing amicably by new age shops and restaurants, crossing the lovely Higashimuki covered promenade, we reach a flight of stairs that would take us to the Kofuku-ji Temple - a family temple of an erstwhile powerful clan, Fujiwara. It was built in early-8th century and then rebuilt again in early 15th century. Housing a number of buildings (pagodas and temples) within its vast premises, its five-storey pagoda is one of the most famous icons of Nara and the second largest pagoda of Japan. The National treasure Museum within its precincts houses the three-faced Ashura Statue, one of the most famous Buddhist statues in Japan, among other artefacts.
The Nara Park is an almost inevitable destination if you are in the town. The wild sika deers freely roaming on its premises are the highlight of this scenic park. Considered to be sacred - messengers of God - in Shinto, they mingle with the crowd easily and often become overbearing and aggressive when offered food. There are vendors selling crackers for them, and one can buy and feed them, though one needs to be extra cautious, cause despite their innocent eyes and high cuteness quotient, they can just catch you off-guard.
At the edge of the Nara Park, nestled in the Kasugayama Primeval Forest, is the shinto shrine Kasuga-Taisha, which is another World Heritage Site of Historical Nara. The temple belonged to the Fujiwara family and has four deities enshrined. Quiet and flanked by the forest around, what first strikes one while approaching the shrine are the 2,000 concrete lanterns that pave the way to the main gate. Even as I walked appreciating the beauty around, I couldn't stop thinking how ethereal would it look when the lanterns are lit up. It almost captured my imagination all the way, till I reached the shrine. Inside, there are 1,000 bronze lanterns to add further fuel to one's fancy. Interestingly, we got to witness the tradition of 'Omiya Mairi' - a Shinto tradition much akin to Christian baptism - where the new-born baby is brought by the parents and the grandparents to the shrine to express their gratitude to the deities for the birth and also have the priest pray for the baby's health and happiness and well-being. Photo-ops were much in demand by the tourists and the family gladly relented, even as they had their personal photographer capture the events. 
A short walk from the Kasuga-Taisha is the world's largest wooden structure - the Todai-ji temple - that houses the enormous Buddha, which is again the world's largest bronze Buddha statue. The imposing structure almost immediately captures your fancy with its magnificence, more for us, as we perhaps were not prepared (did not read much on Todai-ji) for that much of grandness when we crossed the Nandaimon gate. Despite its hugeness, it however, never felt dominating or intimidating, only splendid. The 15 metre high Daibutsu (the Buddha statue in japanese) is flanked by two Bodhisatvas on either side. There are numerous miniature models of the former structure, that had to be built and rebuilt down the centuries. The current one, in fact, has been cut down to 2/3 rd of the original one, it is said. The temple premises is expansive and covers north of the Nara park, in fact. There's a Todai-ji museum as well. 

There is a statue of Komoku-ten, the Guardian King of the South, holding a writing brush and a scroll, symbolising the copying of the sutras. 

The beautiful garden surrounding the temple can be a lovely resting place for those tired achy feet and one can just let the mind run free amidst the boundless nature.
Nara is beautiful and any visit to the Kansai region should include this treasure trove, even if it is only for a day-trip. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Japan...Places : Kyoto

‘The land o f the rising sun’ had intrigued us for a long time, and much planning, reading and speculations later, we finally zeroed in on the month of October , sacrificing the festivities back home, to pack our bags for Nippon, or what is better known as Japan. Despite missing by a whisker to catch up on  
1. a sumo match, as the last tournament of the year in Tokyo concludes in the month of September; 
2. the ethereal experience of the sakura or the cherry blossom, that was forecast in the month of November, for the places we had planned to visit; and  
3. climbing Fuji-san, since the official time is July- August and by October it is closed; 
we were much upbeat to explore whatever was on offer, for there was a world beyond these classic attributes that we instinctively and most immediately associate with the country. Indeed, the experience has been most overwhelming, and the optimism to go back again sometime in life, runs high.

Any visit to Japan is incomplete without exploring Kyoto. The capital  for a millennium, this place is a wonderful amalgamation of the deep-rooted rich cultural heritage and the leisured foray of modernism. More popular in recent times for the Kyoto Protocol, this seat of power from 794 to 1868 boasts of a vast number of palaces, shrines and temples as well as old neighbourhoods and traditions, and interestingly it is among the few places in Japan that had miraculously escaped the war bombings. No wonder then, that Kyoto should be high on our priority list of the must visit places in Japan. Another major reason for the Kyoto experience is its still-alive Geisha district (though definitely not the only one in Japan but surely the most famous).  

We begun our excursion with the one which is most popular and most talked about. Nestled amidst the woods, the first thing that struck is the golden reflection of the Kinkaku-ji temple on the rippling surface of the pond and as I looked beyond to soak in the surrounding, it immediately transported me to a time that I had always imagined to exist only in fairy tales. The temple is not only visually splendid, it is highly valuable as well, for it houses relics of the Buddha.
That, you are in the Zen land is impressed well by the accompanying serenity. 

Walking past the Shirakawa Canal and through the Gion district, the distinctive old wooden buildings and tea houses caught our fancy and imagination. In fact, there are guided tours to take one around the places mentioned in the ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’. While the charm of the place best gets justified after dark, loitering down the alleys might just prove to be lucky, if one is able to catch a fleeting glimpse of that white face donning an exquisite kimono and crossing the road in her zori sandal. However, walking down the Gion district is much more beyond a glimpse of a Geiko. It exudes an old-world charm and the numerous traditional shops, tea houses and the slow-paced life, in all, makes the experience worthwhile. In fact, the art of tea-making is in itself a ceremony not to be missed. The fact that it is indeed an 'art' is something one must witness when there. 

Exploring the streets of Gion, we eventually landed up at the Yasaka-jinja shrine, a Shinto shrine of the 7th century, most famous for the Gion-matsuri festival that culminates here. Quite luckily there was some function being held at the precincts and we got a chance to hear a biwa recital and also some Japanese traditional classical/religious music.
We strolled across the garden of the Kyoto Imperial Palace (visiting the palace interiors is not allowed), and then moved over to explore the Nijo castle, built originally in 1626, but destroyed by fire a century later and then rebuilt again. The castle was quite a striking contrast to the other architectures – temples, palaces and shrines- in its adornments and ostentations.
A lovely breather amidst all the walking and exploring was the Chion-in temple. The seat of the Jodo sect of Buddhism, what strikes first is its grand and intimidating entrance. The ‘san-mon’ gate at 79 feet tall and 164 feet wide is one the grandest wooden gates in Japan. Climbing two sets of steep flight of stairs, one comes across an expansive open area. Apparently, the temple complex had housed at one point of time 21 buildings, many of which have, in the course of time, succumbed to earthquakes and fire. The entrance is free to the main hall, and one can lose oneself in a trance to the chanting of the priests or one may just choose a cosy nook outside and enjoy the breathtaking view of the city from atop and meditate on one’s own thoughts. We had a lovely time soaking in the tranquility, away from the touristy buzz, and enjoying the views. Apparently, 'The Last Samurai' was shot here.
As the sun turned mellow and the sky transformed to a melting orange, we reached our final destination of the day – the Kiyomizudera. The shrine dedicated to the Hosso sect of Budhhism, is one of the most popular destinations in Kyoto. Perched on a hillside, this shrine founded in late 8th century and then rebuilt in early seventeenth century, is a Unesco World Heritage Site. The word ‘Kiyomizu’ means pure water and the shrine takes its name from the Otowa-no-taki waterfall, which runs beneath the main hall and is considered to be pure and sacred. In fact, water from this waterfall drops from three channels and visitors collect them in cups to drink for health, longevity and wisdom, though not from all three channels, as that might be too greedy and have adverse effects. The temple complex has several shrines that one can explore at leisure. The Jishu-jinja shrine is dedicated to the god of love. What struck us queer were the local tourists walking a part of the shrine closing their eyes. It was only later that I learnt that there are two rocks in a distance of 18 metres and the myth goes that if you can walk with your eyes closed between the two rocks, you are bound to find success in love. Interestingly, you can be assisted, but that would also mean you would need an intermediary to win that elusive love. Thankfully, already in the arms of my love, we came to a ‘love-ly’ culmination of our day, by just praying for togetherness.