Google+ Rurousha 流浪者: September 2011

Friday, 30 September 2011

Higanbana at Kinchakuda: a riot of red

It's one of the most beautiful flower displays I've seen in Japan: a riot of red higanbana in Kinchakuda in Saitama. The flowers are in full bloom right now and will remain at their best for another week. (These photos were taken this morning.) It's a fun, easy day trip from Tokyo. Highly recommended. I will write in more detail tomorrow, but here's a quick how-to-get-there guide. Take an express train on the Seibu Ikebukuro Line from Ikebukuro Station. Change to a local train at Hannō Station, and get off two stops later at Koma Station. It takes just over an hour in total. Don't bother about buses (few) or taxis (none). Just follow the backpacking geriatrics and the food stalls selling farm veggies. The park is about 15 minutes on foot from the station, and the entrance fee is ¥200. You have one more week ...

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Thursday, 29 September 2011

Cosmos at Shōwa Kinen Park in Tachikawa

It's a huge park. It's seriously massive. It's so big that it takes you more than two hours to walk around it, and that's only if you're Olimpiada Vladimirovna Ivanova. It's usually called the Shōwa Kinen Park, but its official name is the Shōwa Commemorative National Government Park (国営昭和記念公園, Kokuei Shōwa Kinen Kōen). It covers 163 hectares in Tachikawa, west of Tokyo, and it includes ponds, a Japanese garden, a 14-km cycling course, a bird sanctuary, a dragonfly marsh, a barbecue area, a foggy forest and a dancing dome. I kid you not. You can find more information at its official website.

I went there today to look at the cosmos, but I should have done it earlier in the season: the flowers are way past their best. My time was limited and I couldn't explore the entire park, but I will definitely return in November to enjoy the autumn foliage, especially the magnificent ginkgo-lined road near the park's Tachikawa Gate.

The best way to get there is on the Chūō Line. You can get off at Tachikawa or Nishi-Tachikawa, although the latter is closer to a park entrance. (Some Chūō Line trains run straight through; others stop at Tachikawa, in which case you have to transfer to the Ōme Line and get off one stop later at Nishi-Tachikawa.) The entrance fee is ¥400. Be prepared to walk A LOT. Alternatively, you can rent a bicycle at any of the gates (¥400 for three hours) or use the "park train", which is actually a bus that looks like a train. (It's cute.) A ticket is ¥300.

Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Cosmos at Shōwa Kinen Park

Cosmos at Shōwa Kinen Park

Autumn is approaching ...


The train bus thingie

It's big. Be ready to walk a few kilometers.

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Monday, 26 September 2011

The bamboo grove at Hōkoku-ji in Kamakura

I love bamboo in all its forms: from strolling through a bamboo forest to eating takenoko (bamboo shoots). I also think wind in bamboo is one of the loveliest sounds in the world.

The most famous bamboo forest within reach of Tokyo is in the Arashiyama district near Kyoto, but there's another one – less known, but in a way much more charming – in Kamakura. It's more a grove than a forest, but you can find it at Hōkoku-ji (報国寺) in the eastern part of Kamakura. It's on Route 204 that runs from Kamakura to the Yokohama-Yokosuka Expressway.

Bamboo grove at Hōkoku-ji in Kamakura. Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Although Hōkoku-ji is tiny compared to Arashiyama, it's better in one way: it's more intimate. Arashiyama is a big forest, but the bamboo is fenced off and you walk along an asphalt road that's wide enough for a car. Hōkoku-ji is small, but you walk through it on a narrow path made from stones, and the only barrier between you and the bamboo is very low rope. The disadvantage of Hōkoku-ji's easygoing approach is this:

I don't know who did the actual scratching, but Ron and Noriko, you're both morons.

The grove at Hōkoku-ji has about two thousand moso bamboo trees (Phyllostachys edulis), which can reach a height of 20 m and a thickness of 20 cm. Remember the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? That was filmed in a moso bamboo forest that covers 24 000 acres in Anji in the Zhejiang Province of China. 

Hōkoku-ji, which belongs to the school of Rinzai Zen, has a long history. If you're interested, you can read about it here. It costs ¥200 to enter the bamboo grove, and the temple is only 15 minutes by bus from Kamakura Station. Definitely worth it.

When I go to well-known sightseeing spots, I always go as early as possible to avoid the crowds. I arrived at Hōkoku-ji just after they opened at 9 am, and spent an hour in the forest, enjoying the bamboo and some green tea. I fled when the flocks of cackling seniors, scurrying behind flag-carrying tour guides, arrived. Ah, the joys of sightseeing in Japan: go on a weekday and you’re surrounded by garrulous seniors; go on a weekend and you have to cope with the gray brigade as well as screaming toddlers. Foreign tourists, too, are not to be escaped at any time. Clearly they've realized that Kanto is not a nuclear wasteland after all, but let's not complain, for we need their money. Can't they just mail it to us, though?

The main buildings at  Hōkoku-ji  



I left Hōkoku-ji a bit earlier than planned, so I impulsively decided to walk a bit further up the road to see Jomyo-ji, another Rinzai temple, which is ranked fifth on the Kamakura Gozan, in other words, list of five most prominent Zen temples in Kamakura. (The other four are Kenchō-ji, Engaku-ji, Jufuki-ji and Jōchi-ji.) It was a pleasant walk on a crisp morning in early autumn, but the best thing about that temple was the hawk I heard, and eventually saw, in the forest surrounding the temple. Jomyo-ji has a teahouse with a small karesansui (Zen garden), but nothing particularly special.

The small Zen garden at Jomyo-ji 

This is a bad photo, but look! A hawk! It's not a pigeon. It's a hawk. Promise.

Then I decided to walk back to Kamakura Station instead of returning by bus. It's a very nice stroll and I got sidetracked into dozens of small streets – not to see any impressive sights, but to enjoy ordinary scenes in a small town. I had no intention of going to Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū, the best-known shrine in Kamakura, but when I walked past, I thought, "Oh heck, I'm here, I might as well pop in."

I seldom enjoy the really famous places: their reputation is inevitably exaggerated and the crowds horrify me. I observed the overweight foreign tourists and the well-oiled wedding machine that is Hachiman-gū on a Sunday. The brides were lining up, waiting for their turn in the Maiden. The Maiden is where Shizuka, the mistress of the warrior Minamoto no Yoshitsune, performed in the 1180s. Yoshitsune's brother, Yoritomo, captured Shizuka and ordered her to dance for him. She turned it into a defiant portrayal of her love for Yoshitsune. If you want to know more about this family drama, read The Tale of the Heike. Anyway, that's why the Maiden is associated with True Love, and that's why the kimono-clad brides stand in line to get married there.

I made a quick detour to look at the famous ginkgo tree. This huge tree, which was 30 meters tall and more than a thousand years old, was knocked over by a very strong wind in March 2010. Experts say the tree's core was probably rotten. However, both the tree's stump and a section of its trunk that was replanted nearby have started producing leaves again. Then I went to the small Maruyama Inari Shrine, which probably predates the main shrine, just because I love foxes. Then I returned to Tokyo.

I took this photo of the Maiden at Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū in June 2009. You can clearly see the giant ginkgo tree at the foot of the steps leading to the main shrine. 

The giant ginkgo in June 2009 

This is what it looks like now. The stump has started sprouting leaves, as has the trunk that has been replanted next to the tree's original spot. 

Just to compare: this is the bamboo forest in Arashiyama near Kyoto.

If you want to go to Hōkoku-ji, here's a map: 

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Saturday, 24 September 2011

The colour of decayed leaves

Today, suddenly, unexpectedly, there was a touch of autumn in the air. A crisp early morning and a cool evening. That's why I've started a new experiment: a brown blog. The current blog colours are "the colour of red decayed leaves" (赤朽葉色, aka-kuchiba-iro) for the background and "chestnut plum" (栗梅, kuri-ume) for the titles. The colours are still subdued, because leaves have only just started changing colours. Come November, and I'll have to try yellows and reds.

The colour of red decayed leaves at

Chestnut plum at

Friday, 23 September 2011

For the anniversary of my death

Yesterday I went to Yanaka Cemetery, but the normally well-kept graveyard looked as if … well … as if a typhoon had hit it. That's exactly what had happened, of course, and you could see Typhoon Roke's legacy everywhere: toppled trees, scattered twigs and leaves, sotoba in disarray, sodden flowers and bedraggled sakaki branches. Even the crows looked frazzled.

Despite the mess – or rather, because of it! – the cemetery was busier than usual. Crews were scampering to tidy up before Ohigan on Friday, 23 September, when the Japanese visit family graves. They clean the graves, pull weeds, pour water on the tombstone and light incense as a gesture of appreciation. This year, thanks to Roke, their task will take a bit longer than usual.

Not everybody waits until Ohigan itself, and yesterday I could see many individuals paying respects to their ancestors. The cemetery, which is huge, also has "professionals", usually old-timers, who take care of graves; but there are many graves that have been badly neglected. Why? No family members, nobody cares, family lives too far away, old customs aren't being honoured anymore? There's nothing quite as sad as a crumbling, weed-infested, lonely tombstone.

I wonder where my grave will be. It doesn't really matter, but I hope I'll be cremated rather than buried in the Western tradition. I'll get claustrophobic in a coffin. If I die in Japan, I want to be cremated here. Don't send me back to South Africa. Very cheap funeral is OK, and it would be nice if somebody could scatter my ashes in a forest on a mountain. I know that's not allowed, but I'm from Africa, and we're not exactly known for being law-abiding. There will be some bony bits too, perhaps the nodobotoke, so you can chuck that in a river and flummox a future forensic anthropologist.

My grave could very well be under floors of rubble, after the big one hits Tokyo.

Do you think I'm being morbid? We all die, don't we, and a foreign resident should think about this. It would be a bureaucratic nightmare to bury me in the country of my birth. The South African Post Office can't even deliver letters to the correct address. I don't think they could manage my corpse.

My visit to Yanaka …

I should interrupt myself. I love strolling in Japanese cemeteries. It's quiet and tranquil, and there are so many untold stories buried in each grave. If you stand quietly at a tombstone and listen very carefully, you can pick up ragged whispers from long ago and piece a life together. No, I'm not insane. Yes, I believe stories are not only important, but sacred. (I'm now interrupting my interruption. I've just decided it's time to re-read The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa.)

My visit to Yanaka reminded me of this poem by W.S. Merwin, which I share with you on Ohigan. It's called For the anniversary of my death.

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

Sotoba are wooden tablets on which the person's posthumous Buddhist name or kaimyou is written.

This intrigued me: a solitary stone lying on a wall surrounding a historic graveyard. Who put it there? Why?

Dunno why, but I like this photo.

Typhoon damage: a branch fell on a stone lantern.

This is still quake damage: a toppled stone lantern.

There's a lot of weeding to be done here.

A neglected grave

This isn't mere neglect. Why is this grave so overgrown? No family? Far away? Doesn't give a damn?

We need remarkably little space.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

What plague is next? Locusts?

Japan has become positively biblical. Remember the plagues of Egypt as described in Exodus? Ditto. We've had death and destruction, water, hail and thunder, flies, darkness (thanks, Tepco!), livestock disease and incurable boils (that sounds like radiation to me). What's next? Locusts?

Ah well. So be it. We'll turn the next calamity into lunch. The Afrikaans poet C. Louis Leipoldt, who also wrote cookbooks and a travel dairy, included a locust recipe in his Cape Cookbook. He said you should immerse them in boiling water and pull off their legs. Then you add some salt, pepper and cinnamon and fry their trunks until brown. Now you know.

Here's a photo of Typhoon Roke over Japan. It was taken yesterday afternoon. The typhoon was accompanied – why am I not surprised? – by a magnitude 5.3 earthquake that occurred in Ibaraki at 10:30 pm. It must have been at the same time that Roke was actually moving over that area.

It will definitely be locusts next.

Photo: NASA

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Thoughts and smiles and dried-up tears

A spider lives inside my head
Who weaves a strange and wondrous web
Of silken threads and silver strings
To catch all sorts of flying things,
Like crumbs of thought and bits of smiles
And specks of dried-up tears,
And dust of dreams that catch and cling
For years and years and years . . .

A new collection of never-before-seen poems and drawings by Shel Silverstein (who died in 1999) has just been published. It's called Every Thing On It. I guess I'll have to go visit a bookstore again. Here's an animated adaptation of an old favourite, The Giving Tree, read by Silverstein himself:

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The ghost Jizōs of Kanmangafuchi

Nikkō (日光) is famous as a World Heritage Site that contains shrines such as Nikkō Tōshō-gū and Futarasan Jinja, but my favourite part is, predictably, slightly off the beaten track. Not exactly unknown, but if you compare it to the main attractions that are mobbed by multitudinous hordes, it's positively deserted. It's Kanmangafuchi, a narrow gorge that's formed by the Daiya River. (As per usual, click on the photos to see bigger versions.)

Kanmangafuchi near Nik 

Picnic time

You approach Kanmangafuchi via the Stone Park, a garden with stones and rocks placed arbitrarily, or possibly arranged very carefully to look haphazard.

Stone Park at the entrance of Kanmangafuchi

The path that leads into Kanmangafuchi is lined with about 70 statues of Jizō. There used to be 100, but several washed away during a flood in 1902. They're called Hyaku Jizō (one hundred Jizō) or Narabi Jizō (Jizō in a line). It's said that if you count the statues while walking in opposite directions along the path, you never get the same total, no matter how often you re-count. That's why they're also called Bake Jizō (ghost Jizō).

The head of the biggest statue, called the Oya Jizō (parent Jizō), was later found in the river after the flood, and today stands at Jōkōji, a temple near the Stone Park.

The statues – many mere piles of stones – are beautiful but spooky, especially since it's quite dark in the narrow gorge.

There's not much to do here, but that's the whole point. You just enjoy the crystal-clear river, chat with the stones and do a quiet, solitary, undemanding hike through a lush forest. If you follow the path to its very end, you can see two monuments dedicated to the haiku poet Matsuo Bashō, both near the Arasawa Elementary School. 

To get there, walk across the Shinkyo Bridge that spans the Daiya River, and turn sharp left just after the bridge. Follow that road (it's Route 120) and turn left again to cross the river near the Nikkō  Sogo Kaikan (Nikkō Public Meeting Hall). Before you walk across the river, pop into Jōkōji. I love this temple, because it has lots of Jizō statues. If I were you, I'd go there in October or November when it's not so hot and the trees start changing colours. The path will probably be busier then, but the autumn scenery will be gorgeous.

Shinkyo Bridge

When you see this frog statue, start looking for the road to Kanmangafuchi on your left.


The head of Oya Jizō

Who needs a body?

Who needs a head?

Many of the Jizō statues are little more than piles of stones.

Special bonus photos below, because this is what every young Japanese woman who goes to Nikkō really wants to see. This tiny carving, called nemurineko or the sleeping cat, is a symbol of peace. All of Japan is in love with it: they stand in line for hours ... OK, 20 minutes ... to see it, and then there's such a crowd behind you that you barely have time to photograph it. If you walk around to the back of the cat, where there are only 98 000 visitors instead of 100 000, you can see the sparrow. My photo is a bit blurry, because I was about 1 km from the sparrow behind all 98 000 co-gawkers when I took it. I want to quote the rather quaint English description on the Nikkō Tourist Association's English website: "Also, there is a sculpture of sparrow on the backside of the Sleeping Cat. The sparrow will be eaten if the cat is awake. However, the sparrow and the cat co-exist. It means that nation wide chaos is over and peaceful society has come."

PS: That cat's faking it, if you ask me.

The sleeping cat

The sparrow


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