Japan Trip – Week six – The Journey South – Part Two
September 8, 2016 Leave a comment
Although the garden was fascinating, my trains to Matsuyama beckoned – and while Shikoku, like most of Hokkaido, doesn’t have a Shinkansen line, it does have some very comfortable express trains that run along the north coast of the island. This part of shikoku is the flattest, and certainly the most populous, whereas the Pacific Coast, other than Kochi, is more a network of small villages connected together by a local train line. Most of the farmable land on the northern coast of shikoku appears to be given over to rice paddies, with every piece of flat land, and even some that was clearly part of a hillside once, is given over to the cultivation of rice, an incredibly important crop which is still largely subsidised by the Japanese state. One thing did become obvious as the journey went on though, almost all of the rivers that we passed appeared to have entirely dried up, or if they did have water, it was little more than a trickle down one side. But there was clearly plenty of water around, and I suspect that the river water is being diverted further upstream into an intricate network of channels to the rice paddies. Given how much news coverage Japan gives to a typhoon, any sign of drought in a rice growing region would likely be national news, so my assumption is that the river water is being used, thus leaving most rivers dry, even the very large ones. But it does demonstrate the curious relationship that Japan has with its landscape. On the one hand they worship the natural world – indeed, Shinto is an animist religion – and yet, you cannot find a river, or piece of coastline that hasn’t been thoroughly concreted over, in an attempt to control the very nature that they worship. As such, rivers and coastlines can often be rather ugly affairs up-close, despite the drama on display – mountains meeting the water, waterfalls, and cliffs.
The journey was still fascinating, and a prime example of why Japan’s train network is such a good way to see parts of the country. When arriving in Matsuyama, it was quickly apparent that this was a very different city to Takamatsu, bigger, taller buildings, a large tram network, but still just as hot. For my two nights I had decided to stay in the Dogo area, an onsen resort to the east of Matsuyama, and an area famous for the Dogo Onsen, purportedly the oldest onsen in Japan, and a massive tourist destination. The main shopping arcade of Dogo is full of tourist shops, mostly selling variations on bath towels and fans, alongside snacks and other similar gifts. It is an odd mixture of very modern gifts and shopping arcade, with older buildings constructed of wood, with proper tiles on the rooves. Furthermore, once you leave that main shopping arcade, there are numerous smaller side roads and alleys full of little shops and smaller restaurants, and noodle bars, all relatively quiet, despite the busy nature of the area. The springs are mentioned in the Man’youshu (c.759), Japans oldest collection of poetry, and the semi-legendary Prince Shoutoku (574-622) was supposed to have bathed in the springs waters. But the actual building you see today dates from the Meiji period, and was built in 1894, a reminder that despite the age of a place, the buildings you see might be comparatively new. While it is a resort town, with numerous hotels clearly doing onsen packages – everybody wanders around in yukata, with onsen bags and baskets – the actual Dogo area feels distanced from the rest of the city. Small streets, more classical architecture, and shrines on the surrounding hillsides, so it actually feels rather nice compared to the bustle of the modern city below.
While my primary reason for coming to Matsuyama was to visit its castle, an astonishing place that commands the centre of the city, I did decide to visit the famous onsen. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but Dogo is rather different from other onsen I have visited in Japan – there are three levels, and the higher up you go, the more you pay, and the more you get. Rather than the number of different baths that often characterise an onsen, Dogo is very classical in design, with a single large bath – it is also very spare on accessories, and likely only gets away with it because of its reputation as the olderst (or one of the oldest, depending on who you talk to) onsen in Japan. Still, while I much prefer the onsen I visited in Hokkaido, it was an interesting experience nonetheless. What it does highlight is the importance of history to Japan – Dogo Onsen might not be as relaxing, or as nice as the onsen I visited in Hokkaido (most being relatively old themselves, and tapping into natural hot springs as well), but, because of the history attached to the place, some real, some mythical, it represents an important space that offers a direct link to japans historical, and mythical past. Plus, unlike more modern onsen, with their clean white tiles, multiple baths, general, everyday comforts, Dogo Onsen offers a direct, and tangible link to the traditions of Japan’s historical past, something I intend to talk about further in another post.
But, as I mentioned, Matsuyama Castle was the real reason I came to the city – as one of the twelve original castles left in Japan, and a particularly fine example of the complexities involved in Japanese castle construction, I had wanted to visit for a while now. You can take a chair lift part way, but I decided to walk despite the heat. In fact, walking up to the castle helps to make you realise how difficult it would be for an army to attack in hot weather, with little in the way of shade, and certainly nowhere to really hide on the hillside, any attack would be a slow, and painful affair. The castle walls are truly impressive, rising out of the hillside in a smooth curve created by large stones that have been shaped so that they fit together perfectly. The gates into the castle were an elaborate affair, built in such a way as to provide firing positions at all times, and make it impossible for any potential enemy to sneak up, or hide from incoming arrows, bullets, and rocks. Once inside there was very little in the way of fortifications, instead there were a number of smaller buildings (there were likely many more made out of wood that have since disappeared), and according to recent archaeological evidence, there used to be a wooden palisade that encircled the entire top of the castle, but it has since disappeared. However, given the scale of the walls, and the difficulty in getting close to the castles gates, there clearly seemed little point in other fortifications in the main courtyard. Those were instead kept for the Castle Keep, the last bastion of defence, where the lord would stay, and designed to be all but un-breachable. In fact, as far as I am aware, Matsuyama Castle was never taken by an enemy assault, but like many well-known Japanese buildings, it burned down on a number of occasions, and had to be rebuilt, in fact, the last time it was rebuilt was between 1820, and 1854, after being burnt down when lighting struck in 1784 – it is therefore the last castle ever built in Japan.
The Keep was a little special – three stories, and numerous wings, all surrounding a central courtyard, and all offering places to defend from. This type of keep is particularly rare in Japan, and only a small number of Japans twelve original castles have a central keep with multiple wings. The tour took you around the castles numerous rooms, all dominated between the dark of the wood, with the bright sunlight allowed in through shuttered windows. The third floor of the keep also offered beautiful views of the whole city, and demonstrate why the castle had been built on the hill in the first place. Not only is it an inherently defensible position, but it would give the regions lords a commanding view over their domain, a true position of power. On my way down I decided to walk to the second bailey, which is now known as the Ninomaru Garden – and was the second line of defence on the castles main flatland approach. The path down wound its way through woodland, eventually coming out between two falls of a much grander scale than the ones I saw when I first climbed up to the castle. This path was clearly considered to be vital to the castle, and massive falls, with three gates, including one which, rather unusually for the time, had three stories, were constructed to protected the road to the main castle, and also protect the second bailey. None of these gates remain, but archaeological, and writings from the time point to impressive gates which were clearly designed as a primary line of defence. But, as I write this I realise that no amount of description can really do justice to the castle, and it should really be seen with your own eyes. As it was, I spent several hours just relaxing on top, rather than rushing around like everybody else in the heat of Matsuyama in summer. The castle arguably provides the best views of Matsuyama and its nearby islands, and should look truly beautiful in either spring, or autumn.
While there is more to Matsuyama than just a castle and an onsen, given how hot it was I just took my time, and didn’t particularly want to rush around, so other than the castle, I also visited Ishiteji, another temple on the Shikoku Henro, and at the time of my visit, full of coach loads of pilgrims, all chanting in unison. And that really was my time in Matsuyama, a brief stop that presented a city full of interesting sites, but with very little time to really visit them. My next stop would be Miyajima, one of Japan’s most famous attractions, famed for its floating temple and massive Torii. To get there, rather than take the train all the way back to Takamatsu, and then Okayama, I had decided to catch a ferry leaving Matsuyama port to Hiroshima. Japanese trains are great, but my first experience with a Japanese ferry was another wonderful experience, and I would love to try more trips across the Seto Inland Sea, even if they are more expensive than using the Japan Rail Pass. They also offer a change of pace, and a chance to see a different side of Japan as we wound our way through the numerous islands which can be found throughout the Seto Inland Sea. It was an excellent journey that was equal parts relaxing, fascinating, and at times rather exhilarating as we moved between islands, and at one point through a very narrow channel between the mainland and one of the larger islands south of Hiroshima.
While the journey to Miyajima was fascinating, my first impressions of the island itself were rather different. Until this point I had largely spent my time in the less tourist orientated areas of Japan, although naturally tourists were everywhere – principally Chinese tourists in Hokkaido and Shikoku – but Miyajima, given its World Heritage Status, and existence as one of the most popular tourist spots in Japan was an altogether different beast. In fact, what might have been a relatively pleasant walk, turned into something of a test of mental endurance as I made my way from the islands ferry terminal, to the hotel I had booked for the night on the other side of the main town. This entailed walking past the main shrine, and the tourist heart of the island, on a fairly hot day, and with a relatively large bag that was full of clothing necessary for the Nature School, but now little more than dead weight.
Once I had arrived at the hotel, and left my bags and other, heavier items, I had quickly departed for Mt Misen, one of the main reasons for my trip to Miyajima. From its summit you are provided with rather exceptional views of the island, and more importantly, the Seto Inland Sea itself. Although in my haste I stupidly did things that I always advise not to do when going out on even the shortest of walks or climbs. This included not eating my lunch – I had decided to eat it at the top – and not taking enough liquid with me, something that given the heat and humidity on that day was rather silly. In fact, despite its relatively low height (around 320 meters), the climb was significantly challenging, and rather steep, made worse by high humidity and, by half way, my hunger. But I persevered, focussing on the summit, and at times ignoring what was beautiful scenery, something I do regret, although given the weather on the day, I suspect that even if I had eaten properly, the climb would have still been a case of head down, and push to the top. Of course, the views once at the summit and its observation platform were worth it, and, despite the existence of the cable car, it was also far quieter than the main town.
It is often easy to forget that destinations such as Miyajima, despite its tourist attractions, famous sites, and numerous gift shops, are also living, working towns. Indeed, Miyajima, or Itsukushima to use its proper name (Miyajima means island of temples in Japanese) is a fairly substantial community that has a large enough population to suppose a middle and junior high school. Furthermore, it is also a holy island with numerous temples that are almost all rather famous, and sites of pilgrimage, and also represent the syncretic nature of Japanese religion, and religious sites, with Shinto Shrines, and Buddhist temples often built side by side. Indeed, in my rush to get to the hotel, drop off my bags, and climb the mountain, I had completely ignored this aspect of Miyajima, and instead for a brief moment, dismissing it as another tourist destination.
However, once the sun began to set, the island in many respects came to life, while simultaneously became very quiet. Its residence began to go about their daily lives now that all but those tourists staying at the islands hotels had left. It became very peaceful, and possible to explore the town in a way that wasn’t really possible during the day. Once you get past the famous Itsukushima Temple and Torii, that are, despite their magnificence, and fame, only one part of the island, it is soon evident that there are little fishing communities, numerous crafts and workshops, alongside other professions. The islands many small roads and alleyways become a fascinating network to be explored, and with each turn in the calm evening light, something new appears. There are therefore two Miyajima’s (and perhaps even more), the publicised, and very popular tourist destination, and the community which supports, and is supported by those very tourists. And my favourite has to be the latter, something that you can arguably only experience in the evening after the hordes of tourists have left, and in the early morning, before the first ferries arrive, ready to drop that day’s tourists and break the momentary peace just after dawn.
But of course, no trip to Miyajima is really complete without a visit to Itsukushima Shrine, and its grand Torii, structures that give the impression of floating when the tide is in. During my visit the tide was out, but that also offered a different perspective on this famous monument. As some background, Itsukushima was, and still is considered a holy island, with its many temples and shrines attesting to that fact. But, it was considered so holy to Shinto, that to build upon it would be to pollute the very space, the existence of Itsukushima Shrine is a result of that, and until relatively recently, it wasn’t even joined to the land, and existed as a separate entity. Indeed, the importance of purity and pollution to the island, and the shrine itself has become so important that since 1875, no births were allowed on the island, and nobody can be buried there. This is actually all rather important to the shrine, its torii, and relationship with visitors, because, in many respects all those who visit the shrine now are doing so in completely the wrong fashion. The shrine enshrines the three daughters of Susanoo-no-Mikoto, the god of the sea and storms, so while the island might be holy, the bay that the shrine is built on plays an essential role in its existence.
Given the importance of the sea and water to Japanese religions (when visiting a shrine or temple you will see little fountains used to clean, and therefore purify your hands and mouth before entering), the original way to visit Itsukushima would be at high tide, through the grand Torii which marks the shrines entrance. It is arguably the sea and what it represents which is the focal point of the entire structure (purity, danger, life), not the giant Torii surrounded by tourists taking selfies. In fact, the stone jetty stands right in front of the main hall, and is flanked by stations and lanterns, so throughout your whole journey through the grand Torii you are in the presence of the kami, and at the mercy of Susanoo-no Mikoto. By entering through the left hand wing, and walking past numerous lesser deities, visitors do not experience this grand entrance. Which got me thinking about the ritual landscapes of Japan and their relationship with tourists and pilgrims, and particularly how so much of their meaning may be lost on the casual observer, as it is often wrapped in an understanding of place, tradition, and legend that may often be unknown to all but the well-read.
Naturally, people can enjoy the sights, and tourists should not be expected to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the places that they visit. However, the ritual landscape of Japan is highly complex, temples, and shrines are intimately connected with their surroundings, and, unlike a European church, they are not there to send prayers to some distant god, but are a ritual space, where one can directly communicate with the enshrined kami. All those tourists I saw taking selfies in front of the Grand Torii at low tide are perhaps missing the central element of Itsukushima Shrine, and therefore are not able to fully appreciate its construction, and setting. Furthermore, in focussing almost exclusively on a single shrine and its Torii, most ignore the town, and island – they are merely the setting for the shrine, rather than part of a complex ritual landscape that is home to a living, working population. In essence, while people come, and enjoy Miyajima, as they should, so much is arguably lost to those who visit, a fact that is a little sad given how fascinating the relationship between landscape and architecture is in Japan.
But, Miyajima was for a single night, and while I didn’t particularly enjoy the island during the middle of the day, the climb up Mt Misen, alongside viewing the shrine in the evening, and early morning were truly enjoyable experiences. Also, I learned an awful lot about the importance of context when viewing ritual spaces in Japan, and how they are connected with the landscape around them. In particular, when walking through Itsukushima Jinja just after it had opened, and before the boats had arrived, it became apparent that every major structure in the shrine, from its main hall, to lesser halls, including a Noh Stage, were all in direct line of sight of The Grand Torii. You are therefore in sight of the land of the gods, and, given the importance of the sea to Itsukushima Jinja, you are also in the presence of Susanoo-no-Mikoto, no matter where you are within the complex. Such centrality of the Torii, as a marker between the ritual space, and the mundane world was clearly especially important to this shrine, so much so, that the gate must be visible, regardless of where you may be. As a final thought on Miyajima, the Grand Torii is particularly interesting, and exists as a physical representation of Japanese religions syncretic nature. The placement of an additional leg in front, and behind each pillar identifies the tori as a reflection of Ryobu Shinto (dual Shinto), a medieval school of esoteric Buddhism associated with the shingon sect. Despite all of the attempts during the Meiji period, Buddhism and Shinto still share close ties, despite what priests and monks might say, with the Itsukushima torii acting as a physical representation of those deep, and complicated ties.
Unfortunately, I had to leave quite early, partly because I didn’t want to carry my bags through hordes of tourists in the midday heat, but also because I intended to visit Hiroshima before leaving for Kyoto. Hiroshima is arguably one of the most important cities in Japan to visit, not necessarily because it is full of interesting tourist spots, but because of its history as one of the only two cities in the world to have an atomic bomb detonated above it. As you move through the city there is a somewhat odd feeling, perhaps because you suddenly realise that just over half a century ago, it had been reduced to rubble by a bomb that should have never been used on humans. That America decided to drop another on Nagasaki for good measure, is a fact that was, and remains hard to contemplate, while also demonstrating how easily victors can get away with actions which would otherwise result in sever punishments. The Atomic Dome itself is a special, and incredibly sobering place, which was somewhat spoiled by people doing silly poses and taking selfies in front of it. On a side note, selfie sticks, and all those who use them need to be destroyed in a rain of hellfire.
That the dome itself was so damaged, and the city which surrounded it was almost entirely vaporised by a bomb that was detonated at 600 meters made me wonder what on earth would have happened if it had been detonated closer to the ground, a thought that was pretty difficult to even contemplate at the time. While the park which surrounds the Genbaku Dome (Atomic Dome) is full of memorials, statues, and other monuments to what took place in 1945, I feel that the dome itself is the best monument we can have, and serves as a reminder of the tremendous, and terrible forces which can be unleashed by people who might just be curious to see what they do. I also visited the Memorial Museum, although, due to renovation work, only a single exhibit was open, and it was so crowded that I didn’t really have a chance to read all of the little bits of text. Furthermore, because I had a Shinkansen to catch, I didn’t really have enough time to truly contemplate what I was seeing. But, despite all this, the exhibition provided an astonishing, and at times, disturbing look at the effect of the bombing, and, alongside the Atomic Dome, proved to be a particularly interesting trip, regardless of its brevity.
And so ended my first week after the Nature School – a week in which I visited quite a few areas of Japan, and got to see quite a few interesting monuments, temples, shrines, and a very large castle. However, it was also too brief, too much shooting from place to place, and never enough time to simply sit and contemplate. As a trip, while it was fascinating, I don’t particularly want to do such a thing again. Furthermore, my experience on Miyajima in particular made me realise that I am much more at home doing outdoor activities like climbing mountains, or bushcraft, than I am being a tou rist, in very popular spots for tourists. Saying all that, having the chance to visit Hakodate, Takamatsu, Matsuyama, Miyajima, and Hiroshima helped to highlight the varied nature of Japan and its many islands. I went from a star fort which represents the final days of the Shogunate and its backwards looking policies, through to a hill top castle, and a world famous shrine which both pointed to Japan’s historical past, and its relationship with a landscape that is both practical, but also ritual. An interesting, but all too tiring way to start my travels around Japan, and one that I am not sure I will repeat in the future.