The best way to enjoy a visit to a temple or a shrine in my opinion is to go for the details. Just like older western Churches, temples and shrines in Japan (and indeed in the rest of Asia as well) are absolutely loaded with details all of which carries tons of symbolism and meaning. Most Japanese can’t actually “read” these details either (it is not a lost skill, as these details have long been the domain of specialists and professionals). I have always thought it interesting in Japanese that there is one word for “leg” that covers everything from the hipjoint to the big toe, but there is also a very specific name for each part of the spire on top of a pagoda, with incredible detail. Every time I visit a temple in Japan I learn something new about the symbolism or naming of the different parts of it. Sometimes I take a lot of photos of details to remember them, like with this temple that I visited in Matsue City in Shimane Prefecture, the Senjuin (千手院). This temple is on the slopes of a hill neatly placed to overlook the city and the castle that makes the city famous. The temple belongs to the oldest and largest of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. I was too late in the season to experience the famous weeping cherry blossom tree (shidare sakura) which is over 200 years old. The temple itself is very old but it was moved here in the 19th century after a large fire burned down the original buildings in 1678. If you visit Matsue City and have a bit of free time and the weather is good I recommend visiting this temple if nothing else than for the news.
A few of the interesting details on this temple was the elaborate (even more than usual) bright vermilion ceramic roof finials, complete with the famous kamon (heraldic sign) Gosannokiri which is extremely similar to the official heraldic sign of the prime minister and can be found in all Japanese passports for example (to be honest there are 129 official kamon based on this simple design and it could be anyone of them). I also enjoyed seeing the printed prayer slips pasted on one of the walls which I have never seen in Tokyo (I am sure there must be some). Another one I liked was the little votive painting of the Senjukannon, the buddhist patron saint of people born in the year of the rat and often prayed to by people with poor eyes.
Most people who visit the beautiful city of Matsue in Shimane Prefecture on the north coast of Japan make sure to check out the famous Matsue Castle. The castle is one of the more beautiful wood and stone castles in Japan and the black building contrasts beautifully with the green of the garden and the blue sky. It also contrasts beautifully with another of Matsue’s famous buildings, the splendid white Kounkaku (興雲閣), also knowns by the locals as the Russian Palace when it was built in 1903. Local business worked together to raise money for the building, which in those days cost 13 489 yen, or 10 million yen in today’s value which must be exceptionally good value. The hope was to have a building grand enough to welcome the Emperor during his visit to Matsue but unfortunately his visit was stopped due to the outbreak of the war with Russia in 1905. However the locals got nearly the same honor in 1907 when the then Crown Prince Yoshihito visited (the soon to be Emperor Taisho).
The building itself is an important example of the uniquely Japanese style of architecture called Gyofu Architecture, that was common in Japan between 1869 and 1905. It is in essence buildings made by Japanese carpenters to imitate the style of western buildings they had only seen in drawings, plans and photographs. Many of the layouts, details and all the construction techniques are made in pure Japanese style, but in a way that looks foreign. The term Gyofu is today considered very negative and many architects prefer to call it Early Meiji Period Style, not as descriptive but more neutral. For a long time these buildings were considered naive and embarrassing even though they were usually very popular with locals who saw them as a sign of modernity and prosperity. Many government offices, police stations, hospitals and schools were built in this style until the early 20th century when western and western trained architects and engineers started constructing properly western buildings in the western manner. Personally though I love this style of architecture, it is informed, it is local, it is vernacular and a very attractive combination between east and west. Although proper western architecture also has some shining examples in Japan (like the Mitsubishi Ichigokan in Tokyo), these Gyofu buildings have so much more heart. And above all, they are in every case deeply loved by the people who live near them, and that is one of the pillars of an ethical and ecological society. Here is another example of perhaps the most famous Gyoufu building in Japan, the Kaichi Gakkou in Nagano Prefecture’s Matsumoto City.
Inside the building there are a few modern pieces of artwork reflecting the history of Matsue City, for example the grand portrait of the Daimyo (lord of a province) Horio Yoshiharu (堀尾吉晴 1542–1611) who was one of the most famous Samurai in Japanese history. You can’t tell from the portrait but he had quite a life! As a young man he caught a wild boar with his bare hands and this brought him to the attention of the most powerful lord in Japan who was interested in what the young warrior would become. In battle after battle he proved his strength and cunning both as a warrior and as a leader. In 1599, at just the perfect moment, he switches sides in the great civil war that was raging in Japan at that time, to the side of the eventual winner, Tokuhawa Ieayasu (the first Shogun ruler of Japan). As a reward he was appointed the first head of the noble family that would rule modern day Shimane prefecture.
Japan takes it’s cartoon culture seriously! Most of the famous manga and anime characters can be found as bronze statues around Japan, mostly at the home town of the creator or where the manga takes place. Some of the most famous manga statues would be the Gundam statue in Odaiba or the Kochikame statue in Kameari, or the Godzilla statue in Tokyo’s Hibiya district. These two statues are of the 1965 comic Hajime Ningen Gyatoruzu, but everybody just knows it after the name of the main character, seven year old caveman boy Gon (hajime ningen means “first man”). This one is in front of the Matsue JR Station in Shimane prefecture, the hometown of Shunji Sonoyama (1935-1992). Caveman Gon was on Japanese TVs regularly from 1974 and I think most Japanese over the age of 40 knows some of the catch phrases of this character by heart!
If there’s one kind of blogging I don’t do well it is food blogging, as has been proved time and again. But I’m no quitter and I will give it a go again with this seafood plate that I ordered in a small izakaya (restaurant) in Matsue City, Shimane prefecture, last year. How many ingredients, fish, vegetable, garnishes, etc., can you identify? I think I know half of these myself. For this seafood set course I think I paid about 1480 yen, which is not much, not dirt cheap but very very reasonable. I think I had to order more rice though! I think I picked it because it was Today’s Special. Always a safe bet! Oh, and maybe I should offer a prize to celebrate the fact that this blog post is the 1300th published post on this blog!