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.
It’s summer again and that means the season for discovering very local countryside train lines! Here’s the Ichibata Taishasen (一畑電車大社線) running between Izumotaishamae and Kawato stations (出雲大社前駅-川跡駅). This line is actually just an off-shoot on the main Kita Matsue line that is very rural even in itself. This train and the terminus pictured here is famous for being the station closest to the famous Izumo Taisha. There used to be a line dedicated just to service the town of Izumo with a connection to Matsue City, the capital of Shimane Prefecture, the Taisha Line but it was cancelled in 1990, even before the end of the bubble economy. Still, the areas close to the main cities (Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Yokohama) have fared better but it is still amazing to see how robustly the Japanese countryside has managed to withstand the death sentence meted out to most rural areas in North America and Europe. But I fear even the Japanese countryside will succumb to the final death blow with this TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership). Once Japan signs the agreement the last lifeline of the Japanese rural economy, the domestic market, will implode and that will be the end of all these cities and towns spread out over the country. If you will allow me to be political for a moment here, it is my opinion that the TPP is an even great threat to Japan than earthquakes and nuclear accidents. Once the agricultural sector is left defenseless from cheap imports there will be no reason to farm in Japan anymore, and with that the supporting businesses and civil society built around the farms will collapse. Many people fail to realize that Japan is essentially an agricultural society. You don’t need to venture far out from the cities to enter a countryside that in essence has remained the same for the last two to three thousand years. However, the TPP can still be stopped and I urge anyone with voting rights in the concerned countries to vote only for parties that are fundamentally opposed to the agreement.
Traveling around Japan I often meet idealistic young farmers who are putting their livelihoods on the line to keep the countryside of Japan alive but there is absolutely no chance of them being able to stand in the face of the TPP. And with them the rural train lines, like this one.
Last year was the 400th anniversary of the completion of the castle of Matsue City in Shimane prefecture and the whole prefecture put on a huge effort to attract tourism and visitors. Despite all the things going on in north eastern Japan at the time they really did great and I took full advantage of being the complete tourist for my two day trip to the city. This being Japan, Matsue did the rather clever thing of putting up an idol group just to promote the city during 2011, the Matsue Maihimetai, which roughly translates as the Dancing Castle Maidens of Maihime (or at least that’s what I would call them if someone had asked me to give them an English stage name!). At their official site you can download one of their songs and learn the lyrics to some others. Here’s a rather simple video online showing their performance in front of the gorgeous Matsue Castle, and also singing about it.
No matter how famous they became or how much they helped to put Matsue on the tourist map during their short time on stage, I think that it’s a great use of a city’s marketing budget, especially as they sent them out on a summer tour across the country. Local talent promoting their own city and showing that it’s not only Tokyo that can do idol groups!
The photos I took of their very sunny midday performance at a stage below Matsue Castle aren’t very good at all, since I had to use my longest lens for the day, a 70-300mm Sigma that is absolutely not built for these situations. But one uses what one’s got, right?