Tokyobling's Blog

Itsukushima Shrine Torii – Miyajima

Posted in Places by tokyobling on July 18, 2014

The grand torii of the Itsukushima Shrine is one of the many reasons that Hiroshima’s Miyajima Island is considered one of the top tourist attractions of Japan (in my opinion, even maybe the top attraction). At high tide the torii sits seemingly in the middle of the ocean but on low tide the water recedes and you can easily walk right up to it.

This torii was designed not to be anchored to the ground, it actually remains in place just by its own weight which makes it more or less earth quake proof. During high tide many tourist boats pass through ut and I as is customary people like to offer money to the gate. At low tide the money becomes visible in droves underneath the gate, in some places it piles up in droves. Still, to pick anything up or remove any of the money would be big no-no, so most people leave it alone where it is.

It was raining during most of my visit and together with this being a weekday afternoon meant that there were quite few other tourists during my visit. I even managed to meet one of the many wild deer out for a stroll later in the afternoon after the school kids and tourists had left.

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Itsukushima Shrine – Miyajima Island

Posted in Places by tokyobling on June 28, 2014

The shrine on Isukushima Island, or Miyajima, is built into the flat tidal bay of the Setonaikai, a small sea surrounded by the main islands of Japan. In the old days the it was forbidden for commoners to set foot on the holy island so the shrine was built into the bay to make it possible for ordinary people to pay their respects. Although the building has been rebuilt many times, the original shrine dates back to the 6th century, making it one of the oldest in Japan.

During high tide the shrine sits in the middle of the water, a very beautiful effect. Unfortunately I visited during the rainy season so it was raining for most of the day and by the time I arrived low tide was in effect and most of the water had already run out. Still, it is good to see something different from what every photo in every tourist book tells you!

Shinto places great importance on purity, and since the island of Itsukushima is one the holiest places births and deaths and blood were not allowed on the island traditionally. These days of course, customs have changed though. Anyone who died on the island would be taken over to the mainland with their immediate family for funeral rites and there are still no cemeteries or graves on the island. Pregnant women were also expected to leave the island before giving birth and although not a rule anymore it is still considered prudent as there are no official maternity wards or hospitals on the island and the daytime only ferry access can be canceled in times of bad weather.

Walking around on the shrine which covers quite a lot of ground but is surprisingly small is a fantastic experience and I would easily rate this shrine as one of the premier places to visit for anyone touristing in Japan. This was also one of the places visited by Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio on their honey moon trip to Japan. As much as I have searched though, I can’t find any official dates or photos, but it must have happened on the afternoon of February 12th, 1954. Any fans who knows more out there?

More photos and posts to come!

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Itsukushima Shrine – The Floating Torii

Posted in Places by tokyobling on June 27, 2014

About 23km from the city of Hiroshima lies one of the most beautiful spots in Japan, Itsukushima island, or as it is known in everday life, Miyajima (the island with the shrine). It is considered one of the three scenic views of Japan and is also on the UNESCO world heritage list of sacred places.

In the old days the island was considered to be so holy that laymen and ordinary people were not allowed to set foot on it, it was exclusively reserved for priests and nuns. To allow visitors to the local shrine to properly worship there, a torii, a shrine gate was constructed in the 12th century and placed in the middle of the bay. In those days visitors would be rowed over in long narrow boats but these days commoners are allowed on the island so almost everyone approach it on foot.

The present gate was made in the 19th century by using water resistant camphor trees and is about 16 meters tall. It is really much larger than you can tell from these photos which were taken at quite a distance. Remarkably enough no saltwater nor waves nor typhoons has managed to topple the gate which is actually not anchored to the ground, it is really just plonked on the sand and is kept in place by its own weight! The pier and ocean side walk leading up to the shrine is lined with stone lanterns and the many tourists are kept an eye on by the local population of wild deer, which are protected on this holy island.

I will blog more about the wonderful Itsukushima shrine and the island itself tomorrow and the coming week.

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Mihara Kouji – Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin in Ginza

Posted in People, Places by tokyobling on March 25, 2014

I love looking at old maps and photos of Japan and especially of Tokyo. The other day I found an interesting photo of French legendary singer, poet and bad boy Serge Gainsbourg and almost equally legendary singer Jane Birkin, having fun in Japan. There was no information on the photos but looking at signs in the background and searching for similar photos I found that they were indeed taken in Tokyo and more specifically in Ginza, although the two most interesting photos were taken in a Ginza that I had never seen, it looked more like old Kyoto than modern Tokyo! Finally I narrowed the spots where they were photographed. In one, Serge Gainsbourg is getting his shoes polished in front of the Matsuzakaya department store which was closed for good last year (you can see photos of it here, but when I walked past a couple of days ago it was all torn down in a mountain of concrete and rubble). In two photos, Serge and Jane are have been taken to an area that must have been considered cool and old fashioned even back when the photos were taken (most likely in May 22nd 1971, a few hours before the Sylvie Vartan concert in Shinjuku). You can see that Jane is quite pregnant, expecting the couple’s daughter Charlotte. It turned out that they were visiting the Mihara Kouji (三原小路), which was a couple of alleyways on a corner of Ginza that somehow survived the firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945. Naturally, I had to go there to investigate if there was anything left of this historic little spot!

Today Mihara Kouji (which used to be similar to Shinjkuku’s Golden Gai that I blogged about a few days ago) is very much reduced, and only a few buildings remain, but they look exactly like the Shinjuku Golden Gai buildings and the construction is identical, one set of four connected two story buildings of wooden frame structures with a plaster rendering and many decades of dust, soot and urban grime. None of the original bars or restaurants seems to have survived but a few old timers still cling to this urban relic, a ramen shop that was quite crowded, a couple of bars and some companies. Most of the street has been given a facelift and there are now a few posher restaurants that looks quite interesting as well.

At the entrance of the first alley, where the only surviving 1940s buildings are located, I noticed a peculiar little torii attached to the wall, about 20cm tall. These mini-torii are originally from the Kansai area and is really interesting enough for their own blog post but I’ll give you the story now anyway! In the old Edo period of Japan (1600-1868), human waste was a very valuable ingredient in farming. In order to feed a relatively huge population of about 30 million people on very limited land and no artificial fertilizer, Japan had to use every little scrap of nutrition it had. Excrement was valuable and people would sell the contents of their toilets to nightsoilmen who would pay with fresh food from the farmers. It was perfect system of recycling nutrition from the farm to the city and back again. Nothing was wasted. However, when Japan was opened to the outside world in the Meiji period, this recycling system was seen as something negative and unnecessary. Where every city block had numerous public toilets installed to catch the valuable excrements, landlords now started getting rid of them. But people still needed to go and they would just do their business on the old spots where the toilets used to be. Signs prohibiting public urination didn’t work so instead the people of Kyoto started putting up miniature torii, like the sacred gates to their shrines. Even the basest of drunk brutes would think twice before lifting his kimono over a sacred torii! Slowly this habit spread around the country and you can now see these miniature torii all over. In Kyoto they are common just about anwhere people would stop for a piss, and in the countryside bigger mini torii are used to stop illegal dumping of garbage. There are a few in Tokyo but still very very rare. I was lucky to spot this one! If you can read Japanese, here’s an interesting article about the phenomena, and some good photos.

On the end of the second alley, you’ll find a very small inari shrine, called by the locals the Azuma Inari Daimyojin. This shrine miraculously survived the fires after the war and so became the unofficial protector of the neighborhood. Even today once a year the locals come to pray at the shrine in order to stop burglary and fires from happening in the local area. As usual, the story is very complicated and I am had no one to ask about it but I think I got the gist of it.

The last few photos of the this blog post are the original photos from 1971 that started my interest in this historic hidden gem of Ginza. They were taken by French Photographer Bertrand Laforet, but I haven’t been able to find any information about him. If anyone reading this now any more about the visit of Serge and Jane to Ginza, or Bertrand Laforet, I’d be happy to hear about it! The concert that I believe the happy couple were on their way to attend was recorded and released on album, you can listen to the concert and the lovely chit chat of the singer with her audience here, Sylvie Vartan live in Tokyo. And just while I am on the subject of Serge Gainsbourg and music, here is a special bonus – France Gall singing her Serge penned mega hit Poupée de cire, poupée de son in fluent Japanese (夢見るシャンソン人形)!

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