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2011
07.25

himeji-jo castle

if you ask any japanese which is the best castle in japan, they are most likely going to tell you it’s himeji castle (姫路城).  this castle and its grounds are huge and exceptionally preserved.  you can count on taking a solid half day to walk through himeji castle.  the structure that you see today was completed in the early 17th century under the tokugawa shogunate, whose goal was to unify japan under one rule.  the castle’s function was as the main military base for western japan.  there are many reasons for the castle’s popularity; its size, excellent preservation for over 400 years, and its role in history.  but i believe most people find its architectural beauty and design to be very important as well.  in fact, himeji castle is also referred to as shirasagi-j0 (白鷺城), english for castle of the white heron.

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2011
07.23

kumano sanzan

as the kanji characters demonstrate in its name, kumano sanzan (熊野三山) is composed of shrines located on three mountains within 40km (25 miles) of each other in the southern part of wakayama prefecture (和歌山県).  the various elements that are part of kumano sanzan are three shrines, two temples, a waterfall, the forest surrounding the area, and the pilgrimage routes between them.  dating back to prehistoric japan, these shrines were connected by pilgrimage routes that are still passable today.  though for easier travel there are paved roads that lead to each of the small towns where they are located.

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2010
08.30

yakushi-ji

though there are many buildings on the yakushi-ji (薬師寺) grounds, only the east pagoda, to-to (東塔), has survived wars and fires since the 8th century. formerly an imperial temple, yakushi-ji still serves as a site of buddhist worship.

like gango-ji and other temples located in asuka, yakushi-ji was moved from there to nara when it became the new capital of japan.

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2010
08.20

kozan-ji

though it is unclear if kozan-ji (高山寺) was built around 774 as legend tells, we do know that this temple was built during the nara period, which lasted from 710 until 794. it was in 794 that the capital of japan moved to kyoto. there are many national treasures and important cultural properties in konzan-ji. these include the oldest chinese character dictionary in japan, the only remaining copies in the world of buddhist tales from 7th or 8th century china, and many statues from the kamakura period.

but kozan-ji is most famous for its choju-jinbutsu-giga (鳥獣人物戯画), japan’s first anime! :) photographs of the scrolls were not allowed, but there are several good images in this wikipedia link. the originals are at the kyoto and tokyo national museums.

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2010
07.21

gango-ji temple

formerly known as hoko-ji temple, gango-ji temple (元興寺) was the first buddhist temple in asuka. it quickly became the source of japanese buddhism and a center for many of the cultures from china to be introduced into japan. at the time, these unique cultural characteristics were known as asuka culture, and were subsequently propagated throughout japan.

gango-ji temple was later moved from asuka, a former capital of japan, to nara in the 8th century. gango-ji temple is one of the seven main temples of nara and was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1998.

when the temple was moved to nara, roof tiles and timber from the asuka temple were used in the reconstruction. as such the timber is undergoing studies to determine its age, which could make it older than horyu-ji temple, the oldest wooden structure in the world. the orange tiles that you can see in a couple of the photographs are original and dated to be over 1400 years old.

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2010
07.08

koya-san is considered the home of the gods and was founded by kukai (空海). in this area there are many shrines, including niutsuhime shrine (丹生都比売神社) and niukanshoufu shrine (丹生官省符神社). the character “ni” (丹) in both of these shrines’ names means vermillion. in ancient japan, vermillion was believed to have supernatural powers against evil. that is why many temples and shrines in japan are of this color. one of its other uses is for planting statues of buddha. jison-in (慈尊院) temple is next to niukanshoufu shrine.

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2010
07.06

yoshino and omine

yoshino and omine (吉野・大峯) are situated in the mountains of nara prefecture.  in recent history, mt. yoshino (吉野山) has become a popular tourist site for its thousands of cherry blossom trees planted throughout the mountain side.  situated at different altitudes, the four groves illuminate the mountain for over a month with their pink flowers when the trees are in bloom.  in fact, several japanese emperors throughout history are known to have visited the area during the cherry blossom season.  there have also been many poems and haikus have been written about mt. yoshino’s beauty.

originally, however, the kii mountain range gained its notoriety in the 7th century as a sacred area were the gods were enshrined.  it’s most popular site being perhaps koya-san.  specifically, yoshino and omine became a sacred site of the religious sect shugendo, which combines shinto, native japanese religion, with buddhism, which was imported from china.  to this day many worshipers and pilgrims make their way through the sacred pilgrimages in this mountainous area.

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2010
05.02

granny bikes

they are called mama-chari (ママチャリ), the standard issued bicycles of japan.  these russian and chinese socialist throwback bikes are easy to spot.  a grocery basket up front and a child bucket seat in the rear, occasionally removed to allow for your high school girlfriend to ride along.

mama-chari basically stands for granny bike.  in america you don’t want to be caught riding one.  it can lead to name calling and bullying.  ;)

in japan, their existence is undeniable.  these grocery-getting chariots of steel announce their presence with a thunderous bell and a thrusting squall, leaving one confused and angered at the threat of injury.  the sidewalks are for bikes and the roads for cars, where is a pedestrian to stride?

uncommitted.

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2010
03.15

ginkaku-ji

ginkaku-ji (銀閣寺) is a zen temple is kyoto, which happens to not be as popular as its related temple kinkaku-ji (金閣寺).  ginkaku-ji was established in 1482 by ashikaga yoshimasa (足利義政), the grandchild of ashikaga yoshimitsu (足利義満) who had kinkaku-ji built.  the nuance in the name of the two zen temples is that “gin” stands for silver while “kin” means gold.

ginkaku-ji was supposed to be covered with a silver foil, much like kinkaku-ji is covered by gold.  however there was a civil war raging in japan during this time period and funds were deemed better spent on other items.  thus the temple as we see it today has technically never been finished.  many japanese believe that ginkaku-ji stands in balance to the more flamboyant kinkaku-ji with its gold leaf coating.  i have even heard several japanese that because of its subdued or reserved nature, ginkaku-ji is more japanese in style than kinkaku-ji.

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2010
03.11

kamigamo shrine

kamigamo shrine (上賀茂神社), formally known as kamowakeikazuchi shrine (賀茂別雷神社), was built in 678 in northern kyoto.  during its heiday the shrine was frequented by the royal family, as the shrine was dedicated to the preservation and pacification of japan.  the two conical mounds of sand that you see above are platforms built for the gods to descend upon.

kamigamo shrine along with kamomioya shrine make up the much larger complex called kamo shrine (賀茂神社).  this is the upper shrine along the kamo river (鴨川), while the lower shrine is kamomioya shrine.  both shrines together serve to protect kyoto from evil forces that were believed to come down the kamo river from the devil’s gate (鬼門 – kimon).

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