Posted on December 5th, 2017 by Mike Roberts
Zatoichi – The Blind Swordsman
I am writing again about one of my favorite subjects: Japanese movies. One of my favorite Japanese movie series is Zatoichi, The Blind Swordsman. A total of 26 movies were made between 1962 and 1989, and 105 television shows were made between 1974 to 1979 making it the longest-running action series in Japanese history. Oddly enough, all of the movies and television shows feature the same person playing the main role. Shintaro Katsu, the son of a Kabuki actor, was an actor, singer, producer, director and shamisen player who appeared in more than 110 movies, but became synonymous with his role of Zatoichi.
The Zatoichi movies are formula movies in the same fashion as Bond movies and Law and Order television shows. Each movie has a similar storyline and plot. Zatoichi, a traveling blind masseur and sentimental drifter is a man who lives staunchly by a code of honor and delivers justice everywhere he goes during the late Edo Period (1830s and 1840s). He meets old friends or makes new friends who are forced to suffer some kind of harm or injustice by oppressive and/or warring yakuza gangs. In the meantime, Zatoichi, through no fault of his own stumbles into harm’s way. Eventually, Zatoichi overcomes his own problems, and comes to the aid of the unfortunate and innocents. (The Japanese love a good revenge story.) And, after every sword fight, there is the signature way Zatoichi slowly sheaths his cane sword.
Because of his blindness, his other senses are more finely attuned. His keen ears, sense of smell, sensory perception and his wits in a fight, combined with his incredible lightning-fast sword skills make him a formidable adversary. In addition to his sword skills, he also has a fondness for gambling on dice games where, once again, his other senses make up for his inability to see. He wins large amounts of money by his ability to identify whether the dice have fallen on even or odd, and the ability to identify loaded or substituted dice by the difference in their sound.
A number of sequels have been released since the last Zatoichi was released. There was even one that was about Zatoichi’s daughter. Recently (2003) a remake was released with Takeshi “Beat” Kitano playing the leading role of Zatoichi (he also directed the movie). Kitano did an excellent job creating the movie, and his portrayal of Zatoichi was spot on. It won a number of Japanese Academy Awards as well as a Silver Lion Award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Posted on December 4th, 2017 by Stephanie Miera
It’s easy to get lost in the towering skyscrapers and bright lights when walking around the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, but if you look closely enough you will find a cramped alleyway called memory lane (known as piss alley to the locals). This local hotspot started out as an illegal drinking quarter after World War 2 and quickly became one of the most popular and affordable places to eat and drink.
Located near the west exit of Shinjuku Station, entering the alleyway is almost like stepping back in time. Japanese lanterns light the tight alley as all different kinds of aromas fill the space. Each restaurant and bar could only be described as tiny, most having only about 6 seats. As you walk down the alley, you will see shopkeepers working over grills or caldrons, carefully preparing their shop’s specialty. The food here ranges from Yakitori (grilled skewers) to Nikomi (thick Japanese stew) and one particular restaurant famous for it’s odd offerings. While food is the highlight of Piss Alley, the drinks available are the perfect pairing. The small bars are the perfect place to meet other foreigners or Japanese locals for a truly Japanese experience.
We would recommend taking the evening to tour Piss Alley, as it is easy to take your time making multiple stops at different eateries. You will likely not find an English menu, but with that comes an adventurous evening, eating things you may love before ever learning what they are.
Posted on September 6th, 2017 by Mike Roberts
The literal translation of Kaizen (改善) is good change, but the connotation and idea behind Kaizen is continual improvement . In business, kaizen refers to activities that continuously improve all functions and involve all employees from the CEO to the assembly line workers. It also applies to processes, such as purchasing and logistics, that cross organizational boundaries. Toyota has made Kaizen famous, but a number of other Japanese companies adopted this philosophy after World War 2. Read the full post »
Posted on August 26th, 2017 by Mike Roberts
The Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage is meant to honor Kobo Daishi. Kobo Daishi, even to this day, still maintains a very high level of respect in Japan even though he died almost 1,200 years ago. (If you have visited Okunoin at Koyasan, you know he has not died, but is instead in a state of deep meditation. And you also know they still prepare meals for him.) The Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrims participate in ascetic training by following the path that Kobo Daishi walked. During the pilgrimage, to honor Kobo Daishi, you should decide to follow these oaths, commandments and general etiquette procedures. Read the full post »
Posted on August 19th, 2017 by Mike Roberts
Nyuto Onsen is a collection of seven popular and remote hot spring inns, located in the Towada Hachimatai National Park in north-central Tohoku. The name Nyuto Onsen means “nipple hot spring” and comes from the suggestive shape of nearby Mount Nyuto. With a history of over 300 years, many of the springs were visited by feudal lords during the Edo Period seeking hot-spring cures. Located deep in the mountains, and surrounded by dense beech forests, you feel far removed from the rest of the world.
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Posted on August 12th, 2017 by Mike Roberts
If you are looking for a unique souvenir for yourself from Japan, we recommend that you consider purchasing a “御朱印帳”, or “Red seal book”. You can use this to get unique, one-of-a-kind seals and calligraphy at temples and shrines. Or, you can bring a notebook for the many ink stamps you will find everywhere in Japan. Or even better, bring both. Read the full post »
Posted on July 3rd, 2017 by Mike Roberts
The plan for today is to visit Temples 11 to 17. We include a walk from Temples 13 to 17 on many of our escorted tours, so I have walked these temples a number of times in the past. I started the day by driving to Temple 11 (Fujiidera). From my hotel across the street from the Tokushima train station, it was about a 45 minute drive.
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Posted on June 23rd, 2017 by Mike Roberts
If you have done any research on Japanese cooking, you will have heard the term “umami”. All Japanese cookbooks, cooking shows, etc. will talk about “umami”. It is said this it is what gives Japanese food its unique flavor. The term is a shortened version of “umai” (delicious in Japanese) and “mi” (taste in Japanese). Increased “umami” is the primary goal of all Japanese chefs.
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Posted on June 12th, 2017 by Mike Roberts
My plan for today on the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage was to visit Temples 1 though 10. If you look at a map of Shikoku with the temples shown on the map, you will see these 10 temples are very close together, heading generally west from Tokushima.
Pilgrimage supply shop at Ryozenji (Temple 1)
I started the day by driving from my hotel next to Tokushima station to Ryozenji (Temple #1), which was only about a 30 minute
drive. After arriving and parking the car, I stopped at the shop next to the parking lot selling all the items you need on the Shikoku 88 temple pilgrimage. A long list of items is needed for the pilgrimage, and I will cover that in later blogs. I already made some purchases from online web sites in Japan specializing in supplies for the Shikoku pilgrimage, but I made a few small purchases from the shop. If you are not able to purchase anything prior to the start of the pilgrimage, no need to worry, they have everything you will need.
I will be making other posts on the proper procedures to follow at each temple, etc., but for now I am only going to write about the temples I visited that first day. I am not going to write about every temple, but will talk a little about the temples that made an impression with me.
Temple #1 – Ryozenji
Ryozenji’s (Temple 1) Main Gate
Ryozenji’s most notable characteristic is, well, it’s number 1. While it is not necessary to start here, many people do. Having said that, it is a very pleasant temple with a small pond filled with Koi and a statue of Kobo Daishi watching over the pond, a small pagoda and some interesting statuary. The main statue here is famous with high school students for promising academic success at the university level. Because it is number 1, everyone wants to visit the temple. So the temple was busy and noisy, which was not what I expected.
Ryozenji was founded by Gyogi in the eighth century on the orders of Emperor Shomu, and Kobo Daishi visited the temple in the 9th century. Like many other temples on Shikoku, Ryozenji was destroyed in the late 16th century by Chosokabe Motochika, the daimyo of the Tosa province (today’s Kochi prefecture) in the late 16th century near the end of the Sengoku Jidai (Period of Warring States).
Temple #2 – Gokurakuji
Gorakuji’s (Temple 2) Cedar of Long Life and Main Hall
It was less than a 5 minute drive from temple #1 to temple #2, but it was like a different world. While Ryozenji was crowed, Gokurakuji was very quiet with not many people. It was also created by Gyogi in the eighth century. Kukai visited this temple and carved the temple’s main diety – the diety of light. According to legend, long ago it was difficult for fisherman in nearby Naruto Bay to catch fish because of the bright light from the main statue of the temple. To prevent this, the fisherman built a small artificial hill behind the main hall to block the light. Gokurakuji was also destroyed in the late 16th century.
In the courtyard in front of the main hall is a cedar tree said to be 1,000 years old known as the Cedar of Long Life that was planted by Kobo Daishi. If you pray while touching the tree you will be granted a long life. The tree is also popular with women for easing childbirth. The temple is known as the temple that grants easy childbirth and is dedicated to expectant mothers.
Temple #4 – Dainichiji
Pilgrims Chanting Sutras (Buddhist Prayers)
The first three temples are surrounded by urban sprawl, but temple #4 is located at the base of the mountains at the edge of town with a green forest behind it. Kobo Daishi founded this temple, and has been destroyed many times, including the late 16th century. Since that time, the temple has gone through continuous cycles of disuse and reconstruction. The Main Hall and Daishi Hall are connected by a walkway where 33 Sanju Kannon statues are on display.
Temple #5 – Jizoji
Jizoji’s (Temple 5) Rakan Statues
Kobo Daishi founded this temple in 821 on the order of Emperor Saga. As with other temples, the temple was destroyed in the late 16th century. What makes this temple different is the long U-shaped building behind the main hall that houses 200 statues of Rakan (enlightened followers of Buddha). Each statue has a different facial expression, and, in keeping with Rakan traditions, are generally humorous. All 200 statues were carved out of wood by two Buddhist monks in the 18th century. There are two wells where you can hear when even one drop of water reaches the water below. One is next to the Main Hall and the other is close to the stairs after entering from the main gate.
Temple #6 – Anrakuji
Anrakuji’s (Temple 6) Nio Statue
The temple was originally founded by Kobo Daishi about 2 km north of its present location. Legend says he struck his staff into the ground creating a hot spring with curative waters. Since then, people have used the hot spring water to cure illnesses. On the temple grounds, there are 33 types of deity statues and an upside down pine tree said to ward off misfortune planted by a hunter after his father was cured of an illness in the waters here. The temple is located among numerous rice fields. To get to the temple, you have to navigate the many narrow roads between the rice fields.
The thing that caught my attention were the pair of well-preserved Nio statues on either side of the main gate. Nio statues are angry-faced, muscular guardians of the temple, and can be found at the entrance to many Buddhist temples in Japan.
Temple #8 – Kumadaniji
Kumadaniji’s (Temple 8) Main Gate
Kobo Daishi founded this temple, and the temple (once again) was destroyed in the late 16th century. The Daimyo of Awa province (today’s Tokushima prefecture) visited the temple for a moon viewing party. The main gate built in 1687 is considered to be the finest and oldest gate of all 88 temples. Legend says a band of robbers once lived on the second story of the gate. In the garden is a pine tree which looks like a dragon.
Temple #10 – Kirihataji
Temple #10 is the first introduction to a mountain temple, however, it is not far away from the city. The temple is at the top of 333 steps from the parking lot, although the steps can be avoided by continuing up the hill by car. Kobo Daishi founded the temple in honor of a girl he met while performing religious activities for seven days at a hut on the mountain. Legend states she supplied all of his needs for the entire seven days. When Kukai asked for some old cloth, the young woman presented him with a brand new kimono. The woman told Kukai she would like to become a saint and help save people. Shortly thereafter she changed into a Senju Kannon. The large tower was moved here from Sumiyoshi Shrine in Osaka in 1873.
After finishing my visit to Temple #10, I drove back to the hotel which took about 45 minutes.
Observations, Thoughts, Impressions of the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage (up to this point)
First of all, if I had to do it over again, I would not have visited 10 temples on the first day. While it was not hurried, as much as I enjoy going to temples and shrines in Japan, by the 8th or 9th temple I was starting to think “OMG, another temple.” Next time, I will break up the first 17 temples into 3 days.
I was not prepared for how busy Ryozenji (Temple #1) was. But what was even more surprising was how quiet the rest of the temples were compared to Ryozenji (except for those temples where I ran into the large bus tour groups).
I was prepared to see many large bus tour groups. However, I only ran into 3. (Two at temple #1 and another at temple #8). And none of the buses seemed to be doing what I was doing (starting with temple 1 and visiting all of the temples from there). Although, because some of the streets leading to the temples were very narrow, I would think it would be very difficult to get to some of the temples by large bus. The largest vehicle I would think that would be able to get to all of the temples are the 10 passenger vans we use on our Rail and Drive tours.
I did keep meeting the same groups at each temple. There were a couple of large vans taking smaller groups, and a number of passenger cars all doing the same thing I was doing. I talked with one of the van drivers, and he said he worked for a travel agency that specializes in providing tours for smaller groups of the pilgrimage. I took one of his cards for possible future reference. I only saw 4 or 5 people walking, and 1 person on bicycle. Although, I was surprised to see that many. Starting the pilgrimage in early June means they would probably finish before the worst heat of the summer, but it would still be hot.
The small groups in the larger vans were taking the pilgrimage very seriously. I was able to watch them at most of the temples, and they followed the same routine at each temple (I will be writing another blog sometime soon documenting the procedures) without exception, and the procedures they followed were the recommended procedures for visiting the temples. Most of the people in the passenger cars were not so diligent and serious.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It provided some quiet time for reflection, a purely “off-the-beaten-path” Japanese cultural experience and an excellent way to see the beautiful island of Shikoku. I am looking forward to the rest of the pilgrimage.
Posted on June 5th, 2017 by Mike Roberts
What is it?
The Shikoku Pilgrimage is a multi-site pilgrimage of 88 temples associated with the Buddhist monk Kukai (Kobo Daishi) on the island of Shikoku. Large numbers of pilgrims (known as henro in Japanese) still undertake the journey for a variety of reasons (if you ask 100 people why they are doing it, you would get 100 different reasons). The pilgrimage is traditionally done on foot, but modern pilgrims use cars, taxis, buses, bicycles, motorcycles, public transportation or a combination of all these. The standard walking course is approximately 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) and can take anywhere from 6 to 8 weeks to complete.
It is believed that the founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kobo Daishi, (774 to 835) either trained or spent time at some of these temples. Thus, he plays a significant role in this pilgrimage. Although there are references to people making this pilgrimage from around the 12th century, it did not become popular until the first guidebooks were published in the 17th century. Since the Edo Period was a time of peace and prosperity, most people in Japan at that time had the time and money to travel. As a result, the popularity of the pilgrimage remained high until World War 2.
After the war, most people once again did not have the time or the means to make the pilgrimage, and interest in the pilgrimage decreased. In the 1950’s, a tour bus company in Ehime Prefecture introduced the new concept of performing the pilgrimage by chartered bus which became popular overnight. And today, the vast majority of the 300,000 people per year who complete the pilgrimage do so by tour bus, and the number of people walking the pilgrimage is relatively small.
Differences from Other Pilgrimages
The immediate difference that is immediately obvious is the length of the pilgrimage. I am not aware of any other pilgrimages in the world of this length. But if you look at a map of the pilgrimage, you will see another difference. The Shikoku Pilgrimage is a circular route around the island of Shikoku. Most pilgrimages have a distinct begin and end point, and after reaching the journeys end and after a celebration of worship the pilgrim returns home.
But the Shikoku Pilgrimage is a circle with no beginning and no end. It is not important where one begins. But what is important is that one go all the way around and return to one’s starting point. One must close the circle.
There are no rules how to do the pilgrimage. It can be started at any point, and it is not necessary to complete the pilgrimage at one time. Because of the length of the pilgrimage, most people don’t have the time to do this at one time (including me). So it is very common for people to keep going back many times before completing the pilgrimage, as I will be doing.
I am a purist, especially when it comes to things like this. I would love to walk the pilgrimage, but I am not able to at this time. The best times of the year to walk the pilgrimage is during the spring and fall. However, that is our busy times of the year and I don’t have the time during those seasons. The summer is too hot to walk the pilgrimage. I walked the Kumano Kodo once during the summer, and it was very difficult because of the heat. So I have decided that I will drive. This is the second most common way to perform the pilgrimage today after the bus tours. The benefit of driving is it will take less time, and I will be able to follow the pilgrimage during the summer months.
So I hope you will follow my future blogs and photos as I make my way around the island of Shikoku.