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Sunday, October 15, 2017

And finally, I am in Kyoto, the "Capital City".

Differently from Nara, this city was built to be useful rather than beautiful. Set up as fast as possible, in 10 years, there was no time to make it the aesthetic marvel Nara. What they build was big, functional and effective. And notably, without a single Buddhist temple around.

After a few years after the foundation, two well regulated temples were added at the beginning of the main road. The Imperial Citadel was at the opposite side of the City, at the northern end like in Nara, about four kilometres away.

As a result of this practical design, its plant staid basically unchanged for one thousand years. While all buildings have changed, the city is still basically organized in a rectangle long five kilometres and a half in the north-south direction and four and a half east-west, and divided in blocks by streets that still carry the ancient names, from the Ichijou (first branch) cutting the city right south of the Imperial Palace to the Juujou (tenth branch) at the far south border of the town.


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The fatigue of the past days asks its toll today, and I am willing to concede a bit of rest to my body: I wake up around 10am. With three hours at disposal less than usual, it will be a day less packed than the other ones, but it's fine.

My first target is the the ruins of the Imperial Palace. Once in the middle of the city, it's now at the extreme western edge, and getting there is not a simple thing at all, especially considering that the public transportation in Nara is... sub-par... I'd say... with respect to the other cities I visited.

So, I get there walking, under the scorching sun of an end of September that hits harder than the August sun in most of Italy. It's about 40 minutes walk from my hotel, which is more or less at the far end of the road leading to the temples, the main road crossing the commercial center, but it's a nice walk and I am fresh.

I expected to see nothing, or at best a few faded landmark posters, but I am wrong. The Nara Prefecture is actually rebuilding the site with an attached cultural center and one museum. Those are still under construction, but the majestic main gate, the Throne Hall and vast sections of the wall are there waiting for me, so brand new they still smell of fresh paint.


Monday, October 02, 2017

For those who know Japanese, this sentence can't mean anything but "nothing but deers!"


Nara is famous for the presence of a countless number of deers in the eastern side of the city, once the public gardens that were part of the original plan of the city, now extended to comprise all the area of the temples and part of the surrounding mountains.

Yet, seeing this wild and usually very shy animals going around the town poking at tourists for the (regulated and controlled) deer-biscuits you can buy for 200 yen in a pack of five, is always a bewildering sight.


Most of them also seem to like being petted, especially by the children, which the younger deer seem to actively be searching for, even if they rarely, if ever, get a biscuit from them.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Before talking of my sojourn in Nara, I want to describe why it's so interesting to me.

When it was founded, Nara was probably the most beautiful city of the time in the whole world.

The first city in Japan, and one of the first in the world, to be planned in every detail, it's building would span for about 16 years, to be completed in 710 C.E (in the meanwhile the Capital was temporarily set in the home town of the Fujiwara clan).

A square of roughly four kilometers per side with its north side gently lying against a hill ridge, its east side protruding in another sub-city one kilometer and a half comprising the temples of all the faiths active in Japan at the time, lying its eastern border on the slope of the Wakakusa mount, with many gardens, small hills, natural and artificially reshaped streams running through its border, Nara would have looked an image of a celestial town to any visitor.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Under the famous "Hashi Haka" (*), the tomb of the chopsticks, so many mysteries have been buried, that opening and studying it might actually destabilize the political asset of Japan, or at least, rewrite most of its early history.


This is the reason why this tomb will never be opened, at least, not in the near future. While the tombs where members of the Yamato family are buried are considered private property of the Emperor, and trespassing their borders is equivalent to violate a private house, this tomb officially belongs to a aunt of an Emperor, which might not have been strictly part of the immediate emperor's family and ancestry. But even if he position of this person in the royal family is unclear, too many secrets are buried under this tomb for it to be opened and investigated lightly.

And that's why it intrigues me.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

And so, I have finally reached Asuka. After climbing the Sacred Mount Miwa I am a bit too tired to do anything but driving directly to the hotel and my head is filled with nothing but the image of the onsen waiting for me, but I cannot prevent my self from wondering at the feeling of ancientness this land immediately gives me. It's not just because of the road signs indicating a different Emperor's mausoleum, ruins, archaeological site, historical temple at each cross. It's not just that here, if you drive a stick one feet in the ground chances are that you'll be hitting an archaeological find.

It's simply that this place is incredibly perfect as the cradle of a civilization. A vast plain surrounded by high mountains, rich in fertile ground and deep streams, with the terrain porous enough to avoid the formation of swamps, with sudden hills and little mounts naturally dividing the land and providing a raised observation spot, as the one from which I took this photo, or the mounts that can be seen from there:


If there is a group of humans in the range of 100 kilometers from this place, they will move here and make this the center of a powerful civilization. And indeed, that's what happened, as traces of the Yamatai people were found moving out from Awajishima and occupying this land around 300 B.C.E.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Right after leaving the Hase temple, I head for the shrines of the Mount Miwa. Or better, for the Mount Miwa, which is itself a shrine, and for countless other shrines which derive their power from the sacred mountain. Even today, it is forbidden to enter it, but the priests of the Miwa Shrine complex can grant access to a specific path leading to a special shrine on the top.

The fact that the mount itself is a shrine is made clear by the most majestic tori-i in the world. It can easily be seen from kilometers away, as it's a 50mts tall structure, and it looks impressive even from Google Earth:


Placed right in front of the center of the mount, at the right distance and in the right proportions to "enshrine" it, this monument declares the mount as a sacred entity itself. It is said that the mount is the shintai (true embodiment) of Oo-mono-no-nushi-no-mikoto, or "The Master of the Big Things", and it's the most important God and Kami (I already explained the difference) after Amaterasu-no-mikoto -- and probably there was a time in which it was even more important.

Indeed, the shrines on the mountain, taken one by one, are smaller in "ground size" than the Ise Jingu, but they are way richer and more elaborate, functionally more complex (in the sense that they always had more "room" for teaching and worshiping the Way of the Kamis), and taken together, they fill a larger area.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The temple of Hase was built during the the Hei'an period right outside the Yamato, in the "less civilized" Uda region, to provide the court nobles with a relatively near yet secluded "vacation resort" of the times.

As nobles moved with their escorts and servants, this created immediately the need for an infrastructure of services that the local people of the town in Uda was eager to provide. The temple complex created a small but rich set of satellite activities hosted in the otherwise hostile valley behind the Miwa mount. The Hase village still lives of the tourism and pilgrimage activity generated by the temple and the nearby shrines, and the micro-shops grabbing on the narrow valley sides must look much alike they looked like one thousand years ago:


Saturday, September 23, 2017

And so, today program is quite heavy.

  1. Visit Mitsue and its Jinja in the early morning

  2. Visit the Buddhist temple of Hase and the village born around it

  3. Visit the complex of the Oo-Miwa Jinja, or the set of Shinto Shrines at the foot of the Sacred Mount Miwa

  4. If possible, Climb mount Miwa.

So, I wake up early in the Hinotani resort, get my breakfast, have a fast visit in the onsen and check out by 9 am.

I dreamed of the trip between Misugi and Mitsue so many times while writing of it in my book... and here I am traveling this road. Here's how it felt:

I left the audio in, including the AM radio broadcast with the local interferences, to give you the full feeling of the trip.

I will add an entry to mention this place, as it struck me for several reasons, even if I staid for one night only.

First of all, I will mention the fact that, on 199 pounds for one night, the Hinotani resort it's the most expensive hotel that I have booked in this trip, and being a three stars, I was a bit suspicious about the worth of the place. OTOH, both an abundant dinner and a meal-class breakfast were included, and this brings the effective cost down to 150 pounds. Moreover, I absolutely needed a base near Ise but somewhat halfway to Nara. I could have staid in the Nara region, but this place was also part of my backup plan in case I couldn't visit Ise the first day, and this part of the plan worked perfectly.

After having visited the Ise Jingu, I head for Misugi, a very little village on the old road between Ise and Nara. This road was probably the most important route in the very early years of the Yamato "empire", before they conquered Izumo and in an epoch where they were still called Yamatai. Traveling this road was one of my dreams, and indeed is the central part of the novel I wrote.

Misugi is the last village before exiting the mountains if you came from the Yamato, or the first village where you could have prepared for the dangerous travel in the mountains of Uda if you came from Ise.

I arrive in the location at dusk, but this only adds to the beauty of the place. The sunset is terse, and wrap the high cedar forests from which this place takes its name (Misugi means "beautiful cedars"), in a soft golden light which warms my heart. I am sorry I couldn't stop to get any photo on the way, but I have this from when the morning after, from my room looking down on the main village.


Friday, September 22, 2017

Today I am moving from Shirakawa to mitsue. A last hot bath in the Shirakawa-no-yu hot spring, a local breakfast and here we go on the most expensive autoroute of the world (didn't check, but sure it feels so). The final destination is Mitsue, but I will stop in Misugi, where I found the only free room in all the Uda valley for this day. I made some 3-4 hours space compressing the (already rich) program for the next day to allot for a visit at the Naigu of the Ise Jingu, or the most important of the two (almost) twin shrines in Ise. This is where the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu-no-omikami is enshrined, and has been the place where almost all the emperors have been bestowed their crown.


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

When I set Shirakawa-go, the village in the Gifu prefecture declared World Heritage by Unesco, as the first destination in my long trip, I was searching for a "true Japanese spirit", if such a thing can ever exist (Japan has been a set of shifting regions perpetually in war against each other since the beginning of time).

I must admit I think I found it, but it's a bit different from what I expected.

But first thing first, before going, I wanted to see if I was able to find some substitute for my glasses. My friend Yoshi helped me out, and tried some pre-made glasses, but I have a peculiar view problem which isn't particularly heavy, but is hard to correct. For example, I could actually drive without glasses, but it would be a nuisance for me rather than a danger for others.

The "Megane Plaza" (megane means "glasses") seemed a good place to find something better, and the guy at the counter analyzed my old glasses and told me a new copy could be readied in 30 minutes. I couldn't believe it, but he did even more; since I told him those glasses were old and I wanted to change them already, he suggested me a fast check, and we discovered that I actually needed a different correction. The complete visit was free with the glasses, and it took about 10 minutes. All in all, in less than an hour I had my new glasses, much better than the old ones both in their look and in their functionality -- actually the old ones could have been damaging my sight. Also, I spent about 140 pounds, which is a relevant amount of money, but significantly less than what I could have spent for the same service in England -- and which I was in need of anyhow. It looks like the "daikichi" I was bestowed with at the Atsuta Shrine is working quite well!


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

With the hurricane incoming, I had to forfait visiting the Ise Jinja. I want to recover part of the visit shrinking the visit to Mitsue Jinja on 20/7.

20/9 09:00 – 13:00 Travel from Shirakawa-go to Ise.
20/9 13:00 – 14:00 Visit Oharai-machi.
20/9 14:00 – 16:30 Visit Ise inner jinja.
20/9 16:30 – 18:00 Arrive at Misugi Onsen.

21/9 08:00 – 08:45 Travel from Misugi to Mitsue.
21/9 08:45 – 10:00 Visit Mitsue Jinja.
21/9 10:00 – 10:30 Travel to Hasedera
21/9 10:30 – 12:30 Visit Hasedera
21/9 12:30 – 13:00 Travel to Oomiwa jinja
21/9 14:00 – 18:00 Visit Oo-miwa Jinja / iwakura jinja / sai jinja (Climb Mount Oomiwa?)
21/9 19:00 – 21:00 Arrive at Asuka.

Monday, September 18, 2017

When you say the calm before the tempest... Typhoon n. 1718 (the 18th of the 2017) is due to pass over Nagoya at around 21:00, yet the day is just cloudy and the wind is still.

The plan is meeting with my friend Kiyoshi in front of my hotel and then visit the Atsuta Jinja, the Nagoya castle and the Tokugawa Art Museum. For the ones not knowing Japanese history: the Tokugawa dynasty was the samurai family achieving the title of Shogun and creating the role of Taikun (a word known as tycoon in English) -- in opposition to the Japanese Emperor until the Meiji restoration in 1868. Or in other words, they were the legitimate rulers of Japan for over 300 years -- and Nagoya is the theater where the most dramatic scenes of their ascension to power take place, hence the museum dedicated to the art pieces they inspired or acquired is located in this city.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

And so, here we are.

As I get down from the flight, I am immediately facing the proverbial Japanese courtesy: at the immigration gate, a couple of gentle airport employee help me completing the filling of the immigration card (where you declare you're a good guy and how long is your visit). Also, the policeman at the immigration gate checks the card and reads the destinations I set as "address". He is a bit confused, (should be just one address, the one of the first hotel you stay in), but he compliments with me for both my Japanese and my list of destinations, and lets me pass in less than one minute.