Monday, October 23, 2006

Spiritual Natadera

Riding a newfound Buddhist kick, I was lured to the rocky caves of Natadera (那谷寺) after seeing a dreamily landscaped picture while in the Kanazawa tourist office. For a day trip, I headed west to Kaga Onsen station, where I disembarked, looked up, and saw a white elephant towering above the trees. Upon closer inspection, it was neither white nor an elephant, but rather golden and a mutant cross of the Virgin Mary and Buddha. At the risk of sounding blasphemous (all sanctity was lost after The Grope), what the hell is this thing?

No such iconic tawdriness existed on the forested grounds of Natadera, a temple of the Shingoh Sect of Buddhism. Founded by monk Taicho in 717 A.D., this sanctuary continues to harmonize humans and nature through religion. It was refreshing to have spirituality and the environment overshadow man in Japan, a capitalistic country paved over in asphalt and coated in concrete.

For a closer look at some greenery, view my pictures here. Click on images to read descriptions.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Kanazawa: Marsh of Gold

On paper, Kanazawa (金沢) had all of the traditional trappings that foreigners associate with Japan: geisha districts, samurai villas, meticulous gardens, a castle, and a ninja temple.

After a seven-hour coach ride from Tokyo, the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture greeted me as it does most travelers: with a downpour. Rain-streaked windows blurred my first views of a city where Hideki Matsui played high school ball. Kanazawa averages 178 days of precipitation a year, so it’s fitting that the train and bus transit hub is designed like an open umbrella.

Once the weather cleared, I set out along doublewide sidewalks with far fewer pedestrians than in Tokyo, whose steamy asphalt I had escaped for four relaxing days. For an ambitious walker like myself, Kanazawa’s well-labeled sites (in English!) are navigable by foot. And unlike in Tokyo, shady benches are on hand to spell your feet.

Parks, gardens, and sculptures give the city a pleasantly landscaped feel that’s lacking in Tokyo. Kenrokuen Garden (兼六園) is known to be Japan’s finest, and if the crowds are any indication, it’s true. The “garden with six sublimities” opened to the public in 1874; in 1922, it was designated as a National Site of Scenic Beauty. In 1985, it was designated as a National Site of Special Scenic Beauty. I’m not sure what the difference is, or why that took 63 years to designate.
What a recently recreated castle lacked in historic charm, the surrounding park made up for in beauty with rolling lawns and flowerbeds that contrasted to cloud-white castle walls seemingly floating in the blue sky.

My favorite part of Kanazawa was exploring temples clustered at the base of Mt. Utatsu. After walking through the Higashi Chaya Geisha District – the best of the three in town – I wandered along winding lanes of a residential neighborhood where I had the streets and temples all to myself. It was tempting to get lost, but even cemeteries hidden in the woods had directional signs in English.

Of all of Japan’s temples and shrines, Myoryuji was by far the most memorable. Erroneously dubbed “ninja-dera” (ninja temple), no agents of assassination and espionage ever inhabited these grounds, yet the crafty layout would sure make them proud. The building appears to be two stories from the outside, but like most things at Myoryuji, appearances are deceiving.

The inside revealed four stories (or seven levels, counting mezzanines) with no fewer than 29 staircases. Plenty of contraptions baffled intruders and probably the Kaga clan who used the building in Edo times. Trap stairs, a fake offertory box in the floor, and a kitchen well rumored to link to a tunnel leading to the castle kept past enemies and present tourists ever guessing.

Far more confusing, however, was a Noh performance later that evening. Kanazawa specializes in one of the five schools of this traditional drama popular during the 17th-19th centuries. Reputedly one of the most boring performing arts ever known to man (at least those from Western countries), the drama made me wish I had brought toothpicks to prop my eyelids open.

The lone actor’s subtle gestures and lyricism went right over my sleeping head. In the first of two acts, a man in baggy, old school attire paced around the stage while taking his pointy straw hat on and off. Occasionally he let out haunting laughs. Action climaxed when he threw the hat on the stage and stomped off stage right. Rousing applause.

Even Japanese kids held their heads up better than the only foreigner in attendance. Nevertheless, I found it a relaxing way to spend $10 and an hour and a half. It was sort of like going to the opera, where I also can’t understand anything, but the rhythmic tones therapeutically clear my mind.

To that end, a Kanazawa retreat comes highly recommended to anyone in Japan needing a change of scenery or recharge of batteries. Check out the rest of my pictures here.