Monday, 30 November 2009

XXIII - Nikko

A more detailed picture of the bird carvings on Tosho-gu Shrine.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

XXII - Nikko

Every surface in Tosho-gu Shrine is covered in intricate carvings, rich colours and gold leaf. These beautiful kujaku (孔雀, "peacock") and Hō-ō (鳳凰, "phoenix") perched amidst their carved trees and flowers caught my attention.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

XXI - Nikko

Niō (仁王) ― or Kongōrikishi (金剛力士) ― are two angry and muscular guardians which usually stand at the entrance of Buddhist temples in Japan. The right statue is called Naraen Kongō (那羅延金剛) and his mouth is open, mimicking the first sound in Sanskrit alphabet (अ) which is pronounced "a". The left statue is called Misshaku Kongō (密迹金剛) and his mouth is closed, signifying the last sound (म) which is pronounced "hūm". These two characters together symbolize the birth and death of all things, and thus the whole of creation.

Misshaku Kongō is also called Ungyō (吽形) in Japanese (with reference to the sound he is making), and is depicted either bare-handed or wielding a sword.

These two statues are part of Omotemon (表門 or おもてもん, "front gate") gate in Tosho-gu, also called Niomon gate (仁王門), because of them.

Friday, 27 November 2009

XX - Nikko

More tōrō in front of one of the buildings in the Tosho-gu shrine complex. The shrines and temples in Nikko are particularly famous for their unusually rich decorative elements in the Chinese style.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

XIX - Nikko

These beautiful carvings are located on the front of the Kamijinko Kyozo (上神庫, "Kamijinko warehouse"). It is one of the three sacred storehouses in the Tosho-gu complex which hold costumes and equipment for the Togyosai Festival, a procession during which the Mikoshi (神輿, "portable shrines") are carried to Futarasan Jinja (二荒山神社). The carvings represent elephants the way the chief painter (Kanō Tan'yū 狩野探幽, 1602-1674)― who had never seen one himself ― imagined.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

XVIII - Nikko

Before visiting Nikko, I had absolutely no idea where the famous three wise monkeys actually came from. Well, now I do.

The san'en (三猿, "three monkeys") embody the Buddhist principle "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil", with an amusing word-play based on the similarity between shizaru (し猿, "don't do") and saru (猿, "monkey").

It's sad how in the western world these monkeys have a negative connotation instead, and symbolize those who turn a blind eye towards evil in order to live peacefully.

This carving was created by the famous (and possibly fictional) artist Hidari Jingorō (左 甚五郎).

Monday, 23 November 2009

XVII - Nikko

Tōrō (灯籠) are large stone or bronze lanterns found in Japanese temples, shrines and gardens. They are only lit once or twice a year for special occasions and religious ceremonies ― I can only imagine how magical these temples must look on those rare occasions in which the forest is bathed in candlelight.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

XVI - Nikko

This particular pagoda is called Tosho-gu Goju-no-tou (東照宮五重塔).

A detail of the five-story tou (, "pagoda") which stands before the entrance to Tosho-gu temple (東照宮). Each story represents an element ― earth, water, fire, wind, and heaven. Japanese pagodas such as this one have a very ingenious construction method which allows them to minimize earthquake vibrations: the building is hollow to allow room for a long central pillar called shinbashira (心柱) which is suspended by chains hanging from the top spire. Unfortunately this is not the original 1650 one: it was rebuilt after a fire in 1818.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

XV - Nikko

Ema (絵馬) are another popular object which is always present in close proximity of Shinto shrines. They are small wooden tablets on which prayers and wishes are written by worshipers, and are then hung from special racks, often near the omikuji. Their surface can either be plain or inscribed with kanji (such as 願意, "wish"), pictures of animals, flowers, or anything else the shrine they belong to is famous for. The image on the ema may explain what it will be most effective for (health, money, love, study, etc), and larger temples often carry more than one kind.The price for an ema is approx. 2000円.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

XIV - Nikko

Judging by the number of omikuji on this rope, people haven't been very lucky lately.

Omikuji (おみくじ, "sacred lottery") are strips of white paper on which random fortunes are written. They can be found in most temples or shrines, and are an important part of the average Japanese temple-going experience. The strips of paper, folded into small rectangles, can be found in open boxes in the temple area, alongside a box for donations (usually anything between 5~100円). The wrapping paper comes in many different colours, and there are different methods for choosing one, the open box from which to pick being just the first I encountered (and probably the simplest). While looking at all the different omikuji, one particular wrapping caught my eye: the one with the three cute monkeys (which are also the symbol of Nikko). So I picked one from that box, unravelled the paper and ― wow! I found dai-kichi (大吉), great blessing, which apparently is the greatest luck! My host told me she never was lucky enough to find one herself, so it must be quite a rare event. There are 12 possible outcomes, ranging from great blessing to great curse. When the prediction is negative, it is a custom to tie the paper to either a tree branch or a rope on the temple grounds, in the hopes that the bad luck will also be left behind.

Needless to say, I didn't tie mine anywhere.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

XIII - Nikko

The Nights Who Say Ni would be ever so envious of Japanese shrubberies ― the temple gardeners always manage to make the tops perfectly domed, and not a leaf is out of place.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

XII - Nikko

Another rite of purification which must be done before entering Shinto shrines is called temizu (手水), and consists in pouring water over both hands in turn with one of the ladles provided, then rinsing one's mouth and finally the ladle itself.
This is the fountain in front of Rinno-ji temple.

XI - Nikko

The entrance to Buddhist temples is often marked by a huge incense brazier (kōro, 大香炉), which is always surrounded by people lighting the colorful bundles of incense, fanning the smoke towards their faces and then inhaling it ―this is one of the rituals of purification one must perform before entering the temple.

In this picture, my lovely host performs the ritual at Rinno-ji Temple.

Monday, 16 November 2009

X - Nikko

A beautiful bronze dragon fountain in front of Rinno-ji.

The temple complex of Rinno-ji (or Rinnoji, 輪王寺) sits on top of one of the hills surrounding the town of Nikko, and can be reached by climbing a long flight of stairs meandering though the forest. Although the climate in this area is usually cool, it can turn quite tropical during August ― the cold water of fountains like this one gives such a relief from the heat!

Sunday, 15 November 2009

IX - Nikko

When I was a kid I used to watch Ranma ½ (らんま½) and wonder if Japanese towns really had those little water canals at the edge of their streets, with the occasional tiny bridge to allow people to reach their front door. They do and they're bloody adorable.

I love how the sound of running water follows you around everywhere.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

VIII - Nikko

Nikkō (日光市) is a town located in the mountains of Tochigi prefecture (栃木県), a few hours by car from Minakami, where we were staying. To get there, we took a small road that winds through the mountains of Nikkō National Park, where some of Japan's most impressive scenery can be found - the waterfalls and lakes were so pretty I didn't even mind the hours spent in the car (carsickness ahoy!). I certainly wasn't expecting such beautiful ancient forests in Japan, somehow all those stories about overcrowding lead me to imagine that most of it would be covered in cement. It was such a pleasant surprise to find out I was wrong!

Friday, 13 November 2009

VII - Jōmō-Kōgen

Growing up in an apartment in a big city, one is immediately taught to never leave windows open and always lock doors.

You might therefore expect that sleeping in a house which doesn't have a single door (yet alone a lock!) might feel weird, but it somehow doesn't. In fact, shōji (障子 - paper sliding panels) are almost poetical. At night-time, every whisper, every fluttering of tiny wings, every creak of the floorboards can be heard; during the summer, the crickets are so loud it almost feels like you're sleeping in the fields, under the sky.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

VI - Jōmō-Kōgen

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to stay in a traditional Japanese home near the station of Jōmō-Kōgen (上毛高原), which is in the area of Minakami. I am very grateful to my host for allowing me to stay in her beautiful wooden house!

This is a detail of the ceiling in my room.

V - Gunma Prefecture

Minakami (水上町) is a town located in the northernmost part of the Gunma Prefecture (群馬県), about an hour by shinkansen from Tokyo. It's in a beautiful valley surrounded by mountains, woodland and rice paddies. The area is well-known for its ski resorts, and for the great number of onsen (温泉), both indoor and outdoor, which can be found there. During the summer months the weather remains cool, and bathing in one of the many rotemburo (露天風呂 - oudoor bath) beside a mountain brook at sunset is one of the best experiences which can be had.

IV - Tokyo

One of the products of Japanese culture foreign people are more familiar with is bento (弁当 or べんとう), and who can blame us? Where else could we find our food served in colourful cupcake liners to prevent the flavours from blending, or decorated with sesame and chestnuts?

The smiling piglet was a good choice indeed.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

III - Tokyo

Food in Japan is one of the best things ever.

If you have to take a train from Tokyo Station and you haven't had time to have lunch, you're lucky: wherever direction you happen to look towards, food stares back at you. And by food I don't mean those stale sandwiches with bright yellow mayo (ugh) they sell in stations across Europe, nor those plastic-tasting croissants which have been sitting there for weeks waiting for a brave unfortunate enough traveler.

Not them.

You see, once you arrive in Japan, the whole tasty universe of bento opens its doors to you. No time for a proper lunch? With 800~1200円 (yen) you can buy a lunchbox full of fresh, healthy (and delicious) food.

I chose the one with the piggy smiling up at me.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

II - Tokyo

Once the train has been thoroughly cleaned, the supercute sign is removed and the cleaners line up next to the doors and bow with perfectly choreographed moves.

See those coloured lines and numbers on the platform floor? They show people where to queue. There are different coloured lines for every train stopping at that platform, and numbers show you where any car of any train will stop. And believe me, it will stop precisely there.

Ahhh~~~ perfection.

I - Narita

The first image I ever shot in Japan is -quite predictably- related to trains.

Imagine being tired after a 12-hour flight. Imagine being pissed off because of some rude airplane attendant. Imagine having eaten only slimy macaroni and those tiny complimentary crackers, having watched half a dozen crappy movies while trying to doze off, and having miserably failed due to the full-volume flight announcements the pilots just feel they have to make.

Finally, you land in Narita Airport and while vowing to never again buy plane tickets from that company, you somehow manage to be swept towards the shuttles that take you to Tokyo. Not hard to find. You're still too dazed to properly take in the unusual cleanliness which surrounds you, and when you stumble into your seat, you might be lucky enough to nod off right away. You haven't slept in 24hrs, after all.

Then you awake in Tokyo station, in a whole different universe.

Trains run perfectly on time, there isn't a speckle of dirt or dust in sight. Hundreds of busy people are going about their own business, and yet they all stop in their tracks and kindly ask if you need any help the instant you pull out a map (or do anything else that might indicate you are a mildly confused gaijin).

Is this a real place?, I hear you ask.

Once you reach the right platform and you read the sign hanging from the train's open doors, you come to the conclusion that it can't be. It reads: Just Moment Please, and shows a smiley girl with cleaning gear... and a chick.

Please focus on that sickeningly cute random tiny yellow chick, and tell me how can such a perfect country actually exist.

Monday, 9 November 2009


Japan stole my heart, it's as simple as that.

Three months after my journey, I wish to share the photos and memories of the gorgeous places I visited, hoping that I will soon have the chance to snap some more.

I hope you'll enjoy!