Chinatown with Rina Oishi & Natsumi Chonan

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The frantic pace of impromptu sight-seeing excursions in the last few days before leaving Tokyo concludes with a grand finale—spectacular Chinatown in Yokohama. Since I was teaching night classes in Shinjuku during my last two weeks in Tokyo, (May 2013). I met Rina Oishi and Natsumi Chonan (Sun) early one morning and took the long train ride from Gotanda to Yokohama then continued on to Chinatown.

I was so impressed from the first moment we walked up to the entry gate and would soon discover that the architecture and temples in Chinatown are much grander, colorful, and flamboyant than you could imagine—in fact, more so than you would see in Chinatown in both New York and Los Angeles.   Great exposure to yet another environment rich with history and visual interests that one could go back to many times to explore.

Spanning a 150 year old history, Yokohama’s Chinatown is the largest in Asia. Chinese immigrants and traders arrived in Yokohama in 1859 and created a community that would slowly evolve into an impressive cultural hub. Overall, the temples in Yokohma’s Chinatown are much more flamboyant than Japanese temples or shrines. Rich with ornamental details: notably dragon imagery, gargoyles and the abundance of bright colors, particularly, red, gold, orange. I was fortunate to be there on a sunny day, which only heightened the sensory visual overload.

We visited two temples. First, the splendid Mazu-Mio Temple (The Goddess of the Sea). Ship owners and residents prayed to her for a safe voyage as well as protection from: floods, drought, cholera, epidemics,  theft and war. A statue of Mazu-Mio, sits on a lavishly decorated shrine surrounded by flowers and an array of symbolic elements.

In addition, we surveyed the Yokhoama Kan-Tie-Byo with its chief God–King Guan. Referred to as the “God of Business,” King Guan, is recognized for creating the accounting and bookkeeping systems used in China. This temple in contrast, had a playful ornamental roof of glass serpentine and dragon imagery. The Kan-Tie-Byo was first built-in the Edo period and reconstructed, like many buildings in Japan, over the centuries due to fires and earthquakes.

After visiting a couple of temples and eating lunch in a traditional Chinese restaurant, we spent the afternoon strolling through blocks of shops including “Silk Road” which is fancifully covered with dancing red lanterns. I bought last-minute gifts for translators and friends back home: rose petals and chrysanthemums to enhance loose black tea; beads, and paper lavishly decorated paper journals. We stopped to see the huge ships in the port the  before journeying back to Gotanda.

Ship, Yokohama

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Art on the Tracks…

Primary Colors, Ebisu Station

As I traveled on the subway to and from classes daily,  I would be entertained by the bold, colorful ads that adorned the billboards. Amusing or seductive large-scale photos, exquisitely lavish mosaics and dynamic painted murals– intended to captivate the masses and make an arduous routine more pleasurable. Here are some of eye-catching images I captured while gliding swiftly along the tracks or waiting on a crowded platform.

Blue Bamboo

Great Mural at Yokohama Station

Mobit ad, Shibuya Station

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Yellow Mural, Tukiji Mkt

Kabukiza with Keiko Tanaka

Entrance, Imperial TheaterLike last year, my final week in Tokyo was packed full with teaching, events, outings, and preparations for the last sessions of the teacher training. Keiko Tanaka, the director of Yoga Plus treated me to Kabuki. I’ve always wanted to see a live Kabuki performance and was really excited to meet her on a Tuesday morning at the newly re-opened Kabukiza in Ginza. I remembered all of the hoopla from last year’s unveiling of the newly remodeled theater and there has been a constant, steady stream of visitors since then. The original Kabukiza dates back to 1889 and has been rebuilt five times over the years due to fires and natural disasters.  Now towering sky- scrapers have blossomed up around it in the midst of bustling Ginza.

Our program for the afternoon started at 11:00 a.m. and consisted of the following: “Tsurukame” (The Crane and the Tortoise); “Terakoya” (The Village School); “Sannin Kichisa Tomoe No Shiranami” (Three Thieves Named Kichisa).  Two more programs would run throughout the day—2:40 p.m, and then 6:00 p.m. Tickets could be purchased for the entire day or for separate programs.

Once we entered the grand theater and found our seats I looked out over the serenely lit auditorium with a sloping ceiling.  Soon, the orchestra began to play as a boldly striped scrim lifted to reveal an expansive stage with a backdrop of an abstractly painted landscape.  Fortunately, I was able to get earphones with English commentators to help me follow along.  I discreetly tried to take pictures of the fantastic characters moving across the stage in grand kimonos, but only managed to get a few shots before I was promptly told to put my camera away.

At intermission, many people suddenly produced bento boxes and began to share lunch in their seats. Keiko and I got up and walked around surveying  the concession stands that lined the corridors and found some really delicious warm waffles filled with sweet azuki beans.  Black and white photos highlighting the lineage of great Kabuki actors adorned the hallways– all of them quite famous and known as household names. Keiko told me about some of her favorite actors and how much she loved Kabuki particularly the expressive acting, elegant costumes and sets. I certainly had to agree with her.

Kabuki which dates back at least 400 years, has been the primary form of popular theater in Japan and a venue to reflect fashion, cultural tastes, political and socio-economic trends of the time.  Many of the stories are part of a repertoire that actors memorize and perform routinely.  However, there are stylistic distinctions made with pieces associated to different periods over the years from the Edo and Mejii periods to the present.   Nevertheless, there have been long held traditions that apply to Kabuki. First of all, only men and young boys play a range of roles, from grieving mothers, wives, to samurai and emperors.  Male actors train for many years to perfect their impersonation of women which is called—“onngata.”   I will admit that it was impossible for me to tell that the female actors were in fact men!  However, there was a time when women did perform (early 1600s) and their provacative performances were later banned from the stage due to social morals enforced by the “shogunate “in 1629.  Young boys would systematically replace women, however, prohibition would routinely apply to them as well.  Ultimately, Kabuki flourished with older actors, all men depicting subjects on serious drama.

The costumes throughout all the programs were of course stunning and the actors wore them with graceful ease. The kimonos, which are made with the finest materials, can be quite expensive. I also found it interesting that men in complete black (kurogo), are always on stage,  blending into the background as they move sets and props or assist with costume changes. They sit huddled around on the sets or behind main characters, squatting or in other positions for long periods of time without flinching or twitching. I told Keiko that I couldn’t believe their physical discipline and stamina. We jokingly laughed and said, “Now that is yoga!”  The actors also had an impressive physicality that met the rigorous demands of their roles.  Elegant stage sets are austere and suggestive of real locations, but also engineered to move around, collapse or emerge in an instance. For example, in the “Three Thieves Named Kichisa,” a woman is tossed into an undulating river and drowns in the waves!

Live music is played with traditional instruments such as Japanese drums, shamisen, and flutes while members of the audience occasionally shout at the actors. This is another unique factor of Kabuki. The “presentational” stage action is directed towards the audience and they actors may actually be situated in or enter the stage via the audience. “Mie”—a strong pose struck by male characters to express a powerful emotion or conflict– is accompanied by loud beats of wooden clappers. Finally, spoken word, diction are also categorically stylized.

After seeing three shows that day, I appreciated the historical and cultural significance of Kabuki theater and felt so grateful for this generous gift from Keiko. It would take quite some time to see the breadth of performances and study the volumes of scholarly material written on the subject. But if you’re ever in Tokyo, you must make a special trip to the Kabukiza— you will have a rare and truly remarkable experience in the performing arts.

Romy outside of Imperial Theater

 

Japanese Weddings, Pt. III: “The Hall of Beautiful Ladies”

The final installment on the subject of Japanese Weddings is the “Hall of Beautiful Ladies” at Meguro Gajoen.  These portraits are uniquely distinctive because they illustrate, much like the figures in the wood panel murals, the exquisitely stylish variations of Japanese women’s fashion. Furthermore, I have learned that there are long held customs on the proper wearing of kimonos that are very similar to traditional wedding attire.  (The fascinating subject of Kimonos will be addressed in a future post).

These captivating vignettes of  “Bijin”– “beautiful” women that show so much personality and flair,  were salvaged from the old Meguro Gajoen.   As I slowly walked around looking up at the alluring medallions on the shimmering gold-leafed ceiling panels, I found myself wondering who were these stylish women with so much vivre? Models?  Or, notable women of their time?  (early 20thC, circa 1920’s-30’s)—their true identity is a mystery.

Complimenting these figures is the dramatic “Serial Mural of Trees,” —tranquil and graceful landscapes of flowers and trees transitioning through the seasons—winter, spring, summer and fall, that run along the upper wall spaces of the corridor and also reclaimed from the old Meguro Gajoen.  In addition, each woman’s portrait also represents a characteristic detail of a particular season.  I found out later that the landscapes were painted by artists who were members of the “Seiryu Shah Group.”  I did write down the name of the artists who rendered the portraits and murals, but I could find scant information on them:

Portraits

The Seiryu Shah Group

  • Kano Sanraku
  • Anzai Keimei
  • Kimura Shikanosube
  • Obata Teiko
  • Sakagre Isso
  • Satu Mokuso
  • Hamade Siesho
  • Yamazaki Yutaka

Throughout the halls of Meguro Gajoen are breathtaking depictions of humans existing in the natural world. The timeless stories based on the constantly evolving cycle of life are displayed in a successive range of seasons, emotions and vividly colorful artistry.

Japanese Weddings Pt. II: Meguro Gajoen

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The setting for many of the weddings in Tokyo is the magnificent Meguro Gajoen, which I discovered by coincidence one day as I strolled along the Meguro River.  I was walking back towards Gotanda and suddenly came upon a massive, towering building that seemed out of scale for the neighborhood.  Curious, I revisited the site on my day off and discovered an extravagant world of art, design and architecture.

I first entered the slick Arco Tower with its serene white, glass and steel interior eventually leading to café in an adjoining building that featured a soaring wood beamed ceiling with the corporate offices of Amazon, Tokyo situated on a deck above. The café overlooked a garden courtyard and small pond with a graceful shrine–like structure connecting the buildings.  After a brief snack, I continued on and entered a large hall and was surprised to see a long curving wall lined with over 300 ft. of fantastic wood carved murals!  The elegantly dressed figures of Japanese women rendered in motion, rapt with expression, were characters illustrating various narratives played out against a panoramic backdrop of the seasons.

I followed the glimmering hallway which led me towards delightful wonders revealed at every turn—restaruants, wedding halls, an indoor pond and waterfall, a luxurious hotel, gardens and art–lots of it–all housed inside a looming terrarium-like habitat. I literally spent two afternoons exploring this vast richly decorated building–a perfect place to spend a rainy day.

After some research I was able to find out some history on this unusual compound. Meguro Gajoen was established in 1931 as a social outlet consisting of lavishly decorated banquet, wedding halls with other related services and amenities on a much smaller scale than the current grand incarnation. Extensively adorned with hand crafted wooden panels, murals, portraits and gilded ceilings and more. Many of the images are based on the Japanese fairy tale “Palace of the Sea God.”  Now a popular setting for weddings in Tokyo, Meguro Gajoen was meant to be a refuge for the citizens of Tokyo during a difficult time.  Viewers could be visually transported to an idealized world of imagination and fantasy. After successfully existing on this site for more than fifty years, the original building was torn down to allow for commercial development along the Meguro River. Fortunately all of the artwork was salvaged and restored–even the antique rooms have been seamlessly re-installed, including the “100 Stairs” on one of the upper floors.

I continued to walk each floor transfixed by so many marvelous treasures. Finally, exhausted and over-stimulated by sensory overload and a dead camera battery, I returned again at a future date to take it all in.  On my second visit there, I was fortunate to be there on a quiet afternoon and a courteous attendant let me to enter the foyer of the glorious chapel to take pictures, but I was not allowed beyond the threshold. Yet, still a rare opportunity to snap away un-inhibited and also by chance, to see a couple being photographed for a wedding portrait.

This monolithic compound is now a valued cultural asset of Japan. Overall, I found Meguro Gajoen brilliantly presents a balanced and harmonious unity of modern architecture and traditional imagery. The scale of the contemporary architecture provides a clean and spacious backdrop for the lavish weddings and rich art on display, allowing the viewer to absorb the fine details of the visually compelling works or festivities.   In addition, the self-contained environment provided a comfortable place to leisurely spend time, host a wedding or an event, or perhaps stay a while in the luxurious hotel.  This tremendous project must have taken years to complete, especially if one considers the respect for artifacts, consideration of cultural traditions and the collaborative efforts of many individuals involved in creating an enduring showpiece.

Japanese Weddings Pt. I—Style and Tradition

Japanese Style Wedding promo  European Style Wedding

Weddings became a surprising diversion from yoga with the emergence of a number of interrelated events. First, the discovery of Meguro Gajoen, a popular and spectacularly decorated wedding hall; next, the chance encounter of a couple of wedding photo shoots; and the timely marriages of Yuri Nakamura and other Yoga Plus teachers and students. Weddings around the world are typically joyous and  festive celebrations highlighting customs unique to a culture. In some cases it may be mandatory that a ceremony embrace many aspects of the past. However, for weddings in Japan, a youthful desire for modern, stylistic touches are in contrast with a splendid heritage associated with marriages. The solution?  From what I see,  a delightful compromise that presents an extravagant pageant of colorful finery and dazzling rituals.

Wedding Photo Shoot, A

On my way home from Hanami viewing at Shinjuku Goyen, I walked over towards a group of women peering into a storefront with “Innocently” printed  across the glass window.  I stood amongst them and saw a young couple inside being photographed for their wedding. The bride and groom wore stunning clothes.  We all gasped as an attendant removed the bride’s towering satin white headdress to reveal an elaborate, ornamental hairstyle….Wedding Shoot, B

Curious about what I’d seen, I later mentioned this incident to Sari (Sahoko Matsuo) who shared insight on the details and customs of traditional Japanese wedding attire.  She conveniently had pictures of her sister’s recent wedding on her I-phone. Sari told me about her sister’s rigorous lessons in the months prior to the event, learning how to walk, move and pose in the very heavy gown and headdress, while teetering on zori. Furthermore, all of the women attending the wedding, especially relatives, wore kimonos made especially for the occasion, some being handed down through generations. The ceremony is usually held in a Shinto Shrine (Buddhist).

Women's Traditional Japanese Wedding Outfits

After additional research and discussion with Sari, I found out that the  wedding attire and ceremony are laden with symbolic details:

  • The traditional Japanese wedding dress for women is a simply designed white kimono shiro-maku (“shiro”- white, “maku” – pure).
  • The headpiece is a tsuno kakushi, which covers the elaborate hairstyle, bunkin takashimada, signifying obedience to the husband.
  • The golden accessories, kanzashi, that adorn the hair symbolize horns of jealousy.
  • The bride’s face is dusted in white powder, indicating purity. Black outlined eyes and red lips complete the dramatic look.
  • She will also wear traditional Japanese footwear (tabi and zori) and array of other fine accessories.
  • For the reception the bride will change into an Uchikake a lucky, red silk kimono embroidered with flowers, cranes or natural scenes.
  • Nevertheless, a Japanese bride may change at least five times throughout the entire ceremony finally ending up in a Western style dress if she pleases.

marriage-japanese, traditional

The groom also wears a formal black kimono montsuki, with a family crest on the back, tucked into gray or white pinstriped Hakama pants.  The ensemble is covered with a haori coat that may be black over gray.

Getting photographed

A Wedding Portrait seen at Meguro Gajoen

Yuri Nakamura who recently got married in July, cheerfully kept me apprised on the developments of her wedding throughout our training. I enjoyed hearing stories about outings with her mother in search for the right dress to fit her small frame. By coincidence her wedding would also be held at Meguro Gajoen.  I mentioned how I discovered this amazing place. She was so excited and said that almost everyone in Tokyo had a wedding there. These photos from Yuri’s wedding show a harmonious weaving of traditions and style. Note the kimonos worn by her and the groom, the lucky accents of red, later contrasted by his shiny suit and her western style gown covered in a cascade of roses.

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Yuri Nakamura & Tatsuhiro Hayashi

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Tatsuhiro Hayashi & Yuri Nakamura with a “lucky red” Higasa

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This is just an overview on the subject and there is so much more information to reveal, but hopefully one can get a glimpse of the complexity and significance of wedding ceremonies in Japan. I’ve included a few, wonderful photos below of the recent nuptials of Yoga Plus teachers and students.

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Ayako Yoshioka & Shinji Oba

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Aki Kagoh’s wedding party with (Kosai Kato, Yumiko Unno, Emi Aoi, Yuk Takiyanagi)

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“Kii” Maki Sonobe

A Visit with Vishnu, Bhudda and Shiva @ LACMA

Class with Vishnu

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has a modest but impressive permanent collection of Southeast Asian Art featuring an assortment of statues, paintings and objects.  I organized a trip to visit the galleries with my students on February 8, a week after our hike in Solstice Canyon.

An Indian Prince

Two YoginiA young dancerA princess

Andrea Wagner, a docent at the Museum, who is also a yoga teacher, agreed to lead the tour.  She gave us a special lecture on the objects and the stories associated with the many incarnations of Vishnu, Bhudda, Shiva and other gods in the Hindu pantheon. In addition, we gained valuable insight on the dancing bhodisattvas, lacquered chests, paintings, and golden reliquary figures on display in mysteriously darkened earth toned rooms.

Andrea Wagner Lecturing

I arranged the outing because I felt it was important for my students to have a contextual experience with the many objects associated with yoga. We are typically exposed to the physical aspects of yoga and perhaps some Indian music in class or through kirtans.  Yet, we rarely have the opportunity to delve deeper into the meaning of the images and objects unique to yoga that we often take for granted.  We have seen many statues of a graceful dancing Shiva (Nataraj) or a plump Ganesh in a yoga studio, but do we really know what these objects signify?

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For example, Nataraja, “Lord of Dance” is an incarnation of Shiva–the circular frame of fire surrounding the Lord, represents him as the source of all movement within the universe.  Some other iconographic pictorial elements would include the following: the snake around his waist is Kundalini, the Shakti or divine force thought to reside within everything.  In his right hand is a small drum (damaru) exemplifying the sound, which is the origin of creation or the beat of the drum that is the passage of time. The upper left hand contains Agni (fire), which personifies destruction. These opposing concepts in Nataraja’s upper hands show the balance of creation and destruction of the fire of life. There are many other emblematic details associated with this figure alone. After taking a closer look at the other statues in the galleries, we can be reminded of that a stance, the position of an arm, a hand gesture (mudra) or even the rendering of the shells on Buddha’s head—are all so rich with allegorical relevance.

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One of my ongoing projects has been to reinforce a deeper understanding of the cultural history of yoga. My students said they really appreciated the trip and said we all agreed that we would like to do this again.

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After the tour, a few of us enjoyed a tasty meal of vegetarian food at a nearby Ethiopian restaurant, Meals by Genet, a nice finale for our artistically stimulating evening.

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Yoga at the Los Angeles Ballet Summer Intensive

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For the past four summers I’ve taught yoga to young dancers from around the world who attend The Los Angeles Ballet Summer Intensive (L.A.B.S.I.) to study with Colleen Neary and Thordal Christensen and other world-renowned teachers.  The irony is that although I seriously studied to be a dancer when I was younger and never made it into any companies, I’m now on the faculty of the L.A.B.S.I. and teach yoga to dancers and feel very gratified to have this opportunity.

Although many of the students are in their teens, some of them are already in the company as trainees. A few  are even home-schooled or have taken their High School Equivalency exams.  Younger students up to 12 yrs. old enrolled in the summer program have been successfully taught by Amy Rose Stabley for approximately three years.   During this time, I’ve been able to see many students evolve, grow and move on to become talented professional dancers.  For example, Eric Christenson who was a slight, ambitious 12-year-old when I first starting teaching there, has now grown up to be dashing, “princely” and over six feet tall!

Teaching yoga to flexible students with sophisticated body awareness is extremely challenging, on a fundamental level they are beginners, with little knowledge of yoga technique, but on another level, they are advanced and as accomplished as professional athletes. They can easily put themselves into complex poses such as: Eka Pada Rajakpotasana, Kurmasana, Urdhva Dhanurasana with little effort, yet, not be aware of alignment, the subtle nuances, or the intention of the pose.  Ultimately, my goal is to teach them the more subtle aspects of yoga, provide guidance with injury management, and help them to relax after a long week of rehearsals and classes.

At the end of the summer session there is final program. I sit with the parents and friends that come to watch every year and feel proud as I watch the students perform, solos, duets, and various ensemble pieces.  I also think that whether or not they pursue dance careers, this is a positive and culturally enriching way for young people to spend their summers.

The Subway

That Friday evening after returning  to Gotanda from Kamakura,  I realized that this would be the last time I would be on  the subway before leaving Tokyo. As I rode the escalator exiting the station, I saw the billboard for “Tipness Fitness” which had been running an advertisement campaign throughout the spring.  Although there were many other engaging and dynamic advertisements,  I always liked seeing this particular ad because it seemed to capture the frantic energy of the subway and the exuberant youthful spirit I felt embodied many people I had met in Tokyo.

I recounted how I overcame my fear of  Tokyo’s challenging, sprawling subway over the weeks and marveled at my ability to get around with more confidence.  I never had a problem with New York City’s “grid-like” mass transit system where I lived for 18 years.  However, in contrast Tokyo’s web of meandering train lines was much more intimidating.  First of all, the signage is written in Japanese  with English translations listed underneath or flashed across screens.  Secondly, although English subway maps are available, you really need to study it before you head out because many stops on local routes aren’t indicated and you need to know the final destination of that specific train line.  For example, Sangenjaya is an unmarked stop on the Den-en-toshi Line with Chuo-rinkan being the final stop. At first, I was only traveling from Gotanda to Shibuya and then transferring to Sangenjaya—I would only venture further out on the train when I was taken on outings.  Nevertheless, Soufflar gave me some advice that would prove invaluable in helping me navigate around the subway–stick to the JR Line which forms a loop around the city and then take connecting routes from that line.  In addition, the city’s major subway stops—Ueno, Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Shimbashi & Tokyo are strategically positioned on this circle. This advice worked out perfectly for me. I should also note that the trains are punctual and the courteous nature of the Japanese extends to the subway where people line up single file to enter the train, even during rush hour. Yes you do get packed in by subway attendants if its busy, but you have to line up first.

Ueno Station

Ueno StationShibuya Station

10:00 p.m. Shibuya Station

A Trip to Kamakura with Tomoko Kawahara

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Friday of that week, June 29, Tomoko Kawahara took me to Kamakura–we had been working so hard during the training that we never had time to spend any social time together. Many people had mentioned that I would like Kamakura, a seaside community that features nearly forty shrines and temples, notably the Great Buddha of Kamakura. We took a number of trains there and  finally ended up approximately an hour outside of Tokyo. Once there we paid for a trolley to take us to the local spots. Our first stop was an organic restaurant on Yuigahama Beach for a lunch of tempeh with tomato sauce, and assorted vegetarian dishes.

After walking on the beach we strolled up to the view the Great Buddha at the Kotoku-in Temple.  As usual, before entering the grounds you cleanse at a purification fountain and then proceed. There seemed to be hundreds of people on the Temple grounds on this hot, sunny day. The Great Buddha of Kamakura (Daibutsu) is massive (13.35 meters/43.8ft tall  and weighs approx. 93 tonnes/270,000 lbs).  It is one of the most famous icons of Japan as well as its tallest bronze Buddha and I was very impressed that this icon has existed on this site unharmed since the 1252.  The original Buddha was made out of wood in 1243 and later destroyed and the various halls that housed the Buddha over the centuries succumbed to various natural disasters.   The current bronze statue was cast to replace it and may have been gilded which would have a magnificent sight to see. The statue is hollow and Tomoko said that it is believed that “going inside the Buddha will let you start a new.”  At first I wasn’t sure–I couldn’t imagine walking through the Buddha in the heat with dozens of school children.  However,  I said, “I am returning to L.A.  and could use a new start, let’s go inside.”

From there we strolled along a cheerful, quaint street through  town, passing a small temple, Shū Genji, which was built to commemorate Shijokingo a faithful believer of the religion Nichiren who was persecuted in 1271.  This temple, a former residence made of wood was modest in size surrounded by a brushy garden.

After a quick snack of  matcha  gelato we took the trolley to another stop nearby to see the hilltop Jojuin Temple (c. 1219),  surrounded by 262  pale blue, lavender, pink & white hydrangea bushes on a slope overlooking the ocean.  Jojuin is also referred to as the “Hydrangea Temple” and we were fortunate to be there for peak blooming season.  “262” is the number of Chinese characters used in Hannya-shingyo Sutra. 108 steps lead up to the temple–“108” is the number of tolling bells on New Years eve. The temple grounds had various statues commemorating prominent Buddhist priests associated with this compound.

As we walked toward the train station, we stopped by the Gokurakuji Temple which was built-in Fukazawa in 1259 by the Buddhist priest Ryokanbo Ninsho and then moved to Kamakura around 1262. After and  crouching down to enter the wooden gate we walked down a shaded path toward a very interesting complex  of ornately carved wooden structures.

From there we took the trolley back to the train station and transferred to a bus that would weave its way through Kamakura to the amazing Hokokuji Temple.  Founded by Tengan Eko (Buddhist name Butsujo-Zenji) who was a representative of the Zen literary movement known as Gozan Bungak, this sanctuary flourished as the family temple of both the Ashikaga and Uesugi clans.  A magical and vast  garden of 2,000 Mōsō Bamboo trees dominates the property which is the reason why this complex is commonly referred to as the “Bamboo Temple.”    We decided to rest for a while at the tea house (Kyūkōan) and had fresh matcha tea under a canopy of bamboo overlooking a small waterfall.  A leisurely tour of the temple grounds revealed surprising highlights:  carved stone reliquaries, statues decorated with red hats, deep blue tinged hydrangea, a cave of tombs (Yagura), and a thatched roof bell tower.

Once back at the train station, I saw  trees decorated with colorful ribbons of paper and origami. I can’t remember the specific story associated with the decorated trees that Tomoko told me, but they were delightful and whimsical, so I took a picture.

In all, we saw five temples that day and it would take several trips to see them all.  I asked Tomoko what the difference was between a “temple” and “shrine” and with a little more investigation I found that one is “Buddhist “and the other “Shinto.” “Shinto” (Kami Nomchi—“the way of the Gods”) is a religion indigenous to Japan that worships nature. Originally people prayed to the great natural phenomena such as mountains, wind,rain, trees, rivers, fertility and powerful deities that inhabit heaven and earth.  Distinguishing characteristics of “Shinto Shrines”–are a Tori Gate, such as the grand ones featured at the Meiiji Shrine. In addition, there is a purification fountain near the entrance to cleanse your mouth and hands before prayer.

“Buddhism”  (Bukkyō) made its way into Japan in the 6th century via China and Korea. Predominant details of “Budhhist Temples” are:  the presence of the color red as evident with the Senso-ji Temple ( or a red gate (Yukuimon) and other items); an image of Buddha; and a large incense burner placed in front of the temple. Smoke created by the burning of incense is said to have healing properties. In addition, a pagoda is on the premises.

My trip to Kamakura was the perfect final sightseeing adventure to summarize my experiences in Japan and I ‘m no expert on the subject, but I could see first hand that influences of Shinto are pervasive in almost every aspect of Japanese life and culture–the naturalness of the structures, food and even clothing; respect for people, animals and towards all living things; traditions and celebrations.  Furthermore, there is relatively little crime in Japan and people are generally good spirited and very kind. Nevertheless,  these two religions—Shinto and Buddhism–coexist and complement each other which creates a harmonious balanced life.