Sunday, October 20, 2013

KR&JP 2013 Travelogue Day 10: Sakai kofun, Nara palace and Osaka fugu

A lot of outer- and out-of-city travel meant I had to get an early start for the day.

Osaka's city transit network is connected to the intercity rail network for the Keihanshin (Greater Osaka) area, including surrounding cities and prefectures. As my morning's itinerary required me to be south out of the city, I headed to Namba station and took the Nankai line to cover both of my morning destinations (this here is a "rapi:t" express train, and not the one I took, but it looked really cool).

The first being Sumiyoshi Taisha, also my first Shinto shrine complex visit. The taisha is located well south of Osaka, about half the way to Sakai, and has a station very close by. As one enters the huge complex, flashes of bright vermilion, characteristic of the Shinto palette, leap out from the background of dark green foliage and beige stone.

This taisha is the high shrine over all shrines dedicated to the three kami (domain spirits) of Sumiyoshi. Long stone pathways lines with lamp-posts (top left) run along the grounds, and past numerous "cabinet shrines" (top right) dedicated to individual kami. Other sights include the wall of sake barrels dedicated to the shrine, and the wall of votive tablets from devotees.

It is also host to examples of the eponymous "Sumiyoshi-zukuri" style of shrine architecture. This style predates the arrival of Buddhism from the mainland, and is therefore free of the architectural influences of the same. Dark wood and vermilion-painted pillars support roofs of thatch or bronze, many ending in forked "chigi" finials characteristic of Sumiyoshi-zukuri.

A few washing tubs of different designs (top left and top right) are available for devotees. Statuary is limited to the one horse I found (bottom left), and a few trees are also marked with the typical Shinto yorishiro -- thick, tasseled rope and folded paper links that are associated with the presence of kami.

I hopped back onto the Nankai to head further south to Sakai, a place I'd wanted to see for many years. after hearing of the impressive kofun, or tumuli, that dot the place. While China and Korea have their share of tumuli -- some, like Mount Li (Qin Shi Huang Di's tomb), being rather grand -- Japan's tumulus-building tradition took a design detour into the shape of the keyhole, often surrounded by a moat, and liberally sprinkled with artistically-unique clay figurines called haniwa (bottom, second from right).

Sakai features numerous kofun of both the round and keyhole kind (top right), and I passed a few of these while navigating the vicinity of Mozu Kofungun there (top left and top centre). But the biggest by far is Daisen Kofun, which is, by area, the largest grave in the world. This massive keyhole tumulus is thought to be the grave of the 16th emperor (by traditional lineage) of Japan, Nintoku, who reigned in the early 4th century CE. While the tomb, surrounded by three moats, was probably constructed to have clean edges and faces (concept model at bottom extreme right), it ended up weathered and grown over into a keyhole-shaped forested hill (bottom extreme left). The observation tower (bottom, second from left) was not open , but it is still an awesome thing to view from across the moat at ground level.

Sakai is also famous for another reason: it is the birthplace of one Sen no Rikyu, a Sengoku-period tea master who is practically the father of the Japanese tea ceremonies and traditions. A traditional Edo-period tea house still stands near the kofungun, and I thought I would just check it out and grab a cuppa on my way to the museum.

I ended up in a rather awkward and unexpected situation: a solemn tea ceremony, with everyone very much Japanese, and dressed in kimono or formal-wear. And among them, wet, haggard, foreign me in travel clothes, holding seiza posture for as long as I could bear it, before collapsing into the more familiar and comfortable cross-legged position, nursing throbbing haunches (seiza is something with which you have to grow up, it would seem).

My hosts and co-sippers were very understanding, however, and we participated in a lovely experience of tea preparation, serving, and drinking. I just sort of followed everyone else's lead, which worked out pretty well.

The Sakai museum (top left), also close to the kofungun, contains numerous artifacts from the earliest periods in Japanese history, including a Gaya-style cuirass, kabuto like the one at the entrance (top right) and some that have suspended disks like in the Samguk style, a Samguk-style saddle and a 5th century haniwa horse with stirrups. It also features a 3-metre-long matchlock gun from the gunpowder age. A little exhibition on the Daisen Kofun has an interesting superimposition display, comparing it with Mount Li and Khufu's Great Pyramid.

I took the Nankai back to Osaka to change trains for an east-bound to Nara City. Nara, which is the capital city of the prefecture of the same name, was one of the historical imperial capitals of Japan for 8 decades in the 8th century, which came to be called the Nara Period. Nara's mascot is the deer, a relationship rooted in a tale from Shinto folklore.

The main attraction for the history buff here would be Heijo-Kyo Palace, the seat of the empire from when Nara was Japan's capital. Much of the foundation has been exposed, but most of the palace park is bare, but for two reconstructed exceptions: Suzaku Gate (top left) and the Daigokuden, or Great Hall of State (bottom left), in which the also-reconstructed Takamikura, or imperial throne (top right), is placed together with other palace components. Great views of the site can be had from both Suzaku Gate (top centre) and Daigokuden (bottom centre). A few illustrations (bottom right) imagine what ceremonial assemblies would have been like in the heyday of Nara, when it was still Heijo-Kyo (note the three-footed bird on the standard, by the way).

Around the main palace grounds and the gardens (bottom left), I visited the locations of a few satellite palace buildings (top left) and some small museum buildings that exhibited remains from the excavations (top centre and top right). Clouds rolling over the mountains (bottom right) and bagpipe dude playing among the ruins (bottom centre) gave the place a momentary Scottish atmosphere.

Near Suzaku Gate is the main site museum. It's not particularly large, but it has a nice theatre for screening short documentaries and docu-dramas about Heijo-Kyo, as well as a life-sized reconstruction of a period ship of the sort that Japanese emissaries would have used. In here, one can read and watch about important figures in relations between Tang China and Nara Japan, such as the Japanese emissaries Abe no Nakamaro, Kibi no Makibi, Fujiwara no Kiyokawa and Tajihi no Hironari, and the particularly determined Chinese Buddhist monk Ganjin (Jianzhen).

Unfortunately, I did not have time to see other major places like Saiho-Ji (top left), or the famous Kasuga Taisha and Deer Park. I spent the early evening wandering the (fairly common in Japan) roofed leisure streets downtown (bottom left and bottom centre), and checking out other cultural sights, such as the statue of Gyoki (top right), a Nara-based monk who was one of Japan's most famous historical Buddhist personalities. I took a little break to listen to Soramoyuuto (bottom right), who performed a couple of songs at the public space near the Gyoki statue, and well enough to convince me to get myself a copy of their EP.

Plenty of interesting observations for the day, including winding stair rails (left) -- either for the aging population or to discourage skateboard stunts -- and cars designed using the "kei" aesthetic (right). I also noticed that bus drivers turn off their engines at traffic signals, in order to conserve fuel and limit pollution. And, unlike in Dubai, you never have to pay for water at restaurants and cafes. On the other hand, unlike in Dubai, and for that matter unlike in neighboring Korea, free/complimentary WiFi is practically nonexistent; wherever public WiFi is found, it seems to be run by DoCoMo or some other operator, and is therefore accessible only through a service subscription.

On the topic of restaurants, I had a toast breakfast at Sumiyoshi Station's Lanvin Coffee and Grill; I noticed that served toast in Japan tends to be white and very thick. I also gave the KFC near Nara station a try (top right); it's quite different here, and quite good too, offering soup, rice balls and chicken brushed with a savory sauce and bits of nori. In the evening in Nara, I tried the famous katsu curry (bottom left) and some kind of mash burger (bottom right).

I cannot see her tonight
I have to give her up
So I will eat fugu

The main culinary adventure of the day was during my night back in Osaka, wandering the shopping, drinking and eating places along the streets of Abeno ward (top left). I scouted about for a reputable-looking restaurant for supper, because they were the only kind that were permitted to serve the potentially fatal dish I was about to try. I only had raw fugu, in the form of strips (bottom left) and slices (bottom right), with some warm sake (top right). It had a mild taste, not unlike white fish sushi, but with a slightly more chewy texture.

Now quite pleased with myself, I ambled around Abeno a little longer, sampling different sake (bottom left and bottom right). One of the more interesting bars I visited was Blue Sky Bar (top left) at a corner of a place I think was called Abeny East. It's an open-air bar -- not a common sight here -- and is decorated with odds and ends, plus clippings about it from newspapers (top right). Yes, it's sort of famous. Patrons sit around the kiosk, served and chatted up by Matsa, the charismatic tender. Matsa knows a little English, and has a small hanging drum that he dramatically strikes whenever someone cracks a joke (from what I figured), as pictured above. I spent the remainder of the late hours there, pleased at my very productive day.

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