Travelogue Japan: Nagoya Castle, Nagoya

You know the saying ‘time flies when you’re having fun’? I couldn’t have agreed more – our five days in Japan felt like it was coming to an end too soon! Our last overnight stop before flying back to Tokyo was Nagoya, the country’s fourth largest city and a major maritime port.

Takayama/Nagoya

We caught a mid-morning train from Takayama, a three-hour ride away. Mariko-san bought us these adorable sarubobo (baby monkey) -shaped lunchboxes for lunch. Every meal in Japan that we’ve had so far was meticulously presented – bentos bought from any regular convenience store were no exception.

I had the stir-fried beef with shredded egg and fried fish cakes on a bed of fluffy white rice, served with half a boiled egg, some pickles, boiled prawn and some kombu (kelp).

Takayama/Nagoya

View as our train cut through the countryside. We saw swathes of green paddy fields and vegetable farms, quaint villages and in some parts of the journey, beautiful river gorges running through valleys and hills.

Takayama/Nagoya

Takayama/Nagoya

Arrived in Nagoya in the afternoon.

Compared to the small towns and rural cities on our itinerary, Nagoya was massive and very modern. We stayed in the city centre, which was surrounded by tall buildings, malls and offices.

Takayama/Nagoya

Had a quick rest and then it was off again to Nagoya Castle! Built in the 16th century, it was the ruling centre of the Owari clan, one of the three branches of the powerful Tokugawa Shogunate, and therefore ranked among the grandest castles in Japan during the Edo era. Unfortunately the original structure was bombed to bits during World War II, so the building we see today is a reconstruction made from concrete, built in 1959.

Takayama/Nagoya

We were lucky that we got to visit in the summer,because the Japanese government decided to close it in November this year for a major undertaking – to restore the main keep to its original wooden state. As such, the keep will be closed until 2020.

Fret not though – the castle’s palace (Honmaru Goten), which is in front of the main keep, will be completed in Spring 2018 , and will be open to the public for viewing. The palace, which was also destroyed during World War II, was rebuilt using traditional construction materials and techniques.

Takayama/Nagoya

Mythical golden tiger-headed carps called Kinshachi are a symbol of the castle and two of them, one male and one female, top either end of the castle roof. They were believed to be talismans to prevent fires… ironic, seeing that the originals were destroyed in a fire (can’t win against the evil of man) and their gold colouring, a symbol of the wealth and prestige of the Tokugawa empire. The carps we see today are reconstructed models, each weighing over a tonne with 40+kg of gold plating.

Takayama/Nagoya

Although we knew it was a reconstruction, we couldn’t help feeling awed at how majestic the castle looked! It must have been even more impressive during its heyday. Sitting atop a high stone wall and surrounded by a moat, it would have made mounting an assault on the keep exceedingly difficult. The main keep towers five storeys-high, with curving green roofs and white walls.

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Interesting tidbit: Building of the castle was not done by the Tokugawa family alone. Instead, they portioned it out to daimyos (lords) under them, each in charge of one section of the castle. The lords would leave carvings of their crests so there would be no dispute over who built what. Pretty ingenious.

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Since it’s a popular tourist attraction, visitors will find costumed-actors roaming around the courtyard, like ninjas…

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And historical figures.

Takayama/Nagoya

The inside of the castle has been converted into a museum, where you will find exhibits like the above, which details how the giant slabs of rock were hauled to the site by labourers.

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We climbed to the top which has a small observation deck with 360 degree views of the city! Surrounding the castle are the imperial gardens, a huge green lung in the midst of all the developments.

GETTING THERE 

From Nagoya Station, hop on the Higashiyama Subway Line to Sakae Station. Then, change to the Meijo Subway Line to Shiyakusho Station. The total journey time takes 10 minutes. From the exit, it is a three minute walk to the castle.

By bus, the castle’s main gate is accessible by the Meguru tourist loop bus (25 minutes).

Admission : 500 yen (RM18 – USD4)

Hours: 9AM – 430PM (last entry 4PM)

Travelogue Japan: Old Merchant’s Street @ Takayama Historic District, Gifu

Takayama is a gorgeous place. It’s modern enough that you get all the trappings of a city, but rural enough to give it a rustic charm. Takayama’s rich timber sources and skilled carpenters (said to have worked on many castles in Kyoto and Edo) made it an important outpost for the ruling elite (hence, the establishment of the local government office, Takayama Jinya). Visitors will see many original buildings preserved in the old parts of town.

Kanazawa, Japan

The Miyagawa River cuts a swathe through many parts of town, twisting and turning through the landscape like a giant, watery snake. The water is crystal clear, making it possible to see to the bottom of the river bed! In certain spots there are also koi fish.

Kanazawa, Japan

Kanazawa, Japan

The old merchant’s district is a must visit while in town. Consisting of three pedestrian-only streets, the area is lined with dozens of double-storey wooden shophouses, some of which have been converted into museums, teahouses, cafes and souvenir shops. The area gained a reputation as the ‘little Kyoto of Hida’. A unique feature of the buildings are its latticed bay windows. There are also a number of sake breweries here, distinguished by the sugidama (cedar ball) hanging out front.

Kanazawa, Japan

The lack of vehicles and ‘modern’ fixtures transports you back to the Edo era!

Kanazawa, Japan

Kanazawa, Japan

Rabbits are a popular symbol of Takayama. The people believed that like the rabbit, which has long ears, a good government should listen to the voice of its people. Rabbits also represented fertility and were a guardian against fires. You’ll find many souvenir shops selling cute ornaments and rabbit-related paraphernalia along the street.

Kanazawa, Japan

Kanazawa, Japan

Kanazawa, Japan

Kanazawa, Japan

I love the hina-style rabbit dolls that they had dressed in traditional Japanese costumes. So cute and elaborate! This will set you back a mere 50,000 yen (RM1810 – or USD440!).

Kanazawa, Japan

Kanazawa, Japan

A museum with old samurai gear on display.

Kanazawa, Japan

As the sky darkened, we slipped into a restaurant for dinner. To cater to a growing Muslim clientele, the resto has halal meat dishes! I really wanted to try the beef, which Hida is famous for, but since our guide had ordered all chicken meals for convenience, I only got to try it the next day at the morning market.

Kanazawa, Japan

Beautiful set with rice, tofu, miso soup, salad and chicken, which we grilled over a small fire.

Kanazawa, Japan

Everything was fresh and tasty! I liked the whole DIY vibe where I could grill the meat according to my liking, although the pan did take a long time to heat up.

Kanazawa, Japan

Juicy and ready for eating. 🙂

Getting To Takayama 

If you’re coming from major cities in Honshu such as Nagoya, Kyoto or Tokyo, the city is best accessed by Shinkansen (bullet train). Takayama is about 300km away from Tokyo. Useful guide here.

 

 

 

 

 

Travel Blog: Zenkoji, Nagano’s Ancient Buddhist Temple

Many towns and cities in Japan grew around castles or temples during the feudal era. Nagano is one of the latter, flourishing around an ancient 7th century Buddhist temple called Zenkoji, also considered one of Japan’s three most sacred sites.

Legend has it that the first Buddha statue brought into Japan is enshrined within the temple, hidden even to its chief priest. The last known record of someone having seen the Hibitsu (secret Buddha) was said to be a monk in the 17th century, who did so on the emperor’s command.  While the original remains tightly guarded, a copy is shown to the public every six years (next display 2021) and draws millions of pilgrims to the city to witness the ceremony.

Credit: Japan National Tourism Organisation

Lining the square in front of the temple are various shops selling souvenirs and food items.The pavement leading up to the temple is paved with 7,777 flagstones, which make for a picturesque photo.  Visitors will also find shukubo (temple lodgings), catering to devotees who wish to stay overnight and join the morning service, where the priests chant prayers and dole out blessings.

Before entering the temple grounds, we had to pass through a massive niomon (Guardian Gate), flanked by two large and fierce looking deities on each side.

There were a lot of woven slippers hanging from the gate with words written on them, but I’m not sure what these are for.

Entering the temple grounds, we were greeted by the sight of Buddhist statues lining one side of the compound…

..and the impressive-looking main shrine. Measuring over 40metres in height, it is one of the largest wooden buildings in Japan. The building itself dates back to the 18th century, as previous versions were destroyed in fires/earthquakes. As such, it is a good example of architecture from the Edo Era.

Nagano DSC05698 Japan

Ian Cochrane, Flickr 

Was told I couldn’t take pictures in the main hall, so here’s one from Flickr.

Upon entering, we were greeted by a wooden statue of Binzuru, said to be one of Buddha’s most intelligent disciples.  Binzuru was one of the original four Arhats in Buddhism (before they expanded to the current 18) and is said to have psychic powers. The belief is that rubbing the statue corresponding to a sick part of your body will help cure it – hence the worn out features.

One of the most unforgettable experiences at Zenkoji was the walk through a pitch black corridor underneath the main altar. We descended via a narrow staircase into a musty passageway. It was so dark I tried waving my fingers two inches from my eyes and I couldn’t see them! The only way to make it through is to move slowly while touching the smooth wooden walls. Our guide told us to keep our hands at hip height and try to locate a key hanging from the wall, which touches the ‘Hibitsu’ – so touching it meant it’s as good as touching the secret Buddha statue itself and will earn you major merit points. It felt like a long walk because we had to take each step with caution and there was no indication as to when the corridor was going to end – but when we finally emerged into light again I felt a wave of relief. The walk in darkness is also supposed to symbolise your ‘rebirth’, in line with Buddhist belief.

  Back outside, side view of building. 

Cows are a symbol of the temple, so you’ll find many bovine souvenirs on sale!

GETTING TO ZENKOJI 

From JR Nagano Station, take a 10-minute bus (100 yen), or take a train from Nagaden Nagano Station (next to JR) and alight at Zenkojishita Station for a further 5-10 minutes walk to reach the temple.