Thursday, May 15, 2014

Visiting Hida Takayama

We had been planning to visit Hida Takayama for quite some time. We finally made the trip a few weeks back.
Takayama is a city in the mountainous region of Gifu Prefecture. Since there are quite a few places known as Takayama in Japan, this particular city is referred to as Hida Takayama to distinguish it from others.From the feudal age, Takayama had been a centre of woodwork and famous  for its high quality timber and high skilled carpenters
Most of Takayama's tourist attractions are located in its old town. The city had flourished as a merchant's town in the Edo period and buildings from that era have been nicely preserved.
few buildings are still used as homes while the most have been converted into stores, sake breweries or museums. 
The city attracts large number of tourists- both Japanese and foreign tourists. 

The Higashiyama Temple Walk is a 3.5 km long walking trail  from Takayama's temple town,Tera Machi to the Shiroyama Park, the site of the erstwhile Takayama Castle.
 We skipped the temple trail as we were told that most temples are similar to most Japanese Buddhist temples. We did visit the Shiroyama Park for a short time and even walked a part of the trail from the Shiroyama park end.

Having visited quite a few well preserved towns like Magomejuku and Ouchijuku, we were not so impressed with Takayama. After all the praise that we had heard, we felt it was a bit overrated. We felt that Shirakawa-go, the other famous place in Gifu Prefecture and less than an hour's drive from Takayama, was nicer from a tourist's point of view. The Hida Folk Village in Takayama also houses a few Gassho zukuri houses, similar to those in Shirakawa-go village. Having visited Shirakawa-go a few months earlier, we decided to skip the Hida Folk Village.

Takayama Matsuri or Takayama Festival, held in spring and autumn is one of Japan's three famous festivals and attracts a large number of visitors. The Spring festival is held in the Hie Shrine while the Autumn festival is held in the Hachiman Shrine. Both the spring and autumn festivals feature tall and decorated floats called Yatai and some of these even feature Karakuri Ningyo, mechanical dolls on top. These festive floats are stored in storehouses which one can see while walking through the old town. 
Takayama is also known for its two morning markets held everyday - one in front of the Takayama Jinya and the other near the Miyagawa river.
Local products and crafts are sold here and this is one of Takayama's famous attractions. 

However, what impressed us the most in Takayama, was the Suza-Main World Shrine, the headquarters of a religious cult, the Sukyo Mahikari.
In a country which has a large number of temples and shrines, the Sukyo Mahikari shrine was a totally different experience. 
 The building's architecture is a blend of various other religious motifs and styles. We could see Star of David, Buddhist symbols, Islamic style towers and off course Japanese architecture.

The hall, or the main shrine is impressive and visitors can experience a feeling of peace. The hall is enormous and can seat  4500 people. A large golden shrine with a large fish tank under it faces the seating area. Enormous ornately designed glass structures in the roof allow passage of natural light. In the hall too, motifs of various religions can be seen. The shrine is definitely a must see. While photography is allowed outside and around the shrine, photography is prohibited inside the prayer hall. Visitors are handed out pamphlets in Japanese or English which provide information and pictures about the Mahikari and the Main shrine.
The Main Shrine is referred to as The Noah's Ark of the 21st century by the Mahikari.

With the Shrine's Golden Roof dominating the Takayama sky, this shrine is difficult to miss.

Address: Gifu Prefecture 506-0055, Takayama, Kamioka Motomachi 2-596-1

Phone: 0577-34-7008  

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Kumano Kodo: Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine, Seiganto-ji Temple and Nachi Falls

Of the three shrines that comprise the Kumano Sanzan shrines, the last shrine we visited was the Kumano Nachi Taisha. On our recent camping trip, we had not sure we would visit all three shrines, but we were sure we would make it atleast to the Kumano Nachi Taisha. Like the Kumano Hongu Taisha and Kumano Hayatama Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha is one of the main destinations on the sacred Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes, collectively forming part of the UNESCO World Heritage site, Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range. 
The Kumano Nachi Taisha is a large complex with temples, shrines and other sites and is a good example of the unique fusion and harmonious co-existence of Buddhism and Shintoism. The Kumano shrines have been worshipped and visited for centuries and date back to the time before Buddhism was introduced to Japan. When Buddhism was introduced to the Kumano region somewhere in the 6th century, the Buddhist deities were depicted as versions of Japanese Shinto Kami and the concept of Shinbutsu Shugo evolved which promoted the harmonious coexistence of Buddhist and Shinto beliefs. The Nachi Shrine is a living proof of this concept. 
The Nachi Taisha Shrine (Shinto) and the Seiganto-ji Temple (Buddhist) stand next to each other and had functioned as one religious institution for a large part of history. 

Paved stone routes through the woods lead visitors up to the hill to the shrine and the temple. 

The Nachi Falls at 133 meters is often credited as the tallest waterfall in Japan and figures in the three best waterfalls of Japan along with Fukuroda-no-Taki in Ibaraki prefecture and Kegon Falls in Tochigi Prefecture.
The Nachi Waterfall has been worshipped over the centuries in line with the Shinto belief of worshipping nature.
Visitors can offer prayers to the waterfall at the Hiro shrine at the foot of the waterfall. 
The Kumano Nachi Taisha is said to have been originally located near the foot of the mountain and was moved to its current location later. The waterfalls make a majestic sight even from the distance.

The Seigantoji temple, a Tendai Buddhism temple, next door is said to have founded by a Buddhist priest who had arrived in Kumano in the 4th century from India. Interesting to note is that the temple's foundation is said to date to the 4th century while Buddhism was introduced to Japan from China in 6th century. 

The wooden hall of the temple was built in 1590 and is said to be the oldest building in Kumano area.

The three storied Pagoda of the Seigantoji temple and the Nachi Falls in the backdrop make up a spectacular sight.

We couldnt resist clicking shots of the waterfall and the pagoda from different spots either !

We saw many visitors dressed up in Heian period costumes and getting photographs clicked against the spectacular scenery. 
An interesting sight was seeing some young girls in historical costumes clicking selfies of themselves on the cellphone.

Address: Wakayama Prefecture, 649-5301, Higashimuro District, Nachi Katsura cho, 
               Nachisan  8 

Phone: 0735-55-0001

Opening hours : Kumano Nachi Taisha and Seigantoji Temple - 8:30-16:30 hrs
                          Nachi Waterfall: 6:00-16:30 hrs

Admission: Free for the Shrine, Waterfall and Temple. 
                  300 yen for Nachi Shrine Treasure Hall
                  300 yen for Waterfall viewing platform
                  200 yen for Seiganto-ji pagoda

Kumano Kodo: Kawayu Onsen

Kawayu is one of the most unique Onsen towns that we have visited in Japan. This onsen town located along the Oto river is nestled in the mountains of the Kumano region in Wakayama Prefecture. 
The unique feature of this onsen is that bathers dig a hole in the gravel on the riverbank through which hot water gushes out. The cold water from the river mixes in this hot water to bring it to the right temperature for bathing.
Bathers can then sit in the pool they just dug and enjoy their outdoor pool. And bathers can wear bathing suits when using this onsen since this onsen is out in the open.  
In winter, a giant rotenburo known as "Sen-nin-buro", meaning "Thousand People Bath" is prepared and public can use it for free. 
Similar to other onsen towns, Kawayu also has its own share of Onsen hotels and bathing facilities. The river-side onsen area is in front of the Fuziya ryokan. 

Kawayu also has a camping ground and the town is also popular among travellers visiting the Kumano Sanzan shrines. The Kumano Hongu Taisha, Dorokyo Gorge and Watase Onsen are also close by. 

Address: Wakayama Prefecture 647-1717, Tanabe City, Hongu cho, Kawayu- 1452

Admission: Free

Useful Link: Kumano Tourism- Kawayu Onsen

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Kumano Kodo: Kumano Hayatama Taisha Shrine

The second of the Kumano Sanzan shrines that we visited was the Kumano Hayatama shrine. Having visited the Kumano Hongu Shrine, the previous evening, we had planned to visit the Kumano Hayatama shrine, Kumano Nachi shrine and Taiji Whale Museum on the second day of our camping trip. We passed by a section of the picturesque Dorokyo gorge on our way from the Watase campground to Shingu city, where the Kumano Hayatama shrine is located.  

The Kumano Hayatama shrine, is located on the banks of the Kumanogawa river in Shingu city. In the old days, travellers would undertake a section of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage from the Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine to the Kumano Hayatama Taisha Shrine by boat. This waterway has been designated an UNESCO World Heritage as the only river pilgrimage route in the world. 
The shrine is said to have been constructed in the 12th century, but the current buildings are a recent reconstruction. However like the other Kumano Sanzan shrines, the area is said to have been worshipped since the 3rd century. Originally the shrine is said to have been located at the site of the Kamikura shrine. It is believed that twelve Shinto deities, the kami, descended from heaven on the Gotobiki iwa rock on a hill near the Hayatama shrine. The Kamikura shrine stands at the exact spot where the deities are said to have descended. A steep stairway, some 500 odd steps takes visitors to this shrine. We did see a part of the Kamikura shrine's building and the sacred Gotobiki-iwa rock from the car as we drove through Shingu, but we did not visit the shrine. 

The architecture of the Kumano Hayatama Shrine is similar to many Shinto shrines in the country.

An ancient Nagi tree is the sacred tree, located in the shrine precincts is worshipped too. 
The leaves of the Nagi tree are considered a good luck charm for success in love as its leaves do not tear off. The tree has been designated a national treasure. 

Pictures of the sacred three legged crow, the Yatagarasu can be seen at this shrine too. 

We saw two bridal couples at the Kumano Hayatama shrine. 
While one wedding ceremony was in progress, the other couple was walking on the shrine precincts, visiting the smaller shrines and sacred spots.

Address: 647-0081, Wakayama Prefecture, Shingu, Shingu-1

Phone: 0735-22-2533

Hours: 8:00-17:00 hrs

Closing Days: No Closing Days

Admission Fees: Free; Treasure Hall- 500 yen.