Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Thursday 6th July 2006

We hopped on the bullet train to Sendai and within two hours were in a taxi with the Sensei, heading up to the compound where the university installs its gaijin staff.

Although northern Honshu's largest city, Sendai retains a provincial air. Pleasant and laid back, its wide tree lined avenues and spacious malls contrast with the more claustrophobic and intense geography of Tokyo. That evening we paced said spacious malls, ate sushi and fell victim to the arcades once more. Stuffed creatures stared out of glass cases, begging to be plucked to freedom by large metal claws. But all they did was steal more of my yen, and we finally escaped to a tiny pub - so small that that the area behind the bar rivalled that in front of it. We propped up the bar and drank endless Coronas, assuring the concerned barman that, owing to our nationality, we didn't object to their warmth.

On Friday we woke to unrelenting rain, which was to continue for the rest of the day. Our enthusiasm undiminished (Ok, only slightly diminished) we returned to the train station, and eventually, after a missed connecting train, arrived in Hiraizumi. Hiraizumi's splendour apparently once rivalled that of Kyoto. That all changed at the end of the twelfth century after the violent and destructive downfall of the Fujiwara clan. Matsuo Basho, whose statue nestles amongst the trees of the Chuson-ji temple complex, referred to the town's glory days as 'a brief remembered dream'. As we trudged from the station to Chuson-ji, it somehow reminded me of a windswept Cornish or Breton village.

The rain couldn't dampen the delights of Chuson-ji. Climbing up from the town into a forest, the complex's main path takes visitors past numerous wooden temples, red-bibbed Jizos, tombs and other shrines and buildings. Occasionally, the trees opened up to offer views over the sodden valley below. Souvenir stalls liberally dotted the site offering phone fobs from which Hello Kitty hung, dressed as the cycloptic Date Masumane, the area's greatest feudal lord known as "the one-eyed dragon".

Chuson-ji's centrepiece is Konjiki-do, the golden temple. Housed in a specially built pavilion (to protect it from the elements) the temple contains an Amida Buddha surrounded by gold leaf, exquisite laquerwork and mother-of-pearl. As we passed through the pavilion the attendants thoughtfully played an English language commentary which informed us that generations of mummified Fujiwaras were also stuffed into niches in the temple.

After some warming ramen at a small restaurant below Chuson-ji we took a quick tour through the graceful Heinan gardens at Motsu-ji on the other side of Hiraizumi, before heading back to Sendai. There we stocked up on food and sake, the latter making it fairly hard for me to get out of bed the following morning.

Another train ride, this time through fresh rain-free air, took us to Hon-Shiogama. There, with dozens of Japanese tourists, we boarded a small ferry. As it slowly chugged out of Hon-Shiogama's industrial harbour I noticed the sky was thick with seagulls, swooping and arcing around the back of the boat. The reason soon became apparent, as the tourists bought bags of Wotsit style crisps and started lobbing them at the appreciative birds, which put on a display of dog-fight like aerial acrobatics in order to catch the crisps before they hit the water. The more adventurous tourist stood by the rails, arm stretched proffering the cheesy snacks to whichever gull was brave enough to wheel in and snatch the food before making a sharp turn to avoid the hard metal of the boat. Stocking up on crisps, I only broke off baiting the gulls as the ferry entered Matsushima Bay.

Officially one of the three most scenic views in Japan, Matsushima Bay is an archipelago of around 250 islands. Legend tells that Basho was so overawed by its beauty that he could not describe it in words, his poem on the place reading merely

Ah Matsushima!

(Apparently this is a perfect haiku in the original Japanese.)

It is certainly striking. Countless islets sit in the bay, on which fir trees perch over rocks distorted by centuries of the sea's attention. We arrived at the town of Matsushima and walked along the waterfront for a while, before crossing a short bridge to the crowded island that plays host to Godai-do, a small wooden temple. We briefly admired the Shinto shrine. The temple houses the statues of 5 Buddhist deities that are only put on show to the public every 33 years. Fortunately 2006 is one of the years. Unfortunately I didn't realise this until I was back in Hong Kong. I don't remember seeing any ancient statues sitting around there, but then again, it would explain why the island was so crowded, but I don't think that the 2006 display had started.

We also crossed the long red (and scaffolded) bridge to the pleasant wooded island of Fukura-jima before returning to the shore and gorging on unidentifiable raw sea creatures - they could have been Nemo and SpongeBob Squarepants for all I could tell. We then headed up a wide cedar lined avenue to the unfortunately closed gates of Zuigan-ji, Matsushima's most famous temple. All was not lost though, as lining the avenue were dozens of stone Buddhas and Bodhisattvas along with the odd Shinto shrine and mysterious caves carved into the surrounding cliffs.

That evening, back in Sendai, we followed a sign to Eric's Bar, and found ourselves drinking in a room covered from floor to ceiling with photos, magazine covers, posters and album sleeves featuring Eric Clapton. The toilets were wallpapered with gig reviews of Clapton's performances. On the bar's large television, Eric strummed in an interminable compilation of live appearances.

Departure came all too quickly - the following day, after thanking the Sensei for his excellent hospitality, the bullet train rushed us back to Tokyo. After a few nervous minutes trying to locate the correct train (and station) in Ueno, we set out for Narita. At the airport we found that, oddly enough, the only thing in Japan which is utterly disorganised and inefficient is the airport checking-in system. In spite of this we made it onto the plane, which was a pity, as I really fancied staying in Japan for much longer.

Some selected Japan photos can be found here, while some of Claire's are here.

92 - posted at 14:53:57

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