By Arts Editor Doreen Jung. Like turning the pages of a fairytale, a visit to Japan allowed us to step into a world with ancient castles, sacred shrines, and magical gardens.
One of our first stops was at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. The palace is surrounded by a water-filled moat and is cloaked with history that includes feudal lords and shoguns. Situated in the centre of a bustling metropolitan, the palace is surrounded by tree covered grounds and several breathtaking gardens. Our guide told us stories of a time when the palace was known as Edo Castle, a place where the samurai warriors lived in the 17th and 18th centuries.
From the mid 1800’s until the end of World War II, the Emperor of Japan was an all-powerful god/king. With the country’s defeat in 1945, however, the reigning Emperor was forced to renounce his divine status, as well as all direct political power. The palace is currently home to Emperor Akhito and Empress Michiko. The Emperor’s roles encompass ceremonial duties such as receiving foreign dignitaries, handing out imperial awards, and
performing duties as a Shinto priest.
A fascinating mix of ancient cultures, deeply rooted traditions, and groundbreaking technology, Japan is a diverse country with infinite possibilities for visitors to explore. A three week visit this spring became a trip of a lifetime for me and my fellow travelers.
We visited beautiful gardens that invited contemplative strolls through evergreen plantings, moss covered grounds, serene ponds, and stone features.
In Kyoto, we discovered Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion), also known as Rokuon-ji Temple, nestled in lush green gardens. Gilded in gold leaf, the Golden Pavilion sits on edge of a pond called Kyoko-chi (Mirror Pond).
Built in 1955, it is a replica of a retirement villa built by Shogun Yoshimitsu Ashikaga in 1395.
The Japanese call their country, Nihon or Nippon, which means “the source of the sun” or “the land of the rising sun”. The name refers to Japan’s location to the east of China. One early morning we rose with the sun to visit Kiyomizudera, a Buddhist temple in eastern Kyoto. We had visited several temples and learned that they are situated on extensive compounds which include shrines and beautiful gardens.
Many times artisans and vendors line the pathways to the compounds to entice visitors to buy their wares. Arriving at the temple, we were mesmerized by the massive gate marking the entrance to the compound. All the temples have tall and impressive gates but this one soared atop the stone staircase built into the hillside.
The main building has a large veranda jutting out over the hillside. The veranda is supported by hundreds of pillars, providing a breathtaking view of the city below. Cherry blossoms were beginning to bloom and we soaked in the glorious scenes. We learned of a dangerous tradition linked to the building. The saying “to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu” refers an Edo period tradition where a person’s wish would be granted if he survived a jump off the deck.
Below the main building is a waterfall that is diverted into three channels.
The water drops from the channels into a pond below. The water is said to be therapeutic and visitors line up to drink the water. Depending on which channel you drink from, you receive good health, long life, or success in your studies.
Our visit coincided with the season of cherry blossom festivals in Japan. During the spring, many cherry trees in the parks and along the streets bloom, creating pink clouds throughout the cities and in the countryside. The Japanese celebrate this time with concerts, festivals, tea ceremonies, and outdoor picnics.
We visited several festivals and discovered that vendors prepared a great assortment of foods that were new to our palate. Instead of the corn dogs, hamburgers, and cotton candy that we see in North America, we discovered grilled squid on a skewer, octopus balls, and sweet confections made with red bean paste.
Our time in Japan was a time of wonderful discoveries. We learned a great deal about a complex culture with a long history. We saw the seamless blending of old traditions with modern technology.
Ancient shrines were surrounded by soaring skyscrapers and neon lit billboards. We will never forget the beautiful landscapes and the bustling urban centres. But some of our best memories are of the friendliness and courtesy that we encountered wherever we went.
Originally published 12 June, 2012
Editor’s Note: Doreen Jung is a member of the Abbotsford Arts Council and former Arts Administrator. Her columns appear here regularly.
First published October 7, 2013