Meiji Restoration

JAPAN: Kyoto (Seimei Shrine / 晴明神社)

The city of Kyoto was the Imperial capital of Japan for more than one thousand years and is perhaps one of the best places to get a flavor of old Japan.  In preserving Japan’s old traditions, Kyoto is the city of quiet temples, sublime gardens, colorful shrines and geiko. But, perhaps the most interesting temple among Kyoto’s vast collection is the one that deals with the darker elements of Japanese culture.

The Seimei Shrine, founded in 1007 is dedicated to the onmyoji, Abe no Seimei. It is said that the shrine was constructed on the site of his house just two years after his death. An onmyoji is a person who practices the traditional Japanese esoteric cosmology known as onmyodo (陰陽道) or “The Way of the Yin and Yang.” Based on the Chinese philosophies of Wu Xing (Five elements) and Yin and Yang, it is a mixture of natural science and occultism.

Onmyodo was introduced to Japan during the early 6th century and was accepted as a practical system of divination.  It came under the control of the Imperial government and later the Tsuchimikado family where elements of Taoism, Buddhism and Shintoism were incorporated.  Onmyodo was practiced until the middle of the 19th century after which point it was classified as superstition and its practice prohibited. Interestingly, the mid-19th century was also the time when Admiral Perry came to Japan demanding that Japan open its ports to foreign trade and when the Meiji Restoration came into existence.

Abe no Seimei was a Heian era (794-1185) astronomer who served the Emperor by performing divination and various ceremonies.  To his contemporaries Seimei was a genius with second sight, able to perceive an invisible world of demons and spirits.  He could also see star constellations others could not. He continues to be the subject of a variety of colorful legends including one which claims that he was able to instantaneously cure the Emperor of an illness. Further, Seimei himself enjoyed a long and healthy life which led people to believe that he actually possessed magical powers. Although Seimei’s life is well documented, his lineage remains unclear. Abe no Seimei’s two sons,  Yoshihira and Yoshimasa were also onmyoji, like their father.

It is said that the famous well (Seimei-i) located on the Seimei Shrine grounds were Abe no Seimei was buried retains Seimei’s divine power.  Anyone who partakes of its water will receive a blessing for good health.  The well is in the shape of a 5-pointed star known as the Seimei star (Pentacle in the Western world) and one of its vertices acts like a water intake.  This water intake points in a lucky direction and each year during the beginning of spring (February 4th), the orientation of the well is changed. Abe no Seimei reputedly designed the star in the 10th century to symbolize the Chinese Five Elements. You will find its image throughout the shrine.

There are two gates (torii) which lead up to the relatively small shrine.  The main building (honden) was restored in 1925. Within the shrine grounds, you will find pictures and text relating the legend of Seimei. There is a bronze statue of a peach which visitors are invited to stroke to ward off evil. The ancient Chinese believed that peaches were talismans to guard against evil. Today, many Japanese people know the story of Momotaro (A boy born from a peach who conquered the land of demons.) which was derived from this belief. There is a small bridge said to be a replica of the original Ichijo Modori Bashi.  The actual bridge located just south of the shrine is said to be a gateway between the human and the spiritual realms.

The shrine draws many visitors who view it as a potent “power spot.” Each year during fall, there is a Seimei Matsuri.

So the next time you are in Kyoto, why not include the Seimei Shrine as a potential stopover and get to know Japan’s Merlin!

Web page:         http://www.seimeijinja.jp/

Address:             806 Horikawadori Ichijo agaru Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto 602-8222, Kyoto

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Japan: Kagoshima: Amami Oshima Island (奄美大島)

Situated south of Kagoshima Prefecture is the island of Amami Oshima (lit. Big Amami Island),  famous for its natural beauty and brightly colored coral reefs which make it an ideal diving spot. The island is part of the Amami Island chain consisting of eight islands and has been under the occupation of several domains.

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Initially it belonged to the Ryukyu Kingdom and served as a stopping off point for envoys traveling from Japan to China. In 1609, Amami Oshima was invaded by the Shimazu clan and incorporated into their official holdings in 1624. The island was incorporated into Osumi Province (later Kagoshima Prefecture) after the Meiji Restoration and  was occupied by the United States after WWII.  In 1953, control of the island was finally reverted back to Japan.  Saigo Takamori, was one of the most influential samurai in Japanese history, was exiled on the island in 1859 for a period of two years.  His house has been preserved as a memorial museum.

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Saigo Takamori

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Saigo Takamori’s house

Approximately 95% of the island is covered in forest which includes over a quarter square miles of mangrove. The surrounding waters are a clear, deep blue and home to several species of tropical fish. From June through August of each year, hundreds of sea turtles come up on shore to lay their eggs.  The phenomenon draws hundreds of visitors to the island at nighttime.

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Since 1974, 19,420 acres of Amami Oshima has been designated as part of Amami-gunto Quasi-National Park and the lands have been protected ever since. The northern part of the island, where Amami Oshima Airport is located, is dotted with white-sand beaches and beautiful coral reefs, a popular resort area for divers. The island produces a special silk product known as Oshima Tsumugi silk and there are over 400 factories located within Amami City, the only city among the eight islands.

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The island is easily accessible from Haneda Airport. It is a 2 hour and 35 minute flight from Haneda to Amami Oshima Airport.

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So if you want to experience the unspoiled natural beauty of one of Japan’s remote islands, a trip to Amami Oshima should be on your agenda.  But do be aware of the Habu snake. The venomous pit viper inhabits roughly 70% of the island.

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JAPAN: Hiroshima (Hiroshima Castle)

The city of Hiroshima developed as a castle town as did many other towns throughout Japan. Hiroshima Castle, constructed on a plain in 1589, served as the city’s physical and economic center. Today, visitors to the castle will find the reconstructed five-story keep surrounded by a moat. Although the castle survived the Meiji restoration when many castles were destroyed, it did fall victim to the atomic bomb, which was dropped on the city in 1945. The castle was reconstructed thirteen years later from reinforced concrete and houses a museum, which chronicles the castle’s and Hiroshima’s history. A second reconstruction effort was undertaken in 1994 whereby the second layer of defense surrounding the castle known as the Ninomaru was reconstructed using traditional methods.

The castle originally had three concentric moats, two of which were filled in during the late 19th and 20th centuries. Within the castle walls, you will find three trees, which actually survived the atomic bomb. One is a eucalyptus, the other a willow and the third one is a holly. In addition, there is a concrete bunker from which the first radio transmission was broadcast following the detonation of the atomic bomb.

Situated next to the castle is the Gokogu Shrine. During the second week of January, the Tondo Matsuri where the previous year’s amulets are burned takes place here.

In October, the annual Hiroshima International Food Festival is held around the castle moat. The huge two day festival is a food lover’s paradise and showcases local food and beverages from all twenty-three cities and towns across the prefecture. Admission is free and visitors only pay for the food they consume.

The castle is merely a 15 minute walk from the Peace Park and worth visiting if you are in the area.

Web page: http://visithiroshima.net/things_to_do/attractions/historical_places/hiroshima_castle.html

Address: 21-1 Moto-machi Naka-ku Hiroshima City

Japan: Tokyo (Meiji Shrine/ 明治神宮)

Tokyo is a city full of many wonders but perhaps the most mystifying is the Meiji Jingu (Meiji Shrine), situated within a forest covering 170 acres right in the middle of a concrete urban jungle. This evergreen forest consists of 120,000 trees of 365 different species, all donated by people from various parts of Japan when the shrine was first established.

Meiji Jingu is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji, the 122nd Emperor of Japan, and his wife, Empress Shoken (born Masako Ichijo). The Emperor reigned from February 3, 1867 until his death on July 30, 1912. When the Emperor passed away in 1912, the Japanese Diet passed a resolution to commemorate his role in the Meiji Restoration. It was decided that a shrine would be built in his honor and an iris garden in Tokyo, which the Emperor and Empress used to visit, was chosen as the building’s location.

Construction of the shrine began in 1915 and it was completed in 1921. The shrine grounds were officially finished in 1926. Unfortunately, the original building was destroyed during the air raids of World War II and the current building was completed in 1958 through a public fund raising effort.

The shrine grounds are made up of two areas: Naien and Gaien. The Naien area comprises the inner precinct/garden and includes the shrine buildings and the Meiji Jingu Homotsuden (Treasure House), which houses articles belonging to the Emperor and Empress. The Gaien area is made up of the outer precinct/garden and includes the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery, which houses a collection of 80 large murals illustrating the various events taking place in the Emperor’s and Empress’ lives. The Meiji Memorial Hall and a variety of sports facilities including the National Stadium can also be found within the Gaien.

The Meiji Shrine is a popular shrine, which has hosted numerous foreign leaders like President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It is the location for countless Shinto weddings and provides a place for rest and relaxation for many Tokyoites. During the New Year, the shrine welcomes more than three million visitors who come to offer the year’s first prayers (hatsumode).

The shrine is easily accessible via the JR Yamanote Line, exit Harajuku Station. It is also adjacent to the popular Yoyogi Park making it easy to string together a visit to several places during your visit without feeling rushed.

 

 

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Web page:       http://www.meijijingu.or.jp/english/

Address:          1-1, Kamizono-chō, Yoyogi, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 151-0053

 

Japan: Nagasaki/ Goto Islands

Nagasaki, Japan was heavily impacted by Portuguese and other European cultures during the 16th century through the 19th century and there are numerous churches and Christian sites today, which attest to this influence. But during the Sakoku period (1633-1853) Japan was closed off to foreigners and the teaching of the European Catholic religion was officially prohibited. Still, the Japanese Catholic Church had many followers (it is estimated that there were 30,000 converts throughout Japan) known as kakure Kirishitan (hidden Christian), who fled south to escape persecution, eventually ending up at Goto Islands, where they continued to practice their faith in secret.

Goto Islands (translated means five islands) really consists of 140 islands off the western coast of Kyushu. The island chain spans 60 miles and the total land area covers 266 square miles, however, only one third of the lands are actually inhabited. The five main islands of the chain include: Fukue, Hisaka, Naru, Wakamatsu and Nakadori islands. The Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs has submitted churches at these locations for consideration as UNESCO World Heritage sites and they have been included on a tentative list.

The largest of the chain of islands is Fukue. It is merely a 3-hour ferry ride from Nagasaki. Here you will find the Dozaki Church, a beautiful red brick building constructed in 1908, which served as the base for the revival of the Christian religion. It functioned as a mini-Vatican and symbolizes Goto Catholicism. There are 50 churches scattered throughout the islands, each imparting a sense of the area’s long history.

Nakadori enjoyed a period of prosperity during the 13th century when trade with China flourished. Another period of prosperity followed with the whaling boom, which has long since ended. Today, it is a quiet place with camellias blooming everywhere. The camellia oil produced here used to be an important local product but now it serves primarily as a tourist omiyage (souvenir). The Tsuwazaki lookout point is quite scenic and includes the Tsuwazaki Lighthouse.

Hisaka was once the site of a prison where Christians had been incarcerated. After the Meiji Restoration, many Christians who were hiding their faith decided to declare it publically and were imprisoned. They were released once word of the imprisonment spread overseas raising a public outcry. Today, a chapel stands at the site of the former prison, serving as a monument to this period in history.

On Wakamatsu, you will find what is known as the eye of a needle, a cave-like crevice so called because whichever way you look through it, you can see a sliver of sky on the other side. This was once a hiding spot where Christians congregated when they heard about coming raids. They were eventually caught when a local fisherman saw the smoke from their lunchtime fires and reported them to the local government. Today, a statue of the Virgin Mary stands next to the opening of the crevice and serves as a memorial to their ordeal.

Aside from their attachment to Christianity, Goto Islands are a mecca for marine sports and fishing. Since 2001, the islands have sponsored the Goto Nagasaki International Triathlon, a World Championship Qualifier event.

So whether you seek to immerse yourself in the history or simply want a quiet getaway where you can relax on the sandy beaches off the east China Sea, Goto Islands are a must see.

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Goto Udon, a local dish

Goto Udon, a local dish

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JAPAN: Kochi (Katsurahama Beach/ Sakamoto Ryoma Memorial Museum/ Kochi Castle)

On the southern coast of Shikoku lies the capital city of Kochi. Small and friendly, the city was voted one of Japan’s most livable cities and offers several attractions worth visiting. Kochi is the home town of Sakamoto Ryoma (1836-1867), an important historical figure who played a key role in the realization of the Meiji Restoration. The Sakamoto Ryoma Memorial Museum located atop a hill on Katsurahama Beach showcases the life and times of this Japanese hero. You will also find a large statue of Ryoma on the beach itself overlooking a very scenic area.

Katsurahama is a very picturesque beach located just south of city center. Due to strong currents, swimming is not permitted on this beach, but visitors do not mind as there are so many points of interest in and around the area. On a rocky point just above the beach you will find the small Katsurahama Shrine. This vantage point offers an excellent spot for viewing some of the most beautiful sunsets Japan has to offer.

The Sakamoto Ryoma Memorial Museum is interestingly housed in a very modern building. It has several fascinating exhibits including his pistol and swords, written documents, a letter written by him just two days prior to his assassination and several blood-splattered screens and scrolls from the soy sauce shop he was staying in at the time of his murder.

Sakamoto Ryoma was born in Kochi in 1835 and was one of the architects of modern Japan. He was instrumental in negotiating an alliance between the Choshu and Satsuma clans that helped to bring an end to Japan’s feudal age in 1868. He left Kochi at the age of 28 and worked tirelessly all over Japan to reform the national political and economic system. He formulated an “Eight-Point Program” for the modernization of Japan, a political guideline for the new government and cabinet. Unfortunately, in November 1867, Ryoma was assassinated in Kyoto by the Shinsengumi secret police at the age of 33. He had lived to see only a month of the drastic change Japan was undergoing. The Meiji Restoration was near at hand, but he never saw the modern Japan he had struggled so hard to build.

The museum, located at 830 Urado-shiroyama, Kochi City, is open year round from 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM. Admission is ¥500 for adults and students (excluding university students) are admitted for free.

Kochi Castle is perhaps the town’s biggest attraction and completely original. First constructed between 1601 and 1611 by Yamauchi Katsutoyo, the castle burnt down in 1727 and was rebuilt between 1729 and 1753. A unique feature of Kochi’s castle is that its donjon (main tower) was not only used for military purposes, but also as a residence. In most other castles, the lords usually resided in separate palace buildings rather than in the castle keep.

In an effort to help preserve the original state of the eight traditional tatami rooms, you will be required to take off your shoes before entering the palace. However, if you have been in Japan long enough, you will find this is a common practice and won’t mind it as much. Visitors can only view the rooms from a walkway along the perimeter and consequently the castle tour will be fairly quick. After touring the castle you may want to make your way to the large grassy area ideal for picnics and springtime cherry blossom viewing. The castle grounds are part of a public park, where local music events and festivals are held and you may get lucky enough to visit the castle during one of these times and enjoy the offerings.

South of the castle on Kenchomae-dori near the banks of the Kagami River you will find the carefully preserved samurai barracks of the castle guards, known as the Kyu-Yamauchi-ke Shimo-Yashiki-Nagaya. You can tour these barracks free of charge.

Kochi is known for its local tuna fish and healthy vegetables grown in the surrounding countryside. There are many covered arcades such as Ohashi-dori and Obiyamachi where you can find a number of good restaurants, bars and izakaya serving dishes made with these local ingredients.

The city is easily accessible via the JR express trains to the JR Kochi Station from Takamatsu (2 hours, 30 minutes) and Matsuyama with a change at Uwajima. There are also highway buses available from Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Okayama, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Kobe, Matsuyama, Tokushima and Kyoto.

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Sakamoto Ryoma Memorial Museum Web page: http://www.ryoma-kinenkan.jp/en/

Japan: Shimane (Matsue Castle)

Constructed in 1611, Matsue Castle is one of twelve original castles remaining in Japan and it is the main attraction of Matsue City in Shimane Prefecture. What is meant by original is that the castle has not been destroyed by fire, war or other causes and is completely original in its wooden form. A majority of castles in Japan today are concrete reconstructions of the originals.

The castle was abandoned in 1871 and all the buildings with the exception of the main keep were torn down, as were many other castles in Japan during the Meiji restoration. Fortunately, the castle underwent reconstruction and repair work in the 1950s and further restorations were completed in 2001, bringing it to its present form today.

The castle’s black painted wood walls give it an ominous look and although the keep is five-storied, it actually conceals a sixth floor. Several defensive features such as small windows and hidden openings from which stones could be dropped were incorporated into the castle’s design. However, the castle never faced an attack which probably accounts for its condition.

Within the castle there are displays of arms and armor, a pictorial display of the castle’s history, photos of all the castles throughout Japan and miniature replicas of the layout of Matsue, chronicling the changes over time. The original shachi (mythical dolphins) from the castle’s roof are also on display within the castle. It was believed that the shachi protected a castle from fire and were common in castle construction and design. From the top floor there are beautiful views of the city and surrounding area including Lake Shinji, Japan’s seventh largest lake.

Visitors to the castle can enjoy a pleasure boat trip around the extensive castle moat. The moat is part of Jozan Koen (park), which now houses the Matsue Historical Museum. The former home of Lafcadio Hearn and the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum, along with some samurai residences dating to the Edo period are located just north of the castle moat.

A short distance from the castle you will find the Gessho Temple. Here, the graves of all nine Matsudaira lords (the rulers of the castle) are located and worth visiting.

The castle is merely 30 minutes on foot from the JR Matsue Station. International tourists who show their passport will receive a 50% discount on the entrance fee.

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Web page: http://www.city.matsue.shimane.jp/kankou/jp/e/castle.htm