Review: Natsumi temple ruins, Nabari park

夏見

One of the ‘key sites’ in Nabari is the heavily advertised Natsumi temple ruins but what is it all about?

This review will just look at the temple grounds (or what remains of them) not the museum that accompanies it (mostly because it was closed when I visited).

Firstly the site, it is a beautiful site with a brilliant view of wider Nabari, which is in full autumn mode. However, there is something sad about seeing the remains of a much larger, and historically important site. The site was excavated in 平成2年 or 1990.

A popular excavation method in Japan (after the archaeological dig is over) is to place a marble block at the point where the foundation lay. The idea is to allow you to form a visual of what once was. But, it never quite seems to work- you get an idea of the scale of the site but none of the majesty or enormity of what once was.

There is some information about the temple dotted around the ruins, but this information is slightly unnecessary- the information just highlights the size of the construction- giving the dimensions of the temple. There was only 1 sign on its’ history- there may have been more within the museum but that is yet to come.

The site dates back to 894 CE (or AD) and the main temple was a 3 story pagoda that lay within Iga Province and it was famous as a center for learning and for health.

Iga Province or 伊賀国 an exceptionally old style of dividing Japan which was first referenced after 680 CE (天武天皇9年) and was Incorporated in and became Mie-prefecture in Meiji 5 (明治5年 or 1872).

The site is much smaller that it once was and the world has changed around it- but people seem reluctant to allow it to pass into the pages a history without showing the importance of what once was. While slightly harsh, as what remains is extremely scenic, and while it was an extremely important temple which was commissioned but the emperor at the time, none of its majesty remains- it is not even a shell but perhaps a shadow of it once was.

I hope that the museum will tell more of its’ historical significance and give more of a reason why it was resserected but for now my review is as follows:

It’s a nice (quick) walk and it is interesting to see how the Japanese preserve their ruins and archaeological sites but if you are not interested in these things or are looking for a longer walk, I (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) recommend looking and exploring elsewhere. Will I go back? Yes, (I do exercise in the mornings after-all and its’s a nice site) but I cannot recommend it as an attraction.

Thank you for reading and happy exploring.

How2: prefectures in Japan

HOW2: 都道府県 or Prefectures in Japan

When speaking English, prefectures are vastly simplified. Nara is simply Nara Prefecture, Kyoto is Kyoto prefecture, Hokkaido is Hokkaido prefecture etc. However life for the Japanese is not so simple.

In regards to prefectures, there is a lovely phrase 都道府県 (と・どう・ふ・けん or to/dou/fu/ken) which are the administrative divisions of Japan. To break it down further:

  • only 1 都 : 東京都 Tokyo
  • only 1 道 : 北海道 Hokkaido
  • only 2 府 :大阪府と京都府 Osaka and Kyoto
  • 43 県 i.e. every other prefecture in Japan.

For non-Japanese speakers the difference is almost unimportant. The difference in suffix represents the power each area had prior to WW2. Each kanji actually has quite an interesting history as to why they were chosen.

Modern use can simple be summarized:

  • 道 was initially used to represent a territory which Japan had conquered. The use of 道 is technically redundant as it simply means prefecture in modern use. One difference is that 北海道 is also a Chiho (地方) one of 8 regions of Japan and the Hokkaido prefecture government refer to themselves as the “Hokkaido Government”.
  • 都 which is used to represent the capital city- or the place where the imperial palace is. This use is quite modern. It was changed from 府 to 都 in 1943 to represent the power changes in the region.
  • 府 are metropolitan areas that previously held more power than they do today. Today’s meaning simply means prefecture, but the history of the kanji is important to residents in Osaka and Kyoto
  • 県 meaning prefecture technically comes from the classification of land areas which was started by the Portuguese when they arrived in Japan. Japan adapted this practice and the prefecture system was born.

I hope you found this interesting. Thank you for reading and happy exploring.

Matsusaka: the beginning

Matsusaka City- 松阪市

It occurred to me that I have spent a lot of time looking into the Iga and Nabari areas and I have seemingly ignored the rest of the Mie. So I decided to explore somewhere I have passed while changing trains but never looked around and I got to say I’ll be back. But on with the review.

I arrived at Matsusaka train station on the Kintetsu line and I headed out of the JR exit and headed out into the wide world. My first point of call was 継松寺 or Keisho-ji temple.

When entering the grounds of Keisho-ji, it as if you have entered another world. The temple is well maintained, with a candle burning in the middle to allow people to buy incense and offer prayers for the dead, but there was no-one there. I was alone while visiting this large, historic center with the world passing all around me.

I ascended the wooden staircase to make an offering and pray and the temple is fantastic.

The rope hangs down attached to a gong to allow the gods to know you are there. But for visitors, there is so much old art, shrines, artifacts to look at that will grab you and make you appreciate them.

The best thing about this temple was its’ construction. So many temples in Japan feature concert staircases or use more modern building techniques but the main temple rejoices in old-world construction techniques. The other building are what you usually see- a mix on traditional and modern architecture.

The next stop on my journey was Matsusaka visitors center- which surprisingly a good stopping point. The staff do have some limited English but if you can (like always) please speak to them in Japanese. The center functions as the Matsusaka museum and information center which has an entire floor dedicated to the history and importance of Matsusaka- which is extremely interesting and worth the price of entry (it’s free). There is also a film about key events and people from it’s history and, more importantly, it has subtitles in English and Japanese and is worth a watch.

The gift shop offers 名物 or famous products from Matsusaka which ranges from flavored green teas (I may have bought a few), traditional お土産 or souvenirs which are usually a sweat treat for people to enjoy, and of course they have 松阪牛肉 or Matsusaka beef- of of the 3 greats of Japanese beef.

Surprisingly, the beef theme continued at the museum of history and folklore. The museum, which I was going to visit on my next trip was only 80 (that’s eighty- 8 0) JPY- it was a price I could not resist and indeed I did not. The current special exhibition is on Matsusaka beef and the museum features this quite heavily.

First note, the price- it’s exceptionally cheap which is brilliant. But there was a downside, the special exbition took center stage. The museum can be split into two parts: general history and the exhibition. Put it this way: I learnt more about the history of Matsusaka from the brochure with the ticket than I did at the museum. General history and information on the city is almost overlooked. The musum is keen to highlight the famous products that are prodiced here- rather than the history and culture surrounding it.

I did learn that the city had a thriving cotton trade and is one of the green tea centers of Japan along with its’ beef. I do recommend checking it out, but please wait until the next exhibition. It’ll make it a more enjoyable visit.

Now the main reason for my trip the castle. Matsusaka castle (ruins) is one of the 100 famous castles and the second one located in Mie-prefecture. To see the first check out: Iga castle.

I will not go into the history of Matsusaka castle (your safe for now) instead please enjoy the following photos:

After seeing the ruins of the castle [built in Tensho (天正)16年 or 1588 and originally consisted of the 本丸 (castle walls), 天守 (inner keep), 二の丸 (outer citadel ) and 石垣 (stone walls)] I continued onward to the former Ozu residence which for non-Japanese speakers is just a portal back to Japanese life during the Edo period (江戸時代). Interestingly enough, the Japanese just states “built after 1700”, which is extremely descriptive.

THe building is over 1000 meters squared, and has many different rooms of many functions along with small gardens dotted around- which is typical of Edo construction (for the wealthy of that time at least). It was an interesting side-note to my first official tour of Matsusaka and for 160 JPY it is worth the price. But if you are not interested in Japanese history, please don’t waste your time.

There was also a leaflet in “American” as they called it. I was not amused. The last thing of note I saw (which was closed but did make me chuckle) was a cafe called “Merry England”- which offer conversation in English as a selling point.

That was my first quick trip to Matsusaka, the next will be a 集印の観光旅行 or a shrine stamp tour of Matsusaka.

Thank you for reading and happy exploring.


The overview:

  • Keishou-ji temple

    Price: free

  • Matsusaka Visitors Centre

    Price: free entry. Be aware of the gift shop (I spent a lot)

  • Matsusaka Museum of History and folklore

    Price: 80 JPY

  • Matsusaka Castle ruins

    Price: free

  • Former Ozu Residence

    price: 160 JPY

Iga, the ninja journey

A journey around the heart of Iga

City hall with that sign….

As I live in the area, some of the nuances that tourists seem to love are a bit lost on me. Nevertheless, I was a tourist but 5 years ago when I visited the city as a foreign exchange student. But, new age I hope comes experience and today, we’ll look at my journey through Iga city.

Firstly, here’s a bit of cute- which was advertisement for the ninja costumes you can rent while touring the ninja city (mostly popular with young children and families).

Who’s a cute dog?

Upon exit from the Ninja train station I was greeted with this cute sight- which doesn’t happen when commuting to work. These 3 are adorable and even the taxi driver (there is a taxi rank located behind me) got out and took a picture.

But onward I went, until I came to the main reason for my visit: the NINJA experience. Firstly, the downside: when I last came I only took part in the Ninja experience and museum and this is exactly the same: from the actions taken to the displays. However, this does not mean that it is not worth doing.

Firstly price: to visit Iga castle, take part in the Ninja experience and visit the lantern hall (called the だんじり会館) it is 1750 JPY- which is the combined ticket price. Buying this is easier and it does save a bit of money. But, If you only want to visit 1 or 2 of the sites, pay for a single entry- it is cheaper. Firstly, we’ll look at Iga castle.

伊賀上野城 or Iga castle has been present on the site in some form since it was built. The castle dates back to 1585 or 天正15年 when the ruling family started to build it. The site once held smaller building surrounding the castle and it was once a hive of activity.

Just north-west of the castle is the ruins of the castle hall- which served as the living spaces for the castle helpers, the attendants and everything else which the main castle would have needed including housing the kitchen area, the tax office, and other offices a head of state needs to have.

All that remains of the heart of the operation

The site of the castle office, now seems to be ignored by locals and tourists alike as just a part space. The boarders you can see marked out show where each room once stood and markers name the rooms both in English and Japanese. but still people walk on past.

In 1611 or 慶長16年 building work gor underway around the castle and 30 m 本丸 or walls were erected- which was and still is the tallest of any castle in Japan, making Iga castle one of the “100 most famous castles in Japan”, one of the reasons for a high volume of Japanese visitors.

A lovely look at the 本丸 and the wider Iga area.

The castle was once a central part of nationwide defense as there was a high risk of rebellions due to the climate at the time and after the erection of the increased defenses in 1611, on the 2nd of September 1612, the Tenshu (天守 or castle tower was destroyed in high winds. The decision to not rebuild the castle was made in 1615 at the start of Genwa 天和元年.

Fast forward to 1935, 320 years later, Katsu Kawasaki (川崎克) started restoration/ rebuilding the castle out the tensho was created out of wood- which is what can be seen today.

The castle is also known as “white phoenix” castle.

The castle is a fantastic thing to explore but it is NOT accessibility friendly. There are no lifts at all and all stair cases are extremely steep, but it is worth it. The castle has almost become a community center, showing the history and culture of Iga and of the Iga district. In addition to this, the castle hosts many artifacts from the castle era, showcasing the strange articles of war, war time documents and art and poetry created by the castles inhabitants.

There are many things I could point I which I liove when I visit but I will do but 2. Firstly, on the top floor, there are 46 individually created from many different people. Secondly, the view of Iga- take a look for yourself:

You can actually see Nara-prefecture from here.

The next stop was the ninja experience, and I got to say it was a bit of fun. Admittidaly I did end up speaking to a Japanese professor and we did have a bit of a laugh, mostly at my height and being in a tradational Japanese house. Nevertheless the tour. There are 2 types of tour on offer: with or without the ninja weapons exbition- I went for without (but I went with previously).

A ninja’s house

The attendant who guided the group around, explained that the roof was so steep by design- it made it harder for enemy ninjas to enter the property. Which bring us nicely to the first point- the fist part of this is a group guided experience and it is wheelchair friendly.

Upon entry, you must take off your shoes (it is Japan), you are guided into the living room where some ninja tricks are performed- along with the explanation of how and why. There are tours in English, but there are a lot more in Japanese.

The guildes explain quite a bit about the way of the ninja and what precaustions they took to ensure everything remained safe while ensuring that everything was done to amaze and amuse.

Following this, the tour leads onto the museum where exhibits are presented in English and Japanese which show ninja artifacts and tell you how many things were done. As this tour is designed for children and adults in 2 different languages, the explanations given are more of an overview but helpful never the less.

There is just one artifact that I will talk about in more detail: the 4 sided shrunken. What I will say is that there is no problem with the Japanese side- there is a problem with western cultural knowledge. This shuriken is known as a Manji-shriken and is written with the kanji: 卍手裏剣, see the problem. To make matters worse, the translation of 卍 or まんじ is swastika which really does evoke any positive feelings to a European’s ear.

Finally, there was but more more building which housed further information and a gift shop with some brilliant books about the history of ninja and plenty of general ninja merch including T-shirts, rubber kunai, pens, etc.

The last stop was the lantern hall- argubuly the least impressive of the 3, especially for any non-Japanese speaker. However it is from here were ninja costumes may be rented for your grand tour of Iga.

This hall houses the large lantern floats used in various festivals happening in Iga (all of which I have missed or am unable to attend….). Each display has been painstakingly created to best highlight it’s beauty and artistic style. All explanations are given in Japanese and while it can be enjoyed without, it does make the experience longer.

Upon entry, you are told that there is a 12 minute starting at the start of the hour on the second floor and to be honest, even with this, you are only going to be here for about 30 minutes to an hour.

The floats of lanterns used in festivals

At the end, there is a large gift shop with ninja anything and everything: sake, rice, chocolate, alcohol, ice cream, t-shirts etc. If you love ninja, this is not to be missed.

All in all, it was a brilliant way to spend a day. There is a lot more in Iga to explore (the main city for example) but spending a day looking more into Iga’s history was well worth itだってばよ!( BTW that was painful to write but if you don’t get that reference, do you even ninja?)

Thank you for reading and happy exploring.

Review: 芭蕉翁記念館 or Basho Memorial Museum

A extremely nice outside

While walking around Iga, I saw the Basho memorial museum and decided to visit and it was an interesting visit but I need to make my first warming:

If you are not proficient in Japanese, please do not visit.

The entire museum is in Japanese, both old and modern, and it the hall offers no help for non-Japanese speakers.

The displays did show some of Basho’s writings, along with pre-modern renga and haikai literature along with giving the modern Japanese equivalent nearby and was quite interesting. The problem was the display. Tickets cost 300 JPY and there is only on room which you can enter.

The books and small items on display were extremely good, better than they had any right to be. The concept of Basho is extremely important to Iga, as he was born in Iga. The park grounds do offer 2 more basho sites, which are a lot more interesting to look at.

Final thoughts, a good place to visit if you are good at Japanese. If you are not, consider purchasing a book or item- you will get more enjoyment out of it.

Thank you for reading and happy exploring.

Mauerfall or ベルリン壁崩壊

Today is the 30 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall and even Japan is reporting on it

Asahi-shinbun from 08/11/19

I was tempted to write this article in German, but I think that there is more of a needed for more historical Japanese terms to be available in German and English.

The article gave a full overview of the history the former DDR (Democratic republic of Germany or ドイツ民主共和国) but the article in question used the terms 旧西ドイツ – the former west Germany and 旧東ドイツ- the former east. The Kanji used ” 旧” read きょう means ex- or former.

The article gives a quick timeline of the wall (and pictured above) and gives the some lovely facts including: West Berlin being surrounded by 155 Km of wall; demonstrations happening within the DDR about the democratization of the country (民主化 or Demokratisierung) which were the Montagsdemonstrationen (or Monday demonstrations) which took place in dusk of the DDR.

The most tragic facts about the DDR were the 140 people (or thereabouts) that were killed trying to cross the wall.

The facts given within the article are what you would expect e.g. the wall was erected after WW2 and lasted for 45 years; the USA, UK and France occupied Berlin (米英仏に西側を占領された) etc.

One interesting things was the transliteration of Angela Merkel name which became Merukeru or メルケル首相. Interesting note, did you know she’s 65?!

Even though to many die deutsche wiedervereinigung (or the German reunification) is the important event (which takes place on the thrid of October), one must not forget about the importance of die Mauerfall!

I hope you enjoyed reading and happy exploring.