Saturday, April 28, 2007

Hozugawa-kudari, "Shooting the Rapids in Kyoto"

The Hozu River is the designation for the upstream section of the Katsura River, between the Hozu Bridge in Kameoka City and the Togetsu Bridge in Arashiyama. The river originates in the Tanba mountains and finally, south of Kyoto, flows into the Yodo River. It changes name three times, because the upper reaches above Kameoka are called Oi River. Kameoka, a city of 85,000 in the basin NW of Kyoto, used to be a commercial center and a post town. In the 16th c. it was ruled by Akechi Mitsuhide, the warlord who eventually killed Nobunaga.

[Two of the three boatmen of the Hozugawa-kudari trip]

The Hozu River is about 16 kilometers long and snakes its way through the highland between Mt Atago and Oinosaka, at an elevation of 400 meters. It has carved out a deep gorge with sharp V-curves, strange rocks and fantastic cliffs. Although it was already used for the transport of goods to the capital in the Heian period, concentrated shipping only became possible in 1606, after engineering work under the direction of Suminokura Ryoi.

[Shooting into the canyon]

Swift, flat-bottomed wooden boats would transport rice, vegetables and firewood from the regions north of Kyoto to the capital. The boats were brought back by towing them, a laborious process taking five hours. Some parts of the tow path laid out by Suminokura are still visible, as are the rearrangements of rocks to make the river passable. One huge rock was even split apart by heating it and then pouring water on it.

[On the riverbank are still parts of the old tow path
for pulling the boats back to Kameoka]

The transport boats lost their job when the railroad between Kyoto and Kameoka was built around 1900, but about fifteen years later they had transformed themselves into a flourishing tourist industry - which today is going stronger than ever. "Shooting the rapids," the Hozugawa-kudari as it is called in Japanese, takes between 75 and 120 minutes, depending on the force of the stream and the season.

[Steering the boat]

The flat-bottomed boats are operated by three people, two with a long bamboo pole in the front and back to push off against the rocks, a third one to row when the stream is not forceful enough to carry the boat along. The ride is beautiful for its scenery, especially in sunny weather, from springtime with cherry blossoms along the banks, through autumn with its red maple leaves. For an extra thrill, the boatmen steer the small craft on purpose at a short distance of the sharp rocks, but the only real danger are falling stones and the splashing waves.

[Gliding through the fresh green of late April]

As usually in such situations, the human imagination has worked its Rorschach fantasy on the rocks along the way, and so we have frog and lion rocks, a mirror rock and a screen rock. You will also see the Lord's Fishing Spot, where Akechi Mitsuhide used to angle. In one spot stripes on the rocks are pointed out as being the traces of the tow ropes. In other places, where the boats are regularly pushed off with the bamboo sticks, indents are visible in the rocks, and it is the pride of the "pusher" to hit the exact spot. There are several bridges over the river, for the present railroad to Kameoka and beyond, and for a touristic train ride (Torokko Resha) with open cars that runs between Sagano and Kameoka over the old railroad.

[The Torokko open train and carp streamers]

Suminokura Ryoi (1554-1614) was a wealthy merchant from Kyoto. In the 1590s Hideyoshi granted him a license for overseas trade with what is now Vietnam. This endeavor brought in huge profits for Suminokura and his son Soan - until the Tokugawas closed the country in 1635. Suminokura Ryoi used his fortune to open various rivers around Kyoto for commercial navigation (and new profits), the most important ones being the present Hozu River and the Takasegawa Canal he had dug along the Kamo River (which was too erratic in its water levels to use for regular transport services) south to the Yodo River.

[Statue of Suminokura Ryoi in Kameyama Park]

A statue of Suminokura stands in the Kameyama Park along the Hozu River. It is in a rather heavy, almost Socialist-Realist style - as a Chinese "hero of the people." On the opposite bank stands the Daihikaku temple, built by Suminokura Ryoi as a monument to the workers who lost their lives during the sometimes dangerous labor of improving the Hozu River.

[After arrival]

Address: 1 Shimonakajima, Hozu-cho, Kameoka City (Hozugawa Pleasure Boat Association)

Tel: 0771-22-5846

Hours: 9:00-15.30 (Mon-Fri), indeterminate (Sat, Sun, NH); from Dec. 1 to March 9 only 10:00-14.30. CL Dec 29-Jan 4. Check in advance to reserve and see if there are no cancellations.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Sakura in Kyoto (Nishiyama)

Although late in the season, this weekend my wife and I visited the "Saigyo sakura" in what is called the "Cherry blossom Temple," Shojiji, in the hills west of Muko City.

[Bell tower and Saigyo sakura (already without blossoms) in Shojiji]

Officially, there is only one "Saigyo sakura" - a tree planted by the medieval priest and poet Saigyo after he shaved his head to become a priest here in Shojiji. It is a third-generation tree, it is said, but it was already covered in fresh green leaves. Fortunately, around it there were still some other trees in bloom, and the best ones were the magnificent shidare-zakura at the back of the temple. These were just in full bloom!

[Shidare-zakura in Shojiji]

Besides the cherry trees, the temple also has a great collection of Buddhist statues, beautiful in all seasons: a Kamakura-period Yakushi statue not only carrying the usual medicine pot in his right hand (he is after all the Buddha of Healing), but with his other hand making a gesture as if to take some pills from that pot! The temple also has a full set of the Yakushi's attendants, the Bodhisattva's Nikko and Gekko (symbolizing the Sun and the Moon) and the Twelve Generals in comical poses. Saigyo was also present, in a Kamakura-period statue showing him as a lean and ascetic priest. All these statues stand in the temple's Treasure House, to which also the Rikishi deities from the temple gate have been moved for protection.

[Old sakura tree in front of Shojiji's gate]

After Shojiji, we decided to visit nearby Shoboji, a temple new to us, and to our surprise, here, too, the cherry trees were in full bloom...

The Main Hall of this little known and quiet Shingon temple featured some interesting statues, such as the main image on the altar, a Thousand-armed Kannon with three faces - besides the central countenance, two extra faces look over the Kannon's shoulders in an original configuration. This statue is from the early Kamakura period. From the temple's founding (in the late Nara period, by a disciple of the Chinese priest Ganjin) dates a large Yakushi statue. Finally, I also encountered an interesting "running Daikoku" image.

[Modern guardian statue under blossom canopy in Shoboji]

The garden of Shoboji is modern and characterized by the various large rocks which are meant to represent all kinds of animals. Such almost childish figurative thinking is far from traditional garden art, but happily you can see the rocks as just abstract elements - the resemblances with elephants and tigers are rather forced, anyway.

[Blossoming sakura tree and shakkei garden, Shoboji]

What makes the garden interesting is the shakkei, the "borrowed scenery" of the far-away Eastern Hills (Higashiyama - we are to the south here, so you can mainly see the low hills on which the Fushimi Inari Shrine stands) and, on the horizon, the imposing mountains that form the border between Kyoto and Shiga. On one of these stands the great Daigoji Temple.

It was masterful of the garden designer to plant just one slender cherry tree right in the middle of this scenery, as a foreground to the borrowed landscape. The rocks then form a sort of intermediaries that lift the eyes above the low garden wall towards the distant mountain scenery. Both Shojiji and Shoboji were very quiet, making this the ideal place to enjoy cherry blossoms.
Access: From JR Mukomachi or Hankyu Higashi-Muko Station, take a bus to Minami-Kasugamachi and then walk 15 min. Or take a bus to Rakusai-Kokomae and walk 20 min. There is about one bus per hour.

Note: Shojiji is also known for its maple leaves. In the immediate vicinity are two more places of interest, Gantokuji (Hobodaiin) which displays a national treasure Bodhisattva image of almost sensual beauty, and Oharano Jinja, a shrine set up as a local branch of the Kasuga Shrine in Nara, when the capital was transferred to Nagaokakyo in the late 8th c.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The grave of Tanizaki Junichiro (Honenin Temple, Kyoto)

Kyoto's secluded temple graveyards harbor the ashes of many famous artists and authors. Years ago, I heard that the grave of Tanizaki Junichiro (1886-1965) could be found in the old graveyard of Honenin Temple, but a cursory visit rendered no results, there were no written indications. During my visit to Honenin last week, to see the halls that are generally not open to the public, I received a small map of the graveyard at the reception desk, and thanks to this map finding Tanizaki's grave was a breeze.

[Gate of Honenin Temple, Kyoto]

Tanizaki had started his writing career with sensual short stories as Shisei (The Tattooer) in which a tattoo artist inscribes a giant, evil spider on the back of a beautiful woman - this gives her a demonic power of which the artist becomes the first victim, something he masochistically accepts. Other novels, as Naomi, reflect the rapid modernization of Japanese society in the tale of a dandy who tries to groom a cafe girl with English and music lessons and in his obsession puts up with all her whims and even infidelities.

[Stone pagoda in the center of Honenin's graveyard]

Tanizaki moved from the Kanto to the Kansai after the great earthquake of 1923. After relocating to Western Japan, his dandyism and fascination with the West were replaced with a renewed appreciation of classical Japanese culture, as is evidenced by In Praise of Shadows. He first lived in (still rather Western) Ashiya, where he wrote masterworks as Arrowroot, The Reed Cutter and A Portrait of Shunkin - all stories of men who find happiness in absolute devotion to haughty or unapproachable women. He also started on what would become his most famous novel, The Makioka Sisters, a realistic tale about the decline of a proud Kansai family, which he completed five years later after moving to Kyoto in 1948. And, not to forget, at this time he also wrote one the most beautiful cat stories ever written, A Cat, A Man and Two Women, about a man torn between his wife and his ex-wife, but who prefers his cat Lily to both.

[The graveyard of Honenin temple]

Tanizaki had of course often visited Kyoto even when he lived in the Kanto and he was already familiar with the Philosopher's Path. In Kyoto, Tanizaki lived in three places: first in Teramachi Imadegawa Agaru, then in Nanzenji Shimokawara, and finally in Shimogawa Izumigawacho. The Shimogamo of his last Kyoto address returns in the beautiful novella The Bridge of Dreams - but Tanizaki wrote it three years after he had already exchanged the cold Kyoto winters for the warmer climes of Atami. He had lived in total between seven and eight years in the old capital - from 1948 to 1956.

[Grave of Tanizaki Junichiro in Honenin Temple]

Tanizaki's grave is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. It is situated on a high ridge, at the eastern backline of the graveyard, close to the forest. A simple natural stone - not a typical gravestone, but one used for poem inscriptions as kuhi - with the inscription (by Tanizaki himself) of just one character: Jaku, or 'Tranquility.' There is one more stone with the character Ie, 'Family,' also in the hand of Tanizaki. The low stones lie under a small cherrytree and just at the time of my visit that was in full bloom. The shidare-zakura was planted by Tanizaki himself.

[Grave of Tanizaki Junichiro in Honenin Temple]

Access: 10-min. walk from Ginkakuji-mae bus stop (bus 5 from Kyoto St). Grounds free. The graveyard is on your right, before entering the thatched temple gate. Tanizaki's grave lies on the high ridge at the back, next to that of nihonga painter Fukuda Heihachiro.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Sakura in Kyoto (Arashiyama)

I had some doubts about Arashiyama as a hanami spot because I feared a terrible mass of people. In fact, it was not bad at all - masses do come to Arashiyama, about every weekend in season, but they tend to converge on a small area, the Togetsukyo Bridge and the street that runs in front of Tenryuji. Arashiyama and Sagano are so large and that even a large mass of people is spread thin here and few visit the more outlying temples. On top of that, not everyone has the energy to climb to the viewing platforms high up in Kameyama Park, which afford a great view of the Hozu River Gorge and the mountains clad in pinks and young greens.

[Mt Arashiyama decked out in clouds of sakura]

And the sakura were just great - especially on the mountain slopes, where they hung as clouds of pink brocade. Apparently, the trees were planted here at the order of the 9th c. Emperor Saga, who had them brought from the sacred groves in Yoshino.

[Clouds of sakura in the gorge]

Arashiyama (or Ranzan in Chinese-style reading, as found in the names of hotels and restaurants) means "Storm Mountain" so at first sight it would not seem one of the most scenic spots in Kyoto, but that is only the name of the 381 m. tall mountain that rises up steeply on the right bank of the Hozu River here. The beauty is in the valley with its steep wooded cliffs, the river with the flat-bottomed boats that carry tourists via the gorge from Kameoka, the old-fashioned Togetsukyo bridge that spans it, the temples and their gardens, and the quiet countryside behind it all.

[Boat on the Hozu River near Arashiyama]

It was already a favorite spot among the Heian nobility, and many poets and writers came here for inspiration, not in the last place Basho who stayed in the Rakushisha of his disciple Kyorai. It was not only famous for sakura, but also momiji, autumn leaves. Arashiyama also figures in classical literature, from the Tale of Genji to the Essays of Idleness.

[The Togetsu Bridge ("Bridge to Ford to the Moon") has been here since Heian times. The pagoda on the opposite bank belongs to Horinji]

The temples are Horinji and Daihikaku on the west bank, and Tenryuji and Rinsenji on the east one. Tenryuji, of course, has one of the best classical landscape gardens in Kyoto, which borrows the scenery of Arashiyama.

[Once more the gorge seen from Kameyama Park. The temple hall high up on the bank to the left belongs to Daihikaku Temple]

In fact, Arashiyama is beautiful in all seasons, even in winter when light snow decks the hills and the trees stand bare and brooding. Summer finds it deeply green in light rain, the summits veiled in mist. There are also several festivals. The third Sunday in May the Mifune Matsuri is held here, when decorated boats with people dressed as Heian courtiers will drift down the stream. The second Sunday in November sees another boat procession for the Momiji Matsuri.
As buses tend to get stuck in the traffic jams - especially in weekends - the fastest approach to Arashiyama is by one of the three train lines that serve it: the JR Sagano line to Saga-Arashiyama St (20 min from Kyoto St), the Keifuku-Arashiyama line from Shijo-Omiya St, or - convenient if you come from Osaka or Kobe - the Hankyu-Arashiyama line which branches off from the main Hankyu line in Katsura St.