Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Refresh Memory pt. II

As I mentioned at the end of the last post, the last time my father-in-law woke me up was at 6:00 a.m. when he was loudly urging my son to go with him down to the onsen baths. I went back to sleep after he left and got up just a little before 7:00, whereupon I went straight down to the baths myself. Since it was morning, the men were in the smaller "Yu-no-mai-no-yu" facility, which the women use in the evening. Not only was it more compact, but it was also busier than the baths had been the night before; this time it was mainly men around my age and older, meaning no rude comments, but I got stared at a lot. Once again I aimed for the hot bath and then went outside to the rotenburo, which I had all to myself.

After breakfast (which was great though not as impressive as dinner had been), we did a last, quick round of gift shopping, checked out (and found that FIL had already paid the bill), loaded up in the BLUE RAV4, and headed for downtown Sendai. I soon saw yet again just how wonderful it can be to have a GPS navigation system; if I had stuck to the main roads I would've been tied up in a nasty traffic jam. Instead, Navi-chan guided me around through a maze of twisty, little roads, all alike (Plugh!) until we arrived at our first tourist destination of the day: Aoba Castle.

Aoba Castle, also known as Sendai Castle, is really no longer there. An important regional seat of power from the 17th to the early 19th centuries, it was also one of the centers of the samurai resistance against the restoration of imperial rule during the Boshin War. It finally surrendered to the Meiji (restored Imperial) government, which immediately had much if not most of the complex dismantled. Ironically, nearly all of those castle buildings left standing were destroyed when US bombers firebombed Sendai during World War II. Now, although many structures are in the process of being rebuilt, for the most part all that remains of Aoba Castle is a single guardhouse (which we didn't visit) plus the various foundations and earthworks, situated on a high bluff strategically overlooking the city.

Aobajo m1
Now this Shinto shrine stands on the site of what used to be the castle's inner keep. It is called Gokoku Shrine, and like the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, it is dedicated to those who have died in the service of the country.

Aobajo m2
This large, old memorial stands near the edge of the reinforced cliff overlooking the city. I'm not sure, but it may be dedicated to the Date family, the samurai clan that owned the castle till the restored Imperial government took over.

Aobajo m3
There is also a museum there. It includes relics and models plus a virtual tour of the castle using computer animation. Incidentally, the giant ornaments seen hanging in the windows are traditional decorations for Sendai's famous Tanabata Festival celebration. I think it was definitely worth a visit, although we probably wound up spending the most time in the gift shop. After we were done there, once again I had Navi-chan guide me through the winding backstreet mazes of Sendai to the local expressway, which took us to Matsushima.

Since antiquity, Matsushima has been considered one of the three most scenic places in Japan (the other two being Itsukushima in Hiroshima and Amanohashidate in Kyoto). It's a bay filled with tiny, pine-covered islets, and it is indeed very beautiful. Getting to it wasn't so easy even with (or maybe even owing to) Navi-chan; once we got off the expressway and followed the main route toward the coast, we turned off as ordered and suddenly found ourselves on extremely narrow and curvy roads, many of them steep, most of them choked with traffic. Movement was difficult. We were lucky to find a spot right away at one of the pay parking lots down by the waterfront near the main attractions, though I knew well it would probably cost a vital organ.

The first thing we headed for was the Zuiganji Temple complex. Originally constructed as a Tendai Buddhist temple back in the 9th century, it was later converted to a Zen facility of the Rinzai school. It saw several rises and falls over the ages, but it achieved its peak when it was rebuilt in 1604 under the orders of samurai/daimyo Date Masamune, the founder of Aoba Castle if not Sendai itself. The long and complex history of the temple complex has given it considerable significance as well as many notable treasures.

Zuiganji Temple 1
The entrance to the temple was certainly impressive! We made our way down the main avenue, flanked by trees planted long ago, and arrived at the inner circle to find...

Zuiganji Temple 2
...that the famous, huge main hall was being restored and closed to the public. (Interestingly, the construction company sign on the canopy says "Kashima"!) All was not lost, however. Many of the most significant artifacts (or replicas of them) had been moved to one of the other temple buildings, so we were at least able to see them...though photographs were not allowed. The museum was also open, but again I wasn't allowed to take pictures of all the cool things they had down there. Finally, we were able to go and see the recently-restored mausoleum that Date Masamune had built for his wife. It was also off-limits to cameras, which was a shame; it was small but extremely colorful...and shared a lot of design characteristics with the inner sanctum of Kashima Shrine here at home (which makes sense since Date Masamune was alive when the current Kashima Shrine buildings were built). The mausoleum was certainly a jewel with its newly-polished gold fittings and retouched paint, but some people (including my wife) think that restoring it means that it's not really an antique treasure anymore, i.e. it's a rip-off, even though it wasn't rebuilt.

However, by far the most interesting - and eeriest - feature of the Zuiganji complex was the spooky caves carved into the rock:

Zuiganji Temple 3

Zuiganji Temple 4
My FIL takes a shot of some of the caves.

Zuiganji Temple 5
They were carved in the 12th century and apparently used both for memorial services and as storage for the ashes of the dead until the 18th century or so.

Zuiganji Temple 7
There were certainly lots of them, and they were of all kinds of sizes and shapes. Once we'd had our fill of looking at them, we headed over to the waterfront to have a look at the long-famous scene.

Matsushima 4
This little temple pavilion on its own islet connected by a bright red bridge is called Godaido. The original building was constructed at the same time as the first Zuiganji, i.e. back in the 9th century, though the current one was a reconstruction commissioned by Date Masamune in 1604. It was a popular subject of paintings for centuries. Now it gets photographed a lot. The building is closed to the public, but the little islet it sits on is always open and free of charge. Naturally, we went out there.

Godaido's islet isn't far from the pier, but it still offers nice views, such as over toward Fukuura Island:

Matsushima 3

Matsushima 2
Or toward Oshima (far right), which was used as a retreat for ascetic training by Zen monks long ago. I would have liked to go there, but by the time we climbed onto Godaido's islet, the kids were squabbling again, and FIL was driving us nuts with his calls for us to assemble for group photos every two or three minutes. It was time for lunch.

After nosing around a bit on the waterfront for a place to eat that wasn't too crowded and/or preposterously expensive, we finally settled on a soba restaurant up on the third floor of one of the gift shop buildings. We were able to walk right in. The food wasn't bad at all, and the prices were reasonable, but the view of the bay was definitely the greatest asset. A bit of lunch in our bellies eased the tempers a bit, and we were calmed back down when we left to get the BLUE RAV4 and move on.

...which was probably a very good thing. The exit from the parking lot was in a really bad place, so I was pretty much forced to turn the wrong way. I called on Navi-chan to find a good place to turn around, and I couldn't see the street it told me to turn on. With the kids starting to squabble again and FIL trying to analyze and explain every street or alley he could see while attempting to direct me into brick walls, I was about ready to blow a gasket. Finally I just looked for a decent-sized street and tried to go around the block...whereupon Navi-chan directed me back to the little street it had tried to get me to use in the first place. I found to my horror that it was a 0.75-lane street that was partly blocked on one side by vans belonging to construction workers (who completely ignored my wife's request to move) and on the other side by a delivery truck. Backing out was pretty much out of the question, so I had to wait until the delivery truck driver came back and got out of my face. Then I was able to get going the right way. Once we were out of the tightly-packed, narrow roads and on the main route, it was easy going from there.

...for the most part. The next step was dropping FIL off at Sendai Station. He planned to go and stay a few days at his old family homestead just north in Iwate Prefecture. Sendai Station is quite large as it is a central hub for several train lines plus the bullet train. That should make it easy to find, right? Ha ha ha. Actually, it wasn't so bad for the most part; I just stuck to the main roads and followed the signs. However, once we got into the thick of the downtown area, I consulted Navi-chan again just in case, and she kept telling me to go in what was clearly the wrong direction (maybe because my wife had selected a station-side shop rather than the station itself in the search list). Finally I just decided to follow the signs and my instinct. Soon we were in the main passenger drop-off point, and FIL was waving goodbye.

From there we got directly onto the expressway and headed straight home. The weather was beautiful, traffic was moderate, and the return trip was easy and rapid. Except for two quick toilet stops, one near Fukushima (where my wife bought some Mamadore, a famous local sweet, and I bought coffee) and another near Utsunomiya (where my wife bought some gyoza, a local specialty, and I bought coffee), we just stayed on the road. Travel time was more than half an hour shorter than the journey up had been. I didn't even finish drinking the stash of canned coffee I'd bought just in case.

I slept in late the next day, decided to take the day off, and just took it easy, happy that for once I had a spring vacation that was actually a vacation, even if only briefly. Next it would be time to start thinking about birthday shopping for the wife...


  • If you were ever to lose your job as a teacher you could make a mint as a tourist guide for visiting English speakers.

    By Anonymous Dave, at 5:04 AM  

  • Well, I play tour guide whenever we have visitors from our Australian sister school or music groups from overseas. I have the interpretive tour routine down for my school, Kashima Shrine, and Kashima City in general.

    WV: "trafici" = What one tends to find in downtown Bucharest.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 10:48 AM  

  • Natsukashii...

    By Anonymous The Intrepid Adventurer, at 11:52 AM  

  • Awesome picture framed by a pine...

    There was a great TV drama you no doubt remember about Date Masamune that I used to watch in Hawaii - with subtitles. I'd love to see that mausoleum and other stuff up there.

    And those caves - is that where Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher... sorry wrong continent. But if only they had had a navi.

    WV: mathshi - a city in Japan that is dedicated to mathematics.
    Super vacation. Thanks for sharing.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 6:28 PM  

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