Travel notes: Japanese cultural encounters, temples and shrines

The maiko dancing…

The maiko danced with exquisite grace, using a fan to highlight her moves. Maiko means “dancer,” and she was training to become a geiko (geisha) in Kyoto’s famous Gion District. Afterward, she told us through our tour guide that she had begun training at age 15, was now 20 and would become a geiko next year.

She also said she is one of just 18 maiko in her district and one of about 50 maiko and geiko among Kyoto’s five geisha districts. Before COVID, there were about 300. Kyoto is the dwindling home of geisha culture in Japan.

…and concluding her performance.

My group enjoyed this opportunity to watch a maiko perform and learn about her way of life as part of our Overseas Adventure Travel tour. We also met a retired Sumo wrestler, had a taiko drum lesson, learned about the art of bonsai and had lunch with Ama women divers in their seaside hut. Yes, this tour visited some of Japan’s famous temples and shrines, but I appreciated these cultural experiences the most.

I didn’t think I’d be interested in sumo wrestling, yet this ancient Japanese sport proved me wrong. Like maiko, sumo apprentices start rigorous training at age 15. At 23, they can try to qualify to be among the top 70 sumo wrestlers who compete professionally for pay. Our guy wrestled professionally from age 25 to 30 and then retired. Sumo wrestlers’ careers are physically limited, while geiko can perform as long as they choose and are able.

A bonsai apprentice describing 700-year-old juniper tree bonsai.
A 1,000-year-old juniper bonsai in an indoor display.

The Shunkaen Bonsai Museum in Tokyo was a chance to learn about this horticultural art. Founded by bonsai master Kunio Kobayashi, the garden showcases bonsai ranging from a 100-year old Japanese maple to a 1,000-year old juniper. We learned deciduous trees don’t live nearly as long as evergreens when bonsai.

In Tokyo we also tried traditional taiko drumming – and discovered wielding drumsticks was a lot harder than it looked. From taiko noise we went to Asakusa’s Sensoji Temple but encountered crowds instead of tranquility.

Taiko drummer demonstrating on three drums.
Entrance gate to Sensoji Temple at Asukusa.
Interior of Sensoji Temple at Asakusa.

Sensoji is Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple, dating to 645 AD. It is also one of the most popular temples. Such “must-see” sights in Japan are heavily touristed at present – by visitors from around the world as well as Japanese themselves.

Everyone in my group chose an optional day trip to Mount Fuji. We lucked out with clear skies to view the 12,390-foot, active stratovolcano from the village of Oshino in the Fuji Five Lakes region. A small open-air museum, Hannoki Bayashi Shiryokan, features traditional thatched-roof dwellings. One house is open for visitors to explore its three levels and see how farmers once lived. Food vendors nearby offer local products from grilled fish to roasted sweet potatoes and mugwort dumplings.

Mount Fuji and Hannoki Bayashi Shiryokan open-air museum in Oshino.
A man grilling fish in street vendors market in Oshino.
Mugwort dumplings for sale in Oshino street market.

Along Japan’s Pacific coast, we stayed in the resort area of Toba and visited Ama, the women who dive for Akoya pearl oysters. Ama have also harvested abalone, sea urchins, sea cucumbers and turban shells as food for centuries. However, when Kokicki Michimoto succeeded in culturing pearls within oysters in 1893, Ama began gathering oysters and maintaining them as the pearls formed.

Culturing pearls is tricky. A round form is delicately inserted into an oyster with a special tool. Hopefully the oyster will then coat this foreign object with mother-of-pearl, the iridescent inner layer of its shell. Ten to 14 months later, about 50% of the oysters produce a marketable pearl. Just 5% of those pearls are high quality.

Ama women demonstrating diving for oysters at Mikimoto Pearl Museum.
An Ama diver putting an oyster into her barrel after surfacing with it.
Walking to the Ama divers hut.
Ama grilling seafood and vegetables for a group lunch in their hut.
Ama diver demonstrating her diving mask while the group’s guide translates her comments.

Mikimoto Pearl Island has a fascinating museum that documents Kokicki Michimoto’s efforts to develop cultured pearls. Ama demonstrate their diving technique there at scheduled times.

Our lunch with Ama divers in their seaside hut proved even more interesting. They grilled seafood and vegetables for us and explained (through our guide) how and why they dive, wearing only face masks. Today about 600 Ama live and dive in this region, but the average age is 72. Ama are another fading cultural tradition in Japan.

The Todaiji Temple in Nara.
Feeding the deer in Nara Park by Todaiji Temple.
The Great Buddha and a bodhisattva inside Todaiji Temple.

Continuing toward Kyoto, we visited highlights among Japan’s approximately 80,000 Buddhist temples and 100,000 Shinto shrines. Todaiji Temple (“Great Eastern Temple”) in Nara is one of the most famous and historically significant. The temple site dates from 752 AD and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It houses the Great Buddha of Nara in what once was the world’s largest wooden building.

Approaching through Nara Park, visitors encounter tame deer and can purchase special crackers to feed them. Like the Japanese, the deer are polite: if you bow to a deer with cracker in hand, it bows back before taking the cracker.

Walking through some of the torii gates.
Senbon Torii with donors’ inscriptions on on side.
One of many fox statues guarding the Fushimi Inari Shrine.

We continued to Kyoto, seat of Japan’s emperors for over 1,000 years until 1869. Undamaged during World War II, the city today is Japan’s cultural capital.  Kyoto and its environs boast over 1,600 temples and 400 shrines.

A striking one to visit is the Fushimi Inari Shrine with its Senbon Torii (“thousands of torii gates”) covering forest trails behind the shrine. The gates are donations by people who have their name and donation date inscribed on one side of the gate. Fox statues guard the grounds as messengers for Inari, the Shinto god of rice.

Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) Temple.

Perhaps most spectacular is Kinkakuji (“Golden Pavillion”) Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The top two floors are covered in dazzling gold leaf. Originally known as Rokuonji, it was the retirement villa of a shogun, whose will decreed it become a Zen temple after his death in 1408. Visitors can marvel at this golden temple across a scenic pond as they wander the surrounding gardens, but it is not open to the public.

— By Julie Gangler

Julie Gangler visited Japan on Overseas Adventure Travel’s tour, South Korea & Japan: Temples, Shrines & Treasures. She is a freelance writer who has worked as a media relations consultant for the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau. She began her career as a staff writer at Sunset Magazine and later was the Alaska/Northwest correspondent for Travel Agent Magazine.

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