Godaido was built by Jikaku Daishi in 807 to enshrine the five deities of wisdom, said to be carved by his own hand. The current shrine, reached from the shore by arching red bridges, was built in 1604 by Date Masamune to celebrate his victory at Sekigahara, which brought the civil wars to an end and laid the foundation for the Tokugawa shogunate.
Godaido is the oldest example of Momoyama period architecture in northeastern Japan.
Zuiganji Temple, a national treasure, was first established in 828 by legendary priest Jikaku Daishi. Caves for the depositing of funerary ashes were added during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). The temple took its current form in 1609, when it was restored as a family temple by Date Masamune, the “One-Eyed Dragon of Ōshu” and founder of nearby Sendai.
The approach to the temple is lined with the pine trees for which Matsushima is named. The gate to the left is the Onari Genkan — the Emperor’s Gate. Visitors instead pass across the front of the temple and enter via the Kuri, the distinctive temple kitchen to the right.
The temple is filled with many elaborate murals on gilt sliding screens, including the famous Peacock panel painted by family retainer Sakuma Shuri. (Photography is forbidden in the interior of the temple.)
The temple grounds also include the Seiryuden museum, which houses national and prefectural cultural properties such as the armor of Date Masamune and a large Wakizashi sword commissioned by his son.
The illuminated cherry blossoms draw huge crowds to Rikugien every year with their photographically challenging beauty. This year, Nana had an idea to beat the crowds at this 16th Century garden dedicated to the six forms of Chinese poetry: arrive before dusk, enjoy the park and wait for dark.
It was a good idea except for the cold. The temperature never got very high yesterday, and it had fallen to about 8C when we arrived at the park at 4 p.m. Together with the lack of blue skies, it made for a pretty dreary afternoon.
The big draw for the illumination is the park’s famous shidarezakura, or weeping cherry tree (prunus pendula). This giant, planted shortly after the end of the Pacific War, is more than 70 years old and stands at 15m tall. Its branches span more than 20m across the garden.
This year, in the cold and waning light, the tree looked a bit sorry. The blossoms had yet to fully fill out, but the green leaves were already emerging. We took a few snaps and discussed the sorry state of the tree before hurrying on to see the rest of the park.
Rikugien is famous for far more than its cherry trees, including 88 stations based on scenes from Japanese poetry, several scenic bridges and tea houses, and two hills representing the male and female deities which gave birth to Japan.
There are several other cherry trees in the park, including another that’s taller than 15m at the opposite end of the park from the shidarezakura, near the site of Tsutsuji-chaya (tea house). By the time we’d reached this point, Nana and I were well and truly chilled and decided to have something hot to drink while we waited another hour for dusk to fall and the illumination to begin. We escaped the lure of the famous tea house and opted for warm sake and then electric kombucha and ryokucha at a simple pavilion.
As we sipped our hot drinks and nibbled on simple snacks, the approaching twilight brought more and more clients to the pavilion. We noted visitors of varying nationalities and tongues, all of whom were welcomed by the friendly staff even when they had to order via miming. Nana had just observed that no one was ordering draft beer on account of the cold weather when one younger Japanese man ordered and received a large chilled mug of frothy. Meanwhile, looking out the side of the pavilion to the benches under the open skies, I saw a young girl eating a matcha ice cream. Brrr!
At the stroke of six we decided we’d waited long enough. The lights were on and the crowds were growing thicker. Warmed by our drinks, we hurried back to the shidarezakura and found it transformed by the illumination. After getting a few snaps here we returned to the other giant on the far side of the park and found it bathed in light alternating from white to pink and then violet.
Rikugien is well worth the visit for the illumination in the spring or the maple colors in the fall, but be prepared for large crowds and a long wait to get in during these popular seasons.
We visited Nakameguro on a weekday afternoon, hoping to avoid the crowds. Unfortunately, it seems at least 6 million other people had the same idea, and we were trapped in the midst of a jostling, multilingual crowd from the moment we got off the train at Nakameguro Station until we’d finished the visit and were pushing back onto another train to leave.
It was still early in the season, and the blossoms were only about half full. Still, in places the blossoms were packed so tightly it was like walking through a pale pink cloud. The only thing missing, as Nana voiced repeatedly, was blue skies.
Japan’s renowned cherry blossoms emerge, somewhat unpredictably, in late March through early April and are gone almost as soon as they reach their peak blooming. As such, they are a well-worn metaphor for the fleetingness of beauty and life.
At the southern tip of the Izu peninsula, however, the town of Kawazu is famous for a kind of cherry tree (one of more than 600 varieties worldwide) which is at once more intensely pink and longer lasting than the famed somei yoshino, and emerges much earlier. Typically, Kawazuzakura begin blossoming in early February and remain in bloom for the better part of a month, lining banks the eponymous Kawazu river with twin streams of pink.
This year Nana and I found ourselves in Izu at the right time, and we made the jaunt on a day that was forecast to be overcast and rainy. Much to our delight, the rain held off and the sun even emerged from the clouds during our visit.
Naturally, the Kawazuzakura Festival attracts large crowds, particularly on a weekend, and parking can be hard to come by. Some enterprising locals let out their spaces at ¥700, and some hardy souls simply park along whatever roadside doesn’t specifically forbid it. We chanced upon the happy solution of parking free at the nearby Kawazu Bagatelle Park (although we had to wait several minutes for a spot) and taking the (also free) shuttle bus down to the river.
A series of seven waterfalls along the Kawazu river cascades down a mountainside just a short drive north from Kawazu in Izu. Although it requires hiking more than 1km and some vigorous climbing to see them all, the natural beauty of the site is well worth the effort. Nana and I arrived in the mid-morning of a sunny and warm winter day, and started the series from the middle (as that’s where the route from the parking lot placed us).
In the riverbed en route to the falls lie two large stones surmounted by a circle of rope and other semi-religious accouterments. Visitors are invited to purchase three small pebbles from baskets at the edge of the walk for a nominal ¥100. After making a wish while holding the pebbles in their folded hands, the visitors throw the pebbles at the wishing stones. If a pebble lands atop one of the stones and remains, the wish is granted. However, the supplicant is admonished to return within the year to give thanks for the successful wish!
Just upstream of the wishing rocks, Shokeidaru fills a large pool next to a pair of statues illustrating a scene from Izu no Odoriko, a 1926 short story by Nobel prize-winner Kawabata Yasunari set in Izu. It’s one of the more impressive falls in the series (as well as being one of the easiest to access) with a 10m drop.
Next upstream from Shokeidaru is Hebidaru, the Snake Falls, so named for the scale-like appearance of the surrounding rock.
Continuing upstream after a swaying suspension bridge or two is Ebidaru, which is said to resemble a shrimp’s tail. The best view is via another swaying suspension bridge reached after scrambling over a rather narrow stone path branching off from the main trail. Your humble narrator has no inkling to what extent the rhyming of “hebi” and “ebi” played in the imagination of those who named the falls (but if they’re anything like a number of Japanese he’s met, it can’t have been far from their minds).
From the bridge the visitor has the choice of advancing over the next rocky ridge or retreating back to the main path. Either route will bring them to the next sight, the 22m Kamadaru.
Kamadaru, the Iron Kettle, marks the upstream end of the series with its 22m drop. The impressive falls was once feared as the entrance to Hell. Now, visitors are invited to shout from the depth of their soul towards the falls.
Returning whence we began, downstream of the wishing rocks is the unprepossessing Kanidaru with a 2m drop. While the name is suggestive of a crab, it’s written phonetically so no certainty can be given to this interpretation (and the official website’s description doesn’t cast any light on the question).
It would be in keeping, though, with the seafood metaphor suggested by Ebidaru …
Passing downstream brings us back to the main road, with two more falls lying on the other side, and to an unexpected meeting.
The river continues to descend at this point and so must we, clambering down rough-hewn steps to find the next falls: Deaidaru, at the meeting of two streams, the first of which has fed all the falls we’ve seen to this point.
Deaidaru actually encompasses several distinct drops, and it’s difficult to say which particular one merits the name. It seems that the separate streams both sport a few moderate drops before they join in a pool.
We have to climb back up to the road and walk past the parking lot and cafés to reach the final, and largest, waterfall in the series: Odaru. The path to Odaru is flanked by a private spa, and the route may be closed on days the spa is in use. At the foot of the falls is a party pavilion and three separate but very close and public pools, leaving Nana and me to speculate whether the customers of this particular spa wore bathing suits or else were a particularly fun-loving bunch.
Joren Falls lies at the upper reaches of the Kano River in central Izu and features a drop of 25m. According to legend, the falls is home to Jorogumo, a spider that transforms into a seductive woman. Several legends surround the Jorogumo, usually featuring a woodsman whose axe head has fallen into the pool beneath the falls. When the Jorogumo returns his axe head, the woodsman is captivated (and in some legends, captured).
The region is famous for its wasabi, and booths at the park entrance and near the falls feature fresh wasabi and goods made from wasabi — including wasabi ice cream. Wasabi is cultivated in the pool below Joren Falls.
Dougashima’s rocky coastline was formed over the millennia by a combination of volcanic action and wind and water erosion, resulting in a scenic juxtaposition of stratified cliffs and islands with forbiddingly vertical faces. Among the attractions are the Sanshiro islands (sharing their name with a famous novel by Japanese master Soseki) and the Skylight Cave, found within walking distance of each other amidst the resort spas in this sleepy village near Nishiizu.
Nana and I decided to take advantage of a work holiday to visit and celebrate an anniversary of sorts, and at the same time to burn up some credit from a hotel booking site I’ll never use again. (The hotel was great; the booking site service less so.) My recent acquisition of a Japanese driving license has opened up new vacation options for us: we decide to rent a car and spend a couple of days puttering around Izu and see a variety of sights that would be too difficult to manage by public transportation.
En route to the hotel we chanced up Koibito Misaki, the Lovers Cape. Tradition has it that those who ring the bell three times will summon love. The cape also boasts a view of Mt. Fuji across the Suruga Bay, but skies were not favorable during our visit.
The choice of hotel turned out to be inspired: our room had a direct view of the Sanshiro islands, which are [L-R] Zojima (Elephant Island), Nakanoshima (Center Island) and Takashima (Tall Island). The hotel staff proudly boasted of the view and quickly informed us of the tombolo land bridge to the islands that emerges at low tide. The hotel keeps a schedule of low tide times and height of the exposed tombolo on a flyer in the elevator.
Nana and I quickly resolved to take the boat tour of the coastline and to cross the tombolo when it emerged from the waves. Unfortunately, we’d have to wait for the following afternoon for the tombolo. And when we checked on the boat, it was the same story: at the moment the tide was too high, but it would be a different story if we came back on the morrow.
Undaunted, we returned to the hotel for a rest, a private bath (also featuring a view of the Sanshiro islands, but inferior to the view from our room) and a delicious kaiseki dinner in a quiet booth.
After a good night’s sleep and a traditional breakfast of broiled fish, rice and miso soup, we set out again for the boat landing. Yes, the boats were running and the skies were clearing at the same time. We quickly paid our fare and secured a couple of seats on the small boat that was already filling up with a busload of tourists.
The boat eased away from the mooring and took us at a sedate pace around the rocky cliffs and islands while a recording told us of the geological formations we were viewing. We got a view of the Sanshiro islands from the opposite side, with our hotel in the background. And then for the finale the boat took us inside one of the many caves in the side of the cliff rising next to the hotels, where we passed under the opening which gives this feature its name: Tensodo, or Skylight Cave.
Following the boat ride, we spent the rest of the morning on sights in the central ridge of the Izu peninsula. But we kept our eye on the time and returned in the early afternoon to cross the tombolo to the Sanshiro islands. Or so we thought — we hadn’t counted on the tombolo being composed entirely of grapefruit-sized stones, loosely tossed together by the waves, and many covered with slippery moss and seaweed. It was very treacherous footing, and we gave up after venturing only partway across the bridge.
Others had come better prepared for the outing, in sneakers, hiking shoes and even waders. We saw several people turning over stones and gathering things with buckets, and stopped to ask one woman what she was collecting. “Kai,” she replied, giving a generic term for shellfish. She said that she uses them in miso soup.
I’m sure we’ll be back to Dougashima in the future. Perhaps next time we’ll follow the coast around the peninsula rather than driving over (and around and around) the mountains that form its backbone.
Myouhouji was originally a temple of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, but it converted to the Nichiren sect during the Genna Era (1615-1624). Since 1699, it has housed the spiritual images of Nichiren saints, and the temple has been famous since for warding off disasters and bad luck of all kinds.
This iron gate, completed in 1878, is an important cultural asset. It was designed by Josiah Condor and melds Eastern and Western influences.
Sensō-ji, also known as Asakusa for the neighborhood it dominates (and whose kanji it shares), is Tokyo’s oldest and most famous temple as well as one of the most popular temples to visit at the New Year’s holiday. The temple was founded in 645 to house a statue of bodhisattva Kannon (Avalokiteshvara) which legend has it was discovered in nearby Sumida River by two fishermen, the brothers Hinokuma Hamanari and Hinokuma Takenari, in 628. The temple and its various structures have been destroyed several times by fire and most recently by Allied bombing during World War II, and the current structures mostly date from the 1960s.
Kaminarimon, the Thunder Gate
Visitors flock to see the impressive Kaminarimon gate — 11.7m tall and originally erected by the military commander Taira no Kinmasa in 941, and moved to its current location in 1635 — with its statues of Fujin, god of wind, and Raijin, god of thunder, as well as the 4m tall paper lantern hanging in the center of the gate bearing the characters 雷門 (Kaminarimon).
The reverse side of the gate features status of the god Tenryū and the goddess Kinryū, carved by master sculptor Hirakushi Denchū when he was 106 years old.
Shopping for Japanese kitsch in Nakamise-dōri
Nakamise-dōri, stretching 250m from the Kaminarimon to the inner Hōzōmon (Treasure House Gate), is home to about 90 shops offering lacquerware, painted fans, yukata and kimono (in various degrees of authenticity) and assorted Japanese bric-à-brac and kitsch such as Godzilla toys and maneki-neko figurines. The crowds are often at their thickest here, and it’s not unusual to encounter foreigners in rented kimono.
Hōzōmon, the Treasure House Gate
Hōzōmon, the inner gate at 22.7m tall, was first built by Taira no Kinmasa in 942. It houses two enormous Nio deities and a pair of giant sandals. Because the gate in its current incarnation is built of fire-resistant materials, the second story is used to house the temple’s treasures, including a sutra that is designated a National Treasure.
To one side of Hōzōmon stands a five-story pagoda, and to the other are statues of two bodhisattva, including Kannon (Avalokiteshvara), the enshrined deity of Sensō-ji.
Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple
After Hōzōmon we come at last to Sensō-ji itself, a high-peaked structure dedicated to bodhisattva Kannon.
Priests inside the temple chant as clouds of incense rise among fabulous gilt decorations. Outside, visitors line up the steps to the portico to toss in their five-yen coins and offer their prayers. The large inner foyer, topped by faded and peeling murals, offers ample opportunities to purchase o-mikuji.