Stories From The Road

Posts tagged “Nagano

Technos International Week – Day 5

Thursday June 10, 2010

NAGANO CITY, Nagano, Japan – The day began with an early breakfast and then we loaded onto the bus for Zenko-ji temple, a seventh century Buddhist Temple.

Zenko-ji Temple (front view)

The pot emanating smoke

The temple rose up among the trees surrounded by smaller shrines. The pathway to the temple wound through some trees and a past a small shrine. To the left side of the path were wooden pillars. Carved on these wooden pillars were Japanese characters and it is said that if you rub the pillar you will receive seven years of good luck. After everyone rubbed the pillars we continued onto the temple. The path intersected with the main walkway of Zenko-ji temple.  In the center of the walkway was a pot with smoke emanating from it. The Buddhist monks at this temple believe that the smoke has healing qualities. If someone has an ailing part to their body they are wash the smoke over that body part and it will heal. This tradition reminded me of a similar one practiced by the Lakota Sioux in the United States. In Lakota culture the smoke from the peace pipe also has a cleansing and spiritual property. The smoke is said to heal physical ailments and also to be a persons prayers traveling up to the heavens.

Fortunes

After throwing the smoke over me, I turn around and face the temple for the fist time. The temple is built of wood with golden accents. It is also decorated with swastikas, which were originally a symbol for eternity and in the present day represent dharma. I was amazed by the architectural wonder of this temple.  It was perfectly preserved and still active.

We proceeded up the main steps into the great hall of the temple. Inside the temple was dark and dimly lit. No cameras were allowed inside and shoes had to be removed. A prayer area decorated with golden statues of Buddha divided the inside. On each side of the temple there were two large Buddha statues that faced each other. On the far left, four monks worked patiently and diligently on a multicolored sand mandala.

Buddha Statue

A large bell began tolling signaling the beginning of prayer time. The monks came out from behind the altar in different color robes. They kneeled on the left side of the altar. One of the monks banged together sticks in an increasing rhythm and another used a drum. There speed increased and decreased several times as they chanted. As their chanting increased a curtain that covered the front of the altar began to rise. Behind the curtain there was another golden Buddha statue. The curtain rose and fell several times. After about five to ten minutes of prayer the ceremony ended and the monks left.

Row of Buddha statues outside of Zenko-ji temple

Following the prayer our tour guide at the temple brought us to the far right side of the altar. There was steep staircase that led beneath the altar. We descended down the staircase and were met with a pitch-black hallway. We processed down the hallway keeping our right hand on the wall. We felt our way along the hallway and were told search for a metal lock, which housed the real Buddha statue. It is said that if your felt the lock you would receive seven years of good luck and that your would someday reach Nirvana. After successfully feeling the lock we exited the passage.  Just after exiting the passage there was a place to buy a pilgrimage book (these books can be purchased at most temples). At each temple and shrine there is a master calligrapher that signs the name of the temple in the book. Many people collect these signatures as proof that they have visited these temples. They are also a work of art. The covers of the book are made of wood and it opens like an accordion. After exiting the temple we walked to the main walkway and proceeded through the gate to visit the shops in the town.

Near the shops there were more Buddha statues and shrines. The shops sold small gifts and food. One shop sold buckwheat whisky, which is only found in Nagano. They also sold a dumpling style snack, which again is only found in Nagano. The filling of this dumpling snack varies. It can be filled with meat or vegetables, which is very common in the United States. However, it can also be filled with sweet bean paste, a delicacy in Japan. Sweet bean past has a consistency similar to refried beans but a sugary taste.

After the temple we drove, climb high into the mountains to a remote village for a traditional Soba meal. We ate at Yamaguchi-ya. The soba was served cold on separate plate. Soba was served with a dipping sauce, which was mixed with wasabi and green onions. Each time you eat the soba you dip it in the sauce, which adds flavoring. Once all of the soba is gone you take warm water that the soba was cooked in and mix it in the dipping sauce. This new mixture is then drunk. Other parts of the meal included pickled salads, noodle salads, tempura, and sweet cake-like balls for desert. This meal was also served with soba tea. Following lunch we descended down the mountains and returned to Midori no Mura.

Soba meal

Upon our return we took part in physical exercise; playing tennis, volleyball, basketball and soccer with the Technos students. I played soccer with Kenji, Yutaka, Meagan, Erika, and Sebastian. After I described the game of Ultimate Frisbee to Yutaka and he was eager to start playing. He picked up the game and the throws quickly. Others joined in and we started a small game until dinner.

Dinner was a Japanese barbeque consisting of beef, pork, scallops, prawns, vegetables, and soba noodles. The food was cooked on a teppanyaki grill. Following dinner all of the international students played a big game of Ultimate Frisbee.

Group photo in front of Midori no Mura

As it got darker outside we headed in for the nighttimes activities, which included karaoke, and fireworks. I sang a few songs with different people. It was entertaining for everyone whether or not people could sing.

Around 8:30 we went outside for fireworks. After the fireworks it was free time until eleven when they shut off the power to building

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Technos International Week – Day 4

Wednesday June 9, 2010

MATSUMOTO CITY, Nagano Prefecture, Japan – “Here the compass doesn’t work, the magnets make it impossible to locate the bodies…”

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We awoke early again today and after breakfast filed onto the bus. We left our hotel for Midori No Mura or the Green Village, a small mountainous resort owned by the Technos College.

Mt. Fuji on a foggy day

Our journey brought us out of Tokyo and into Nagano Prefecture, the site of the 1998 Olympic games. One of the most famous sites in Nagano is Mt. Fuji, the tallest of the four mountains in Japan. We traveled up to the fifth stage of the mountain the furthest up you can drive. The fifth stage is also about halfway up the mountain. The second half of the mountain must be hiked. On the way up the mountain we learned of the different mountains in Japan and more specifically about Mt. Fuji. Mt. Fuji is actually a volcano and since other mountains don’t surround Mt. Fuji it is visible from most of Japan.

Another view of Mt. Fuji

Each stage of the mountain has significance. Our guide announces, “We have just entered the third stage, this is where people go to commit suicide. Here the compass doesn’t work, the magnets make it impossible to locate the bodies.”

Another half hour of traveling brought us to the fifth stage and we exited the bus taking in Mt. Fuji for the first time. A thick white fog covered the summit and cold wind blew across my face as a freezing rain fell.

Group Photo in front of Mt. Fuji

The owner of the gift shop herded us inside so that we would purchase gifts from the various vendors inside. It was here that we were able to try many different kinds of Japanese candies. One particular candy that stuck out were chocolate rice patties, which had a similar texture and taste to chocolate truffles, but had the consistency of a dumpling covered in chocolate with a chocolate filling.

On the third floor of the shop was an observatory. It was here that you have the best opportunity to see a majestic view of Mt. Fuji.  After about a half hour at the mountain we left. Sadly the fog never lifted and I never did see a full view of Mt. Fuji.  However, having been that close to such a great natural monument was inspiring.

On our way down the mountain Mitsunari says:

“We have a song about Mt. Fuji. If we are quiet the tires on the way down will sing us the song.”

Halfway down the mountain silence drifted across the bus and melodic song was heard. It sounded as though a voice were singing to you, while it was a beautiful sound there was also an eerily haunting nature to the song.

Barrels of Aging Miso

Our Miso Lunch

As we traveled on we reached Matsumoto City and home of Matsumoto castle. Before we see the castle, we stopped for lunch at a traditional miso factory. This factory still makes miso the traditional way, allowing miso to age three years. The Miso most of Japan makes and the kind we are accustomed to is only aged for six months. While we toured the factory, we were also given the honor of being able to try some of the three-year-old miso, which is very rare. For lunch we were served miso soup, with three different bars of sushi, as well as fried rice and tofu. We had miso tea to drink and miso ice cream for desert. The miso soup that I usually have the states has a yellow color however this soup had a brown color with rich, bold flavors. The soup was filled with vegetables, tofu and pork.

Gate house at Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle and the surrounding city

Matsumoto Castle from another view

After a delicious lunch we left for Matsumoto castle. Matsumoto castle is the oldest castle preserved with its original materials. It is about 400 years old. The surrounding complex of the castle dates back to Sengoku period. The then leader Ishikawa Norimasa built the castle around 1590. In 1952 the castle was declared a national treasure of Japan.  It is a flat land castle and as such it was built up on a stone embankment about ten feet high and it is surrounded by a moat. The inside stairs were steep and tall with each floor serving a specific purpose. The fourth floor is where the leader would commit seppuku (hara-kiri) or ritualistic stomach cutting (suicide) and the fifth floor was for conferencing.

Part of our room at Midori no Mura

One of the many rice paddies

After an hour of walking around the castle and its grounds we left for Midori no Mura. Midori no Mura was located in the countryside and during our drive we passed rice paddies. When we arrived we moved into our rooms, which were covered with tatami mats and the furniture was low to the ground. It was then that I discovered we would be living the traditional Japanese lifestyle by sleeping on the ground.

After moving in we ate dinner in the dining hall with everyone. After dinner we learned about different aspects of Japanese culture and etiquette. It is here that we learned were how to use chopsticks correctly. We also learned about different Japanese holidays. The first year Technos students studying English presented this lesson to us.

The presentation ended and it was time to try out the baths. The baths were traditional Japanese onsen’s. We grabbed our robes and proceeded downstairs.

There is a ritual to the baths. The first step to the baths is to sit down and shower. After you are cleaned and all of the soap is gone you are ready to enter the hot bath or onsen. The onsen is most closely related to a hot tub. The most important rule to the baths is to not mix the shower water and the onsen water. After soaking as long as you want you rinse off in cold water. These baths leave you feeling refreshed, relaxed and also extremely clean. After the bath it was time for bed.