27 June 2016

Kyoto (Japan) - Tofukuji Temple : The Home of Zen

Date of Exploration : 30 Mar 2016

Coming to Tofukuji Temple (東福寺) was actually an afterthought as we had time since our visit to Fushimi Inari Shrine concluded early. But after coming here, I regretted not making it one of the key attractions to see while in Kyoto so that more time could have been allocated to explore this massive religious site.
While Tofukuji Temple may be the main prayer hall, its vicinity consists of a large collection of shrines and spiritual houses distributed over an extensive plot that could very well contain a small town!

At the steps of one of the shrines we encountered as we made our way towards Tofukuji Temple.

Not knowing what Tofukuji Temple looks like due to a lack of prior research, we found ourselves guessing if every spiritual building we encountered along the way is Tofukuji Temple.
Looks like autumn or the beginning of spring touching the roof of a minor shrine within Tofukuji Temple's compound.
A series of smaller shrines dot the huge grounds that belong to Tofukuji Temple.
Some of the shrines are off limits while others allow visitation and are functioning prayer houses for devotees.

After about a 20 minutes walk from the train station and passing various minor shrines, we finally got our first glimpse of the main buildings that make up Tofukuji Temple.

This valley of maple trees and shrubs is a popular autumn spot where crowds gather to watch that season's colours. We came during the awakening of spring and the bald branches have yet to grow a new leafy coat.
We were walking blind on the grounds of Tofukuji Temple since there weren't prominent signs pointing the way but we found the entrance to the main temple after crossing a wooden bridge that could very well have been a tunnel that led back in time!
Passing through a gate, we arrived at the massive Tofukuji Temple and its peripheral buildings.
Tofukuji Temple was founded in 1236 and is a temple that honours the Zen aspect of Buddhism.
Zen is a school of Buddhism with Taoist influence that became a pillar of the religion. Zen Buddhism emphasises the practice of meditation over the ritualistic worship and study of Mahayana Buddhist scriptures.
Putting a scale to the gigantic doors of the main hall (hondo) of Tofukuji Temple.
A peek inside the main prayer hall of Tofukuji Temple. The ceiling artwork looks like a painting formed by soot.
Circular decorative roof tiles at Tofukuji Temple.
An exhibition hall at the temple grounds. An entrance fee is applicable to step inside.
General shots of scenes at Tofukuji Temple grounds with a perspective shot of the Tsutenkyo Bridge (通天桥). It costs ¥400 to go on the bridge to look out over a valley of trees but we gave it a miss as we arrived close to closing time and wanted to see the other parts of Tofukuji Temple.
To one side of Tofukiji main hall is this equally imposing structure. Dating back to 1425, this gate known as the Sanmon Gate is the oldest Zen gate of its kind.
Tucked into one corner behind the main prayer hall is a series of torii arches.
Taking a path a distance from the torii gates, we found ourselves at a backyard cemetery! Yikes.
Fresh blooms of sakuras contrasted with the concrete finality of death.
This visit to Tofukuji Temple was like looking at a tree full of flowers and finding just one that spoke to you. We didn't plan to come here, but I'm glad we made it here. It's like the serendipity of finding something worth treasuring when you weren't looking... :-D

26 June 2016

Osaka (Japan) - Framing Nihon History with Osaka Castle

Date of Exploration : 31 Mar 2016

Perched within a moated fortress watching over the city, Osaka Castle (Ōsakajō 大阪城) is one of Japan's top historical links to the nation's imperial past and the site where the unification of Japan was conceived. With such a rich history and magnificent architecture, I was eager to explore the castle and hopefully snap some picturesque photos. I wasn't disappointed.

Our visit coincided with the annual sakura season and what a spectacular time to see Osaka Castle!
Osaka Castle Park

The castle sits in the middle of a sprawling park with over 600 cherry blossom trees and a collection of trees and plants that colour themselves according to the changing seasons.

When we arrived at Osaka Castle Park, I was immediately bewitched by the open large spaces, neat lawns and alluring tranquility.

The park is like a canvas where spring, autumn and winter paint their colours.

To get to Osaka Castle, we had to cut through the park surrounding it. A stroll in the park was a nice prelude that built up the anticipation to see the castle.

I don't know the species of the tree but it has such an unusual structure and form! Used it to frame part of the citadel that marks the walled compounds of Osaka Castle.
Becoming a Castlenova

Personally, I feel that the best way to appreciate Osaka Castle is not upclose but from afar with many rewarding spots to frame the castle around the park grounds.

Osaka Castle given the Halloween treatment by framing it between two trees yet to let spring regrow what they lost to winter.

A hole in the foliage that formed a natural frame to capture the castle.

Nature and architecture.

More flower power to photograph Osaka Castle with.

Enough of the flowers, here's capturing Osaka Castle with banners of one of its representative insignias. I've become something of a castle casanova looking for various ways to lovingly frame the castle. Heh heh...

The best time to photograph Osaka Castle is in the late afternoon when the setting sun illuminates the embellishments with its golden rays, making them glimmer.
Exploring Osaka Castle

Construction of the castle began in 1583 but it wasn't until 1931 that its current concrete form was completed. The castle has a tumultuous past that saw it destroyed twice - once in 1615 when invading forces from a rival Japanese warlord razed it to the ground and another time when lightning struck in 1665 and burnt it down.

The castle was abandoned for a period of time and it wasn't until 1997 that the troubled castle was restored to its former stature and glory.

Hello from Osaka Castle!

Entrance fee for Osaka Castle - ¥600 (adult). Opening hours during my visit was 9:00am to 7:00pm. We arrived at the castle at 3:36pm after about 45 minutes spent taking photos while cutting through the park.

I think we arrived at a perfect timing as we got good daylight to see the surroundings when we climbed up to the top of the castle and when we left, the setting sun lit up the face of the castle for some nice photos of it as we crossed over to another part of the park.

Osaka Castle has a five-tiered exterior but an interior with 7 levels. You can climb the stairs or take the lift to get to the top of the castle. There was a long queue for the lift so we took the stairs.

Photography is not allowed on certain levels within Osaka Castle where original relics recovered from the castle are displayed. For the remaining levels photography is permitted. These levels are the ones where the history of the castle is told through a series of holograms and this figurine ensemble that attempt to depict the great Summer Battle of Osaka.

If you had the patience to count, you'll number 307 figurines in this depiction of the Summer Battle where Osaka fell under siege.

After ascending the history, we arrived at the top that provided an aerial view of the surrounding. It's a narrow circumference for the panoramic view with a lot of tourists. It took some patience to wait to get into an ideal spot to see and snap.

Close up of the decorations on the roof. Looks like the fish just jumped out from the waters of the moat.

View of Osaka Castle Park grounds.

The face-off between nature and architecture.

Great vantage point to take in the modern cityscape of Osaka while standing on piece of history that lived through the city's evolution.

We arrived at the front of the castle and left by a path that leads to its back. A family from Hong Kong was taking a group portrait to remember their visit to this monument of Japan's shogunate history.

The icing on the cake... Thing is, which is the icing, which is the cake? Haha

With the sakura in full bloom and the classical Japanese architecture of Osaka Castle awash with the warm glow of sunset, I am thankful for the opportunity to see this grand site at its most beautiful time!

19 June 2016

Osaka (Japan) - Dotonbori : Big Lights & Big Signs

Date of Exploration : 31 Mar 2016

Every city has its icon or signature district and Dotonbori (also spelt Dotombori) in Namba is Osaka's loud and unabashed declaration of the city's personality and stake to fame. Being here actually made me feel small because everything about this electrifying commercial enclave is so larger-than-life, I felt as if I've been shot by a shrink ray.

Flanking Dotonbori Canal that cuts across Osaka's Namba district, the radius of streets and buildings in the vicinity is collectively known as Dotonburi. It is the downtown hub for food and entertainment and the area is served by a number of the city's underground rail network (MRT in Singapore's context).

The Glico Man! Finally I get to see it in person after all the photos and frame a shot with its reflection on the bridge I was on. Friends have lamented that internet photos killed the mystery of discovering a place but I find a thrill in reaching my own perspective to appreciate a scene that so many have photographed.

It is not about seeing but feeling the energy and interpreting the magic of a place in our own ways that make travelling worthwhile despite the photos and thoughts that have been shared online.
We are winners! Doing what everybody does with the Glico Man signboard. The reminder that running is good for health was installed in 1935 as a static billboard before being upgraded to an animated LED signboard in the 20th century. The billboard gets updated with customised imageries during special events such as when Japan bid for the World Cup in 2002.

But the humungous LED signboards that lined Dotonbori Canal are just an appetiser to the real treat behind them... the massive food and shopping streets that sprawled in all directions and the giant sculpted signboards!

The Japanese are so good at making wax miniatures of food but in Dotonbori, I see that their talents in making plastic look delicious take on a mammoth scale. The food street of Dotonbori is filled with giant signboards advertising mouthwatering food!

Perhaps the most famous of the 3D gigantic signboards that spun many copycats is this monstrous 6.5m installation of the Japanese Snow Crab. The legs and eyes move as if it is alive!

Giant octopus advertising a shop that specialises in Takoyaki (octopus balls).

Pufferfish lantern... a sure sign that tells you the specialty of the restaurant it advertises. We came here to try a 6-course fugu meal. Click here to find out more.

This looks really creepy!

The giant advertising mascots don't just go on the wall, but in the ground as well. These phallic whatevers look like some serious angry food that can do some real damage.

Quite a few shops selling Takoyaki (octopus balls) along the street and we decided to spend on this one because it had a long queue during our visit.

Grill baby grill... 5 for approximately S$4.50 and 10 for S$8.50. Our strategy at Dotonbori food street was to buy small so that we can sample more different foods.

The Takoyaki was piping hot with flakes and condiments melting all the succulent octopus balls. As I bit into one of them, a milky center oozed creamy hot filling onto the tongue.

Bring the drag on... This fearsome creature of Chinese mythology that seem to have too much make-up on is the mascot for Kinryu Ramen (金龍ラーメン), a popular ramen chain restaurant. Just along Dotonbori street alone, we saw 3 outlets and one of them had a really long queue. That many mouths can't be wrong so we decided to fill up here for the night's dinner.

After purchasing meal tickets at a vending machine outside the restaurant, we handed them over to the service staff and they prepared our orders. Huge pots are fuming in the kitchen like the firey belly of a dragon.

A satisfying bowl of pipping hot ramen with pork slices that cost ¥600 (S$7.70) for regular size and ¥600 (S$10.30) for a large bowl with more noodles and meat. What I liked about eating here is that there's free-flow kimchi, pickled vegetable and minced garlic. Anything with all-you-can-eat garlic would almost instantly become my favourite. But my breath after that? Not so favourite with friends.

The number of street food stalls and restaurants at the very lively Dotonbori are staggering. So it is best to come here hungry and eat your way down the flashy district awash with lights and Godzilla-sized signboards. And after dinner, there are plenty of retail shops around the area to browse for souvenirs and walk off the calories!
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