Tag Archives: Japan

Japan: Irises, Kimonos and Cloud-Pruned Plum Pines

In my last blog on Japan I wrote about the enchanting Sacred Forest of Kashima Jingu, in the water-district a short distance from Tokyo and Narita airport.

Another town in this area is Itako, on the Maekawa River. For hundreds of years Itako has changed its appearance depending on the season. The cooler months become the spectacle of blossoming cherry trees, cosmos, chrysanthemums and maples, but during summer, the iris holds centre stage.

sky art in Itako

sky art in Itako

Beside the Mae River, the Ayame Matsuri, the Iris Festival, is in full bloom. From May to late June, over a million Monet-hued irises brocade the stone-walled river. Wooden bridges arching over mauve fields become viewing platforms for visitors, and cycleways for the local women going about  their daily lives.

Monet-style bridges arch the iris fields

Monet-style bridges arch the iris fields

As the breeze picks up, the irises dance. And a summer tradition that dates back to the 1600s, unfolds. A bride processes along the wooden path through the gardens. She is dressed in a white wedding kimono. Her black lacquered hair is woven through her white tsunokakushi, the silk headdress designed to hide (at least for her wedding day) her horns of jealousy. Traditional music is piped through hidden speakers as her parents escort her to the river where they board a sappa-bune, a bamboo-leaf shaped boat laden with roped casks of sake for her husband-to-be.

 

the bridal party aboard the sappa-bune

the bridal party aboard the sappa-bune

As the boat glides downstream to the wedding ceremony, hundreds of women in iris-inspired kimonos dance in formation through the gardens. Their hand movements mirror the essence of Itako: its water, irises and the mountains of Fuji and Tsukuba.

iris dancers weave through the fields

iris dancers weave through the fields

With thousands of visitors there are vast stalls selling fast-food Itako style. Children from neighbouring schools join in the celebrations.

excited cherubs wait for their teacher

excited cherubs wait for their teacher

I take my own sappa-bune ride on the 12-bidge tour. Megumi, our cheery boat woman propels us through the water.

Megumi and friend

Megumi and friend

We all wear sedge leaf hats and hear stories of the river. We glide past pagoda-style houses and ancient stone monuments used as trade route guides when Itako was on the old trade root from Edo (ancient Tokyo). Peering into backyards abutting the river we see stands of camellias, willows, persimmon trees and the exotic cloud-pruned plum trees.

trees of dreams

trees of dreams

At the end of the iris gardens I follow a path to the Choshoji temple. Tani Genmyo, the Shinto priest in residence tells me that the path has prepared me for prayer, ‘like the prologue of a play.’ Shaded by ancient ginkgoes this 12th century temple was constructed by Minamoto Yoritomo, the warrior who became the first Shogun of Japan and who set in motion the rise and domination of the samurai that would last until the mid 19th century.

master of solace

Tani Genmyo, master of solace

 

 

Japan: Samurais, Shrines and Sacred Forests

As much as I love the bustle of mega cities, like Tokyo, there’s something cathartic about delving into the opposite phenomena. A couple of hours north of Tokyo, and only an hour from Narita International Airpot, where you fly in, take the time to chill out in the Sacred Forest of Kashima Jingu.

There are English-speaking guides at the entrance who will give you a deep understanding of what this 70 hectares of ancient cedar, cypress and cherry trees is about, considering the Shinto shrines scattered throughout were built in 660 BC.

Welcome to Kashima Jingu

Welcome to Kashima Jingu

Firstly, we cleanse ourselves at the small pavilion called the temizuya where we scoop water into our left palms, rinse our mouths and wash our left palms again. Now we are ready to walk beneath the imposing vermillion Romon where my guide enthuses that I ‘feel the air change and sense the spiritual energy.’

Purifying ourselves

Purifying ourselves

As I walk along the winding gravel paths, fringed by ferns and moss-knuckled tree roots I look for the kami – the spirits – believed to inhabit the branches above me.

It’s a day of celebration at Kashima Jingua and there are families everywhere, dressed in exquisite kimonos. Children who are 3, 5 and 7 are being blessed to gain protection from the deities. The god of martial arts is the one enshrined here. His name is Takemikazuchi and his origins go back to the beginnings of sumo wrestling. Centuries ago, the samurais worshipped here to gain their energies from the sun goddess who appeared at dawn.

After the blessing

After the blessing

As well as a deer park, where the resident deers are said to be descendants of the ancient divine messengers, there are ponds and scatterings of haiku scribed on posts – as I found out the Father of Haiku, Matsuo Basho, came here to write almost 500 years ago. There’s a great little cafe where you can lunch on tempura seafood and vegetables along with freshly made soba noodles – and you can watch their making from scratch by Master Chef Mr Sasaki in his glass-walled kitchen.

One amazing place not to miss is the museum at the entrance of the Sacred Forest. It’s an opportunity to get up close and personal to samurai armour over 1000 years old. The armour is made of lacquered wood and leather and their saddles are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. There are helmets with full facial hair and shoes made of fur and feathers. Try and lift the replica 3-metre straight sword, the original is on display and was crafted in the 5th century. You appreciate how strong the samurais were to lift such hefty and unwieldy weapons.

Samurai armour not as big as you'd think

Samurai armour not as big as you’d think