東寺 Traders of the Temple

The end of the month in Kyoto is the time of markets. The time to spend a little of your time strolling the grounds of a temple surveying the beautiful clothes on hangers, the less beautiful clothes in heaps on the floor, the food stalls, the neatly organised tables of antiques and what looks like the contents of an old man’s garage strewn over a blanket. Temple markets are not an event to be missed – cheap deals, cheap food, and rare finds make this a great immersion exercise in Japanese culture and language (or sign language if you don’t speak Japanese).

Today I will cover Toji, the most famous of the temple markets in Kyoto. I also visited Kitano Tenmangu market, but I will save that for tomorrow. Toji market, known to Japanese as Kobo-san, is a market focussing on clothes and antiques that covers most of Toji’s grounds. I have covered Toji before (here) so I will not go into the history of the temple itself, but I will talk about the market.

Kobo-san is the name rather than ‘Toji-market’ because it is dedicated to the great monk Kukai, founder of Toji and one of the great teachers in Japanese Buddhism. Kukai’s posthumous name is Kobo-daishi 弘法大師 which literally means ‘the great master that spread Buddhist teaching’. As Daishi 大師 just means ‘great teacher’, his name is shortened to Kobo and the suffix san is added.

Kukai’s death was on the 21st of the month, so the market is held every month in his honour. The market is apparently particularly good in December, but sadly I was unable to go to that one. It’s really impressive whenever you go to be honest. There is even a smaller market every Sunday, so if your time in Kyoto is limited, if you visit on a Sunday you can still get a taste of Kobo-san.

I strolled through the market, trying to surreptitiously take pictures of the stalls. I’m sure they don’t really mind, but I’d prefer not to test that theory. I bought several things at the market; I’ve realised recently that despite living in Japan for 9 months I have little to show for it in terms of souvenirs. I bought: some pretty hand-made hairpins, a short kimono-style jacket/ cardigan (for wearing in my room, not out), an indian flute (maybe to get some petty revenge against my neighbour that is apparently learning keyboard, maybe because I miss playing music) and a beautiful scroll of Mr Tiger. The scroll is rolled up now so please excuse the mobile phone photo instead of one from my nice camera.

I also had a couple of snacks. In my mind the quintessential street food in Kyoto (or Kansai in general) is tako-yaki. Though the name たこ焼き tako-yaki, just means ‘fried octopus’ it is actually pieces of octopus placed in a batter mix and cooked in round frying plates (see below) and then sprinkled with sauce, dry seaweed flakes and mayonnaise. They are absolutely delicious but always as hot as lava. Every, Single, Time, I eat tako-yaki, I burn my tongue. This is a test of patience that I fail. I know I’m going to fail. I know only the last ball is going to actually taste of anything but pain and a sense of forced stoicism as I try to make it look like I am enjoying the ball instead of experiencing the fires of hell in my mouth. But always, I cannot wait. I feel like this says a lot about my patience levels. I also feel that it is the peer pressure from the little old ladies that buy the tako-yaki and immediately chow down, apparently immune to the lava. Maybe they are veterans and no longer feel the pain, maybe they too are experiencing the internal struggle. All I know is that last ball of tako-yaki is so delicious that it’s all worth it. Really tasty, try it. Just try to wait for it to cool down, if you can.

The other snack I had was just disappointment, a tale of desperation and unrealistic expectations. I was really thirsty, and it turns out that flea markets are one of the only places in Japan where there are no vending machines. I walked past a crushed ice stand, so I went for it, forgetting that this is not the same as shaved ice, but actual large-ish pieces of ice with a ‘strawberry’ syrup dumped over the top. The syrup tastes of vanilla and chemicals, it doesn’t matter which of the 6 flavours you choose, they all taste of disappointment. Also they give you a straw but nothing comes through because it’s just ice and you have to wait for it to melt. I ended up throwing it away after walking around for ages trying to find a bin (another thing that Japan apparently hasn’t heard of). Would not recommend.

Kobo-san is a great place to buy your souvenirs in a more interactive (and cheap) environment. There are big piles of kimono and yukata on the floor (on blankets) that you can pick up and try on. These floor-kimono are typically only around 1000円 (£5 ish) which is really really cheap. Sadly this means most are ill-fitting or not that nice or a bit stained, but there are real catches in there if you take the time to rifle through. If you really want to find something special, it’s best to go early in the morning, but you can still do pretty well in the afternoon. I wouldn’t go any later than 3 if you want to really shop though.

Kobo-san is one of those experiences that both Kyoto-dwellers and those visiting can really enjoy. I would recommend it to anyone in Kyoto and I will probably be going back next month. Tomorrow hopefully I will cover Kobo-san’s rival, the market at Kitano Tenmangu, Tenjin-san. Also this is my 75th blog post! Maybe I’ll make it to 100 before I leave Japan!

伊勢 A Rocky Marriage

Wandering back from my trip to the sacred inner shrine of Ise, I came across a street packed with people, food, and old shops. From this place a bus journey and a train journey carried me to the coast, where I discovered two rocks joined in eternal matrimony. This is the second part of my trip to Ise (part one). I ate lots of delicious food, saw the sea (which is rare for a Kyoto-dweller), and witnessed a symbol of the link between life and death.

First, let us take a stroll down Oharai Machi, a street leading up to the Naiku 内宮 of Ise Taisha. I walked down this street rather than up towards the shrine as I got the bus direct from the outer shrine to the inner. There were lots of delicious foods and souvenirs down this street. I certainly enjoyed trying some of the local foods.

First I came across a rather interesting ice-cream shop. It seemed normal until I read the sign that advertised the flavours: strawberry, chocolate, sakura, spiny lobster, vanilla… yeah. Spiny lobster is a flavour of ice cream now. I’ve seen wasabi ice cream, I’ve seen tomato ice cream, but this is the first seafood soft-serve I’ve met. Looking back I wish I’d bought it, but alas I lacked the commitment to tackle a whole questionable ice cream alone. Instead I went for the more traditional strawberry swirled with chocolate. ★★★☆☆

The next snack I had was an ‘Ise croquette’, a really creamy delicious croquette with a seafood filling. It was warm and crispy, delicious. I love visiting seaside towns in Japan, the sudden availability of fresh seafood is fantastic. ★★★★

I strolled down the street until I came across Okage Yokocho, a small town that was constructed in 1993 in the style of Edo and Meiji period streets. It really felt like travelling back in time to when all of Japan was wood and narrow streets. I love the old style of street though it is fairly rare. You can find some old streets in Kyoto but it is broken up by the wide modern roads, which, while there would have been wider roads in Kyoto in ye olde times, are not exactly ‘old style’. Though impractical and dangerous (fire spreads quickly with wooden buildings on narrow streets, see: fire of London), there is a certain charm in a perfectly reconstructed capsule of old Japan. Okage Yokocho is one of these.

There were also lots of tiny swifts flying around and making nests in the eves of the houses. I tried to get some pictures but they were pretty flighty and hard to sneak up on.

In this small town I found something that is rather rare for the price in Japan, watermelon! It was only 100円 (60p) which is so cheap for watermelon. Watermelons can sell for up to £2000 (average price around £40), as they are considered a luxury gift you give when you visit someone, not for personal consumption. I really enjoyed the crisp melon in the heat of early Japanese summer. ★★★★

There were lots of lanterns and hidden mini-shrines in Okage Yokocho, it really was a pleasure to explore. One section appeared to be a temple but upon further inspection it was an elaborate lottery booth. I also saw the most fancy konbini (convenience store) in Ise; a beautiful Family Mart that was occupying an old town house.

My next snack was the best of the day. A man and his wife were grilling scallops. I bought one and the man gave me one for free! This is probably because I was one of very very few (visible) foreigners in Ise, and I was alone. They were so delicious, I haven’t had anything quite so delicious since (and I’ve had plenty of nice food). One of those rare moments of absolute pleasure from food. For me that taste will stand out in my mind when I remember my visit. ★★★★★

On my way to the married rocks, I stopped off at a shrine at the end of Oharai Machi. There was a Shinto wedding taking place and I managed to get a photo of them preparing to take an official picture. I didn’t want to be rude so I tried to do it subtly. The shrine I visited was Sarutahiko Shrine 猿田彦神社, dedicated to Sarutahiko Okami, leader of the Kami of the earth and a symbol of guidance and strength. He is patron of several martial arts, including Akido. He is one of the 7 ‘great Kami’ or 大神 (ookami). The shrine was fairly simple but a nice extra, especially with the wedding taking place.

I then got the train from Ieshi Station to Futaminoura station, a short train journey of 6 minutes. From there I walked down the fairly deserted streets (it was around 4pm) towards the rocks. It took me around 30 minutes to reach the coast and the rocks. You are probably wondering what the history of these sacred stones is, so I will tell you while you look at the pictures.

The Meoto Iwa 夫婦岩 represent the parents of most of Japan’s Kami and the parents of the Japanese islands themselves, Izanami and Izanagi. Izanami and Izanagi were brother and sister and also became husband and wife. It is said that they tried to marry once but during the ceremony Izanami (female) spoke first, and they failed to produce any children that were not daemons. The second time Izanagi spoke first, and as they had followed the rules of the man speaking first, they gave birth to the Japanese islands and many other gods. This underlines how Japanese myths  bolster the patriarchal nature of Japanese society, though I find it interesting that Izanami is clearly spirited enough to not simply submit, showing that she is a strong character in her own right, despite the eventual submissive role she has to play. Of course, the larger of the two rocks is male.

Sadly, the marriage of Izanagi and Izanami was not to last. Izanami gave birth to a fire god, and in the process was mortally wounded and died. Izanagi, distraught, travelled to the Japanese underworld, Yomi, a shadow-like land in which the dead exist in neither pleasure nor punishment, to try to get her back. When he found her in Yomi, Izanami, shrouded in darkness, informed him that as she had eaten food in Yomi, she would be unable to return. Izanagi refused to leave her and lit a torch to see her. He saw her decomposing and in decay and, horrified, fled. Izanami was enraged that he had seen her and sent a hideous hag to chase him from Yomi. So enraged was she that she shouted that she would kill 1000 of his people every day as revenge. Izanagi retorted that he would just make sure that 1500 people were born every day. Thus death and life came to be.

You may have noticed several similarities between this myth and Greek mythology, particularly the story of Persephone (the food of the underworld being a binding force) and that of Orpheus, who followed his wife into the underworld in hopes of getting her back. There is no evidence that these are connected to Japanese mythology, more that similar societies seem to produce similar myths, neither story is so unique and strange that it could not be thought of twice. The idea of food as a force tying one to a realm is powerful in religions concerned with the body itself, and the inability to retrieve people from the dead is of course a tale as old as time.

When Izanagi returned from Yomi, emerging from a cave in Izumo province (yes there is a physical site in Japan that is considered the blocked off road to the underworld), he cleansed himself in a stream. When he washed his left eye, Amaterasu, the sun goddess, was born. He cleaned his right eye and Tsukuyomi, the moon god, was born. Finally he cleaned his nose and the storm god, Susanoo, was created. These are some of the most important kami in Shinto.

The two rocks are still married despite the falling out between Izanami and Izanagi, showing the eternity of their bond. The two rocks are bound by a huge shimenawa, a sacred rope made of rice straw, which is replaced several times a year due to its sheer weight (it weighs over a ton). The rocks are considered a shintai, a vessel for kami to inhabit. In Japan many things are considered shintai, including ancient trees and Mt Fuji. The top ranking Sumo champion is also considered a vessel for kami and wears a shimenawa before his matches to keep him pure. Yes, if you get that good at Sumo you are considered a living god, not even something the Emperor is allowed to claim any more (this was banned by the US after WWII).

The rocks are a beautiful sight, and the shrine dedicated to them, Futami Okitama Shrine 二見興玉神社, is a lovely small shrine clinging to the cliff face. It features a lot of frogs (not entirely sure why) and it had the most beautiful stamp I have ever collected, so it was worth it for that alone.

If you visit Ise, don’t just stop at the main shrine, take a trip down to the Meoto Iwa, they are a special experience that anyone visiting Ise should see. If you visit really early in the morning you can see the sun rising between the rocks. Here is a bonus picture of the cat in the hostel I stayed at, he was lovely and his name was Yuki, which means snow.