Sunday, 28 November 2010

Pieces of Japan: Day 10 - Crying Zen

28th December 2009
Yamadera, Yamagata, Japan

The thudding sound of the footsteps through the snow-covered concrete came to a stunning halt, as I stopped short in my tracks. Silence filled the air, save for the sound of a singing winter-bird, singing her lonesome song that added much to the ambience.

Breath-taken and in awe, I stared out at the sight that lay before me. An implicit V-shaped formed by the green canopy of the coniferous trees on the left, and the cliff face of the mountain on the right, while a little red hut standing atop the cliff added a sharp colour contrast to the entire scene, as layers and layers of snow-covered mountains stretched out beyond and into the horizon through the visual-valley between. 

I have always liked mountain-top views, but this was nothing less than a perfect sight of Zen; a view befitting on of the famous mountain-temples in Japan.  

Slice of Zen on the Mountain Top

In fact, the name "Yamadera" itself simply translates directly to "Mountain Temple", probably hinting at its iconic status in the region. An age-old Buddhist temple, Yamadera was built atop and into a mountain, with the temple compound starting at the base of the mountain and stretching all the way to the top - with a view to die for, and a whole lot of Zen to gain - separated by an arduous 1,015 stone steps. It is said that the view that awaits at the end of these 1,015 steps at Godai-dou will make climbers forget about their weary feet, a visual-Nirvana I was determined to verify, as I looked up at the pavilion and knew that I only had a fraction of the ascension left to complete before I attained.

Upper Temple - The Holy Air Up There

There was just one thing left to do before making my final ascent to the peak, and that was to look for my travelling companion, however un-apt the word was for the day thus far. Visually combing the area that lay around me, I finally found her at the opposite end of a winding snow-covered walkway across me, as I saw her walking slowly in my direction. 

Winding Pathway of Death

The ascension had been a torturous one, partially physically - as I willed my feet to go on, one step at a time, watching the scenery around change from a quiet little temple at the bottom, to a quiet snow-covered path through the trees sprinkled with sacred temple monuments and statues, before arriving at the upper temple area, with the structures built into and atop the mountain, with views that would bring a Zen-tear to one's eye.

Yet, the physical toll was the least of my worries, as silence fell between us through the climb, oftentimes with her walking a good distance ahead, and me deliberately slowing down and to keep a sizeable distance between us, but still being able to keep an eye on her.

It was one of those tantrum-days, perhaps where traveller's-fatigue had already set in, and she was at best, non-conversational, and at worst, angry. They say that travelling together is potentially hazardous to a relationship, as arguments are bound to surface, and I guess I could see why.

As she made her way across the winding path towards me one step at a time, her body language indicated something was wrong, as I noticed that her steps were getting increasingly careful, and her arms were spreading out more. I stepped out onto the winding path towards her, hoping to meet her halfway, when I sensed that there was very little traction between my shoes and the snowy path, that almost had an icy-finish atop it.

As I approached her and entered within the radius of her reach, she fell into my arms, body shivering as tears rolled down her face; tears of fear and tears of foolishness - tears that were a result of the fear felt from her imagining herself slipping off the icy path and down the mountain side, perhaps tumbling to her doom. She's always had a more than vivid child-like imagination, and while I was holding her tight and comforting her, at the same time, I was secretly glad that that very same imagination broke the icy silence that fell between us for the last 2 hours of so.

They also say that travelling can help to bring 2 people closer together and strengthen a relationship; and perhaps in this almost-typical scenario of emotional support and dependency, I could see why.  I took her hand, as we walked slowly across the icy path to the base of the wooden pavilion; readying ourselves to scale the final flights of wooden steps to the view that awaited us on top.

Soba in the Little Town Below


Sendai: Starlight Pageant

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Piece of Japan: Day 9 - Time in a Coffee Cup

27th December 2009
Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan

I looked down into the darkness within the uniquely-shaped Coffee Cup, swirling it gently while gripping it by its handle, and watching the chocolate drink within ripple with my gentle movements.

I raised the cup to my lips to sip the rich, chocolate drink within; bringing a sense of warmth physically and emotionally, as I imagined the endorphins within my mind to be released as an after-effect of the consumption of all things chocolate.

I placed the cup down slowly on the table - hearing the soft clattering against the saucer resonate through the foreign-chatter that surrounded us, save for a table not too far off with an accent too familiar for comfort.

I remained silent, peering out of the window at a large field of white snow, stretching to a range of snow-capped mountains not too far off into the distance. Snow fell gently down, as with the few days before, but that made the cosiness of the indoor cafe all-the-more inviting.

She was fiddling with her camera as usual at the corner of my eye, as I continued to peer out into the distance, reminiscing before I had even left.

Sapporo had been kind to us, with her navigate-able grid-like layout, comprehensible transport system and a good amount of English-speaking people all round; the population of one-million to her city size was definitely comfortable without being crowded; especially compared to the Tokyo that we had just came from before that.

The day had been left deliberately free-and-easy for us to explore the city at our own leisurely pace, based on some of the sort-listed locations that we had marked out - allowing us to adjust our schedule ad-hoc-ly to our liking; a sheer pleasure that something more restrictive like a tour package would probably not had been able to provide us.

This freedom landed us in a cafe on the higher floors of the rustic Ishiya Chocolate Factory, sitting by the window panes peering out into the winter landscape if for no other reason than it being cosy, and possibly romantic (if only she would have stopped fiddling around with the flash, hah).

With its rich trademark taste deeply-infused in the signature and somewhat pricey Chocolate Drink, its namesake was well lived up to and proved to be the perfect companion for a cold, winter afternoon. One that was sandwiched within a day well-spent hopping about town searching for the famed Ramen Yokocho, a small-street cramped with 16 or so different ramen stores, for the necessary Hokkaido Ramen fix; and one that would take us to much greater heights atop Mount Moiwa for a breath-taking night view of the city and beyond, with lights that would stretch on for miles into the sea, outlining the unique and rather angular shape of beautiful island of Hokkaido.

Of course, she hardly knew what was in store for her later that evening, as she continued to fiddle with her camera frivolously; unaware of the height that had to be scaled via an odd, snow-tracked bus-like vehicle, and the overwhelming fear of heights that would set in as she approached the ledge to peer out into the distance of the night view.

But that was for later... for now 0 a smile lit upon her face as she brought the cup down from her lips, eyes-widening at the rich taste, and perhaps also from the cosiness of the entire experience.

The clock tower outside of window bustled with activity, as toy soldiers, bears and all manner of cuddly-types made their hourly parade, ushering in the new hour... and the sunset at four - an adjustment that I still hadn't been able to really wrap my head around after so many days in the country.

Everything was two hours faster in Japan, ten felt like noon, sunset was at four, and eight in the evening resonated with the deadness of a typical 10pm vibe. But it always revealed that time was often a matter of perception, and existed in the minds of people more than anything else.

As I brought my coffee cup to my lips and took the time to take another sip of that heavenly taste, I was just glad that I had made time - and it was entirely in my hands for that day.


Ramen Yokocho: 16-in-1

16 shops through that 1 Tiny Street

The Chef...

...And His Work


Ishiya Chocolate Factory: Like Disneyland, but Edible


Mt. Moiwa: The Colour and the Shape

Lights shaped the Island

Not picture: Tears in her Eyes

 Peering into the Past