Category Archives: Japan

Japanese Food – photo essay

Some friends at my former workplace invited me in to give a slideshow of pictures from my recent time in Japan. It was a pleasure to take  a look again at the pictures and to try to find some favourites. I have been back in Canada since the end of May so I am already starting to forget—but when I looked at the photos I was surprised again by how amazing and beautiful Japan is. Wow. I saw that? Wow! I went there? Wow! I ate that food? Amazing! And it opened my eyes again, walking around town, to all the marvels to be seen….anywhere and anytime.

Today, a photo essay on some of the food I saw and tasted in Japan. Click on a picture to enter the slide show. Enjoy!

Thank you to everyone who cooked for me or took me out for a meal in Japan! I’m so grateful! Because of you, I got to experience Japanese culture and cuisine more intensely.


Onsen, 3 visits

Japan is famous for its work ethic, but I was still surprised by the long hours that some of my friends worked during a typical week. I suppose the antidote to that kind of stress is the Japanese onsen or “hot springs”. I feel lucky to have experienced 3 very different onsen while travelling in Japan.

plaque for Sakinoyu onsen, Shirahama, Japan

I went to Shirahama for a day to see its sights and decided it was the perfect place to experience a Japanese onsen for the first time at Sakinoyu. It’s famous, extremely old, outdoors, and cheap! I read up on the place before I went, but I was still surprised by how simple it was. The hot spring baths are blocked off by rocks and a fence—but onsen visitors are open to the sky and the gorgeous ocean scenery and soak in the nude while inhibitions are drained away by the delicious heat! (Men and women’s pools are separated by a fence.) The toilets are in the parking lot outside, as are the lockers for your valuables. When I was there, 2 cheerful attendants took me through the drill in terms of lockers, paying 300 yen to the vending machine (around $3.50 Canadian), and what is allowed and not allowed inside the bath area. Once inside, there are cubbies for your clothes, but there isn’t a lot of space for disrobing. I went on a hot afternoon in May, and it wasn’t busy. Wanting to avoid errors of onsen etiquette (like…where was I supposed to leave my shoes?), I asked a naked woman beside me a few simple questions. She and her friend, cheerful ladies in their 60’s from Osaka, were happy to initiate me into the wonders of onsen and put up with my grammatically ridiculous questions (such as which pool of the 3 is the hottest and which one should I start in?). They didn’t know much English and I knew only a little Japanese, but we quite enjoyed our conversation.

Warning! Onsen are bliss-inducing for some folk (including me). There was no clock in this rustic and utterly fantastic place, so I just stayed on after my new friends had left. In this peaceful state, I watched the ocean and the sky happily and even the huge, grey centipede-like creatures, scuttling over the rocks from time-to-time, looked like messengers from the Gods.

When I emerged, the friendly attendant laughed at how red my face was from the heat and the sunshine. I felt very, very relaxed. And hot! It took a long walk, wading in the pleasantly cool waters of Shirahama Beach to bring my temperature down to normal.

After a long soak in the famous Sakinoyu Onsen, Shirahama, Japan

Note: for some awesome pictures of this onsen, click here to visit the “Onsen Soaker” blog. (I didn’t bring my camera inside as it was forbidden!)

After my time in Wakayama, I went to visit my friend Nori in Yugawara, a small city known for its healing hot springs. The first hot spring Nori and I visited was just for our feet! The set-up was quite engaging and the little pools, connected by rushing water and paths, reminded me of a mini-golf course. I was astounded and delighted to discover the purpose of this onsen. Each pool had a different texture on the bottom: some had big stones, some had small stones, some had a metal grid, others had bumpy texture put into the cement bottom. Each pool had a plaque explaining which body system it benefited.

Onsen for feet, Yugawara, Japan

It started to rain soon after we arrived at the pools, but fortunately we were sitting on a bench soaking our feet under a small roof. There was thunder and lightning. Some other visitors stuck it out but many left. At one point, I heard a little “plunk” and looked to my right to see the guy sitting next to me scooping his smartphone out of the onsen pool without a single exclamation. That seemed to me rather stoic, but I guess it brought home the truth that onsen are designed for relaxation not using electronic devices.

After the rain let up, Nori and I went directly to the hottest pool, which also had the bumpiest bottom, apparently made up of smooth river stones. We enjoyed trying out all of the different textures on our toes.

textured foot onsen in Yugawara, Japan

After the foot onsen, Nori and I continued walking up the pretty river ravine to a local hot spring spa. This place was fairly large and featured lockers with numeric combinations to lock your shoes up as soon as you arrived. My friend and I arranged to meet up at the “rest area” after about an hour and a half in the baths, and he went into the men’s side, and I went into the ladies’ side. This onsen also had three pools. Two of them were inside and one was outside. There was a sizable area for locking up valuables, disrobing (you could leave your clothes in a basket or lock them up with your other stuff), mirrors and hair driers for cleaning up afterwards, and a scale in case you wanted to see how much weight you had lost after the steam bath. The washing area (it is essential that bathers wash themselves before entering the hot spring pools) was in the onsen area and had a dozen or so taps with hand-held shower heads, buckets, and pumps with shampoo and bodywash. This area was so steamy it was difficult to see the clock clearly at times.

After getting clean, I tried the first pool, which was pleasant, but I found the steamy fog difficult to breathe and soon went to the outside pool. Unlike Sakinoyu, which was open to the sky and the sea, this pool was gently secluded by bamboo matting, thick vegetation, rocks, and a fence. There was a waterfall trickling to the left and a stone temple lantern, there was water dripping down from the bamboo matting. Was it raining or sunny outside? Sometimes, looking through the verdant layer of leaves, it was hard to tell. This was a dreamy place to rest and let the mind slow down. Convenient rock shelves served as places to sit when women wanted to cool off or to rest their heads when they wanted to let their bodies float. Women came and went, and no one talked much to each other, rather, our languid movements mirrored some kind of inward process unique to each individual as we let go of daily concerns in the soothing hot water.

Eventually, it was time to leave this dream-state and meet my friend. I managed to retrieve my towel and clothes, find my comb, use the hairdryer, and appear somewhat presentable. I then made my way upstairs to the rest space, where free green tea was available. Here I was surprised again! The tatami mat area had low tables and flat pillows for sitting or lying and the huge windows looked out at the peacefully forested mountains. And what were people doing? Drinking tea, talking quietly, and… napping! Okay, if I had any doubts before, I had none now. This was definitely my kind of place. After rehydrating with some kind of blueberry yogurt drink, and chatting with my friend for a few minutes, we each found our own comfortable spots and took naps, along with a bunch of other totally relaxed strangers. I woke up about half and hour later, feeling refreshed and rejuvenated.

napping & resting area with great view, Yugawara, Japan

One of the Osaka ladies at the first onsen I visited asked me if we had onsen in Canada; regretfully, I had to tell her “not really”…. I could only think of one place in B.C. (Harrison Hotsprings). However, a quick peek on the internet tells me there are actually a lot of hot springs in Canada (check it out here). No doubt they are totally different from the Japanese hot spring culture, but the next time I’m travelling in Western Canada, I will try to check one or two of them out. Relaxing in hot water with nothing else to do but dream—that’s a good thing wherever we happen to be…even in our own bathtubs at home.

going underground

Sandan-heki, Shirahama, Japan

When I’m travelling, if I read there is some kind of underground cavern or catacombs in the vicinity, then I usually make sure that I visit it.* When I went to Shirahama, Wakayama on Tuesday, I took the bus from the station to Sandan-heki (3 step cliff) to see the 50 metre high cliffs and the sea cavern underneath, which used to be inhabited by pirates. It was quiet when I got there around noon. I admired the gorgeous cliffs and the scent of jasmine on the wind, and then went inside the modern building to pay my admission for the elevator to the cave.

There were no other tourists in the elevator that whisked me down to the bottom of the cliff underground. When I stepped out of the elevator I was in a rocky room with some reconstructed pirates, a staff member, and a glass case showcasing souvenirs. The lighting was dim, the smell of the ocean was overpowering, and the sound of the sea booming nearby was all I could hear. The elevator attendant gestured toward an opening in the rock where the loud crashing of the waves was coming from. I felt a thrill at that moment and a slight hesitation. Was it fear? Excitement? The change from aboveground and daylight to underground and lamplight only took 12 seconds.

I went through the archway and found myself in a rocky passage that opened into the sea cave where the water was crashing inside. I could see the daylight where the cliff opened. In the other direction, the passage, lit with Japanese lanterns, went further back into the cliff.

underground passage, Sandan-heki

It was exotic and exciting. It’s what some might call a “liminal” area (that word was really “hot” when I did my MA many years ago). But yes, yes, it was that, “a place at both sides of the boundary or threshold”. Outside, yet inside, dark, yet light, on land, yet filled with water. It was a magical place to be, there in the inbetween. Feels like my life right now, I guess.

sea cave, Sandan-heki, Wakayama, Japan

Further back into the rock cavern, there was a shrine to Benzaiten, god of the sea, who also brings happiness to people’s lives. I found it a powerful place. I said my prayers there for the now and for the beyond.

Shrine to Benzaiten, Sandan-heki, Shirahama, Japan

Note: * mining tunnels are the exception to this rule! I don’t have any urge at all to visit them.

Buddha & Spiderman, who knew?

mural on the wall of an elementary school, Kushimoto

I love this mural on the wall of an elementary school in Kushimoto, Wakayama, Japan. I never thought there was a connection between the Buddha and Spiderman, but the kid who painted this seems to feel one, or, at least, I feel one when I look at the way the Buddha’s hair and Spiderman’s costume are painted. See the similarity? Then again, perhaps Spiderman is fulfilling the role of one of those guardians I see at the gates of temples I’ve been visiting. Anyway, it’s a great juxtaposition. The graceful turtle swims along below…. And the pretty pagoda balances it all. There is a story here, and, as in so many instances, I am guessing it will always be a mystery to me.

missed the signpost, got there anyway

the missed signpost

I walked a lot in Kyoto, and it was easy to find my way on foot without a map. Kyoto is mainly a grid city—the hills to the East, the Kamo River, the large busy streets of Sanjo, Shijo, & Karasuma, and Kyoto tower by Kyoto station were my landmarks. If I walked far enough I was bound to see one of these landmarks.

Tanabe is not on a North-South grid, and despite the fact that the sea is to the West and Southwest, I got good and lost today. It’s not that it’s so difficult to get to Kozan-ji temple, at least not if you start from Kii-Tanabe station, but I didn’t start out with that destination in mind when I began walking after my lunch at Cafe de Porc in downtown Tanabe. No, it was after I’d wandered across the river and turned up a little street where I happened to see the signpost, part of the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage route, pointing the way to Kozan-ji temple (1.3 km). I looked at my Tanabe Explorer Map and saw that the temple had a lot of green space around it. I decided to visit it and set off up the hill.

Fifteen to 20 minutes later I was drenched in sweat, way above Tanabe in the hills, walking on a sidewalk beside a busy highway wondering where the heck the temple was. On the way, I passed a lumber yard, the metal garbage dump, and a love hotel. I walked back to the love hotel (these are hotels where you pay in blocks of 3 or 4 hours–meant for discreet trysts) and I asked for directions from a friendly staff member. I was off the Explorer map and heading North, rather than Northeast.

not where I expected to be (looking down at Tanabe, Japan)

Well, I headed back the way I’d come. At least I knew how to retrace my steps and get back to my hotel that way. I didn’t really know where I was on the map, but I’d been walking for almost an hour since lunch and the sun was warm. I stopped to drink some kind of tasty grape beverage from a ubiquitous Suntory vending machine and felt refreshed. However, when I reached the crossing of 5 small roads, I went over to look at the Japanese public “you are here” map and then, walking a bit further, I saw the wooden signpost that I’d missed the first time which told me to turn right! Okay, I’d given up on reaching the temple (after all, I’d seen a lot of temples in Kyoto) but seeing the signpost revived my interest. I turned and continued with my quest to reach Kozan-ji. It was almost 4 pm and I wondered if the gates would be closed by the time I found it. After one more helpful wooden sign, the trail petered out. Which is to say, there was no guidance at the T-intersection as to which way to turn, and I still didn’t know where I was on the Explorer map.    

I have lost count of the number of times I have asked strangers for directions in Japan. And I’m so grateful because everyone has been helpful. This time I asked an elderly man who had a big bundle of flowers in his hand. He got quite animated, put the flowers securely on his scooter, and rushed off down the road to the T-intersection to point out the way to me. In the distance, to the left of the river, I could see a mysterious island of tall trees towering over the houses. They seemed to shimmer with vitality. They had a sort of “otherworldly” look that Miyazaki captures so vividly and accurately in his films.

It took another 10 minutes to walk there and when I came to the large temple gate and saw the stone steps leading up into the forest, I felt awe. Reverently, I walked through the gate and entered the forest.

entrance steps to Kozan-ji Temple, Tanabe, Wakayama

When I reached the top, I was moved by how beautiful and peaceful a place it was. It was very, very quiet this afternoon. When I arrived, there was an old woman amongst the gravestones, and later I saw an old man praying at one of the shrines. After all of the wandering, the wrong turns, the sweat, the asking of directions, the loud traffic, here I was. I walked around looking at all of the buildings.

Pagoda @ Kozan-ji Temple, Tanabe, Japan

I fell in love with the water garden and the small temple in its middle. I sat on a rock at the water’s edge for a long time, quietly ecstatic. I felt tears well up from my heart—it felt strange and wonderful to reach such a sacred destination when I didn’t even know that I was going there. Not knowing how I would feel when I reached it (how could I?) I’d given up several times during my journey. Yet, something kept pulling me back to the goal of reaching this temple. 

I’m sure that sometimes Kozan-ji temple is busy and noisy with tourists and worshippers, but sitting beside the pond contemplating the simple stone bridge, the sacred buildings and statues, watching the little turtles and dragonflies, this place was the peace that I had hoped to find in Japan.

Peaceful pond garden @ Kozan-ji Temple, Tanabe, Japan

* * *

I’ve written at length about my day’s journey because I was thinking about the way we journey through our lives. How we miss certain signposts and get “lost”, see things we didn’t set out to see, experience things we didn’t set out to experience, and how we are often given second chances and encouragement, guidance from helpful strangers, at crucial times when we are about to give up on our quests, telling ourselves that the goal isn’t really that important. In my case, it didn’t seem all that important to reach Kozan-ji Temple as I was trying to get there, but nevertheless, somehow, I got there. And when I got there, I felt how important it was and it was a surprise to me.

What about you? Which signposts, looking back, did you miss? What gifts did the unexpected experiences of being lost give you? Who helped you find your way? When did you get a second chance, or a third? What surprisingly sacred places did you suddenly find? What journey are you on right now, this very moment?