Monday, 17 November 2014

Origin of the Japanese lucky cat - Gotokuji Temple

The image of Maneki-neko (the Japanese lucky cat) is famous around the world.  There are actually two types.  One with the left had raised which brings in customers to a store of restaurant and one with the right hand raised which brings good luck and wealth.  To Western people it appears as though the cat is waving.  It is, however, beckoning as beckoning someone in Japan is done with the palm facing the person, almost in a waving action, whereas in the west, we beckon people with our palm facing up.




There are many stories as to the origin of the beckoning cat, and the one that I was told, and continue to tell others goes like this.

A long time ago there was a temple that was nothing more than a simple hut.  The Monk who inhabited the temple was very poor and just survived on his small income.  He owned a cat and looked after it like it was his child often sharing his simple meal with the cat.  He said to the cat one day "If you are grateful to me, bring some fortune to the Temple".
A few months later a group of samurai were passing the Temple and noticed the cat in front of the temple with it's right hand raised beckoning them.  They left their horses and walked over for a closer look.  At this point the Monk came out and the samurai told him what the cat had done and that it caused them to stop and come over to ask if they could rest at the Temple.
The Monk brought them inside and served them tea.  Suddenly a storm started outside and the samurai were grateful for the shelter and the tea.  The Monk preached to them while the storm raged outside.  The group of samurai were so happy and started to think about converting to the Temple.  One of them said "I am Naotaka Ii, the Lord of Hikone.  Because your cat beckoned us in, we were able to hear your preaching.  This has opened our eyes and it must be Buddha's will".
Soon after the samurai returned home they donated large rice fields and farm land to the Temple which made the Temple as grand as it is today.  Not long after the cat died, the Maneki-neko statue was established so that everyone could remember what had happened.

A great story that explains an image that is very well known.

Yesterday I was talking to my brother, Matty,  about his upcoming visit to Japan and we were looking for places online for him to stay.  One place we were looking at was in an area of Tokyo called Gotokuji.  I did a google image search to see what the area looked like and was stunned to see what appeared.  A little bit of research later and I realised that I had found the Temple in which the above story takes place.  This required a visit to the Temple to have a look.

The Temple is located in Gotokuji in suburban Tokyo on the Odakyu train line.  It is a nice little suburb with the usual look of an old quiet little neighbourhood.

Little restaurants lining the streets,





and some bigger ones too.





Lovely little residential streets





and shops of all shapes, sizes and varieties.








It looks like a regular little residential suburb, nice, quiet and normal unless you walk about 10 minutes south of the train station.  That's where you will find Gotokuji Temple.



Those of you who often read my blog (and thank you for doing so!) will know that I like temples and shrines.  The peaceful and relaxed atmosphere they bring is in stark contrast to daily life in Tokyo.  Many Tokyo office workers will sometimes take their lunch to places like temples, shrines and gardens like Hama Rikyu Garden to relax and de-stress for an hour or so.

I love the interesting statues scattered around the grounds,



and these bells, when they are rung, just make for a totally Zen experience.  There is nothing else quite like being inside a temple grounds amongst the beauty of their manicured gardens with the bell tolling every so often.



And speaking of the manicured gardens, it just happens to be Autumn in Japan at the moment which adds incredible colour to the already beautiful gardens!











"But the cats Jason, what about the cats?" I hear you asking.  Yes, the cats.  Walking around one corner of the temple,



and what I was confronted with left me absolutely stunned (as we would say in Australia, I looked like a stunned mullet) and amazed!

Cats,



hundreds of cats,



maybe thousands of cats,



it may have even been millions of cats, I'm not sure



because I sure couldn't count them all!




And I wouldn't want to be the person that did!

While you are at the temple, make sure you visit the temple shop where you can buy various sized cat figurines to take home along with an English explanation of the story behind the cat.

I hope you enjoyed that post.  Visiting the temple and seeing all of those cats and the beautiful gardens was a great way to spend an afternoon.

Thanks again for reading, and see you soon.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Oshima Island - Habu Port (the fishing village that time forgot)

This is the final part of a three part post on Oshima Island.  You can find part 1 here and part 2 here.  Scott, this one is for you.

Habu Port is a small fishing port on the south tip of Oshima Island.  The port actually used to be a crater lake but in 1703 a tsunami slammed into it instantly transforming it into a port and the residents suddenly had a new industry, fishing!

I woke up early on my third day on Oshima Island and charged my batteries with another awesome breakfast at the hotel,




although I didn't touch the thing in the little cup at the front of the tray.  My Japanese readers (and those who also live in Japan) are probably laughing right now.  For the benefit of those that don't know, it is natto.  Natto is evil.  It is fermented soy beans and it has the smell of a pair of socks that have been worn for 30 days without being washed!  It is very healthy though........

After breakfast, I went out to the road to wait for the bus (they come along about every half an hour, so I didn't want to miss one!) that would take me to Habu Port.  The bus rides around the island are not cheap, but it is cheaper than renting a car or catching a taxi.   As I said at the beginning of the first part of the Oshima Island posts, this part of the trip had been over a year in the making and the anticipation was building.   After about a 20 minute bus ride, we arrived.






For those of you who don't know me, I grew up in fishing towns.  This was getting back to my roots, and I was walking around with a big grin on my face and a far away look in my eyes.

There were boats of all shapes and sizes moored in the port.









And in dry-dock too.



I figured that most of the fishing action happens in the morning being that there were so many boats in the port.  Maybe they head out early in the morning and are back by lunch.  I did see a couple of boats come in but they didn't seem to be carrying much off the boats.  Maybe not such a successful day.



On my left was a huge sheer rock wall that had metal cabling in place to prevent rock falls.



While looking into the air, I saw another ominous sign........the buzzards were back!



There was one ship dominating the port, so much bigger than all of the others, it was the Oshima Maru.




One man on deck doing some running repairs.  He was actually painting, and it was a pretty small paint brush.  Whatever he had done, the captain was obviously pretty angry with him!



I had reached the other side of the port, where the village was.



Some really nice old houses and a lovely main street (I guess it was the main street, but it was tiny!



The street was really nice, a paved street with each of the pavers made up of hundreds of little pebbles.



The houses were beautiful and the street was immaculate!




Amongst the houses was a sushi restaurant



and a little General store.  As I walked past, the smell of croquettes filled the air.  Unfortunately I was still full from breakfast to go in!




Just around to the right of the shop was a monument.  





Thanks to my friend Tomohiro, I was able to find out what the writing is.  It is the lyrics of a song composed in 1923 entitled Habu no Minato (Habu's Port).  The lyrics tell the story of the lonely life of the fisherman and his family on the island.  A translation of the lyrics into English can be found here.  The same website can also provide a French translation.

Nearby I saw a big map of the island on a tiled patch on the ground so I decided to have a look.



Here is where we are today,



this is where we were yesterday, Mount Mihara



and right around here is where the hotel is.



Also right in the area was this.




The idea is that you hit each of the metal tubes in order from left to right with the mallet and a haunting Japanese song (possibly Habu no Minato, the song on the monument) is played in perfect tune.  In fact, it can be heard loudly and clearly all the way across the port!

Walking back to some steps I had seen earlier, I saw this house.



Looking at it I wondered if it had been evacuated in the 1986 eruption of Mount Mihara and had been left abandoned ever since.  Throughout the day I was to see more and more evidence of this.

I arrived back at the steps with my leg muscles screaming at me to not even entertain the thought of climbing them, still being in pain from the climb up Mount Mihara the day before.  My curiosity (thankfully) got the better of me, and I started to climb.



(If I had known how many steps there were, I might have reconsidered.......)

At the top of the first flight of steps was a nice old Ryokan (Old Japanese Inn).



At the top of the next flight of steps 



there was a nice different view of the port.



After pausing to take this photo, I continued up the steps (I felt like I was climbing that legendary Stairway to Heaven......)





Finally, after climbing for what seemed like an eternity, I reached the top!



The little streets along here were amazing, full of rustic charm and character.








As I mentioned earlier, up here there were more signs of homes that had never been returned to after one of the multitude of natural disasters that have hit the island over the years.




Soon I came across a little shrine with statues of deities and other things (I wasn't too sure why the monkeys were here....) scattered around the grounds.










Walking back out to the road, I suddenly got the feeling that I was interrupting someone's day......



As you can see from these pictures.  There was almost no-one around.  Walking around this area, I could hear the occasional TV playing inside a house or an "itadakimasu!" as someone was sitting down to lunch.  The only people I saw were a couple of people working in their back gardens and the postman doing his rounds (on a Sunday!).  These people that I did see, all gave me a big smile, a nod and a "konnichiwa!".

Moving a little further away from this area, the appearance of the streets started to change.








A lot more plant life and one piece of heavy machinery.......



Turning around, I saw what every small fishing village should have, a ramen restaurant!



As I was contemplating crossing the street and having a bowl, my ears picked up a hint of a sound of people cheering and yelling at what in all likelihood was some kind of sports competition.  This needed to be found and checked out, so off I went, following the sounds until they came closer and closer until I found..........a baseball game!

I sat down on a bench in right field and started to watch.  I had sat down with what I soon found out was 2 out in an (don't know which one) inning.  There was a runner on third.  The pitcher balked on the first pitch and the home plate umpire waved the runner home for a score.  On the next pitch, the batter ground out at first plate, and the side was retired.



The blue team took to the field and the pitcher started warming up.  



He had a nasty, mean fast ball and I was thinking that this might be a quick inning if he was going to pitch anything like he did in his warm-up.  The first batter struck out swinging at a fast ball.  The second batter came up and on ball 4 took a walk to first.  A couple of pitches in to the next batter, the runner on first set off to steal second and the catcher didn't even try to throw him out.  One out, runner on second.  Next pitch the batter hit an infield flyball and shortstop got into position under the ball and made the catch.  Two out.  Next pitch, the pitcher tossed a looping curve ball and the batter jumped on it and smacked it to deep left field for an RBI double.  The pitcher went back to his fastball after that, but he was shaken and the next batter hit the ball out to centre field.  Centre field got under the ball and...........dropped it!  The batter made it to second and the runner on second made it to third.  "Mottainai!!" (Wasteful!!) the shortstop screamed at the centre fielder.  Tensions were rising.  Suddenly, play was halted as the field was invaded by a cat.  One of the mothers ran on to the ground to take the cat from the centre fielder so play could continue.


The next batter hit an RBI single to right field and the coach came out from the dugout to have a word with the pitcher.  There was no-one warming up in the bullpen.........in fact, there was no bullpen, so the pitcher was safe.  The next batter hit the first pitch straight back to the pitcher who threw him out at first and the inning was over.


The game was over for me as my stomach was starting to tell me it needed food so started walking back to the ramen shop.  

On the way I passed a couple of sights that made me even more sure that the town had had a more lively past.


While that swimming pool clearly wasn't used any more, surely this school was not abandoned too!




I arrived at the ramen shop and walked in.  The owner was a little surprised to see me, so I gathered that not too many non-Japanese people go to her shop.  She helped me understand the menu (I understand a lot of food names, but struggle to read many of them so she read them out for me) and I settled on a nice cold beer and charshiu men (ramen with extra slices of pork).



Full and feeling very satisfied I made my way back to the port to catch the bus back to the main part of the island.  Instead of getting off near my hotel, I went all the way back to Motomachi Port so I could enjoy the walk back to the hotel.  On the way back I decided to check out the beach and what I saw challenged my accepted and preconceived concept of what constitutes a beach.  Being Australian, every beach that I have ever set foot on has beautiful pristine white sand.  Not this beach!




I walked to the sand and picked up a handful, and, yes, it was sand, beautiful fine black sand.  This was one last wonderful surprise that Oshima Island had provided me!

The next day, I returned back to Tokyo with a smile on my face.  Izu Oshima had provided me with some superb, beautiful and unexpected memories.  An active volcano, a sleepy little fishing village and an amazing beach experience.  It had challenged me, not only physically, but mentally too, entertained and enchanted me.  I only hope that I have the opportunity to return one day.

Thanks for reading.  This one turned out to be quite a long post.  Scott, I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did.

See you next time.