Sunday, July 1, 2007

Takayama - Apparently Japan Has Some Temples And Shrines

Today was probably my favorite day so far on this trip, even though half of it was spent on trains. I woke up outside of Aomori in time to watch a beautiful Japanese sunrise. Eight hours later, I was on my final train to Takayama, not expecting it to be so awesome.

For most of the two-hour ride, the train stayed on a cliff above a river winding through some amazing mountains. Now, I've been to Alaska, the Canadian Rockies, Switzerland, and New Zealand, and each of those places I thought was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. But: This is the most beautiful place I've ever seen.

I never expected Japan to not only have such great natural beauty, but also to have so much of it untouched. And even if it has been altered by man, the buildings aren't intrusive and often compliment the landscapes. I'm constantly amazed by the millions of ancient shrines throughout this country, and it's always surprising when the train speeds past one, as if it's just an everyday sight - which, of course, it is for these people.

So then we got to Takayama. I threw my stuff in my room and immediately went back out to explore. Unlike most of Japan's other larger towns and cities, Takayama wasn't bombed in World War II, so it is filled with ancient buildings that haven't had to be rebuilt much. A walk down virtually any street will let you see several centuries-old buildings, usually standing directly next to modern restaurants and shops. It's very strange.

The streets are also perfect for walking. They're only wide enough for one lane, so the pedestrians virtually rule the streets. In my walk, I stayed mostly in the oldest area of town, and out of nowhere there was suddenly a huge Buddhist quarter. I went to look around at the various buildings, and the only other people in the courtyard with me were two old Japanese women. They came over and started explaining the history of the buildings to me, but it was completely in Japanese, so I didn't get a word of it. They didn't work there - they were just enthusiastic locals. So I let them tell me all about it, smiling and nodding. The only thing I understood was at the end the smaller one said, "He doesn't understand," and then they both said, "Okay. Goodbye! USA! Goodbye!" in English, and just walked off. It was such a great moment.

On my way out, I passed a more modern Buddhist temple, where actual monks were chanting. It was amazing. There was praying, stick-banging, gongs, the whole nine yards. I didn't want to go up to the door and disturb them, so I stood back by the road and took some video. You can watch it below - it's not very exciting, and the sound sucks, but you can hear a bit of the chanting after the car passes in the beginning. Clearly I'm a skilled cameraman.

The rest of my walk gave me a few more really interesting sights: some Zen gardens, more monks, an old temple being used as bike storage, a street market packing up to escape the rain starting to come down, an elementary school baseball game, some kids playing underneath and with a 400-year-old bell. There's so much history in this place that kids can afford to use things twice as old as the United States as playgrounds, and ancient temples are used as warehouses. It's amazing.

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