Monday, January 28, 2013

Nagano: Temples and Cute Animals

The high speed train (decorated with hiking penguins,
just because)
We arrived in Japan in the early evening, and after a brief stay in a hotel near the airport (to attempt to adjust to our new time zone) were on a high speed train to Nagano by 7:30 am. I really like Tokyo, but the incredible crowds, population density and overstimulating urban environment mean it isn't an ideal destination for traveling toddlers (especially because the best aspects of Tokyo are its restaurants, nightlife and hip urban vibe, which I would have a hard time enjoying with a 22-month-old in tow).

Nagano is only a few hours away by train, but it's completely different. The city (which hosted the Winter Olympics some years ago) is fairly small and walkable. The center of town is dominated by Zenko-ji, a temple built in the 7th century and a major destination for pilgrimages (Nagano receives over 1 million tourists annually).
Main gate to the temple: the town is behind me
R's first time seeing snow! She likes it.
We stayed at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, about two blocks from the temple. Japan has Western hotels of course, but B and I like the ryokans for the unique cultural experience they offer. Most are family-owned (many have been owned by the same family for generations, including ours in Nagano) and built and decorated in traditional Japanese style.
Tea set (tea making is complicated and requires a whole set of special dishes): I greedily ate the cookies already
Our room: R is taking a nap, which is why the bed is out
Beds made up for the night
This means that your room will be covered in tatami (straw) mats, with minimal furniture. During the day, a low table and chairs are placed on the floor (generally with hot tea and cookies/snacks included, to greet you upon arrival), and you use the room as a sitting area; at night, the furniture is packed away and futons are put out, making the space a bedroom (in traditional Japanese style, you sleep on the floor, which is surprisingly comfortable). The inn staff is very sneaky/adept at this conversion process, so it seems to happen by magic.
Japan is the cleanest place I have ever been, even cleaner than Singapore (we are outside! here)
This statue commemorates a raccoon dog converted to Buddhism by a monk several centuries ago
Most temples have little dippers for washing your hands in the entry courtyard, R loved this at once
Temple for children, with child-loving Buddha
Statues here commemorated dead children: I cried to see this little shrine because the shoes were just about R's size
We didn't have too long to spend in Nagano, but thanks to our location we were able to thoroughly explore Zenko-ji and its nearby temples. In one of the inner temple chambers, a narrow staircase leads to a completely dark tunnel built under the main hall: pilgrims walk through here to cleanse their sins and gain enlightenment. A highlight for me was creeping along the pitch black passageways (such an interesting experience!): rather to my surprise, R was brave as a lion and did not object at all to this activity (if anything, it seemed to improve her mood as she was rather grumpy from jet lag).
Temple grounds
Me and R at left
Japanese Buddhism is for all things, even undelivered mail
One of the elements of Japanese culture R especially appreciated was their love of everything cute. For example, most pharmacies identify themselves as such by placing a several-foot-tall elephant statue at the entrance. Because it was winter (and elephants don't have fur I guess?), most of these statues had been dressed in little dapper outfits (which given the proportions of the statues must have been specially made for just that purpose). R loved them all and stopped every time we passed one to greet and hug the statues.
R with her elephant friend
This is a girl elephant
More elephants!
This is a mini one
R also discovered a deep love for Hello Kitty (who she was not familiar with before our visit). This character is ubiquitous in Japan, popular among all ages (there is even a Hello Kitty Land).
It is love
Hug for Hello Kitty
Hug for her little friend (bear dressed as a goat? I think this is some reference to Nagano's local fauna)
Another hug!
R is so excited she hugs me too
And then Daddy
I really like the cuteness aspect of Japan too: I think it makes life cozier and the cityscape friendlier. The below picture is the entry window of an insurance company: wouldn't you feel more soothed about buying insurance if the office was filled with stuffed ducks?

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