The temple built by gods

by Jurgen Lett

“From now on my descendants shall administer the affairs of state,” said the sun goddess Amaterasu. “You shall cast a spell of establishing good relationship over people to lead them to a happy life “she told the god of the earth and the underworld Okuninushi. “I will build your residence with colossal columns and thick and broad planks.” According to Shinto mythology, when the other gods were gathered Amaterasu ordered them to build a grand temple at the foot of Mt. Uga. That grand temple is Izumo-taisha . We visited and were impressed with its vast scale, particularly as it was half the height it had been when it was built in 950AD. The sacred straw rope at the entrance to the Worship Hall is the largest in Japan and weighs 5 tonnes. Everything was monumental, befitting the gods.

The Grand Shrine of Izumo-taisha features the largest shimenawa (sacred straw rope) in Japan

As we rode into a town at the end of a day of cycling, I asked the local police where we could find Japanese-style accommodation. Invariably they directed us to a hotel or other Western style accommodation, costing two or three times our budgeted price. We found the cheaper Japanese inns, called ryokan, cost no more than youth hostels but had much better service. We searched out ryokan, and were never disappointed.

We began our ryokan stay with a wash in a traditional wooden bath, known as an ofuro. These were either a cedar box like that below, or a large barrel standing on end. Traditionally a fire underneath provided heating, so the water was really hot. Before getting in the ofuro I would sit on a low wooden seat and wet myself all over, using a ladle, with water from a wooden bucket. I would then soap myself, and wash off the soap with more water from the bucket. Only when I was perfectly clean did I get in the steaming bath. In this way many people share the same bath water. In larger ofuro several people can bathe at the same time, but male and female bathing is strictly segregated. It took a while to get used to the heat but when I did I enjoyed having a soak. I emerged from the bath feeling dizzy from the heat and it took a few minutes to feel steady.

Traditional cedar bath known as ofuro

After a bath I dressed in a yukata, which looked like dressing gown. Meanwhile our cycling clothes were collected, to be returned the next morning, washed, ironed and folded. This was just one of the many reasons we preferred to stay at a ryokan.

Yukata are worn after bathing

Japanese meals did not meet out substantial energy requirements. After a day of cycling we developed a big appetite and the small quantities served at dinner time were inadequate. After dinner we would go into town to find a restaurant where we filled up on rice, chicken and fish. We wore the distinctively-patterned yukata supplied by the ryokan, so everyone knew where we were staying.

We returned to our ryokan to find the living room converted to a bedroom. Sliding doors in one wall revealed a shallow wardrobe containing our futon mattresses and other bedding. The futons were laid out radiating around a low table where a charcoal fire burned all night. Blankets were draped over the table to prevent heat escaping. With this heat source we only needed a thin doona to remain warm throughout the night, despite freezing temperatures outside.

Our visit to Izumo-taisha was coming to an end, but we had not finished with the temple built by gods. Okuninushi was known as The Lord of the Central Land of Reed Plains, another name for Japan. Young lovers pray to Okuninushi, for he is also the god of relationships, by writing a wish on some paper and tying the paper to a branch of a conifer in the temple garden. They then clap their hands four times during prayer, twice for themselves and twice for their actual or desired partner. We visited the statue of Okuninushi at Izumo-taisha, and I did a lot of clapping.

Statue of the god Okuninushi at Izumo-taisha

Cherry blossom

by Jurgen Lett
Himeji Castle with sakura, or cherry blossom

The cherry blossom (sakura) has been celebrated in Japan for many centuries and holds a special place in Japanese culture. Sakura bloom for just a couple of days in spring and the Japanese celebrate this time of the year with Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties. Friends, family or work colleagues gather and sit on plastic mats under the blossoming trees, to drink, sing, chat or just admire the spectacle.

Location of the city of Kobe, Hyogo prefecture

It was early spring when we left Kobe and still very cold, so we headed for the warmer south. Our first destination was Himeji, 60km away, home to the largest and most visited castle in Japan. The sun was shining and the cherry blossom festival was underway.

Riding west along the Inland Sea coast we passed through Okayama, then turned north to make our way across the island of Honshu. We encountered rough pot-holed roads crossing snow-covered Mount Daisen. The hilly terrain left little room for fields and villages, so the inland was sparsely populated.

Mount Daisen

We stopped at the youth hostel in the village of Yubara, where the hostel father presented me with a bamboo flute, or shakuhachi, which I have to this day. Yubara has hot springs, or onsen, where groundwater is heated by volcanoes. Japan has many active volcanoes, and consequently many areas of hot springs. We enjoyed soaking in the onsen baths outside, and also enjoyed the steaming water inside which is piped to houses and hotels.

Typical onsen, or hot spring bath

The size and shape of a traditional Japanese house is determined by the number of tatami mats it can contain. Tatami are a traditional mats made of rush (igusa) and cloth. The standard tatami is 910 mm by 1820 mm and rooms are measured by the number of tatami which make up the floor area. Tatami rooms have many purposes, including bedroom, dining room and entertaining area. Each morning I would roll up my Japanese mattress, or futon, and store it in a cupboard.

On entering a traditional Japanese house I took off my shoes in the entrance or genkan, and put on slippers supplied by my host. I placed my shoes neatly pointing towards the door, as this is considered good manners. I walked the polished timber floor of the hallway, and left my slippers at the door of the tatami room. It is forbidden to walk on tatami in slippers and nor is it acceptable to walk in bare feet. I made sure that my socks were clean and free of holes, as I walked on the tatami. And when I went to the toilet I removed my house slippers and slipped on toilet slippers.

Toilet slippers are only to be used in the toilet