It had been a long day. We’d already visited three previous villages and all had been crowded, touristy, cleaned up and some partially rebuilt. I was not hopeful that the last village – Wangkou – would be any different. But the minute I saw it, from the scenic overlook across the river, I sensed it would be different. And yes while I liked the village for its state of authentic decay – looking exactly like a 1000-year-old village would – crumbly algaed walls and all, it also left me reflective about my search for ‘authenticity’ in travel. Continue reading
From afar, nestled in fields of bright yellow canola flowers, against a deep blue sky, the white villages stood out. At least, that was the scene I envisioned and read about, and longed to see. Instead I found myself one month out of canola season and right smack in the middle of an erratically rainy spring. Seen through a veil of drizzle, the white villages were no longer that white but rather a muted grey and the fields a feathery dull jade. But the beauty of Wuyuan county’s famed villages did not lie in pastoral scenes seen from afar but rather up close in the rain-slicked blue stone walkways, the iridescent green algae-laced walls and the narrow alleys hemmed in by Qing and Ming mansions.
The land around Huangshan is the heart of Hui architecture. From as far back as the Song dynasty, Hui architecture has flourished – characterised by its tall white walls, gracefully sweeping roofs in dark grey tile, impressive wood carvings and a central airwell. The wealthy Hui merchants eventually took this style further east to Yangzhou, Suzhou etc. But while I loved the big courtyard mansions and gorgeous landscaped gardens of Suzhou and Tongli, these white houses and villages were not similar at all to those. I can’t claim to be an architecture scholar so the observations I made in this post are just that – my layman observations. But I thought that if we were going to visit these villages and talk about them, it would help if readers could also have some insight into these details and features of these houses.
Our 10-day trip to China was mostly rained out. But for once, boy were we glad it rained. Grey skies almost 80% of the time, with rain and mist and fog, this would have been a dampener on any holiday except this one. The gloomy weather in fact, brought out the best of the stunning mountain scenery of Huangshan, brought into stark relief the tall white walls of the Hui villages we visited and added an ethereal beauty to the fields, the rivers and hills of the Chinese countryside. Through a veil of constant drizzle, in an almost monochromatic palette of diffused smoky greys and smudgy ash, blacks and whites, we found ourselves often in the midst of lyrically beautiful Chinese ink paintings.
A tourist-show, a legend told, A rusting bulk of bronze and gold, So much, and scarce so much, ye hold The meaning of Kamakura?
– Rudyard Kipling, Buddha at Kamakura
Neither tsunami nor earthquake could put a dent in the Buddha’s serenity. For close to 800 years this large bronze Buddha has sat and meditated upon hordes of pilgrims and tourists. Once upon a time it sat indoors but storm after storm destroyed the buildings which housed it and eventually I guess they gave up building a shelter for it. But this is so much better because its oxidised teal shades complement so well the green foliage behind and the blue skies above it. Continue reading
If you asked me where my deep affinity for all things Japanese came from, I guess it must started with those calendars. As a child, I was always drawn to the beauty of the Japanese garden scenery reflected in the glossy wall calendars hanging on my kitchen wall. Whether it is a red lacquered bridge, or a fiery-red autumn scene, somehow these appealed to me even back then. So it was that day, in Bessho Onsen, the light and spirit of the place conspired to give me so many lovely pictures that brought to life those very scenes I remember all those years ago. Standing in front of this pond in Anraku-ji for instance, with the rich vividity of the spring colours all around, I thought I had stepped right into one of those old calendars.
But that was not all. There is something about Bessho Onsen that has stayed with me for so long, long after we have left, months after we returned. There is a sense of calm, of well-being and comfort that I experienced that day in the old hot spring town. I don’t know what it is and I’ve been racking my brains to put my finger on it but it always eludes me. To be honest I don’t think Bessho Onsen in itself qualifies as a five-star destination if you’re expecting important showy heritage sites as key attractions. But it is that special combination of a small town feel, walkable attractive lanes backing into dense green hills among serene temples and some of the oldest recorded hot springs in Japan that make Bessho Onsen so pretty. If its good enough for the Heian aristocrats to record in Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book, it’s good enough for me. Continue reading
Foot detail of guardian god at the Zenkoji Niomon
In Nagano, all paths lead to Zenkoji. Possibly one of the most important and influential Buddhist centres of worship in Japan and a pilgrimage site, Zenkoji has had a long and important history in Nagano. In fact, with Zenkoji being founded somewhere in the 7th century, Nagano grew up around it. For centuries Zenkoji was Nagano’s sustenance and fortune, drawing pilgrims from the humble commoner to the powerful shoguns alike.
So imagine if you can, as if viewing a time-lapse scene in reverse – where the roads, the cars and the buildings, and even JR Nagano station disappears, there stands a glorious temple, its broad path paved with large stones, heralded by magnificent gates and lined by the soft glow of candles lit in 48 wooden lanterns. On each lantern, a prayer is etched on stone tablets – the first of which is to save all people and the last of which is the hope that the path to the pure land begins and ends at Zenkoji for the hopeful thousands who find their way to Zenkoji.
We walked the path in reverse that day – from Zenkoji down the broad avenue of Chuo dori to JR Nagano and along the way, discovered Nagano’s quirky little details. If you know me, you know I love finding the tiny details in a place I visit – they give the city an identity beyond the usual tourist attractions.