10 days in a Chinese ink painting


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.

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Daibutsu at Kamakura

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

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Bessho Onsen

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

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Nagano’s Path to the Pure Land

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. 
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Togakushi: Soba, Ninjas and Shrines

As with any pilgrimage, it is often the journey that is just as, if not more important than the destination. In the magnificent tree-lined path leading to the innermost sanctuary of one of Japan’s oldest Shinto shrines, there is time for lots of reflection. The 2km approach starts innocuously enough – from a carpark and a shop selling green tea ice-cream. But that’s the last of the 20th century you’d see for a long time as you start on the approach to the shrine.

Few know about Togakushi, a small village hidden in the hills behind Nagano. It is not on the mainstream tourist radar. Togakushi’s little-known secrets are intriguing and worth a day trip at least. Combine the mystery of a ninja clan, the air of holiness surrounding an ancient shrine and probably some of the best soba you could find anywhere in Japan and I’d say Togakushi is definitely worth a trip.  Continue reading

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In the shadow of Beijing’s towers

Before the skyscrapers on the outer ring roads sprang up, in the heart of the inner city, the tallest buildings around Beijing’s hutongs were the Bell Tower and Drum Tower. These are no tall, spindly needles but short fat hulks which dominated the skyline for several hundred years. Standing in a straight north-south axis, forming up with Jingshan Hill and the Forbidden City beyond that, the towers faced each other and together kept their roles as Beijing’s timekeepers.

The towers still keep watch over the hustle and bustle of the hutongs – today the tourist-friendly lanes of Yandai Jie or Tobacco Pouch Alley and a bit further on the hipster hangout and shopping alleys surrounding Nanluoguxiang. We wandered from our hutong hotel in the Houhai district, to the twin towers and around the shopping belt, covering in a day’s walk both historical landmarks as well as Beijing’s trendy restaurants and shops.  Continue reading

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Frogs, Springs and Shrines: Matsumoto’s little discoveries

I was glad to return to Matsumoto. The last time I was here was in 2011 and while we covered the major sights the last time ie the black castle, this time I was happy to just wander around and soak in the town’s laidback vibes. Even back then in that earlier visit, Matsumoto had come across as a town with more of a communal, village feel than a city. It’s the sort of place where you slow down your pace, throw out the schedule and just go with the flow.

Matsumoto has wide boulevards but these have little vehicular traffic. Most of these are intercut in a grid with smaller lanes. These lanes are a rewarding afternoon’s exploration. Moving away from the train station especially, in the older sections near the river and the castle, you’re likely to see old restored warehouses or kura, with a hidden shrine or two in the backlanes or maybe a street dedicated to frogs? Keep your eyes peeled and your level of curiosity high and you might find a surprise or two. As I did.  Continue reading

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