Experience The Amazing Spirit in The Cultural Heart Of Japan

By Rick Lin

On a beautiful, sunny Satur- day, China Airline’s Gen- eral Manager Mr. Chang and Sales Manager Rich- ard Mei saw the Asian Fusion team off at JFK International Airport. At the invitation of China Airlines, Asian Fusion departed for a 6-day trip, to enjoy the historical city of Kyoto and its neigboring cities of Kobe city and Himeji, where one can be infused in the richness of its ancient temples, castles and hot springs – the unique Japanese culture that is guaranteed to enrich and soothe the soul. And of course, there’s authentic Japanese cuisine, sake, geishas, the Kyoto International Manga Museum and so much more. Asian Fusion also visited the historical town of Kansai, where the Oscar winning movie “Memoirs of a Geisha” was filmed.

The team flew by way of Business Class, lounging in the VIP lounge with WIFI, plush furniture, complimentary beverages and a great selection of magazines before take-off. China Airlines is the only airline that provides direct luggage check-in without relying on a third party, making your travel easier and more convenient. Throughout the journey, we were thoroughly spoiled by the luxurious chairs and ample leg-room. Needless to say, the bathrooms were kept very clean and numerous amenities were provided for the long flight. The Business cabin is on the top tier of the aircraft, with a modest seating number of only 24, ensuring maximum privacy and total comfort. Indeed, it feels as if we were on-board a private jet. A perfect way to travel, especially for a group perhaps a company en route to a convention or a group going to a wedding.

The airline served gourmet-style foods that one may pre-order. I enjoyed an assorted cold platter of seaweed marinated in vinegar and slow-cooked vegetables. Formerly chef de cuisine of Grand Hyatt Taipei Hotel, with expe- rience in several Michelin graded restaurants in New York City and once chef at Le Bernardin in Barcelona, Spain, the in-flight chef now creates delicate and exquisite cuisines with seasonal ingredients for the culinary enjoyment of passengers on board China Airlines.

Safely on board and enjoying the trip, the exploration of Japan begins:

Day 1 Kobe City – On our first night in Japan, we stayed at Hotel OKURA, one of the nicest hotels that’s located on a little hill so you can see the beautuful night views of Kobe City from your window. Once we landed and got settled in, we real- ized we were all so hungry. We were soon in ‘Chinatown’. Too funny. Our first meal in Japan was Chinese!

In Chinatown, we found ourselves surrounded by Chinese architecture, a beautiful park, and restaurants with very traditional Chinese decor. For a brief moment, I almost thought I was still in New York. What was most amazing, was that the food was so delicious and very authentic in taste. In talking with the restaurant owner, we found that he was Taiwanese, but third genera- tion; his grandfather had moved to Kobe City about 60 years ago. What a great feeling it was to meet someone in Japan on the first night that was actually from my home country of Taiwan.

Next day after having a wonderful tradi- tional Japanese breakfast of salmon and congee, we walked out of the hotel and headed for the harbor. Standing in the harbor, we took in an amazing panoramic view that included the famous Kobe Tower. One of the most amazing and moving sights in the harbor was a section of the dock that had been preserved exactly as it was years ago when Kobe City was hit by a powerful earthquake. To see the damage that had occurred and the rebuilding that had taken place since then, gives one pause to realize the strength of the Japanese people in the face of such a horrible natural disaster.

We continued our walk to the downtown area, where familiar names – Gucci, Prada, Dior, and Barney’s – were right there in front of me as if I were on Madison Avenue in New York City. While downtown, we hopped on a bus that brought us to a Japanese rice wine sake brewery, and passed by the scenic highlights of Kobe City. It was here that I truly felt my journey to Japan had actually begun!

Fukuju Sake Brewery: At the Fukuju Sake Brewery, we had a great time tasting different kinds of sake, and browsing around their great store with so many different products made from sake. Who knew you could make soaps and face creams using sake as a major ingredient? We were told that sake actually helps to keep your skin looking younger…but don’t eat the products!

In the belief that “great sake comes from great Koji (malted rice) the cultivation of which is the fundamental step in creating excellence”, Fukuju produces by hand its Koji, in Koji muro (a special room where malted rice is cultivated) used for centuries in the brewing process. Fukuju uses only the best sake rice cultivated by farmers in the northern region of Mt. Rokko, the home of Yamada Nishiki, Japan’s finest rice. The sake is brewed with Miyamizu (water from Nishinomiya City), water that has been long valued as ideal for creating excellent sake. Kobe Shu-Shin-Kan Brewery continues to use traditional handcrafting techniques to lovingly produce sake, with the same careful attention with which children are raised.

Kobe Beef: So what’s the big deal about Kobe beef? Here’s what we found out: A prerequisite of beef to be officially certified “Kobe beef” is that the bullock or virgin Tajima cow has been born in Hyogo Prefecture from a Tajima cow having a pure lineage, and that the bullock or virgin cow has been bred and raised by a designated farmer in the prefecture and slaughtered at one of the slaughterhouses in the prefecture. It must also pass strict grading for BMS (Beef Marbling Standard), weight limitations and other criteria. Only virgin cows and bullocks, or gelded bulls, raised to maturity can become Kobe beef.

There may well be some farms rearing low numbers of cattle who are doing things border- ing on this. But, this does not mean that these rearing methods are all standards for producing prime Kobe Beef. For example, if you make it a custom of playing music at feeding time, then the cows as a conditioned reflex know that it’s feeding time just by hearing the music, and this, it is said, increases their appetite. However, the affect of music improving meat quality has not yet been proven. There is also the theory that beer is useful in improving cows’ appetites.

Actually, it can be said that there have been almost no proven cases of cows being raised on beer. Massage, too, is considered to be useful in lowering cows’ stress because of the close, physical contact it provides and indirectly helps to improve the quality of the meat. Once again, however, massage itself neither softens meat nor increases the amount of marbling. We were now able to start to enjoy our first Kobe Beef in the restuarants. And it was like nothing I’ve ever tasted.

Himeji Castle: The castle at Himeji is an iconic image of Japan and one of the finest examples of fortress architecture in the world. It stands at the center of Himeji city, a strategic point along the route to the western provinces of Honshu (the main island of Japan). The castle was built atop a natural 45-meter hill called Himeyama, and its main donjon (tower) rises an additional 31 meters. From afar, the graceful rooflines of its white towers resemble a flock of herons in flight, suggesting the castle’s proper name— ”Egret Castle” (Shirasagi).

When it was completed in 1609, Himeji Castle was one of the most formidable for- tresses in the world. The central Donjon rises six stories from a massive stone foundation and is connected by corridors to three smaller towers that enclose a heavily fortified court- yard. Guarding the approach to this central compound (Hommaru) are a number of twisting gates, walls, and subsidiary towers that posed a daunting obstacle to any would-be attackers. This inner compound (Ninnomaru) was further protected by a wide moat that enclosed the San- nomaru (outer compound), which was in turn circled by two larger moats that that protected parts of the city and the homes of high-ranking retainers that served Ikeda and his descendants. At Himeji, as in most Japanese castles, the walls and fortifications are designed to prevent access to the central citadel. Currently, Himehi Castle is under renova- tion, with an expected completion date of 2015.

Arima Hot Springs: Arima is the oldest spa area in Japan. Arima hot springs are natural ones that have been used since ancient times when people had no skills of digging in the ground. Presently the digging skills are highly-developed, however, they are also providing us with hot water full of natural blessings or active ingredients from near the surface (within 300 meters in depth) in the earth.

Arima hot springs are rare worldwide springs containing lots of minerals and natural ingre- dients. There are 7 ingredients, except sulfur spring and acid spring, out of 9 main ingredi- ents (simple hot spring water, carbon dioxide spring water, hydrogen carbonate spring water, chloride water, sulfate water, ferruginous water, sulfur water, acid water, and radioactive water) designated as ones to be included for medical treatment.

The benefits each hot spring provides and the ailments it relieves includes, but is not lim- ited to, cold, back problems, muscle and joint pain, allergic skin infections, chronic eczema, hives, psoriasis, rheumatism and functional infertility.

Day 2 Begind with Kyoto

The sightseeing center of Kyoto was awe- inspitring, preserving a variety of architecture and gardens, as well as many cultural master- pieces. The eastern part of Kyoto’s city center is called Higashiyama, located at the west end of the Higashiyama Mountain Range. As early as the middle of the 14th century, many shrines, temples and aristocrats’ villas were built in this area, where a variety of architecture and gar- dens, artistic and cultural masterpieces such as paintings and crafts were created. Many artistic activities such as ‘ikebana’ (flower arrange- ment), the tea ceremony and Noh performances flourished and developed in this area as well. There are many masterpieces of historic archi- tecture still in existence today, which attract many visitors and tourists from every corner of the world.

In the southern part of the Higashiyama district is the famous Kiyomizu-dera Temple, built halfway up a steep cliff with its main hall projecting over a steep precipice. Yasaka-jinja Shrine, built around the 7th century, is also well known as the central site for the Gion-matsuri Festival that is held in summer. The northern part of the city is known for Heian-jingu Shrine, where the Jidai-matsuri Festival (Festival of the Ages) is held in the fall. It includes a parade that presents costumes, manners and customs from the ancient days. Another attraction is Nanzen-ji Temple, which has a collection of architecture and artwork from the Momoyama Period in the late 16th century.

Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine: This intriguing shrine was dedicated to the god of rice and sake by the Hata clan in the 8th century. The magical, seemingly unending path of over 5,000 vibrant orange torii gates that wind through the hills behind Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine makes it one of the most popular shrines in Japan. The walk around the upper precincts is a pleasant day hike. It also makes for a delightfully eerie stroll in the late afternoon and early evening, when the various graveyards and miniature shrines along the path take on a mysterious air. This shrine also features dozens of statues of foxes. The fox is seen as the messenger of the god of grain foods, Inari, and the stone foxes are often known by the same name. The keys often depicted in the fox mouths are keys to granaries. This shrine is the central location for some 40,000 Inari shrines throughout the entirety of Japan.

Nishijin Kimono Textile Center: The Nishijin Textile Center, located in Ima- degawa, is a modern-style building where dem- onstrations and exhibits are held on the theme of the traditional Nishijin textile industry. In addition to a kimono show (6 times a day) there are hand-weaving demonstrations and a display of historical materials. It is the perfect place to take in the beauty of gorgeous Nishijin textiles. Here you can also dress up as a maiko or a geiko in a junihitoe (12-layer kimono).

Kyoto International Manga Cartoon Museum: Developed and opened through the deep understanding and active cooperation of local residents, as a joint project of Kyoto City and Kyoto Seika University, the Kyoto International Manga Museum was established on the site of the former Tatsuike Primary School. Under supervision by the steering commit- tee consisting of representatives from both the City and University, the University manages and operates the Museum, making full use of its research accomplishments and accumulated know-how. The Museum acts as a venue for the collection, preservation and exhibition of manga and animation materials, which have been accumulated through generous donation from both individuals and companies.

Collected materials will be used for system- atic research and study. Through research and other manga-related activities, the Museum is expected to contribute to various areas, including lifelong learning, tourism promotion, human development and the creation of a new industry. The Museum is also expected to con- tribute to cultural activities of local communi- ties in various ways.

Day 3 starting with Kiyomizu-dera temple

The Kiyomizu-dera Temple was first built over 1,000 years ago. It was reconstructed in 1633 and is the most famous temple in Kyoto. The way up to the front gate of the temple is called “Teapot Lane” and is lined with handi- craft, omiyage, and sweet shops. It’s a huge marketplace of activity and the only reprieve is when you finally make it up the hill to the mas- sive entrance gates of the temple.

Nio-Mon (Gate of the Deva Kings): Kiyomizu-dera’s temple grounds are huge with many grand, elaborate structures built on them. Most of the buildings are designated “Important Cultural Property”, even the stables.

The Kiyomizu-style Kannon: Its formal name is “Eleven-headed thousand-armed Kanzeon Bosatsu” and is one of the sacred images in Buddhist religion. This Kannon is a little different than others for its two extra arms holding a small Buddha body above its head. It is said that this is the Kannon among Kannons which manifests the all-encompassing power of the Dharma teachings as it is taught in the Senju Darani Sutra. This statue is enshrined in the Main Hall of the temple.

Kodai-ji Temple:The Kodaiji Temple was founded during the Momoyama-period, by Toyotomi Nene to commemorate the death of her husband. Nene was the widow of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536 to 1598), the powerful general who succeeded in unifying Japan at the end of the 16th century. Kodai-ji Temple and the Kodai-ji sho Museum is located in the Kodaiji district east of Gion, along the ‘Higashiyama Path,’ (aka “Nene Street) which connects the Yasaka Shrine with Ninenzaka and the Kiyomizu-dera Temple.

At the Kodai-ji temple there are several formal gardens designed by Kobori Enshu (1579 to 1647), who was an architect and master Zen- gardener, as well as a master of calligraphy, poetry, and the Chado tea ceremony. Enshu’s ‘north garden’ at Kodaiji is a Tsukiyama, or ‘constructed mountains’ garden in a ‘tortoise and crane’ garden design, with the turtle and crane as symbols of long life and happiness. The turtle island is to the south, while the crane island is to the north.

Kodaiji’s ‘south garden’ is a karesansui, or ‘dry rock garden’ that is a more recent creation, featuring a large area of raked gravel that is punctuated by conical gravel formations, and surrounded by an undulating border of moss and stone. The raked gravel of a karesansui is meant to evoke the ripple patterns that form in water. Traditionally, a karesansui garden is intended to be viewed from a single, seated perspective. During the cherry blossom season in April, and the ‘red maple leaf’ season in October, Kodaiji’s south garden has an evening illumination show called the “Four Seasons of Kyoto.”

Maiko and Geiko: At many restaurants and hotels, it is possible to arrange for maiko and geiko to come to your room and serve a banquet as the height of luxury; this is possible because they are in the entertainment district. You can enjoy the hospi- tality of the ochaya (a traditional restaurant that maiko and geiko used to entertain guests) and appreciate their dancing. For more information, please visit: http://www.kizashi-gion.jp/

Toei Movie Studio at Eiga Mura: One of Japan’s leading film companies, Toei, has opened its sets to the public at Eiga Mura (Film Village) and the result is a kitsch theme park complete with samurai and ninja shows, roaming geisha and arcades and souvenir shops. There is also a Movie Museum and a number of restaurants on site.

Until the late 1960s, this was the location of the shooting of the great films of the “Golden Era” of Japanese filmmaking. Greats such as Akira Kurosawa made films here. Truly an amazing experience. It’s April and the Sakura season begins – don’t miss the opportunity to view the cherry blossoms beckoning to you from Kansai, Japan.