Friday, February 16, 2018

Nagoya in 24 hours Part 5 - The Osu Kannon Temple and Kobo Daishi


Having accomplished one shrine visit, I left Atsuta Jingu to head for Osu Kannon, a local temple belonging to the Shingon sect of Buddhism. 
This is the sect that Kobo Daishi, my favourite Buddhist saint founded in the 9th century. 
I had read that he was said to have carved the temple's main statue of the goddess of mercy,  
Kannon and I was not about to miss a chance to see it.  It seemed that on this trip, I kept "running into" Kobo Daishi.  Perhaps I was not travelling solo at all. 

Since I had to be in Tokyo by mid afternoon, the fastest way and most convenient way to get from southern Nagoya to Osu in the eastern part of the city,  was by cab.  Vowing to make budget slashes elsewhere on the trip,   I hopped  into a waiting cab and gave the driver my (distant) destination.

The taxi driver took me right to the front of the temple, at the bright orange Deva Gate.  
Tokugawa Ieyasu himself chose this site for the temple,  moving it here in the 17th century from its original location.   The earliest temple buildings were destroyed by floods and wars so the current buildings that you see were reconstructed in the 1900s.  

Two fierce, warrior  looking statues flank each side of the gate.  These are the Deva Kings -- 
tasked by Buddha as guardians of the earth -- protecting us all from evil and malevolent spirits.  
It's comforting to see them still on the job.                   

There are a number of buildings in the temple grounds -- this is the Main Hall, the Daihiden where you can see the the goddess of mercy Kannon on the altar.  Below the Daihiden is the
Shinpukuji Bunko Library where over 15,000 ancient Japanese and Chinese texts are kept, 
some of them are National Treasures. 

I climbed the stone staircase of the Daihiden to view the statue of Kannon.   Before entering the hall, I lit some incense sticks from the fire in a large brass urn as an offering to the goddess of mercy.

Osu Kannon is very popular in Nagoya. One of the reasons may be the famous wooden statue of Kannon said to have been carved by Kobo Daishi himself.
This morning, worshippers were praying at the altar when I arrived.  Unfortunately, photos were 
not allowed inside the hall. 
The statue of the goddess of mercy is placed in the middle of an ornate altar and is not very big.  
It is a beautiful depiction of Kannon showing her serene and kind face.  
The statue stands on a lotus flower and is flanked by more giant gold lotus blooms.   
The lotus is a symbol of purity in Buddhism. 
Kobo Daishi says that even in muddy waters, a lovely flower like the lotus can flourish.  
Thus, he exhorts us to strive to be virtuous even while surrounded by the dross of daily life. 

After praying to Kannon and  Kobo Daishi, I headed down to the temple office where I was able to get my goshuincho inscribed with the temple's seal. It is a printed keepsake of finding Kobo Daishi, seemingly everywhere,  on this trip to Nagoya


Thursday, February 15, 2018

Nagoya in 24 Hours Part 4 - I visited Atsuta Jingu, a Shinto shrine and found Kobo Daishi

On the plane on my way to my first visit to Nagoya, I opened a guidebook and started to read about the city (cramming was more like it). 
One thing that stood out was that one of the top recommended local attractions was a major Shinto shrine,  Atsuta Jingu.  
Sugoi desu yo!  Shrines and temples are some of my favourite places to walk through.  
I enjoy their serene and spiritual spaces. 
I did not realise when I set out to see Atsuta Jingu, that not only would I see an important shrine, 
I would also be "tracing" the footsteps of my favourite Buddhist saint, Kobo Daishi.

Atsuta Jingu  in the southern part of Nagoya is easily reached via subway or train.  I took
the Meitetsu Limited Express train from Nagoya Station, the same line that goes all the way 
to Nagoya Centrair Airport.  Just two stops later, I was at the Meitetsu Jingumae station, just a few minutes walk from the shrine.

At the crosswalk, I came upon this monk with his begging bowl.  It isn't very common to see monks begging in the streets in Japan.  To give alms  is considered an act of virtue so I dropped some coins in his bowl.  He bowed and started to chant some sutras.  I could hear his soft voice even as I walked away. 

This being July, the weather was hot and quite humid.   I was happy to see many trees in the shrine grounds, I would at least have some respite from the sun's rays.

The shrine occupies a sizeable acreage with the buildings spread out over spacious grounds.

I walked through the gate under the shade of countless trees.  The traffic noise from the road quickly evaporated and  even the temperature seemed to drop by a few degrees.  

One of the first buildings I saw was the Amulet Office where visitors can arrange for Shinto services, buy tokens, charms, souvenirs and amulets.  This is also where I got my goshuincho or temple and shrine seal book inscribed by a shrine priest.  

This is an ema -- a wooden plaque commonly sold in shrines and temples.  You can write your prayers or wishes on the ema and hang it on specially made racks in the shrine grounds.  
Each temple or shrine has a specific design for its ema, usually the symbol of the place itself.

This is the front or the exterior gate of the main shrine of Atsuta Jingu.  Ordinary visitors cannot 
go beyond this point.  The deity enshrined within is Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess. 
Atsuta Jingu dates way back to the first century.   The shrine buildings look new because  Shinto tradition dictates that major shrines are dismantled and rebuilt every 25 years.  
After the  Ise shrine in Mie (which I had also visited a few years ago)  Atsuta Jingu is the second largest Shinto shrine in Japan.

This is the door to the main shrine or the Hongu,  about 100 meters from where visitors stand.  
No one is allowed through those doors except for very select Shinto priests and sometimes some members of the royal family.   
However, ceremonies are conducted in the grounds in front of the Hongu.   You can see the Shinto priests in white on the right side performing prayers and rituals. 
The Hongu houses one of Japan's three major imperial regalia, a sword called the Kusanagi no Tsuragi.  The presence of this treasure makes Atsuta Jingu one of the three most important shrines 
in Japan. 

I took a walk through the shrine grounds, bowing in front before passing through a massive wooden torii. When walking through the torii, remember not to walk in the middle but walk only along the sides.  The middle path is reserved for the kami or gods.

It was a quiet weekday morning and not too many people were walking around.  In the distance you can see the faint outline of another torii, there are three in the shrine grounds.

A long panel of posters shows the shrine's history and significant events.  Sadly everything is in Japanese, I would have wanted to know more about the place.

You will most likely see these large sake barrels stacked on top of each other at Shinto shrines.  Mostly decorative, these barrels are donated by brewers and serve as some sort of advertising for their brands.  But mainly, sake barrels are present in shrines because sake is the drink of the gods.

This giant camphor tree is protected by a wooden fence and encircled by shimenawa from which shide are hung.  Shimenawa is a straw rope used in purification rituals.  They also denote a sacred 
and holy place.  This ancient camphor tree is said to have been planted by the great Buddhist saint, Kobo Daishi 1,300 years ago!  
I was happily surprised and moved to find Kobo Daishi's presence here in Nagoya. 

Past the sacred camphor tree is this modern building.  This is the  Bunka-den.  
It is the Treasure Hall, a museum for all the valuable artefacts of the shrine. Many of these items 
are designated Important Cultural Assets  and are on display for the people to view and appreciate.

This giant stone lantern seems to have been swallowed up by the surrounding shrubbery.  This is 
the Sakuma-doro stone lantern, another important landmark in Atsuta Jingu's grounds.

If you turn off the main path and walk a bit deeper into the woods, you will find a small stone bridge spanning one of the many streams that meander through Atsuta Jingu.   
Called the Nijugocho Bashi, it is built with 25 stones and is the oldest stone bridge in Nagoya.  
To preserve this centuries old bridge, it is no longer used except perhaps for important ceremonies and festivals.

Crossing the stream, I came upon this blissful scene ...  lush greenery around a sun dappled pond 
complete with a lovely wooden pavilion that seemed to float above the water.    
Ducks floated lazily and several turtles were sunbathing on a large rock.  
I saw a stone bench and sat down on the cool surface.  I stayed for as long as I could, enjoying 
this grace filled moment -- saying a quiet prayer of thanks to the kami sama of Atsuta Jingu and 
of course, to Kobo Daishi.  

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Nagoya in 24 Hours Part 3 - Hitsumabushi, eel in 3 ways at Maruya Honten , Nagoya Station

Before I flew off to Nagoya, I emailed my long time gourmet friend Abe san and asked for recommendations on local specialties.   He wrote back to say that a grilled eel dish called hitsumabushi was definitely the must-try.

After grazing on tebasaki at Izakaya Tsuruhachi (see previous post), I was now ready for the main event -- dinner.
I went to Nagoya Station since I knew there would be a food area somewhere inside.
This is Umaimon Dori -- umai means yummy and dori means street so I am guessing it somehow translates to Yummy Street.
All the big train stations in Japan have sections like this where restaurants, coffee shops and food sellers can be found.  Nagoya Station has more than one food area -- there's another in the basement and a slightly more premium one in the higher floors.
But Umaimon Dori is the most convenient, specially for those just getting off or on the bullet train.

The lighted sign showed some of the different cafes and restaurants available -- a few izakayas, a soba place,  ramen restaurant,  a pastry shop, a Chinese restaurant and (shudder) Starbucks and (double shudder) Mcdonalds. 
As a saving grace,  there was also an eel restaurant, and  famous for hitsumabushi at that!

This is the entrance to a branch of Maruya Honten set inside Umaimon Dori.  Maruya Honten is one of the best hitsumabushi restaurants in Nagoya and is rated very highly in all the food sites and blogs.
Because it was past 8 p.m. the evening crowd had come and gone so I was promptly led to a table.

I was not as hungry as I usually am (I blame the tebasaki and the beer) so I opted for the smallest order that consists of  half an eel and cost a little over 2,000 yen.
The regular sized order contains a whole eel while the larger portion for bigger appetites (and bigger budgets) comes with an eel and a half.

Abe san had vaguely told me how to eat hitsumabushi, differently from unadon which is  the usual grilled eel on top of rice.
Maruya Honten has the instructions on the full hitsumabushi experience printed on the back of its menu complete with english translations.  
As I waited for my food, I took the time to read them carefully.

My order arrived after a few minutes and it certainly looked more substantial than just half an eel.  The eel is served on top of rice in a wooden barrel.
The set tray comes with miso soup, the requisite tsukemono or pickles and small dishes containing various  condiments.   The small foil packet contains nori strips.

Here's the step-by-step guide to enjoy hitsumabushi in three ways.
First, break up and mix the eel and rice together.  Take a small portion and put it in your bowl and enjoy.   This tasted just like unadon  --  grilled eel basted with a teriyaki type sauce, served on top of rice.

For the second way, the different condiments come into play --  wasabi, chopped green onion,  thinly sliced blue perilla leaves and nori strips.

Refill your bowl with a bit more of eel and rice and top with as little or as much of the condiments as you like.  I loved the minty, citrusy taste of the perilla leaves which added a refreshing and light note to the grilled eel. 

The waitstaff unobtrusively walk around and once they see you are well in to your second bowl, they come over with a small pot of hot, very light dashi or broth which is used in the third way of eating this unique Nagoyan dish.

Adding more eel, rice and condiments on your bowl,  pour on the broth to create something like  an eel o-chazuke (rice with soup).    While o-chazuke is one of the few Japanese dishes  I do not enjoy, I was surprised to find myself liking this hitsumabushi version. 

This is how my rice bowl with eel and broth looked like.   As you can see, the rice and eel kept their texture and consistency and did not turn into a sludgy porridge.

Finally, if you  have some eel and rice and condiments left,  the last step in finishing your  hitsumabushi is to go back and have it the way that you liked the best.  
I preferred the second way -- eel and rice enhanced with the wasabi, onions and perilla leaves and topped with the last of the thin, crisp nori.   The condiments are refilled for free so don't be shy and ask for some more if you need it. 
It was so good I ate it all ... down to the last grain of soft sticky rice.

After eating,  you bring your bill (discreetly tucked under your tray) to the counter outside where you pay.  If you feel like enjoying Maruya Honten's famous grilled eel at home or if you're heading somewhere and want to give it as omiyage or souvenir, you can buy boxes for take out.

Maruya Honten closes at 10 p.m. and I just barely made the last order.  I walked the few hundred meters back to my hotel with the bright lights of Nagoya Station all lit up behind me.

There were still many people in the streets and  inside the coffee shops and bars around the station.  A few of the big electronic stores were still open.  
But no more coffee or shopping for me tonight.  
I was replete and satisfied.  Onaka ga ippai, in more ways than one.  
It was a foodie evening to remember, on my first and only night in Nagoya City. 

Gochisousama deshita!

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Nagoya in 24 Hours Part 2 - Tasting Tebasaki at Izakaya Tsuruhachi

Solo travel has its rewards -- you can do anything you want without having to worry about anyone.  Years of traveling solo for business spoiled me for this luxury of "me time".  
On this solo 24 hour layover in Nagoya, I knew what I wanted to do ... cram as much of the city's iconic must-eat foods into my mouth!  
A little research on the plane led me to "tebasaki" -- spicy, deep fried chicken wings which the travel writer said was one of the not-to-be-missed dishes. 
Now, wings are my favourite part of the bird so I was eager to try Nagoya's version. 

Since my hotel was very near Nagoya Station, I wasted no time after checking in -- I immediately headed out to look for a tebasaki place.   
There are always many good restaurants around the major train stations as so many passengers come and go everyday.  
And true enough, just outside the shinkansen terminal I found Izakaya Tsuruhachi, with a gigantic photo of a tebasaki right on top of the entrance.  

What really attracted me to enter was the lighted blue sign by the entrance.  It announced that Tsuruhachi was the winner of the Gold Medal at the Tebasaki Summit of 2015! 
That clinched it -- I walked right in. 

As izakayas normally go, Tsuruhachi is quite compact,  just six small booths that stretched out to the back where the kitchen is. 

Since I was by myself, I sat at the counter which was almost full at 5 in the afternoon.  

My ice cold nama (draft) beer washed away the tiredness of airplane and train travel.     
Izakayas will usually charge you a "cover charge" called otoshi and in turn you are served small 
plates of hot or cold hor d oeuvres.  
The otoshi varies in price from 300 to 1,000 yen depending on the type of establishment you're in. 
Some foreigners get quite upset about otoshi since they think it's a hidden cost  tacked on to their bill.  
But think of it as the equivalent of the table charge that restaurants in Italy also add to the cost of your meal.  

Of course I ordered tebasaki, which was what I really came to Tsuruhachi for.  One order  of 
four wings costs 380 yen.  
Only the flat portion of the wing is served, the drumette is not included.
The tebasaki was deep fried and well seasoned. A sprinkling of sesame seeds added to the crunch 
and flavour.  From crisp skin down to the bone, it was as the japanese would enthusiastically say "umai desu yo!"  Or as we Pinoys would say it "sarap to the bones!" (with apologies to Max's). 
Tebasaki is chili-hot but not palate numbing. They have  an umami spicy tang that makes you want 
to eat more and more. 

You cannot eat tebasaki with chopsticks, definitely not.  The only thing to do is to grasp each wing and try to get as much of the skin and meat as you can.  
The friendly server who handed my order pantomimed that I should eat it all in one bite!  
Looking around I could see my seat mates doing just that -- grab a chicken wing, put in mouth and voila ... only the clean bones came out. 
But I think that is a skill that comes only after you have consumed a mountain of chicken wings.

Hardly any english is spoken in the izakaya and there is no english menu.  You don't need one as 
all you have to do is point at the picture and smile.  The language of food needs no translation. 

For my next order of  beer, I was contemplating on having another round of tebasaki  but opted 
for the grilled pork slices instead.  They tasted (and looked like)  Canadian bacon.  
Served with mayo and mustard on the side, they were good otsumami or pulutan (snacks to go with beer) but my taste buds and stomach were muttering that I  really should have just ordered another plate of tebasaki

I stayed at the counter for quite some time,  enjoying my beer(s),  the good food and the convivial  atmosphere of Izakaya Tsuruhachi.  
I was quite surprised to come out into a darkened street -- good food makes me lose all sense of time.
But the night was still young and chicken wings don't necessarily count as a meal do they? 
So onward to dinner and the next iconic Nagoya specialty!