Ikkoku Mairi: Okayama
My first journal is written in anything but a religious setting. However, I have already had an encounter that warrants a write-up.
My schedule thus far:
Take the train to Kurashiki to finally see the historical district around the canal. I will admit this is a rather nice place to enjoy a sunny afternoon or to view the Bizen pottery, famous in this area. However, Kurashiki is hardly a monumental stopping force. A few short hours, a few pictures, and one typical random conversation with a curious Japanese person later, and I’m on the local to Okayama.
Arrive in Okayama. As long as I was here, I figured a few shots of the famous Korakuen Garden wouldn’t hurt either. The garden was as beautiful and crowded as ever, but it wasn’t until I was already headed back to the station that I had a rather random encounter…
A couple approached me from behind. I didn’t see the man’s face, because it was obscured by a rather large sugegasa – the conical hat normally worn by henro – he was wearing. Upon further inspection, I saw he was dressed in monk garb – white robes (although he had brown outer robes), a purple sash, the sugegasa, and white two-toed sandals.
Naturally, I knew he couldn’t be a henro traveler, because I was still in Okayama-ken. That didn’t stop me from assuming he might be headed the same direction I was… I moved forward for a closer look and discovered: he was a foreigner! And more to the point, he was speaking English to his female companion. Curiosity got the best of me: I had to ask.
“Ohenro des ka?” (Are you a pilgrim?)
“No, but I’ve done it five times.”
If chance encounters were strawberries, I would have been eating a rather large fruit smoothie. I quickly told him I’d be attempting the 23 temples in Tokushima-ken for Golden Week, and passed along my blog address. I really wish I could have stayed and talked about lesser known pilgrim facts, but I think he had to be somewhere.
But, that wasn’t before I learned his name was Kevin (later discovered to be Kevin Seperic, mentioned on the known henro list). He was a monk in Okayama, and he had completed his last pilgrimage in June on his scooter, marking the trail with a series of “X”s in spray paint – very useful. He also confirmed the free lodging I had heard about near Temple 12, which was a relief, because that day will be filled with a lot of mountain climbing.
I’ll be catching an early train on the Marine Liner from Okayama to Takamatsu tomorrow morning.
May the spirit of Kukai be with you.
I’m leaving tomorrow for Shikoku, via Okayama. Wish me luck – I have no ryokan reservations beyond Monday night, due to the fact I won’t really know my pace until I get on the road. Yeah… I might be crazy, but you can’t deny I’m adventurous. Ganbatte, fellow henro.
Image courtesy of frangipani
Thanks to William for sending me this link. It contained some of the most comprehensive information I could find on visa self-sponsorship.
Here are some excerpts:
The Initial Requirements Requested
1. Certificate of “Retirement” [a taishoku-shomeisho 退職証明書] from the last company who sponsored your visa
2. Certificate of Employment from your current companies/agencies (jinbun chishiki kokusai gyomu)
3. Payslips [kyuryo-meisaisho 給料明細書] for the past year
4. Tax forms for the past year
5. Invoices [seikyusho 請求書] for any private students you will be paying tax on (i.e. any agency who will be filling in a Certificate of Employment for you)
6. The Department of Immigration three-page “Application for Extension of Period of Stay” form
7. A cover letter explaining that you are looking for a self-sponsored visa.
They told me there would be a 3 – 4 week wait.
Most importantly, I did get an email that same day from another friend who had applied for a self sponsored visa in December. He was granted a full visa and he only handed in copies of his contracts (and nothing else)!
Amazing – it sounded like I actually had a good chance, like it might actually be quite a reasonably easy process. Just as long as you can prove that you are earning at least 250,000 yen, although I also heard from one source that someone who earned only 220,000 yen received a self-sponsored visa last year. Could be just a rumor though.
15 days after I put my self-sponsored visa application in, I received my notification postcard back.
I went to the “approval stamp” counter and waited in line for 20 minutes. The woman took out my folder, glanced inside, asked for the 4000 yen stamp (purchased from the convenience store downstairs), gave me ticket number 32 and asked me to sit down and wait for my number to be called.
15 minutes later, 32 came up. The woman handed me my passport, open at the golden, gleaming new approcal stamp, told me to report my changed status at my ward office and then went back to her paperwork.
That was it. Done. Too easy.
Too easy indeed. Although it does sound like the paperwork can be a hassle, there are some important things to note:
1. Apparently the laws or enforcement of the laws surrounding self-sponsorship are somewhat arbitrary; different paperwork is required depending on the office you go to, the person you talk to, the day you arrive. Just bring everything to be safe.
2. One- and three-year visas are available by the self-sponsorship method. Although you are “self-sponsored”, your visa still falls into the category of your job type (i.e. you maintain a “Specialist in Humanities/International Services”, or “Entertainment”, or “Instructor” visa). The only difference is – no employer backing your paperwork.
3. Even the monthly income requirements seem to be up in the air – between ¥200,000-250,000 minimum, depending on many factors.
4. I’m not entirely certain about obtaining a self-sponsored visa prior to a working visa; it may not be a rule that you have to have worked in Japan before sponsoring yourself, but it may give the bureaucracy the leeway to make you jump through a few hoops.
I’ll start gathering my paperwork together and let you know how the process goes. Of course, if I find a suitable sponsor before then… moot point. Any advice? Wish me luck.
In Hiroshima Prefecture, there is a hotline available for those with visa-related issues. Call the Hiroshima International Center at 0120-783-806 or 082-541-3888 on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, or Saturday from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM.
Jobs in Japan self-sponsor information
The best story I’ve read about self-sponsorship
Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Japan – Visa Information
Gaijinpot Forum – visas
I don’t have time to post now, but I will be keeping you informed of:
1. My final preparations and experiences for the Shikoku Pilgrimage. I will be very thorough in this.
2. Self-sponsorship details. I have found little-to-no information about this online, so I’ll be heading down to the immigration office this week and will recount my story.
3. The procedure involved in ending a standard contract with a Japanese eikaiwa.
4. A possible trip to Tottori to see the onsens and beaches.
My particular eikaiwa has a policy; upon finishing your contract you can choose to accept the cash equivalent of a ticket home, or the ticket itself. Ladies and gentlemen, conservatives and liberals, chikans and chijyos… I will be making my stand here. Despite the fact I have not yet secured a job offer with a visa sponsorship, I will be holding onto hope until the last possible day. I have chosen to receive the Yen in lieu of a trip home. Keeping Pace in Japan will continue. In the event I do have to leave the country, I can always travel to China to visit my brother, and return with a tourist visa. Hey, I’ll actually qualify for a Rail Pass…Sorry I haven’t been posting too consistently as of late. Until I narrow down a job and secure my visa, I’ll be working a lot. Despite my lack of coverage, a lot has been happening in Japan. The mayor of Nagasaki died from his wounds, it’s looking like fingerprinting for foreigners will be reimplemented, and the media coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings has been somewhat controversial…Hiroshima Prefecture has finally had enough sense to install automatic ticket gates in some of the more frequented train stations (i.e. Hiroshima Station (広島駅) itself). When I first arrived, it really did surprise me that a large and touristy city like this wouldn’t already be modernized. I had already seen automatic gates in Tokyo (of course), Fukuoka, Osaka, and Sapporo. Even a southern city like Matsuyama is no exception.
Without automatic ticket gates, commuters coming into Hiroshima on the early trains were herded towards three station attendant booths to pass through. It was chaos every time – I swear I saw people just walk through without receiving a second glance from JR. Others flashed commuter passes, which given the split second looks they received, could just as easily been pieces of paper saying “I like chicken”.
Naturally, the shinkansen exit at Hiroshima has always had automatic gates; still, security seems relatively lax in Hiroshima Station. The shinkansen fare adjustment windows leave their handicapped security gates open at all times, leading to what I assume might be the same type of bum rush on the local train side.
When you live near a station like this, it’s no wonder people start looking for chinks in the armor
A useful Japanese proverb to throw around
Nou aru taka wa tsume o kakusu
“A true hawk hides its talons”
If you’re seeking another option to view the cherry blossoms or fall foliage in the Hiroshima area, there is a nice Buddhist temple easily accessible from the city. Mitaki is a very rich area, complete with Pagoda, waterfalls, Buddha statues, and a nice mountain climb if you’re in the mood. I’ve been told it’s a common field trip for Hiroshima city schools.
The path is well marked as you get closer to the temple
From Hiroshima or Yokogawa Station, take the Kabe Line to Mitaki Station. There should be a map at the entrance to the loading platform. You’ll find the path a few minutes walk to the left.
Iccho Itoh, the mayor of Nagasaki, was gunned down in front of Nagasaki Station earlier this evening. As of this time, he is still alive but in critical condition at Nagasaki University Hospital.
Japan Probe Story
This comes right on the heels of the Virgina Tech shooting which received significant coverage in the Japanese media.
Japan Probe Story
Japan Today report
As I mentioned, I’ve been searching for additional options which would allow me to stay in Japan beyond my current visa expiration. Some interesting ideas that have been thrown my way:
Whether you’re a tourist looking to extend his stay, a person on a one-year working visa, or even someone on a WHV (Working Holiday Visa – not valid for US citizens), this is a viable option. Establish a residence in a gaijin house, pick up a few part-time or contract jobs, and present proof of income (at least ¥250,000 I believe) to the local government office.
Japanese Language Schools
There are hundreds of summer programs from foreign universities offering intensive language study courses in addition to the private Japanese language schools. Depending on your citizenship, you may require a pre-college visa beyond three months of study; this would allow you to remain in Japan until your schoolwork is completed – you can even work part-time given enough time spent in the country and with special permission.
Some programs in Tokyo I’ve found that are still accepting applicants for their summer programs
World Link Education
Some of the websites in which I’ve been searching for viable positions include:
Himeji was quite an experience in itself. To those who have been following my blog regularly, you’ve probably noticed that I tended to travel in western Japan. Why is that? Everyone travels in the Kansai region. Everyone. And in this time period, at the height of the cherry blossom season, it’s safe to say Japan probably had its greatest influx of tourists. I wanted to see and do things off the beaten path. Not too many people know about the onsens of Beppu, the pilgrimage in Shikoku, or the chicken at Irori Sanzoku.
In any case, I kept an open mind on my journey to Himeji. Despite encountering more tourists in one day than I had seen since my arrival, and speaking English more often than Japanese, it was still a rather pleasant experience.
Himeji Castle remains one of the greatest cultural heritage sites in Japan. Take one look at the castle and the surrounding area and it’s clear why. No other castle comes close to the preservation and design we see in Himeji. It’s one of the few castles that wasn’t completely burned to the ground.
I was lucky I happened to arrive so early – by the time I entered the castle and began my ascent to the top floor, it was already jam-packed with people waiting in line. The crowds on the grounds facing the castle were equally as large, with hanami parties everywhere.
Take the Sanyo Shinkansen to Himeji Station. It should be a stop for all Kodama, all Hikari, and most Nozomi trains. About thirty minutes from Osaka, about an hour from Hiroshima.
Once you arrive at Himeji Station, walk due north for about 15 minutes. The castle is easy to spot, and chances are most foot traffic is headed that direction anyway.
Official Himeji Website
Yoshinoyama was a little bit of a letdown. At its height, it’s quite clear that this is the place to be for cherry blossoms. Unfortunately, they must have peaked a few days prior to my appearance; some of the leaves were already browning.
Nevertheless, people were everywhere to witness the spectacular blooming. On the train over to Yoshino Station, I encountered a man looking nearly as confused as I was, observing each station we were passing to make sure we were on the right line. I struck up a conversation and it was immediately obvious that half the people in this car were headed for the mountain; it was his first visit as well.
Some advice about Yoshinoyama – during cherry blossom season, they should offer a few buses in addition to the ropeway to ascend the mountain. Take the bus if you’re not walking; the ropeway still drops you off far below the main viewing areas, while the bus places you in a prime position to climb or descend. Same price – ¥350.
In addition, buy sakura food. Sakura salted pedals for tea. Blocks of jelly. Sakura soft cream (delicious). Don’t know what you’re looking for?
There are plenty of restaurants on the mountain, and there should be food stalls during the spring. This is my kind of place for cherry blossom viewing – there plenty of hanami, sure, but it’s also a great place to be adventurous and explore the surrounding area. The mountain is pretty spread out.
Take the Kintetsu line to Yoshinoguchi and switch trains to Yoshino.
Maruyama Koen, Kyoto (円山公園)
I didn’t spend too much time in Kyoto. Why? It was packed, for one. Second, I came to see a sight at the best of the best times. The temples and museums will always be there in the summer.
Gion is well known for its Geisha and Meiko population, but at the height of the cherry blossoms season, most of the attention is turned to Maruyama Park in the east. This park features one of the best and largest shidarezakura (しだれざくら) in Kyoto. It also happens to be lit up at night for the best viewing. Hanami parties are frequent, and the city offers an outdoor yakiniku restaurant in sight of the tree.
Access – from the front of Kyoto Station, go to platform D2 and take the #206 bus to Gion stop. It’s about a 20 minute drive. Walk East for just a few minutes and you’ll find the park.
More pictures of the cherry blossoms
I don’t know what I was expecting. This was clearly a widely-used form of transportation. A high school boy sat behind me, clearly making a commute from the outskirts of Osaka. A housewife to my left, her arms full of shopping bags. A smattering of French and German tourists. Where was the point when modern Japanese civilization ceased and the traditional form of the Buddhist village took shape? It never really happened.
I’m speaking, of course, of my recent pilgrimage to Koyasan (高野山), a town filled with Buddhist temples and traditional monks, perched not too distant from the city of Osaka. I could see the Google Maps route, and I knew trains ran here. Still, I was under the assumption that this village, as a religious center for many Japanese, was more of a rustic 19th century setting. Instead, I found normal bus routes, convenience stores, and internet access in a “traditional” temple.
However, I was far from disappointed on this trip. Let me start at the beginning. Koyasan, about two hours south of Osaka and an equal distance from Wakayama, is easily accessible by rail and bus. After seeing that the train is slowed significantly by the topography, it was no surprise that JR didn’t operate these lines, rather a private railway company.
Wind, wind, wind through the mountains. Change to the cable car. Climb, climb, climb. And suddenly I found myself on a concrete slap, surrounded by a few buses and little else.
If you are planning to visit Koyasan, you should be aware, that despite the fact it might be the road less traveled, it is still quite popular. A number of temples were completely full of Japanese, German, and French tourists when I arrived.
Reserve a temple for your stay on Koyasan, no matter how brief. I say again, reserve a temple. There are no hotels as far as I know, and with the exception of the youth hostel, no other lodging available.
I don’t want you to think I’m endorsing the temples due to lack of options. Far from it. The temples are just as luxurious and comfortable as any Japanese ryokan. They usually run about ¥9,000-10,000/night, and offer you an excellent vegetarian dinner of tofu, miso, rice, tea, and great vegetables, called shoojin-ryoori. As someone who is quite skeptical of tofu, trust me: you’ll want this meal. They offer the same quality in their breakfast menu.
Although you may be served and hosted by traditional Buddhist monks, they are very accommodating to your needs. I arrived without a reservation (planned on the youth hostel, but changed my mind), and after trying four temples which happened to be full, I found a friendly caretaker in the Jofukuin Temple (成福院) who was willing to take me in for the night.
Unfortunately, I had already missed the dinner hour (be sure to arrive early and have a reservation so they can prepare your dinner accordingly), but was treated with respect despite my lack of Japanese skills and escorted to a huge open tatami mat room.
One of the monks promptly came in and served me a cup of tea. We had a nice talk about my reasons for coming to Koyasan and some of my other travels in Japan. I explained that I would be hiking the 88 temple pilgrimage during Golden Week, and tried my best to give off the impression that I was not merely another American otaku. After some mutual bows, I was free to enjoy the rest of the evening.
This particular temple had a great bath area which I partook. Free internet service. A great nighttime view of the garden. If I hadn’t been so tired I probably would have explored the surrounding area under the cover of moonlight.
However, if you do plan to stay in a temple, you should (but are not required to) attend morning prayers with the monks at 6:30 AM (oinori). Most of the monks will be asleep by 9:00 PM, so don’t count on arriving too late and expecting to gain entrance. At 6:20 AM, I promptly leapt out of bed, threw on my yukata, and hurried to the temple. At 6:22 AM, I was told in fractured English to don “street wear” for morning prayers; obliging, I turned back and made it just in time.
Entering a Buddhist temple – take a pinch of ash that is available outside the temple and rub it into your hands.
The temple turned out to be a very elaborate design, with a statue of Buddha and intricate carvings. Two monks entered and proceeded to chant for about 45 minutes, at which point we were asked to make prayers individually. I asked both Buddha and Kobo Daishi for their blessings as I would set out across Shikoku next month, and was met with a clear voice telling me: “You’re on your own, Turner.” Maybe all the incense clouded my mind.
After the prayers were complete, one monk stepped forward and casually addressed us with a story of Buddha. At this time my legs were so painful after kneeling for an hour I had to shift positions often. Luckily it wasn’t just an issue of culture, but of gender – all the women were kneeling comfortably, while the men in the room found it necessary to switch to cross-legged.
A quick bite to eat, a bath, and I was gone, bidding farewell to my religious hosts. My excursions around the Koyasan area – Kongobuji, Daito, and Okuoin – were wonderful, but let me just add something…
Visiting a religious place does not instantly make you religious.
Don’t expect to find enlightenment on a weekend getaway.
You don’t have to pretend to understand, even if you believe it’s being respectful.
Soak it all in. The walk from Koyasan to Okuoin is particularly memorable against the backdrop of graves, the oldest of which dates from 1500 years ago. Go to Koyasan to see the sights and experience a different part of the Japanese religious culture, but don’t expect some kind of “quick-fix” to your spiritual issues. I enjoyed seeing the places Kobo Daishi had built, and learned a lot about Buddhism.
Great site with information on temple lodging
From Osaka, take the Midosuji subway line south to Namba Station, and then follow the signs to the Nankai line. Take the Nankai line all the way south. It’s ¥1,230 to the top of the cable car station. They have local, rapid, and limited express cars.
From Koyasan cable car station, take a bus to the center of town for ¥280.
Update (April 12th): After sorting through my belongings, I discovered that the monks had given me a Vajra (वज्र) – an instrument you can see in Kobo Daishi’s hand. It is said that one uses a Vajra to cut away ignorance, to fully embrace your spirituality and religious practices. I’ll take it with me to Shikoku.
This story, linked from JapanProbe, caught my attention and I thought I should give my take. It discusses the perception of safety in Japan, especially from a foreigner’s perspective.
Before commenting on this, I should make you aware:
1. I have never been a victim of crime or discrimination in Japan.
2. I have wandered city and country streets in the middle of the night.
3. I have slept outside on more than one occasion.
That being established, I believe Richard Lloyd Parry has the right idea: many westerners see Japan as this historical, ineffable place that seems to exist outside of reality at times… a world of fantasy, of geisha, of samurai. Nothing hard and grounded. I know that perception ran through my head more than once
Yet, anyone who spends any time here can tell you Japan is as real and modernized as any other place on Earth. Of course there are women supporting kimono at times. But what do they do? They shuck them off, text message their friends, and go shopping in Parco on days off. It’s no different than any other formal attire.
Where does this perception of being 100% safe in Japan come from? We spread it. Foreigners. Every Japanese person I have met warns me to be safe in my travels, to take care of my belongings. Every foreigner tells me not to worry, nothing can go wrong, nothing will be stolen. This may be based on individual experience, but there are other issues:
– The fear of crime in Japan is high, especially among Japanese citizens
– Murder happens. I repeat, murder happens. People are attacked, robbed, assaulted, raped, beaten, and swindled
However… Japan is safer by comparison. But does that mean you should drop your carefully-tuned senses now that you reside in Japan? Of course not. You can leave your luggage in an unlocked place in Hakata Station and expect it to be there in three days; on the other hand, anyone can walk up and take it. What is worth more to you, the relaxed mentality that comes from being in the “safest country on Earth” (said in irony), or the peace of mind knowing that your guard is up, and you are prepared to deal with the real world in Japan?
The former may make you enjoy Japan more, to appreciate this country as a type of refuge you have never seen, and it may never amount to anything; but it is in this condition that I believe we see stories like Lindsay Ann Hawker and Lucie Blackman.
“…I can easily picture her, finishing her coffee with the polite, sweet, shy young man with whom she had just spent an undemanding hour. Perhaps he explains to her that he has forgotten his wallet with the money he owes her. Would she mind coming to his place? He is sorry, but it’s only round the corner. How harmless such a suggestion might have seemed. And then the walk back, and the door closing behind her, and the sudden change in him, and the unspeakable aftermath.”
Richard Lloyd Parry
Lock your doors. Lock up your bike. Look around if you hear a strange sound in the middle of the night. Don’t follow strangers to an unknown location unless you feel safe with them.
In Japan, I admit these precautions may never amount to anything. But I don’t want to you look at it as though I’m afraid of living here, or somehow renouncing the nature of Japanese society. Not at all. It’s just common sense, in any country. Don’t let yours be dulled in the land of the rising sun. You can enjoy Japan, and appreciate that all your precautions against crime may never be tested.
A lot of my travels in Kyushu have been sleepless sightseeing; catching the last train to Hakata, enjoying the nightlife and late night ramen, and going on the first limited express to the destination of my choice. I must be out of my mind, considering the toll it takes on my body every single time.
My record for staying awake stands at about 60 hours after I pulled two all-nighters during the last week of classes in college; my record for sleeping is 26 hours, following that nightmare. The only reason I’m able to survive in places like Beppu is I enter the onsen, and a state of deep relaxation. It’s almost enough to forget REM sleep.
Nevertheless, I will be attempting another insane adventure this weekend while the cherry blossoms are still alive and well; this time, I will be well-rested, and prepared to go the distance. Cramming in as much sakura as possible, seeing the people, absorbing the sights, and feeling as content as I possibly can. Let the games begin.
Himeji is without a doubt the most well-preserved castle in Japan, the most visited, and the most impressive. Unlike many of the other castles you see in Japan which are complete recreations, Himeji stands intact with only minor restorations.
Over one thousand cherry blossom trees surround the castle and its grounds, making this a must-see place during the sakura season.
Access – along the Sanyo local and Shinkansen lines, Himeji Station.
Koyasan, south of Osaka and east of Wakayama, is not particularly well-known for its cherry blossoms, but rather its rhododendron. Nevertheless, I will be visiting this famous city with its Buddhist temples as required by the “code” of the 88 temple pilgrimage
I’ve been told this is an excellent place to stay in a traditional temple and join the monks for meals and morning prayers. However, this can be rather costly; I’m afraid I’ll have to settle for the youth hostel
Fortunately, April 8th happens to be the Buddha’s birthday, so there will be an eventful ceremony that day.
Access – from Shinosaka, take the Midosuji subway line to Namba station. Walk to the JR Namba station and it’s a direct train on the Nankai-Dentetsu line. About two hours from Osaka.
Koyasan Youth Hostel
Koyasan Tourist Organization
Widely considered to be the most popular and famous place for cherry blossom viewing in Japan, Yoshinoyama lies just outside the ancient capital of Nara along an accessible rail line. 30,000 trees? – I’ll say no more.
Access – check Hyperdia for this one; you could be coming from all directions.
Maruyama Koen, Kyoto (円山公園)
Perhaps the second most famous spot for hanami in all of Japan, and certainly the most popular in Kyoto. This park just east of the city is jam-packed with partygoers once the sakura start blooming. It’s just as eventful and exciting as any Japanese matsuri.
The real attention-grabber is the shidarezakura, the “weeping cherry blossom tree”. It’s lit up at night for the best viewing.
Access – from Kyoto station, take the #206 bus to Gion stop. Follow the smell of alcohol, or just walk in the same direction as everyone else.
Uncertain where to go? Certain that you’re not as crazy as me? Check out some of the more popular cherry blossom viewing spots
I went to parts of Kyushu and western Honshu this weekend to enjoy the blossoming of the sakura. Enjoy.
Beppu has a number of places good for hanami, the most centralized being Beppu Park (別府公園) just north of the station. Kannawa has an excellent viewpoint as well.
The most accessible place in Kokura seems to be the River Walk shopping center, adjacent to Kokura-jo (castle).
My favorite place thus far. Iwakuni is always a vibrant place around the Kintaikyo bridge; toss some cherry blossoms into the mix and you get a pretty good crowd of locals, photographers, and foreigners. The path on the northern side is completely lined with sakura for at least three kilometers.
Irori Sanzoku Restaurant, Yamaguchi