Sunday, July 30, 2006

Toudaiji Temple - Nara, Japan

The Toudaiji (Eastern Great Temple) was built in 734 AD. The temple is famous for the largest wooden building on earth, and the giant Buddha statue housed in the building.

The temple is located about 1.5 km from Kintetsu-Nara station and 2 km from JR Nara station. A pleasant walk with lots of trees, and small souvenir shops.

The main entrance to the temple complex

There is a student discount for the entrance ticket, and it is valid for foriegners too (it is a good idea to travel with your student ID, you can get discounts in many places including some restaurants).

The hall of the great Buddha

Look for the sign saying "No tripods", for the location this photograph was taken from. This is considered for the best place to take a photo of the hall, if you are an amateur photographer.

The Big Buddha

With no tripods allowed, it might be a good idea to hold your camera against a pillar to keep it steady while taking photos inside the hall. Use of flash, though permitted, does not help much with a 15m statue.

Some other statues inside the hall

Just behind the left shoulder of the statue, you will find a wooden pillar with a hole. This hole is the size of a nostril of the statue, and it is considered lucky to pass through it. If you are a child or are on the slim side, this is not difficult. However, there can be long lines during school holidays. :o)

Near the entrance to the hall, there is a statue of the priest "Pindola Bharadwaja". It is believed to have healing power. Touching part of the statue and then the same part of one's body is supposed to heal any ailments present there.

Nara is a small city with lots of sightseeing spots. I will cover more places in later posts.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Something About Studies

This will be boring to most of you, but I told you that I am a student. Let me elaborate a bit. :o)

Currently, I am a PhD student in the University of Tokyo, Japan. I thought of posting a few photos from my university, though they might not be as interesting as the festival stuff.

The red gate

Yasuda auditorium

Walk way to the sports complex

Sanshiro pond

Road with trees

A PhD in Japan is much better compared with the situation pictured in PhD Comics :-p. One can complete a PhD in 3 years, 90% of the time (the others usually take an extra semester). The situation with funding is generally quite good (that explains why I get to travel a lot). The coursework requirements are not so high, leaving enough time for research and enjoying life. Japan is a safe and nice place, with lots of kind and helpful people. You need to learn the language, but it is not hard once you are here.

As for me, I am in the 3rd year of my PhD. I had my pre-defense yesterday, where I presented the current status of my research to a panel of professors. They were happy with the work, and gave me the green light to start writing the thesis. Now I can relax a bit and enjoy the summer vacation, before I do.

So much for my studies. If anyone is interested in more details about graduate studies in Japan, I will tell you what I know.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Kids on Horseback

There were about 25 kids among the 498 samurais (knights) who took part in the festival this year. I am just posting a photo of the youngest of them. See more photos of the cute young nights of Souma, on Singithi's Blog.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Souma Nomaoi - Horse Festival of Soma

The Souma Nomaoi is held on the 23rd, 24th and 25th of July every year, in Minami Souma City of Fukushima prefecture, Japan. The festival started 1033 years ago, when the founder of Souma clan captured, trained and offered some wild horses to the three shrines of Souma (Odaka shrine, Oota shrine and Nakamura shrine). While the knights participated the event during the old days, their descendents (still referred to as knights during the festival) take care of the horses and take part in the festival at present. Women and children too have become knights since recently, making the festival more interesting.

On the first day, the knights (about 500 in number) gather at the three shrines, and start the ceremony with prayers and toast. The knights are clad in body armours that the clans have been using for generations. Only those worn by ladies and small children are new, and it is not uncommon to see a child wearing an oversized body armour, as the event is seen as an opportunity to wear it.

The first round of races held in the track in Minami Souma in the afternoon of the first day. Only about 120 of the knights take part in races. One or two women might be included there. Ten knights participate in each round, consisting of a single lap of 1000 meters.

At 9:30 a.m. of the second day, all the knights gather near Ogawa bridge in the north of Minami Souma city, and and head off on horseback towards the altar in front of the race track in Minami Souma to be received by a descendent of the Commander in chief of the clan. With 500 knights and many others, the procession is colorful and magnificient. The flags they carry are family symbols.

The knights are quite nice and patiently pose for photos, taken by both professionals and amateurs.


However, not all horses are friendly and calm all the time. To be honest, I was a bit overwhelmed having so many around me.

Another round of races takes place after the procession. The helmets are taken off during races since they are quite heavy and dangerous if dropped during the race.

After a small break at the end of the races, the knights gather on the green surrounded by the race track. Fireworks with flags called Goshinki are shot to the sky, 4 at a time. The kinghts start off in pursuit of the flags, kind of an unarmed fight.

The ones who manage to win possession of the flags gallop up the hill to the altar to receive awards.

On the third day, a number of horses are released in to an open area, and captured by groups of knights to be offered to the shrines. With no wild horses roaming around nowadays, I guess this is a good replacement that is enjoyed by a large number of spectators.

I managed to find out about the event and go there on the second day, thanks to my foster parents here. The details posted here are what I learnt from them and managed to read (I am still not that good in reading Japanese). The photos, of course, were taken by me. :-p

Minami Souma City Website
has some more information about the festival, though only in Japanese. For English, check Japan Atlas and similar pages.

Some of the crowd who were there, despite heavy rain

As for other festivals I have already been to, I will try to post about them in advance so that it is useful for those of you who are already in Japan.

Summer vacation has come. If there is any nice festival going around Tokyo or Chiba, please drop a message as a comment. :o)

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Moriya Matsuri - A Town Festival

There are two types of festivals in Japan. The first is the religious and cultural festivals. Most of these are famous, and big. The other, town festivals, are much smaller but much more fun in a way.

Town festivals are organized by town offices and senior residences, to foter goodwill among residents and give the people (especially children and the old people) a chance to enjoy without traveling far. Most of these festivals are held in late July, when the schools are closed for summer vacation.

Today, I attended the town festival in Moriya, a small town about 60km North of Tokyo. I was invited by my Japanese foster parents who live there. I will use the photos and events from there to outline a Japanese town festival.

The stage and free (yes, FREEEEEEEE!) sake

Food stalls

The food stalls sell a lot of fast food, including yaki s0ba (grilled Japanese noodles), Sausages, and yaki-tori (grilled chicken on a stick). Children go for cotton candy and kakigori (shaved ice with flavored syrup). Well..., not only children :o)

Games and competitions

There are games that anyone can take part. And that goes for visotors and foriegners, too. I too participated in the "Grand Golf Tournament", and won a tissue box as a prize :-p.

Target shooting, and shopping for insect-shaped toys are two other popular activities for the kids.

Karaoke competition is more popular among the aged. They insisted that I sing, but I could not find in the song collection a Japanese song that I remember the melody. Too bad :o(

There was a parade and a ballet performance by the children in the town. Not bad, given that many of the kids tried it for the first time. An amateur photographer with a digital camera (with a long shutter lag) cannot show you much.

Well, so much for today. I will cover the Bon-odori dances and fireworks when I attend the next festival :o). Hope you enjoyed the photos.

If you are in Japan in summer, take a bit of time to drop by any small town festival if there is one around. A good way to meet lots of friendly people, take part in some fun and games, and find out about cool sightseeing spots too!

Friday, July 21, 2006

Mitama Matsuri, Tokyo

The Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo celebrates the Mitama Matsuri (literally Soul Festival) in mid July every year.

The objective of holding the festival is to commemorate and worship the war dead enshrined here. The shrine is decorated with about 30,000 lanterns with their names (unfortuantely I could not stay there until they are lit). The festival includes performances of kendou (Japanese fencing), traditional dances, and songs too.

The lanterns

Kendou - one of the participants is a foriegn student

Dancers from Okinawa