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Thursday, June 4, 2009

Trip to Japan: Day 4 - Flying Plums 5月27日

This day's excursion was to Dazaifu 太宰府, located on the outskirts of Fukuoka 福岡, 30 minutes or so on the Nishitetsu 西鉄 train line. At one time it was the administrative center for the island of Kyūshū 九州, and later a place of exile for losers of the political infighting at the Imperial court in Kyōto 京都. Now, Dazaifu is something of a quiet town noted for the Temman-gū 天満宮, dedicated to Sugawara-no-Michizane 菅原道真 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sugawara_no_Michizane), the most noted of all the exiles.

The shrine is located a short walk from the train station along Tenjin-sama-dōri. Upon reaching the shrine grounds, there is allegorical stone bridge to be crossed, called Taiko-bashi 太鼓橋. The first arch is the steepest, and symbolizes the past. The middle section is flat and denotes the present, while the final, gentle arch represents things yet to come. At the end of the bridge is a two-story leading to a courtyard.


The main worship hall was built in 1591 and is very colorful in its bright red and gold lacquer ラッカー. Unfortunately, my camera couldn't capture the colors very well on this dark, overcast day:

Perhaps because Tenjin 天神 is the guardian deity of scholars, there were a lot of school groups visiting the shrine that day (then again, it could have just been an ordinary school trip). Inside the worship hall, a ceremony of some kind was being held. In front of the building, and to the right, stood a twisted plum tree said to be over a thousand years old. The story goes that tree uprooted itself from Michizane's Kyōto garden the night before his departure for Dazaifu, and flew ahead of him to this spot.

From the shrine grounds, I hopped on an escalator that cut through some rock and emerged in front of the Kyūshū National Museum 九州国立博物館. Architecturally speaking, it didn't really mesh well with Dazaifu's more traditional sights, but the contents were excellent. The day I visited, there was a special exhibition on Tibetan treasures, which was well worth the ¥1300 ($14/NT440) ticket price. But the permanent exhibition was just as good, focusing on Japan's ties to the Asian continent, and the influence they have had on Japanese art and culture. The excellent (and free) English audio guide really helped to explain the intention of the curators.

Leaving the museum, I returned to Temman-gū and had a katsudon カツ丼 set lunch at a restaurant on the grounds. Afterward, it was a short walk to a temple called Kōmyōzen-ji 光明禅寺. This quiet temple boasted two gardens, one in the front and the other in the back. Everything you ever imagined about a Japanese garden was there - white sand, moss, boulders and maple trees. It must be an amazing sight in fall, but even in late May the scene was beautiful, and I spent some time here taking in the view and walking around the temple.

Leaving the temple and walking back along Tenjin-sama-dōri, I paused long enough to sample umegae-mochi 梅が枝餅, the local treat. Then I proceeded to walk to the other end of Dazaifu to visit two other old Buddhist temples. Much of the walk was alongside a canal, where the sight of this bird (a heron?) trying to swallow a large goldfish or carp drew a small crowd of onlookers:

The first temple I visited was Kanzeon-ji 観世音寺, founded in 746, and at one time the largest temple in Kyūshū. Now, there are only a few buildings (17th century), but the adjacent treasure house contains a dozen or so Buddhist images dating in age from between 750 and 1300 years old. Photography naturally wasn't allowed, but the informative English booklet that came with the admission ticket did a lot to enhance the experience of seeing these powerful sculptures up close (there were no glass cases to separate the images from the viewers).

The last temple I visited this day was conveniently located next door. Kaidan-in 戒壇院 dates from the late eighth century, and its interior held a statue of an eleven-headed Kannon 観音, crafted during the Heian period 平安時代 (794-1185). Coming from a country like the USA with its relatively short history, and living on an island like Taiwan, where it's rare to find things older than a couple of centuries, I often myself in awe in Japan at how artifacts and structures of great antiquity comfortably exist in the world's second largest economy.

By this time it was late in the afternoon, and I was pretty much finished with Dazaifu. Returning to the train station, I took the train to Nishitetsu-Futsukaichi Station 西鉄二日市駅, but instead of changing trains there for the return trip to Fukuoka, I exited and walked to JR Futuskaichi Station 二日市駅. Following a meal of chicken curried rice and beer, I then continued on foot past the station to the Futsukaichi Onsen 二日市温泉 hot spring area. There, I entered the Gozen-yu 御前湯 public bath, paid the ¥200 ($2.10/NT70) fee and proceeded to get naked with a bunch of strangers, none of whom seemed the least bit fazed to find a hairy barbarian in their midst. The waters felt great after a long day of walking around, and the post-bath can of Asahi Super Dry アサヒスーパードライ wasn't too bad, either.

I returned to Fukuoka via JR, and finished the day with a stroll through the Nakasu 中洲 entertainment district, where the mobile street stalls called "yatai" 屋台 had been set up along the southwest bank of the island. In the nearby red light district, it appeared to be business as usual.

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