In the park hedge, roses are blooming. Although not on rose bushes, it’s a wonder to see roses in full bloom. Upon closer inspection, they are intricately crafted rose blossoms made from fallen ginkgo leaves. Impressive work, indeed. I wonder who created them. Besides the craftsmanship, the thoughtful gesture warms my heart, creating a heartwarming atmosphere. I’ve had a similar experience while walking through the back streets of Kyoto’s Gion district before. At a street corner, someone had arranged small white stones like a plate, scattering camellia flowers on top. It instantly dispelled the cold. I have other similar experiences, but the joy of connecting with someone you don’t know warms my body and soul.
The illuminations are in full bloom. If you search for “illumination” on Google, you’ll find countless illumination events from Hokkaido to Okinawa. In the past, Christmas trees were adorned with incandescent or tungsten light bulb illuminations, but now, it’s exclusively light-emitting diodes (LEDs). LEDs consume far less power compared to incandescent or tungsten bulbs, but since they are used extensively everywhere, a new concern has arisen—light pollution. Originally, the tradition of illuminations dates back to the 16th century and is attributed to Martin Luther of Germany, known for the religious Reformation. Of course, at that time, there was no electricity, so candles were used. Later on, the introduction of electric bulb illuminations is credited to Edison, famous for inventing the incandescent light bulb. Illuminations made their way to Japan during the Meiji era, starting with displays at industrial expositions in Osaka and Tokyo. Even households with children are likely decorating their homes with illuminations or decorating Christmas trees.
In Ito, Izu, there is a lake known affectionately as ‘Izu’s Eye,’ named Ippeki-ko. Formed by a volcanic eruption approximately 100,000 years ago, this crater lake captivates visitors with reflections of the mountains of Akagi, green trees, and white clouds floating in the sky on its surface. Particularly during the autumn foliage season, the vivid red hues of the trees paint a beautiful tableau around the lake. Rare plants can be found along the water’s edge, and it is said that the colonies of Chojisou here are the only wild ones in the prefecture. With ever-changing scenery throughout the seasons, many people visit to experience the beauty of the moment. Recognized as one of Japan’s scenic spots, the lake was named by Sugiya Sankou, a scholar of Chinese studies and secretary to Mutsu Munemitsu, the Minister for Foreign Affairs during the Meiji era. The name ‘Ippeki-ko’ is derived from a phrase in the works of a Northern Song Dynasty literati, ‘Yi Bi Wan Qing,’ expressing the endless expanse of shining blue both in the sky and on the lake surface. The exceptional beauty of the autumn leaves is said to be enhanced by the presence of Ippeki-ko, making it a truly special destination.
As we approach the end of the year, with just one month left, signs of Christmas are everywhere. Large supermarkets are adorned with towering Christmas trees, and convenience stores display advertisements for Christmas cakes and New Year’s feast reservations. As night falls, the streets come alive with dazzling illuminations. Osaka’s iconic Midosuji, stretching 4 km from Umeda to Namba, transforms into a colorful LED-lit pathway, attracting many visitors. The annual ‘Kobe Luminarie,’ an event that not only preserves the memory of the Great Hanshin Earthquake but also symbolizes hope for Kobe, is set to take place after a four-year hiatus. However, the event’s schedule has shifted from December to January, making it an early spectacle for the upcoming year. The entire town is in a festive uproar. There’s a saying, ‘It’s like Bon and New Year’s have come together,’ but nowadays, ‘It’s like Christmas and New Year’s have come together’ seems more apt to express the busyness of the season.
In the bamboo forest of Okusaga, a little further up the mountain from Arashiyama, there is a secluded hermitage called Gioji. Gioji Temple is popular among women due to its quiet appearance and the fact that it is a nunnery, and one of the reasons for its popularity is the tragic love story that has been passed down at Gioji Temple. Shirabyoshi Gio, who lost Taira Kiyomori’s favor and became a nun, his younger sister Gio, his mother Toji, and Hotoke Gozen, who realized the same fate and came to the temple, holed up in one of the wards of Ojoin and became a nun. The story of how they lived the rest of his life is one of the best stories in the Tale of the Heike. Ojo-in occupied a vast area in this region until the end of the Edo period, presenting a dignified temple. However, with the advent of the Meiji era, it fell into disrepair. At that time, moved by the tragic love story left behind in Ojo-in, the then governor of Kyoto, Kitagaki, was touched. He relocated a tea room from his villa, renamed it Giou-ji in memory of the female protagonist ‘Giou,’ and worked to revive it as a nunnery. Unfortunately, Giou-ji did not last long, and it once again became a dilapidated nunnery. Giou-ji found a new savior in a nun, Chisho Takaoka. Sold into the geisha profession by her father at a young age, expressing a desire to die in her teens, this girl underwent a series of fateful events. At the age of 39, she ordained and played a crucial role in reviving Giou-ji to its present state.
In the southern part of Sakurai City, Nara Prefecture, to the east of Asuka, lies the renowned autumn foliage spot, Tanzan Shrine. It enshrines Kamatari, a key figure in the Taika Reforms. The origins trace back to Kamatari’s eldest son, Joue, who moved Kamatari’s remains from Mount Awi in Settsu Province (modern-day Osaka) to this location. Joue then built a wooden thirteen-story pagoda (an Important Cultural Property). And then his younger brother, Fujiwara Fuhito, erected a shrine and placed an image of their father there. The name ‘Tanzan Shrine’ is derived from the ‘Tanzan’ where Kamatari and Crown Prince Naka Ōe allegedly conspired to assassinate Soga Iruka. The main hall, adorned with lacquer and vibrant colors, follows the Kasuga architectural style and houses the Kamatari statue, said to have served as a model for Nikkō Tōshō-gū. The wooden thirteen-story pagoda, considered Kamatari’s tomb tower, was reconstructed in the Muromachi period, standing at a height of 17 meters—now the only existing structure of its kind. Tanzan Shrine is not only famous for its autumn foliage but also offers beauty throughout the seasons, with cherry blossoms adorning the grounds in spring, vibrant greenery in summer, and a stunning winter snowscape.
Along National Route 168, connecting Gojo City in Nara Prefecture and Shingu City in Wakayama Prefecture, lies the once-considered remote and hidden gem of Japan, the Totsukawa Onsen kyo. Totsukawa Onsen kyo encompasses Yusenchi Onsen, the oldest hot spring in Totsukawa Village, the bustling Totsukawa Onsen itself, and the secluded Kamiyu Onsen with only one inn. The National Route 168 was once infamous for its treacherous conditions, often referred to as a rugged road. Landslides and rockfalls were frequent, leading to extended road closures lasting several tens of days each time. About 50 years ago, when I visited, there were several places where traffic waited for up to an hour due to narrow passages. Nevertheless, it remained a popular hot spring destination, attracting visitors from all over the country in search of hidden gems. Situated in the heart of the Kii Peninsula, this area still retains the remnants of its secluded past. Various suspension bridges, including the 297-meter-long and 54-meter-high “Tani-se no Tsurihashi,” dot the landscape. Waterfalls are scattered throughout, and the “Sasa no Taki” waterfall in the photograph has been selected as one of the “100 Famous Waterfalls in Japan.” The majestic waterfall, with a drop of approximately 32 meters, echoes through the serene natural surroundings. The beauty of the cascading water, the rising mist, and the mysterious threads of white flowing over the rocky surface create a captivating and tranquil atmosphere that resonates deeply with the soul.
Exiting Kyoto Shijo Station on the Keihan Electric Railway and proceeding straight east along Shijo Street, you will reach Yasaka Shrine. Heading south from there, you arrive at Gion, and within the expansive grounds in the eastern area of Gion stands Kodai-ji Temple. This temple was built by Nene, the wife of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, to mourn his soul. Nene used to visit Kodai-ji Temple daily from the nearby Entoku-in. She and Hideyoshi fell in love during the time when he was still known as Kinoshita Tokichiro, and they married. Nene, a daughter of a noble samurai family, married Tokichiro, who came from a peasant background. Nene’s mother strongly opposed the marriage and did not approve of it until her death. Tokichiro served Oda Nobunaga and gradually rose to prominence. Throughout this time, Nene continuously supported Tokichiro, and it is said that it was thanks to Nene’s help that Nobunaga came to patronize him.The couple did not have children, and when Hideyoshi’s son, Hideyori, was born to his concubine Yodo-dono, Nene was overjoyed. She cherished Hidetada more than anyone else, maintaining a close relationship with Yodo-dono. After Hideyoshi’s death and the suicides of Hidetada and Yodo-dono during the Siege of Osaka, Nene maintained a surprisingly amicable relationship even with the enemy general Tokugawa Ieyasu. She played a central role in the establishment of Kodai-ji Temple to enshrine Hideyoshi, with Ieyasu taking the lead in the post-war efforts. Regardless of family or foes, Nene was a woman respected by many warriors, as evidenced by historical records. Furthermore, Nene had an unmatched love for sake, likely reflecting on Hideyoshi while enjoying the cherry blossoms and autumn leaves at Kodai-ji Temple.
醍醐寺 (Daigo-ji Temple), famous for its “Daigo no Hanami” cherry blossom viewing, is now adorned with vibrant autumn foliage, attracting numerous tourists. Established in 874 by the disciple of the renowned Kobo Daishi Kukai, Monk Shobo, it stands as the head temple of the Shingon sect Daigo school. Embracing the entirety of Mt. Daigo within its precincts, this vast temple spans 2 million square meters, ranking among Kyoto’s foremost grand temples. With a rich history, it has garnered support from emperors, nobles, and warriors since its inception. Despite facing multiple fires, including those during the tumultuous Onin War, much of its architecture and artifacts, including national treasures and important cultural properties, have been preserved and passed down. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the temple faced a period of decline until its revival by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi orchestrated a grand event known as the “Daigo no Hanami,” inviting daimyos from across the country. To enhance the spectacle, he commandeered 700 cherry blossom trees. This event, comparable to the “Kitano Tea Gathering,” became a monumental feast in Hideyoshi’s life. Despite his passing five months after the celebration, the cherry blossoms he left behind continued to flourish at Daigo-ji, symbolizing his legacy. Amidst the anti-Buddhist movements during the Meiji Restoration, many temples were forced to sell or lose their treasures. In contrast, Daigo-ji Temple, through the efforts of its abbots and monks, successfully retained its treasures, preventing any leakage to the outside. These precious artifacts, safeguarded throughout its extensive history, include numerous national treasures and important cultural properties, now carefully housed in the Reihokan (Treasure Hall).
Jikishi-an Temple is a hidden gem in Arashiyama, a popular tourist destination in Kyoto, Japan. It is located in the back of Arashiyama, a 15-minute walk from Daikaku-ji Temple. The temple is surrounded by tranquility, even though it is surrounded by the hustle and bustle of Arashiyama. Jikishi-an Temple was founded by Dokushoseien, a monk from Nanzen-ji Temple who studied Zen Buddhism. He built a hut on this site in 1646 and named it Jikishi-an Temple. The name Jikishi-an Temple comes from the Zen phrase “jikishi-ninshin,” which means “to directly point to the mind.” Jikishi-an Temple once had a large complex of buildings, but it fell into decline after Dokushoseien’s death. In the late Edo period, the temple was revived by Tsunaki Muraoka-no-tsubone, a former lady-in-waiting to the Konoe family who was a supporter of the Meiji Restoration. She devoted herself to the education of local girls, and her legacy continues to this day. The main hall of Jikishi-an Temple houses a “Omoide-gusa” notebook where visitors can write their thoughts and feelings. The temple grounds also have a “souvenir grass Kannon statue” and a “love-encounter Jizo statue,” which are popular spots for women.