Utsunomiya | exploration while waiting for Shinkansen

Day 3: rainy days and Sundays.... a transportation day with a short hour peaceful diversion through Utsunomiya before Shinkansen to next pitstop in Sendai. A peaceful morning at the shrine and found the Buddha with three beans standing strong from the encroachment of urbanism.

We are on our way from Kanuma to Sendai catching the Shinkansen in Utsonomiya. This little map shows the Nikko line from that main hub. It's a rainy day with damp glistening streets. One of the things that I love about traveling via train in Japan is how you can coordinate your day around your agenda and utilize the plethora of lockers at the train stations to store belongings while you explore. This option enables for short excursions in a place you aren't necessarily staying in a formal accommodation.

Our exploration route is taking us north from Tokyo eventually to Sapporo. Today is a slower day as it's mostly about transport. In the morning, our lovely airbnb host drove us back to the train station so we wouldn't have to walk that distance in the rain. Once we arrived at the transfer spot, we found a locker and went out for a nice walk in the rain.

Utsunomiya is a nice little town. This city guide article talks about the benefits of living there as it is ranked as a top place in the country. Japan visitor also details some of the highlights of this city that we didn't get to in our hour including the goya dumplings, jazz, and historic sites. We looked at the map outside the station and decided to head towards the shrine on the main road. Along the way, there were some interesting design banners and other ephemera or signage that I thought was interesting.

Walking along the city street, you notice a change in the urban landscape as the buildings start to fade and the space opens up to a dramatic scene with a Torii gate. And steps. (our theme maybe). Going up and coming down you can see how this entrance to the shrine provides the space between the busy hectic life and the serenity of the shrine.

Futaarayama Jinja is a Shinto Shrine located centrally in this city up on a hill. At one point there were two ridges – Koderamine and Usugamine – which means rugged mountain in Chinese. Eventually due to road construction and erosion, only Usugamine remains which is approximately 130 meters high. The shrine website explains more including listing the three deities that are enshrined here. This site dates back to the 10th century and is famous because the deities (one as the founder) offer happiness and prosperity on the people. Notice the beautiful wood construction, the unique style of the sloping roof, and the stone sculptures.

Notice the wooden boards above. As mentioned in previous blog posts, those are called Ema that are purchased for the intent of leaving a wish behind whether it be for good health, world peace, or even to pass exams. The front side will have a design which may be associated with the specific shrine or even the Chinese zodiac. At certain times in the year, the monks will burn these releasing the wishes into the air.

In the left image below you'll notice the white papers hanging in a bunch. Those are called Omikuji and are fortune telling paper slips that are available with small donation at shrines and temples. They are randomly selected and have 'predictions' which range from daikichi ("great good luck") to daikyo ("great bad luck"). Those who receive the bad luck will often leave them behind tied in a knot. The other paper element you'll notice in that picture are the zig zag shapes hanging from the roof line. Those are called shide and hang from shimenawa which is the rope. These mark the boundary of something sacred and can even be found on trees that are considered to have strong kame. They represent lightning bolts and ward of the spirits. The rectangular object in that same picture is a trough filled with water for purification.

The stone lion is a guardian called komainu and can also be a dog or in the case of the Inari shrines, foxes. They will stand on either side of the lane to the shrine. Japan Guide has a nice overview of all of the aspects of Shinto shrines.

We continued our walk to discover lovely little back lanes prior to finding the large Buddha amidst the urban environment.

As we were walking back to the Utsunomiya train station, we saw the Buddha and decided to make a visit. This is the Zengan-ji Temple. The copper sculpture was placed on the simple stone shrine in 1735. This is also known as the "Three Soybeans Buddha" and the legend is

"A long time ago the chief priest of the temple had a plan to build a bronze Buddha, but found difficulty collecting money for it. He consulted a wandering Buddhist monk who chanced upon the temple. The monk took out 3 soybeans and gave them to the chief priest, suggesting he should grow and multiply them. If the people in the neighborhood helped grow them together, they could get a huge amount of beans to raise money. The priest took the advice and could finally build the Buddha after ten years." (http://u-sgg.com/utsunomiya.html)

The wabi-sabi of some of the urban scene was suitable for the day of rain. Off to get our packs from the luggage, some snacks for the Shinkansen, and head to our next destination of Sendai.

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