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Friday, May 28, 2004


Ancient port of quiet delights

Special to The Japan Times

By the time footsore travelers on the old Tokaido Highway made it to Otsu, the town must have been no unwelcome sight. Many of them would just have trudged some 500 km from Edo (present-day Tokyo), and Otsu was the last of the 53 official way-stations strung out along the great thoroughfare. Just 10 km or so beyond the final hill on the road lay the journey's end of Kyoto.

News photo
Ukimido Temple (above) standing on stilts sunk into the bed of Lake Biwa; the three-story pagoda and a hall at the beautiful Mildrea Temple complex.
News photo

Throughout most of its history, Otsu has tended to live in the shadow of its famous neighbor to the west. Indeed, for many modern residents, Otsu is still little more than a bedtown for Kyoto, just 10 minutes away by train. But the present-day capital of Shiga Prefecture was once capital of the whole country -- long before upstart Kyoto started hogging the scene. Otsu's spell in the spotlight was, however, brief -- just five years until 672. After that, it settled into its role as a port on Lake Biwa and Kyoto's gateway to and from eastern Japan.

For modern tourists, too, it is grandiose Kyoto that tends to haul in the hordes, but there is more than enough in quiet Otsu to warrant serious attention.

Prime among Otsu's attractions is the great temple complex of Miidera -- and "complex" is the operative word.

Founded in the seventh century, this rambling assortment of pavilions, gates, gardens and arched bridges is spread out over a huge site: Despite the many maps around the place, you have no more idea where the devil you are supposed to be than you do in Roppongi Hills.

Unlike Roppongi, though, Miidera is rather delightful -- except in spring, when it's divine, as you walk along with a dense carpet of fallen cherry blossoms underfoot. In the evening, the whole place is lit up and little andon lanterns pick out the paths, their light making a tunnel of the blossom-heavy trees and giving the whole scene the look of some fairy wonderland of snow.

Miidera's only serious local rival is the slightly younger Ishiyama-dera Temple, which was founded in the eighth century.

Where Miidera is a vast, sprawling thing, though, Ishiyama-dera is tidily tucked into its mountain contours. And while Miidera is certainly at one with its natural environment, Ishiyama-dera seems almost to have grown out of the mountainside. There are stands of towering shimenawa- (rope-) girt cedars, masses of flowers on the hillsides, and the woods are loud with birds. Deep moss covers boulders, stepping stones, tree boles, temple roofs and no doubt soon will be thick on the closed-circuit TV cameras.

Ishiyama-dera's great pride is that part of the 11th-century "Tale of Genji" was supposedly written here. By way of substantiating its claim, in an alcove next to the main hall a mannequin of author Murasaki Shikibu sits: wistful, brush in hand, looking very much the Heian Period lady.

A moonlit epic of fiction

However, despite the fact that Murasaki is arguably the greatest writer this country has ever produced, the mannequin artist didn't feel especially compelled to make her look like the sharpest knife in the drawer. The temple pamphlet carefully explains how she did her writing in August 1004, composing her epic by the light of the moon -- a romantic piece of fiction that would be worthy of the great author herself. In moonlight is, however, how Ishiyama-dera should be viewed (though the place shuts at 4:30 p.m.).

High on the numbered lists of scenic spots the Japanese are fond of producing are the Eight Views of Omi -- beautiful points around Lake Biwa. Ishiyama-dera by moonlight is one of them; so is the Night Bell of Miidera. Another member of the scenic octet in Otsu that survives in something like its ancient form is Ukimido, also a temple, though one that stands out on stilts on Lake Biwa.

Ukimido does a fair job of retaining its old character -- take out the background buildings, throw in a few flapping geese and you have pretty much the scene as once depicted by ukiyo-e artist Hiroshige. The lake is still thick with boats; tall reeds still grow near Ukimido; the temple still stands strikingly over the lake, though these days it does so courtesy of concrete stilts.

Concrete is something you can't miss in Otsu, which presents mostly the character of a provincial town that is not awfully strong on character. When I first arrived there, I walked along a dull shopping mall, deathly quiet at 7:30 one Friday evening, and asked a youngish couple if they could direct me to the center of town. They told me I was standing in it.

The historical feature that used to define Otsu -- the old Tokaido -- is something the city is so indifferent to it doesn't bother marking its course on English maps. But if you look for the old road, you can find it, and along it are some of the older buildings in town. It is hardly picture-postcard stuff -- and Hiroshige would definitely have trouble recognizing this scene -- but there is still a bit of the old atmosphere, with stores selling traditional goods, lattice fronts, quaint lanterns, a wooden shrine and an umbrella shop that proudly announces it has been in business since 1748.

A tourist sight that Otsu is clearly fonder of is the lake fountain known as Biwako Hana Funsui, pictures of which grace the official map and guidebook covers. The plumes of water constantly change color and have a span of 440 meters, which the guidebook breezily observes makes it "one of the longest fountains in the world." Personally, I thought it one of the most pointless fountains in the world. But at Miidera, which offers a view onto Biwako Hana Funsui, those around me unanimously declared that the fountain was most definitely "kirei" -- so my opinion is clearly a minority one.

For most tourists, though, it is the temples, with their history and natural charm, that draw them to Otsu. And it's a wise visitor who allows himself or herself to be waylaid in this ancient port.

Otsu is 10 minutes by JR Tokaido Line from Kyoto.

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