Japan #06 - Iya Valley, Zentsuji Temple, Udon Noodle Experience, Ritsurin Park, Naoshima Intro

July 05, 2023  •  2 Comments

Posted July 2023

Japan Apr 2023 - #06 Takamatsu to Naoshima

This travel-blog is for a 3 week trip we took to Japan at the beginning of April 2023.  We started out staying in Hachioji (edge of Tokyo) with our son and his family but then spent 10 days on a National Geographic Expeditions tour covering an area on the southern side of Japan to the west of Tokyo more or less between Kyoto and Hiroshima.

Entire Trip map
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This installment takes us from the Iya Valley to the north side of Tokushima Island and then to Naoshuima (Art) Island.  Along the way we made stops at the Zentsuji Temple, an udon noodle factory, and Ritsurin Park before boarding the ferry for Naoshima (Art) Island where we spent 2 nights.

Iya Valley to Naoshima Island Map
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Down the Iya Valley

After breakfast we made our way down the picturesque Iya river canyon and headed north toward Takamatsu.  Once again we had our full size bus that would accommodate our whole group rather then two smaller ones we had to use in the narrow roads in the upper reaches of the Iya Valley.  Along the way we covered much of the same road we used on the way in.  This day though was a bit rainy and overcast with intrusions of fog appearing here and there along the valley. 

Overcast day on the Iya River
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Lovely bridge over the Iya River
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Zentsuji Temple

Our first stop after leaving the Iya Valley was at the Zentsuji temple in the town of the same name.  Like the temples we saw at Mt. Koya, the Zentsuji temple is also a popular stop for the religious pilgrims which we talked about in a prior article.  This one too is on a pilgrimage route associated with the Buddhist monk Kukai (i.e. Kobo-Daishi).  But, unlike the 1 to 2 day 15 mile pilgrimage route around Mt. Koya, this one is 745 miles long, consists of 88 temples, and takes 30 to 60 days.  In the old days the pilgrims walked from temple to temple but these days most take buses. 

According to legend, the Zentsuji temple is the birthplace of Kukai (i.e. Kobo-Daishi), who founded the Shingon sect and is one of the most revered figures in Japanese Buddhism.  The temple complex is said to have been established by Emperor Sujin in the 7th century on the site where Kukai was born.  It has since been rebuilt several times with the current main hall dating back to the Edo period (1603-1867).

The sprawling temple grounds feature a traditional Japanese garden with a pond, stone lanterns, and seasonal flowers. The main hall, known as the Kondo, houses statues and relics associated with Kukai, including a wooden statue of him as a child. Visitors can also see the Bodhi tree, a descendant of the original tree under which the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment.

Like many temples across Japan, this is more of a complex of buildings and monuments than a single temple building.  It’s hard for me to say which buildings are used for what purposes, either now or in the past, but they are still interesting to look at. 

Looking into the temple complex from a bridge over a river
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One of the many buildings in the Zentsuji Temple Complex
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This temple complex consists of several large buildings any one of which could be a main temple building in its own right.  I have no idea which one is considered the main one or perhaps there is no such thing as a main worship building.  The interior of some of these look quite ancient and subdued while others were more colorful and vibrant.  I’m sure there is history behind these differences but I don’t know what it is. 

More vibrant and colorful building for services with a large area for the attendees to sit
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One of the buildings though is unmistakable, and that is the 5 story pagoda.  The original was built by Kobo Daishi but in 1558, during the Eiroku Period, it burned down.  Then in 1804 Emperor Momozono had it rebuilt but that one burned down as well.  They certainly had a fire problem in those days.  The current pagoda was started by emperor Ninko but the Meiju Restoration got in the way and it was not completed until 1902.  And, there it stands, waiting for the next fire.

Most temples seem to have some sort of multi level pagoda and the number of stories is always used when talking about it.  So, for example, this one is not just the “Zentsuji Temple Pagoda” it is the “5 story Zentsuji Temple Pagoda”.  And, of course, there is some history behind this custom. 

First of all, the whole idea of multi level pagodas originated in India and gradually spread to other Buddhist regions across Asia.  As one could probably deduce, the taller the pagoda is, the more levels it tends to have, which in turn represents the importance of the pagoda as well as the wealth and power of whoever had it built, not to mention the skill of the architect who designed it (assuming it didn’t fall down).  But, it goes beyond that.  There is almost always some symbolic meaning attached to the number of stories giving it a spiritual significance.

The number of stories is often associated with cosmological and mystical symbolism. The belief is that each level represents a different realm or stage of spiritual attainment.  For example, a seven story pagoda might symbolize the seven stages of enlightenment in Buddhism, known as the Seven Factors of Awakening. Each level represents one of those stages.

But the number can also represent other things.  For example, among others, a five story Pagoda can represent:

  • Five elements in Buddhist cosmology (earth, water, fire, air, and space)
  • Five wisdoms of Buddha (Dharmadhatu or mirror-like wisdom, Vajra or wisdom of equality, Ratna or wisdom of richness, Padma or discriminating wisdom, Karma or all-accomplishing wisdom)
  • Five components of human existence (form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness)

In the case of the Five Story Pagoda in Zentsuji, the 5 levels represent realms.

  • Kāmadhātu (Realm of Desires)
  • Rūpadhātu (Realm of Form)
  • Arūpadhātu (Realm of Formlessness)
  • Nirvāna: (the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice)
  • Tenborin (Heavenly Canopy)

5 story Pagoda at Zentsuji
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Unlike other Temples we’ve seen, these temple grounds are not immaculately tended formal gardens. Rather, much of the open space between buildings looks like it was once grass that has died – like around the 5 story pagoda in the photo above.  Other parts of the complex are just dirt or gravel – not the white gravel that is raked into designs, but just crushed rock for walking on.  I suspect that this was not always the case, but the sheer number of people who visit each has necessitated a more accessible plan.

Scattered among the various buildings are several features for various purposes.  There is a cleansing water trough with ladles, an incense burning urn, a glass enclosed rack for memorial candle burning, stone lanterns, and a large array of stone statuary.

Insense burning urn
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Cleansing Trough
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Rememberance candle burning
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Along one wall of the temple grounds there are three rows of stone statues where each figure is a unique person.  It turns out that each of the statues is a representation of a priest, from a different temple on the 88 temple pilgrimage route, who is said to have reached nirvana.  Buried underneath each of these statues is some dirt from that statue's home temple, so if you are of a mind to do so you can make the 88 temple pilgrimage route by visiting each statue and save yourself a lot of travel time.  Is that cheating?

Each figure is the likeness of a priest who reached nirvana
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Many of these statues have been adorned with hats and bibs.  This custom is observed in some Asian countries, such as China, Japan, and Korea.  Each country has its own unique traditions for this custom, but in general the act of adorning Buddhist statues with hats and bibs is often associated with the idea of providing protection and showing respect.  By offering them clothing, devotees demonstrate their reverence and gratitude towards the enlightened ones.  The hats and bibs are typically made from cloth and are carefully placed on the statues.

Hats and bibs show respect
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As we exited the walled area of the grounds to cross a small street on our way to the next section of the temple grounds, I turned around to take a look at the gate we had just passed through and saw a row of just the heads of these monk statues rising above the wall like they were in the top row of stadium seats waiting for a ball game to start.  I found that concept quite amusing and just had to take a photo of the scene.

Top row of monks
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Pretty bridge that connects the Zentsuji Temple complex to a parking lot
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Udon Noodle Factory

Our next stop was at the Nakano Udon School in the town of Takamatsu.  If you recall, or even if you don’t, in article 5 of this series I talked about various kinds of noodles found in Japan.  In that article I talked about a famous (and out of the way) Soba Noodle restaurant in the Iya valley where we had lunch.  If you recall, Soba are the buckwheat noodles.  And here we are again today having lunch in a noodle restaurant.  But this time it is Udon noodles. 

Unlike our Soba Noodle experience which was basically in someone’s living room, sitting on the floor this is a modern, large and very commercial tourist experience.  This enterprise has three main functions.  First of all it is a modern mechanized, mass production, udon noodle factory supplying restaurants and grocery stores throughout the area.  Secondly, it is a tourist store for selling their goods.  And thirdly it is a tourist “experience” where you make your own noodles which they then prepare and become part of your lunch in their dining hall.

Nakano Udon Noodle School
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Entry into the gift shop and noodle making experience
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After parking our bus alongside 8 to 10 other big tour buses with placards in the front windows in several different languages, we went inside.  Once inside you are confronted with a large retail area selling all sorts of tourist things but mainly packaged Udon noodles.  This was quite chaotic with several dozen people looking through the goods and all speaking different languages.   Around the perimeter of this showroom are a half dozen or so doors that lead into classrooms.  As I wandered around I looked onto some of these classrooms and each one was in full swing with the instructor in each one speaking a different language.  One room was French, one was Italian, and another Chinese. 

In short order, our group was ushered into one of these classrooms. The room had loud American music blasting over loudspeakers and was set up with around 6 long wide tables with a few chairs on either side of each table.  At each “workstation” was noodle making supplies.  Around the room were all sorts of signs and information about udon noodle making – all of them in Japanese.  It wasn’t long before an instructor arrived and went up to the front of the room to teach us how to make udon noodles. 

Waiting for the class to start
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And then the wheels came off.  Not withstanding that the French tour group had a French speaking instructor, the Italian group had an Italian speaking instructor, our instructor could only speak Japanese.  But, all was not lost.  Out guide from the bus said he’d translate.  The teacher started talking and our translator (doing the best he could) could barely keep up.  But rather than starting at the beginning with a “Step 1, step 2” sort of thing, the teacher started with something around the end of the process.  This confused absolutely everyone as we had no idea what she was talking about.  But our translator said not to worry as it would all become clear with a visual aid.  OK, that makes sense.  A good set of written instructions is always a good thing.  At this point the teacher held up a sign with step numbers 1 through 3 and text by each number – All in Japanese. 

Written instructions in Japanese was not real useful to our group
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Okay, this was not going well.  We have no idea why the local Japanese company that NGS hired to operate our tour didn’t let these people know that we were an English speaking tour or perhaps the English speaking teacher was sick that day.  Maybe as they were a Japanese tour operator the noodle people just assumed the tourists would be Japanese too.  I wonder if the room next door was full of Japanese tourists listening to an English speaking teacher.

But, we eventually we got the drift of things and realized we were starting with step 2 having no idea what happened to step 1.  One of the bowls at each workstation had dough of unknown origin in it.  This step in the process was to roll out the dough into a thin sheet.  Exactly how thin was never really articulated so our group had a wide variety of thicknesses.  You then folded the sheet of dough into a zig-zag pattern which you then cut into slices with each slice being the width of a noodle.  The zig-zag fold was just to make the slicing easier.  We then unfolded the now sliced noodles and put them into bowls (one bowl for each table of 4). 

Sliced Udon Noodles
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Okay, now what?  Well, as that was apparently step 2 of the process as we now went back to step 1.  On our table was some flour still in powder form to which we added a pre-measured amount of water and with our gloved hands kneaded it till it was uniform.  I thought it was too dry as it was hard to get some moisture into all the powdery flour.  But eventually we each wound up with a wad of dough which was put into a zip lock bag.  Keep up with me here. 

This bag of dough was then thrown onto the floor and with the aid of loud music we were instructed to dance on the bag (we were already in our socks).  This dancing was the last phase of the Kneading process.  As I was mashing the dough with my feet I pondered whether this is what goes on inside the commercial factory in the next building?  Are noodle factory workers hired based in their dough dancing expertise?  Oh well, apparently this new dough we danced on is for the next group to cut into noodles.  I wonder what group danced on our noodles.  I hope it was an Italian group as Italians are good with pasta.

After a little wash up we were escorted out of the classroom and up to the second floor where there was a very large dinning hall consisting of long rows of “family style” seating with each place pre loaded with yet another “traditional Japanese lunch”.  Each group of four brought along their bowl of freshly made noodles and upon being seated at one of these long tables dumped the noodles into a pot of boiling water.  This was step 3 of the process – cooking the noodles.  While your noodles are boiling you get to eat the appetizers and once your noodles are done, you take them out and add them to a pot of soup to which you can add other things.  The tour group at the next table (they seemed to be Korean) had various strips of meat that they added to their noodle soup, but for us it was vegetables only. 

Even though it seemed totally chaotic and disorganized, everyone had a good time and checked off “make my own udon noodles“from their bucket list.

Ritsurin Park

Moving on from our udon noodle experience we headed over to Ritsurin Park in Takamatsu.  This park takes Japanese precision and attention to detail to a whole new level.  It is regarded as perhaps the most beautiful traditional Japanese garden in the whole country.

It was first created by a local feudal lord, Ikoma Takatoshi, in the early 17th century but has been greatly expanded and refined by later generations of the Matsudaira clan who ruled during the Edo period.  Today it is around 185 acres with tea houses, streams, lakes, ponds, stone and wooden bridges, an Asian art museum and traditionally designed Japanese landscaping.  With less than 2 hours available there was no way to see the entire park but we did see some very nice portions of it.  Our bus guide led an audio tour by several of the well know features and then we were left on our own to wander about. 

One of the things this park is best known for are its manicured pine trees, each one meticulously placed and trimmed.  These are mainly the distinctive tsurukame-matsu pine tree along with hakomatsu box pine trees.  The hakomatsu box pine trees got that nickname as they are supposed to look like boxes.  While they are very rare, they've been continuously maintained for more than three hundred years here. 

One very famous tree here is the black tsurukame-matsu tree which stands on a mound of around 110 stones arranged into the shape of a turtle. The tree is said to appear like a crane fluttering its wings while standing on the back of a turtle. 

Crane (tree) with out stretched wings standing on the back of a turtle (stone mound)
The turtle head is sort of facing the camera a bit to the right of center

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As we walked through the park, in addition to the lovely scenery in general, we came across several traditional style bridges over streams and ponds, some in the traditional red, some in more natural wood.  We also passed teahouses and ponds with massive numbers of koi looking to be feed by tourists who purchased a small bag of koi food.

Red footbridge reflecting in a small stream
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One of the many tea houses
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Not one leaf is out of place in the Ritsurin Park garden.
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Punting on a pond by a stone bridge
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Engetsu Bridge with koi
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Naoshima Art Island

After a short ferry ride from Takamatsu we arrived in Naoshima Island, also known as the “Art Island”.

Naoshima is a pretty small island in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan.  Up until the early 1990’s Naoshima was just another remote island with a few small fishing villages and provided little interest to the rest of the world.  But now it is on many published “must see” lists of world attractions as a unique destination for art lovers and travelers looking for a one of a kind experience.  It is internationally recognized as a unique destination for both contemporary art and architecture. Often referred to as the "Art Island", Naoshima is known for its numerous art installations, museums, and galleries scattered throughout the island's picturesque landscapes in a variety of settings.  The art can be seen in several formal art museums, many outdoor locations scattered throughout the island as well as clustered in specific areas, and single artist exhibits in previously abandoned traditional houses in some villages.

This whole affair can be traced back to two men, Tetsuhiko Fukutake and Chikatsugu Miyake.  Fukutake-san, the founding president of Fukutake Publishing, wanted to create a place in the Seto Inland Sea where children from all over the world could gather.  Chikatsugu Miyake, then incumbent mayor of Naoshima, dreamt of developing a cultural and educational area on the island.  These two gentlemen got together in 1985 and formed an agreement to start a series of projects to fulfill their ideas. 

The first project in their grand scheme was in 1989 with the development of the Naoshima International camp designed by Tadao Ando, a famous Japanese architect, who would go on to design many other buildings as the projects expanded.  The camp was designed as an area where people can experience the natural surroundings of the region by staying in yurts dismantled and brought over from Mongolia.  Karel Appel's outdoor sculpture “Frog and Cat” which was displayed in the campsite at the time was the first contemporary artwork to become a permanent installation.

The next venture was the creation of the Benesse Art Site with the opening of the Benesse House Museum in 1992.  The Benesse Corporation is a Japanese company which focuses on correspondence education and publishing who teamed up with Tetsuhiko and Chikatsugu.  This project is on a large parcel of land stretching across most of the southern end of the island.  Eventually the museum would be joined by several other museums, a couple of hotels, a restaurant and a sprawling exhibit of both indoor and outdoor artwork.

Concurrent with this in 1998 they started something called “Art House”.  This is a project that takes abandoned houses in Naoshima's Honmura District (town), restores them, and then lets artists convert these spaces into works of art.  This became a great opportunity for expanding the area dedicated to art projects, reaching out from the Benesse House Museum toward the local town and its inhabitants, and engaging with their daily routines.

As it was late in the afternoon when we arrived on the island by ferry after leaving Takamatsu we headed straight to our hotel.  This was the Benesse House Hotel, one of the two hotels on the Benesse Art Site. 

This hotel, also designed by Tadao Ando, is an artwork in itself as well as having all sorts of art work in, on, and around the building itself.  The architecture blends contemporary art, architecture, and nature into a harmonious experience.  It is composed of several interconnected buildings, each with its own distinctive character and purpose all done in a style using clean lines, geometric forms, and a minimalist aesthetic done in unfinished concrete.  The hotel sits on a hill overlooking a good size open field filled with contemporary art pieces beyond which is the Seto Inland Sea.  And, it seems that all the rooms overlook a reflecting pool with a view of the field filled with artwork and the sea beyond.  Quite lovely. 

Benesse House Hotel
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Reflecting pool
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We’ll have more about the Art Island in our next chapter of this travelogue series but first I’ll leave you with our “laundry” experience.

After arriving our first order of business was laundry as we were out of pretty much everything.  By checking at the front desk I found that the hotel does have a place where guests can do a load of wash.  But, you have to make a reservation.  As luck would have it, there was an open slot in just 20 minutes.  Some days the gods are with you and some days they are not.  So, we took the reservation.   As it turns out the laundry facility is not actually in the hotel.  It is in one of the museums down the road, far enough that it is too far to walk with a load of laundry.  But, the every 15 minute shuttle bus goes there so we grabbed our laundry bag and shuttled our way to the museum.  Indeed, the front desk confirmed our reservation, handed us a pod of laundry detergent and instructed us how to get to the laundry room, which was down a corridor and around a corner. 

The laundry room was about the size of a small closet with 1 washer and 1 dryer, and was about 100 degrees inside.  Both machines were tiny by US standards.  The dryer was busy with someone else’s load but the washer was ready for our use.  So, with the help of “Google Translate” on my phone we figured out the Japanese instructions and got our load going.  Going back to the museum front desk, we asked how long before the load would be done?  Well, not only was the supplied washer small it was also slow as the load would not complete till around 5:30 which would give us just enough time to move the clothes to the dryer and not be too late for our 6:00 pm dinner back at the hotel. 

After a wander around the museum we returned at 5:30 and moved our stuff to the dryer after which we went back to the museum front desk to see when the dryer might be done.  Well, the electric dryer (running at Japan’s lower 100 volt electrical power system voltage) was even slower than the washer and was not expected to complete until 10 or 11 that night.  So, the next logical question was “is the museum open that late and how late do the shuttle busses run?”  Turns out the museum closes at 11:00 but the shuttle busses stop as I recall at 8:00.  But, they said if we asked ahead of time, someone from the hotel could drive us over to the museum to pick our stuff up at no charge.  Really?  I was quite impressed, but it got better. 

My next question was, "who do I speak to at the hotel to make those arrangements"?  Now here’s where Japanese hospitality really kicked in (way more than I’d ever expect in the US).  The response to my question about who to talk to was this.  “Don’t worry, we’ll have someone take your clothes out of the dryer when it’s done and we’ll drive it over to the hotel and leave it at the front desk for you.  We can’t be sure of the exact time, but it will be there by morning.”  I was quite impressed.  And, not only that, the next morning, I went to the front desk and indeed was presented with some shopping bags (apparently liberated from the museum gift shop) full of our clean and dry laundry.  Incredibly wrinkled from the cramped dryer but who can quibble about that.


Our next installment of this series will talk more about the Art Island, The bullet train to Hiroshima, the Hiroshima peace park, Miyajima Island with the famous Itsukushima Shrine and Tori Gate in the bay and our return to Tokyo.


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Thanks for reading – Dan


(Images by Dan Hartford. Info from Wikipedia, ChatGPT, other web sources, pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way guidebooks and commentary by the local guides)






Tony Simpson(non-registered)
Dan, Great to read this latest chapter. This is so good, it is like reliving the tour but this time around with far more detailed information on all the good stuff we saw! NGS should buy this narrative from you.
LINDA COVETTE(non-registered)
Michael & I laughed so hard as I read your article. I remember it well!
Looking forward to you next installment
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