By Dominik Modlinski
It was one of those perfect moments in life when things work out well. My trip to Japan was on my list for as long as I can remember. Since an early age I was fascinated with the Japanese culture, its arts and people. For the last 23 years, I have been practicing Karate and other martial arts and it has embedded me with mental and physical discipline. The trip to Japan was a natural extension of those interests. With the help and support of my agent and publishers at Nature’s Scene, I left for a one-month journey across Japan visiting its most magnificent sites.
Since it was spring, it was my objective to paint and photograph cherry blossoms, which are a quintessential symbol of Japan . After landing in Osaka , I traveled by car to Hiroshima to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial park and monuments. The city surprised me with peaceful and positive energy and my first painting was done along the river painting a bombed out building. It took me over 4 days to recover from the jet lag and the extreme time difference. Instead of bringing tubes of paint with me, I purchased Holbein brand paint in Japan and was very happy with its quality.
From Hiroshima , I traveled north visiting Himeji Castle , the largest fortified castle in all of Japan . The weather was not cooperating; I was challenged by severe rain, wind and cold. It was not the ideal weather to paint in, but that made me work so much harder. Only in Osaka the weather changed and I was able to paint its amazing shrines, temples and castles in relative comfort. Besides its historical heritage, Osaka is currently the cultural and fashion centre of Japan . Its people are outgoing, dynamic and everywhere I looked I was bombarded with colourful imagery of neon signs, advertisements and store displays.
From Osaka , I moved on to Kyoto , the medieval capital of Japan . The city is small by Japanese standards but is full of historical sites. Shrines and temples are found around each corner and it would probably take a month to see everything that Kyoto has to offer. My most memorable experience was painting at Fushimi Inari Shrine, where I nearly went hypothermic due to snow and prolonged exposure to the elements. Since I did not expect such bad weather in Japan , I did not bring too much warm mountaineering clothing with me, but at least the weather gave me lasting memories.
Just as Kyoto , Nara was also once the capital of ancient Japan , the first one in fact. After a couple of weeks of constant travel and painting, I got sick and spent a whole day in bed. My body was tired and I needed a rest. A traditional Japanese inn was a great place to recuperate. While in Nara , I visited Iga Ueno Castle , which was the place of origin for the Iga-ryu Ninjitsu School in medieval Japan . At the castle, I was treated to great weapon demonstrations and fighting skills.
From Nara , I took a bullet train to the Mount Fuji area, where I travelled around the Five Lake District. Unfortunately, the weather was cloudy and only on two occasions did I see the entire mountain. On such one occasion, I photographed Mount Fuji at sunrise and it was one of the most peaceful experiences I have ever had in my life. The great red circle of the sun rose slowly over the horizon and illuminated the clouds and mountains below. Mount Fuji was the compositional anchor of the whole landscape, like a great conductor of times gone by.
My final leg of the journey took me to Shibata and Nikko . In Shibata, I painted extensively the remaining ruins of the Shibata Castle . Being there for a few days allowed me to get a good sense of the community and its people. I really enjoyed the hospitality of the local people. The language barrier was frustrating at times, but I tried my best and everybody around me was so accommodating. In Nikko , I visited the ancient grounds of the Toshogu Shrine which is also a mausoleum of all the Shoguns that ruled until the Meiji Restoration. The site also provided me with the inspiration for the first studio painting of Japan.
The Fushimi Inari Shrine is the most famous among several thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari across Japan . Inari is the Shinto god of rice, and foxes are thought to be his messengers. Therefore, many fox statues can be found at Inari shrines. Kitsune Udon ("Fox Udon"), a noodle soup topped with pieces of aburaage (fried tofu), a favourite food of foxes, and is served at small restaurants along the hiking trail. The shrine is also famous for the countless torii gates, offerings by worshippers, that cover the hiking trails of Inari-san, the wooded mountain behind the shrine's main buildings. It takes about two hours to walk along the whole trail.
During the cherry blossom festival at Shibata Castle , I went again into the courtyard of the castle to paint one of the towers. The day started with a slight drizzle but as I got going with my painting, the clouds cleared up and I was rewarded with dry painting weather. After completion of the painting, I wandered into the cherry tree grounds where there was a swordsmanship competition. The local Kendo and Iaido masters were holding a competition to cut wet rice bundles lying horizontally with one perfect swift downward katana stroke. The bundles are soaked over night to provide toughness and tightness. As I was photographing and filming the event, one of the masters asked me if I was interested in Japanese swords. After explaining that I was, and that I had experience in martial arts, they invited me to try a cut following the end of the competition. Since I had never used a live katana, I was slightly apprehensive, but willing to give a try.
Since all the practitioners wear cotton tabi socks, I took off my shoes and stepped into the wet grounds with my bare feet. That earned me instant respect from the approving nods of surrounding maste a beautiful setting surrounded by the cherry blossoms and towering structures of Shibata castle.
In the southern part of Yamanashi Prefecture bordering Shizuoka Prefecture , Japan 's tallest mountain, Mount Fuji , rises 3,776 meters (12,380 ft) above sea level. The mountain is most beautiful from October to May when the top of the mountain is covered with snow, and for the more adventurous, the climbing season runs from July to September. Near Mount Fuji lies the Five Lakes District. Lake Kawaguchi is a good starting point to climb Mount Fuji and it also provides access to Mount Tenjo , which has some wonderful views of Mount Fuji and the surrounding lakes.
Iga Ueno Castle was initially built by Sadatsugu Tsutsui but was expanded and converted to its present form after Takatora Todo succeeded him in 1611. Uncanny in his military prowess and political sense, Takatora sided with Ieyasu Tokugawa at the decisive Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 after serving the Toyotomi Hideyoshi shogunate. Takatora was also renowned as one of the finest castle architects of his time. The castle is the centerpiece of Ueno City and is located in Ueno Park alongside the Ninja Yashiki and Basho Memorial Museums .
The castle tower was reconstructed as a five-story wooden building in 1935, embodying the essence of the Momoyama style architecture of the late 16th century. With its elegant white walls, the castle is also known as the Hakuho or "white phoenix" castle for its resemblance to the fabled sacred white bird resting on green leaves.
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