Monthly Archives: October 2016

Odds and Ends at the End

Today is our last day in Japan, and naturally the weather has turned beautiful now that Typhoon #18 has left the area. Alice is off on a garden walk so I thought I’d take the opportunity for a final trip post to capture some of the various odds and ends that I either forgot about or didn’t have time or space for during my evening blog rants. So in no particular order, here are some final Japanese peculiarities:

Save the Children. Everywhere we went, but particularly in the vicinity of Buddhist temples, we saw clusters of little stone “Buddha-ling” statues averaging about 18 inches tall, and all wearing little red bibs like dress-dolls. Here are a few:

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It turns out that dress-up dolls are not terribly off the mark. (Sometimes they sport little knit caps too.) These guys are called ojizosama, and they are the guardians of children, especially ones who died in childhood. Touchingly, the bibs and hats are to protect the spirits of the children in cold weather; apparently it can get a little chilly even in the afterlife. Ojizosama are also said to protect firefighters and travelers. They are plentiful: it is said that there are about 5000 in the Kyoto area alone. Certainly we saw them very frequently.

Karaoke. Japanese love karaoke, as you may know. There are karaoke bars aplenty in  the downtown areas in all the cities. There is even a big chain of them called Big Echo. Our tour lead Mariko sings very well, as I have mentioned, and so inevitably the subject of an after-dinner karaoke outing has come up more than once. It never actually came off, fortunately, as it would not be an exaggeration to report that Alice and I both recoiled in horror at the suggestion. Outside of entertaining our grandchildren with “Itsy Bitsy Spider” I cannot sing worth a damn, and Alice, despite her many talents (which include being able to pick out “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” on the shamisen, as I wrote about last time) has a singing voice that drives nightingales to suicide. Alice’s singing is like a drunk stumbling down a tonal dark alley, caroming off one pentatonic lamppost after another before finally being mugged into unconsciousness without ever having encountered a recognizable note. So no karaoke for us.

Vending Machines. Japanese seem to love vending machines almost as much as they love karaoke. The country is famous — some might say infamous — for having vending machines that sell just about everything, including some rather unsavory stuff. I don’t actually recall seeing anything of the latter, but we sure saw lots of snack machines (including ice cream, dispensed cold) and countless drink machines. It is not unusual to see ranks of drink machines, a half dozen side by side, selling soft drinks, hot and cold coffee and tea, and even beer. Among the more famous uniquely Japanese drinks are the unfortunately-named “Calpis” and “Pocari Sweat”. Both are uncarbonated. Calpis is rather like watery yogurt; Pocari Sweat, aptly enough, is a sports drink similar to Gatorade.

Kwik-E-Marts. They’re not actually called that (sorry, Simpsons fans), but Japan is awash in convenience stores. The Big Three in decreasing size order are 7-11 (yes, they’re here in a big way), Lawson’s, and Family Mart. It is difficult to walk down a city street in Japan without encountering at least one of them, and frequently all three. Despite their names Lawson’s and Family Mart are Japanese firms, though Lawson’s was originally founded in Cleveland and eventually became Circle K in the US. Their ubiquity here is nothing if not convenient, although “excessive” might also apply. They are more or less identical to each other, and other than the obvious Japanese nature of the shelf stock (and more polite staff), to their various American counterparts. (I was amused by the Japanese equivalent of those sketchy-looking hot dogs on a rotating grill that you see at American convenience stores; here you see sketchy-looking bowls of dumplings and noodles.) One interesting distinction, though, is that 7-11 in Japan also operates a bank. Sounds strange but it turns out to be a great, um, convenience for tourists, the reason being that most ATMs here will only accept debit cards from their affiliated bank, whereas 7-11 is agnostic. So if you’re a tourist needing to withdraw some cash from an ATM, your go-to place is a 7-11. And this is very handy indeed, since unless you are standing on top of Mt. Fuji you are unlikely to be more than a block or two from the nearest one.

There is no doubt more trivia of this nature that I will remember later, but this will do. Once I have all my photos culled and edited I will post a link here, but until then — sayonara and o genki de (“take care, see ya”).

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Instant Zen, and Rolling Your Own Sushi

We began the day with no little trepidation, occasioned by the proximity of the mysteriously-named Typhoon #18. We knew that we would be climbing a hillside in the town of Arashiyama to visit with Obayashi-san, the resident monk at Senkoji temple, and Mariko had hinted darkly at the ardors of ascending 200 steps to do so. The prospect of negotiating 200 stone steps in the rain did not appeal.

But the weather held, more or less, and the trek (such as it was) began with a more leisurely and scenic amble along the river at the foot of the mountain.

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Feeling serene yet?

The 200 steps turned out to be not such a big deal, sufficiently well spaced out along the few hundred foot ascent to avoid the feeling of an endless trudge. There was even a small shrine or two along the way to remind us of our goal (which was of course enlightenment, or at least the top of the damn hill).

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When we reached the temple our immediate gratification was a large temple bell, which we were allowed to ring.

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It produced a deep, sonorous, and very Asian GONNNNNGGGGGG, just like you’d hope. I was enjoying this, and had already rung the thing about six times when the attendant courteously informed me that you’re only supposed to ring it thrice. So now I’ve probably gone and summoned some polycephalic demon from whatever passes for Hell in Buddhism. (Which would explain the weather that befell us about nine hours later.)

The temple is occupied by the aforementioned monk Obayashi, who lives there with his family (Japanese monks are not celibate). Our gathering place was a typically spartan tatami room, albeit one with a spectacular panoramic view of the valley and town. The decor included samurai armor.

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Monk Obayashi was friendly and talkative, and with Mariko translating gave us an exposition and answered questions about Zen Buddhism and in particular the role of meditation in it. He opened the session with a lengthy chant, punctuated by a drumbeat that he tapped out while chanting. But we were to get into the act too: before beginning he handed out a phonetic cheat sheet so that we could chant along. It starts like this:

KAN JI ZAI BO SA GYO JIN HAN NYA HA RA MI

…and goes on like that for 26 more lines. I believe it is a blessing for our safe travels, but I am not actually certain of this.

He then gave us a quick lesson in how to meditate — how to breathe, empty your thoughts, etc. — and instructed us to begin doing so when he rang a bell. We would meditate, he informed us, for only five minutes or so.

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Now at this point in the narrative I should observe to those readers who do not know me personally that the readers who do know me personally have already collapsed in convulsive hysterical laughter at the prospect of me attempting Zen meditation. The only way I am going to empty my mind of thoughts is by physically removing my brain from my cranium, and my personal record for sitting motionless in quiet contemplation of nothingness is approximately 9 seconds. So let us leave the topic by conceding that I am not cut out to be a Buddhist monk, a revelation that surprises exactly none of my family or friends.

Having failed to achieve nirvana but at least enjoyed the monk’s well-meaning attempt at getting us there, we headed back down the mountain towards our next stop, which was lunch at the Heki residence in the nearby town of Kameoka. But not just any lunch: we received a sushi-making lesson and ate the product of our labors. The process started with our hosts producing big bowls of freshly-made hot rice, which we had to cool by stirring and waving fans.

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We were then instructed how to form it into little plum-sized balls and shown how to embed the various ingredients and toppings into them.

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It was a hoot, and as you can see we also got to dress like altar boys for some unexplained reason. This particular style of sushi — little balls instead of the familiar log-like rolls — is called temari, and was no doubt chosen for us because it is particularly simple to make. It was great fun, and if we can find the ingredients at home (difficult, but almost certainly not impossible) it will make a great novelty dinner party.

Later in the afternoon we visited yet another residence for a demonstration of traditional Japanese music. This was quite a treat, a husband and wife couple who are both local experts (and teachers) in three traditional instruments. Those are the koto…

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…the three-stringed shamisen…

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…and the shakuhachi (bamboo flute)…

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The gentleman playing the shakuhachi has not just arrived from a wild party, nor is he painfully shy. In a private setting it is not in fact required to wear a wicker basket on one’s head whilst playing the instrument; he was demonstrating how he plays in public when soliciting donations for his Buddhist temple. The wooden box on his front is the equivalent of a busker’s hat, for collecting alms for the temple; he will walk the streets and play, and the hat — which he can see through — represents the boundary between the secular and spiritual worlds. It separates him from mundane reality while he is playing for the gods. It’s also a big hit at parties.

The music was haunting and beautifully played. Afterwards, we all got the opportunity to play the instruments, with pretty much zero success as you’d expect. With one exception: here is Alice — and I swear this is true — successfully picking out “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” on the shamisen, which may well be some kind of first.

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“….”E-I-E-I-OOOOOO…”

Dinner this evening was in Kyoto’s Gion distract, a.k.a. the geisha district. In Kyoto, geishas are known as geikos — no insurance company jokes, please — and their apprentices are called maikos. You see quite a few of them out and about in the Gion, complete with white makeup — or rather, you do when you are not in the middle of a typhoon. We saw a few in the street en route to dinner, when the rain was just beginning — my bell-ringing transgression of earlier in the day having finally caught up with me — but an hour or two later this was the scene when we left the restaurant:

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Full-bore torrential downpour. With luck the storm will pass tonight so that we will have decent weather tomorrow, which is our last day here. Alice will be going on a garden walk (weather permitting), but I have few plans beyond some last minute gift shopping so there may not be much to report in a final post. We’ll be home in roughly 48 hours. This has been another great trip.

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Alternating Religions

And the score after today’s outing is tied at Buddhism 2, Shinto 2! By which I mean that we visited two Buddhist temples and two Shinto shrines.(Buddhist temple names all end in -ji; Shinto shrines don’t, and the shrines themselves almost have a torii gates of larger or smaller size somewhere in the vicinity. (More on those later.) Also, please note that Buddhist places of worship are “temples” whereas Shinto places are “shrines”. Anyway, let’s begin:

Our first stop today was the Todaiji temple, home to another one of those giant Buddhas of which the Japanese seem very fond. It’s large, impressive, and very old. Here’s an outside view.
inari-001The great hall was built in the 8th century to house the giant Buddha, i.e. this guy.

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He’s made of bronze and stands — or more accurately sits — nearly 50 ft (15 m) tall; his eyes alone are a hair over a meter across. In fact his nostrils are 20 inches across, a fact made much of by the locals. In one corner of the temple interior stands a wooden column with a 20-inch diameter hole through it at floor level, and the tongue-in-cheek legend is that if you make a wish and successfully crawl through the hole, your wish will be granted. (Sure beats jumping off a five-story platform, doesn’t it?) There were many schoolchildren visiting today, and more than a few tried their luck, with varying degrees of success, getting through the hole. I would only have attempted it had my secret wish been to be cut out of a wooden hole by a Japanese fire department.

Buddha is flanked by two other large deities, carved from wood and covered in gold leaf. This shot gives a slightly better sense of scale of the effigies.

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The other thing that Todaiji is known for is deer, about 1200 of them in fact. They roam the grounds unfettered, variously ignoring or accosting visitors. You can buy bags of feed for them (some sort of cracker), so needless to say they’re pretty brazen. Their attentions are not always appreciated, for example by this guy:

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…although some people take full advantage of this situation, such as this girl taking the first “deer selfie” I have ever seen.

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The deer seemed pretty unimpressed.

Alternating religions, we moved on from the Todaiji temple to the Kasugataisha shrine, whose claim to fame is stone lanterns. Lots of stone lanterns.

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We were told there were about a thousand of them, mostly standing about 6 feet tall. They are maintained in part via donations, and so in addition to the lanterns themselves there is also a wall full of names (in Japanese script, of course) listing the donors on wooden slats. (It reminded me a great deal of the ranks of little brass plaques on synagogue walls. I  wondered if one of the slats translated as “Stone lantern donated by the Goldfarbs in loving memory of Isador and Sadie.”)

Kasugataisha also includes a shrine to Shinto’s god of love, whose name I cannot seem to unearth. Both locals and visitors pay homage by hanging little wooden prayer boards at the shrine. These are common at every Shinto shrine, but the distinction here is that they look like valentines:

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There are thousands of them, not all written in Japanese. My favorite was one in English whose prayer read, in its entirety, “May you have a short, explosive wedding and a long, peaceful marriage.”

Then it was back to Buddhism, as we drove a short distance into the picturesque town of Nara to eat lunch, walk around some side streets, and of course visit a temple. Here’s an old traditional Japanese pharmacy, peddling all sorts of traditional herbal remedies that can increase virility, cure eczema, and possibly make your ears fall off.

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Those red balls hanging on a string are a good luck charm and are very common in this area. Their shape is actually a very stylized curled up monkey, whose presence apparently wards off evil.

Then there’s the temple, another big one. Kofukuji is famous for this five story pagoda.

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I confess that the structure on top looks to me suspiciously like a cell phone tower. But since the temple is over 1300 years old, this seems unlikely. Kokufuji is quite well known;it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, one of about two dozen in the Kyoto area. Its fame stems from both its size and its history of moving around. It was built in the year 669, but elsewhere near Kyoto, then dismantled and moved in 672, then dismantled and moved again in 710. Hopefully it’ll stay put this time.

Our final stop of the day, in keeping with our “alternating religions” theme, was the most spectacular Shinto shrine of all: Fushimi Inari. Inari is definitely one of the heavyweight Shinto goddesses, being in charge of rice, tea, and sake, not to mention fertility and worldly success. With a portfolio like that she gets a lot of attention. She uses foxes as her earthly messengers — foxes eat birds who are trying to eat the rice from the fields — and so her shrines have a lot of fox statues around them. (Foxes get a lot of respect in Japan.) In addition, for reasons that were not explained to us, the shrine is a mecca for students who are prying to pass their exams. The legend is, that if you fold 1000 origami cranes, you will have luck in your exams. And so here are the colorful paper products of dozens of not hundreds of supplicatory students, each folding a thousand paper cranes :

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Pardon my cynicism, students, but wouldn’t you have a better chance of passing your exams by studying instead of spending countless hours folding paper birds? Seriously.

Fushimi Inari is marked by the typical torii gates found at every Shinto shrine, e.g.

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The distinction here is that Fushimi Inari has five thousand of them, dating back to the year 711. You walk a path that is a mile or two long, up the side of a low mountain, and pass through countless of these things.

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You might be wondering about the writing on the columns (usually on the downhill side, as it happens). And the answer is (you’re gonna love this): corporate sponsorships. Yep, even a multi-portfolio’d goddess like Inari needs corporate lucre to keep her shrine in good order. Every now and then, as you trek up the mountainside through the arch after arch, you will encounter one whose writing is partly in Western characters. And when that happens, you will see that it reads something like MIYAZAKI LLC www.miyazaki.co.jp. No, I am not kidding.

Anyway, it is quite a sight, and also quite a hike uphill on a hot and humid day. But is an extraordinary and impressive installation that attracts an enormous numbers of visitors (and makes it difficult to get a photo that is not crowded with people). The town below the shrine has something of a carnival atmosphere as a result, with food stands and souvenir vendors lining the main street. There is a sea of people, and many dress for the occasion: there is a liberal smattering of both men and women in traditional garb, such as these young women in kimonos.

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We returned to our hotel exhausted and sweaty. We forewent dinner with our tour group since we had come to feel that in our 2 1/2 weeks in Japan to date we had consumed an inadequate amount of sushi. Mirako recommended a nearby sushi restaurant, so we took advantage of that. Tomorrow is another early start and long day.

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Suicidal Pilgrims and the All-Seeing Buddhas

Long day today, and a rainy one at that. It would seem that the northern end of the island is being visited by Typhoon #18 — they gave them numbers instead of names here, which may be the only example on record of Japanese being less colorful than Americans. We’re in Kyoto now, towards the south, and are not receiving the full brunt of it, but it has been mostly a gray and rainy day. Not that this slowed us down.

It is getting late after a long day so I will moistly let the photos do the talking in place of my usual sparkling commentary. So to begin, we visited the Kiyomizu Buddhist temple, which is distinguished by three things: (1) a huge five-story pagoda; (2) a large stage where Noh performances were held; and (3) a platform on the aforementioned five story pagoda that people jumped off of. I’ll answer the obvious question in a moment, but let’s start with some photos of the environs.

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OK, now why exactly would someone jump of of something that high? The answer is easily summarized in one word: religion! Yessirree, when it comes to convincing people of the virtue of doing suicidally stupid things, it’s hard to beat religion. I had kind of figured Buddhism to be immune from this sort of thing, but apparently not. The deal was, you made a wish and jumped off. If you survived, your wish would come true. Personally I’d go with the old coins-in-the-wishing-well approach, but to each his own. Mariko claimed that the survival rate was 80%, which seems highly unlikely to me. In any event, the practice was discontinued a century or so ago.

There’s a beautiful view from the top, as well as a number of other smaller and very colorful ancillary temples. Here’s the view and some of the architecture.

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Our next stop was the 12th century  Sanju Sangendo Hall. Its claim to fame is a room full of Boddhisatva Buddhas, a thousand of them, each qbout 5 1/2 feet (165 cm) tall and strikingly detailed. No photos are allowed, alas, but here is a shot from Google Images. (In the dim light of the hall they actually appear much more brown than the golden tone in the photo.)

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It is quite an amazing sight. And an ironic one as well, for these particular thousand Buddhas – each with 42 arms — are the so-called Kannon Boddhisatvas, Kannon being an incarnation of Buddha who sees everything that happens in the world. Why is that ironic? Because if you were a Japanese entrepreneur who wanted to found a camera company whose name symbolized the all-seeing Buddha, your cameras hopefully seeing things all over the world, you would name your camera company…… Canon! Ta-da! I have now answered a question that you never thought to ask! Canon cameras are named after the thousand Kannon Buddhas…. the ones you’re not allowed to photograph. (As it happens, I shoot with a Canon EOS T1i, so it seems only fair that the authorities should have allowed me to take pictures. They didn’t see it that way.)

Well, at least here is a shot of a nice hallway outside the temple.

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We had a delightful encounter as we were about to leave the grounds, when I was accosted by a gaggle of middle-schoolers on a class trip who had a homework assignment to interview and English speaker in English. They were the most charming group and I happily answered their questions about where we were from (“Washington, DC.” “OOOOoooooohhhhh…!”), how Japan was different from the US, why we had come to visit, what was our favorite Japanese food, etc. We spent about ten very enjoyable minutes with them — you have never encountered a more polite set of adolescents — then took each others’ pictures.

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Next stop: the Golden Pavilion. Why is it called the Golden Pavilion? Duh.

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Its official name is Kinkaju-ji, and it dates from the mid-15th century. That is real gold leaf covering the outside, and as a result of this strikling distinction it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the region. Which is another way of saying that the place was mobbed, and since it was raining at the time the challenge became navigating the sea of umbrellas without losing an eye.

We moved on to the Nijo Castle, which was the local shogun’s residence during the Edo period (1603-1871) when the shoguns ruled the roost. The emperor was on the throne, of course, but the shogunate held all the power. They would probably have offed the emperor but for the fact that he was a divine descendant and thus much revered by the general population. Killing him would likely have sparked a revolt that would not have needed well for the shoguns, so they contented themselves with actually running things and let the emperor be.

The exterior of the castle is imposing, though very unlike a European castle. It has high, ornate gates and stark dark wooden walls.

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The Nijo castle is also known for its beautiful gardens, said to be among the most iconic in Japan.

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No photos are allowed inside. It is a maze of high-ceilinged square hallways with dark wooden beams and white paper walls. There are a series of large, spartan anterooms — little more than tatami mats and wall carvings — where visiting functionaries awaited their audience with the shogun. But the cool thing — and it is very cool — is that the floors are designed to squeak so that would-be assassins would be unable to sneak around. And we are not talking about the random squeaks that you get from loose floorboards in your house: these floorboards are supported by metal angle brackets that establish a small air gap between the boards and underlying support beams, so that when you step on them the metal bends and the nails through it “chirp”. It is a most remarkable sound: as a group of people (like our tour group) walk down the hallway you hear what sounds for all the world like a soft metallic discordant chittering flock of birds. As busloads of tourists make their way through the building it sounds like you are surrounded by huge numbers of vaguely ominous robot nightingales. It is quite an amazing effect.

We ended the afternoon with a tea ceremony, which I won’t bother describing in detail since this is the second one we’ve had on this trip. But the young woman performing the ceremony was quite graceful and pretty, so here are a few pictures of her anyway.

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I took the last one as we were leaving, when I asked if I could take her portrait. (Alice thinks the photo looks like an ad for Japan Airlines. I’m OK with that.)

As we headed back to the hotel, Mariko proposed an “architecture walk” through Kyoto railway station before dinner. I confess I was unenthusiastic about the idea, since we were tired and I had a mental image of a decidedly unexciting walk: “These roof beams date from the early shogunate…”, that sort of thing.  But I had to go along: I lost my lens cap yesterday and Mariko had told me that there was a camera store at the station. Hoo boy, was my expectation off base. My interest would have been a lot higher had Mariko explained that the Kyoto railway station architecture dated from the early 23rd century, e.g.:

kyoto-023 kyoto-024 kyoto-025Absolutely unbelievable…the place is pure Blade Runner, except for the Las Vegas parts. It is vast, a five-story science fiction shopping mall with animated LED staircases and spidery skyways, attached to a train station. Do not fail to visit this place at night if you are ever in Kyoto.

New lens cap acquired, and we headed to dinner, the uniquely Japanese okonomiyaki. It’s a teppan yaki kind of thing, like Benihana without the steak or the theatrics. Rather, the entrees are various types of pancake-like agglomerations of meat, noodles, and cabbage, cooked on the grill at the table. Satisfying, tasty, and cheap.

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Hmmm, I thought I said something about not writing much. I guess I can’t help myself. Anyway, that was our day…

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Family Guy

Today was mostly a travel day as we relocated from Kanazawa to Kyoto for our final five nights of the trip. The one thing we did do, however, was a staple of our tour operator, Overseas Adventure Travel. (Consider this a plug: this is the fourth time we have traveled with them and recommend them wholeheartedly, not least for the uniform excellence of their tour leads, such as Mariko.) OAT is heavily into cultural immersion, and every trip includes at least one local home visit, which happened to be today.  Our hosts were Mr. and Mrs. Nakagawa, ages 72 and 68 respectively. He owns a nearby sake factory and judging from their house and possessions appears very prosperous. There were four of us on the visit: Alice and me of course, and another couple from our group, Ann and John (who are US-born but happen to be ethnic Chinese). The rest of our 15-person group were distributed among other households.

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Mrs. Nakagawa spoke no English but Mr. Nakagawa could get by reasonably well as long as the topic of conversation was one that he was used to: sake, his art collection, and his family. (Mariko had equipped us with a Japanese cheat sheet, so we could wow them with some stock polite phrases used when entering a house, presenting a gift — we gave them some NASA paraphernalia  — or eating.)

They were, as you might expect, very hospitable, especially since they do this at least a couple times per week.  Mrs. Nakagawa had a collection of beautiful silk kimonos, which of course Alice and Ann to dress up for your basic Tourist Photo Op.

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Their house was larger than we expected, about the size of a large American townhouse, and though the building exterior was very Western-looking, the interior was in many ways classic Japanese, elegantly furnished with lots of art and beautiful hardwood floors. The guest bedroom was like a small museum in its own right:

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The open closet on the left is actually a very compact but elaborate Buddhist shrine.

Our hosts’ welcoming attitude and the elegance of the house notwithstanding, it was nonetheless a somewhat odd visit. Mr. Nakagawa was friendly and voluble to the point of not letting anyone get a word in edgewise, and his entire presentation — for at bottom, that is what it was — was pretty much a guided (and rather boastful) tour of every piece of expensive art in the house, followed by a lengthy walkthrough of about a half dozen family photo albums of their children’s weddings and a vacation that they took in Okinawa several years ago. (A minor bit of surrealism during the latter activity: the photo album books themselves were all Mickey Mouse-themed, with Disney characters on the covers and decorating the margins of the pages. Okayyyyy……) We also briefly met their 18 year old granddaughter, whose entire interaction with us consisted entirely of her saying, in English, “My name is Toriko. I am 18 years old,” with a deadpan expression that made it clear that she would rather be doing just about anything else, including drinking laundry detergent.

Mrs. Nakagawa served us tea at one of those low Japanese tables that force you to sit on the floor. However, no one has to sit on their knees, or cross-legged, or whatever, in this dining room: there is actually a below-floor-level rectangular well underneath the table to accommodate your legs, so despite the fact that your butt is on the floor (actually on a cushion on the floor), your posture is the same as though you were sitting in a chair.

The visit lasted about two hours, and concluded with Mr. Nakamura bestowing upon us two gifts: a small ceramic pot and a piece of calligraphy in which he had written our and his names in Japanese characters, along with an adage about friendship and the date and address of the house.

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It’s actually pretty cool-looking — the upper six characters in the leftmost column are our names — and so it seems a little churlish to confess that by the end of the two hours we were ready to leave. I talked to Mariko afterwards about how Mr. Nakagawa seemed to spend most of the time trying to impress us, rather than have a genuine two-way interaction, and she said that her father (who is about the same age) is exactly the same way. She suggested that it was some kind of generational thing, the need for Japanese men of that age to express themselves as alpha males, and related that she and her sister often have to ask her father to dial it back. She also related with some amusement that when her father is in conversation with another man of similar age that the conversation spirals completely out of control since they get locked into a spiral of one-upmanship. So I guess on reflection that we learned something about the culture from this home visit after all, albeit not quite what anyone had in mind at the outset….

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We Receive Our UNESCO Merit Badge

You know, there probably ought to be an island somewhere where all the people who have vanishing, obsolete, or traditional but obscure skill sets can all live together in peace and harmony. You know: geishas, blacksmiths, slide rule designers, coopers (when’s the last time you had a barrel made?), roof thatchers, that sort of thing. If such a place existed, you can bet that a disproportionate segment of the population would be Japanese. We saw a bunch of them today.

Today’s destinations were all in the UNESCO World Heritage locales of Gokayama and Shirakawa-go and a few of the neighboring towns. They are characterized by a number of attributes: stunning valley settings, gassho farmhouse architecture (which I’ll explain in a moment), and the preservation of what to our philistine Western sensibilities are obscure but colorful arts and crafts. Let’s start with the settings and the architecture.

“Gokayama” means “five mountains”. (Remember that -yama is a suffix meaning “mountain”, as in Fujiyama.) This part of the country is mountainous, which means two things: striking vistas and a lot of snow in winter. Our first stop was the village of Ainokura, a settlement of 1000 people or so nestled in a Shangri-la-like valley (I wish there were some way of typing that without two hyphens) ringed by cloud-misted green peaks. The building roofs are all thatched — very thick thatching, perhaps two feet through, mounted on a steep A-frame with about a 60-degree cant to prevent snow accumulation. And that, gentle reader, is more or less the definition of gassho architecture. The word itself means “praying hands”, which more or less describes the shape of the roof. There are a couple of things to pray for, e.g., that the village won’t get six feet of snow again this winter, because, tradition or no tradition the locals are sick of shoveling the stuff. The residents might also pray that no moronic tourist lights up a cigarette, since a wood frame house with a thatched roof is a conflagration waiting to happen. All of the houses in Ainokura are like this, giving it the feel of a 16th century Colonial Williamsburg. (And the brochures and signs do indeed ask you not to smoke.) We enjoyed a woodcut-worthy photogenic overlook of the town, and ambled around the streets for a while.

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Our next stop was the village of Taira, where they, um, pound rice. Not quite sure how else to describe it, really. The desired end product is mochi, or Japanese rice cake. “Cake” hardly seems like the right word, though: mochi is a essentially a little ball of rice gluten, which you can flavor by rolling it in a little sugar and soy powder or dipping it in soy. It’s gummy, sort of like an edible ball of doughy Silly Putty, though gooier and much easier to chew. It’s considered a special treat because making it in the proper fashion is labor-intensive: one person repeatedly pounds a bucket full of rice with a wooden sledgehammer while a second reaches into the goo between hammer strokes to add a bit of water and do a very quick knead. Time it wrong and the second person is looking at five broken fingers. (I asked Mariko how often this occurs among practitioners; she translated the question and was informed that it never happens.  However that is only because I don’t attempt to make mochi; otherwise the local hospital would have to hire a new full-time doctor just to apply splints.)

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Like everything else in Japan, mochi is steeped in tradition. You can’t just whale away with your Sears Craftsman hammer into a bowl of Uncle Ben’s Rice. You need just the right kind of rice, soaked for the right amount of time, pounded with the right wooden sledgehammer, and so forth. It’s all very traditional and precise, though the end product is very enjoyable. (At least for me; Alice was not so crazy about it.)

This ethos of doing things just so, using the ancient ways, is certainly a core part of Japanese tradition. We saw it again a few minutes later just down the road, where we made “Gokayama Mashi” paper. Or so they told us; would be more accurate to say that we participated in the final two steps (out of about 20) of making the much-prized, high-fiber paper. A traditional plant must be harvested, and the wrong kind of fibers removed, then boiled, and have other stuff added to it, then this, then that, then something else, and if I remember the informational video correctly then about two months later you have a sheet of very nice paper indeed, which you damn well better use for something important.

Our role in the process was to repeatedly dip a small screen about the size of a dinner tray into a trough of white liquid fibrous pulp, rather like rice pudding. You dip the screen into the pulp in a scooping motion to avoid trapping air bubbles, then lift it out and hold it horizontally to let the water drain. Repeat two more times. Decorate with colorful cutout bits of paper: cats, moons, fish. Hand the screen to a guy who carefully peels out the wet paper-to-be and sticks it flat against a hot drying surface, which is just a vertical panel of heated sheet metal. Twenty minutes later you have a sheet of paper with your decorations embedded in it.

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We moved on to a traditional lunch (do you sense a pattern emerging?), “tradition” in this case being an unusual vegetarian lunch of what of what are called “mountain vegetables”, which included items like fiddlehead fern. It was interesting, not at all bad, and a source of nostalgia for Mariko, who remembers her grandmother going into the mountains to gather vegetables for such a meal. Now it’s uncommon; it is hard to find the ingredients in a supermarket, and they are quite expensive.

Lunch concluded with a musical interlude. Two of the ladies who staffed the restaurant did a simple traditional dance while playing the binzasara, a bizarre percussion instrument that is basically a row of clappers strung tightly together.   You hold the two ends and snap your wrist, which causes a wave to propagate down the row of clappers, like tightly-spaced dominoes falling. It makes a clattery buzzing sound, indeed rather like what you’d get if you recorded a bunch of falling dominoes and then played back the audio at high speed. We all tried it; it’s a little tricky but you get the hang of it quickly. The instrument is a big deal around here: as you drive into this village of Taira, you pass under an archway shaped like one.

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I am happy to report that we were able to answer this particular Japanese musical tradition with an American musical tradition. Joe, one of our travel group, is a “sonic afficionado”, if there is such a term, who delights in whistling, making sound effects, and generally utilizing whatever is at hand (e.g., a blades of grass) to make noise. He travels with a pocket harmonica at all times — a practice that I recommend on philosophical grounds — and so responded to the binzasara performance by standing up and playing a long, impressive blues piece on his harmonica. It was quite a performance and he brought down the house. (I had told him earlier that I was planning on sending him a USB stick with all my photos; he said that in return he would send me one of his harmonica instructional videos. Seems like a very fair trade.)

We had two more stops to make after lunch, but i will be brief since it is getting late and this post is already somewhat longer than average. The first was the 500-year old home of the Iwase family, who have occupied it for 18 generations. The house dates back to the samurai era and has variously been used to store gunpowder, silk, and other commodities. I’m not sure if it is technically in the gassho style since the roof is not as steeply tilted as the other buildings. But the thatching was thick and robustly bound to heavy circular beams on the upper floors. Now the is just a family home, but the Iwases use it to (you guessed it) keep some of the old traditions alive, notably the kokiriko dance.

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Kokiriko is the oldest traditional Japanese dance, accompanied by a binzasara and percussion sticks. Though performed by women now, it was originally a dance performed only by the nobles and was used to celebrate the hunt. The costumes are said to be silk versions of a hunting outfit; I infer that the role of the hat (see photo above!) was to facilitate the hunt by making the animals convulse with derisive laughter. (“Look at that stupid hat!  You can’t even see anyth…OUCH ARROWS! OUCHouchouchouch…”) The Iwases served us tea after the dance, and we explored the house for a while.

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Our final stop of the day was Shirakawa-go itself, essentially a larger and more touristy version of the village of Ainokura that we saw first thing this morning. Like Ainokura, it sits serenely yet strikingly in a valley dotted with rice paddies and ringed with mountains. We admired the view, walked down into the town, then headed back to Kanazawa for a decidedly non-traditional Japanese dinner: Chinese food

shirakawa-012 shirakawa-008 shirakawa-009 shirakawa-010.Thus concludes our stay in Kanazawa. Tomorrow we head off to Kyoto for five nights, the final leg of our trip.

 

 

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