Posts Tagged With: gold

Kanazawa Flowahs

Sorry, but do you have any idea how hard it is to make a pun on the name “Kanazawa”? The title actually refers (badly) to our first stop of the day, Kanazawa’s Kenroku-en Garden. Now, I have to confess that for me personally, a garden is a garden. Alice, who is an avid gardener and appreciates these things, probably feels differently. But the Japanese, being Japanese, take pride in complicating this simple concept to a degree that I suspect is designed to make Westerners feel guilty if they don’t know what the hell the Japanese are talking about. In this case, the name of the garden literally means “six attributes”. I have also seen it translated as “six sublimities”, which I am not even convinced is a word. The six attributes are those that, to Japanese thinking, constitute the ideal landscape. They are: spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, waterways, and panoramas. So if you do not identify and appreciate these six factors, you are philosophically deficient. That’s definitely me. But it was nonetheless a very compact, beautiful park — 29 acres, dating from 1871 — dotted with exactly the kind of serene Japanese vistas you would expect, like these.

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Today had by far the nicest weather we have had on this trip, so it was a good day to go strolling in a garden. Our tour lead Mariko even dressed for the occasion, sporting a casual kimono for the day instead of her usual Western garb.

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We moved from the garden to our next stop, which was the restored house of a semi-prominent Edo-era samurai, Kurando Terashima. Terashima was basically a mid-level functionary who pissed off the wrong people and died in exile, though he did achieve some fame as a painter as well. The house is spare, its interior architecture all rectangular spaces with paper walls and tatami mats, and it looks out over a small, precise garden, in appearance and ambiance a greatly scaled-down version of Kenroku-en.

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I have been struck by the fact that when discussing houses like this, or indeed any housing at all, the unit of measurement is the tatami mat. You know what it is — a straw mat, basically, though its construction is actually rather more elaborate — but probably never knew its role as some kind of universal standard.  An official tatami mat is 33.5″ x 70.5″ (85.5 x 179 cm), and when someone is describing a room to you (e.g., Mariko describing her apartment), she will tell you that it is, say, 8 tatamis.   Since Japanese living spaces tend to be rectangular, you can assume that she means 4 tatamis by 2 tatamis. (Either that, or it’s a very long skinny apartment.) And so the brochures for the late Terashima-san’s home state that there is a 5 tatami tea room, an 8 tatami room where he painted, and so forth. Japan is on the metric system except when it comes to interior design, where it is on the tatami system.

This very traditional way of thinking gives me a cheap segue into the subject of geishas. Yes, they still exist for real, not just for tourists. (And no, they are in no way prostitutes, though you probably already knew that.) But they are a vanishing breed. Kanazawa has only 43, of which 14 live in the so-called geisha district, which looks like this:

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The district is home to both geisha houses — of which there are only seven left — and jewelry stores specializing in gold (about which more in a moment). The very traditional nature of the neighborhood makes it a popular place to stroll in traditional garb, thus:kanazawa-geisha-district-007 kanazawa-geisha-district-003

The pair in the lower picture are newlyweds, who were in the neighborhood with their wedding photographer.

Mariko had been in contact with the owner of one of the geisha houses, this rather elegant lady.

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She introduced herself to us, in soft-spoken, accented but precise English, as Lady Baba (“Not Lady Gaga,” she added.) as she explained the system. She owns the elegantly outfitted house (no, I don’t know how many tatamis it is) and hires the individual geishas on a freelance basis. All of her customers are either known to her personally or vouched for by an existing customer. No money changes hands during a visit; customers are billed semi-annually. (And if a customer fails to pay up, then the person who recommended him is held responsible for the debt.) Everything is all very tasteful and on the up-and-up, but discretion is nonetheless absolute since the geisha house is the venue for, e.g., closing business deals. In such a case the geisha is basically a social lubricant, keeping the men happy with conversation, jokes, and playing traditional musical instruments.

The geishas themselves are supposed to be a bit mysterious, with anything about their backgrounds or outside life kept hidden from the customers. It is perfectly permissible for them to be married, but such information is secret since their allure is correspondingly diminished. Although “allure” is probably the wrong word; the attraction is social, not sexual, and though the youngest a geisha may be is 18 years old, there is no upper age limit. Indeed, the oldest geisha who works for Lady Baba — and who by virtue of her conversational, entertainment, and musical skills is one of the most sought-after in her ranks — is 84 years old. (Are you reading this, Mom?)

Because of the traditional nature of the business, and the geisha houses’ status as cultural touchstones, ownership of a house can only be passed on to a daughter who is willing to carry on the tradition. Lady Baba is in a bind in this regard: she has a 12 year old daughter who (at least for now) has no interest in taking over the house when she is older: quite to the contrary, the child has announced her intention of moving to California and marrying a rich American. This leaves Lady Baba with three options: (1) talk her daughter into changing her mind (she’s still only 12, after all); (2) adopt another daughter who would be willing to take over the house (this is a real option); or (3) sell the house. For the moment, Lady Baba is banking on the first option.

She answered all of our questions with great charm and forthrightness, then demonstrated how she ties her kimono sash, which as you’d probably expect is all very elaborate.

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The whole experience was rather remarkable. The whole geisha concept is a throwback, but there is no denying the stratospheric level of social grace that the practitioners command. Lady Baba was very, very smooth: engaging, charming, self-deprecating, gracious, the whole works: when your livelihood depends on delicate social interaction, you get really good at working a room.

We finished up with everyone taking pictures of themselves with her (yes, us too), so I’ll close my geisha discussion with this more pensive portrait that she let me set up.

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Our final stop of the day was one of the gold jewelers in the area. These particular craftsmen (and -women) specialize in gold leaf, which they produce on spectacular quantity and with spectacular thinness.

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The sheets are so thin, and thus the quantity of gold that they contain so small, that they can use it for just about anything without driving the cost too high. Alice bought a fan covered in gold leaf; and I have now, for the first and probably only time in my life , had the privilege of peeing in a bathroom whose walls were literally completely covered in gold. Donald Trump would approve.

Oof. I can’t possibly end this post with that sentence. So I will close by observing that we had sushi for dinner.

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Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Arizona (Not Japan)

Yes, yes, I know I said our next trip was to Japan. And it is, if by “trip” one means a journey of longer than 4 days. But, as we do about twice a year, we have just returned from a 4-day weekend with our old and dear friends Larry and Jean in Scottsdale, Arizona, and since Arizona is such an photogenic and unusual place I decided it was worth a blog entry. It is the kind of place where you can walk into a bar and actually see this:

One of these customers will be Donald Trump's vice president.

One of these customers will be Donald Trump’s vice president.

I was disappointed at the lack of a tinkly, off-key piano, that would of course fall silent the moment we walked through the door. I think they traded the piano for the computer terminals.

In case you’re not up on the geography of Arizona, Scottsdale is an affluent and scenic suburb about a half hour’s drive northeast of Phoenix. Like all such population centers in the American southwest, it is basically a very attractive crime against nature: the greater Phoenix area, (which includes Scottsdale) hosts over two hundred golf courses, each of which requires about elenvty gajillion gallons of scarce water to maintain. People — including many, many retirees — flock to Scottsdale for the sun, the golfing, the snazzy malls, the desert scenery, and the convenient location of several Mayo clinics.

Arizona is divided into 15 enormous counties, several of which have more area than a number of the smaller US states though they are on average very sparsely populated. Scottsdale and Phoenix are in Maricopa County, one of whose biggest claims to fame is its controversial sheriff, Joe Arpaio, “controversial” in this context meaning “racist, autocratic, and fascist”. Good old Sheriff Joe has been hanging in there since 1993, getting reelected like clockwork every four years despite having cost Arizona taxpayers something over $140 million to date defending himself against assorted Federal civil rights lawsuits and investigations. It has gotten to the point of the legislature having to invent brand new ethnic groups for Joe to discriminate against and oppress, having used up all the known ones.

But we are not here to talk about Joe Arpaio. We are here to talk about Jerome.

Who?

That’s the wrong question. The Jerome of interest is not a “who” but a “where”: Jerome, Arizona, population 444.  The view from its main street looks like this:

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Jerome is a former gold and copper mining town, located 5200 ft (1600 m) up in the mountains about a 2 hour drive north of Phoenix. It got its start in about 1880 after the first mining claims were staked and enjoyed about a 50 year heyday until about 1930 when the Depression caused the price of copper to collapse. At that point it had reached its peak population of about 5,000, then entered its decline.  Mining stopped completely in 1953, at which point the city fathers decided it was going to be tourism or nothing if the town was to survive. On the strength of its mining history (which included a great deal of labor unrest including violent strikes), the town was granted national historical status in 1967 and has more or less remade itself as a local tourism center and art colony since then.

So now it’s the kind of place where the street (about three blocks long) is lined with art galleries — some quite good — while the former gold mine has reopened as a gift shop, so kitschy that even the many flies buzzing around it are wearing poor-taste teeshirts. It is difficult to straddle the line between artistic modernity and an “Old West”, so you get a bakery that looks like this:

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…and a post office whose boxes look like this:

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…and you attract people from a different decade who drive VW Microbuses decorated like this:

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My favorite place, though, was the kaleidoscope store. I love kaleidoscopes, and so an entire kaleidoscope store is definitely where I want to spend my time in a place like Jerome AZ. So I’ll close with a few photos from it:

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Categories: US Mainland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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