Posts Tagged With: music

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.


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).


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


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.


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:


…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.


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.

monk-and-sushi-005 monk-and-sushi-006

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.


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…


…the three-stringed shamisen…


…and the shakuhachi (bamboo flute)…


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.



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:


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.

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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.


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.)


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.



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.


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.

shirakawa-007 shirakawa-005

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.


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.



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

Getting Our Just Deserts

I’m typing this from our tent in the middle (more like the western edge) of the Sahara desert on Wednesday October 7, but it will be at least a couple of days before I can actually post it, there being, well, nothing here.

This morning we left our beautiful hotel in Erfoud with a certain amount of reluctance, knowing that we would be trading our enormous comfy air conditioned rooms for extremely non-air-conditioned tents located far deeper into the middle of nowhere than we already were. So I had this brief word with the staff, shown below, thanking them for their hospitality. (How many hotels do you know keep camels on the grounds?) And so we set off, divided up into a convoy of four 4 x 4s instead of our bus because the latter would not do so well on sand dunes and generally functions much better when there is an actual road.

“And next time, don’t forget the mints on the pillows.”

This region is known for its fossils, and so our first stop was a place that receives the quarried fossil-rich slabs of sedimentary rock (not granite) and turns them into exceedingly cool tabletops, counter slabs, fountains, etc., all swimming with the particular Precambrian creatures that were endemic here. They fall mostly into three types: ammonites (which look like nautilus shells), trilobites (which look like giant sow bugs), and a long pointy cylindrical squid-like creature. (We would actually have gotten our own granite countertops in this style, but they were astronomically expensive.) in any case, the factory guide showed us the raw stones, the cutting and polishing process (diamond drills), and so forth, all culminating in the inevitable showroom where they assured us they would ship to the US. There was in fact a lot of interesting stuff, and several of our group bought things Steve and Thumper bought a set of fossil-laden dishes, while we bought a couple of small ammonites variously for Alice and the teenager who lives across the street from us and looks after our house while were away.

“Huh, I could’ve sworn we had Han Solo frozen in here.”

Our next stop was a Berber town where we visited a rather poor household, of which there are many. This was a family of a mother (at left below), father, and five children, two of whom were grown and married while the other three were still at home. One of those three had Down’s Syndrome, which led to a discussion of how they handled and treated him. And the answer was: they don’t. It is considered a failure, essentially a mark of shame, to have had such a child, and so they let him wander the streets, sometimes not seeing him for days at a time. This is arguably an improvement of how some local families treat such children, which is by chaining them up in a back room so no one can see them.

This led to a discussion of health care — Momo translating all the while — which is free in this country if your income falls below a certain threshold (which hers does).

Our hostess’ husband is a porter, who earns very little. She makes ends meet by weaving and selling fabrics and dresses, one of whom she demonstrated on one of our group, as you see here. It was wound pretty tight; our travel partner/dressmaker’s dummy reports that she would have a hard time moving around in it.

I should mention that no visit to a Moroccan home is complete without achingly sweet mint tea, and this was no exception. We smiled with pleasure as the enamel of our teeth dissolved, and thanked our hostess for her hospitality. (More about the Berbers later.)

By this point we were far enough into the desert that the rate of camel sightings was climbing noticeably, and so it was no coincidence that our next stop was a camel farm, one specializing in camel milk. They had a small herd of the beasts, the lactating females penned with their offspring but kept separate from the males, who were uninterested in the milk but very interested in — wait for it — humping. (Rim shot) So to milk a camel (an activity that thankfully they did not offer to teach us), you first have to shoulder the hungry camel children out of the way so that you (the farmer) can grab the teats and spritz the milk into a waiting metal bowl. It took two guys, as you can see here: the guy with his back to us is holding the shiny bowl while keeping the disgruntled juvenile (at left) out of the way, while the guy on the far side of the camel is spritzing. It’s a lot: it only takes a minute or two to get 1 1/2 liters (~3 pints), and you see the result in the picture that follows.

Very fresh, yet strangely unappetizing

It is very white and creamy looking, and tastes — yes, we tasted it — rather like plain old whole milk.

I should say something about camel vocabulary here (I mean out vocabulary, not the camels’, which is mostly limited to FNAAAAUUURRRRNK, though I may be spelling that wrong. The main point that I need to convey is that these are not actually camels, but rather dromedaries. In the immortal words of humor poet Ogden Nash:

“The camel has a single hump, the dromedary two. / Perhaps the other way around / I’m never sure, are you?”

It is in fact the other way around: dromedaries have one hump, and those are the guys you see around here. The two-hump animals are technically Bactrian camels. But everybody seems to call the dromedaries camels except when they’re trying to look smarter than you. I’ll continue to call them camels for convenience. (But I reserve the right to correct you if you call them camels, because I am a hypocrite and want to look smarter than you.)

As we headed deeper into the Sahara we saw more and more of less and less. Here’s the view out my window as we drive; the other car is one of our convoy. We tend to drive in staggered formation so as to avoid eating each other’s dust, of which there is an infinite about. The terrain is mostly flat, a mixture of hard-packed orange sand and black volcanic rubble. There is an occasional milkwood tree or patch of rough scrubby grass. The Atlas Mountains lie in the distance, and there is the occasional field of sand dunes, some the size of small mountains. We traverse a few of these, which is great fun in a roller coaster sort of way, but overall it would be an understatement to say that the landscape is uninviting. The weather is of course hot, though not blisteringly so: no higher than the mid-80s, time bone dry. But the sunlight is like an ultraviolet laser that fills the sky, very very intense.

And of course, amidst the expanse of nothing, there are camels:

We stop for a lunch at a restaurant that incongruously emerges in the midst of a filed of sand dunes. Here’s the scene as we arrive:



The walls are canvas over a frame, the interior walls and ceiling embroidered hangings. The interior space is appointed in traditional style, and if you have a mental image of Aladdin walking among cushions and the embroidered walls to round tables with ornate silver tea sets, you are pretty close to the mark. Lunch was quite good, a beef tagine.

We continued on til a stop at another Berber village, these Berbers being if rather different ethnic heritage. Remember that Berbers are ethnically very heterogeneous, some being pale skinned and of European provenance, others descended from sub-Saharan Africans. This group is descended from slaves imported from Sudan and Mali, and they put on a musical performance (“colorful native dances”, as we cynically characterize them in these trips) in which they played drums, castanets (that’s what they’re holding in the picture) and a stringed instrument. They danced a shuffling line dance while chanting nostalgic songs about the pre-slavery era, e.g., about returning to Timbuktu (which is in Mali, to answer a question it may never have occurred to you to ask).

The performance involved inveigling the audience (i.e. the 16 of us) into getting up and participating in a circle dance,my he Sudanese version of Hava Nagila. I gave in, but frankly would rather have been in Timbuktu myself.

Still further on we encountered a Berber cemetery, seen here. Primitive and sad, with way too many 4′ long graves, indicating that children were buried the. The headstones are I carved rough stone, with no information at all about the deceased. The only fact that each grave conveys is the sex of the departed, which is indicated by the position of the headstone: when positioned in the way that you (the reader) are used to, there lies here a male; when turned 90 degrees, a female. You can see a few of the latter in the photo, e.g., all the way in the back, about a quarter of the way over from the right.


We reached our camp at about 4:15PM, a cluster of a dozen semipermanent canvas-walled one-room tents at the edge of a field of sand dunes. They’re primitive looking from the outside and basic but comfortable on the inside: the canvas hangs on a wood and wire frame, and the floor is wood with a large carpet. Each room has a flush toilet and very basic cold shower. There is a generator or solar-powered batteries in the c amp (I don’t yet know which) so we have electricity at night; there is a single lightbulb but also an electrical outlet so we can charge our various devices overnight. So in ither words, extremely basic but not altogether roughing it. The main problem is the sand, which is everywhere and gets into everything; we have zippered screen doors front and rear that work reasonably well to keep the outside outside.

Not the Hilton.

But make no mistake, we really are in the Sahara desert. If you need any additional convincing, here is the view out our back door.

You might correctly infer from that image that strolling into town to do some shopping is not a realistic option. But it is all very exciting and interesting. We received a cooking lesson (tagine) in the late afternoon, followed by a very good dinner (tagine, do you see the pattern?). The skies are quite beautiful here as you would expect, the Milky Way a glorious highway from horizon to horizon across the zenith. So I gave a little astronomy lecture, enthusiastically received, and led a star party, pointing out constellations and stars to end the evening.

Tomorrow: camel ride! We have been cautioned to wear long pants for this, so I suspect that some apprehension may be warranted.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Blog at