Posts Tagged With: paper

Rice Paper and Russian Jeeps

Yeeee-hah! The oil pressure light is blinking angrily on the jeep dashboard and our driver swerves left to avoid running over a moped that’s just gotten knocked over by a car coming out of a side street. I’m standing up in the seat, snapping away, as whole families on motorcycles weave by us, waving and shouting Xin chào! (“Hello!”) at me. The cops are whistling like mad trying to clear the lane — the locals call them “Pikachus”, probably because of their yellow uniforms — and we cut right across a lane of traffic to barrel down an alley crammed with vendors selling bootleg auto parts, squeezing by with barely inches of clearance on either side. Then the heavens open up.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Yesterday was an interesting day.
It started with a visit to a local military cemetery, of which I infer there are many, given the number of casualties in the war. (They call it the “American War” here, by the way.) It looks pretty much like every other such cemetery that you’ve seen, dominated by an obelisk at the front with a commemorative engraving. Many of the headstones have pictures of the deceased. There is even a section for Gold Star Mothers who lost sons and husbands in the war; one, I note, lived to an astonishing 109 years old.
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The caretaker is a small man about my age who as a teenager fought in the Viet Cong. He guides us in lighting some incense sticks at an altar in a small side building, then we all sit down to tea and he — through our guide, acting as interpreter —  relates some war stories. There are a couple of Vietnam veterans in our group, who as you imagine listen with considerable interest. And then it gets interesting: the caretaker tells how he was a scout, and that one of his big assignments was scoping out the defenses of a particular air base at Da Nang, preparatory to a huge attack. They launched rockets and brought down a bunch of incoming planes, including a C-141 cargo plane. “Wait a minute!” says Dave, one of our vets. “When was that?” The caretaker tells him the date, and Dave’s eyes grow wide. “I was there! We were in the bunker! I saw the C-141 go down!” They gape at each other. Welcome to Viet Nam tourism. I infer that this sort of thing happens a lot.
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“Nice to meet you! Sorry that I tried to kill you!”

People are happy to talk about the war here. In fact, they’re happy to talk about just about anything, including how corrupt their government is in the traditional rapacious way, heavily influenced by China and generally illiberal despite the so-called “Red Capitalist” economy.  Because so many people speak freely, it is easy to get the mistaken impression that this society is much more open than it really is. We’re harmless tourists, though; printing the stuff they say to us on a leaftlet and handing it out on a street corner would get them a very long prison sentence. It is a less repressive government than China’s, but not by much: Vietnamese can use Google and Facebook  and even watch CNN and BBC on TV, but when there is any controversy afoot the TV broadcasts are delayed by an hour to let the censors edit them before airing.
We moved on from the cemetery to the village of Tho Ha, known for making rice paper. You get there by crossing an unattractive brown river on a flatbed metal ferry nearly as long as the river is wide; it pulls away from the dock, then does a three-point turn to basically rotate in place. Then you walk off the other side, accompanied by a dozen school kids on mopeds.
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Rice paper is pretty much all that anyone does in Tho Ha. There are 1000 households there, and 600 of them make rice paper. (Another 200 work at the nearby Samsung factory.) The narrow alleys are lined with bamboo frames of drying rice paper, each about the size of a window shutter. There are piles of them on rooftops, stacks leaning against the outside walls of peoples’ homes… they are everywhere.
Nothing goes to waste, of course: the scraps around the edges — from the rectangular sheets that get cut into circles — get mixed with chilies and garlic and sold as snacks. (Highly addictive snacks, I can report from personal experience.)
Our immersion in rice paper culture included trying our own hand at it; rather than using one of the machines that paints the liquid goop over the frame, the family we visited had us go old school, using a ladle and a hot surface, exactly like making a crepe. Here’s Alice in action.
Our hosts served us a truly glorious lunch that included about ten different dishes, all outstanding. Turns out he is a musician who gives lessons in a number of unfamiliar-looking stringed instruments, so he gave us a little impromptu concert, playing one piece on what he called a “short banjo” (shown below) and another on a violin-like thing.
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His closing number, incongruously, was “You Are My Sunshine,”, and we all sang along. Then it was back to the hotel, and a brief interlude chatting with Phil’s family, who live in Hanoi and stopped by to see Dad at work. He has two daughters, 15 and 9, and a very pretty wife, a former stockbroker. (How non-Communist can you get?) None spoke English, so Phil interpreted as his wife expressed her various welcomes and gifted us with some traditional small glutinous celebratory rice cakes. The 9 year old was a firecracker, prancing around and teasing her father, while the 15 year old managed a wan smile that clearly communicated that she would rather be somewhere else, e.g., a pool of boiling lava.
Then the jeeps showed up.
Phil has an entrepreneurial friend who set up an offbeat local tourism business two years ago and has enjoyed a lot of success by tooling small groups of tourists around in old refurbished Russian jeeps, taking to them rather non-standard locations around the city, e.g., the bootleg auto parts market I mentioned earlier. We were in three open jeeps, a copper-colored one and two gray ones, and we bullied our way through densely cacophonous Hanoi rush hour traffic to visit a tame little demimonde. It was an utter hoot, immersing you in the adrenaline of the city in a pleasantly visceral way.
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That’s Phil in the purple teeshirt. And here we are in Hanoi traffic, which could be fairly described as “nutso”:
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We got out in one of the alleys to visit a tiny little bakery of sorts where they were making the ceremonial cakes that Phil’s wife had handed out earlier. It was there that the monsoon finally showed up — it is that season here — but our jeep drivers handed out ponchos and we managed to avoid being utterly soaked. Still, splashing through those dark, wet, and generally filthy-seeming alleys while getting poured on was sweaty and not especially comfortable. The storm lasted less than 45 minutes.
Next jeep stop: Happy Hour at The Most Dangerous Restaurant In The World. That would be this one:
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Yes, the table is sitting on a train track. What a cute gimmick! you are thinking. They’ve set up a restaurant on a decommissioned railroad track! And you could keep thinking that until 7:05 PM, when the staff moved the tables off the track, so that this could happen at 7:10 PM:
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This is a significant incentive for the trains to run on time. Also not to linger over your pho.
After that thought-provoking happy hour, we were once again taken to an outstanding zillion-course meal, then brought to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum to witness the daily lowering of the flag. As you probably know, “Uncle Ho” (they actually call him that) was pretty much the father of Vietnamese independence, and is revered in much the same way that George Washington is in the US. The US never really understood that he was a Communist mostly by convenience; the Communists in the north didn’t really get nastily assertive as long as he was strong enough to hold sway, and it was largely as he sickened and died in the late sixties that things got nasty and the US went crazy. But in any case, he has quite the mausoleum, and the flag ceremony is performed every night with much goose-stepping and martial music.
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You can actually go into the mausoleum to see his body, or you can try to: it is open for three hours in the morning, five days a week, so you can stand in line for an hour with (literally) ten thousand other people to get in.  Apparently, few of OATs past travelers felt that it was worth it, and so it was not part of our itinerary. Phil concurred that it wasn’t a good use of anyone’s time. I can’t say that we were disappointed.
And that was yesterday.
Today we visited the town of Bat Trang, known for its ceramics, and had a rather more conventional tourist experience that I may write about tomorrow. (“Here we are doing an extremely terrible job of making a clay bowl on a potter’s wheel!”) We leave Hanoi tomorrow morning, and will be spending tomorrow evening sleeping on a junk (the Asian boat, not a pile of debris in an alley) on Ha Long Bay.
I’ll close today with a photo of one of the many back-alley eateries one sees here and throughout Asia. Nothing remarkable about it — I just like the shot.
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Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 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.

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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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