Japan 2010

Japan Trip–Day 5

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

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Breakfast was offered both Japanese and western-style and we fueled up for walking in the cold wet weather  we hadn’t anticipated while packing in sunny California.  Jan wore my cashmere sweater as one layer and I borrowed her cherry blossom scarf.  I hadn’t even brought a hat and shivered in my windbreaker.  Fortunately the hotel supplied umbrellas.

Maya introduced a yellow-raincoated lady, one of the city guides who would accompany her providing additional local information.  We crossed the street, ascended steps flanked by 16th century walls made of immense rocks stamped with samurai family logos and entered a vast parade ground.

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Across the field rose the “Diamond Turret,” a gracefully tapering tower, perched on another wall rising above field and framed by tall and carefully pruned pines.

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Equipment and workers were finishing up restoration work on a heavy gate.

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Across another parade ground on the north side of the castle, we saw behind the turret a  200 yard extension serving as a storehouse and armory.

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Passing through the ponderous north gate, we crossed a wide footbridge over a boulevard and entered Kokuen Gardens, originally built as the private pleasure ground of a local feudal lord, and now known as one of three grandest gardens in all of Japan.

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As we mounted to the top of the entrance hill it was evident why.  Even in the cold and rain, every step presented new prospects in all directions, each composed like a painting and prompting an urge to take a picture.

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Maya brought out one of her charts and declared that this garden emobodied all six features of a beautiful landscape: spaciousness and seclusion (i.e. long prospects and intimate enclosures), artifice and antiquity (i.e. ingeniousness and naturalness), openness and watercourses (i.e. views of the surrounding area and internal water features).

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These, she explained, were paired as typical opposites—Jan said yin and yang. Suddenly those features popped out everywhere: in broad vistas of islands and shores juxtaposed with mossy grottos, in the look of natural subalpine landscapes imitated by gnarled trees and rock outcrops juxtaposed with the ornamentation of stone lanterns and arched bridges, in the strategic panorama of the surrounding city juxtaposed with omnipresent water in ponds, springs, rivulets, waterfalls and fountains.

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That water, she told us, was transported here from the snow-covered mountains on the horizon, where the lord of the garden had originally made his home. It was carried by aqueducts that sometimes pulled the water uphill through action of siphons.  Centuries ago, the original gardeners had designed the huge trees that  were shaped by pruning, tilting, twisting and tieing as they grew.

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The walk in the park ended too soon.  We next were bussed to the preserved residence built in 1770 by a middle class samurai named Oyo.  He distinguished himself as a fighter, an artist, an economist and an advisor to the Government, which eventually exiled him to a remote island because of his outspoken criticism.  Kanazawa was not bombed during World War II and this house has remained intact.  The hostess there was his direct descendant as revealed in her appearance and demeanor.

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Next we drove to the workshop and showroom of one of the city’s traditional gold leaf producers. Three people were at work on their knees trimming sheets of the metal .0001 millimeter thick with a bamboo cutter, lifting them with chopsticks,  smoothing them on leaves of paper and lightly blowing away the residue, which drifted slowly in the air.

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In the store one could buy large screens with scenes painted on the gold background, gilt Miss Kitty do-dads and the paper which had been used to press the gold for facial wipes that absorbed grease.  We were served tea in gilt cups with flakes of gold floating on the surface.

Next we wandered around a charming old teahouse-geisha neighborhood and then toured a preserved samurai district surrounded by canals, now occupied by wealthy residents and an antique pottery studio.

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Then came lunch at an upscale French bistro, where the chicken entrée was less appealing than a delicate dessert custard made from buckwheat flour.

Last stop of the day was a saki brewery housed in a plant built in the seventeenth century by the same family that still owned it.  The entryway towered three stories, and led to a dark labyrinth of presses and vats.  The proprietor, a slight amiable gentleman in a dark suit whose few remaining teeth seemed unusually long, showed us his prized doll collection, featuring the Emperor and Empress and their court.  As we gratefully sampled, he told us about the several grades of saki, the annual process of harvesting, brewing and bottling, and the methods of turning it into plum wine and liqueur.

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After a short rest in the hotel we headed back to the department stores downtown to find me a hat.  The prices seemed too high so we decided to look for an inexpensive place for dinner, but without success.  We met two fellow tour members who guided us to a food court near the department store, where we found a bowl of Udon noodles for eight dollars, a good deal. Then again to the department store, where the cheapest hat was on sale for twenty dollars.  Homing in to the hotel room, we got an email from the relatives in Osaka saying cancel your hotel reservations and stay with us.  We celebrated by opening the saki we’d planned to bring them and staying up late, downloading and editing our day’s pictures.

Japan Trip 2010–Day 6

Monday, March 29th, 2010

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This morning we were glad that we’d opted out any of the supplementary excursions offered by our tour for budgetary reasons.  Though it meant missing what looked like an interesting trip to the mountains and more of Maya’s excellent instruction, we wanted to slow down and return to some of the places we’d sped through the day before.

As bundled as we could get against the rain and cold, we trudged up to the castle grounds, no less enthralled by their familiarity, and made our way to the entrance of the armory. The interior was almost empty this early in the morning, which magnified the scale and symmetry of the long chamber, as if one was looking into a pair of facing mirrors reflecting the warm color and intricate joinery of its unfinished wood members.

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Originally constructed in 1583, the castle was burned to the ground several times. The present restoration, begun in 2001 and employing 53000 workers was done from scratch following plans of its 1809 reconstruction, which went up in flames 1881. In the intervening years, the place had been used as a military barracks and then the site of Kanagawa University.

We climbed the three story “Diamond Turret” overlooking the parade ground, so named because instead of 90 degree angles, all the joints in this tower were at 100 and 80 degrees.

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Ostensibly this allowed for better visibility of the surrounding area, but it also advertised the virtuosity of the carpenters, which might be even better appreciated by our son, Joe, whose carpentry skills keep evolving and whose design preferences now seem quite Japanese.

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After an hour and a half of enjoying the castle’s visual delights, learning about its sophisticated engineering, and luxuriating in its warmth, we went out into the rain and walked the half mile to the No Theatre Museum located near the back wall of the fortress.  There we looked at beautiful costumes and masks, and a poorly produced video preview of one production, which sharpened our anticipation of seeing Kabuki the next day.

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Next door we encountered the first and only disappointment of our trip in the Museum of Twenty First Century Art. Most of the galleries in this graceless and sterile building were empty, and those not empty were no more interesting.

Fortified by a buffet lunch we raised umbrellas and braved the elements with a return to the Kokuen garden, entering at a corner we’d missed the day before.

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Despite the cold, cherry blossoms were entering their full glory. Under the indirect light from gray skies the wet washed leaves and rocks took on an interior radiance. Raindrops animated the placid surface of ponds with rippling circles.

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Another hour of uncomfortable delights had us again seeking shelter, and we found it  inside the garden at the Shigurateki Teahouse, where for three dollars a kimono-clad hostess welcomed us to sit down on a tatami mat, have hot green tea and a biscuit while looking across the verandah at the rain dripping from the eaves and listening to the waterfall behind us.

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On a visit to the nearby men’s room as we made our way toward the garden’s exit, I found a vase of fresh flowers by the sink.

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A flamboyant koi waved sayonara as we left.

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Japan Trip 2010-Day 7

Monday, March 29th, 2010

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Maya sent us off in a taxi this morning on a home visit along with Nita and Janet, our fellow Californians, and an envelop containing her phone number and the hotel’s, the address of our destination, and 5 new 1000 yen bills to pay the fare.

We were let out at a non-descript looking house in a dense residential neighborhood and invited in with broad smiles by a couple carrying umbrellas and signing to remove shoes. “My name is Kane, like Citizen Kane,” laughed the host. “This is my wife Akiko, who speaks no English.”

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He led us down a narrow corridor to the formal tatami reception room and immediately out the back door to the garden, where we donned slippers for the first stage of the tour. It was like a miniature Kenrokuen, packed with striking rocks, artfully shaped trees, stone lanterns, winding pathways and several water features.

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The rocks, he informed us, were purchased from a garden supply store and delivered with a crane from the back alley.  The larger trees were pruned by professionals and he handled the shrubs and delicate bonsais. Behind a screen was his flower and vegetable garden and across the alley, Akiko grew 100 varieties of prize-winning roses.

Back in the parlor we sat around the table in low chairs and Akiko brought green tea and a sweet wrapped in a pickled cherry leaf.

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We each were presented with gifts: a lovely ceramic cup and a CD about Japanese cooking, and in turn presented what we had brought, in our case the wrapped Trader Joe’s chocolate bar seeming not quite up to par.

Kano passed out his card and asked us where we were from. When he heard California, he laughed and told us that he recently returned from San Diego, where he went in his capacity as a Rotarian District Leader.  Jan replied that she too was a Rotarian and from her purse dug out a pin in the shape of a sushi roll she’d been given at a convention by a delegate from Japan  and handed it to him.  I was relieved.  He laughed louder than ever and gave Akiko a command in Japanese.  She returned with a plate full of Rotary pins that he passed out to everybody.

After tea, he stood up and showed us a beautiful scroll in the alcove painted by his calligraphy teacher.

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He explained the meaning of the kanji, which included a maxim on the importance of humility—“not like George W. Bush for example,” he laughed. Jan and I laughed loudly with him and Nita and Janet smiled politely. He would return to making derogative remarks about our former president several times during the visit.

Next he moved to the elaborate Buddhist altar in another corner of the room, flanked by antique looking photos of his and Akiko’s parents.

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We’d earlier learned that the production of these altars, popular throughout Japan was a traditional Kanazawa industry. “Very expensive,” he said. It was purchased by his mother with money from a life insurance policy. He explained various implements on the altar, including a book of prayers sung every morning. At Jan’s request he chanted one.

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I could have listened for a long time.  Then he placed our gifts on the altar, “as an offering,” he stated.

Led now into the western-style portion of the house, we entered a family room adjoining the kitchen, containing computer, TV, and an American short-haired cat. “I’m a horse maniac,” he laughed, pointing to paintings of horses decorating the walls. “I drew them.” Other horse portraits were done in needlepoint by Akiko. Across a tiny enclosed garden was the adjoining unit now inhabited by his son’s family, including grandchildren.  Back out in the chilly vestibule he gestured toward a large wooden frieze of carved horses.  “I did those too.”

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Then up the steep stairs to a former child’s room housing more horse paraphernalia, Akiko’s gold medals for roses, and above the door a little Shinto shrine. “This is for prayers of hope, the other one for thanksgiving.  Here we pray for peace, long life, health, and a little bit of money, not too much.  Remember humility.  Also for the Emperor and his family.  They are the oldest royal family in the world.”

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Next he conducted us to the bedroom, where futons are pulled out of the closet and placed on the floor at night.  “The cat sleeps between us,” he laughed.  “Keeps us from making babies.”

Ignoring Nita’s concern that we get back to our hotel in time, he said “Don’t worry, I’ve got it under control,” and led us to a high-ceilinged office, where formerly he conducted his real-estate business, now his son’s.  He and Akiko ushered us to sit on leather couches around another low table and she brought more tea—this time a combination of hibiscus, rose hips and strawberry—“lots of vitamin C”–and delicate rice cookies. As we sipped, he took out his calligraphy set and effortlessly inked four characters on white cards bordered in gold leaf, one for each of us.

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“The kanji signify this,” he explained. “‘One life, One encounter.’  It’s a Buddhist saying that applies to what has just taken place in this house.”  The room was silenced by the resonance of that proverb in that moment.

After a pause, I mentioned that it expresses how I feel about every class that I teach.  Nita said she’s been on fifteen home visits with OAT, but this has been the best. Akiko brought in elegant little shopping bags to pack up our gifts.

The cab was now waiting, and as he led us out the door of the office, Kano said, “this is most important,” and pointed to a fuzzy picture of a bunch of people in suits. His and Akiko’s faces were recognizable in the crowd.  In the foreground a distinguished gray-haired man was bowing.

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“Who is that,” he asked?  Jan said, “Is it the prince?”  “No,” he said, “that’s the Emperor.”  He’d been at a meeting of the equestrian society to which the emperor belongs, where taking pictures was forbidden, but his friend snapped this one and then ran away, “like a papparazzi.”

Back to the hotel we zipped to meet Maya and the rest of the group and off to the train to Kyoto. On the way the sun came out briefly and made a rainbow over lake Biwa.

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Jan and I read and reread the Kabuki play’s summary downloaded from the internet without full comprehension, since it was a sequel with many allusions to earlier scripts. The cab driver from the Kyoto station remarked on the theatre’s name we showed him with approval and said, “Empera here.”  Deploying her six-word vocabulary in Japanese,  Jan said “Sakura,” meaning Cherry blossoms. The driver nodded emphatically.  On the way along the river, we could see them in glorious bloom, about two weeks earlier than usual. Cherry blossoms in Kyoto is the number one attraction in Japan according to our authoritative Lonely Planet guidebook.  Anthony said our tour was $2000 cheaper than the one during the expected Sakura period.

We arrived at the beautiful old theatre about 30 minutes late, but the tickets were waiting at the box office.

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We rushed upstairs to our seats in the last row of the top balcony.  The set was brilliantly lit and colored—a stylized version of the cherry blossom scene outside, itself a stylized version of a natural landscape.

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The sets changed magically—one of the attractions of Kabuki—as did the costumes of the lead actor who played seven roles, both male and female.  There was lots of action, some of which we understood, including the accidental murder of the queen and the escape of the well-meaning perpetrator through a stormy sea created by windblown silk banners.

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During our hasty entry I saw no prohibition on picture taking, so I snapped a few with the flash down, but an usher dashed upstairs to ask me please to stop.  Now I was paparazzi.

At the first intermission, we bought delicious sushi in a Styrofoam bento box, joining the other audience members in getting nourishment during the four and a half hour performance.  We were the only Caucasians in sight. The next act may have explained why. The set was a dimly lit scene in a humble  farmhouse.  The assassin was told of his error by the visiting courtier who deceived him earlier and who placed a sword in front of him.  For the next hour, the disgraced murderer lamented his dishonor and worked up to committing seppuku with the sword, in the presence of his blind albino child and his grieving sister. As they wept beside him, he did the deed, and it took the next 50 minutes of his incomprehensible groaning for him to finally die.

The remainder of the sushi tasted especially good at the next intermission, which was followed by a short final act, which included a swordfight ballet, brilliant acrobatics, the ascent of a ghost in a beautiful kimono to heaven, two more relatively brief seppukus, and the final vaporizing of the ghost as a result of the Emperor’s flashing it with a small image of Buddha.

Japan Trip 2010–Day 8

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

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Jetlag, insomnia, overstimulation and exposure to the elements caught up with me during the first night in our modest but comfortable Kyoto hotel, inflicting a sore throat that I feared would turn into serious illness. But morning sunshine and the cheerful greeting of Maya garbed in kimono lifted my spirits.

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She too was puffy with a cold. On the way to our first destination she told us of the special distinction of Kyoto, Japan’s capital and the seat of the Emperor until it moved to Tokyo, its anagram, in 1867.  It was laid out in a grid a thousand years earlier and still had building restrictions against skyscrapers to preserve views of the hills and the prominence of its more than 2000 temples and shrines.  Three hundred varieties of flowering cherry trees bloomed here. The city was spared bombing in World War II only because of the intervention of Henry Stimson, Secretary of War, who had an appreciation for its beauty.

First stop was a prominent one of those temples known as Sanjusanjendo, founded in 1164 and rebuilt in its present form in 1266, which appeared contemporary in its clean lines and spare ornamentation.

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Removing shoes at the entry, we followed the crowd into a dark 390 foot passageway that faced an array of gold-covered larger-than-life-sized boddhisatvas, 200 long and five deep on ascending risers, each in an identical position, with a serene but individual expression.  Looked at face-on, their interlocking radiances created a dizzying visual buzz, looked at diagonally they lined up like rows of corn.  In front of every fifth one of these stood a bigger figure of a Hindu god in a twisted position with a ferocious look, drapery flying and weapon brandished.  Their remarkable realism and fluidity reminded me of the baroque sculptures of Bernini, though carved 500 years earlier.  As we approached the middle of the gallery we heard gongs and chants and smelled incense.  Monks were praying before a huge statue of  “Eka-Dasa-mukha-sahasra-bhuja-Avalokite-svara” or Kannon, the hermaphrodic Buddha of mercy, with eleven faces and 20 pairs of arms. I tossed a 50-yen coin into the box and begged for relief from illness and forgiveness for being cheap.

Outside in the brilliant sun, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom.

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On we traveled across town and up to the range of forested mountains enclosing it on the east.  Led by Maya’s wand, now hard to distinguish from the blooming background, we joined the throng climbing the steep shop-lined streets leading up to the Kiyumizo Dera temple complex.

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By contrast to the somber and flat temple we’d left, this place was noisy, exuberant and vertical, steep steps leading to terrace upon terrace, views of the city below opening wider, people at the lower levels appearing tiny at the base of vertiginous foundations and stone walls.

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This was a place, said Maya, where individuals come to find mates and couples to ask for fertility.

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Up this high the blossoms were just starting to burst and I got to see what I’d been looking for since Kanazawa, evidence of the armies of arborists who must be deployed to do the continual meticulous trimming of trees.  They worked as a crew with ladders and small saws, deliberating over each cut and hand bundling every twig.

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Another smart contrast was provided by our next destination,  Ninjo Castle, a samurai fortress built by the Shogun military dictatorship in 1625. Surrounded by a wide outer and inner moat and two sets of forbidding stone walls, it reminded me of the Castle in Kanazawa.

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No cherry trees here and the weather darkened.  More old wood and murals of gnarled pine trees on gold leaf background representing long life, strength and evergreen vitality.  The rooms were designed like those in the ryokan, spare, with tatami mats, sochi screens, alcoves and decorated ceilings, but on a gargantuan scale, the walls 20 feet high, the porticoes, which squeaked deliberately to warn of assassins, fifteen feet wide, the footprint of the building 27000 square feet.  Each chamber had different murals, less formal, more intimate as one moved from the forbidding atmosphere of the hall where the Shogun received his feudal vassals to the private quarters where he was entertained by geishas and consorts.  But every room, we were told, included a bell pull and hidden door behind which soldiers waited to be summoned at a moment in the event of threat.

We had time only for a brief visit to the splendid but appropriately austere gardens outside, devoid of flowers and adorned with artfully placed rocks imported from the far corners of the country.

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An excellent lunch of French cuisine—the bread as good as any in Paris–was served in a small dining room off a larger restaurant at Kyoto University. The walk there from the bus allowed an even briefer taste of the academic atmosphere of what Maya said was probably Japan’s most prestigious institution of higher learning.

We arrived at our final destination just before the gates closed: Kinkakuji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, built in 1397 as a retirement villa for a Shogun and converted by his son to a Zen temple.

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It’s famous for its exquisite architecture and gardens and also as a cause celebre, since it was burned down by a deranged monk in 1954, the subject of a novel by You-kio Mishima (my favorite Japanese writer), and then rebuilt quickly with publicly donated funds. Even after a day packed with enough highlights for a week and observed among crowds, the beauty of this place was deeply stirring.  Taking pictures and returning to them, I was grateful to the camera for filtering and arranging the views.

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After a needed rest back at the hotel, Jan and I wandered through narrow streets off the main boulevard of Kyoto looking for food.  An unassuming little place with bikes parked outside attracted our attention, and we found a reasonably priced dinner of eggplant in a lemony sauce and rice served by a shy and handsome young waiter.