I’d first wanted to visit Japan in my mid-20’s when I began taking pottery lessons and became enamored of those earthy Japanese glazes and the sublimely imperfect ceramic shapes. There were potters’ trips that would have let me work and live at a few pottery villages and participate in their wood-fueled kiln firings. The trips cost something like $1500. If I recall correctly, that price even included round trip airfare. But I was young and didn’t have the money.
While such a trip would no doubt have provided a wonderful set of experiences and might have changed the course of my life, it turns out this 2014 trip was worth waiting for – and also let me see glimpses of the old Japan my younger self was seeking.
THE FOUR MAIN ISLANDS OF JAPAN
The archipelago that is Japan is made up of 2,456 islands. Its varied climate ranges from cool temperate in the north to tropical in the south. Honshu (where Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and Hiroshima are located) is the largest. Hokaido, (where Saporo is located), to the north of Honshu, is the second largest. Shikoku, between the Inland Sea to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south, is the smallest. Kyushu (where Nagasaki is located), to the south of Shikoku, is the 3rd largest.
Our Geographic Expeditions trip, Journey through Ancient Japan: Shikoku and Kyoto with Don George, began in Kyoto on Honshu and then continued for another week on rural Shikoku Island. It was all that I’d hoped it would be – and much more.
KYOTO IN CHERRY BLOSSOM TIME
The trip began with a few days on my own in Kyoto, the imperial capital of Japan for over 1000 years – just as its cherry trees were coming into full bloom. Even having seen DC’s Japanese cherry trees in bloom when I lived there and having spent years enjoying the large variety of cherry trees during NYC spring times, nothing prepared me for the sensory saturation that is the cherry trees of Kyoto in full glorious bloom in early April.
In Japan, sakura, ornamental cherry trees and their blossoms, are a symbol of the ephemeral nature of life – the Buddhist notion that life is overwhelmingly beautiful and short, like a cherry blossom. The rich symbolism of sakura is aptly used throughout the various Japanese art forms.
LUCKING UPON UOSUKE SUSHI
During the first day in Kyoto, while on foot to visit the Nishijin Textile Center to see a kimono show (Nishijin turned out to be quite far away – my map made it look close by NYC standards), I was walking along the lovely canal in the photo just above and wasn’t entirely sure I was heading in the right direction – and my jet-lag confused stomach began announcing it would appreciate receiving some lunch. A small, unassuming sushi restaurant came into view up the street just past that spot. This turned out to be one of those fortuitous being-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time experiences.
It was still early so it was just the chef and me. I showed him a card explaining my gluten free requirements in kanji and English and that I had my own individual packet of gluten free tamari. There was some negotiation – Japanese for him, English for me – that also involved a phone call to someone who was somewhat bi-lingual and then he realized he could do it if he omitted the tamago (sweet egg omelet – usually made with soy sauce). So he served me green tea in a gorgeous ceramic cup and began preparing a wonderful chef’s choice lunch – the best sushi I’d ever had.
Chef Uosuke at work (Photos: J. Hardin)
Uni (sea urchin roe) has never appealed to me when I’ve tried it in the US. As the chef was preparing individual pieces of sushi for my meal, he showed me a large piece of uni to ask if I wanted it. I shook my head no but then reconsidered since it actually looked good and there I was in Japan. It turned out to be sweet and delicate tasting. Turns out I’d just never had really fresh uni before.
Two other memorable things happened at this restaurant:
Uosuke has a sophisticated collection of Japanese ceramic tea cups, plates and dishes so you’re apt to be served your meal on something old and quite lovely. He also has a gorgeous ceramic vinegar crock sitting in a place of honor right across from the restaurant’s front door. It’s very old, heavily flashed with ash from the wood fired kiln and partially collapsed during the firing.You can see the unglazed areas where balls of clay were placed and another such jug was stacked on top of it for the firing – the raw balls of clay kept the two pots from sticking together. Old. Simple and lovely. Very wabi sabi – sometimes translated as beauty that is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete, as exemplified by the rough, simple beauty of Japanese folk crafts – 侘寂 in kanji. A satisfyingly beautiful piece to me.
Chef Uosuke also proudly showed off a framed note from Richard Gere, who’d dined there one day – complete with a photo. I guess Gere carries them with him for such occasions. Uosuke asked if I knew the movie, “Pretty Girl”.
I had such a good time at this restaurant and the walk to reach it along the cherry tree lined canal was so pleasant, I returned two more times before we departed for Shikoku Island – the final time with two members of our group, who also enjoyed the place.
After lunch that first day I did finally make it to the Nishijin Textile Center. The walk there included an enjoyable stop at a tiny Japanese clothing store where the shopkeeper showed me a program from a Rolling Stones concert she’d attended; along a river with its wading cranes and small children playing with their parents along its banks; past some old Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines; and through the enormous old Imperial Palace grounds with its huge weeping cherry trees in cascading pink bloom.
KYOTO IMPERIAL PALACE GROUNDS
I stopped several times to ask directions of young people who looked like they might know some English. The last one didn’t know where the address was, consulted an old woman on a bicycle and then walked me there himself – about 15 minutes out of his way. I’m pretty sure he was on his way home from work. Other people in my group also reported being walked to the door of the place they were trying to find.
NISHIJIN TEXTILE CENTER – AT LAST
Arriving at the Nishijin Textile Center, I learned the final kimono show of the day was to begin soon, giving me just enough time to revive a bit and take a look at the textiles and kimonos for sale in their shop. The Center offers the experience of dressing up in one of their everyday kimono and wearing it out and about for a day. Fortunately, I’d already decided to pass on that.
A cab ride back to the hotel seemed in order after that – and led to the discovery that Japanese taxis are driven by uniformed, white-gloved drivers and their seats are protected by spotless white lace covers.
Another Kyoto highlight for the foodie in me was a hands-on lesson in the art of making delicately beautiful wagashi (Japanese sweets) sculpted from doughs made of sweetened glutinous rice flour (mochi) dyed a variety of colors – pink, green, yellow, brown and white. Our attempts at crafting this edible art form to look like cherry blossoms in honor of the season weren’t entirely successful – but they tasted good nonetheless when we got to sample them with cups of matcha green tea served at outdoor tables set up in the shop’s courtyard – and take home the ones we didn’t eat. The sweets shop has been in operation for nearly 150 years.
One day we had lunch at a restaurant specializing in varieties of tofu made fresh daily in Kyoto – including a quite pleasant, pale yellow version made from sesame seeds instead of soy beans.
SCENES AROUND KYOTO AND NEARBY NARA
NISHIKI STREET – A FOOD LOVER’S PARADISE
Just off the wider shopping arcade seen in the photo of the two girls above is the Nishiki Street Market (Nishiki Ichiba – 錦市場), a 15′-wide, five-block long, covered walkway lined on both sides with 126 shops, a few small restaurants, and stands selling ready made foods. Each little shop specializes in a single type of food or product and everything for sale here is locally produced or procured. Referred to as ‘Kyoto’s Kitchen”, it’s a food lover’s paradise.
You can view, sample, and purchase every sort of Japanese food and food-related item imaginable here, some unique to Kyoto – fresh vegetables and fruits, a huge variety of Japanese pickles, fresh and dried fish and seafood, meats, dried beans, teas, fresh eggs, vegetables in miso, wasabi salt, fresh tofu and tofu skins, all manner of things on skewers, wagashi and other sweets, freshly roasted chestnuts, sushi, cookware … and much more. There’s a hand made knife shop founded by Fujiwara Aritsugu in 1560 and operated by the Aritsugu family for over 400 years.
As Don George, our knowledgeable guide, wrote, “Although it is a main island, Shikoku is what most Japanese consider tooi inaka, the deep countryside … a Japan I hadn’t known existed: A place of farms and fishing villages, mountainside shrines and seaside temples, rugged seacoasts and forested hills, time-honored traditions and country kindness.” (George, 2012)
A comfortable bullet train from Kyoto to Hiroshima and then a leisurely ferry ride across the otherworldly Seto Inland Sea delivered us to the port city of Matsuyama – and we were in the magical land of Shikoku.
We encountered rivers so clear you could see through to their bottoms, snow capped mountains with wild cherry trees blooming down their slopes and into the valleys, tiny villages of old tile-roofed houses sporting solar panels, the Milky Way splashing across the sky at night in the mountains of the central Iya Valley, thatch-roofed farm houses several hundred years old and still inhabited, traditionally dressed farmers working rice paddies and fields – if the automobiles, electric and phone wires and solar panels hadn’t been there, you might wonder what century you were in.
We slept on thin futons under Japanese duvets in tatami-matted rooms; soaked in onsens (hot mineral spring baths); bathed in beautiful tubs on open balconies overlooking a wild mountain vista in the Iya Valley; toured a castle atop a hill in Matsuyama – begun in 1602; visited picturesque outdoor food markets; participated in the searing of bonito tataki (lightly charred outside, raw inside) on an outdoor grill behind the fish market in Kochi; ate vegetables picked that same day and fish who had been swimming in the sea a few hours earlier; milled buckwheat between old grinding stones and made soba noodles which got turned into part of our lunch at the little restaurant across the walk; drank local sakes and Japanese sodas called Pocari Sweat and Calpis everywhere; toasted homemade mochi cakes (a ‘bread’ made from finely ground, sweet glutinous rice flour) on top of a wood stove until they were crispy outside and melting inside at Kaiyu, a peaceful eco-lodge at Cape Ashizuri on the Pacific Ocean; carefully crossed a double-vined bridge spanning the Iya Gorge (I myself made it only a few yards across the widely spaced slats and decided to turn back); visited a paper museum in Ino to see washi (handmade paper) being made; stopped in Uchiko to visit its old Uchiko-za kabuki theater and a traditional candle making shop that’s been in existence for 200 years; climbed around inside the vast and damp Ryuga-do Cave – formed 175 million years ago and containing artifacts, earthen vessels and dwelling remains dating from 300 BC to 300 AD; and took part in a tea ceremony inside the thatched-roof tea house at the Ritsurin-koen, an Edo-style garden.
Then there were the white-clad people on pilgrimage to visit Shikoku’s 88 Esoteric Buddhist temples – on foot, in cars and buses, on motorcycles and bicycles. The entire pilgrimage consists of a 1,647-kilometer circuit around the island. An estimated 100,000 people visit all or at least one of these temples each year.
Outside Temple 37 we met a man of indeterminate age in the process of making his 12th such pilgrimage on foot. He looked to be quite fit.
KAIYU ON CAPE ASHIZURI
One of the most enjoyable places we stayed was an informal, family-run and oriented eco-resort called Kaiyu on the semi-tropical southwest side of Shikoku Island. It’s near scenic Cape Ashizuri and has its own onsen (hot springs bath) overlooking Ooki Beach on a lovely section of the Pacific Ocean. Kaiyu’s onsen uses no chemicals and is fired with wood. Everything about it has been designed to help quests reconnect with nature.
Just to make the point that Kaiyu is a magical place for your body and soul, this is the scene we woke up to our first morning there:
I’ve written about lovely Kaiyu and its delightful owners, Mitsu and Tae Okada, in a previous post so refer you there for more information and more photos of the eco-lodge, the onsen, beach, and Tae’s beautiful food:
Also see Kaiyu’s website.
CHIIORI – A 300 YEAR OLD MINKA
We stayed one lovely night at Chiiori (House of the Flute), a 300 year old minka farmhouse purchased in the 1970’s byAlex Kerr, author of the interesting book Lost Japan. Minka (traditional farmhouses) are built of rough wood beams and posts held together without nails, and are usually covered with a thick thatched roof. No tatami mats on these floors – just the dark beauty of the old wood planks. Kerr’s house is now part of the Chiiori Trust, a non-profit organization working to restore sustainable tourism and agriculture in the rural Iya Valley of Shikoku Island. These photos of Chiiori demonstrate its charms:
I also highly recommend watching Davina Pardo’s lovely short (15:37) documentary MINKA for the story of another ancient Japanese farmhouse. The film is a meditation that will leave you feeling serene and refreshed.
In 1967, Yoshihiro Takishita, a Japanese law student at the time, and John Roderick, an American journalist based in Tokyo, rescued an ancient farmhouse found in the snow country of Japan and rebuilt it on a hill in the Tokyo suburb of Kamakura, where it overlooks the sea. Minka is an intimate story about architecture, friendship, memory and the meaning of home.
At the time, Takishita knew nothing about the work of renovating minkas. He figured it out as the project went along – a labor of love for his adoptive father, Roderick. Since then, he has dismantled, moved and renovated 35 other minkas in Japan and other countries. He also writes and lectures about architecture, collects and sells Japanese antiques. He has established an NPO for the preservation of traditional houses in Japan and is president of the Association for Preserving Old Japanese Farmhouses.
I also recommend reading Roderick’s wonderful book about his home, Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan.
If you’re still curious about beautiful old minka farmhouses and want to see more pictures of them, here’s what you get if you google imagery for ‘minka farmhouses‘.
LIFE SIZED DOLLS IN THE IYA VALLEY
Our stop at the doll maker’s house was completely serendipitous. Don had noticed her ‘scarecrows’ last year when the tour drove through her village. In the intervening year, he’d done some research and learned a bit more about her. This year she was standing out by the street adjusting the pose of one of her dolls just as we were driving by. So we stopped, Don asked in his fluent Japanese if she happened to be the artist, and she graciously invited us to walk up the driveway to the front of her house, where her work table is located along with a benchful of her dolls.
The 64 year old artist’s name is Ayano Tsukimi and the small village is Nagonu. There were hundreds of people living and working in this village in the remote Iya Valley when she was a child living with her family here. Now the village’s school has closed for lack of students and there are only 36 residents left besides her.
Tsukimi has been coping with these losses by making life sized dolls to look like the people who have moved away or died. Ten years ago, after she’d planted seeds that failed to sprout, she decided she needed a scarecrow for her garden so made one to resemble her father. Since then she has made hundreds of dolls. They are placed out in fields, alongside the road, up in trees , in and around her house – and whole classrooms of them populate the abandoned school building.
More of her dolls –
Getting to see these life sized dolls and meet their creator, a woman of great feeling and personal dignity, was a moving experience.
A Berlin-based film maker named Fritz Schumann was also moved and intrigued. He has made a short documentary about Ayano Tsukimia and her dolls called The Valley of Dolls. The film (in Japanese with English subtitles) is wonderful – both beautiful and sad. It’s posted on Vimeo – you can watch it here. I highly recommend it.
A coda to this story: A few of us were in need of a bathroom while we were looking at the many life-sized dolls around the outside of this artist’s house so Don asked if she would allow us to use hers. We expected a squat, possibly in an out building. Instead, she invited us into her home (which is also filled with her dolls, including the entire wedding party in fine clothes below), where she had one of Japan’s finest: A multi-function Toto – complete with a heated seat.
You just never know!
MY FAVORITE INSTRUCTION SIGNS
BUDDHISM – SO PRACTICAL
Here’s a small example of why it’s so pleasant to be in a country with a strong Buddhist legacy:
We were outside Tokushima City visiting Ryōzenji, Temple 1 of Shikoku’s 88 Esoteric Buddhist temples on the pilgrimage route and the most holy. Amidst all its beauty, it came into my awareness that we hadn’t taken off our shoes to enter the temple – and neither had the many pilgrims or anyone else. Since we’d had to take off our shoes to enter every other temple, many restaurants and hotel rooms, this seemed odd so I asked our Japanese guide, Hiro, about it.
His response was that it was a practical matter: This temple receives so many visitors that everyone’s stopping to remove shoes and then later put them back on would create a traffic jam.
I’d encountered something similar in Bhutan: At a Buddhist temple on the side of a mountain, we had left our shoes in an anteroom and were seated on the floor in the shrine room having been told to sit in a way that the bottoms of our feet were not facing the shrine since facing them toward it is considered disrespectful. I and another woman were trying to figure out a respectful position we could sit in comfortably and realized at the same moment that there wasn’t one. So we leaned over to tell our guide that we couldn’t sit like that and would wait outside. He looked surprised and told us we could stay, that it’s only asked that people do their best.
Now this is a religion with beliefs and practices a person could live with! It takes into account practical matters. It teaches its followers to do their best instead of instilling guilt for not obeying some rigid dogma. And if you’re having trouble dealing with something you’re feeling – such as envy or hatred, it offers huge, ferocious gods who are more powerful than your feeling and can help protect you from it instead of threatening you with eternal damnation.
The Dalai Lama describes Buddhism this way:
And here’s something interesting about religion in Japan: Most Japanese don’t believe you have to follow only one religion. It’s common for families to have Shinto ceremonies for their children at birth and then again at ages three, five, and seven. People usually have a Christian wedding and then a Buddhist funeral. The interlinking of the various religions in people’s lives is often summed up in the phrase ‘Born Shinto, Die Buddhist’.
If you want to read more about this pragmatic approach, I recommend looking at ‘Japan’s Pick and Mix Religions’ on a website called God Knows What … an irreverent look through the worlds of religion, anthropology and skepticism.
AND THERE WAS MUCH MORE! If I’d included every interesting thing, this post would be many times longer.
A THANK YOU TO MY FELLOW TRAVELERS
In addition to the warm welcome we received from people we met in their restaurants, homes and out of the way places, the people who made up our GeoEx traveling group added a big bonus to the whole set of experiences: Don George, our American guide who’s fluent in Japanese, knowledgeable, generous, funny and truly enjoys people. Hiro Kasagi, our Kyoto-based Japanese guide, who shared his broad range of knowledge with us and made sure I wasn’t eating anything that would trigger my gluten allergy. And all eight of the other people on our tour – all of whom possess a deep knowledge on some arcane topic and, most importantly, have a great sense of humor. Laughing deeply and frequently with a congenial group of people is a vacation all on its own.
So dewa mata, Japan – see you later. I hope to make a return visit.
And when I met up with my cousin during a long San Francisco Airport layover on the way home, she didn’t recognize me at first. When she finally realized who I was, she said she’d noticed a dark haired woman coming up to her and thought, “Who is this Asian woman stopping to ask me for directions?” Others since then have also said I now look a tiny bit Japanese. What is it about a few satisfying weeks in Japan that changes a person’s appearance?
George, D. (2012). Japan’s Past Perfect. National Geographic Traveler. See http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/countries/shikoku-japan-traveler/
Kaiyu Eco-lodge. See its website: http://kaiyu-inn.jp/en/menu_01.html
Kavanagh, C. (date unknown). God Knows What … an irreverent look through the worlds of religion, anthropology and skeptism. Japan’s Pick and Mix Religions. See http://godknowswhat.wordpress.com/2009/09/09/japans-pick-and-mix-religions/
Google. (5/11/2014). Imagery for ‘minka farmhouses’. See https://www.google.com/search?q=minkas&es_sm=91&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=WQVwU7TJH7TQsASDqoGwCw&ved=0CAgQ_AUoAQ&biw=1276&bih=865#q=minka+farmhouses&tbm=isch
Pardo, D. (2011). Minka. See the documentary at http://vimeo.com/20658635
Roderick, J. (2007). Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan. See: http://www.amazon.com/Minka-Farmhouse-Japan-John-Roderick/dp/1568987315
Schumann, F. (2014). The Valley of Dolls. See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/01/valley-of-dolls-japan_n_5240780.html
© Copyright 2014 Joan Rothchild Hardin. All Rights Reserved.
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