Friday, September 30, 2011

Kencho-ji with Ishii

Ishii-san and I went searching for bush clover in Kamakura today. We didn't see much of that but we did see a whole lot of other things, munched on some very yummy fresh rice crackers, and walked our usual zillion miles.

Ishii read somewhere that Kencho-ji temple in Kita-Kamakura is a good place to see bush clover. Our route took us past Haruki-san's kimono exhibit so of course we took a little detour. Haruki and his wife were so gracious. They remembered my name! He pronounces "Kathy" the same way Yuuko Kaji does, with a very soft "th" that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.

Ishii was wearing a lovely sashiko vest for the occasion, a long duster she spent a year creating. I wish I had taken some closeup pictures so you could see her exquisite craftsmanship. I, on the other hand, had spent the morning shelving books at the base thrift shop in a sleeveless shirt and found a ratty cardigan in the trunk of my car to cover my bare shoulders, something I feel as compelled to do when I am out and about in Japan as when I visited the Vatican at the age of fifteen.  (As the day grew warmer, the sweater grew increasingly loathsome.  I'm going to abandon it at the thrift shop the next time I shelve books.)

Karamon at Kencho-ji

Kencho-ji, constructed in the 13th century, is the oldest Zen training monastery in Japan -- surely you've heard this before -- and the first-ranked of the five great Zen temples of Kamakura. This was my third visit since March 2007 yet I still took a dozen pictures of the statue of fasting Buddha and the dragon picture (unryu-zu) on the Hatto ceiling. No matter where you stand in the room, the dragon's eyes seem to follow you. This is quite eerie and, so far, impossible to capture in a photograph.

Fasting Buddha

The map provided by the man at the ticket booth showed a garden near the rear of the temple grounds. This seemed like an obvious place to find bush clover so off we went. Except we skirted the building on the left when we should have marched directly through the building straight ahead and, lo and behold, we were behind the garden with no way to get through the tall hedge. That's when Ishii-san got that innocent look on her face that I really ought to recognize by now, the "As long as we're on this path, let's just take a little stroll and see what we can see" look. Those "little strolls" never fail to turn into arduous physical activity. Not that I'm complaining.

Today's "little stroll" took us eventually to the last building on the map, the Hanso-bo, which I think means "8,000 of the steepest steps you will ever climb".  Seriously, even those cute 10-year old school children in their bright yellow caps were huffing and puffing by the time they reached the fourth or fifth flight of stairs.  Japanese landscape designers must all take a special class in Deceptive Neverending Stairs because I can't count the number of times I've scampered up 80 steps only to discover another 80 steps across a short plateau and then yet another 80 steps camouflaged by a leafy maple tree.  Wheeze, gasp.

This is the first time Ishii-san has been to the Hanso-bo.  Her husband knows about those steps which is why I am here with her today and he's not.  

More often than not there's some sort of visual reward for scaling all those steps and today is a more often rather than a not. Thank God.

The Hanso-bo is a shrine that was moved here from Shizuoka in 1890 to protect the temple in the valley below. The final stretch of hillside beneath the shrine is littered with statues of winged creatures called tengu which look like a cross between warrior angels and the Wicked Witch of the West's flying monkey minions.

There's a viewing platform next to the shrine which offers a lovely view of Mt. Fuji on a clear day.  Today we couldn't see Mt. Fuji so I might just have to reprise that ascent.  But you can be darn sure I'll borrow a couple of cell phones and a kid who's willing to scamper up those steps ahead of me to scout out the view.

Ishii-san and Tengu

We spotted a patch of bush clover as we were working our way back toward the temple entrance but it had already finished blooming and that made us laugh. The bush clover seems relatively immune to the effects of the recent Typhoon Roke. Lots of other plants have leaves that are turning brown and shriveling up compliments of all the salt the typhoon carried from the sea to land.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Cats Ate My Homework?

The care Japanese gardeners lavish on gnarled old trees intrigues me. There seems to be as much art as science involved in the lashing of mallets to fragile limbs. Someone went to a whole lot of trouble winding those ropes.

This morning I'm feeling a bit gnarled myself and wishing the Ancient Mariner was here to prop me up.  He'll be back from San Diego tomorrow but this morning is the deadline for turning in fifty picture cards to the Japanese and American Wives Club.  My PC is not cooperating and this old laptop is not connected to the printer.  Which actually might be a blessing because I couldn't find the special picture card paper at the Navy Exchange so I was going to have to painstakingly cut my masterpieces out of flimsy computer paper.

I best go practice contrite expressions in front of my bathroom mirror.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

You Can Take the Boy Out of Texas, But You Can't Take Texas Out of the Boy

My Sweet Baby James will marry the Amazing Emily the week before Christmas in Texas.

Yes, I'm thrilled. We all fell in love with Emily when she visited Japan with James last year. She brings out the best in my boy and what mother isn't secretly relieved when her son falls in love with a girl with her own looks (beautiful) and personality (witty, bright, and confident). But please don't point out the similarities to James until after the wedding lest he get cold feet . . .

All the bridesmaids hail from Texas. The groom's sister hasn't lived there since she was nine, however, so she's likely the only member of the wedding party who will be wearing her first pair of cowboy boots when she prances down the aisle. Fortunately she has a fashionable Texan friend to advise her on the subtle nuances of dressy v. casual rodeo footwear. (I used to know this stuff but it's been a few years since I two-stepped around the dance floor at Billy Bob's in Fort Worth.)

The ripple effects of Royal Weddings are fairly well known -- Diana's hairdo and Kate's hosiery, for instance -- but those occurred after the actual ceremonies. The stylish Emily and James are trend-setters of a higher order. Fashionable young girls are already sporting cowboy boots on the streets of Kamakura.

Now if only I could figure out what to wear.  

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Kimono Exhibition with Friends

A year ago this past May Matsuzaki-san took the Shonan Ladies to a kimono artist's studio on a Kamakura hilltop. That artist was Mitsuo Haruki and his works are currently on display in an ancient gallery in Kita-Kamakura. When Matsuzaki-san proposed visiting the exhibition today, how could I possibly say no?

My Norfolk neighbors probably couldn't pick me out in a police lineup, but Haruki-san's charming wife remembered me from our previous meeting. Being the oldest American woman in Japan -- by a landslide -- is a blessing and a curse but today I counted it a blessing and endeavored to comport myself in a somewhat dignified fashion. I even asked permission before snapping pictures. What I'm sharing here, the pictures I've spent the past three hours coaxing from my computer into this post, is just the tip of the iceberg.

The kimono featured in my May 22, 2010 post

Three old houses were connected sometime in the past to form the exhibit gallery. The building alone was worth the train fare if you are fond of ancient beams and charming courtyard gardens. I certainly am.

The first floor was devoted to Haruki-san's work - his preliminary sketches and kimono in various stages of completion -- while upstairs we found children's antique kimono, some more than a century old, lavish obis, and ornate dolls. The wall spaces not filled with kimono and obis held framed squares of Haruki-san's yuzen-dyed fabric.

Child's kimono from Taijo Era (1912-1926)

The antique kimono were displayed behind glass as were the obis. My favorite child's obi was this simple purple one from the late Meiji or early Taisho period; my apologies for the reflection in the glass.

This kimono began as a bolt of white silk
Detail of narcissis on right sleeve

One of the American Shonan Ladies interviewed Haruki-san shortly after we met him in May 2010. Her interesting article appeared in the Stars and Stripes. You can read it by clicking here.

Haruki-san and Fearless
The congenial artist draped pieces of his art across the shoulders of Fearless and Artistic but ignored my shoulders and looped an exquisite length of turquoise silk around my neck instead. Maybe he was tempted to choke me. I can think of worse ways to die.

Fearless doesn't mind having her picture taken. We're going to have to drag her along on more outings this year.

The obis were incredible. My favorite -- not this orange one -- was reversible with a traditional Japanese bridge and cherry blossoms on one side and cheerful contemporary patterns on the other.

Not my favorite, but you're getting warmer.
Here we go!  This is Side A.
Here's a tiny glimpse of Side B.

This is part of one of the staircases connecting one old house to another. Old wood speaks to me but I'm not sure what it's saying. (Here is where my mother, who was justifiably fond of her old oak staircase, would pipe up, "Please wipe me with Murphy's Soap!")

This is a closet door.  Excuse my drool.
The artist surrounded by his adoring fans
What a wonderful day in a long, long string of wonderful days.  I treasure every moment of these marvelous adventures with my American and Japanese friends.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Mukojima Hyakkaen Gardens: The Hagi Tunnel

Mukojima Hyakkaen, the only surviving flower garden from the Edo Period, is pleasantly natural and features flowers and plants mentioned in classic Chinese and Japanese works of literature.  The 29 stone monuments scattered around the garden looked something like Stations of the Cross to me but each is dedicated to a famous Japanese literary figure of the past.

My Flower Lover's Guide to Tokyo recommends this garden as a good place to see hagi or bush clover blooming in late September.  The main attraction this time of year is a hagi-covered bamboo tunnel about thirty meters long but on evenings in late August the City of Tokyo hosts gatherings to listen to crickets and other insects released throughout the grounds.  I'm not terribly sorry I missed that event.

The tunnel of bush clover

As thankful as I am that Artistic Explorer has finally returned to Japan to explore some more gardens with me, she is no more comfortable in front of a camera than I am. This makes no sense because she is attractive by every measure but, desperate as I am for pleasant companionship, I am compelled to accede to her wishes and stalk total strangers to provide you with "people pictures". I hid behind a bush to capture this interesting couple for you. Doesn't he look comfy?

His cap intrigues me, mainly because I had to postpone my hair appointment until next week to visit this garden today.  Sometime in the next day or two I'm going to have to cover my head with a cap like that.

This is the next thing I'm going to try to make
While I was busy searching for human subjects, Artistic spotted a water feature similar to but simpler than the one we discovered at a plum garden in the spring of 2010. You fill the ladle with water from the pot on the right then pour the water over the stones on top of the pot on the left with your ear against that bamboo pole to hear the water sing.

Here's the best part: Since we are foreigners, we are not expected to be as well-mannered as native Japanese visitors to the garden. So we blithely lifted the bowl of stones off the top of the pot and discovered how simple it will be to create one of these singing water features in our own Virginia gardens.

We just have to figure out how to drill a hole for a bamboo stick in a ceramic pot.

I'm counting on one of you to come up with a quick answer so I don't have to fritter away a few hours googling "ceramic" "drill" and "hole".

Thanks in advance.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Let the Fun Begin

Typhoon Roke roared across Japan just three days after I returned from settling College Boy in his new digs in Bellingham, Washington. The Ancient Mariner's aloha shirt was drenched by the time he wrestled his luggage through our front gate and into the back seat of the car while I gripped my umbrella in both hands and floated after him a la Mary Poppins. I drove him to the pier where he got soaked all over again transferring his luggage to the "official" vehicle that took him to the airport from whence he jetted off to meetings in Hawaii and San Diego. He was one of the fortunate few who actually managed to fly out of Japan that day.

That's pretty much all I can tell you about Typhoon Roke since, after changing into dry clothes, I stretched out on the couch with a book and promptly fell asleep. When I woke up eight hours later, a bit after midnight, the winds were starting to die down. Ah, the joys of jet lag.

But I'm back on Japan Time now and geared up to savor our fifth and final year in our host country. Just a few hours before Typhoon Roke arrived, I moseyed over to the Yokosuka Officer Spouses' Club welcome coffee at the Officers' Club where I saw a clutch of bright-eyed newcomers lining up to join the Japanese and American Wives' Club and Ikebana.

It's going to be a fun year. The Ancient Mariner will be around a bit this fall while the ship is under repair and we'll squeeze in a few adventures. Artistic is finally back from her tsunami evacuation and Fearless swears we're going to see the last two major gardens on our bucket list before we all depart Japan next summer.

Whenever I manage to nab a seat on a train, I'll pull out my knitting. Hats are my new favorite thing and I am indebted to College Boy for commissioning the ear flap hat that got me started. The Blonde Wonder is sporting my second creation at left; I still haven't quite grasped sizing but I'm making progress. Berets are fun because I can read a book on my Kindle while knitting them. But I also like ribbed stocking caps because I can time a Hail Mary to correspond with two knits and two purls, lending a whole new meaning to the term "prayer caps".

Two garden outings are on the agenda this week. Stay tuned.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Buzzing Off

You won't be hearing from me for a couple of weeks. After a four-day reunion with the Ancient Mariner, College Boy and I are jetting to the United States today. We'll be spending about ten days in Minneapolis where the Blonde Wonder is about halfway through a two-month assignment at the HUD branch office. While she's at work and College Boy is sawing logs, I'll be exploring the umpteen yarn and fabric shops in the area. Because, gosh, I sure do need more fabric and yarn.

Brother #3 and his lovely bride will rendezvous with us in Minneapolis and we'll take turns buying each other rounds and calling them belated birthday gifts. After I sober up, College Boy and I will try to find Bellingham, Washington and the student rental house for which we've been paying since August 1. Frankly, I think the kid should just stay in Japan this year and attend the University of Maryland extension, but he has pragmatically pointed out that he'll have to return to the United States for college next year so he might as well get it over with now.

Before I catch the shuttle to the airport, I want to show you how professional Japanese gardeners protect themselves from mosquitoes. The day I took these pictures the thermostat hit 95 degrees Fahrenheit.  Note that the gardeners are not showing much flesh.  They are wearing more clothes than my sister dons in the middle of a Michigan winter.

"Why are they wearing hole-y little pans on their hips?" I asked Ishii-san. "Is that smoke coming out of those holes?"

Ishii-san asked them if I could take a picture. When they saw how much those pans intrigued me, they offered to reveal the mosquito repellent coils smoldering inside.

How clever is that? I was thinking I'd buy a new pair of walking shoes in Minneapolis, but now I've decided to invest that money in a Japanese mosquito repellent pan when I get back here.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

An Art Deco Fairy Tale: The Teien Museum nee Asaka Family Residence

Once upon a time, in 1910 in other words, there was a prince named Yasuhiko Asaka who married the eighth daughter of Emperor Meiji. Her name was Princess Nobuko. The emperor granted them 33,000 square meters of imperial land in Shirokanedai in 1921. Not the most timely of wedding gifts, but nevertheless surely much appreciated.

The prince went off to France to study military affairs in 1922 and was forced to extend his stay when he was involved in a car accident the following spring. His devoted wife rushed to Paris to nurse him back to health. It was a long convalescence that just happened to coincide with the golden age of art deco in France. The prince felt well enough to attend the Art Deco Exposition in Paris on July 9, 1925 with Princess Nobuko at his side. Alas, his boss must have seen their picture in the newspaper as they were called back to Japan before the end of the year.

They decided to build a house incorporating the best of the art deco styles on their land in Shirokanedai.  The house was completed in 1933.  Sadly, Princess Nobuko passed away that November but the house continued to serve as the Asaka Family residence until the end of World War II.  Prince Yasuhiko renounced his membership in the imperial family when the new constitution was adopted.  (This was the constitution that cut married princesses out of the imperial family.  Most people call it a constitution, but I think of it as "MacArthur's Misogyny".  One wonders if this was his response to being spurned by a princess or two.)

Ishii-san at Asaka Residence
Once the Asaka Family vacated the premises, the house was put to various uses. Sometimes it was the official residence of the prime minister or foreign minister, and it was once used as the state guesthouse. Half of a century after its completion, on October 1, 1983, it became the Teien (Garden) Museum. The museum's concept proposed a new form of art appreciation, where art and the space in which the art is displayed complement each other.

Ishii-san and I skipped the exhibit -- Glasses Admired by the Russian Tsars -- and toured the garden instead but I hope to return for the Art Deco exhibit this October.  

The garden itself is no great shakes by Japanese garden standards but the vast lawn is sprinkled with a half dozen or more interesting and whimsical sculptures.

I did not see a single lotus plant.  That was something of a relief.

Chairs are scattered around the vast lawn behind the house.

Ishii-san is always such a good sport!

A lovely Japanese-style garden takes up about a third of the space

Cafe Kanetanaka at the entrance to the museum grounds serves small portion lunches, priced accordingly, meaning you can easily rationalize ordering dessert from both quantity and cost perspectives. I, of course, can easily rationalize ordering dessert from any perspective.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Dragonflies and Natural Habitats: Another Adventure with Ishii-san

Ishii-san was something of a homebody when we first met four years ago. Our relationship has been mutually beneficial, or at least that's what I tell myself. She's made me less fearful about nature and I've made her less fearful about venturing more than ten miles from home. A year ago she waved off any and all suggestions that would take us beyond Yokohama and now she is willing to go exploring in the far reaches of Tokyo. I can't take all the credit, of course. She's a grandmother now and the fact that little Misato resides in Tokyo is what we call "powerful motivation".

A few weeks ago we zipped up to South Tokyo to check out the Institute of Nature Study, a branch of the National Museum of Nature and Science. This 200,000 square meter natural habitat has been left undisturbed for over sixty years so it offers a glimpse of what Tokyo might look like if people didn't live there.

Ishii-san snagged me a brochure printed in English which I'll pass along to my home-schooling pals to help them plan a field trip. (I have a surprising number of home-schooling friends and acquaintances these days because they tend to be knitters, at least in this part of the world. They also tend to be quite brainy, droll, and witty which is one of the main reasons I skip happily off to the coffee shop with yarn in hand on Monday and Thursday evenings.)

The nature stuff in the brochure didn't interest me all that much but the history section is worth repeating to jog my memory when my kids put me in a nursing home and present me with this blog in book form (hint, hint).

Nearly 600 years ago this piece of land belonged to the district lord, Shirokane Choja, who built a house and surrounded it with earthworks that can still be seen today. Lord Matsudaira took over the property during the Edo Period, after 1664, and created a garden with ponds. Two hundred years later, during the Meiji Era, the navy and army built warehouses here to store gunpowder but the land reverted to residential use in 1917 when it became an Imperial estate called Shirokane goryochi. The natural environment has been conserved since then and the area was designated as a national monument and historic site in 1949.

We checked out the exhibits in the Visitor Hall before exploring the grounds.  Half of the exhibit area was devoted to dragonflies which I find about as frightening as butterflies, ie, very.  All that erratic flitting is what I find disturbing.  Dragonflies are quite benign when they are pinned down in glass cases or captured in magnified photographs.

I would not care to meet the big one on the right in the wild.

Who knew they climb out of hard cases like cicadas?  Not me.

A natural habitat in Tokyo after more than 60 years

The Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum, housed in the Art Deco mansion built by Prince Asaka in 1933, is right next door to the Institute for Nature Study. We decided to check out that garden while we were in the area and have lunch in the museum cafe. Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Distracted by Lotus Blossoms: How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Pardon my absence, please. I've spent the summer gazing at lotus blossoms while pondering priorities for my last year in Japan.

The first sighting was at Koishikawa Korakuen, a lovely Tokyo garden the Yokosuka Officers Spouses' Club visited in late July with a few of our Japanese friends in tow.  The day was slightly overcast which was good since apparently lotus flowers clam up when the sun comes out.

There's lots to see at this garden so I hope to get back there when the maples turn later this fall.

The very next day Ishii-san and I visited the Ofuna Botanical Garden where we found lotus blooming in a shallow pond ringed by a path that let us get up close and personal with the plants.

seed pod on July 28
Ishii-san taught science to junior high students in her heyday so strolling with her is always enlightening. When she isn't pulling cicada shells off walls and trees, she's pointing out things like lotus seed pods which I would otherwise tend to ignore while concentrating on the flowers.

seed pod on Aug 6
A week later, when I introduced Shinagawa-san to the botanical garden, those seed pods looked quite different. The pod was drying and pulling away from the seeds which had started to turn from green to purple.

People in this part of the world eat those seeds raw and use them in soups. After the seeds are removed from the pods, dried pods are used in flower arrangements. Sometimes people fill the holes in dried pods with colorful little balls of fabric. That's something I'd like to try.

Shinagawa-san is dwarfed by the tall lotus plants

Shinagawa-san and I visited the garden on a bright, sunny day so we had to poke our heads under the leaves to see most of the flowers that were blooming defiantly.

Just when I thought I'd seen all the lotus blossoms Japan had to offer, Kyoko-san lured me to Kamakura with promises of waffles and coffee. I was making a beeline from the train station to the waffle shop when she grabbed my elbow and dragged me to the lotus ponds in front of Hachimangu Shrine. I'd be the last person on earth to complain about bossy friends.


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