Monday, October 31, 2011

An Artist at Work: The Umbrella-Maker of Kanazawa

Ah, November. National Novel Writing Month is upon us so once again one of us is hard at work on a novel, a sequel no less, while the other is trying to shake off writer's block by exploring Japan and spending nine hours a day mindlessly smashing sparkly little gems in a thus far vain effort to get within one hundred thousand points of her little sister's score.

The good news is that the one of us working on a novel has received a nibble from an agent who might be interested in the book he wrote during National Novel Writing Month last year, a military thriller-romance set on the USS Blue Ridge. (So far I've only made it through the first sixteen chapters. His constant refrain these days is "It's fiction!" especially when I start wondering where he came up with all these ideas about romance aboard a Navy flagship.)

The bad news is that two weeks' worth of photographs and memories have been placed on the back burner. I haven't finished sharing the highpoints of the trip to Kanazawa and I haven't even started to tell you about our trip to Nikko or the flower exhibition in Tokyo or the Yokohama Quilt Festival. We've already made gingerbread houses and frosted Christmas cookies with the Japanese military spouses and we've made plans to spend the Thanksgiving weekend in Hakone and Tokyo. Assuming I can tear myself away from Bejeweled Blitz for four days . . .

What should I write about today? Since visiting the workshop of the last remaining traditional umbrella maker in Kanazawa was one of the highpoints of that trip for me, I'd like to unfurl a few for you.

A wagasa is a Japanese traditional umbrella consisting of washi (Japanese paper) with a bamboo handle and ribs.  If you have ever sipped a mai tai or similar frothy alcoholic beverage, you are familiar with the miniature versions of these umbrellas.  Nowadays the Japanese favor our much less expensive Western-style unbrellas for daily use, but wagasa are still used for traditional Japanese tea ceremonies and dance.

Because it rains and snows a lot in Kanazawa, their wagasa is famously strong.  Four layers of Japanese paper are painstakingly pasted to the central part of the umbrella.  Another characteristic of Kanazawa wagasa is its splendid color.

Hiroshi Matsuda has been making wagasa for 75 years. He started working in his father's umbrella shop when he was twelve years old. Yes, he is as happy and adorable in person as he looks in the picture above. If you want to know a little more about Matsuda-sama, click here.

Many of his umbrellas feature real leaves, clover and such, pasted between the layers of washi paper (see left).

Simply glimpsing Matsuda hard at work would have been enough of a treat, but Fearless and I also had the pleasure of watching Matsuzaki-san talk Matsuda-sama into selling her an umbrella.  They engaged in some serious flirting and she took pouting to a new level before waltzing out of the shop with a purple number that set her back a mere 35,000 yen (roughly $400).

Fearless and I were invited to select smaller souvenir-size umbrellas, about eight inches high, while Matsuda-sama wrapped the purple umbrella.

Peevish performs "The Flower Drum Song"

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Kanazawa: Bus Riding for Dummies

The easiest way to get around in Kanazawa is by bus and on foot. Unlike most Japanese "castle towns", here the town grew up around the castle rather than off to one side. Once you get to the castle, you're in the center of town and can walk easily to the other interesting historical areas.

My hometown bus system, with four routes connecting each quadrant of the compass, is the only one I've ever managed to master so I've pretty much avoided buses since pocketing my first driver's license in 1968. I want to ride buses. I think they're a great idea but, at the risk of sounding like a complete moron, they are just too complicated for me. The "how much" and "how to" pay the fare questions are bigger stumbling blocks for me than "which route". Getting on the wrong bus might lead to an adventure but fears of being chastised by a driver for incorrect change or enduring mutters or sighs, real or imagined, from passengers behind me in line have turned me into a long-distance walker.

If I wasn't traveling with Fearless and Matsuzaki-san, I would have walked from the hotel to the castle and missed out on a wonderful transportation experience.

There are several bus routes that pass the castle and garden, but the Loop bus is easiest for visitors. It costs 200 yen to ride the Loop bus but we each bought a day pass for 500 yen at the information center outside the train station. The pass looked like a scratch-off lottery card.  I saved mine because the month and day scratched off happen to be my father's birthday.  

About two dozen very cheerful schoolchildren boarded the bus with us. (Speaking of Kanazawa schoolchildren, the Ancient Mariner will be interested to learn that one of his favorite ballplayers, Hideki Matsui, grew up in this area and is the most famous graduate of the local high school.)

Now we're getting to the part I hope you'll share with your friends who work for the US Department of Transportation or any urban planners you happen to know.

Upon exiting the bus near an entrance to Kenrokuen, we noticed an electronic map on the wall of the bus shelter. The map showed the locations of the four Loop buses.

Our red bus had just let us off at Stop #9.

We stood there for a few minutes, watching our bus progress to Stop #10 and then on toward Stop #11.

This is the first technological innovation since Amazon's Kindle to make my jaw drop.

Please tell those urban planners to insert fare information at the bottom of the screen. I'd appreciate that.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Kenrokuen: Japan's Grandest Landscape Garden

An old Kanazawa proverb says "Forgetting your lunch box is inconvenient; forgetting your umbrella is disastrous." Kanazawa and Valdivia (in Chile) share the distinction of being the wettest extra-tropical cities of their size or greater in the world so we were not surprised to feel raindrops the morning we visited Kenrokuen. Rain or shine, the garden is breathtaking.

At 25 acres, Kenrokuen is the largest of the three great landscape gardens in Japan. Kenrokuen translates as "a refined garden incorporating six attributes" which, according to my guidebook, are spaciousness, careful arrangement, seclusion, antiquity, elaborate use of water, and scenic charm.

Matsuzaki-san points to the oldest fountain in Japan
The Maeda lords, at one time the second most powerful family in Japan after the Tokugawa Clan, spent about 150 years creating this garden outside their castle. Construction began in the 1670s during the rule of the fifth lord and what we see today was finished by the twelfth lord in 1822. The garden was not opened to the public until after the Meiji Restoration almost fifty years later.

I have 47 more pictures of this bird if you are interested
The waterfall pre-dates our Declaration of Independence by two years.

Hisagoike Pond, where the garden originated

There were more babbling brooks than I could count. Not many flowers are blooming at this time of year but the leaves on the trees were just starting to turn red, orange, and yellow. This garden is more about trees and shrubs than flowers anyway and could easily have served as inspiration to Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape designer responsible for Central Park in New York City and the grounds surrounding the Biltmore mansion near Asheville, North Carolina.

A bamboo bar prohibited us from crossing a bridge spanning one of the brooks. "What's that thing in the middle of the bridge?" we wondered.

A stone wrapped in twine. It surely means something but we are clueless. Hints from any of my Japanese friends who might be reading this would be greatly appreciated.

Fearless and Peevish with their friends outside Seisonkaku Villa

Of the many lovely stone lanterns tucked here and there in the garden, the most famous is the Kotojitoro on the edge of Kasumigaike Pond. We saw sweets in the gift shop decorated with the lantern's image and later spotted the distinctive design on manhole covers and metal railings around the city.

Here it is! Like everyone else who visits Kenrokuen, we must take at least a dozen photographs of Kotojitoro.

Two gardens down, one to go.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Kanazawa: A Gay Old Time

The young lady behind the desk at the base travel office was curious. To the best of her knowledge, this was the first time anyone had booked a trip to Kanazawa.

Fearless explained our quest to visit Japan's three great landscape gardens: Kairakuen in Mito, Korakuen in Okayama, and -- considered the grandest by some -- Kenrokuen in Kanazawa.

(We took a day trip to Mito during plum blossom time last February, fortuitous timing on our part since part of that garden was closed for repairs after the March 11 earthquake/tsunami. Next spring we'll get to Okayama if the planets and deployment schedule align properly.)

Kanazawa (literally, "marsh of gold") is in Ishikawa Prefecture, roughly in the center of the west coast along the Sea of Japan, about four hours by Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo.  Since it was the second largest city after Kyoto to escape fire bombing during World War II, many historical areas have been preserved.  We decided to spend two nights there so we'd have ample time to explore the garden and historical districts.  Three or four nights would have been even better.

We booked two rooms at the Dormy Hotel, just down the street from the train station and central bus depot.  Matsuzaki-san wanted a single room; Fearless and I shared a double room.  Much to our surprise, the rooms were identical.  Each featured one (1) double bed.  Eek!  Fearless politely hugged the left side and I teetered on the edge near the window, praying I would not snore or accidentally brush her foot with mine.

We've decided to splurge on single rooms when we go to Okayama next spring.    

Matsuzaki-san and Fearless in Higashi Chaya
It was late afternoon when our train reached Kanazawa so we had time to explore Higashi Chaya, one of the city's two preserved and still semi-functioning geisha districts.  The second floors in this district are taller than other Japanese houses of the period because that's where the the geishas entertained their patrons.  Many of the old wooden tea houses have been converted to shops, much to my companions' delight.

Matsuzaki-san is a multi-tasker.  As she examined the wares offered, she asked each shopkeeper for restaurant recommendations.  Toro, on the bank of the nearby Asano River, was mentioned three times so that's where we went.  We didn't think to ask about the menu options until the hostess had seated us in a private room on short-legged chairs she had dragged out to accommodate those of us unaccustomed to kneeling through a meal.

Raw ingredients for Nabe (Japanese stew)

Toro specializes in (ie, "serves nothing but") nabe, a vegetable stew popular in Japan during the fall and winter months. There are places that offer beef and/or chicken nabe but Toro serves the fish variety.

Our hostess placed a large pot of broth on a heating element in the center of the table and then carried a large platter of seafood and vegetables into the room. Fearless and I made nervous eye contact when we spotted the mountains of mushrooms. Not liking mushrooms is something we have in common (besides that bed at the Dormy Hotel). We decided to share a bottle of sake. It was a good decision.

Those round green things that look something like olives are produced by Ginkgo trees.  If you want to know how they taste, you'll have to visit the restaurant yourself.

First of three helpings of Nabe

The hostess did not simply dump the raw ingredients into the boiling broth. She carefully selected various vegetables and fish parts to concoct our first helping. While we were swallowing that, she whipped up an oyster version and so on until we had tasted three different stews. She cooked enough nabe to satisfy a half dozen sumo wrestlers.

Restaurant owner thanks us for stopping by

There were two ceramic pots on table that looked like miniature chamber pots. We were supposed to deposit fish bones and other refuse in them but managed to stuff a few mushrooms in as well when the hostess left the room to get us some water.

I did eat some mushrooms and, for the first time ever, chewed and swallowed a couple of oysters.

The sake helped. They brew their own. Ishikawa Prefecture is famous for tasty sake on account of its plentiful rice production and abundant rainfall.

Definitely one of the most memorable meals I've enjoyed in Japan. So far.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Every Party Has a Pooper, That's Why They Invited Me

They drizzled chocolate spider webs on caramel apples.

They pinned a tail on a black cat.

They munched on "Mummy Dogs" and something that looked like an insect but was fiber cereal coated in chocolate.

Robyn, Kay, Ouiser, and Misa

The four hostesses were costumed as a ghoul, diner waitress, and two blind mice. Yours truly was disguised as a taiko drummer although Big Bird mistook her for a tatami mat. Other than a pair of drumsticks pilfered from College Boy's bedroom, all the components of the drummer costume -- tabi shoes, skirt, hori jacket, and headband -- came out of my closet.

How did I come to possess the makings of a taiko drummer costume? What was I thinking? Heck if I can remember but I'm going to hang onto this stuff so my future grandchildren can play dress up on rainy days.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Iseyama Kotaijingu: A Nineteenth Century Antidote

Further up the hill from Enmei-en is Iseyama Kotaijingu, Yokohama's tutelary shrine.  Local residents visit this shrine in great numbers, especially at the New Year and for celebrations when children turn 3, 5, and 7 years of age.

I'll fill you in on the shrine's history as you trudge up those several flights of steps through three marble and one rustic torii with me.

When foreigners started arriving in Yokohama in the 1860s, one of the first things they did was build churches.  They also ate meat which was unheard of in this Buddhist area.  The local residents were surprised to see such changes in their area and feared the city would become polluted by foreign influences.  They wanted to build a shrine to serve as a talisman or counterweight to protect Yokohama from foreign ways.

The Meiji government approved their request.  The shrine was dedicated to the Sun Goddess when it was built in 1870.

The Kikkomen company apparently provides major financial support to the shrine. We can think of no other explanation for the large glass case displaying their products on the top of the hill.

Tutelary shrine means this is where the members of Yokohama Bay Stars, the city's professional baseball team, pray for a winning season.

Including the American players

After admiring a serene garden we were barred from entering, we headed downhill like a pair of bloodhounds and sniffed our way to Bubby's Pie Shop.

Yokohama residents are a bit more receptive to foreign pollution these days, at least when it comes in the form of pie.

Another satisfied customer. She ate a slice of Key Lime Pie while I wolfed down the same plus a wedge of Michigan Sour Cherry. She took four more pieces of pie home with her. She said she intended to share them with her husband and parents.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Enmei-en: A Cure for Whatever Ails You

On the far left side of the Enmei-en grounds -- we're still on that hilltop in the Noge neighborhood, people  -- hundreds of small Jizo statues are displayed in tiers.

Many of the statues have been lovingly swaddled in little outfits, some fashioned from wash cloths.  A few poignant gifts are scattered among the statues.  I spotted Mickey and Minnie cellphone charms, a small Winnie-the-Pooh, and a Guinness glass filled with what looked like water but might have been sake.

This place reminds me of a happy-ish cemetery or open-air mausoleum. Off to the right, a tall, stalwart Jizo supports two clinging and one suckling babe.

Some, not all, of the babies mourned here were aborted.  Whenever I visit a Jizo "cemetery", I remember the college history professor who forecast that centuries from now when US history in the 20th century is reduced to a single line in a textbook that sentence will probably mention abortion but not Watergate or the Vietnam War.  He called it "The Great Debate".  I cannot imagine having an abortion but I wish there were places like this back home where women who have had abortions could mourn their losses in peace. 

On our way back to the temple entrance, Ishii-san and I pass the Jizo where the elderly lady was ladling water on the babies' heads while praying.  Then, right in front of the entrance, we spot a statue that looks to me like it has lost a great deal of gilt to the elements.  This is because I am seeing the statue through Western eyes.   

Ishii-san explains that the statue is gaining gilt, not losing it. I can deposit 500 yen in the box and take a packet of gilt which I can apply to the statue with the brush provided. People apply the gilt to the part of the statue corresponding to the parts of their own bodies in need of a cure. We notice quite a buildup of gilt on the statue's knees, abdomen, kidneys, and ears.

This would make a great fundraiser for hospitals. Just place a statue in the lobby and see how fast those $5 bills pile up. Or how fast they disappear . . .

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Noge: A Slice of Old Yokohama

Verbosity tends to be a natural by-product of any adventure with Ishii-san.  She chooses such interesting places with tantalizing histories that I never come home without a hundred photographs or a hankering to research the heck out of what she's shown me.  Right now I have no idea how many posts today's outing to Yokohama's Noge neighborhood will demand but I know it will be more than two.

Our adventure started out as a simple quest for pie. Ishii-san wanted to visit that pie shop adjacent to Sakuragicho station where the Ancient Mariner, College Boy, and I infamously sampled five different wedges a few months back.  But we couldn't just make a beeline for dessert.  Absolutely not.  We were going to earn our pie wedges.

Sometimes I think Ishii-san might be my mother reincarnated.  Maybe that's why I'm so fond of her.

She decided we would visit the pie shop via Yokohama's most famous temple and most famous shrine.  We hopped off the express train in Kamiooka and dashed across the platform to a local train going in the same direction, toward central Yokohama.  Disembarking at Hinedoche station, just a few stops up the line, we started walking toward Landmark Tower.

Just when things were starting to look familiar -- "This is the same route Kaji-san took to the Yokohama Quilt Show last November, when I first saw the pie shop!" -- we turned left into a narrow lane and then left again into a slightly less narrow lane.  Straight ahead of us was Enmei-in, also called Narita-san Yokohama Temple since it's a sister temple of Chiba Prefecture's Narita Shinsoji Temple which is a major temple of the Buddhist Shingon sect.  Local residents call it Nogeyama Fudoson which I'm betting loosely translates to "at the top of Heart Attack Hill in Noge".

Ishii-san ponders the fork in the road

We could have marched straight up those cement steps to the temple but chose the scenic route through the door on the left instead.  The scenic route offers a staged ascent past fascinating lava outcroppings and scores of very old statues and tablets.  A great deal of red paint is in evidence, probably to make the inscriptions easier to read (assuming, of course, that one can read Japanese). 

The temple was originally built in 1870 in Ota-mura and was moved to its present hilltop location in 1893.  According to every description in English I managed to find, people visit this temple to ward off evils and bad omens and bring about better fortune and career promotions. The torii near the pond at the base of the hill  and the statues, especially the main statue - Fudomyoo -- are thought to be the main attractions.

Yet it was the Jizo statues that captured my attention and heart.  How is no one has mentioned them?  This Bosatsu, known in Japan as as O-Jizo-Sama or Jizo-san, is the patron of children, expectant mothers, firemen, travelers, pilgrims and aborted or miscarried babies.  I never expected to see a Jizo display to rival the one at Hase-dera in Kamakura but Enmei-in absolutely takes the prize.

An elderly woman chanted a prayer while ladling water over the stone heads of three infants clambering up this statue in an alcove decorated with colorful pinwheels. Ishii-san supposes the lady lost a baby. I feel so sad but I can't stop watching the woman. I want to pray with her. I want to know if she's praying for her child, grandchild, or great-grandchild.

We move along to the other small shrines arranged along the sidewalk in front of the temple and the elderly woman seems to be following us. She tosses a coin in the money box at each altar and says another prayer. She does not seem the least bit bothered by our presence.

One of the small shrines holds a display of six Jizo. Ishii-san tells me that each of these is assigned to one of the six realms of existence.  Buddhists believe that all living beings are born into one of these six realms and are doomed to death and rebirth in a recurring cycle unless they can break free from desire and attain enlightenment.  Jizo vowed to relieve the suffering souls in each realm and this is why they are often shown in groups of six (Roku Jizo).

The six realms, from worst to best, are:  hell, hungry ghosts, animals, bellicose demons, humans,and heavenly beings.

Worship of the Six Jiz┼Ź can be traced back to the 11th century in Japan, and specifically to the Shingon sect, but this grouping has no basis in Mahayana scripture or in the writings of Buddhist clergy.

Stay tuned for some of my favorite Jizo.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Recycled Kimono Sale: The Map

More than two dozen American women congregated in the Kanagawa Community Relations Center this morning for the Fiber Recycle Network's semi-annual sale of used kimono, obis, and textile scraps. When the first 100 shoppers were admitted to the sale room at 10:00 am, we attacked those racks and tables like a swarm of locusts. 

This will be my final post about the Recycled Kimono Sale since I can't think of a single (valid) reason to attend the next sale (April 25, 2012), the last one before I move back to the United States.  Here is some advice for those of you who hope to experience this event when/if you have the chance to visit or reside in Japan.

First and foremost, there are enough kimono and obis for everyone.  Don't worry if you can't get to the sale early enough to snag one of those first 100 admission tickets.  The nice volunteers hang new items on the racks almost as quickly as you can pull a kimono off a hanger and stuff it in the large clear plastic bag you were handed just before you entered the room.  Customers are admitted in groups of 25-50 at fifteen or thirty minute intervals.

How can you find out when the sale will be held?  The date is listed on the Fiber Recycle Network webpage which is in Japanese but numbers are numbers and dates are dates so just check the bottom right corner of the webpage for the date.  You should be able to go directly to that webpage by clicking on the headline of this post.

When do you need to leave Yokosuka if you want to get your hands on one of those first admission tickets?  We never failed to be among the first 100 in line when we departed the bus shelter just inside Womble Gate at 7:30 am and hopped on an express train a few minutes before 8:00.  The limited express (green) trains don't start running until 8:30 am so you'll have to settle for a "red" train which will get you to Yokohama Station around 8:45.

Follow the signs to the West Exit.  You will walk two short blocks to the Kanagawa Community Relations Center (in the upper right corner of the map below).

You are most welcome.

Inside the Center, you will line up four abreast (left) until shortly after 9:00 am when a volunteer hands you a sheet of paper with a number stapled to it. Please pardon the poor photograph; I rode up and down those escalators twice to capture the gestalt for you. Once again, you are most welcome.

With number in hand, you will have time to grab a cup of coffee and cinnamon roll at the Starbucks on the second floor of More's next to Yokohama Station.  Perhaps the Starbucks will have moved back inside the train station by the time you get here.  Be flexible, but make sure you are back in line, four abreast, by 9:50 am.

Paying for your treasures
My previous post includes photographs from inside the sale room but I don't think I've shared pictures of the check-out process before.  Once you've filled that big plastic bag, head for the end of the room opposite the entrance and a volunteer will help you empty your treasures into a laundry basket.  She will direct you to one of the four tables staffed by volunteers who will bag your purchases and write the total amount due on that little piece of paper containing your admission number.  (Don't throw away the big piece of paper until you have scanned it for and memorized the date of the next sale if you want to avoid checking the website.)

The cashiers are seated at the last table before the room's exit.

It is almost impossible to spend more than forty-five minutes inside the sale.  If you stuff your bag with the most expensive kimono, you might manage to spend $150.  I've filled a bag with a dozen children's kimono that cost me less than $50 and sometimes I've spent less than $20. 

Some Americans take rolling suitcases to the sale to make it easier to lug their purchases home on the train. The suitcases are not allowed inside the sale room; ask a volunteer to show you the nook where you can store your suitcases while you are shopping. I prefer to transport my treasures in bags like that big patchwork number Big Bird is sporting in the above photograph. A bag looks less greedy than a suitcase to me but it's really a matter of personal preference and how much you want to "fit in" with the locals.

P.S. Speaking of Big Bird, have I told you that one of her fantastic quilts has been deemed award-winning by the Yokohama Quilt Show people? We are so proud of her and will be at the award ceremony in force on November 10.


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