A Visit to the Old Japan
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.
Cherry trees in full blossom along Path of Philosophers, Kyoto. Lots of locals and visitors were out enjoying them. (Photo: J. Hardin)
Enormous old pink weeping cherry trees at Saiho-ji Temple (Moss Temple) in Kyoto – like pink lace overhead. We also got to practice calligraphy by copying a Zen Buddhist sutra at the temple, which originated in the 6th century and was re-established in 1339. 120 kinds of moss grow in the extensive and beautiful garden. (Photo: J. Hardin)
Cherry trees along a canal parallel to Reisen-dori, just past the hydroelectric power plant’s dam & shortly before Kawabati-dori, Kyoto (Photo: J. Hardin)
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.
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.
Part of a kimono show at the Nishijin Textile Center.
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.
WAGASHI-MAKING LESSON 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.
How ours were supposed to turn out – recognizable as cherry blossoms. SESAME TOFU 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
The famous rock garden at the Zen Buddhist Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto. The garden was designed so that from any vantage point, at least one of the 15 rocks is hidden from the viewer. It is said that a truly enlightened person can see all 15 at the same time.
Hand of Buddha at the 320-year-old Hall of the Great Buddha, Todaiji Temple in Nara. Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan (710-784).
Persimmon Leaf Sushi – a specialty in Nara. Slices of cured fish are placed on top of sushi rice in a wooden mold and pressed. The block of sushi is cut into rectangular pieces and each piece is neatly wrapped in a persimmon leaf.
Sika deer outside Todaiji Temple, Nara. They’ve apparently inflicted damage on visitors. See the warning sign toward the end of this post. 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.
SHIKOKU ISLAND 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.
The Seto Inland Sea, the large body of water separating Japan’s large islands of Honshū, Shikoku & Kyūshū and linking the Pacific Ocean to the Sea of Japan.