Thursday, March 26, 2015


It was close! Our plane back to the US was to leave on the evening of March 25 and reports were that the cherry blossoms might begin to bloom in Tokyo at about that time. So, we took the train north on the 24th to be able to run into Tokyo on the day of our departure. We relied on what we learned online, rather than from the desk clerk at our Narita hotel ("no, that's not until April") and headed for Ueno Park where the cherry trees tend to bloom a day or two earlier than in other areas of Tokyo.
We were rewarded with lovely blooms on a number of mature trees at Ueno. We had seen the first blossoms on 3 varieties of small trees in a neighborhood park in Hirikata, but it takes a mature tree for a grand display.
The city is well prepared for people enjoying hanami or flower viewing. Areas are cordoned off to set up viewing parties and trash collection is exceptionally well organized. The crowds when the trees are at their peak must be as amazing to see as the trees!
Here, the sponsors get prominent billing for supporting the sakura (cherry tree) festival.
We didn't remember seeing this Starbucks right in Ueno Park the last time we were here in November 2013. They were doing a wonderful business selling coffee and sakura cake!
We also ventured over to Shinjuku to visit a park we hadn't seen during our last visit to Tokyo - Shinjuku Gyoen - known as one of Tokyo's most beautiful parks and the best place in the country to view cherry blossoms. Unfortunately, we were a little too early for a good display.
Although it is never too early to appreciate the beautiful blossoms people look forward to each year and there is a new park for us to explore the next time we're in Tokyo. With that, it was a train ride back to Narita and the long journey home.

A Writing Lesson

Learning to read and write Japanese is a far more daunting task than learning to read and write a Western language. For one thing, there are multiple systems of syllables and of characters to be learned, including kanji or the idea based writing system adapted from Chinese characters.

Here, Kyle has rendered "ocean" - a component of the meaning/sound combination he has developed to render an approximation of "Kyle" as a given name in the Japanese environment.
We were invited to join him for his calligraphy lesson, expecting that we would sit in the background as observers. Instead, the couple who are the other students in his class had generously provided us with materials and given us their instruction time to teach us the rudiments of writing kanji with traditional calligraphy tools. They are learning to write the kanji in an older style that is used traditionally for poetry. Their teacher's granddaughter also joined us.
The evening's lesson was to work on writing "momo" or "peach" (coincidentally our dog's name). Comparing notes later, we had both reacted with some unspoken initial consternation because we knew how to write "momo" and this wasn't it! Naturally, we knew how to write "momo" with hirigana and this was kanji. Oh well.
We got off to a rough start until some of the elements began to come together. The brush must be held perpendicular, not like a pen or pencil, and it must be held somewhat loosely to enable a relaxed and free stroke. And, one must push the brush into the paper, rather than dab at it. In the photos, none of us are really doing it correctly. Despite our reluctance to try it, we had fun and developed a bit of confidence, helped along by a little translation here and a few words in English or French there. It's surprising how little language is needed, when it comes down to it.
It was also surprising how individualized and expressive each person's take on momo could be, how each writing of the word captured a slightly different sensibility that all of us could admire.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


It was Ai's Saturday off of work and so she was able to join us for a weekend trip to Kanazawa, along with her mother Etsuko-san. The train north goes alongside Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan, and through the mountains. It's a city with sprinklers on the main roads to wash away the significant snow falls of winter and a local saying that "even if you forget your lunchbox, don't forget your umbrella." We were, in fact, quite lucky because rain had been predicted, but we had none.

Kanazawa is a beautiful city with a well-preserved Edo era heritage, such as Kenrokuen or the Garden of Six Attributes in the heart of the city. Kenrokuen is often cited as one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan.

Etsuko-san's brother, Osamu-san, lives outside of Kanazawa in their hometown of Komatsu. We all enjoyed spending time with him over the weekend and appreciated his driving us around the city.

Kanazawa Castle is across the road from the Garden. Ishikawa Gate is one of the few remaining original buildings from its 400+ year history.

On the other hand, the Myoryugi Temple or "Ninja" Temple is very well preserved and a hot tourist destination where reservations are required for no-cameras tours by fast-talking (Japanese only) guides who move groups along on the hour-long tours at an impressive pace. That said, seeing the temple was well worth it. It appears to be a two-story building from the outside, but is actually four stories in seven layers. It's an ingeniously constructed wooden defensive bastion with secret rooms, hidden passageways, traps, and stairs through which to spear intruders (23 rooms, 29 staircases), besides being a continuously functioning place of worship.

It seems that everywhere we go in Japan is well-known for its food, especially seafood. Kanazawa is no exception, being on the sea and tucked up close to mountains (as is most of the country). We loved this fish egg lady in the fish market.
The oysters were enormous. If anything, the photo minimizes the size. The oyster itself in the ones pictured is easily 5 times as big as a good sized oyster on Cape Cod.
And, Kyle accepted the challenge.
We were pleased with lunch, whether Ai's raw shrimp (garnished with some of the gold for which Kanazawa is known) . . .

. . . or the dish of soba or udon most of us enjoyed that you cook and assemble yourself.

We started out Sunday morning by taking koto lessons Kyle had called to arrange. The simple song of Sakura was mastered only by Amanda. Jim was especially thrown by the notation being in kanji, reading the music vertically from right to left, and the lower notes being further away from the player - at least, that's his excuse (and he's sticking with it).
Sunday afternoon, before catching the train back to Kyoto, we strolled through the old entertainment district where tea houses with geishas have been almost entirely replaced by sweets shops and other stores more geared to the modern entertainment of sightseeing. However, take a look at the white van in the background of the middle picture. Amanda spotted a maiko (apprentice geisha) walking to the van and joining two other women inside. This was a rare spotting, as kimono-wearing by women is relatively common, but seeing a geisha or one of their apprentices on the street is certainly not.

In putting together this posting, we saw that we'd neglected to take a photo of the Kanazawa train station and so shamelessly poached this one off of the Internet. The public architecture, especially of train stations, is very nice indeed. In addition to this monumental tori, Kanazawa has a fountain in front of the station that spouts water to indicate the time and spell out messages. It's a lot of fun and, of course, we were once again a little sad to leave yet another city. Add Kanazawa to the list of those worthy of a return visit. The numbers of foreign visitors, by the way, are likely to increase significantly because Shinkansen service to the city from Tokyo was just begun during our visit to Japan and Kanazawa seems to be the new "hot" destination.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Deterred by Fog & Rain

Naoshima will have to wait for another trip due to another foggy morning. There will always be things that are not quite complete and a visit to Naoshima and the other nearby small islands is a good reason to pay a return visit to Takamatsu and Shikoku. Wanting to stay a bit more dry than our day in Kotohira, we made for Japan's largest wax museum - Takamatsu Heike Monogatari Wax Museum.

A wide variety of personalities are showcased, such as an important 9th century priest, a manga artist and a jazz singer.

But, the real draw of the museum is a series of dioramas dramatizing the rise and fall of the Heike clan in the 12th century, including depictions of the war between the Heike and and Genji clans. The key battle of the Gempei war was fought nearby, not far from the the Shikoku-mura we visited in Yashima. This photo doesn't do justice to the posing of the diorama of samurais charging down a hill.

We were grateful for extensive signage in English all through the museum.
Nara was burned and 3500 people killed in a battle at Nara because the monks had assisted the Genji.
When the rain stopped, we made for Takamatsu Castle, built in 1587 and a short walk from our hotel.
It is one of three castles right on the Sea of Japan . . .
. . . and its moats are fed from the sea.
Sayabachi or Saya Bridge is one of the bridges allowing access to the central part of the castle.
In the park inside the castle there were a few wire baskets where one might expect to see trash receptacles. There were no trash receptacles, but the grounds were immaculate and the baskets were filled with the pine cones you would expect to see littering the ground. The Japanese aesthetic emphasizes wabi sabi or the sense of the flawed beauty of natural simplicity. One Western writer has noted that it "nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect." However, acknowledging that nothing is perfect isn't the same as not striving for perfection in how life is organized and lived.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A Climb, a Shrine & Kabuki

Once again we were fogged out of Naoshima, so we took the train out to the town of Kotohira to investigate a popular shrine and an old Kabuki theater.
We followed the flow of pedestrians from the train station towards Kompira san or Kotohira-gu, the most popular Shinto shrine on Shikoku and said to have one of the most "difficult" approaches.
We should have taken the hint when we saw the men with the "kago" or litter for hire to carry people up the mountain.
The beginning of the climb merits some consultation.
Jim naively thought this must be our destination.
After all, other climbers were beginning to show signs of effort.
But, no, on we climbed.
Any chance to stop and take a picture was welcomed by everyone.

For some reason, there seemed to be elderly horses being taken care of at the shrine.

We felt the Asahi-sha was the most interesting building architecturally (if that's a word).

The shrine is supported by people purchasing various fortunes or amulets.
Kompira san was founded in the 11th century and for centuries served as both Shinto shrine and Buddhist temple. When at the beginning of the Meiji period the government ordered a separation of the two religions, it became a shrine. However, it retains suggestions of both.

Another excuse to breath - this one a mythical creature.

Then upward. A total of 1,368 stone steps.

"Only" 785 steps to the main hall.

Kompira originated as a Hindu deity and found its way to Japan by way of China. Kompira is the protector of sailors, fishermen and all others who make a living from the sea (so there is a minisub here under cover).
We continued upward.
And upward.
Finally, as it began to rain, Kyle continued on his own . . .
. . . finding that at the top one can never reach the summit.
Kanamaruza, Japan's oldest surviving and operating kabuki theater, was built in 1835. The names of the actors are featured on the white lanterns.
The actors enter the theater on this walkway . . .
. . . or are lifted up through this trapdoor by their colleagues . . .
. . . or through this one, also used for quick changes.

The percussion musicians are shielded from the audience.

Backstage . . .

. . . and under the stage the machinery is all there. Here is the turntable mechanism that can be used to rotate a large section of the main stage.

The contraption above the walkway is used for flying scenes. They're all ready for the next performance. The man at the ticket booth handed Kyle a flyer on our way out.

On the way back to the station, we stopped off for a sweet potato soft serve ice cream as a reward for a strenuous day.