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Exploring Japan.

Shizuoka: Bamboo Babies and Tea


I went at night, a passenger in the back of an old camper. Outside was the void that countryside offers late travelers, the road forever ending 50 meters ahead, and on this occasion, only reaching further into the unknown. Having met up with Hiromi's family in Nagano by train, I was now on my way for a first visit to her village in Shizuoka where we would spend the next two days. The natural black night emphasized our intimacy in the camper, and after all day skiing and now drinking, we might have been crossing rice-paddy flatlands by the sea.

I knew Japan was 75 percent mountainous, so finding myself again surrounded by towering slopes the next morning should not have been surprising to anywhere near the degree it was exciting. But it was that pure black the night before. Without knowing, I had gotten out of the camper and entered a beautiful Japanese home on the side of an incline I wouldn't have dared on skis a few hours before.

So mountain climb we did, straight up from the front yard to check on the takenoko. "Bamboo babies" in figurative translation, these bamboo shoots are dug out of the ground with a pick to keep the mountainside from getting too dense with bamboo, as well as for the wonderful side dish they provide when steamed. They will be ripe for the taking variously over the course of the month, all by about the time of the green tea harvest that starts the end of April.

On the other side of the yard was the road. It ran along a small river in a narrow valley. There was little bamboo on the far mountain, and instead, rows and rows of trim meter-tall bushes--practically the entire sides of mountains looking like a landscape architect's colossal fancy.

Hiromi said, "When I was a child May smell was tea smell, and the color is such a beautiful light green, and when the mountains turned green, that was my spring."

I asked if fires were burning in places on the mountainside, thinking farmers were perhaps clearing land. This was met with a hint of skepticism at my powers of perception by Hiromi's brother. It was only cloud--just a patch that seemed caught on the branches of the tea. We would be up there, back to help out at harvest time.

No matter how good or courageous a driver you fancy yourself, there is something new again about being driven up and down sharply winding roads on steep mountainsides by people who have done it for years. Ego has me quick to say there were no white knuckles, although it would take more than a few days to get used to it. Now back for the harvest, this roller coaster was part of the daily experience, and I wasn't sure if I would even want to drive given the chance.

The tea-leaf picking itself is standard monotonous labor. Gloves protect your hands. However, the work can take a toll on your back. But just as people love to pick their own strawberries, far from suffering it as a daily chore, from time to time nature's grind--the other life--is a joy to experience. And being thoroughly engulfed in such lush green with spectacular views is a big part of it.

Most of the green tea production is done on flatter regions of Shizuoka, where the scenery isn't spectacular, but access is better. Quality tea requires year-round care. But for most tea farmers in mountain villages like this one, it's a second job, with family members gathering to help with the harvest. Hiromi's father, for example, grew tea and other crops.

"When my dad died they could have sold the farm, but they thought if they immediately gave it up, it would have been sad," Hiromi said. They also didn't sell because there is little interest in the tea business and the sale would bring in next to nothing.

"It isn't such a stable income because the weather or bugs can affect the outcome, and not really lucrative anyway, so children aren't generally expected to carry it on. However, many will do it as a side job."

Hiromi left Shizuoka for Tokyo when she was 18, and has been there ever since. We returned to Tokyo quite happy having put in "working time" on the mountainside. I have since heard that while Shizuoka is famous for its green tea, it offers tea-picking programs, providing the experience to anyone who wants it.

Photo and Text By Brad Burgess

Sasaguri: Rejuvenating Spirit and Mind


Home to Japan's largest reclining Buddha, a modern bronze statute with gaudy red carpeting inside, Sasaguri's charms are not obvious. Wedged between Iisuka, a declining coal mining town, and Fukuoka, a rising international metropolis, this popular pilgrimage destination looks like a simple, sleepy rice farming town with one roadside wonder: that Buddha. Yet, each year busloads of white-clad pilgrims visit the 88 shrines hidden away off of Sasaguri's mountain paths.

A perilous drive to reach an old-fashion kiln, which produces whimsical pottery pieces in dark earthy tones, provides breathtaking views of the town below. However, walking to any of the shrines along the wooded paths is more rewarding. Tiny stone and wooden statues of animals or gods are scattered along these paths to greet, comfort and encourage passersby. These woodland guides can connect the hiker to a part of Japan rarely seen in Tokyo. Any pleasant afternoon ends well with a glass of sake, yamaimo suteeki, and ika-sashi at Yumeya--a friendly izakaya that occupies a 100-year-old pawnbroker shop. Life in Sasaguri offers a delightful routine accented with rare moments.

Japan's nature-rich southern island still claims my heart. Hagi, Yamaguchi, Satsuma and other historically rich places are easy, beautiful day trips from Fukuoka and hiking in Sasaguri, to visit one of the shrines along the wooded mountain paths, rejuvenates spirit and mind.

By Bonnie Lee La Madeleine

Nara: Primitive Buddhism and Powerful Pickles


It was when I first visited Nara during a rainy June that I saw what hungry deer can do to a poor, naive girl and was knocked out of my chair by a pickle.

One cool, cloudy Sunday a friend and I headed to Nara. I immediately realized the city was one of the more exquisite places in Japan. Maybe it was because the weather was nice for walking and Nara had such a relaxed environment, like an extended park space surrounding some excellent temples. Then again, maybe it was all of the friendly deer. That's right. Deer roam the city. I even saw a group of them using the crosswalk when the pedestrian sign was lit. These deer are mostly well mannered, but they become aggressive when approaching one for food. They prefer shikasenbei (deer rice crackers), to be exact, and this is when things can get ugly. I saw a herd of them attack a woman who held about a dozen shikasenbei in her hands. She dropped them and ran for her life.

We avoided marauding groups of deer and made our way to Todai-ji. This monolithic temple is probably the most striking building I've visited so far in Japan. Housing the country's biggest Buddha is one of the world's largest wooden structures. The brown wood of the entrance gate shows the weather-beaten remnants of red and white coats of paint. The entrance gate is enormous, as is everything in this complex, and the carved wooden guardians are imposing. A path through a sward of grass leads to the colossal building housing the Daibutsu (Great Buddha). This Buddha, to my eyes, had South Asian features, and revealed Nara's primitive Buddhism. Most of the religious buildings and icons in the Nara region were made before Buddhism had been thoroughly assimilated into Japanese culture. Remnants of the religion's dissemination from India through China to Japan were still noticeable. The interior was incense-filled and dark save for an occasional shaft of sunlight illuminating a towering wooden guardian.

Before we left Nara, my friend and I tried a kaiseki meal at a well-known restaurant called Tonojaya. Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese meal consisting of a succession of small courses. We ordered the lunch bento, though, where all the courses are served together. We sat in a private room with arranged flowers in an alcove and etchings on the tile wainscoting. About twenty tiny portions of food were arranged on our plates. The largest was a bowl of soup consisting of rice and a weak green tea broth. A smaller bowl contained osuimono, the kind of consomme with seaweed and green onions one finds at many Japanese restaurants in America. There was also sushi wrapped in a green leaf, mixed vegetables with raw fish that had been "cooked" in citrus juice, konnyaku (a kind of calorie-free grey jelly), and shishito (a vegetable that looked like a jalapeno but had a very subtle taste). For dessert there was warabimochi, a favorite of mine. This soft, sweet block of pounded rice dusted with spiced rice flour tastes a bit like cinnamon. It almost melts in your mouth and has a wonderfully creamy texture. The meal was served with plain brown tea and a shot of umeshu, Japanese plum wine.

The most surprising dish was a local variety of pickle called Narazuke. I expected the usual sour daikon radish taste, but this blood-red slice of pickled eggplant had something else in store. I took a bite, and a rich, vaporous sensation flooded my mouth. I was taken aback. Never had such flavorful Japanese food found its way to my palate. I asked our server how Narazuke was made. First eggplant or cucumber is covered with salt, she explained. Next it is thoroughly rinsed, and then pickled in up to three different kinds of sake. One can taste it all--the sweet and the salt and the alcohol. It knocked me off my chair. Or, rather, since I was sitting on tatami, I should say I was floored.


Photos and Text By Landon Thorpe

Ishikawa: Where Art Meets Tradition


Of the many reasons to fall in love with Ishikawa-ken, mine are its varying seasonal moods and its bounty of cultural pursuits. A variety of activities and accommodations make Ishikawa-ken an affordable option for any Tokyoite's getaway over a three-day weekend--suiting couples, families and the lone adventurer. For a taste of Japanese calm and natural beauty, look no further than the culturally rich Kanazawa City and the rugged Noto Peninsula.

Five hours by train from Tokyo, Ishikawa-ken sits in the Chubu region, facing the choppy Sea of Japan. Home to the powerful Maeda clan for over three hundred years, Ishikawa, formerly Kaga Domain, amassed and retained a cultural momentum in which silk-dyeing, lacquerware, gold-leaf handcrafts, and even Noh theater flourish to this day. Explore Japanese art and tradition by visiting a Kaga-yuzen (hand-painted silk) dyer. Traditionally combining the colors of dark red, Chinese yellow, indigo, grass green, and antique purple in patterns expressing a love of nature and folk customs, this silk is renowned for its high quality. In the final stages, some artists wash the wax and excess dye from their fabrics in local streams, a sight to truly cool the senses in summer. Kaga yuzen shows refined scenes, such as a school of fish darting through seaweed, or the arching branches of a fig tree in autumn. These functional works of art really capture the unassuming Japanese aesthetic.

In Ishikawa art also meets tradition in lacquerware. Though nearby Wajima is the namesake and center of excellence for this painstaking craft, you can watch the production process in Kanazawa City also. The wood used for Wajima-nuri is dried for three to five years, after which it takes at least six months and 124 steps to produce the final product. The attention to detail is breathtaking. You can find everything from utensils like bowls and plates to delicate ornaments such as kanzashi (hair pins)--all under numerous coats of lustrous urushi resin--at affordable prices. But after all this man-made beauty, it is only natural to thirst for the outdoors.

Kenrokuen, counted among Japan's three famous traditional gardens, is one of the few sights I have enjoyed through all four seasons in Japan. Though offering beautiful views of cherry blossoms and fall leaves, these can be obscured by hordes of other visitors. To take in the full solitude and beauty of Kenrokuen, I recommend visiting in winter, when snow caps boulders and enshrines the treetops and their twine supports to reveal the aesthetically beautiful face of Kanazawa. Winter is also the best time to reward sightseeing efforts in one of Ishikawa's better kept secrets--the onsen of the Noto Peninsula.

The cool cobalt of the Japan Sea and its frothy sea-spray cast a conspirators' glance at the rugged face of the rocky Noto Peninsula. Compared with the Pacific Ocean, the Japan Sea is renowned for being the more brooding. Countless enka (traditional Japanese ballads) are dedicated to its rough seas, and the fishermen who try to tame them. The hard lives of the people in the fishing villages are said to imbue them with stoicism, but this is only one side of the coin, for they also possess another essential Japanese characteristic--hospitality. Encountering foreigners, the people of these coastal villages are sometimes shocked, sometimes bored, but almost always friendly.

The western side of the peninsula is quieter, making it a great place to explore hot springs and fishing villages. The best way to enjoy Noto is to stay in an onsen ryokan (hot spring hotel). As you soak in an open rock pool, the expanse of the sea feels as if is yours alone. In summer you can hear the singing of crickets and laughter of children, and feel the cool sea gusts against your skin, softened by the natural chloride of the water, especially prized by women. In winter you feel flakes melt on your face as the snow muffles the sounds of your surroundings.

After good seafood cooked over an irori hearth and a refreshing morning bath, it's time to return to study or work. Looking back on the living crafts in Kanazawa City, and the cool countenance of the Japan Sea, I cannot help but feel like I have visited an old friend and just learned something new. It does not take a full train ride back to Tokyo to feel that Ishikawa-ken is pondering my departure just the same way.

By Bhuvana Radhakrishnan

Another Kamakura: The Nagoe Kiri-doshi


Kamakura brings to mind the Great Buddha and temples, boutiques and bistros on Komachi-dori, torii gates and cherry blossoms. Yet its genius locus, predating temples and hordes of tourists, is darker. Kamakura traces its origins to Minamoto no Tomoyoshi. This warrior, on his way to subdue the rebellious Abe clan in the north, stopped at Kamakura and dedicated a shrine to the Minamoto tutelary deity, Hachiman, the god of war.

The association with his ancestor was a reason Minamoto no Yoritomo established his military government in Kamakura in 1185. Another reason was the city's being a natural fortress, facing the sea and encircled by hills on three sides. But the engirdling hills impeded transportation, for which reason the Kamakura government had paths carved from hilltops. Four such paths, called kiri-doshi, were hewn, and together with three slopes were called the Seven Mouths of Kamakura.

The oldest is the Nagoe Kiri-doshi. It debuts in history in 1233, with a reference in the Mirror of the East. However, its origins are obscure. It has fallen into disuse. Which is good. Untrammeled the path has retained its old contours.

I decided to walk the Nagoe Kiri-doshi. From Kamakura Station I took a bus bound for Zushi via Nagoe and got off at Chosho-ji. I climbed a concrete road past houses on the left. Dosojin, guardian deities, saw me on my way.

I knew when I reached the Nagoe Kiri-doshi, for the way narrowed to a stepped nearly shoulder-wide path between walls of ferny, moss-covered rock in the grip of roots. Only birdsong broke the silence, and the periodic bell of a railroad crossing, long ago the knell for the Nagoe Kiri-doshi. The path doglegged right into a copse of cedar. So steep was the mountain the trees grew nearly parallel with the ground. Shafts of light between them dappled the earth a chiaroscuro pattern. All was brown and green save for the red berries of laurels and the pink blossoms of winter camellia. Some cedars had been felled by typhoons, and I ducked under the vine-garlanded windfall. Soft underfoot felt the leaf-strewn path near the summit. Here a rock sat in the middle of the path. No object for contemplation of the Zen devotee but rather, perhaps, an obstacle to invasion.

I took a side path that angled upward to a flat clearing semi-ringed by trees from which hung vines like Spanish moss on an oak in South Carolina. In the center stood a monument to the unknown dead. On the circumference sat an animal crematorium. I peeked inside, and shuddered. There was the skull of a dog. Two feral cats eyed me warily from a patch of sunlight.

The clearing would have afforded the Kamakura army a prime place to lie in wait for an enemy climbing the kiri-doshi below. Indeed, after the death of Yoritomo in 1199 and the creation of the Hojo Regency, the greatest threat to the Kamakura Shogunate was the Miura clan. The Nagoe Kiri-doshi lay on the route from their Kinugasa Castle to Kamakura.

From the summit the path winds between sheer walls of rock where an enemy would have been vulnerable to ambush. A side path to the former site of the Mandala Hall was closed. A sign explained that it was undergoing a years-long archaeological investigation. So I didn't see the many yagura, graves in hillside cavities, where the dead were laid because of the lack of flatland in Kamakura.

The many yagura are one reason why the Kotsubo Tunnel dug through the base of the mountain is said to be haunted. People with an interest in paranormal manifestations or young people seeking spine-tingling thrills as respite from sultry midsummer evenings were wont to brave the tunnel and then climb the mountain to the medieval graves.

The path led to Kotsubo where many years ago my dog had attended obedience school and a friend still lives. I dropped by. His wife whipped up fried rice and egg. It was a relief to be off my feet in the world of the living.

By Burritt Sabin

The Inspiration of Sankeien Garden


In the mail came an invitation to plum-blossom viewing at Sankeien Garden in Yokohama. I decided to go.

In a city that takes pride in having introduced things Western to Japan in Meiji (1868-1912), Sankeien is an anachronism, for its spirit is of medieval Japan.

The garden was the achievement of Tomitaro Hara. He had moved from Noge, in central Yokohama, to the family estate in Honmoku, on the coast to the south, in 1902. The city's leading silk merchant, he began spinning his own vision in Honmoku's third valley, San-no-tani, a variant of the name, "Sankei," he took as his own and for his garden.

Sankei Hara's inspiration was the pagoda-studded Nara countryside. From Nara he brought huge stones. Next he scoured the country for buildings. One was a three-story pagoda, built at Tomyo-ji temple in Kyoto in 1457 and brought to the garden in 1914. On high ground, across the pond, it rises as the symbol of Sankeien.

I followed the path around the pond to where the ume, Japanese plum trees, were in bloom.

Cherry trees bloom in thick clouds of pink blossom that draw the eyes upward and inspire Dionysian revels of song and drink, but the ume wears fleecy wisps of tiny white or pink blossoms at eye level. It does not ravish like the cherry. It invites contemplation.

I joined other blossom-viewers at the Hatsunejaya gazebo. Clutching cups of steaming barley tea, they were huddling on benches or warming themselves at the sunken hearth over which hissed an old kettle. The wind shifted and woodsmoke stung our eyes. The open walls framed the garyobai, "dragon plum tree," so called because its trunk resembles a crawling dragon. The tree inspired Shimomura Kanzan's masterpiece Yoroboshi, now in the Tokyo National Museum.

A copy of Yoroboshi went to India through the medium of Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet and mystic.

Tagore sojourned at Sankeien in 1916. He had come to Japan to prepare for lectures he would give in the United States. He lodged at the Shofukaku, "Tower of Windswept Pines," where he delighted in the sea breeze and drank in the seascape. There he wrote "Stray Birds," the epigrammatic poem that thrilled ladies in America.

Tagore believed Japan surpassed all other Asian nations in art and he extolled the Japanese effort to advance art in the context of Asian tradition. The poet frequently viewed Sankei's collection. Finally, he asked Sankei to make a replica of a superlative piece of Japanese art he could bring back to India.

Sankei selected Yoroboshi as the best new Nihonga, Japanese-style painting, since the 1870s. Sankei commissioned Hirokata Arai to make a copy. Arai relocated to Sankeien and spent several months copying the painting onto a screen with gold background. Tagore frequently dropped by to observe Arai at work. He was deeply impressed by the technique of the artist. Now he had a fresh idea. Bring a Japanese artist to India to teach at his school. Arai agreed to go. Then there came a further request, from Tokyo Imperial University: Since the artist was going to India, would he make copies of the frescoes on the walls of the caves at Ajanta? The frescoes depict the life of ancient India and provide an uninterrupted survey of the evolution of Buddhist art.

Arai made copies of the frescoes and he taught for two years at Tagore's Shantinketan, near Bolpur, Bengal, an institution blending Indian and Western methods of education. In consequence, modern Indian art took on a Nihonga accent visible in works on exhibit in Tokyo in 1957. Arai returned, his own art indelibly stamped by India, as were the works of other young Japanese who had followed him to India.

Sankei's passion for ancient art shaped his garden. Tetsuro Watsuji, a brilliant student at Tokyo University and a friend of Hara's son Zen'ichiro, was a frequent visitor. At Sankeien Watsuji absorbed the piney atmosphere of Nara and joined bull sessions about art. These influences coalesced into a passion for the ancient art of Nara. He decided to visit its temples and shrines.


On the eve of his trip Watsuji visited Sankeien to see Arai's copy of an Ajunta fresco. The brilliance and harmony of its colors remained in his mind's eye as he headed on a train for Nara.

He described his travels through Nara in Koji Junrei (Pilgrimage to Old Temples and Shrines). When released in 1919, it had the effect of awakening the Japanese to the wonders of their ancient art and architecture. The seed of such awakening had been planted at Sankeien

By Burritt Sabin

There arrived another invitation, for nighttime cherry blossom viewing. I will return to Sankei Hara's Narascape in spring.
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Author:Sabin, Burritt
Publication:Japan Inc.
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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