Saturday, August 19, 2017

Tango (丹後)

In California when it gets hot you go to the ocean.  The cool Pacific, the onshore breeze.  A day at the beach and you forget all about the heat inland.  The city of Kyoto is landlocked.  But Kyoto Prefecture has a sliver of coastline on the Sea of Japan.  This region is called Tango and is about two hours north of the city.  It is not significantly cooler than the city, but somehow just being in the proximity of this large body of water has a cooling effect on the body and mind, a sort of illusion of cool.

A couple of weeks ago I made a weekend trip to Tango with my friends.

We started at Amanohashidate, a 3.3 km long isthmus covered with thousands of pine trees cutting across Miyazu Bay.  This "bridge in heaven" (the translation of Amonohashidate) is traditionally, and oddly, viewed upside down (i.e. between your legs).  From this vantage point the sandbar appears to be a path climbing into the sky.  Amanohashidate is ranked among Japan's three most scenic places (nihon sankei) and was the inspiration for the garden pond at Katsura Imperial Villa.

The eastern coast of the narrow sandbar is dotted with white sand beaches for sunbathing and swimming.  I was anxious to take a dip; this was really my main objective.  But I was surprised to find the water a tepid 27°C (80°F).  It was nonetheless refreshing and enjoyable.

For lunch we went to Amanohashidate Winery (est. 1999).  This small vineyard on the north shore of the Asoumi Sea (the enclosed west side of the Amanohashidate sandbar) grows its own grapes and utilizes German production methods.  They produce a variety of drinkable if not exactly remarkable wines using mostly Seibel grapes.

From there we drove to Ine along Route 178, which is Japan's, or at least Kansai's PCH (Pacific Coast Highway).  It is known by the local surfers as "Surf Highway", though the good surfing is on the opposite side of the Tango Peninsula.  It is a delightful two-lane road built just a few meters above the sea that hugs the curves of the coast .

Ine is a small fishing village famous for its funaya (boat houses).  Where most houses in Japan have a car in the garage, these waterfront dwellings have boats.  The ground floor is literally in the sea.

Our guesthouse, called Tycho, was deep in the Tango countryside and required an old-fashioned phone call when the car GPS failed to find it.  It was a quirky renovation of an old building that had only just opened.

After freshening up at a nearby onsen we were treated to a special meal in the guest house prepared by a local chef my friends had befriended on a previous trip.  I manned the bar and kept everyone lubricated between courses.  The dinner was simple but exquisite.

Hanabi (fireworks) followed.  In Japan fireworks can be purchased by anyone at any supermarket all summer long.  I found myself trying to explain that fireworks are illegal in the States even though most anyone can buy a gun.  Huh?

The next morning we woke early and a local fisherman/sushi chef (?) showed us how to make sushi.  Yep, sushi for breakfast.  I've had fish for breakfast before, but never sushi.  We all donned the colorful happi jackets of a sushi chef and got to work.  The ultra fresh fish plus my own touch...yeah, good.

Strange.  This was a completely Japanese weekend, a typical summer holiday.  There was very little English spoken and scarcely a gaijin to be seen.  But somehow it felt very familiar.  There was something very California about it all, from the beach to the winery to Surf Highway.  Maybe I've found a little California in Japan.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Shodō (書道)

Shodo is Japanese calligraphy.  It is the written language rendered in simple, beautiful, flowing lines.  Black ink, a brush, paper.  Children are taught shodo in elementary school.  It is a fundamental part of learning to write.  When executed by a master shoka (calligraphy artist) it is an art that literally blurs the lines between writing and drawing.  It is interesting to note that the Japanese word 書く (kaku) means both to write and to draw.  There is no real distinction between the two.

Shodo was introduced to Japan from China around 600 AD.  However, it wasn't until the middle of the 8th Century that the first truly Japanese style (wayo-shodo) emerged.  As with so much of Japanese culture, the introduction of Zen Buddhism to Japan in the 12th Century also had a huge impact on the Japanese aesthetic.  Bokuseki, a more expressive, unrestrained shodo style emerged around this time.

Shodo requires great concentration, but it is not technical like say, drafting.  It is not meticulous or methodical.  The shoka must free their mind and focus only on the meaning of the kanji character.  Unlike oil painting there is but one chance to get it right.  There are no corrections or redos in shodo.  

Sometime last year I became acquainted with a shoka by the name of Ai Takaoka.  We have since become friends.  Takaoka-san has been practicing shodo for nearly 30 years and has traveled to Paris and New York to show her work and do live performances.  She has drawn on cars, on bodies and even on a futon.

Recently I watched Takaoka-san perform.  She was splendidly elegant in her dark kimono, hair in a dramatic up-do.  She possesses a real power and intensity counterbalanced with grace and modesty.  There is a lightness to her movement, like a boxer dancing around the ring.  As much as the finished piece, it is this movement, these gestures - in and out, up and down - that express who she is.

In Takaoka-san's own words shodo is "an expression of gratitude".

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Yukata (浴衣)

The Kyoto summer is brutal.  Hot and hotter.  Humid and more humid.

But it's not all misery.  With summer comes the yukata - a lightweight, casual kimono.  The vibrant colors and lively patterns of these comfortable cotton robes bring a certain joy and exuberance to the city when the temperature soars.

Yukata means "bathing cloth" and it was originally worn after bathing at a sento (communal bathhouse).  It has long since evolved into the essential item in the Japanese summer wardrobe, especially in Kyoto.  A yukata and geta (wooden sandals) are the de rigueur festival fashion for the month-long Gion Matsuri in July.  Perhaps because it is less fussy than the traditional kimono it seems to be particularly popular with young people, both men and women. 

While beating the heat seems a truly impossible task, one can at least suffer in style in a cool yukata.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Katsura Cocktail

Sometimes it is just so hot in Kyoto the only thing to do is put on your jinbei and fix yourself a cocktail.

I created this drink one blazing day last summer.  There is nothing especially Japanese about it except the shiso leaf ("Japanese mint"), but 35°C (95°F) and 80% humidity are somehow a little more bearable on this archipelago with one of these in your hand.

The Katsura Cocktail

1 fresh shiso leaf
juice of 1/4 lemon
dash simple syrup
2 oz. Bombay London Dry gin (I don’t have a jigger, so this is a free-pour guess)
1 tsp Ricard pastis

Muddle the shiso in a shaker.  Add the lemon juice and simple syrup.  Add the gin and pastis.  Fill the shaker with ice and stir.  Fill a highball glass half full with ice.  Strain the contents of the shaker into the glass.  Top with soda and stir.  Garnish with a shiso leaf and a cucumber slice.


Friday, June 16, 2017

Kanjiro Kawai (河井 寛次郎)

A pleasant spring day.  The sun-and-rain-stained wood of the old building bathed in sunlight.  It is quiet.

It feels as though I'm an invited guest.  The house is as Kanjiro Kawai left it.  His chairs, not for admiring, but for sitting, fresh flowers on tables in every room.  The kilns with pottery ready to fire, as if Kawai-san has just stepped out.

His character marks the place.  You know exactly who he is/was.  A poet as much as a potter.  A life dedicated to simple beauty.  Wabi-sabi.

I sit.  I think.  I dream a little.  Time drifts.  I am reluctant to leave.  I'll wait for Kawai-san to return.

What is beauty,
But joy found
In all of life.

- Kanjiro Kawai

Friday, June 2, 2017

Monday, May 29, 2017

Saihoji (西芳寺)

Saihoji (西芳寺), also known as Kokedera (Moss Temple) has been on my list for a while.  This temple in Nishikyo-ku, not far from where I live, requires a reservation.  I'd made one twice before, but circumstances prevented me from going.  With my third reservation I finally made it.

Just like the old days, I got lost on my way.  A young woman selling newspaper subscriptions pointed me in the right direction.  I soon realized I had been to this locale before.  This happens to me more and more these days.

Inside the hondo (main hall) I showed my postcard reservation and paid the exceedingly steep entrance fee of ¥3,000.  Myself and maybe 40 or 50 other visitors were directed to sit at small fumizukue (writing desks) aligned in neat rows on either side of the naijin (altar).

Visitors to Saihoji are required to copy sutra (Buddhist scripture).  Shakyo (sutra copying) is considered a highly virtuous exercise healing the body and mind and bringing blessings.  In my Japanese class three years ago we learned how to write Hiragana and Katakana, so I know the basic strokes and movements of Japanese.  But Kanji is something altogether different and a good deal more complex.  I was nonetheless eager to try my hand.

At each desk was a fude (brush), suzuri (inkstone), sumi (ink stick) and a bunchin (paper weight), Though I've seen these things in various stationery and art shops around Kyoto I had no idea how to use them.  I watched my neighbors.  

My Japanese comrades attacked the sutra with confidence, verve and grace.  I struggled to even see the tiny text.  I was just getting into the rhythm of the shakyo when the attendant priests began the kito (prayer chants) beating a mokugyo (so-called "fish" drum) and striking a kin (a cauldron-shaped percussion instrument made from bronze).  This was engrossing and hypnotic.  I quickly forgot about the sutra writing.

I don't know if we were expressly forbidden from entering the garden before completing our shakyo, but that seemed to be the implication.  I labored on as the hondo emptied out. In the end it took me more than 30 minutes to finish transcribing the 18 lines of Kanji.

The garden was beautiful, of course, but not quite stunning.  Suffering from a lack of recent rainfall, the more than 120 varieties of moss were a less than vibrant green.  However, owing to the limited capacity at the temple and my slow sutra writing I did find a pleasant quietness there.  The afternoon sun partnered with the giant trees and a cool breeze to cast fantastic moving shadows over the lumpy, moss-covered earth.

¥3,000 seems a lot for an afternoon contemplating lightness and darkness, but then a temple is not a theatre; we don't go to be entertained.