Saturday, November 27, 2010


One of my musts of this trip to Japan has been tea. It is quite tempting to use tea as a verb to give the full range of applications or identifications with the word but it has been a part of our routine and a priority for shopping, whether for ourselves or for souvenirs.

At a temple market a few days ago we splashed out on a bit of tea, buying just over a kilogram. On Friday, however, we did ourselves one better by going to the city of Uji, just 25 minutes outside of Kyoto. I don't know if it was a coincidence or not that the train was that soft green of matcha, but throughout the city there was the crisp waft of matcha in the streets. Nadine made a point of tasting the local version of the matcha ice cream and we wandered around from tea shop to tea shop to see what varieties of blends and uses they had come up with for the stuff. There were chocolates made with the matcha (including matcha flavoured Kitkats), a variety of wafers, cookies and confections to choose from, not to mention the delicate, pretty sugar candies that are made to compliment the bitter taste of the matcha.

While in Uji, we also attended a quick sado or tea ceremony, a reminder of the attention to detail that is such a part of Japanese routine. Watching the discipline and grace of the ceremony made me even more curious about the ceremony and left me wondering what nuances there would be to different people's execution of the ceremony. If nothing else, it was a quiet moment of our day and a chance to sit and absorb things at a more leisurely pace. It was very easy to forget everything that was beyond that bare room.

After the ceremony we meandered back through the city, also known as the place where The Tales of Genji - one of the earlier examples of the novel - was written and the home to the ancient temple that is featured on the Japanese 10-yen coin. It was a great respite from the crowds and bustle that had been so common at the popular sites in Kyoto. At our unhurried pace, we probably could have passed even more of the day in one of the more sedate and contemplative quarters of Kyoto.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Rapture in Higashiyama

It was a good day to meander and one to be thankful not to be on the group tour and trundled along from place to place because of some tour guide's unknown motivations.

We took the subway across town and stepped off at Keage Station and headed north to Nanzen-ji, Eikan-do and the Path of Philosophy. Any one of these three places could have preoccupied as for the whole day and as it was we ended up crossing two other destinations off our to-do list for the day.

At Nanzen-ji we were first presented with the sight of a group of students all attired in traditional clothing. They straddled the age between high school and university and it was easy to assume the shots were commemorating a graduation but I still could not pin down their age. Through the trip we have seen a large number of people in traditional clothing. Part of it is the 7-5-3 Festival where families bring their children of those three ages to the temples to celebrate the occasion. There have been a number of times to dote on the sight of a 3 year old girl in a kimono still wanting and managing to bust out the toddler enthusiasm despite the formal attire she is packaged in. The juxtapositions have always been amusing and charming. Apart from the children though, there have been people of all ages. Mostly women in simpler kimonos but today there were a few male classmates in the group who were comfortable roaming the temple grounds.

The turning leaves continued to draw my focus and just when I was convinced that I had run out of ideas for what to shoot and how, I still found another nuance or background to photograph in. At Nanzen-ji there was a brick aquaduct that passed through to the south of the temple grounds. At Eiken-do there was a pond that reflected a deep blood red in the afternoon and was the refuge of a group of ducks that took great pleasure and splashing around and throwing themselves at one another. At the Path of Philosophy there was a mix of shadows and reflection on the water. All told, as I said earlier, each place enchanted and could have preoccupied us for the entire day. The one thing that has become true about this trip is that it is very easy to want to return to some of these places day after day and embrace that contemplation that sets in after a few minutes of staring at the space you are in.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Shopping, Food and Random Notes

Today was spent in Osaka basically to pass a rainy day with a bit of pre-planned shopping to satisfy our fetishes for Japanese pottery and stationery. Osaka is nothing even closely resembling a respite from Kyoto. The opposite has always been true. Back when I lived in Osaka it was easy to lose touch with nature or even the passage of the seasons amidst all of the concrete. There are few of the character buildings and charming boutiques that we discovered in most parts of Kyoto that we have visited so far. In fact there was one occasion when I was reminded that fall was coming when I saw a banner outside a restaurant announcing a "fall harvest rice fair" - so easy it is to lose track of time in the concrete bowels of the subway system and the sheltered arcades of Osaka. For a bit of grit, however, and a feel for urban life without getting overwhelmed by the megagopolis beast that is Tokyo, Osaka can fill the bill.

One of the goals of the trip was to load up on Japanese pottery and the opportunities ranged in about the same way that hotel accommodations can. Comparable to the wide range of options that - for hotels, run the gamut from capsule hotels to 5-star luxury in Ginza - there is the comparable opportunity to range from the 100 yen stores to the masterpieces that are made either by local living potters or classic Japanese pieces (and prices) that would take your breath away. We have seen the masterpieces in the little boutiques and we'll stop regularly at whatever boutiques we chance upon next.

For our purchases, we focused our attention on two streets that specialize in supplying local restaurants. One is in the south part of Osaka and the other is in Tokyo near Asakusa. Apart from the dishes, there are countless shops selling banners, signage, chopsticks, cooking utensils, aprons, and plastic food. The shops were each an experience in themselves. Some were crammed with single samples of their inventory and every little pile that we sorted through provided a new treasure or a nuance on the presentation of a dish. Others had their entire inventories out on the shop floor, making browsers tread the aisles with the uncertainty and the quest for balance that is reserved for tightrope walkers in a circus. Some of these more crowded shops made me wonder aloud if they made more money on breakage than on sales that got out the door. In the end we hit (wrong word?) two shops for dishes and we will probably add a bit more that we will rationalize as serving dishes. We will let you know when we get over looking at the stuff and decide to break it in.

Food (for the non-fish eater)
We have managed to minimize our exposure to fish throughout the trip. Not that it is my goal but Nadine is not a big fan of fish and we have been steering clear. Our trip has made me recall an anecdote I heard from tourists who came to Japan during the 2002 and either complained or boasted that the ate McDonald's for their entire trip. We've eaten cheaply and enjoyed a lot of the food we've had.

On our way through Osaka we noticed a street that was closed for an imminent festival. We wandered the street and there were food vendors of all sorts on hand. In our wandering we scooped up yakitori, which is basically a chicken kabob, some karaage, fried chicken which is not to be confused with kurage which is jellyfish and okanomiyaki, Nadine's favorite. Okanomiyaki is hard to describe and the comparisons to pizza or omelets don't quite suffice. We have had it twice so far and the best place to have it is Hiroshima which has its own version of it that includes soba noodles in the recipe.

Other items:
Ton-katsu at Katsu Kura: Ton Katsu is a breaded pork cutlet and Katsu Kura is a chain of restaurants, mostly in Kyoto. There other chains that do a good job of it but the Katsu Kura experience offers a bit more ambience with their nouveau Japanese decor, all you can eat salad, rice and miso soup and the simplest little exercise in grinding your own sesame seeds to add to your dipping sauce.

Chicken Karaage at Saganoya in Arashiyama: My favorite mom 'n pop in Kyoto. It is just outside of JR Saga Arashiyama Station. It is a bit removed from the crowds and they do a pretty good job of everything. Since I was last there on a weekly basis many moons ago, they've come up with an English menu and the chicken karaage is better than anything I've had at Japanese restaurants in Canada who attempt it and they beat the street vendor stuff hands down.

There are all sorts of places that specialize in cheap meals under even $4 in Japan now. A lot of them are kind of a workman's kind of place with a meal so cheap and quick that it would make you wonder if you could do it more cheaply at home. Some just specialize in gyuu-don, a bowl of rice covered with a layer of shaved beef. There are countless other "dons" too that are served with chicken, tempera, yaki-tori, the aforementioned pork cutlet and more. Be careful considering how much you want to scrimp on these things. Ultimately quality is being sacrificed but more importantly in the Japanese diet you would be moving away from the ideal of a daily menu that features 50 different ingredients. Rather than trying to break things into 4 food groups and proceeding from there, they basically push variety and consequently moderation of each of those ingredients.
Random thoughts:
I have told Nadine that there are targets on the urinals in the men's room to help with aim. In response, she told me there were urinals in the women's rooms. (She will look for targets next time.)

I have managed to refrain from buying books on this trip. I ogle the three-volume Japanese version of my favorite Japanese author's current book which won't be translated into English until fall 2011.

Hiking seems to be the reserve of the older crowd in Japan. There are very few people out on the trails who were younger than us.

I'm not sure if Japan's technological wonders are in as much abundance as they used to be 10-15 years ago. I've yet to see that must-have device or gadget that would compare with mini-disc players of the 1990s. They didn't really cross the pond to North America in the end anyhow.

Using the bullet train as much as I have this trip has made me wonder about how the train has altered everyone's sense of space or Japan's size.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


For those who have seen more than ten pictures of Japan or seen the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, Arashiyama is the place that conjures up those images of an other worldly bamboo grove, rustling and clacking in the winds that pass through. I had the absolute privilege of living there and visiting again brought a wide mix of emotions. There were changes in the community needless to say and despite the changes to the roster of local businesses those tweaks paled in comparison to the constant beauty of the place. People had warned me or asked me how I would deal with any changes that would occur there and I assured them that there would not be anything I could not handle. Arashiyama is one of those places that ought to be preserved and maintained and the people who know that or at the very least stand to benefit from its long-standing beauty would not allow too much to change. The macaques will always amuse and enchant with their surreal take on humanity. The photographers will always cluster on the side of the river to shoot the boats as they pass under the maples. Tenryuji will always communicate the passing of the seasons with haiku evocation.

The bamboo grove, of course is as it always was. Unfortunately that also means that there are countless taxi drivers who feel they can drive through the grove with impunity and I had to call out "Car" more often than a 12-year old play street hockey for an entire Saturday afternoon. Hopefully someone will get it into their heads that it is a place best appreciated by foot and that if one cannot make their way through there on their own two feet they ought to just go without.

The other key component of the beauty of Arashiyama is Tenryuji, the temple that is embraced by the grove. The temple's garden is one of the most spectacular examples of Japanese gardens and after spending another 2 hours roaming through and taking it in in its autumnal glory, I am still tempted to squeeze another visit in before my all too brief visit here concludes.

Not all of the changes were as easy to take as I had imagined. Friends whom I haven't seen in the last 7 years are a little older and far more frail than they were when I was last here. Time etches its tyranny on us all, but it is far more obvious to the eye when we are reuniting after a long time away. I'm sad and glad to have come.

The First Three Days in Kyoto

Hard to know where to begin when talking about the place where I lived for so long. There have been changes; the most stunning of which has to be the closure of the Maruzen bookstore, a place where I regularly recharged my library and my sanity (if need be) over the years. In its esteemed location now stands an 8-storey karaoke centre. Enjoy spinning the metaphors out of that.

The visit to Kyoto has been punctuated by encounters with school students of all ages who are on their school excursions and have uniformly been cut loose on the tourists to interact a bit for the sake of practicing their English. We have maxed out at three encounters a day, usually with a group of a half-dozen girls who - as students are wont to do - try to get their homework done as quickly and painlessly as possible. There is a "hi" or two and then they cut to the chase by thrusting a paper at us with the request, "Message please." Nadine has enjoyed the situation as they have tried to take the easy way out and I have either done my best to betray no knowledge of Japanese or responded discreetly enough that it takes them a few minutes to come to the revelation that the gaijin has been speaking Japanese to them for the last ten minutes.

Apart from those encounters the sights have been as rewarding as ever. The walk through the streets that lead to Kiyomizu Dera, one of the biggest and most visited temples in Japan was a rewarding stroll and enjoyed dawdling in and out of shops and boutiques to look at old-fashioned handicrafts, sample the locally made snacks, puzzle over the $21 chopsticks and dream about the local pottery. There were also enough shops giving samples of their stuff to keep us fed for our stroll and allow Nadine to expand her interest in Japanese food.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

As Always... Hiroshima

Hiroshima is one of the very few places on earth to merit secular pilgrimage and my fourth visit there was as important as the previous three. Each time the mark has been distinct and indelible: the first for the unforgettable imprint of the generosity of Hiroshima's people; the second with a respect for the apple doll-like older women who tended the park grounds, a thankless consequence at this peace mecca; the third time with the opportunity to identify the Children's Memorial as my favorite part of the park and this fourth occasion to drive all of it home one more time.

My past visits to the park have been early in the day or late at night, when I have been able to meditate on the place without interruption. Quiet debates would emerge and ebb away in some resolution that would leave me nodding to myself with a new notion about any number of small or big issues - the small more often than the large oddly enough. Should these kids be skateboarding here? Should the Dome be maintained as it survived the bomb or allowed to disintegrate? Do those women really have to be cleaning this place up after surviving that day as well?

Arriving around noon from nearby Miyajima, however, the solitude to nudge me into those reflections was not possible. The park teemed with school kids of all ages. There were enthusiastic elementary students all bonded together by matching ball caps of red, yellow or white, depending on the school. The kids were racing about in the leaves - the Peace Park is a park after all - choking back their lunches or asking the foreigners to indulge in their efforts to complete an English assignment during their travels. We encountered three groups of kids, all from schools in Kyoto near where I lived or taught in the past and I enjoyed shocking them with my Nihongo and familiarity with their neighbourhoods. (One group dared to tell their teacher within earshot that they did indeed ask me all the questions that they were assigned and I called them out to inform their teacher that all they did was thrust a paper in front of me to say "Peace message, please." Once a teacher, always a teacher.)

We wandered the park, starting at the A-Bomb Dome and gravitating toward the Children's Memorial on the opposite side of the river. It is hardly the visual icon that the dome is but it is much more of a focal point or a gathering place at the park. Where the dome invites detached, solitary silence and reverence, the Children's Memorial is the focus for the first stirrings of a civic engagement or embrace. In the harsh clear light of noon, on a day slightly cloudier than Hiroshima was on August 6, 1945 we watched the cranes arrive. We examined the cases where children from around the world added their cranes and good wishes. We watched classes of kids stand before the memorial to take turns to make pledges and speeches to one another. An entire Grade 6 class sang with reverence and hope while tourists like myself lingered on the edges of their rite of passage allowing them some privacy during a moment that so heart-rending or heartwarming to witness that had to be even more so to call your own. I redirected my gaze to the cranes, but my ears stayed with the children. When the song finished, I caught the eye of three of the boys, smiled and gestured quiet applause.

The cranes keep coming and coming.

The museum once again reminded me of the accurate words I heard in 1996 when I made this pilgrimage for the first time, "It will shake your heart." The crowds of kids from all over the country, mixed in with adults from all over the world moving about elbow or elbow, to be awed and horrified by what this comparatively little bomb could do. Both groups probably wondered if the other truly "gets it" the older wondering if the kids are absorbing the realities or if they are just getting the material they need to recite when they get back in the classroom and the kids wondering if the adults grasp what might be a uniquely Japanese tragedy. In the end, it is a question of what makes us human and in that there is probably reason today to feel a little more optimistic.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Japan 2010 - Arrival and First Thoughts

Natsukashii is the Japanese word for nostalgia and I more loosely translate it as "it seems like old times," or "it takes me back." I've been back in Japan for the first time in seven and a half years and it feels like I've never been away at all. The names of the latest cutesy pie idols are changed but the pouts and posturing seem the same and the boy band that was all the rage when I first arrived here 15 (eek) years ago seems to have reached middle age with their revenue streams as intact as ever before.

While making our way from Narita Airport to the Tokyo suburb of Matsudo, my wife and I spotting the quirky icons of Japanese life: the underemployed escalator greeter who bowed as we trundled our luggage off to the train; the thoroughness that each transaction was completed with; the mix of kitsch and grace that intermingled to the extent that it evoked my own saw about Japan and Japanese culture - everything is taken to an extreme.

The picture above exemplifies the frequent odd juxtapositions that are hard to qualify as random. We happened by and we invited for a hot, foamy cup of matcha at a temple dedicated to a Tokyo based painter. The temple was celebrating a one-day-a-year occasion and more than anything else it was a good opportunity to stop for the respite and the spaciousness of the (recorded) koto - a Japanese stringed instrument. We sat down following a flurry of bows, gestures and raised eyebrows at the Japanese that was coming out of the white guys. We sat for a moment and were served our teas along with a little traditional candy. I lifted my mug from the white plastic tray, did a double take and found myself, indeed, looking at the beribboned mouthless one: Hello Kitty.