Sunday, September 25, 2011

Kanazawa: The Marsh of Gold

The name Kanazawa literally means 'marsh of gold' and that name certainly held true as this wonderful city was a treasure trove of interesting things to see, do and eat!  Situated on the coast of the Sea of Japan and bordered by the Japan Alps, this busting city is home to half a million people who are able to enjoy a city full of life since the early days.  After 1583 the Maeda (you might not know Maeda but you might know their chief retainers - Honda) clan took power over the province and it's bountiful rice harvests made it a pretty rich area, today it retains the best remains of the original samurai district and geisha tea houses.  The city was also spared in WWII leaving all the good stuff untouched - lucky us!

The age old question: can you be a 'Japanese tourist' in Japan?
Walking through the Higashi Chaya-Gai district is like stepping back in time.  Many original tea houses dot the cobblestone lanes.  This is a famous geisha house name Shima.
The Normura samurai house is one of the most impressive ones left standing.  Samurai houses share a similar basic pattern: a single-floored residence, usually fairly square or rectangular in plan, surrounded by a garden – both the vegetable and the decorative kinds. The roof was gabled, and faced the road.  This was the most beautiful central garden we saw on the entire trip.
Here you can see that the house is built to accommodate a view into the garden from almost every angle.  People also often moved around on the walk ways outside of the rooms and then entered, rather that traveling through the house.
Once again Japan gets me on a bike - and I couldn't be happier!  I'm also on my way to one of the top rated Japanese gardens in the world!
Kenroku-en, means the Six Attributes garden.  The six Chinese attributes for perfection are: seclusion, spaciousness, artificiality, antiquity, abundant water and board views.  They certainly hit this one on the head!  The garden is an absolutely stunning site, which each detail hand picked by it's creators.  It started in 1676 as the garden of an outside villa from the Kanazawa castle, but the liked it so much they annexed it! 
The garden has many claims to famous but one of it's proudest is that is has the oldest working foundtain in Japan, operated by natural water pressure.  (And a lot great photo ops, naturally!)
Many of the old trees have taken on a life of their own, twisting and turning over the years - the effect is really spectacular.
Prince Yamatotakeru was a Japanese legendary prince of the Yamato dynasty, son of KeikĊ of Yamato, a legendary monarch who is traditionally counted as the 12th Emperor of Japan. The tragic tale of this impressive figure is told in the Japanese chronicles Kojiki and Nihon Shoki.
 The Japanese know how to lend a hand, er, stake.  Just when the trees get too big for their britches they build them supports to hold up the weight.  Isn't it a little ironic to pop up a tree with another tree?
These gardens don't maintain themselves.  They've got a whole dedicated troop tending the yards - in orderly fashion of course.

The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art is really a must see.  There are so many neat exhibits that are both entertaining and provoking.

The grounds of the art museum have these trumpets that come up from the ground that have a 'match' somewhere else.  The idea is to facilitate communication across boundaries. 
I tried to not be offended when no one talked back!

There was a great art piece called The Swimming Pool by Leandro Erlich.  When seen from the deck, the pool appears to be filled with deep, shimmering water. In fact, however, a layer of water only 10 centimeters deep is suspended over transparent glass. Below the glass is an empty space with aquamarine walls that viewers can enter.  You can look at the people from the bottom of the pool and they can see you from below.  It's really a bit mind bending.
The optical illusion is compelling.  Doesn't it look like he could climb out?
I was also really taken by this sculpture that stands on the museum's roof.  The Man Who Measures the Clouds by Jon Fabre.  For some reason it really touched me, and made me feel very optimistic :)
Kanazawa is known for it's lacquer and wood working, and it took all my strength to leave without these hand carved rice bowls.  The richness and color of the wood was really beautiful.  The Japanese tend to think that everything should look harmonious and lovely - which should explain how somehow I became obsessed with wood bowls during this souvenir stop, everything just looks so great together.
Not called the 'golden marsh' for no reason, Kanazawa produces 99% of Japan's gold leaf.  This merchant dedicated to wallpaper a tea room with it - no biggie. 
After a hard day's site seeing we found a friendly local izakaya (Japanese pub) to practice our pantomiming skills at - no English, of course.  The bonus was the option of floor and regular seating in one.  If you look at the table over Matt's shoulder you'll see mats on the floor, but your notice they are sitting above a cut out around the table, so you can actually sit with your legs extended - like a Western table - but still look like you are sitting on the floor.  I want one!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Shirakawa-go: Definitely-Go!

There are some places in the world that just look exactly the way you hoped they would.  For me, the only thing missing from Shirakawa was Mr. Miyagi.  It is the so-quaint-it-will-make-you-sick kind of beautiful - a remote mountainous town that small in size and big on charm.  After this aerial view I couldn't wait to see the town below.
The only way to access the village is a rope foot bridge.  Yup, I intrigued.
Although there are a number of travelers who come to see the village, there are just 600 people who live here and they each keep a beautiful garden.
It was like nature was just leaping out at us - literally!  Just as we arrived a little green frog promptly hitched a ride on Matt's backpack.  I like his style, zero carbon footprint.

Everything was so pretty, I couldn't bear to pick them (though tempted).
I'm a tree hugger, this cedar really deserved some love after surviving 600 years!
Serene or not, it was still extremely hot in Japan everyday we were there, so when Matt had the chance to soak up some of the run off from the cold mountain stream, kicked off his sandals and jumped right in.
No, it's not cream of wheat, much to my dismay!  This is a special and extremely rare unrefined sake made with sake mash.  It's not for sale anywhere, it is is made by the monks of the Hachiman Shrine in the village and they make a limited number of casks for personal consumption and ceremonial reasons.  It's so thick and creamy that bits of rice are still floating in it!  At about 30 proof it is surprising sweet and goes down like a sake-milkshake!
The famous architectural legacy of this mountainous area is the gassho-style farmhouses. These houses are known for their tall, steeply-sloped thatched gable roof with an angle of about 60 degrees. This roof shape, which looks like one's hands put together with the palms facing inward, is the origin of the name of the architectural style, "Gassho", which means to join one's hands in prayer. As it snows heavily in winter in this region, this steeply-sloped roof helps the snow to slip off and prevents the house from being crushed.  And the whole house is held together with pegs, grooves, and ropes - no nails!  They would rust with all the moisture from snow and rain.
The entrance to the Hachiman Shrine was a beautiful sight set amongst the ancient cedar trees.
The alpine forest ensured that the breeze actually smelled like pine needles!
You can see how many floors that steep roof accommodates, they need all the space they can get during the hard winters, where everyone lives inside - even the livestock!  Yup, they are on the first floor next to the kitchen.  Don't have to go to far for your milk.

Matt and I are wondering what the real estate market is like in the village...(is this a good school district?)

If you look really closely I think you can actually see Mr. Miyagi in the window - perfection!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Takayama: It Rhymes With Yo' Momma

You've heard of planes, trains and automobiles; but in Japan it is trains, trains, trains - and the occasional cable car.  By now we were really settling in to our train travel and enjoying grabbing lunch at the station and slipping into our seats just a few minutes before departure.  The freedom and convenience was great, and it really helped us see a lot of Japan - literally from our window! 

Takayama is basically an alpine mountain town that is sleepy in the summer and booming in winter.  We didn't mind slowing down the pace just a bit to enjoy this area.  Now, we felt like we were really in the country side.  The city is best known for its inhabitants' expertise in carpentry. The town and its culture, as they exist today, took shape at the end of the 16th century, when the Kanamori clan built Takayama Castle. About a hundred years later the city came under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate. However, the high altitude and separation from other areas of Japan kept the area fairly isolated, allowing Takayama to develop its own culture over about a 300-year period.

We stayed at another ryokan and it was a great, albeit, very traditional experience.  We dined at the inn for both nights and it was an experience!

Although we were a bit surprised when we were seated in the corner table on the first night - amongst no other foreigner, natch, and there was an American flag on our table.  I was delighted and Matt was mortified.  Normally I would see his point, but lets face it there was no way we were blending in here!

God Bless America, and sushi.
The appetizer...generally I don't like my food looking at me, but I was willing to let that slide.  I started gingerly picking at the meat from the sides of the fish (making a big mess) when Matt pointed out that everyone else had simply taken the whole thing down in two bites.  The whole thing?  When I asked our waitress, she confirmed that this is how it was meant to be eaten.  "But the teeth!" I said.  She looked at me like I was the crazy one, shrugged her shoulders and said, "calcium." 
And in this corner weighing in at 8 oz, is the most delicious, stupendous, fabulous meat you've ever had in your life, Hhhhhhhhhhhhida Beeeeeeeef!  Hida beef (my mouth is watering as a write this), is the most amazing beef I've had in my life.  You've heard of Kobe beef?  Yeah, that's the stuff they are willing to part with for export.  Hida is the stuff that never makes it out of Japan - and it's an experience.  The cattle are massaged, and fed beer and sake in their feed, to get the optimal aka insane amount of marbling.
We had some of the beef in sukiyaki, which is kind of a Japanese pot roast.  It actually looks like Swiss cheese when the fat cooks off.
Such a gem!  This is a little Mexican restaurant in town, and as soon as we saw it we had to try it.  Alas, it was closed for 2 days, and on our last night there we saw it was open and popped in.  It was just us and the owner/chef, and he was adorable.  We really lucked out that he spoke a little English and he told us that he has run the restaurant on his own for 16 years, and that he closed for two days to take his son to college.  We asked, "Why Mexican in Japan?"  And he said, "I was there twice and I thought the food looked easy to make."  Fair enough!  He proudly showed us his mention in the Mexican Business Council's Japan guide to restaurants, but the proof was in the pudding.  The guac was stellar.
Sometimes when we take a break from eating we do some site seeing, who knew?  This is a shot of the Yoshijima-ke, it is an extremely famous house in the architectural world.  It is known for it's traditional style: large rooms separated by paper screens, a central garden, all wood construction (no nails, they rust!) and minimalism.  Here the teapot is suspended over the indoor fire pit for cooking.    
I really fell in love with the Japanese architecture.  This is a view into the central garden from the  living area.  Most Japanese living in this style have a huge storage facility behind their house that keeps a large collection of furniture and art work which is changed for its utility, the occasion and the season.  They don't have a "bedroom" or a "living room" - these areas could switch around daily.  According to them a room is defined by the objects in it, it doesn't define itself.  I found that a really neat concept. 
These are some of the 23 yatai, or floats that are used i the annual Takayama Matsuri parade.  They were build in the 17th century and can take up to 50 people to operate.  The original lacquer and gold still look brilliant.

This is a little art piece I call: Japanese kids staring at me in the rain.  A flash thunderstorm started and we had to take shelter under an awning.

I felt like I was on display!  These cutie pies clearly haven't seen many white people in the flesh and they all stared at us.  It was like being in a zoo!

Yeah, like I said, they are afraid to tackle French food.  Here's the neighborhood Boulangerie. 
Nothing like remembering how to use a ten speed!  We rented a few bikes and headed toward the Hida-No-Sato, which is a traditional village with preserved old houses.
But we got distracted along the way!  The only cooler than a late summer beer tasting... that is comes from a 100% solar powered micro-brewery!
We burned off some energy watching the sun set on the Sakurayam Hachiman-gu shrine.  It is dedicated to the protection of Takayama.

Here's to the protection indeed!  It needs to still be on the map when I go back for the beef!