Thursday, September 5, 2019

Late summer (晩夏)

Late summer.  

Yukata have been packed away, folded neatly into their tatogami (kimono wrapping paper).  The orchestra of cicada have stopped rehearsing.  The smell of sulphur from recently exploded fireworks has vanished, swallowed by air and time.  Hamo (dagger-tooth pike conger eel), that quintessential Kyoto delicacy, has disappeared from restaurant menus.

There is a shift, a quietness as autumn approaches.  The suzumushi (bell cricket) have begun their song.  But... a few final brush strokes to the summer tableau - tiny wildflowers, a cool mountain stream.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Suma Beach (須磨ビーチ)

Well, I finally found a proper beach in Kansai.  It's in Kobe in Osaka Bay and it's called Suma Beach, which sounds like the California beach Zuma, but actually isn't anything like a California beach.  It's more like Miami Beach.  That is, super cheesy.

I had gone to Kobe to see an exhibition at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art and decided afterwards to go a little further down the line to check out the beach.  The blazing heat of summer in Kyoto always leaves me longing for the ocean.  

Suma Beach is just steps from the train station.  In the summer months dozens of large beach huts are erected along the 1.5km walking path, which are basically beachside izakaya with showers and changing rooms for beachgoers.

It was late afternoon when I arrived.  The beach and the bars were full but not thronged.  There were two things I noticed immediately.  One: there didn't seem to be anyone over 25 or under 15.  Two: this was the most Japanese skin I had ever seen.  Lithe, tan bodies in bikinis and trunks.  In Santa Monica, Newport or Malibu this is completely normal.  In Japan - extremely rare.  I suddenly felt like I wasn't in Japan anymore, like I was on the set of an American "reality" show - Jersey Shore Goes to Japan.  There was a clash of really loud, really bad music coming from every beach hut.  There were girls with too much make-up and too much jewellery for the beach, wearing high heels, carrying purses.  Endless selfies.  There were tattoos and muscles.  And even an old guy wearing a neon pink banana hammock.  Everybody seemed to know everybody.  It was a scene.  Where am I?!

But as I sat there drinking my beer feeling totally out of place, I actually grew happy.  I was watching Japanese kids act like kids everywhere, in the States, in Europe…  There was a sexual energy I've never witnessed here before, girls flirting, guys acting cool.  Young people in Japan have, in recent years, developed a reputation for being completely uninterested in sex and relationships.  It is something of a national crisis, and gets a lot of space in the news.  This little strip of beachside bars seemed to be sending a different message: "the kids are all right."

Suma Beach was about 5 degrees cooler than Kyoto.  The ocean water was refreshing and a gentle breeze kept the warm air moving.  Still, I don't think I'll be going back.  Not in summer anyway.  I'm too old for that scene.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Hidari Daimonji (左大文字)

Hoon-ji, founded in 1882, is a little temple that lives not so much in the shadow of its über-famous neighbor Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), but in the shadow of a hideous 1980s apartment block.  (Why such structures are allowed to be built in the proximity of temples and shrines I'll never know.)  It's diminutive size and status however belie its huge role in the annual Buddhist ritual Gozan no Okuribi or more commonly, Daimonji.  To mark the end of the weeklong religious holiday called Obon, on August 16th bonfires are set alight on five Kyoto mountain tops.  Of the five giant symbols that burn on these mountains, only one - Hidari Daimonji - on Mount Okita has the fire consecrated at a temple and brought up the mountain.  Hoon-ji is the source of the Hidari Daimonji bonfire.

Just after dusk 40 men bearing torches make their way, first through the neighborhood streets, then up the narrow path leading to the giant 大 kanji character (meaning "great") carved in the mountainside.  There is one enormous bamboo torch 3 meters long which serves as the main fire from which the 53 points of the  are lit.  Every year the duty of carrying this torch up the mountain falls to one young man from the community.

This is an awesome spectacle, a river of fire moving through the streets, black smoke and the smell of burning bamboo.  Live embers fall from the torch every 10 or 20 meters and dot the route with a faint red glow.  There is a large iron gate where the foot path begins and spectators are prevented from going beyond this.  The men disappear in the darkness, only their torches visible floating up the mountain like fireflies in a parade, up, up, up.  

It is beautiful to see from below, the fire dancing in the night as the men move into position.  A sort of choreography.  The 大 is alive, a living breathing thing.

At exactly 8:15 the bonfires are lit.  I have seen this before, from a great distance - from the Katsura River.  But it is something special to witness close up, to see the flames licking the darkness.

After about 45 minutes the bonfires are reduced to a mere flicker.  Slowly they die out.  Most people had gone by 8:30.  The parking lot at Kinkaku-ji, from where I was watching, is all but empty.  Suddenly the little fireflies reappear on the mountaintop.  Like an encore performance, they flutter about, then gather together and begin their descent.  Magical!

I wait at Hoon-ji with a few dozen other people from the neighborhood to welcome the men back, as if from a long journey.  Inside some women in kimono chant sutra and beat gongs, perhaps praying for their safe return.  Men, young and old, fathers and sons, in their indigo 大 happi jackets, tenugui tied around their heads arrive back at the temple.  Sweat and soot and pride on their faces.

I bow slightly and say, "お疲れ様です" (good work).  Then I make my way back to Katsura.  It feels like summer is over now.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Kanazawa (金沢) part 3

Kanazawa has been called "Little Kyoto".  After visiting it I'm not quite sure this is accurate.  They certainly have things in common, but for me, Kanazawa has a very different feel to it.  It's proximity to the sea gives it a more relaxed, almost beachy vibe.  It is open, and airy like some coastal California cities.  The streets are wider, so are the sidewalks.  The buildings are lower.  There seems to be less bad architecture, those truly offensive contemporary buildings you find in Kyoto right next to a historic machiya.  Indeed, the preservation of traditional Meiji and Taisho era architecture appears to be a priority in Kanazawa.  I saw several restorations in progress.  I didn't see any evidence of the thoughtless tear-downs which plague Kyoto.

A long walk through Nagamachi Buke-Yashiki, Nishi Chaya and Teramachi Jiingun.  Narrow lanes, meandering canals and slightly neglected temples.  
Gannenji Temple has a delightfully overgrown garden.  Completely atypical.  Temple gardens are always immaculate, not a leaf out of place.  This concept has been turned on its head here.  It is somehow more natural, more harmonious.  Wabi-sabi.  I like it.  Nearby Kokutaiji is the same.  Wild, humming with life.

If you wander long enough you'll find things you weren't really looking for, but are glad you did.  I turn down a little alley of tightly packed machiya near the Asanogawa Bridge and voila…I'm in Kazuemachi Chaya - one of the three historic geisha districts.  

I'm hungry; I'm looking for a place to eat lunch.  But everything is closed, the streets are quiet.  The geisha vocation is, after all, not a matinee gig.  I see the noren (curtain) hanging outside one place.  I can't read the kanji, but noren means open.  I slide the door open and ask if a reservation is required.  It's a sushi restaurant, I discover.  Name: Kanazawa Kazue Sushi Sho.  I'm seated at the 4-seat bar on the second floor in front of the young-looking chef.  I'm nervous.  Memories of a Kyoto sushi bar 5 years ago.  He's cool, relaxed, even speaks some English.  And the sushi is amazing!  We chit-chat and by the end I feel I've made a new friend.  Through the noren!

I was not really expecting the Kanazawa I found.  It was something more, something better.  My heart belongs to Kyoto, but if I'm allowed a mistress, I'll take Kanazawa.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Kanazawa (金沢) part 2

The Japanese summer has certain icons, things that are recognized by anyone as "ah...summer."  They appear in literature, in film, in art, in advertising.  Sounds, like the cicada or a furin (wind chime), fashion, like yukata, geta and uchiwa (flat fan), tastes, like kakigori (shaved ice), Ayu (Japanese river trout) and ramune soda, and spectacles, like hanabi (fireworks).

Summer for me seemed to start in Kanazawa.

A matcha-flavored kakigori on a shady bench in Kenrokuen Garden.  The same color as the garden moss.  It's so simple - shaved ice and flavoured syrup.  It's so summer.  Your teeth hurt a bit, but you feel cooler.  And a smile.

It's been a long time since I've gone to see a fireworks show.  There are, of course, firework shows all year round, everywhere.  But there is something quintessentially summer about fireworks.  In California they always followed days at the beach, bodysurfing, barbecues, Hawaiian shirts, suntanned skin, swimsuits, watermelon.
Americans will shoot off fireworks for any occasion - baseball games, concerts, the grand opening of just about anything.  Indeed, Disneyland has a nightly fireworks show.  But in Japan, like cicada and yukata, they only happen in the summer.
Because of heavy rain on Saturday the fireworks show in Kanazawa was postponed until Sunday, the day I arrived.  Luck.  People gathered along the banks of the Sai River to watch.  It was a really local event, that is, I was the only gaijin.  I get a perverse joy being the only non-Japanese person at an event.  I feel strangely invisible and everyone and everything seems somehow more Japanese.

Kanazawa's western border is the Japan Sea.  The nearest beach is just 9km (5.5 miles) from Kanazawa Station.  I wanted to see the sea.  So on my second day I set out for, not the nearest beach, but one in a different prefecture more than an hour away.  
Amaharashi is a little beach town in Toyama Bay.  It has incredible scenery including the famous Onnaiwa, a giant rock (tiny island?) with a cluster of pine trees 100 meters from the shore.  A life-size bonsai.  On a clear day Amaharashi offers spectacular views of Tateyama Mountain (part of the Japanese Alps).  Strange that, while this beautiful coastline has inspired dozens of poets over the centuries, it was all but deserted when I went.  There were a few old men sitting on the promenade in the shade of an old pine.  Some overturned rowboats that hadn't seen water in years offered clues to the amount of activity here.  I was quite content with the quiet - just the buzzing cicada and miniature waves lapping up on the beach.  I went for a swim.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Kanazawa (金沢) part 1

Lake Biwa goes on and on, a jigsaw coastline.  The train approaches then retreats like a child flirting with a stranger.  My destination is Kanazawa, 200km north-east of Kyoto on the Japan Sea.

Kanazawa is not a large city.  It doesn't even make the top 20 list of big Japanese cities.  It was largely built by the powerful Maeda clan of samurai that ruled over this domain during the Edo Period (1603-1868).  When that era ended and other Japanese cities began to industrialize, this once flourishing city was left behind.  This turned out to be strangely fortuitous, because it meant it was spared Allied bombing during World War II.  So the city today retains a lot of the character of bygone eras.

First impression.  Kanazawa Station with its "Motenashi Dome" of glass and steel and the giant "Tsuzumi Gate" at the east entrance is impressive.  I'm not in Kyoto anymore.


My ryokan (traditional inn) is just beyond the famed Omicho fish market.  Sumiyoshiya claims to be the oldest ryokan in Kanazawa with a 300 year history.  It is quiet, comfortable and the staff are friendly.  But there are a few 21st Century details that betray its proud history, for example a television in the tokonoma (decorative alcove) of my room, a place traditionally reserved for art and flowers.  Disappointing, but not entirely surprising.

I had a short list of "must-sees" in Kanazawa.  One of those was the D.T. Suzuki Museum.  Suzuki (1870-1966) was a prominent Buddhist philosopher who played an important role in introducing Zen to the West.  Yes, a museum devoted to the work of a philosopher.  Nice!  It is a small museum, but the building designed by Yoshio Taniguchi is gorgeous.  A cool, meditative piece of architecture that is in harmony with Suzuki's work.  The focal point is the "Water Mirror Garden", a shallow pool that encourages a sort of self-reflective drift.  It is a space that invites mushin (無心) or a state of "no-mindness".

- D.T. Suzuki

Based on the ancient landscape theory of Chinese poet Li Gefei, Kenrokuen Garden is considered one of the "three great gardens" in Japan.  It was constructed over two centuries and covers an area of 11.4 hectares (28.2 acres).  Originally the outer garden of Kanazawa Castle, it wasn't open to the public until 1874.  
I love Japanese gardens and have spent countless hours exploring them, so I was very excited to see Kenrokuen.  It is beautiful, without a doubt, but…it is maybe a little too formal for my taste.  It is almost over-designed, a little too sublime.