2019, BLOG X: A Castle and a Samurai

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I was excited because the site I was headed for was something I had planned to see from the moment I began thinking of my trip to Japan. I started at the front desk. The receptionist gave me instructions to the JR Motomachi station. There I asked the people behind the counter by the turnstile who helped me buy the right ticket. I had a big bill and discovered that the machine gives paper as well as coin change. The people in charge of Barcelona’s Metro should learn about this. I was going to have to change trains. I explained my problem to a couple on the platform that were obviously on a day’s outing. They too were going Himeji. We traveled together largely speechless.

When you exit the station the castle is directly ahead of you and just becomes more and more stunning as you approach. As I walked a passing man told me of a covered street with shops I could take. When I turned this down he was amused.

I noted restaurant possibilities as I walked in the hot sun. The castle is White Heron Castle with grey blue roofs that rise up in a layering of wings. You can come in on the side at Hishi-no-mon Gate and walk the long connecting corridors coming out to walk through a series of gates. The walls do not rise up straight but in a fan curve. Once in the main keep you climb stair after stair. Huge trees supplied the timbers of the rafters that have a ponderous presence in the soft gloom of the small windowed spaces on each floor. One climbs looking down through arrow slits that became musket slits, at the pitch of the roofs below. The lifted eaves are decorated with toothy fish with flashy tails.

It is beautiful from every possible angle outside. Inside it is magnificent but has that grim quality that all castles, of whatever nationality, have. Coming down the stairs was worse than going up but there were plenty of handrails and lots of equally scared, elderly Japanese with me.

Walking back to the station I found the restaurant I’d picked was closed. I went to a family sushi place, very nice. They were horrified when I wanted to stir extra wasabi into my soy sauce. Apparently that practice, accepted in the US and, I believe, Europe is, in Japan, a solecism the equivalent of twirling up your spaghetti in a soupspoon.

On the train home, I discovered my morning’s companions also on their way back, eating chicken and drinking beer. I got out at the intermediate station for a train to Kobe and when I changed boarded a car labeled “Women Only”. This was a total surprise. I had no idea such a thing existed in Japan. There was a pleasant air of relaxation in this car.

In Kobe I found the shop of the samurai with no difficulty. The woman wasn’t there, but the girl called her. The price was still 70,000Y, about 640US. I asked the girl to call the woman again to ask if she would take 60,000Y in cash. I wasn’t sure I could get that sum, not knowing the withdrawal limit. She said, “Yes.” I headed for the nearest Family Mart to withdraw 60,000Y. We packed him in a box surrounded by bubble wrap and wads of newspaper.  He is elderly, as least my age, and it is a long journey.

The next day I took the train to the Hyogo Prefecture Museum, the one with the frog on the roof. They have two floors of their permanent collection. It is interesting if not thrilling. There are a lot of Japanese painters imitating various Western painters and styles. The most interesting, I thought, was Oiwa who is a surrealist. In one painting a ship cuts across layers of green leaves of different varieties and green stripes in two hues, another is of the outside of a butcher’s in a meat packing district with a conveyor belt from whose hooks hang sides of meat in the shape of various countries—France, Italy and yes, Japan.

Among the European works were some terrifying Katha Kollwitz drawings. The Mothers shows a tight, compressed huddle of women their arms around each other, their faces desperate with fear and determination. A wary looking boy gazes out from under their arms.

They had a special exhibit of Impressionists and later painters collected by a particleboard manufacturer. I think one sees one’s own culture a little differently when it is exhibited in another culture. It focuses it in a different way. I found myself thinking how “sweet” the Impressionists often are. There were Degas and Renoirs, two Monet’s. A Van Gogh of peasants trudging home at sunset with heavy loads of wood through the snow was less sweet.

I regretted leaving Kobe and the Okura hotel that I enjoyed despite an argument with the chambermaid I never met.  I would put my toothbrush, toothpaste and dental floss in a glass in the bathroom. When I came home at the end of the day all my dental accessories had been removed from the glass and lined up neatly on a clean washcloth. We did this every day. According to her rules the use of the bathroom glass for your dental implements was not acceptable.

I am not against rules. They are an important part of life and art. They make social life possible in civilization and they enhance art. Social contact can be difficult between widely varying personalities and rules make easy bridges. I think the rules have made art immensely inventive in Japan. In poetry you have 17 syllables to say what you want. You are given a small box and have to figure out how to expand your creativity within those bounds. Art is to the Japanese about finding freedom in a confined space.

Quite the opposite is true in the US where it is often believed that art is doing whatever you want. This may be as self-indulgent as it is self-defeating. The mastery, even the partial mastery, of rhyme and meter often makes for better poems. Form increases creativity. I suspect Thomas Hardy was right when he thought Walt Whitman didn’t write in rhyme and meter because he couldn’t master the techniques or was too impatient to learn them. Making a posture of superiority out of an inability is a bit of a con trick. Not that he didn’t write interesting poems. I’m just suspicious of all that bombast about creating something totally new.

From toothpaste to poetry in one paragraph. It does seem to me that the Japanese are rule bound in a way that makes them unhappy. I often found myself feeling sorry for the people I met.

I was up and out of the Okura Kobe long before breakfast to catch a 7:05 flight to Tokyo and my old hotel where I couldn’t get into my room until 3 pm. I had the hotel breakfast and met an American from Texas who was with an interesting young American, interesting because one sensed he knew his way around. This is unusual.

I had planned to use this time parenthesis to go to the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints. It took half the neighborhood, none of whom had heard of it, to get me close. But they did get me close. I looked down a hill and saw a sign I could not read but which, heaven knows why, looked right. As I started down, a man coming up was queried by one of the women helping me.  He said, “Yes,” in English. I waved goodbye to everyone and went down the hill.

Just as I entered the shop another woman came zipping around the corner, breathless on her bicycle, to tell me it was the right place.

There was one young man in the shop, whose walls were lined with prints, mostly by Hokusai. I knew what I wanted; prices were reasonable. The problem was not buying more. That was difficult. I managed to buy only two.

I went back to the hotel on the subway, had a late sushi lunch and went to bed early to make up for rising at 5 am.

The next day, my last, I realized the Texans, there were five of them, were a church group. The young man who knew his way about was a translator of the Bible from Hebrew. I asked if he knew Greek but his answer was equivocal.

I went to the Nezu Museum, a treat in itself. It was raining, as it had been the first time I went there unsuccessfully. I found the displays disappointing, not that they weren’t very fine, but they were of Chinese art showing the basis of Japanese painting and sculpture. A scroll painting of Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy, was beautiful in its serene spirituality. There was also a scroll of sparrows, vigorous in its display of these cheery, gregarious, small singers.

I ate at the museum restaurant, crowded, limited in selection but with pleasant views into the rainy, dripping woods.

Going home I became muddled as I changed lines. A young couple rescued me, steered me to the right platform, waited until my train came, and as it pulled out we waved to each other. I thought, “This is, indeed, my goodbye to Japan.”

I dutifully washed and ironed, packing as much as I could.

The next day, after emails from Amsterdam and Japan, Madoka and I finally met. She is as beautiful as Moon said she was. We both had worked on human rights in Burma. We talked about the different ways one can lead one’s life. Madoka is a yoga practitioner and has become interested in Zen as a way of living. We had coffee, before she helped me find an open post office; it was Saturday. The cards went off and I mailed my Japanese guidebook back to Carrer Hospital.

One thought on “2019, BLOG X: A Castle and a Samurai

  1. Very thought provoking post Karen. How can we create something new with the confines of culturally set standards? Perhaps this is more challenging than an “anything goes” attitude. I certainly can not appreciate Haiku as a native, but I find the language and imagery to be both diminutive (in the sense of leaving ego out of the equation) and potent (in terms of how it makes an impact on the admirer). I guess the Japanese perspective can seem paradoxical to Westerners, but you pointed out how Impressionists in that context can be equally confounding. I have to refer to my “Leaves of Grass” this weekend to connect some of the dots.


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