2019, BLOG IX: Kobe, a frog and a Samurai

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Breakfast at the Hotel Okura-Kobe was even more expensive than at the Piazza in Nara but it was a better breakfast with a handmade omelet and dainty little pastries in all kinds of flavors that you can eat while looking out at the sea. Also it was a long walk into town to a place that served breakfast. I went, on a full stomach, to the Maritime Museum, not as nice as the Barcelona Maritime Museum, although the building is a treat, as are many of the museums in Kobe, indeed, in Japan. It faces the sea and wears on its roof a set of white sails of steel netting. The signage is not good if you are an English speaker, very little is explained in English. A Japanese man talked to me on and off as I wended my way through the displays. I was disappointed because I wanted to know about those Emperors and Shoguns who were interested in Japan’s naval power.

Walking out of the Museum, along the broad promenade facing the harbor, passing a vigorous, leaping fish statue, something began to nudge for my attention, something subtle and familiar. I paid attention to it and realized it was the smell of the sea, an odor that means home to me. It was part of my life in NYC, in Barcelona and now, here in Kobe it was telling me I was here; it was here. I liked Kobe I think because of this and because like Barcelona it has mountains at its back and the sea before it.

I walked through Chinatown, a continuous string of restaurants, many offering dim sum. I tried to locate the Kobe City Museum but could not find it, although I asked and asked. A middle-aged Japanese couple joined me in my search. I even had it written out in Japanese. When at long last we found it in a fashionable part of town where all the international clones are—Gucci, Kate Spade, Dior—we found it was closed for renovation. The other place I wanted to get to was up hill in Kitano-Cho where foreigners in the late 1800’s, early 1900’s built houses. This is the time period when Kobe opened its port to the world.

The couple was still with me as we headed up hill through endless covered markets that finally ended. At that point things became less cluttered, buildings were older, shorter, more eccentric. I suggested to the couple who were admiring my walking ability, I did over 10 kilometers that day, that I buy them lunch. But they had to go back down to catch a train to somewhere around Hamomatsu. They had a passing man take out picture together. We shook hands. I headed up hill going in and out of shops—one was Russian with babushka dolls and some very good looking oversized blue and white cups.

I was looking for a kind of Japanese doll made in the late 19th or early 20th century. I had seen some contemporary ones in Kyoto but I wanted an old one. These are not children’s toys but art objects. The quality of the face, the expression, is of particular importance.

Years ago I gave one, a flute player, to friends as a wedding present. He had the most beautiful, wistful expression on his gentle face. You knew that his life had been hard but that his playing was exquisitely emotional. Because they were artists, I thought they would understand him. But they put him in the sun and the next time I saw him was bleached out of existence. A lesson. Don’t give people things you treasure and expect them to treasure them. That is egotistical. But ever since I have had a little hole in my heart the size of the flute player.

I was in need of lunch and found a very modern restaurant where Kobe beef was cooked before you and served over fat bean sprouts with rice, soup and a miniscule dish of pickles.  There was an elderly couple across the way with their daughter laughing over their lunch. When I got up to leave, the daughter on the way to the toilet, stopped and asked where I was from. Only then did I realize that she was so drunk she could barely speak or keep her eyes open. There is a different attitude toward public intoxication in Japan-

As it began to rain I went on up hill and saw two houses.  One was built by an Englishman, very Victorian, full of coal fireplaces lined with English tiles, a piano in the living room and a balcony cum veranda with, what must have been at the time, a superb view down to the port. Now, of course, it is totally obstructed by buildings

The second, Weathercock House, was built by a German, G. Thomas, with red brick walls, and the eponymous weathercock on its tower’s steeple. There are Art Nouveau tidbits—curved door levers, stained glass, chandeliers. But there is also a lot of dark wood giving a medieval castle feeling. There are Western bathrooms in each of these houses that must have elicited a sigh of relief from the owners and their guests.

I walked down, looking into shops as I came along into the center of town. I went into a very cluttered, dusty, dark shop, and there, behind some candlesticks and a carved wooden bear was an old head with wrinkled brow, bushy, white eyebrows, tangled grey hair, a disintegrating black hat and broad shoulders covered in armor. I looked more closely–an elderly samurai, about eight inches tall with a chipped grin and an expression that suggested canniness.

The price was high, close to 800US, but he was obviously early 20th century and possibly 19th. I walked home to the hotel in turmoil.

The next day I talked to the young Japanese woman sitting next to me at breakfast. Our conversation obviously made her happy. I then went to the reception desk for instructions.  They are not as good as the women at my Tokyo hotel or in Kyoto but by asking my way I arrived at the Motomachi Station, got on the right train and out at the right stop. Now I had no idea where I was in relationship to my goal the Hyogo Prefecture Museum. I asked and followed those directions. I asked again and received more interesting directions. “One light, left. Second light, right. Frog on roof.  That is building.” Those worked very well.

There was a frog on the roof with one green leg over its edge. I was enchanted by him and the building designed by Tadao Ando that incorporates green and the sea into its structure. It is a great piece of work. You walk along a passage arched with tree branches, pass through a rectangular opening, here three people were doing tai chi, and come out at a channel of the sea with the building behind you. This is a brilliant museum particularly in comparison to that mediocrity erected at enormous expense between 53rd and 54th Street in Manhattan.

However, it was closed because it was Monday. The receptionist should have caught that. I started back to the train station. One of the tai-chi-ers ran after me to tell me to come the next day.

I asked a woman in the station which track to take to get back to Motomachi. We got into conversation about Barcelona, why I liked Kobe, about her desire to travel.

I came into Motomachi and tried to find the samurai’s store. I could find the area but not the store. I walked up hill. Finally I went into a store and asked for Tor Street. The clerk was mystified but the manager said, “One light,” and pointed. I went over to Tor and there it was as I walked down. The man wasn’t there but there was a woman. I had thought I would ask for a smaller one. I looked up and there were, on a high shelf, a number of small dolls, not as old but in much better shape. Why didn’t the man show me these? The woman took them down but only one had real expression in his face. Then I asked to see the samurai who, although I looked about, I could not find. He was there. Seeing him again, I knew I didn’t want a small one. The man the day before had given me a price of 80,000Y. She gave me the price on the price tag, 88,000 but came down quickly to 70,000Y.

I said I would think about it and return tomorrow.  She said she would think about a further discount. I floated back to the hotel. I was going the next day to see something I had planned for, something I did not want to leave Japan without seeing.

2019 BLOG VIII: A Little More Nara Plus Kobe

I knew my way, a big help, over to the Nara Koen, the walled park of the Todai-ji Temple. You enter through Nandai-mon, a huge rectangular gate over 62 feet high, dating from 1199, about the time Beowulf may have been composed. Beyond the monumental opening one looks across lawn to the even more monumental Diabutou-den, the largest wooden structure, it is claimed, in the world.  It is also high with huge beams.  The front door framed the dark body and face of the Daibutsu, a 53-foot bronze Buddha with his hand raised in the Fear Not mudra. Emperor Shomu commissioned him in 741. The casting of the statue was part of the Emperor’s attempt to unite Japan. Union requires symbols. A bronze casting of this size is an enormous engineering feat for a civilization.

There are a number of other statues, all on a grand scale inside the temple. Some stand, as do Tibetan deities on the bodies of animals or demons. One frowns at you, balanced on a beast with a brush in his right hand.  His name is Koumokuten. I thought he must be one of the Four Heavenly Kings but they all have weapons, not a brush among them. But he is one of four statues.

I was suffering from iconographic dissolution. There was a gold Kannon to the Buddha’s left with gold rays about her. I spent a lot of time here, as it is a lofty interesting structure that absorbs people well.  There were lots of Indian tourists, having a good time and photographing each other.

Many children of various nationalities were having a giggle wriggling through a hole in the base of a pillar, which, if you can wriggle to the other side, proves you are something or other.

I climbed up to Ni-garsu-do, uncrowded and pleasant but I missed nearby San-gatsu-do and its Kannon. If I hadn’t been traveling alone that wouldn’t have happened. The other person would have caught my slip; also as one person’s adventurousness flags, the other’s quickens, creating a balance.

I then went in search of Kaidan-in. But first I went to the small museum that has a fantastic Kannon, 9th century, many armed and gentle faced in wood. There was also a Bodhisattva with a Tang dynasty face. One could see it was a stranger among its fellows.

Then on to the Kaiden-in Temple, not easily found. My query was brushed irritably aside when I asked a deer-cracker seller for help. Then I tried a Frenchman, who tried his GPS, which had never heard of the Kaiden-in. I moved quickly on because I could see that his command of his GPS was going to become a masculinity issue. An issue of this sort can eat up a half hour. I did find the temple down a lane where there was a garden serving teas, houses with tile roofs peaking over their walls, that ended in a mossy, grass-sprouting stair.  It climbed to the hall where ordinations used to occur. At the four corners are clay images of the Four Heavenly Kings.

Rather than going to the garden I went to a Starbucks for lunch—chicken-root-veg-wrap, potato chips, a serious chocolate something and a cappuccino.  Then home having walked 11 kilometers.

Over breakfast I met a delightful couple, he Spanish, she Dutch with their six month old. I think people who travel with babies are outrageously courageous. We had a good talk before they went down to the supermarket because their baby likes that supermarket’s baby food best.

I spent the day walking. I was at first way off course.  Stopping two English cyclists I asked, “Do you know where you are?”

“Yes,” they replied and showed me on their map. I now knew where I was.

I walked a while and then asked at a hostel also picking up their flyer. I was now close to where I wanted to be and stopped at a museum of a family’s house. It was airy with small gardens between rooms. I should think it would be cold in winter but lovely in summer.

I picked up a map and more instructions. I was now beginning to come across small shops. I bought some abalone buttons at one. Being unsure of my directions I stopped the next young man I came across who also turned out to be English. When I asked him, “Do you know where you are?” he replied, “I don’t think so.” So we huddled over the map and figured it out. I told him about the museum that was close adding, “ I think it would by nice to live in but if you lived in it you would have to live by the rules and I couldn’t do that.”

We parted company and not far away I found Kai, a complex of shops where I bought some exquisitely delicate, hand-blown glass beads. I put together a necklace and the girl strung them for me. I had lunch next door for 13 dollars, a pork cutlet, with a bit of omelet, black rice, a cup of soup and potato salad.

Then I hunted down Yu Nakagawa, which sells beautiful linens but is the sort of shop you have to visit every few weeks to see what they have. They had nothing for me. I asked about the linen fabric they were selling by the meter but she said it wasn’t suitable for wearing. They sent me to another shop but it wasn’t the hand printed blue and white fabric I was looking for.

While asking my way I found a Turkish woman, her baby stomach crawling about on the floor, selling things I’d seen in Istanbul.

That night I looked at my left eye, the one that was operated on over a year ago, because it felt irritated and found the white was wrapped in a sort of white blanket. I thought first I would find a doctor in Nara. Then I thought I would wait until Kobe where I might have a contact. Then I got a Skype from my friend V who worked with the top eye surgeons in NYC. She had a name for it, conjunctiva, not conjunctivitis, and said it was common.

I ran into the rules twice that day. While on line for my breakfast croissant at the Deli France I saw a young American woman with two new, canary yellow suitcases, whose partner was running back and forth between her and the store saying, “There are doughnuts, croissants, all kinds of Danish.” I said to her, “You can come in with the cases if you’re discrete.” She looked at me, shaking her head. “Have you been intimidated by the rule culture?” I asked. “Yes,” she replied with round eyes and a smile.  They never did come in.

Still worried about my eye, despite V’s reassurances, I decided to call my NYC ophthalmologist. The elderly mind moves slowly.  Dr. O. responded immediately, asking for a picture of my eye. Taking a picture of your eye with your I-Phone is not easy.  Besides that I took, in my nervousness, a picture of the wrong eye. I was scared.

I was leaving for Kobe because with the rigidity of the Japanese I couldn’t face rearranging hotel reservations in Kobe and Nara. I went to the train station, took the train to Osaka and then changed for the train for Kobe. I took a taxi to my hotel where I left my bags. They weren’t going to let me into the room until 3 anyway. I had Goggled hospitals in Kobe and found the university hospital.

As I was in my sumptuous lobby trying to gather my wits, I heard an Australian woman, middle-aged, next to me say something about traveling alone. I turned to her, poor unsuspecting creature, and said, “I need to talk to someone.  I am about to take a taxi to a hospital. This is what it’s about.” I explained.  She and her friend were reassuring about Japanese health care.  I got a taxi.

The university hospital, or at least the section I arrived at, was closed on Saturday and Sunday. I did find a reception desk with a man behind it. I had to be adhesively persistent, I even lassoed a passing young man in a navy blue suit into helping me—but at last the receptionist Xeroxed and then scissored out what looked like an ad with an address and phone number. I explained that I had no phone, a half-truth—so he called, gave them my name, even more difficult for the Japanese than for the Spanish. Accompanied by my suited young man I went out to a taxi. He saw me into it, explained things to the driver and said a formal goodbye. The driver dropped me at the foot of an alley where I could see a green cross above a door half way down the alley.

Inside the door was a room largely occupied by people with grey hair.

The young woman behind the desk bravely pronounced my name and was appropriately impressed by my birthdate. The doctor asked me to speak English slowly. I understand this problem. He took my pressure, the main factor if you have glaucoma, admired the result of my trabeculectomy performed at Barraquer Hospital in Barcelona. I love how doctors admire each other’s work. He handed me on to a younger man who did other tests and was much more sympathetic. The result of it all was that I was fine and I had a new bottle of drops for dry eye.

I flagged down a taxi, got to the hotel and was impatient with the bellboy who wanted me to admire my room’s view.  I just wanted to collapse.  When he left I did.

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2019 BLOG VII: Nara


I was helped up the stairs to the platform for the train to Nara by two young people, one male, one female. I was very grateful. There must have been an elevator somewhere. On the train I talked in Spanish and English with a couple who, just finishing their trip, were about to fly home to Tarragona. In Nara station I ran into two Mexicans for a quick Spanish chat.

The hotel, although quite luxe, is next door to the station. It was not at all noisy and faces the mountains. What’s between it and the mountains looked pretty ugly. This turned out to be quite untrue.

I discovered the next morning that breakfast, not included in my reservation, was around 20US. Since the hotel was steps from the station I had a choice of places to breakfast at. That morning, however, I had breakfast in the hotel. It was a high sodium Japanese breakfast but there were delicious tiny pastries, good yogurt, salad and scrambled eggs I suspect came out of a plastic bag.

I bought stamps at 7 Eleven, almost wiping out their supply of postcard stamps. I received directions to the bus that would take me to Kasuga Taisha Shrine on the other side of town. I could have walked it but I didn’t know that then. There were a few Westerners on the bus but no one who wanted to talk or join up. It was a hot day. I acquired my first prickly-heat rash; it is with me still.

You come into Kasuga Taisha through an orange torii gate, tori means “bird abode”. D tells me the orange color means the institution is Shinto.  I don’t think I went inside anything except a darkened room full of lit lanterns. It was serene to stand in the dark surrounded by lanterns each with its own pattern silhouetted by its light. Lanterns are the motif of Kasuga Taisha. People pray outside or at an open door. As you walk you are accompanied by the sharp clap people make at the end of a prayer or the sound of a bell announcing a prayer’s completion. Unlike other roofs, Kasuga’s have crossed sticks on their gable ends.

The paths are lined with moss-covered lanterns. They and the deer are a constant. The deer are everywhere being photographed, petted, not something they are very interested in, and fed, something they expect.

A wedding was going on in one court, the bride in a white kimono and white fabric hat like a folded flour tortilla. Then more lanterns, these were golden, hanging from chains in an orange corridor.

I went to a little museum that had an exhibit of Dadaiko, a pair of gigantic drums used in the performance of Bugaku, a traditional courtyard dance. The painting on the drum was worn off in the center. There were other musical instruments, strings and flutes. The masks were astonishing objects—I can only recall two—one in red lacquer descended in a series of folds from furrowed brow to his creased cheeks, to chin. The other was a bulgy eyed demon with a dragon curling over his brow, its tongue sticking out.  They were magnificent works of imagination.

I asked directions from the ticket taker at the museum for Shin-Yakushiji Temple, but it was too much for her. Japanese, it seems to me are not very good at directions. Luckily there were plenty of signs that lead me through the woods passing a blasted, enormous old tree, trunk largely stripped of bark, all branches amputated, but from one amputee sprang a bouquet of leaves. Out of the woods, across a large but empty road, and up a lane. Here I walked around a little temple that houses, I believe, a Kannon, but you need permission to see it.  A couple was worshiping despite the closed door.

A bit further along the lane was Shin-Yakushiji constructed in 747 by Empress Komyo in thanks for the recovery of Emperor Shomu’s health. All that remains is the main hall that now contains the seated Yakushi Nyorai, the Physician of the Soul. His body is carved from a block of Japanese nutmeg. His right hand forms the “Do Not Fear” mudra while in his left he holds a jar of medicine. Around him are the 12 Divine Generals whom I had never met before but who came to be more and more important in my feelings about Japanese sculpture.  Eleven of the Generals are original, made of clay, with some paint remaining on them—reds and gold. Very fierce looking, some are shouting with open mouths as they threaten with spears, swords and tridents.  They are in motion and are quite wonderful.

I was hungry, but the place I looked into only offered cakes and tea. I asked two sets of people for directions once I found the big road again. Then I realized that idiotically I was asking my fellow tourists for directions.

I came upon a restaurant by the side of the road where four or five women in my age group were having lunch together. Later I realized they live in the neighborhood. The chef-proprietor had some English. He drew me a map to the road I would need to get home. I ordered tempura and cold soba that came with the usual fixings. It was excellent. I told him so. He grinned ear to ear and said, “You make me very happy.”

I had no difficulty walking home.

The next morning I walked across to the train station and had a bacon, lettuce and tomato croissant at a sort of Deli France. Not bad. I followed that with an egg, a caramel something that was small, a regular croissant and several cups of coffee.

When I had looked out my window, it gave a fine view across town to the mountains, it was raining hard enough for me to take my poncho, the light one I’d brought with me, not the new one I’d bought in Kyoto. I also saw a woman doing her morning exercise, walking up and down, at least 20 times a long flight of stairs. Not a bad way of exercising when traveling.  I thought she was smart.

While I was eating my various croissants and coffee two Europeans came in, the man lean and a bit dour looking, the woman cheery, pretty with a mass of blond curls. They came and sat next to me. She is Dutch, he from Valencia. They live in Brussels. We talked about traveling, Japan, the Japanese, our various countries. He tried to get his morning tea in a cup with a handle, but the rule is you can have coffee in a cup with a handle but not tea. He was defeated by the rules. He noted with resignation that the Japanese are, “a little rigid.”

I walked, not a pleasant walk, beside a six lane highway, Sanjo-dori, but it got greener as I went along until on either side there was a park full of deer, the Celestial Messengers. You buy crackers at little stands to feed them. Their attitude is rather cat like, “The only reason for your existence is to buy crackers and feed them to us. If you don’t do that your have no reason to exist.” I did not buy crackers. My friend L had suggested buying carrots and I had yet to do that.

I had intended to go to the Todai-ji and its surrounding temples but was fed up enough with the rain to turn into Kofukuji Temple and the Five Story Pagoda, a 1426 rebuild of a 730 structure, very impressive even in rain. There are two other buildings the Eastern Golden Hall, rebuilt in the 15th century, and the Central Golden Hall, that my Frommer’s not-very-good guidebook doesn’t even mention.

This was my second splendiferous day but not because of mountains. This time it was a crescendo of sculptures that filled me head with dashing,, dancing leaping shapes. The experience was so intense I had to stop looking at statues because I wanted to retain and adding more was going to cause erasure.

In the Central Hall is a golden Medicine Buddha in the usual pose; behind him a leaf shaped filigree carved halo, what in Tibet is called a torana. He dates from 1877. He and the Bodhisattvas on either side of him are calm as they stand on lotuses whose petals curl up around their feet. Moving outward the Four Heavenly Kings come next—in Tibet these are the Kings of the Four Directions and some play musical instruments—with grimacing facial expressions, vigorous body movements, garments in a swirl about and behind them, all is in motion. Three have tridents and one a sword for weapons. One has a lion on his belt. They stand yelling and grimacing on rocky outcroppings. They may be 13th century by Unkei.

They are not as you might expect carved from one block of wood but parts of the body, arms, legs were carved from separate blocks, sometimes of different woods, and then joined together.

They are, and this was true of the other sculptures that overwhelmed me that day, all intense turmoil, all swirl.

Daikokuten, a version of Mahakala, is carved out of one block. In Tibet and Nepal this is a fanged, roaringly fierce god who wears a crown of skulls. Here in Japan in short trousers and tunic, carrying a sack, wearing a hood he is the protective deity of the kitchen.

The Eastern Golden Hall, besides its Medicine Buddha, accompanying Bodhisattvas, and Four Heavenly Generals, has Twelve Divine Generals fierce-faced as Kabuki masks. They are furiously theatrical.  I would love a book of photographs of the most famous carvings of these Generals in Japan.  Statues are static and still but I have never seen sculptures that more vividly portray movement, not just in arms, legs, and clothing but in facial expression. These are knock out art works. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that there is no prescribed iconography for the Generals.  The sculptor choses the posture, the expression, the weapons of each one.

I then wandered, still in the rain, into a small museum of exceptional old sculptures, unmentioned by Frommers. The first Buddha, small, of the Kamakura period, has hands and feet of exquisite delicacy. Next to him is his shrine box with shining paintings on it and above where his head would be if he were in the box, a number of small, dainty, floating spirits whether carved from wood or cast in brass I don’t know.

The Twelve Heavenly Generals here are portrayed in relief carving on cypress panels. One, Basara Taisho, glares at you with his tongue pushing out his lower lip. Nearby, Mekira Taisho, does a stomp dance brimming with ferocious glee, the sole of one foot pointing flat out at you like a kick boxer about to knock you out. I hope to carry the mental image of these carvings with me for the rest of my life.

There is as well a big room with super Buddha after awe inspiring Buddha. Shakija Nyorai from the 11th or 12th century has sinuous fingers. His left middle finger is impossibly long. There is a cast copper Buddha dating to 685.

The information on the wall says over and over of the temples of these objects, “Most recently lost to fire in 1181,” or “Most recently lost to fire in 1717.” It’s the “most recently” that gets to me.

There is a sweet-faced Kannon from the 13th century carved from wood with not 1,000 arms, but plenty, each hand grasping an object.  There are the Mythical Beings, one with a bird’s head but several with the fresh faces of young boys. A 13th century head of Shaka Nyorai by Unkei has full lips, unusually his ears are flat against his head, but the centuries have chipped away the curls on his head. Aside from the Generals, my favorite is someone called Kongo Rokish, whom you would want on your side in any conflict, portrayed with mouth open and in a second sculpture, closed. Veins protrude on his arms and legs. His eyes and eyebrows drawn together thrust a V down from his forehead. The protector of the Buddha he is all vigorous, fierce turbulence with his skirt swinging out behind him.

I went to the National Museum but could do no more sculpture. They had a special exhibit of tea bowls for which people were waiting an hour to see one in particular. I rested by looking at charming scroll paintings of the 7th century journey of the Chinese monk, Xuanzang, from Xian to India to bring back sutras. It is a wonder tale full of mountains to be climbed and rivers crossed with a successful homecoming.

2019 BLOG VI: And Yet More Kyoto

A thing I forgot. In many public toilets you hear the sound of running water. There’s a button on the wall that turns this off. The purpose, I presume is to encourage you to pee. When I was training my son from diapers to toilet my mother suggested I run water in the sink. The autosuggestion worked beautifully. But, an entire nation who has been taught such intense control that they need autosuggestion to pee? Or maybe the men’s bathroom doesn’t have this aid and it is only the women who have been taught such intense control? This is beyond control freakiness.

I started my day by going to the Textile Institute. I didn’t have high hopes of discovering anything interesting, or in particular the blue and white printed fabric I have been trying to find. On the walk I passed a nice looking dress shop and as I went by the window the young owner, in very round glasses, smiled and waved. The Textile Institute was full of loud Russians and garish kimonos. There was a museum on the top floor, a small one, displaying fabrics used in Noh plays. These are quite breath taking; one was covered with embroidered butterflies on the wing.

On my way back to the subway I stopped at the dress shop. With the help of Google translate I was able to tell the round-glassed-proprietress that I was looking for fabric by the yard. On her phone she brought up a shop, Noruma Tailor. It turned out to be on the same street as Takashimaya.  That was convenient. I headed there by subway.

Coming up to street level I had no idea where I was or what direction to walk in. I went into an attractive shop, saw a nice poncho, and went into conference with a clerk and her phone. They pointed me along Shijo-dori. Takashimaya she said was further along the same street but across the street.

Not very far along I came upon a place with a sign reading, Noruma, but it was obviously a stockbrokerage firm. I shrugged mentally and thought, “Oh well it must be some kind of glitch. I’ll go on to Takashimaya.” Walking further I came to a store with fabric piled up outside. I looked at the sign, Noruma Tailor.

As I walked in I could feel the blast of female energy. It was great. At the foot of the stairs was a limp, weary looking Australian man. I congratulated him on his stamina.  He said that if his wife didn’t come down soon he was going to become a skeleton. I met her upstairs with several rolls of fabric tucked under her arm.

I found some cheap and charming linen. They had Liberty cotton at a good price. The linen and cotton was excellent, the silk good but practically no wool, after all it is the beginning of summer.

There was a long-bearded Finnish man buying black linen for a Japanese outfit for his son. I could not get him to understand “course” and “fine” as it pertains to fabric. He wanted to buy something for his wife but was a bit lost.  I suggested the Liberty cotton but could see the idea of choosing a color and a print was too emotionally stressful.

I walked on to Takashimaya where I had a lunch of tempura and curry over rice. Okay but not thrilling. They did have in the basement food department excellent Viennese coffee. There is wonderful food of every description here but it was all take away and I had nowhere to take it away to.

The other fascinating area is on the top floor where works of art, small lacquer pieces, paintings, carvings, ceramics, clay figures, and tiles are displayed for sale. They are intended for the home and would grace any house but the prices are commensurate with the artistry.

I walked back to the first shop where I had asked for instructions and bought the poncho I had seen. Out the window I saw the 12 bus that stops across from my hotel, stopped across from the shop. I took it home feeling very accomplished.

The next day was one of the two most fabulous days I have had in Japan. I went to the front desk for instructions. The receptionist flurried by my request, explained first I must take the Keihan train line, change to the Eizan train line, take a cable car. “Then,” she said, a bit desperately, “Ask.”

At the Eizen train a uniformed woman offered me a package for 3,000. I would have tickets for all cable cars and buses plus free entry into all temples. I did it. It left me short of money but I had no time to walk to an ATM. I just made the train.

The train went above ground through landscape hovering between suburban and rural. When I got off it I followed my fellow passengers who knew what they were doing to the first cable car. Men gave me their seats on this ride, which was quite unexpected. After the second cable car, these rides were scary-spectacular looking down the mountainside, there was a bus but I saw a sign giving the kilometers to To-do Temple. I decided to walk the two kilometers. Others also decided to walk but they quickly passed me and I was alone on the root-riven, gravel path passing into a deep silence under the enormous pines that made dancing shadows with their branches in a gentle wind.  The air was clear; there were views up and down the mountain. The mountain’s name is Hiei and there are a number of temples on it.

Two kilometers is a long way on an unknown path but there were lots of signs at sensible intervals. I stopped at a cliff- edge-viewing place, as well as at occasional bits of statuary, a stray Buddha, another with a bright red bib around his neck. I arrived at the tiny ticket office with upturned eaves and showed my ticket.

The first buildings at To-do, the Amida-do and the Hokke-ji, are pink, which is striking but inside there is nothing that excites the Western eye. At the Amida I could hear a deep bell being struck as people finished their prayers and a raven calling. Down a steep stair is the Dai Kodo with paintings of the founders of various sects. I managed to miss the other temple of importance here but did have a good talk with a striking looking young black woman from LA.

I then wandered off to try to find Sai-to. There were signs but they were all in Japanese. I walked further up hill among stone lanterns and other small structures under the great pines. Finally I stopped an intently earnest young man with walking sticks and backpack. He took out his phone and compass to set me straight in minutes.

I walked back down to the tiny ticket house, along the road, across a bridge, then down a very steep stair where a huge white azalea was blooming at the bottom. Jodo-in is the mausoleum of Dengyo Dashi (died 822). It looks like a delightful little house, however. It has a dragon drinking fountain. The building is painted with soft turquoise accents. As I walked around it a Japanese couple came up behind me. When we returned to the gate we found we could not walk the direct way to Sai-to. I asked them to ask the workmen how we should go. They did. I followed them, praying they wouldn’t walk too fast. The woods were silent; sometimes on the side of a hill, in brilliant sun, I could see a huge arch of bamboo. There were stone lanterns under the trees.

We came out at Ninai-do. There two temples, Hokke-do and Jogyo-do, make a magnificent architectural statement in rectangular shapes on various levels. Their faded red paint against the forest’s green was both beautiful and vitally alive. Then further on the path we came to Shaka-do. There is a famous statue of Sakyamuni but I was not taken by it.

My companions were going on to Yokawa but though I would have loved to go it was two pm and I had reached the end of my 82-year-old energy. It was going to take a long time to get home. We parted at the bus stop.

The woman and I talked easily. The man though had his dignity and had trouble unbending, although I think he was very nice.  He just keeps his soul in his briefcase and doesn’t know how to get it out.

And it was a long journey home—bus, cable car one, cable car two, got a bit lost here by following the wrong people, train one, train two, subway. I went to a restaurant with a moving track on which there are plates of sushi. These include horsemeat sushi, roast beef sushi, ham and cheese sushi and eggplant sushi.

I walked 12km and climbed 20 flights of stairs.

I had read and been told about a flea market at a temple. It took me an hour and a half to get there by bus; I got off before I should have, so had to get back on to get to Kitano Tenman-gu temple. The grounds were full of stalls—some looked and smelled good, but some of it was scary—shaved ice with lurid colored syrups on it—clothes, gambling and a performing monkey dressed up in children’s clothes.

At this temple you pray before a series of ropes; when you finish you pull on the rope that jangles a great big jingle bell overhead.

I took a bus and subway to the Noh theater, opposite the Imperial Gardens that I never visited. I bought a 60US ticket, raced down the street to the Hieisen Hotel and had a fast, not at all bad, lunch.

The theater is small and arranged in an L around the stage that represents a temple. The audience, unlike European opera audiences is not entirely grey-haired. There are young people, many college-aged. It is, however, obviously the refined thing to do on a Saturday afternoon. Some well-dressed ladies have tea in the teashop but never seem to make it to the performance. I sat next to a woman from St. Petersburg who lives in Corvallis, Oregon. It was her second Noh, my first. It had been advertised as having English subtitles. There was a pamphlet telling the plot in English of the two plays and explaining very well the costumes and who wears what mask and the importance of the mask.

Before the play there was a lecture by an elegant small man in a kimono.  The play is titled Kamo, the name of the shrine it takes place in.

The four-man orchestra came out—three drums, one played with something on your finger that makes a clack sound, and a flute. Another drum was held at shoulder height. The orchestra also “sings”, not words but sounds. The primary sound was “Yooouuu.” This sounded like a howl to my Western ears. The flute often made the kind of sound that Western flautists avoid except in very modern music, shrill shrieks. Next a chorus of eight men identically dressed in blue tops and grey trousers came out. They sang, chanted words. What and how they sing was very similar in sound to Western music. I found it quite lulling. As in Western opera the voice production is stylized, not so obviously in the chorus, but in the characters. However there is less distortion of the voice and emphasis on volume than in opera. The walk of the actors is also stylized. If you don’t look at their feet, they appear to float.

The story is a religious one about priests going to a shrine where they meet deities. It made me think what opera might have been like if the early religious plays about Herod and Everyman had acquired music.

All women characters are played by men in masks.  You have a pretty, very white face above a big chest and broad shoulders. There is no attempt to feminize the voices. The fabrics of the costumes are magnificent, brilliant and exceedingly stiff.  Nothing flows.  The colors are forceful—orange, green, yellow.

I am not musically adept enough to explain this, but even to me it was obvious that there was what I would call an over and under movement in the music between the soloists and the singing of the orchestra. They were patterning in some way off each other. I hope that makes sense.

There was a messenger with a bearded mask. A very exuberant and large Mother Goddess who danced with a fan. Her mask had dangles around the face. The last character was, for me, the best, Wakeikazuchi, a god wearing a long red wig, a black lacquer crown with gold foil strips that represent lightning. He carried a wand decorated with white paper strips. His mask was gold with shinning bulging eyes. He had a deep voice and made me think of the Balinese Barong, fascinating and scary because of the sense of power.

There was more but I couldn’t have absorbed any more so I bid my Russian seatmate farewell. I would do it again but it was a bit overwhelming. So much to take in that was totally alien.


2019 BLOG V: More Kyoto


A friend, D, who with his wife, has been to Japan many times, has corrected me on the meaning of the doll like stones with their red bibs and hats. First, they are called Jizo-samas, which means potential Buddha. Second, they represent the spirits of children who have died at birth, been still born or aborted, or any such fatality. Because they are too young to have souls, they are thought to be stranded on the banks of the river that separates life and death.  That’s the short version.  For the full version go to https://www.nytimes.com/1996/01/25/world/in-japan-a-ritual-of-mourning-for-abortions.html

Feeling that I had been gulping temples—it’s a bit like swallowing matzo balls whole–I took a day off, worked on my journal and blog, wrote postcards. I went to my restaurant for lunch and had a fine meal of little things in doll dishes, as well as recognizable things like sashimi. It was the best sashimi, and I have been eating sashimi since I was in my late twenties, I have ever eaten. Because of the little doll dishes, you think you haven’t eaten that much and then suddenly you are very full indeed. I refused the vanilla ice cream and instead was given matcha, which is bitter and refreshing in the mouth. A woman in a fawn colored kimono and obi, in some way connected to the daughter, taught me the technique for making matcha. It requires a lot of fast wrist action to make it foam.

The next day I went to Kyoto station to familiarize myself with it, but also to find out when the trains to Nara run.  The station is super modern and interesting. I didn’t need a ticket because there are no reserved seats. All I had to do was show up.

In a strong wind I walked to Higashi Hongan-ji that is almost across the street from the station. It is enormous, dark and for me, tries too hard to impress. The downward surfaces of supports are painted white which has a striking effect against the very dark wood. Everything is dark wood, gold and white. The main hall is huge. There was recorded chanting, the smell of incense and a young monk with a broom. There’s a sort of St. Patrick’s cathedral effect. Wind hurled itself against the door that people closed carefully after them. On an outside corridor there is a glass case holding a large coil of dark rope that was used to hoist the beams of the temple into place. It was made from the hair of women who supported the reconstruction of the temple in the nineteenth century.

I then started to walk to another temple that is close by, but the wind was too much for me. I went back to Higashi Hongan-ji and tried several buses but none were going straight up the street. I hailed a cab and found that for the first time I had a woman cab driver. I was looking for a merchant’s house a block away from Nijo Castle.  She found it with only a little difficulty. It had a charming tiled, arched front gate but once through that I found that all doors were locked tight and peering in the windows it looked as though it was being used as a storehouse. What a pity that it is no longer a museum.

I walked, not far, with the wind pushing and pulling at me, to Nijo Castle, my heart caving a bit as I realized how large it was. I was feeling tired and needed water, food would have been good. The food available in the fast food restaurant within the walls didn’t look appealing. I settled for water; it helped a lot. I walked through part of the gardens watching, with others, a heron with a brilliant eye, fishing. It began to rain. I gave up on the garden and went inside.

This was the Shoguns’ residence and was intended to impress. The walls of the rooms are painted with pine tree branches, eagles perched on them, but tigers also stroll along the panels. However there were no tigers in Japan; none of the painters had seen one. They copied from a Chinese drawing they had, using their imagination. The tigers are oddly boneless.

The castle has “nightingale” floors that chirp as you walk across them. It meant you knew if you were being followed.

Coming out back into the wind, I found another taxi to a shop L had suggested for lacquer ware, Zohiko. It was far better than any place I had been to. It is charmingly laid out, sensibly arranged and beautifully lit. I told the nicer than nice young women clerking in the store that I needed a bathroom and lunch before I could buy anything. They kindly let me use their bathroom, pointing me down the street to a soba restaurant in the rain. The soba was excellent with good soup. When I went back to buy, they made me inspect my purchase for flaws. They were a delight.  One confessed, when I told her I was alone, that she wanted to go to Thailand. Of course, I encouraged her.

I walked home, doing a total of 11 km, but got directionally muddled. I asked some people in a flower shop for the river, hoping that would be understandable. Wrong. Then I popped into a kilim store asking, “Do you speak English?” The snappy reply was, “Yes, but more Kurdish.” They got me on the right route and I found my way home.

The next day I had an incredibly long bus ride, that began with the wrong bus. Buses are good for people watching.

Young girls compose themselves with definite ideas about what they are trying to achieve. The other day I saw a young woman, late teens, early twenties with her girl friend, they seem always to be in pairs, with long lavender grey hair, quite a lovely color, in a flouncy knee length skirt and fitted top printed with storybook characters.  Her buddy was in a shorter black skirt with a one-strap top but over a white top, black lace stockings and modest height ankle strap heels. There are no displays of belly or shoulder, not much arm exposure. The effect is cute and girlish. I suspect, since this is also true in Thailand, that being cute is, as in the US being blond and dumb, nonthreatening.

There are women in rented and owned kimonos, many tasteless and garish but some breathtakingly lovely. The relationship between kimono and obi is subtle in its attention to color and design.

The only male style I have noticed is the looped, heavy watch chain, sometime in the back other times in the front.

My first stop was Kukakur-ji—ji means temple—where there were thousands of tourists it seemed milling about.  The top two floors of the little square temple are gilded.  Shogun Yoshimitsu Ashikag (1358-1409) built it as a retirement home. As he had wished, it was converted into a temple on his death. It is a cube with a phoenix on top. The architecture, which is not particularly interesting, is the same as the Ginkaku-ji across town that was supposed to be silvered. The gold reflects nicely in the pond, enhanced by vivid purple iris along the shore. But that’s about it and finally not that interesting. The not-silver is perhaps more interesting in its dark wood. The current temple is a reconstruction after a monk set fire to the original. One can guess at his thought process but Mishima made it into a novel. I want to read it.

On the path here I found a dark stone threaded with orange lines like circuits of copper wire. The gardens are pleasant but there were too many people.

Back on the bus to Ryoan-ji, again lots of people but nice gardens with a pond, bridges both arched and flat, a tree on an island picturesquely propped up by a sort of wide-legged ladder. While gazing at the pond I heard Spanish and broke into the conversation. They were three Madrileños. They were interested that I lived in Barcelona but, when I told them how much I liked it, the woman turned away and didn’t want to talk any more.  We keep our prejudices in our pockets when we travel.

Ryoan-ji is famous for its sand, gravel garden with fifteen stones. It is a coup in the meditative garden field. It would be wonderful but again it is full of people, most talking. Once you walk away from the stone garden, things quiet down and the walks are green and peaceful. I found a little pagoda memorial to men who died in Burma in World War II.

I had lunch near the gate at the sort of place that would be deadly in the US. My only company was an English couple and their guide. I had soba noodles, tempura, pickles, something unknown but sweetish and matcha. I asked their guide what to do with various dishes of ingredients. I can’t tell a soup from a sauce.

A confusing but successful series of buses to Myoshin-ji where there was no one. There are many buildings before you get to the main temple.  I wandered into someone’s home.  She gently said, “No sightseeing,” so I knew I was not the first, and then she asked “Where you from?”  We had a little conversation.

There is a sub-temple, Shunko-in, where you can stay but not enter to see a bell from Portugal that was once in Kyoto’s first Christian church.

You can see several of the halls including the main Hatto hall with, on the ceiling, a superb dragon by Tan’yo (1602-1674). I saw him by going on the twenty minute Japanese tour that includes a cracked bell and the kitchens where a half dozen beautifully carved rabbits are displayed. Their creator knew and loved rabbits enough to have entered into the essence of rabbitness. On the peak of the gable of the kitchen there was a fierce mask. I now know he may have been Mahakala, in Japan the protector of kitchens. In Tibet he has other duties.

But the dragon was the main attraction. Eastern and Western dragons are different.  Western dragons, think of Fafnir, are evil, dangerous and cunning. Consumed by greed they curl their cold coils over their hoard of equally cold treasure of gold and gems. You must never tell a dragon your name for he will use it to destroy you. But Eastern dragons, though powerful are the symbols of success. When young, before they get their horns, their favorite playthings are pearls. They are joyous and gay.

When I was preparing to come here, and worried about traveling alone, friends offered friends.  I had an email conversation with one friend of a friend in the US who lives near Kyoto, but she was too far away for me to go to her or her to come to me.  A friend in New Zealand contacted her Japanese friends who cultivate chocolate on Fiji. Their chocolate is superb. Their young daughter is in Japan outside of Tokyo, as I remember. We corresponded for several weeks by email, which was fun. My Thai dressmaker, Moon, and her sister put me in touch with their spiritual advisor—I don’t know any way else to put it—who used to live in Japan but now lives in Sri Lanka. He has various friends in Japan. I contacted them resulting in a continuous flow of emails with one gentleman and, I hope, on my last day, a meeting with a woman just returning from Europe.  The connections are amazing.

2019 BLOG IV: Kyoto, Japan

I started my touring on Higashioji-dori, which turned into an education in used kimonos and quasi antiques. I was headed to Kiyomizu-dera Temple but I dawdled among the shops. At an antique shop the man motioned that he could not talk. He had a pair of masks in a box but I have no room in my suitcase. One mask had half its whiskers gone.

Finally, I turned onto Kiyomizuzaka and started up hill through more shops.  There are interesting but very expensive ceramics.

Parts of Kiyomizu-dera are painted an outrageous shade of orange—the main gate, the pagoda on the hill. The main temple is a sort of cliffhanger, having a terrace that extends out beyond the cliff edge. It is supported by open cubes of timber. The inside contains a couple of staffs supposedly owned by the warrior, Benkei. They are heavy and men try to lift them with one hand or two and then let go. The ensuing thuds form a melody that follows you through the temple. The Kannon image is not very visible in the darkness.  People, after they pray, strike a big bowl like vessel that gives off a deep resonating tone.

There are spouts over a pool. You catch the descending water in long handled silver cups and drink. Walking beyond the main temple there are other shrines, one with small statues lines up like grey dolls wearing red caps and bibs. These represent, I am told, unborn children women come to care for to insure the health of the child they are carrying.

I walked up to a view across Kyoto; then down to the orange pagoda of the Seikanji Temple, which has another view. Except for the path up hill the temple was incredibly crowded with Japanese and other tourists. This made the walk particularly nice. Coming down was even more crowded and hot. I splurged taking a taxi to the Sanjusangen-do Temple. A friend had recommended it.

There is a 400-foot hall containing 1,001 golden Kannon figures. (Kannon is the Chinese Guan Yin or in Tibet Avalokiteshvara, the god or goddess of mercy with a thousand arms who helps humanity.) They are all lined up in rows. I have no idea whether these are bronzes, in which case the casting process was extraordinary, or carvings.  They are intricate pieces, not at all plain. The large Kannon, the main figure, really does have 1,000 arms and delightful golden garlands ending in bells descend before and around her.

There are as well amazing muscular sculptures in wood of gods and demons. My two favorites are the Thunder God, a halo of drums around him and hair that would make any seriously Punk teenager envious it stands so vigorously on end. The Wind God has a bag across his shoulders with two mouths. His face is only a little human with an upper liplike a curved shelf.  Their eyes gleam because they have crystal eyeballs. Some of the other gods have been translated from Hindu origins and there is a visitor from Persia, the demon Azar, the old god Ahura Mazda. In the midst of this battalion of male gods and demons is a Mother Demon.  I would like to know more about her but she looked suitably baleful.

I went back to the restaurant I ate at yesterday. They were delighted to see me. The sister is the waitress, the brother the chef and today their mother was there helping out. I had a bowl of edamame, and a pork cutlet over rice. They formally introduced me to their mother—a grey-haired dumpling of a woman with a big smile. She was amazed that I knew the word “edamame”, amazed that I used chopsticks, although I suspect she considered my technique a bit crude. I had no way to tell her that I was taught to use chopsticks by waiters in a Japanese restaurant in Manhattan called the Miyako up a flight of stairs on, I think, 56th St. between 5th and 6th Avenues during World War II. When I left they all, daughter, son and mother came out with me and we all shook hands.

I walked 13 km today. But I started by catching the 5 bus. It was so packed that two middle aged Europeans were behind railings where normally no one would stand. It was as though they were in cage so I asked the man, “ Since you are in a cage, shouldn’t you roar?”

He laughed and the three of us began talking. They were with a group that returns home tomorrow to Toulouse. He is French, she German.  We had a lovely day together.

People kept ramming in at the back door.  When they got off they walked all the way to the front, cutting through the standing crowd like fish through a seaweed forest to pay.

We walked up to Ginkaku-ji Temple on a street with, as usual, shops on either side stopping at one with lacquer ware. I found, to my delight that P and B were easily distracted, a characteristic I love. Ginkaku is known for a building, a neat little dark square with cypress shingles on its roof topped off by what looked like a rooster but is, apparently, a phoenix, that was supposed to be covered with silver but by the time Yoshimasa Ashikaga finished it wars had consumed all the money.

We saw men kneeling on the ground tending moss, pruning it, urging it in particular directions. It struck me that it might be a wonderful life to be a curator of moss. Men on ladders arranged branches. The Japanese earnestly manage nature so that the profoundly artificial looks, at least a first glance, natural. This brings up what it seems to me may be the essence of Japanese life, control of self, nature, life. Suicide is, I suppose, the ultimate declaration of control.

It rained off and on but always gently, a Barcelona rain. There seemed fewer rented kimonos. We walked up hill amongst the managed trees and rocks. Some trees having been encouraged to grow laterally, far beyond what they can support are provided with wooden crutches to hold them up.  All is beautiful, every view. It is a small place, more garden perhaps than temple.

B, P and I started down the Philosophers Path to Honen-in Temple, which has a rural feeling. There are groups of crystal rocks or rocks that are part crystal, just the top few inches. Two sand mounds, one with a leaf sketched on it, symbolize the changing seasons. It is a Jodo sect temple. The woods were all about, the feeling peaceful. One building held an art exhibit but the work was poor. I managed to leave my purse behind in the toilet but luckily someone came after me.  Otherwise I would have gone on blithely without it.

Back on the path, walking beside a stream we saw gigantic, mud-colored carp facing up stream treading water. There were little restaurants and shops all along the path in small houses with upturned eaves, flowers lined up in pots before them or hanging from their walls.

The Anrakuji nunnery, a tiny place, was closed. We stopped at an antique/second hand kimono shop with nice things. P tried on a handsome blue and white, long, cotton kimono and then a short one of fine raw silk, but he didn’t buy. B bought a pebbly, textured as though it had goose bumps, short, purple kimono, a good color on her.

Below us on the non-stream side was a fine, new house proclaiming its expensiveness with its contoured garden, the sandy areas raked and molded.

We came to Eikando Zenrin-ji, headquarters of the Jodo sect. It is totally different from the other two temples. The chief priest’s quarters are large with a little pond on one side with a frog gurking soulfully among the reeds. There are murals on gold leaf inside of tigers, rather odd tigers (I learned why later at the Nijo Castle), whirl pools in the sea, fire covering Mt. Fuji, people sitting in gardens. Upstairs is a fountain. You collect water in a ladle and pour it over bamboo poles to make a little music.

Further along the sinuous, wooden corridor is the Amida-do containing a famous statue. The monk Eikan hesitated in his prayers.  Buddha turned to look back at him, encouraging him. This seems to have become a philosophy about looking back to help those who are not doing as well as you are. The statue is a beautiful, small Buddha with his head turned. It is set up so that you can see it from the side where the head is turned and look into the Buddha’s eyes. I was moved by the tenderness in the glance of the statue as well as by the idea behind both glance and tenderness.

I was now ravenous. There was another temple on the path but I decided to give it a miss. All along we had seen restaurants but now, at the end of the path, we could find nothing or if we found a place, they were closed. It was almost 4 pm. We did find a coffee shop. B was worried it was a rip off.  All that was available were egg, lettuce and tomato sandwiches, unappealing but we were desperate. The sandwich turned out to be delectable with fresh, crisp lettuce, juicy tomatoes and the egg an omelet. With coffee it was 15US. B acknowledged it was no rip-off.

We agreed one of the delightful oddities of Japan is how little dishonesty there is. I, who distrust taxi drivers from BKK to Shanghai, have grown to love and trust taxi drivers here.

We parted company shortly thereafter. I went to the Kyoto Handicraft Center, three floors. It is all right but I think one does better in the small shops. I arrived home tired but happy after a thirteen-kilometer day.

I had sent out pictures of various temples to which a friend responded saying I was showing only “pretty” Japan. Ugly is certainly visible here. It seemed fair criticism, so I sent some pictures of street-ugly modern Kyoto. Another friend, who had lived here as a student, commented that this critique was not fair.  While noting that, “Japan is the greatest urban planning disaster in the OECD barring Houston,” he added that, “Seismic activity means all kinds of electric and utility wires can not be buried so they blot the land scape.” He comments, “There is no zoning,” and points out that according to Japanologists, “the Japanese know what is beautiful but they do not know what is ugly. in their aesthetic of wabi-sabi, beauty is transient and to be found in imperfections. Thus in Zen era tea ceremony, the beautiful tea bowl with a crack in it is more pleasing than a ‘perfect one’…The challenge of Japan for gaijin or Japanese is to find these treasure boxes of outstanding beauty amidst the concrete and neon.”

Chinese potters, if they felt a bowl was perfect, would mar it on the bottom.

2019 BLOG III: Tokyo, Japan

On my Air Asia flight, AA has taken lessons from Ryan Air, I bought a $5 returnable blanket and purchased a breakfast of two slices of carrot, four slices of potato and some pieces of a chicken that had been raised on sawdust and ground Styrofoam marinated in exhaust fumes. There is no other way you could get chicken to taste like that.

I was taking the tiny bolsitas Dr. F had prescribed. They come in a little tube. It requires a lot of shaking at various angles to get them to appear in the palm of your hand. A young woman on the other side of the plane saw this and decided that the little, old lady must be very ill.  She sent the stewardess over to ask if I was all right.

All went smoothly at Narita until I got to Customs. There in, I suppose, the belief that I was a drug mule, they totally disemboweled my small case, putting it empty through X-ray. The large they only partially disemboweled. I was given a very intrusive body check, next door to sexual abuse. I have never, anywhere—North Korea, Saudi Arabia—had a woman guard go inside my bra and touch my genitals.  Indeed, usually the woman guard tries very hard not to touch your genitals.  In this case there was no such pussy footing about. Pun very much intended. It was horrible and humiliating.

However, once out of their unkind hands, all went well. The train was easy. I asked my fellow foreigners for directions. I picked up my rail pass. I found a taxi. He found the hotel. I paid 30US extra to get into my room early. I napped.

After a miserable lunch at the hotel restaurant, I went walking, finding the Roppingi Hills Mall, not that they use that last word. It is beautifully landscaped with lots of green, banks of pink and white petunias, and a Louise Bourgeois lady spider dangling her eggs in a bronze net above your head. She looks very pleased to be among the petunias.

Before I got into my room, I had a pleasant talk with a black, American man, originally from North Carolina, who admits to being a nomad.  He’s been in South Korea for a number of years.  Interesting.

The only glitch is, and I am embarrassed to admit it, that there are some toilets I have not been able to flush. You can have music, a heated seat–I love this—a bidet, a shower which saves toilet paper, but on two toilets encountered I could not find the flush among the multitude of options.

I bought a chit the next morning for breakfast in the hotel restaurant. There are the usual East-West anomalies.  Ham is labeled bacon. There is chicken fried in armor batter. The coffee comes from a machine; oddly the cappuccino is better and stronger than the café au lait.

I received a subway map and instructions from the staff at the front desk and took off making mistakes along the way. I realized, fortunately, that I should have retrieved my ticket when it popped up from a second slot, which I hadn’t seen, because I was going to need it to exit the station. A staff member got it for me. I took the train in the wrong direction, rites of passage in a new city in an unknown country.

Coming above ground I found there were lots of signs and followed them. I do think it is charming of the Japanese to tell you how many meters you are from your destination. I knew I was in the right place because I was walking beside a dark wall of massive stones. I turned into an entrance that lead me across a park to a view of a graceful bridge, the elegant upper stories of a tower and the massive, guarded gate of the palace. I don’t care how grand or elegant these places are, they are prisons for the inhabitants.

There were tourists of all varieties, as well as Japanese but, unlike Barcelona there was no sense of being overwhelmed. From the Palace gate I went on to the East Garden, which has renovated buildings, gardens, moats and those walls made from huge dark blocks over which trees drape their green branches. Ferns sprout in the crevices, not for long though, I suspect, since the Japanese believe in housekeeping nature.

There was a small house with an exhibition of flower paintings on porcelain and screens. Two poppy paintings by Tsuchida Bakusen on hanging scrolls from 1929 were superb. I found postcards.  The first I had seen.

The East Garden includes a number of interesting buildings; various guard houses, one enormously long one, where the entourages of visiting nobles await their masters’ return. This brought to mind the rowdy followers of Lear in his daughter’s castle. A tower fortress on a hill is handsome, solid and graceful. Trees are everywhere. Then there were the gardens—an area of trees, each given by it prefecture—a small waterfall in a cave of trees, a pond with lilies, iris along the shore, the usual humpbacked bridge with koi swimming in many colors on either side of it. The only disappointment was the bamboo grove, which was small and sparse.

At this point I badly needed a drink preferably with some sugar in it. Just then I came upon a “rest house” which unlike the other rest houses I’d seen had vending machines in it. As I groped for money, a Western man also examining the offerings in the machines, began discussing our options. I said I wanted something with sugar but not Coke.  He bought one of the Japanese drinks and handed it to me. I took it, although startled. I was a huge help. I finished up walking along the moat with the wall dark and towering behind it.

Coming out I had no idea where I was, but started walking and recognized things. A crossing-guard with some English, confirmed my sense of direction. At a place that looked like a restaurant I entered with a Western couple. We both lost interest when we found the menu was a series of quiches.

I found my subway, discovering along the way a fine view of the old railway station. I came out at my stop and decided to try a gyoza restaurant.  It was cheap, and the gyoza were very good indeed.

A Japanese sound I like a lot, the hollow clack of wooden clogs on concrete subway floors. I have seen geishas in my neighborhood but they don’t like being looked at, which considering the Western view of geishas is quite understandable.

Having breakfast in the hotel attached restaurant I looked in the kitchen and saw the “chef” pouring scrambled eggs from a large commercial plastic bag into the serving dish. Were they even made out of eggs?  I stayed away from them from then on. I tried the miso soup for which you spoon dried seaweed and dried tofu into a bowl and then put your bowl under the dispenser for the soup. I don’t know whether it is loaded with MSG or it is just the quantity of sodium but I now only eat eggs, salad, yogurt and salad for breakfast because I was getting odd effects two or three hours after breakfast. Also I would develop a monster thirst.

I was trying to catch the language of the foursome sitting next to me.  It sounded as though it might be Spanish. Finally I asked.  They were three Romanians and one Canadian.

Following directions from the front desk, I descended into the subway and with no difficulty arrived at Asakusa.  There was a way to come back by boat on the river but by that time I had lost my adventure energy. Getting out at Asakusa it was difficult to get oriented and find the temple.  There are lots of shopping streets in this area.  I walked one to the temple, Senso-Ji. The shops, since they were my first, were fascinating.  The best was an antique shop with woodblock prints cheap (5 to 10US). But they were crude prints.  He also had three of the sort of doll I’m interested in but they were not the right kind.  But just seeing them was exciting.

The temple itself is large and imposing.  The big red gate, the Kaminari-mon, has a monster lantern in its center in black and red, contributed by the geisha association.  The main building, the Kanondo Hall, has a spectacular roof with a long low sweep.  You can only stand at the entrance. The statue of the Kannon is supposedly buried beneath the hall and, therefore, not seeable.

The Five Storied Pagoda, rebuilt in 1973, is a towering eminence. There are some big and small halls dotted about with sculptures and lanterns among them, all beautiful in their reddish wood and upturned eaves.  One hall, it may be Awashimado, has a female image to which women offered, once a year, their worn needles suck in cubes of tofu.

Nearby, on top of an artificial mound, is a wrenching bronze of a crowd of men in some sort of near death situation, faces agonized.  I looked for an explanation but found no sign.

There is a hall where you can get a scarlet seal stamped in a book that you keep for this purpose and another with wooden plaques hanging outside it. There are two, difficult to see, dusty but superb statues on either side of the Niten-mon Gate, so protected by chicken wire that you can barely make them out.  They are vigorous, dancing gods both holding what in Tibet would be called dorjes.

At first I thought, there were a lot of geishas but slowly I realized young women rent kimonos and obis to wear to the temple.  The men sometimes also wore kimonos. The girls posed in outfits of their mothers’ day with elaborate hairdos and dangling ornaments but not as the Chinese pose. They are natural and a bit giggly, whereas the Chinese are all earnest Powers or Ford models. There were Japanese tourists of all ages, perhaps more than foreign tourists, a nice demographic. The temple was certainly tourist central.

I was delighted to find that the word toilet is universally understood and found one after three or four inquiries.

It was raining lightly the next morning but I decided against my poncho, although it was cold enough to pull out my down coat.

I found my way to the subway stop for the Nezu museum, changing trains. In the subway as I bought my ticket, I was helped by a young woman in a natty little uniform.  She was definitely a help, but the constant smile is a strain to both the giver and receiver.

The walk to the museum is through a nice, pricy neighborhood—Prada and such– but in a leafy atmosphere.  The museum was closed and will be until the beginning of June.  Never, of course, would it occur to me to look on line to see if a museum was open.  There were two young American women also out of luck for the museum. We talked and they urged me to go to a museum island near Kyoto.  I have read about this.  I told them I thought it was hype.  To my surprise they could see my point.

I walked back through the elegant barrio and went, again having to change lines—this time I went in the wrong direction one stop—to the Ukio-e Ota Museum of Art which has a collection of woodblock prints. I found a sign that gave me the distance to the museum in meters.  When I felt I’d reached that distance I stopped and looked about.  A fellow grey haired woman came up to me and in small English and gestures asked what I was looking for.  I pronounced the name as best I could and she pointed me up hill on a lane.  However, when I made a wrong turn she came running up behind me to set me right.  It turned out she was meeting a man and going to the museum.

It is a delightful small place with three floors.  They were showing prints and etchings by Hokusai.  Among the delights: roofs and kites, a red Fuji with white icing drizzling down its sides, a men riding bullocks, a long print of a waterfall with a burdened man on a path before it, a man under a tree with one leg partially extended conversing with five rats, Fuji through the circle of a tub under construction; clam diggers and Fuji in the angle of a Toriij; at Ejiri a wind blowing hats and papers while men bend against it; Fuji in the angle of some kind of construction with lots of triangles right down to the teeth of the saws; Fuji under the arch of water pouring from a pipe; Fuji seen between the naked legs of a workman.

He is really brilliant in his echoing of shapes and forms. Also he has a sense of humor.

When I left I saw a line of young people—the sign of a popular restaurant.  I wandered looking for a place, crossed the big street and came down the other side where I stopped to read a menu.  A chubby woman with practically no English who was leaving, with smiles and gestures urged me in, even pointing out what she had eaten.  I went in and ate what she had eaten.  It was a good Chinese restaurant.

The next morning I took a cab to Tokyo Station but once there had no idea where to go. An English woman, a guide with a fist full of passports, explained the system.  I had coffee and a sweet potato pastry while waiting at the gate to enter the platform for the bullet train.

I noticed an American man in matching pink hat and belt, a New York Times under his arm.  The Bullet Train is pretty impressive.  Next to me sat a Japanese woman who tried to converse but we were mutually unintelligible. The man I’d noticed with the pink accessories sat on the other side of her.  He was from outside of Boston—this was not apparent until he said the word “water”, as my New York accent shows up in “coffee”—and did better at conversing with her through an audio app on his phone.  She pointed out Fuji but it was swathed—head to toe—in voluminous clouds.

Arriving in Kyoto, I found a taxi and my hotel. I went to a small restaurant down the street run by a brother and sister.  The sister, the waitress, was amazed I travel alone, amazed at my age, amazed I ate with chopsticks.  Her brother, the chef, seeing I was reading Mishima told me of a bookstore nearby with English books.

I am largely over my fear and into my stride.