Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category
Much has happened in my life during the last two years making it seem even longer to me. Absorbed with changes, I have let things slide. So, like the door of the old Naramachi house, it is time to open and let some sunlight in and dust out.
In arguably the most important period in Japan since August 1945, in-fighting and power struggles have hijacked the institutions needed to lead and restore the nation post 11th, March.
The cultural qualities which are an important factor in Japan’s future recovery, industrial growth and economic success seem lacking in the political class which rules this nation. In his post of 4th, June, Garren details both the politics and the plight of the large portion of the population directly affected. This article should be required reading for all in the world concerned with public policy and it’s impact.
In the immediate aftermath of the quake, tsunami and nuclear reactor failure I read many articles and posts comparing the effects with previous calamities, almost all of which I felt underestimated the impact. Inaction and indecision will surely result in this effectively becoming the worst natural disaster to affect an industrialized country.
I struggle to understand the aspects of Japanese culture which seem to accept this worst of all possible reactions to the crisis by politicians as being acceptable. Motions of non-confidence and other parliamentary procedures calculated to make problems are not acceptable now, however, those proposing them do so with with apparent impunity. The anger of the mayors and residents of the destroyed cities and towns of Tohoku is apparently irrelevant.
Those qualities mentioned by Garren (diligence, honesty, consensus, community and perseverance) are admirable and even enviable; they are also essential to the rebuilding and restoration of modern life in Japan. Leadership and vision are required; unfortunately it seems that those who should be providing them are otherwise engaged.
Ed. Steve Naegele sent a comment which I will add here. It truly captures the essence of what I was thinking.
仕方がない (shikata ga nai)
I spent the spring of 2010 in Japan. For five short weeks I travelled the Kansai (Osaka) region on trains and on foot. The plan was simple, collect material for blogs and essays to be written later in the year. I filled notebooks with observations of life in central Japan and tried out a few in mail to a friend who encouraged the whole endeavour.
Through the summer I worked on un-posted material, testing style, selecting and editing photos. In early autumn I returned to work and creative things slowed down a little, however, a year later I was ready to publish.
At five in the morning I received a text message from Naoko stating that had been an earthquake and she was okay. Given the frequent nature of earthquakes in our part of the country I knew this was something unusual. Just how unusual, I could not have begun to imagine. Everything changed.
With the new, frightening and still unfolding reality of life in Japan, my witty observations of cherry blossoms and department store sake counters suddenly seemed to belong to a bygone era; they will remain a memory of a happy time and cool spring days. Almost a month later I am still struggling to find words for Japan post-March 11, 2011.
I have always enjoyed hot weather and thus for me there are few things more enjoyable than mid-summer in Japan.
The days following tsuyu (rainy season,) bring back childhood memories of inescapable heat and sunlight, air-conditioned Art Deco department stores and breezes flowing through the windows of slowly moving streetcars. I usually go to Japan every summer, however, this year I went in spring and a summer visit seems unlikely so I read some of my old journals to remind me of hot days in Nara, Kyoto and Osaka. I have come to enjoy the places of the remembrances as much as the memories they evoke.
Upon arriving in Nara I finally found the weather I was hoping for: hot and sunny with the smell of urban summer in the air. JR Nara station, 09/08/07
I commented that the morning was cool, but was reminded that by nine it would be hot again. Didn’t have to wait until nine; it was hot by eight. Sanjou Dori, Nara, 09/08/08
The breeze blows through the house and provides some cooling. The air conditioner is not yet purchased. First morning in my new house. Narayama, 09/08/11.
The feel of perspiration running down one’s back while standing on a platform waiting for a train is, for me, one of the true pleasures of summer. Nara, 09/08/12
Took the Yamatoji Kaisoku (express train) to Umeda. Stood at the front window and watched as the bright green rice fields of the Koriyama plain gave way to mountains and finally the urban metropolis of Osaka, once the world’s largest city. Refreshed with coffee and a tomato curry bun and am now ready for the walk to Namba. I am sure the hot morning and the shade trees of Midosuji will bring back memories of summers past. Walking on the west side I stopped in shady spots under trees to wait for the traffic signals to change. I come to Japan for the summer heat and today I have not been disappointed. Osaka, 09/08/12
Naoko took me to Kizu station and I took the first train available, a Miyakoji for Kyoto. Sat at an outside table on Karasuma and enjoyed the heat. Not sure what will happen today but the weather is good and its summer, my favourite time of year. Kyoto, 09/08/15
It is another day of the weather I came here for; hot in the sun and hot in the shade. Koriyama, 09/08/17
Had one last look at Sogo Shinsaibashi. I am sad to see it closing and will not forget finding a little taste of summer on the roof-top garden one sunny winter day. Osaka, 09/08/18
For the next few hours I will enjoy my final views of Japan from train windows. The rice fields are at the peak of summer green and Shizuoka they contrast with the blue-green of the tea terraces. Tokaido Shinkansen, 09/08/19
In August 2009 I bought a guinomi (ぐい吞； sake cup) in Seto, Aichi made by a local potter named Yamaguchi Masato (山口真人). Masato is the sixth generation of a family of potters. Their pottery is named Western Kiln and is located in Akazu, just outside the town of Seto. The cup, named Summer and shown in Fig. 2, below, is glazed with abstract oribe colours of green, orange and beige. The surface texture is rough and the colours are bright. It was the first in a small collection inspired by Steve Naegele. I returned in December and bought a second piece, Autumn.
The morning of December 5th was cool and cloudy as we boarded the Kintetsu train for Nagoya at Saidiaji. I enjoyed a decadent breakfast of curry donut and coffee; my treat as this was my last full day in Japan of this visit.
The train has a camera at the front and screens in the carriages so one could enjoy the views both from the front and windows at the same time. The scenery in the mountains between Yagi and Haibara was spectacular: muted autumn colours and mist-shrouded peaks.
At Nagoya I bought an umbrella for Naoko while transferring trains and we continued the journey to Seto, arriving in the early afternoon. Gone was the eye-burning sunshine of August, replaced with rain which alternated between drizzle and downpour. Calling Western Kiln we found it would be necessary to take a taxi from the train station to their studio. My plans for a photographic essay of the numerous Art Deco bridges of central Seto would have to wait until next time.
Western Kiln consists of three buildings: a cafe and showroom, a Meiji-era house used as a showroom and a studio. We were greeted by Mrs. Yamaguchi (mother of Masato) and taken into the cafe for coffee, conversation and a look at some of the wares. On a table just inside the door I saw a guinomi very similar in style and form, however much more subtly coloured to the one I had purchased last August. I instinctively knew this was the one. The notion of the artist struggling in adversity vanished in the rain as Mrs. Yamaguchi informed us that her son was in the studio watching surfing videos in preparation for an upcoming trip to Hawaii.
After viewing the entire selection, as expected, I settled on the first piece, the subtle oribe guinomi. Naoko gave it to me as a present. Mrs. Yamaguchi drove us back to the train station, showing us the clay quarry which has supplied the region’s potters for hundreds of years along the way.
It was not my intention to acquire a matching set, but when placed beside the original, one could quickly see the similarities and truly appreciate the subtle beauty of the form and colour of the new piece. The green and orange, so prominent in the first are found only in small patches close to the foot; it had captured the colours of a rainy autumn day in Japan.
Despite the differences between the cups I can attest that sake consumed from either is delicious. Kampai!
Having purchased a book of Kansai (Osaka) region railway maps I decided to plan a trip that would take me to some new and different places.
A trip from Nara to Nagoya on the Kansai Main Line (関西本線) appeared to be possible and of sufficient distance to be interesting. I told Naoko of my idea and she offered to help with the planning.
The Kansai Main Line is an old line which runs from Osaka to Nagoya. Using a rail travel planning site we entered origin and destination names. The response was to go to Kyoto and transfer to a Tokaido Shinkansen for Nagoya. It was not until we entered one of the mid-point stations that the site would provide Kansai line routing. One must remember that in this nation of clock-watchers nobody in their right mind would chose my route. (Sounds right for me!) The journey would require about four hours and three trains to reach my destination of central Nagoya. There would be nothing creative about the return: Tokaido Shinkansen. This promised to be a day of experiences and contrasts.
A short walk on a sunny, cool spring morning took me to Narayama Station, the local station closest to home, and the first of the three trains. After a short ride of about fifteen minutes I arrived in Kamo where the real journey began. The route for the rest of the journey can be divided into two parts; the first mountainous and wild, the second agricultural plains.
My heart sank as I boarded the two-car train. だめ！ A Seniors outing had filled both cars with eager travellers. They were well prepared: maps, notes, cameras, backpacks, snacks, candy and drinks; one might think they were going to the moon. I rolled my eyes and took the last empty seat, beside a high school student who had used way too much aftershave and hair gel. しょうがない。As Father would say at times like this, “Its all part of the experience.”
Within a minute of leaving Kamo station we were in the mountains and the view was spectacular. For the first part of the journey the line follows the Kizu river . It was obvious that the season was much earlier here in the mountains, in many places it still looked like winter although the occasional wild cherry tree was in full blossom. The mountain sides are steep and predominately covered with forests of pine and bamboo. At this time the river was not very deep, but I am sure it would chill a six-pack in seconds.
Due to the ruggedness of the terrain the line between Kamo and Kameyama is single track and has not been electrified: one could enjoy the view without the usual wires and posts of Japanese rail lines. There are eleven stations, fairly evenly spaced about ten minutes apart; a result of steam-era requirements for fuel, water and passing tracks. Today most of the stations are simply open platforms and the train crews collect the fare.
It did not take long to have one of those moments I have come to expect in Japan: an incongruous sight or event. On the other side of the valley was what appeared to be an abandoned high school. Placed on the side of the mountain it both seemed to defy gravity and have no means of access. Judging by appearance it had not been used for many years. Many of my fellow travellers made appropriate noises of surprise before returning to conversations and notes about their upcoming outing. I was glad to see that it was not only me who thought this unusual, even for Japan. A little while later we passed a crane storage yard. Large orange and white sections of dismantled tower cranes had been stacked on a plateau on the other side of the valley, close to the river. I assume the real-estate rates are reasonable in this area.
So on we went; following rivers, across small plains, through forests and the occasional town. The seniors were thrilled, often moving to different windows to take in the full beauty of the view. The kid beside me was busy alternately reading mail on his phone and trying to read my notes. As the train emerged from a tunnel, wild monkeys which had been sunning themselves on the roof of a farmhouse darted into the trees and disappeared. It happened so quickly that I wondered whether my eyes were playing tricks.
Sunlight warmed the car and cool breezes blew in while the doors opened at the stations. I could tell from the increasing excitement as we approached Shindou station that the senior tour had reached it’s destination. As the last obachan (granny) passed me on her way to the door she gave me a smile to say, “You can enjoy the rest of your journey in peace.” I returned the smile and bowed.
There was a forty minute break while changing trains at Kameyama (Turtle Mountain) This was enough time for a short walk in the town around the station. I had coffee and a pastry in a small cafe and enjoyed the sunshine and cherry blossoms which were still at their peak.
Returning to the station, I boarded an electric train for the last segment of the journey which would end ninety minutes later in Nagoya. From here on the scenery is much like that surrounding Nara and Koriyama; agricultural areas with increasing industrialization as the line approaches Japan’s third largest city. For most of the journey I sat with the map book open on my knees following the progress like a VFR cross-country run.
From Nagoya to Kyoto the flying analogy was very appropriate: I sat at the front of the first car of a Hikari Shinkansen and was able to feel and hear the wind. Much of the journey is uphill and there is a constant feeling of momentary take-off. The contrast with the Meiji-era route could not have been greater.
Grabbed a coffee and Belgian Waffle at Kyoto before boarding the express train back to Nara. It took four hours to Nagoya and ninety minutes to return. I had truly experienced several aspects of both recent and modern Japanese history.
I came to Japan for spring; now it is summer.
The cherry blossoms are finished, the leaves are green and the distant mountains are blue. This visit was everything I was hoping for; a truly great beginning to a new life.
After a little housework in the morning I walked to Narayama Station and took the train to Osaka. Click thumbnail below to see spring and early summer views of the path to JR Narayama.
At Osaka I walked from Umeda to Namba and returned to Nara in the bright afternoon sunshine.
Currently sitting in a Dotour cafe on Sakura Dori. The man at the next table appears to be about the same age as me. He is learning advanced mathematics! Seeing him obviously enjoying his study reminds me that the thing I wanted to do most during this time in Japan was to take a decision about the future. I have. I want to continue to live an active life. This is my chance for a new beginning; to learn and do new things, bringing with me the education, experience and confidence of a lifetime. I look forward to the future with excitement.