Japan, Life, Summer

Time to Write and Think Again

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.

奈良町 Spring Sunlight
Dining, guinomi, Life, Sake

Melting Snow Sake 雪解け酒

Melting Snow SakeHey Jas,

Spring weather does not get any better than this. Cloudless sky, cool breeze and green rice fields with blue mountains in the distance. Naoko’s day off so we went to Osaka in the afternoon. Spent the time walking and sight-seeing.

Listened to a very good local punk rock band playing in front of  JR Osaka Umeda station. Jeff, my God Son, a serious punk rocker, would approve.

In the evening we went to one of my favourite restaurants in Namba, 三間堂、 San Gen Dou. Take a look at the attached; it may appear to be a slushie in a box, but it is really Yuki Doke Zake, (melting snow sake.) Presented with a small dish of black sesame tofu (left), don’t believe what you learned in medical school about low temperatures slowing reactions, this innocent-looking treat will hit one like a Shinkansen on the fast track. A frozen glass is filled with very cold sake such that it overflows, filling the box which is also frozen. Almost instantly the sake — take your pick, dry or fruity — turns to ice. The challenge is to consume it without getting any on one’s kimono.

Wherever this note finds you, I hope it finds you well, J


Original note written April 25, 2010.

Design, Japan, Pottery, Sake

Autumn Guinomi

Autumn Guinomi
Figure 1: Autumn Guinomi

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!

Summer and Autumn Guinomi
Figure 2: Summer and Autumn Guinomi by Yamaguchi Masato
Japan, Trains

A Ride in the Mountains

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.