Kanako Nishimura's blog

西村香奈子 with Michael Simon      写真は、クリックかスライドショーでみてください。

2011/06/16
by kanapi
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Experimental opera, オペラの試み

2011.06.16

no images were found

友人の娘さん Lora de Montvert(ローラちゃん)の初めてのプロデュースによる。オペラの試み。普通、ピアノとオペラ歌手のリサイタルは観られますが、今回は、ピアノと共に2部構成で、オペラ、フィガロの結婚と、二部目は、アリア集。出演者は学生と若いこれからの歌手の方々。こういったオペラの会を私は観たことがなかったので、ローラに質問した所、新しい試みだという事です。また、ローラは経済を専攻したのですが、オペラも歌えるし、また、おばあ様は、長くバレンシアガで働いていて、ヒストリアンとして世界中の服飾研究者が訪ねてくるほどの方、また、お母様もミュグレーで働いていたという、フアッションにも造詣が深い環境に育ったため、この衣装!さぞかしタイトな予算の中で、準備は大変だったことでしょう。

オペラは好きで、時々は行く私ですが、奥が深くって、偉そうなことはいえません。でも、リサイタル中、気分がとっても良くなって、聞き入ってしまうのです!素晴らしかったと思いますし、世界中でこういうリサイタルが身近にあれば、私の様なオペラ好きにとってもっと頻繁に、気軽に楽しく参加できるし、演奏家の方々にとっても、本番機会がより多い事はいいのでは?と、思ってしまいました。衣装だって、想像力を駆使して、豪華でなくっても、手作り感覚で十分素敵だと思います。

ローラは、今夏はパリでもう一度、そして南フランスでも何か所かで、この会を予定しております。そして、もっと広めていきたいとも!陰ながら、エールを送っていますね!

Our friends’ daughter Lora de Montvert’s first production was extremely unusual. We expected the usual piano and opera singer’s recital of say an aria from The Marriage of Figaro. This was an actual mini-opera, with costumes, acting, and a cast of mixed students and young talent. This is remarkable, even in Paris. I am a fan of opera and had to like this much better than the usual recital form. I’d like to see more of this type of recital, and it’s probably more fun for the players as well.

Besides singing opera, Lora studies economics. Her grandmother used to work for Balenciaga, and is now a source for historians. Her mother worked for Mugler. It’s a fashion family, and you can see this influence in the show’s costumes. The recital will also play in the south of France this summer, and she’d like to take it on the road elsewhere, too.

2011/06/15
by kanapi
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Place St. Sulpice

今回は、サンスルピースのアパートをかりました。なんといっても、上の猫!初日から、窓をノックして訪ねてきます。アパート内での飼い猫のよう。甘えん坊の人懐っこい彼女のお蔭で、滞在中家に帰ることが楽しみになりました。

We rented this apartment in Place St. Sulpice and it came complete with a housecat, who immediately demanded entry. Inside, she became Queen. Thanks to her, I looked forward to coming home every afternoon.

2011/05/29
by kanapi
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Unagi dinner

Kanako made some yummy unagi to tide us through a rainy week.

Also featured were shirae mashed tofu with edamame and vegetables, string bean ohitashi, shirataki yam noodles, lettuce-tomato salad, dashi-maki tamago daikon omelet, and unagi on rice. Ii desu ne!

2011/05/10
by Mikie
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Shibuya Market

Since Tani-san told us about Shibuya Market, it’s become my favorite place to shop, particularly for fish. Here are two of the three fish areas:

Fish Counter 1 Fish Counter 2 Dinner 5/10/2011

The last pic is our dinner last night. We had shirasu raw baby sardines with fresh dill by each plate, at the top is a pickled cabbage salad with kombu seaweed that’s nothing like sauerkraut, then cucumbers in sumiso white miso and mustard sauce, then udo (a rhubarb relative) fried and pickled, then hotaru-ika baby squids on a salad, cherry-leaf rice not pictured. Of these, only the cabbage and the cukes are available in the U.S. And I doubt many U.S. residents could eat a baby squid—the eyes are too prominent!

In fact, everything I eat lately, I’m wondering if a typical American could choke it down. Did I mention that when I first came to live here, every day for a whole year I ate things I’d never had before? What’s a mother to do?

2011/05/03
by Mikie
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May 2 Chinese feast

Kanako, Kirara, and Kozue had a private feast on May 2.

Gee whiz Golly

Clockwise from the bottom, we have fried peppers with dried baby shrimps, drunken baby shijimi clams, Scallops in Chinese black bean sauce, coriander garnish, Taiwanese oyster omelette, hijiki with udo and cucumber salad, and in the center is Chinese stewed pork in oyster sauce. Yay!

2010/12/24
by Mikie
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Tsukiji

No Japan travel blog would be complete without a trip to Tsukiji Fish Market. I paused to admire an Italian fish restaurant that reminded me of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.

Someday they’ll renovate this old mess but until then, even pedestrians like us can go straight into the wholesale market.

Tani and friends

We came with our neighbor Tani-san, on the right here. She used to work in this very store, sitting inside the glass booth and dealing with invoices, cash, and such. A cousin half her age handles it now.

Their stand is next to a serious tuna wholesaler and an octopus specialist. I tend to eat smaller fish–less mercury–but once in a while, tuna can be nice. But how do you cut tuna frozen to -60°F?

Band saw, no problem. For room temp tuna, we use a five-foot sword. Notice the serious piece of marlin behind the guy cleaning up on the right. This type of marlin is on the Greenpeace International seafood red list. The red list is a list of fish that have a very high risk of being sourced from unsustainable fisheries. Japan has about 2-3% of the world’s population but eats 17% of world fish production. I don’t want to spoil anybody’s fun but actually ‘unsustainable’ is an understatement. However, realizing that boycotting these guys would be pointless, we went ahead and bought several kilos anyway.

2010/03/14
by Mikie
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Nearby Chiba

looking at goats library and tearoom restaurant kitchen

The closest approximation to the Jersey shore for New Yorkers in Japan would be Kamogawa in Chiba. We took an early spring vacation there recently. After a night at an oceanside resort, we had tea at a farm belonging to Tokiko Kato, a singer and natural foods proponent. Her library was interesting.

Look ma, I'm a daimyo. Chiba shrine shrine 2

Naturally, we visited a shrine or two. Chiba is generally “take a drive with the kids” territory but apart from that, we had lunch at a cool soba joint run by a biker and his woman, both Tokyo emigres. I admired the fellow’s BSA 440 antique and the food was yummy. We took a walk along the Yoro River that was nice, too.

2009/07/28
by Mikie
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Tokyo Italian

Having written a post on Kyoto Frenchi, dear reader, I thought I’d treat you to Western food actually eaten only 2 kilometers from my apartment. Terauchi. Authentic. Italian.

sashimi by another name, with fennel mushies ovoli mushies

I chose a pinot bianco to start. The first course after the homemade pickled amuse bouche not pictured was sashimi. Yes, they called it by some Italian name and it had fennel sprigs and olive oil but ya can’t fool me, that’s snapper sashimi. It wasn’t so much olive oil as manna or liquefied sunshine. We then had exotic ovoli mushrooms flown in from Italy the night before,

truffles on homemade pasta lamb chops pork tenderloin

and then a perfectly executed home-made pappardelle with summer truffles. As if that weren’t enough, we proceeded to absolutely American-sized platters of delicious grilled lamb and pork, cooked to perfection. I had ordered a modest 2001 Barbaresco on the theory that the next hill to Barolo should be almost as good, and it worked well. I was so exhausted I forgot to photograph the desserts, but suffice to say that for 3, this was so much food that it will take a week to recover. ‘Ey, goombah!

2009/07/01
by Mikie
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Laos in Translation

I realized that in the last post, I got through an entire rant about Laos in history without describing my actual experience there—how embarrassing. Luang Prabang has one 2 km long main street lined with shops that are mostly tourist trap showrooms. After 5 pm, the “night market” (that I think is really an “evening market,” but anyway) starts up, selling the same stuff that’s in the stores but at 1/3 the price. There is a central downtown part (where the ATM’s are) lined with reasonable eateries and Eurotrash kids eating. Tuk-tuk minicars line the roads waiting for customers but amazingly, not bothering you as you pass by all that much.

My favorite Lao food is simply the sticky rice, preferably the purple whole-grain, but even the simple long-grain white sticky rice is delicious. You pick up a chunk, roll it into a ball as if it were the center of a slice of Wonder Bread, dip it into the curry or whatever, and eat. Mmm, wholesome, lush, tropical, breathtaking, savory, and filling, kinda like garlic mashed but with a more universal taste that you can eat meal after meal.

Of course, there is an Aman Group imitation place in town, a villa hotel with sleek, obsequious staff and everything smelling like lemongrass, but our humbler hotel on the main street served us fine. Essentially, you can go almost anywhere in Asia for the Aman or Banyan Tree experience, and it’s lovely, but as hard as they try to localize each one, it lacks a sense of place, an identity. The Myanmar place is rather like the Moroccan, like Singapore, etc.

It’s absurd but I must be one of the first people to go to Laos to quit drugs, namely nicotine. In retrospect, it would have been better to quit before I had ruined my gums and teeth. Also, from a certain distance, it seems odd to spend so much effort producing a temporary euphoria only to have to repeat the experience twenty or so times per day. Most of the things I repeat daily are salubrious—I learn one kanji a day, or study 5 minutes of this or that—only tobacco and alcohol do I repeat constantly with so little benefit. It’s like that joke about how second prize is you get to do it twice, and third prize is you get to do it three times…

Today we took the twin prop plane back to BKK, which really seemed like Miami or Newark this afternoon, flipped the taxi to the State Tower, where Sakae-san lent us her digs, changed and went upstairs to the 64th in the next-door Lebua Hotel for incredible Italian food at Mezzaluna, with four Thai guys honking opera tunes in the background, truffles, caviar, wines at 4x the world prices (mostly due to tariffs, like 94 Guigal Cotes du Rhone for nearly $150, argh!) in glasses 3x tall, lobster, crab, and mercifully, no lemongrass except on the o-shibori towels, which they gave us four times in one meal. Wonderful little breads, rolls and sticks and some hummus-like stuff instead of butter, which I appreciate. A terrific amuse-bouche and then, between courses, a breathtaking elderberry sherbet.

Mezzaluna view 2 Mezzaluna appies Mezzaluna view

We bowed to the German chefs on the way down to Mozu, or whatever they call the 16th floor bar/spa/pool/breakfast deck, where we hove to in a clamshell apparatus made of rattan and cushions and worked our way through a list of 200 cocktails, shooters, jellies, and so on, the pool dangerously close by and rain beginning to jangle on the awnings. Bangkok was brilliant against a moonless sky, and ribbons of returning commuters tinged the ground red and white.

Yes, in short, we prefer civilization, but we don’t know exactly how much until we leave it and come back again.

2009/06/27
by Mikie
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Luang Prabang, Laos

We’re staying in the former house of Souvanna Phouma, who campaigned against French colonization from 1945, became Prime Minister in 1951, and whose non-communist stance was in and out of favor for nearly 25 years until the Vietnamese finally kicked him out in 1975 and substituted his communist half-brother Souphanouvong in his stead. I said that this struck me as confusing but Kanako yawned and said politely that she had seen larger houses before, and larger pools, too. I can vaguely remember the voice of John F. Kennedy talking about Laos around 1959, and how that sounded in a Boston accent.

Mekong tributary messed up stairway random wat

I can’t imagine what insanity prompted Napoleon to want to conquer Indochine in the first place except that it was tempting to steal some of the enormous British Siam and it seemed free. This led to the demarcation of some bizarre borders on the world map. There are more Lao speakers in Thailand than Laos and more in Bangkok than in the capital of Laos, Vientiane.

It’s actually not so surprising that the area is politically messed up, as along with the relatively well-known Hmong people, and the eponymous Lao, many tribes or peoples share this zone: the Karen, Akha, Khmu, Lolo, and another 40 or so groups, some of whom are probably the ancestors of the native Taiwanese. I guess I find this fascinating, since most of these people live in harmony with each other, simply donning different headbands and bracelets to tell each other apart, while leaving war to the so-called ‘civilized’ powers. If only the Jews had it so easy.

2009/06/25
by Mikie
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Laos for beginners

walking by nice li’l temple Buddhist tchachkes

We breezed through Vientiane, where our pals Akiko and Iori have a huge guestroom. I’ve never been in a communist country that maintained such a passion for Buddhism. Of course there are a bunch of Theravada temples, with the lesser ones apparently done in yellow spray paint and the major ones done in gold leaf, but not only that–you can buy your own Buddhist tchachkes on the street, where there are shops that sell these architectural ornaments in various sizes.

The communist influence is apparent in the Puritan laws–sex with foreigners is forbidden, as is extra-marital sex in general, drugs are prohibited, smoking not allowed in most of downtown, etc. This is handy, as K and I are about a week into a no-smoking program, and we’re not as tempted in Laos as we would be at home. We’re in considerable pain, though.

fancy dinner Kitchen of 888 Pho, called “feu” in Laos

Of course we had fancy dinners, including dancing girls that do uncomfortable looking poses with their hands and fingers and generally prance about while paid-up ghouls from the musician’s union honk on a mouth organ called a khene. It’s overrated. We had better Laotian food down-market, noodle soup called feu that is very similar to Vietnamese pho but with fried garlic on top, among other differences. The kitchen of Akiko’s favorite feu dive, called 888, is outside its front door, where nets of noodles are arrayed around a vat of soup and another lady cuts the raw greens at another table. It was delicious.

a gift economy want some of mine? fancy accommodation

Much of the education in Laos goes on at monastery schools, the basic definition of the word wat. Young men attending the wat schools (like this one in Luang Prabang) go begging for food every morning from about 5:30 am, where townspeople line up to dispense mostly rice and bananas, and make the occasional offering to temple deities as well. This golden fellow has real sticky rice in his bowl. Off to the side on the temple grounds, by the way, was the most elaborate and wonderful chicken house I’d ever seen. That’s really silly.

2009/05/26
by Mikie
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The Japan Alps: Kamikochi

Kamikochi 1 Kamikochi 2 rushing stream

Continuing our exploration of the natural beauty of Japan, we are in the Japan Alps, staying at the Imperial Hotel here, a very cozy place, walking about 15 km a day up and down the Azusagawa River below an impressive range of mountains. The highest is 3,100 m. They all have unpronounceable names. It’s very nice; everyone here is at least 100 years old. (I decided that eating Japanese food makes you old, or at least look old, so I stuck with the Caesar Salad, pasta, and today, the Stroganoff, washed down with Imperial branded Gamay Beaujolais.) I look old, too. I just quit smoking so my body is suffering from a shortage of drugs, but then it has been for years.

The Imperial was built in 1931 or so, and Ryunosuke Akutagawa (the author of Rashomon) helped make it famous. That and importing Danish pastries, albeit from Vienna, in 1958. In those days you could drive here, but now it’s billed as a car-less resort, and you have to park down in town and take a bus up. It’s a Japanese first: my cell phone is out of range but I’m happily online. Go figure.

walkway  dizzy carpenters wildflowers

There are great lengths of boardwalk like this, with the attention to detail that one comes to expect of Japanese carpenters, bending around trees without cutting them down. Then one comes to fields of wildflowers like these nirinso, just in season here in the Alpine spring of late May.

swamp fern

It’s a gigantic park. In fact, I’m more fond of the swamps than the mountains, probably because they’re not quite so far uphill. There’s not much in the way of wildlife but the ferns and birds are plentiful, with many nightingales (uguisu) to entertain us.

I rest my tired feets. Selah.

2008/09/13
by Mikie
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Bangkok

Muy Thai dining snacks

Our Thai activities included a male stripper show (I’ll spare you the pictures), Muy Thai boxing, dining (fine and otherwise),

Omiyama skiing temple destroyed

watching our pal Omiyama water ski at a country lake, touring temples ruined in the Thai-Burma war a few centuries ago,

whoa! cheeese kiss

riding elephants, yes, all the usual suspects.

We met quite a few of the local Japanese community, who seem to be faring better than the Americans here. They take part in the lively import-export scene, mostly decorative items shopped in Vietnam and Burma, because Thai prices are already too high. They all urged us to move here, or at least, come back real soon. It was flattering but we sensed a bit of loneliness in the appeals.

Bangkok is a real city. Atop our apartment hotel, on the 64th floor, we enjoyed world-class Italian food prepared by a huge team in an open kitchen supervised by two bald Italian tyrants, and paid a check that would have been aggressive even in Tokyo. Wine suffers a 250% import duty, so we restrained ourselves to Gimlets. K and I unanimously decided that we could never live here in a gazillion years, went for some cheap massages, and boarded the jet home.

2008/07/23
by Mikie
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Kyoto Frenchi

Kiyomizu in Yasaka

Yes, we took the requisite shrine and temple pix, like Kiyomizu here, perched on a cliff overlooking the city, and like this shrine to beautiful faces, one of the Yasaka Shrines, patronized by geishas and by Kanako, too.

Kamogawa River microtomato

The inclement weather reduced the number of tourists so much that we actually got unreserved seats at one of the Pontocho night spots by the lovely river, where they served me a new thing: a microtomato.

our chef

Which brings us to our topic–Kyoto French Cuisine. Kyoto Frenchi, as it’s called, is its own hybrid invention. It’s not French, nor Japanese kaiseki exactly, and you pretty much can only get it here, but it’s really amazing. The setting resembles a luxurious sushi bar without the coolers of fish in front, but with similar service, which by the way, should be attentive and almost chatty. Think high-class bartender, not the fish-cutter workers in many places.

appies  3rd soup

I missed snapping the first course but here’s the appetizer boat for 2, filled with tiny morsels in tiny dishes. Next was a veggie terrine with a few dots of the incalculably valuable caviar. Then a soup of pompano (called aji here) in an antique lacquer bowl.

5th 6th 7th

5th course was a snapper (guji) in saffron sauce with a fried lotus root. 6th was a foie gras risotto with a touch of corn. 7th came a touch of sherbet with an accidental funny face on the cream.

Kobe beef steak

The main was Kobe beef. I had the steak and K chose tenderloin. The various sauces were completely unnecessary although quite delicious. It’s a good thing they didn’t serve a big portion, as we were pretty full.

dsc02596.JPG  dessert 2 tea

We chose our desserts but both came with a spoon of citrus gelato. Excellent coffee, of course, and then the Japanese touch, a final cup of tea.

2008/07/20
by Mikie
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Inner Nara

Probably the most famous temple around Nara is Horyuji, a sort of Buddhist university. Its treasuries house superb sculpture and paintings. I don’t know if it was fortunate but the day was so bleeping hot and humid that the place had relatively few visitors, and was easy to get around. Our guide pointed out the slender figures of the local sculptural style and the mysterious smiles on their faces reminiscent of 5th century Greece.

deer park

Kanako took her turn feeding the famous deer in the park. Greedy little suckers.

Jikoin tea room

Trekking around Nara brought us to Jikoin Zen Temple, a place famous for its tea rooms and events. A younger monk started to lecture to a group about it, so we passed him and headed directly for the tiny tea rooms, where an older monk appeared. Since Kanako and I looked interested, he told us about the subtle differences between his school of tea, called Sekishu, and Kanako’s Edo style. Then the old boy got really talkative and asked if we knew which was President Bush’s favorite Kyoto temple. Well, mine is Ryoanji with the wonderful rock garden but Bush would like showier stuff. I pondered a bit and guessed the Golden Pavilion. Yup.

2008/07/17
by Mikie
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Outer Nara

Dorogawa Hachimangu Local 802 need some drugs

We’re back in the land of shrines and temples, kids. Tonight we’re at Tenkawa Shrine, waaay up in the hills outside of Nara on the Kumano border, surrounded by steep hills, pilgrims walking the trails, and mist. Tonight’s fun is about experimental music, performed on a stage paid for in the Bubble by a group that would look right at home in the 1970’s East Village. There’s a warbler-flautist who’s actually terrific, a guitar droner, a harp, a kokyu, some assorted ladies from the union hall blowing Tibetan horn, and a guy playing that most ancient of Japanese instruments, the synthesizer. The statue of Sarasvati looks on in astonishment and yes, we’re wearing bug repellent. Either the group or I am suffering from an insufficiency of LSD. Photos were forbidden at the inspired Noh drama we saw. We also ran into some excellent New Yorkers who were escorting a Tibetan monk around Japan, very nostalgigenic.

doughty guide Tomita  graveyard of pilgrims

We’ve been running with this doughty guide Tomita-san and his pal Morimoto-san. Tomita retired and decided to study Kansai monuments. He did so well at it, he became the Chairman of the Association of Volunteer Tour Guides in Kansai. Here, he takes us to the entrance of a trail that women aren’t allowed to walk, a pilgrimage trail that leads up a relatively small 700m mountain. At the bottom of the hill is a graveyard for those who regularly made the climb.

pilgrims 1  pilgrims 2 where it started

These are pilgrims on the march. Some are blowing conch horns, which the ancient Japanese used for hill-to-hill communication.  And this Nara spot is where the first Emperor was crowned around 600 AD–before him there were just kings, see. On the one hand, it’s easy to see how farmers can get two rice crops a year from this fertile valley–on the other, the heat and humidity here in July is probably better experienced in a blog than in person.

2008/05/19
by Mikie
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Kumano Culture

Shingon monastery entry our room

We’re staying at a Shingon Buddhist monastery, where we meditated in the afternoon before the excellent vegetarian dinner, and where I remembered that I don’t get along with any religion-like context, no matter how benign. I don’t do well with rules even if they’re supposed to be good for me. I passed up the morning chanting to drink coffee and study my kanji instead. Nice building and garden, though. Never again.

big temple

For the curious, Mahayana Buddhism’s main esoteric offshoots are Tibetan and Japanese. Mahayana’s precept is that anyone can achieve Nirvana in their lifetime. Esoteric Buddhism further says that learning tricks like meditation or tantric skills can be useful on the road to enlightenment. Japanese Buddhism goes one step further, implying that satori or enlightenment can come in an instant, spurred by a question or the sound of a distant bell.

rock garden in Sanskrit

Now the Japanese penchants for information, study and imported goods leads to their Buddhism being extremely well connected to the original Indian methods and gods. I met a priest who characterizes his shrine as being dedicated to Sarasvati (the one that was Brahma’s wife and quite the musician.) Buddhism here is also very informed by Sanskrit sutras, Tibetan mandalas, and other imports. Some of the priests carry those cool Tibetan staffs that have three bronze rings at the top. The rock garden outside has a Sanskrit letter raked in its gravel.

Niutsuhime shrine

Shinto began 500 years before Buddhism was imported, when the first Yayoi rice farmers prayed for good harvests. When Buddhism was imported, there were already lots of Shinto shrines here, and shrines and temples had intermingled functions. This continued for 1,400 years until the Meiji Restoration in the late 1800s, so it can sometimes be difficult to tell a shrine from a temple. Either or both can have fading paint, torii gates, fantastic carpentry, and roofs made of hinoki or thatch.

Keep it simple: a temple is more likely to a have multiple pagoda roofs and statues of Buddha, whereas a shrine is more likely to have priests wearing white, large origami and very heavy rope strung about, and a rope hanging down at the front door attached to a bell above that believers ring to attract the attention of the gods and then throw money in the box just for good measure.

Quick: shrine or temple?

shrine or temple?

Right, a shrine. See the rope above the doorway?

Mount Koya new sofa concept dragon’s back

Kumano has lotsa shrines and temples. The most major zone is definitely the headquarters of the Shingon sect of Zen Buddhism on Mount Koya. A Buddhist theme park, it sports almost 80 groups of temples, including this monster one with an enormous rock garden depicting the back of a dragon emerging from the clouds. Apart from this zone, most of the other religious buildings are shrines scattered here and there along the pilgrimage routes.

cemetary graves

We went to the most serious Japanese cemetery I’ve ever seen, which reminded me of Pere Lachaise in Paris. It had the graves of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (the shogun that unified Japan) and of his vanquished enemy warlord Oda Nobunaga as well, a fact that must be causing Oda some posthumous grief. It also had areas devoted to many major corporations.

hilltop shrine empty hideaway

In Yoshino, we climbed really far up a mountain to reach the shrine at the top…only to find it empty! Very austere and Japanese, don’t you think? Next to it was a little hut where Yoshitsune hid from his brother-in-law Yoritomo in the late 1100s, quite a famous story. Well-preserved hut, too.

With that, we came home, a place very nice to return to, and this blog closes for now. Happy trails!

2008/05/15
by Mikie
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Kumano Nature

Whale Aquarium silly whale tricks yum

I’ve never been to a whale aquarium before so we went to the one in Taichi. They have dolphins, too, but I didn’t know that you could train whales rather like they train dolphins, although on a simpler scale. Whales won’t jump through hoops or do arithmetic but you can get them to wave, swim on their backs, and do synchronized tricks. They’re bribed with fish and pretty tasty looking squids.

So I’m standing on the dock watching the show and this Japanese lady next to me marvels at my language ability. I told her I got motivated because they fed me a lotta squid. Har har.

foot bath 1 foot bath 2

I’ve also never seen a town with public foot baths filled with hot spring water, but here are some next to the tuna docks, where we ate the best tuna I’ve ever had (and some pretty tasty squid, I might add.)

Genseirin forest Third Falls Albino wildflowers

Next day, we hired a guide to walk us through a local forest that few make it to. Abundant wildflowers and waterfalls made this a lovely trek.

Kawayu Hot Spring right in the hot river ducks by the hot river

To rest up from the trek, we went to a river where you can dig by the side of the ice cold stream and find hot water to soak in. Rather than dig our own, we used the hotel’s convenient pond. It’s remarkable to enjoy a hot bath in such a natural setting, yes?

2008/05/13
by Mikie
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Kumano

While the news from the US indicates declining freedoms, we’ve been enjoying ours.

Kumano hills 1 Kumano hills 2 Kamikura Yama Shrine steps 1

From Kansai International, a very well-organized affair, we whipped through an endless series of tunnels, the construction of which probably fed the local politicians and Yakuza for decades, and arrived in Tanabe, Wakayama Prefecture, the Kii Peninsula, a steep mountainous volcanic area loosely known as Kumano, even though Kumano is only one of its towns, and not even a major one at that. I call it the Land of the Rising Stairs, for all the flights I’ve climbed recently.

land of stairs 1 land of stairs 2 Yunomine inns

Before the tunnels were built, before the airport was convenient, Kumano was very hard to reach. Its hot springs were reputed to cure all ailments, and a steady stream of pilgrims braved four major routes to here, from Osaka, Yoshino, Nara, and Ise. At one point there were so many pilgrims traveling so frequently, they were compared to ants. The well-marked trails are still there, and see quite a bit of traffic even today, contemporary pilgrims outfitted at North Face and Reebok, with telescoping metal walking poles and nylon straps everywhere. Think of it as the Santiago de Compostela of the East, or perhaps the Disneyland of its age: mild inane fun for all ages. Instead of the film legends of Mickey and Scrooge, Kumano has Kabuki lore about Oguri and Princess Kiyo, mostly in a minor key concerning frustrated amours and dragons. You can drive to some of the sites but to reach most of them, you walk over the steep hills what looks like a boy scout trail through the National Park among the cedars and ginkos.

Hatayama Jinja dsc02200.JPG

The innkeepers were waiting for the pilgrims, in fact, praying for them. There were hot springs galore, difficult mountain trails with 99 tiny shrines along the way leading to one of three grand shrines at the top, tiny poetic inns with elaborate Buddhist vegetarian meals, and fish and meats like wild boar for the less religious. History doesn’t record whether the pilgrims were actually cured of anything—certainly not alcoholism—but they were certainly relieved of their loose funds. Here’s a “chaya” or coffeehouse next to one of the shrines with some antique agricultural implements in front and a thatched roof on top.

old bath

We steeped in the thousand year-old Tsuboyu, a World Heritage site. Almost in the river at Yunomine, next to the pool where visitors may simmer bamboo shoots and eggs in the hot mineral bath to give them an interesting flavor, a wood shack surrounds a stone pool into which the hot spring is piped. Each group gets a half hour by reservation, and then can go to the regular hot tub for as long as they like. The strong waters didn’t do anything for my fresh air poisoning, though, so I was forced to forego the nearby pub and take a little nap at the inn.

Yunomine’s meaningless name puzzled us so we looked it up. It turns out that the calcium-rich waters leave deposits that eventually turn into stone. The temple in the center of town contains a sculpture made from such stone. At one point, an ingenious monk figured out how to get hot milky onsen water to come from a hole in the idol’s chest. Now a chest is a “mune” and hot water from it would be “yu-no-mune,” but this was eventually Bowdlerized into the current Yunomine.

Hongu Taisha huge torii former Hongu site

The next day, our first stop was Kumano Hongu, the largest shrine in the area. The shrine originally sported this enormous torii as an entrance but floods were so severe that the entire shrine was moved about 50 years ago to its current location up a huge flight of stairs. The original location by the river was much nicer, if you ask me, but it must’ve been a nuisance to rebuild the place every hundred years or so after the next flood.

rice farmer footprints seedlings

I got interested in the old guy planting his rice shoots by hand in front of the torii; those are his footprints in the mud of the paddy.

tea field Dragon fountain

We returned to the trail and passed by some of the wayside shrines. Here is a tea field that belongs to a chaya next to one of the shrines. You’re supposed to wash your hands before praying, and here’s the bronze dragon to make sure you do a good job of it.

Takagi Jinja tree 2 tree 1

We drove up the incredibly steep 1,100 meter high Tamaki mountain to see the shrine on top. Don’t kid yourself, man, these hills are really steep and the driving is only possible because the civil engineering is fantastic. Nobody knows when the first shrine up this hill was established but a funny round stone remains up in the cloudy peak that must date over 1,000 years ago. A really impressive old structure greeted us near the top. What is an animist but a person who collects tree and stones? Here is an unusual twisted tree and here is a 3,000 year old cedar between two shrines.

Kamikura Yama Shrine healing statue Nachi Falls

We then proceeded to climb about a thousand steps up to two enormous enshrined boulders that Shinto animists have worshiped for over a thousand years. After that, we drove to another shrine that had this statue of a healing saint sitting in a chair. The shrinekeeper told us that some people prayed for various infirmities and others prayed for I thought about praying for 8-dan but kept to my rule about never bothering the gods lest they bother me. We then passed by a 133 meter high waterfall and on to the next shrine.

diagram painting boat 1 boat 2

The next shrine really put it all together for me, in the form of this diagram painting. Notice the Nachi Waterfall top right. Here you can see the pilgrims visiting one shrine after another. You can see fancy dudes being entertained at the major shrines and various intellectuals and such studying at the lesser ones. At the very bottom you can see a funeral procession for three tiny figures preparing to set out to sea in a 12 foot boat. Here is a replica of the boats used, and a detail of the inside. Typically, people went one at a time rather than three in one boat.

This is a funerary boat for a monk at his life’s end, his enlightenment achieved, hurrying to get to the next world, the heck with the rest of us. Twenty four lucky enlightened souls actually made this journey during the couple of hundred years during the Edo period. The twenty-fifth made an interesting story. A general who lost his war boarded such a funerary boat and hastily paddled it to an island not all that far away, where he hid from the conquerors. His name is entered among the list of the dead, but his is known to have survived.

2008/03/25
by Mikie
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Did somebody say ‘volcanic’?

Mountain Girl

I never imagined that K would enjoy the effort of climbing mountains but here she is, stranger than fiction, enjoying a quiet repose at 900 meters on Kirishima’s easiest hill. Kirishima is part of Kagoshima prefecture, an area full of volcanic fun. Kiri means ‘fog’ and from any hill, the fog makes the region look like an island chain.

lava viewing park the active one of 3 peaks in hot water again

A 5 minute ferry ride from the downtown metropolis of Kagoshima City is Sakurajima, home to a nasty volcano that erupted in the late 40s, spewed 3 billion tons of rock, and connected itself to the mainland by filling in what was once a strait. We walked around a pumice park and then hit the local hot spring. In spite of Martin’s advice to keep pix of me in the bath out of this blog, here I am, in hot water again, by the seaside, under a 400 year-old cedar and shrine that you have to get in the water to view. Sorry these pix are so bad, by the way, they’re cheap scans of paper prints. Good news is that my Cybershot is back in action after a free warranty repair.

We went to another shrine, Higashi Kirishima, where even the priest didn’t know how old it was. It was in the original spot but many other shrines had moved to avoid eruptions, so it had inherited some splendid artworks, including a pair of 500 year-old dragons. Pictures were forbidden, so I can’t show you K touching one of the dragons for good luck, something that took us about 45 minutes of chatting up the priest to accomplish.

steamed stuff

While Kagoshima cuisine includes more complex items, we opted one night for steamed dinner, a wood steamer of vegetables and seafood under another of meats, shown to the left in the pic. They must’ve read about Noah here because there was 2 of everything.