Later in the week in Kyoto

It’s a dull overcast Sunday morning, so we decide to stroll over to the National Museum. On the walk it starts to shower a light sprinkle of rain. A good reason to spend half the day inside the temple of culture, keeping dry and warm. Unfortunately everybody else in Kyoto is thinking the same thing, only they seem to have set off much earlier than we did.

So, by the time we arrive at the museum in mid morning, there is a queue zig zagging back and forth across the quadrangle, like the ones that you have to wait in at the air port bag drop. Then the queue isn’t finished yet, it snakes out of the gates of the museum and meanders up the street. Right up the street! I can’t believe what I’m seeing. Fortunately, there are plenty of security on hand to direct the glacially slow passage of humanity up the street.

Just for our information, we decide to follow it all the way around the corner and into the big car park, were it does another airport style flail. We don’t bother to follow it in there, we’ve see enough. This will be at least a four hour wait in the rain.

It does make me ask myself, what is so important in there that all these people are prepared to wait so long to see. All we know from the posters, is that it is a show of some National Treasure items. I don’t know exactly what they are, but they must be important.

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We decide to keep walking past the tail end of the queue. We’ll come back another day.

The Kawai Museum is just around the corner, so even though we have been there a number of times before, it’s still an interesting slice of history and there are some lovely pots displayed and some of the items are changed each time I’ve visited. I’m still impressed by the mans individuality and amazing creativity

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It’s a beautiful old kiln. I’m still amazed that they were able to keep on firing it right up until the mid sixties, right in the heart of the city like that. The kiln has a longer history than just Kawai. I was told that Kawai inherited it from one of his teachers and then built his house in front of it. It was far too big for him to fill alone, so he rented out space in the kiln to other local potters. The kiln was fired on the same day in the month, every month. All the potters knew the date to turn up and fill their own pre-booked space. It provided Kawai an income, and the local potters a chance to get their work wood fired. The house he had built is not a typical Japanese house. It was designed by Kawai to reflect his particular taste and has some unusual features.

It’s lunch time by the time we finish up with Kawai. We walk up the chawanzaka street and start to look for a place to eat. Everything is so full that there are waiting queues out side. We keep on walking. We decide to head for the Museum of Cloisonné, up in the North of the city, so take the philosophers path that leads up in that direction. Everything is crowded and full. as we start to leave the shopping district We notice a sign in a very narrow ally. It looks new and I’m pretty sure that it   wasn’t there last year. Black painted Kanji on newly polished pine wood. It looks like the sort of sign that would indicate a restaurant. It’s in Japanese and I can’t read it literally, but I think that I can read its intension, so I walk up to investigate. It seems to lead to another little by-way and sure enough,  there is a new sushi bar. We go in. the chef welcomes us in. I ask how long he has been open and he tells us that he has only been here for one month. We order his sushi ‘set’ and a cold dry sake.

We are the only customers in the place. I don’t know how he is going to make a living. He seems a nice guy and the food and service were excellent. It was amazing to have the place to ourselves. The food starts to flow and continues. We spend a lovely hour chatting to him using charades, my very limited language and my phone translation app. He asks us where we are from and I tell him Australia. He replies, “Shiraz”!

I love os-torr-ray-re-a shiraz! We can only agree with him. So do we.

I ask if he has been there and he tells me No. But then goes on to tell me a very long wistful story that is in fast Japanese that I can’t follow. He’s a bit impassioned and speaks quite fast. He doesn’t realise that I can’t speak Japanese all that well – if at all, but I can sometimes work out what is going on around me after a week or so and I get my ‘ear in’ as it were. So now I think that he’s telling me that he wanted to travel, but there was the very long apprenticeship and this over-lapped with his marriage and then the kids came along, and now he has worked his way up to getting his own place! Life just Happens! I nod, Yes. I know!

Even though I don’t, but I think that I do.

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We try two different medium dry sakés as we progress through his courses of culinary delights. It’s a really worthwhile simple pleasure and an hour of my life well spent. Before we leave, he offers us a very small chilled glass of a sweet fruity after-dinner style saké to finish the meal. Really great mouth-filling flavour mmm! It’s a very beautiful gesture and  gratefully received and appreciated. If you ever go to Kyoto. Go there! Support this guy. – If you can find him?

I’m very pleased when another couple come in just as we are about to leave. I’d hate to think of him waiting there in an empty shop.

We continue on our way to the Museum of Cloisonné on the other side of town. The rain is clearing, so we keep on walking. It takes us about an hour, but is a very pleasant affair. I’ve never been there before, but a quick glance at the map tells me that if I follow a series of interconnected canals and streams, or the roads that follow along them rather closely, it will take me there, or to within 100 metres. So we do and it does.

 

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Along the way we get a few little glimpses of Sunday morning life in Kyoto’s back streets. There is a man down in one of the little streams along the way, that flows into the canal. He’s spending his morning cleaning out all the weeds and rubbish that have washed down during the week. Somehow, it is a nice warm feeling to see someone doing their ordinary civic duty. I appreciate his gesture, but can’t tell him. I wonder what people think when they drive past me on our dirt road and see me cleaning the gutters and picking up the MacDonald’s wrappers and beer bottles with my wheel barrow and shovel? The big difference is that I’m not doing any civic duty, I’m clearing the gutters because the water that will eventually flow down there when it rains, will end up in my dam. So I’m just being selfish. It’s not the same.

When they built this canal in Kyoto, someone thought to build in a small narrow set of stairs, so the locals can just duck down and access the water.

It is an interesting walk through a part of town that we hadn’t been before and really worthwhile. The cloisonné Museum is just where we expect it to be and we find it easily.

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IMG_9362 Namikawa Yasuyuki was a very famous Cloisonné artist who lived and worked in Kyoto from 1868 to 1926. His museum is in his old house and is of the old-fashioned Kyoto style called ‘machiya’ . Namikawa became very wealthy from his work as he invented new styles of working and new techniques. I’m not particularly interested in Cloisonné, but I’m very impressed by the technical genius and level of skill. It’s hard to believe that this level of fine detail could have been achieved prior to the invention of oxy torches, plasma cutting and tig welding. As it turns out Namikawa didn’t actually do the manual work. He just designed it. He had a righthand man called Nakahara Tessen. He was the real genius! But as with all things, it’s a union that makes for a greater whole.

Still, I’m actually more interested in the garden. Namikawa had diverted the local small stream into his garden and had a pond built-in, under and around the house then through the garden. He was rather rich by his mid-career, he could afford it and had good sense of style and taste. It’s a beautiful space and a lasting credit to him.

I’m writing this up on Xmas day,  we spend a quiet day trying to restrain ourselves from doing any outside work. There is plenty that needs doing, but I put on clean clothes to stop my self from going down to the studio and working. We have a small restrained lunch of a small amount of cheese, some home-made hommus and beetroot dips, a few tomatoes and lettuce from the garden, toast and a glass of good red. Simple, fresh and wholesome.

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I went out yesterday and while cleaning the gravel from the gutters to improve the road drainage, I decided to wheel barrow the spoils up to my neighbours place and I filled in two big holes in his drive way with the gravel. He doesn’t know it yet, but that job needed doing for a couple of years. As the holes grew bigger, deeper and filled with water. I thought, I should do something about that. So as my Xmas gesture to my neighbour. I go up and fill in the pot holes in his drive. That will be his xmas surprise, the next time he drives out.

Its a very quiet peaceful and non-commercial xmas.

A Week in Kyoto

Our Poverty Air flight puts us down in Osaka and we make our way to the airport station to catch the train to Kyoto. It’s about an hour and a half to Kyoto central station, then we have to get to the North of the city with our bags, so we opt for a cab as it’s getting late and to top it off, it’s starting to rain. I know the way to where our inn ought to be, but it’s a good 30 to 40 mins walk in the dark with our wheely suitcases, so we hang the expense and choose comfort & speed.

We are now staying in a very small inn in the Gion District. This is where you are most likely to see real Geiko and Maiko (not just tourist maiko-overs), on their way to and from work in the specially designated places where they are employed.  This is a bit of a glam area for us, so I was quite surprised to find a very old house/workshop that had been converted into a very small inn. Only 5 rooms and still very reasonable, so much so that we can afford to stay there. It’s just off the main granite paved Geisha/Geiko/Maiko street and up a very narrow walking lane, just 1.2 m wide. It’s in an all wooden building area and because of its location in an ancient lane, off a pedestrian street, it is one of the quietest places that I have stayed in.

Each day as we come and go from our lodgings, we see the Maiko walking to and fro between jobs and training sessions. Sometimes alone, but nearly always with a minder. On this occasion, as one of the Geiko walks right past me I say quietly, “you are beautiful”.

She stops dead and turns to me, blank faced, no emotion in her practised impasto guise at all. Her minder, a much older lady, who is walking beside her says to me. “Do you want a picture?”. Her minder takes my phone and clicks this image. They turn and walk off, straight into one of the small doorways nearby and disappear inside.

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We make our way to the Nishiki street food markets one day to buy a special Japanese knife, as requested by a friend. We head for the Aritsugu knife shop. The Aritsugu family were originally sword smiths, founded in 1560, but as the need for Samurai declined they reinvented themselves as kitchen knife makers and have developed a remarkable reputation as one of the best. The current master is the 18th generation of the family to run the shop and business. They are certainly very accessible here in the Nishiki food market. The shop is alway packed and difficult to manoeuvre around in the narrow isle between the glass cabinets of beautiful trays of knives. I have bought 3 knives here over the years.

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While we are wandering, we notice that there is a new sushi restaurant opened up in the street. We can’t resist and take a peek inside past the noren. It’s very stylish and restrained. We like it, so go in. There are just two seats left at the bar. It’s meant to be.

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There are only two choices on the menu. 7 or 10 servings. We go for the full 10 pieces. We are served tea and a hot wash cloth. Our man speaks just a little English, which makes everything a lot easier. He asks us, “Wasabi OK”? We tell him, “Yes indeed, we’re fine with wasabi”. He makes each piece for us individually, one at a time and names the species of fish each time, once in Japanese and then in English. He also offers the advice of whether we should use soy with it or not. A couple of the servings have already been treated with a vinegar dressing and he suggests, “This one – No soy”.

The rice is perfect. Not warm or cold just right, Goldilocks rice. There is a very long tradition of making sushi rice. It has a huge history and part of the 7 year apprenticeship to become a sushi chef is learning the vagaries of rice.

The special sticky rice used to make sushi varies from strain to strain and also from the differing climatic zones of Japan. It also has slight differences from year to year and harvest to harvest. Nothing is certain. the chef has to be able to understand these subtle variations and choose the rice of the season that best suits his approach to sushi. Then there is the preparation. The age of the rice has to be taken into consideration. To wash or not to wash, to soak or not to soak. How long to boil before the long slow simmer – if at all. The real skill is however involved, not in the cooking, but in the cooling. This involves fanning the rice to cool it and the secret additions of the vinegar, sugar, salt, sometimes sake and whatever else. Every sushi chef has an opinion and a secret recipe. The restaurant develops a house style that is appropriate to the clientelle, the district, the Ken, the island and the season. These variations are all considered to ensure consistency. In Kyoto, they seem to serve it a little bit sweeter than in Tokyo, a bit like the variations in Miso. The Kyoto speciality is white ‘shira’ miso which is sweeter then the northern saltier ‘aka’ red  style.

I been told that the best sushi chefs can dip their hand into the rice bowl without looking and scoop up the exact amount of rice everytime to within a gram. Then, and this part I don’t believe. He will scoop, round, pat, squeeze and swivel the little ball so that all the grains of rice face the same direction! I looked closely, my man wasn’t choosing to display this skill to me. Maybe I wasn’t paying him enough?

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We enjoy or sushi with the chef’s recommendation of a bowl of sake, not too dry and not at all sweet. On the dry side of the middle range. It’s a very nice accompaniment.

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We reflect on our beautiful day in Kyoto as we walk home along the Kamu.

Teppanyaki

On our way home, we let our hair down and go out for dinner a few times. Just cheap places, mostly okonomiyaki. We get three different meals in 3 different cities. We get to try okonomiyaki in Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo.

Although the technique varies from city to city, from restaurant to restaurant. The general taste is pretty much the same, because most of the ingredients are the same. The overriding flavour is that of the brown okonomiyaki sauce and cabbage. The sauce, which is not unlike brown BBQ sauce and the smothering of kewpie mayonnaise add a very distinctive character. These tend to be the dominant flavours.

There is however, a noticeable variation in texture from place to place. In Osaka the texture of the batter is a little bit creamier. In Tokyo, it was a bit more dense and solid in texture. In Kyoto we saw one place where so little batter was used, that it was mostly the egg holding the whole thing  together. Yet in another, there was plenty of flour in the mix.

Of course, I realise that you can’t just eat half a dozen meals and say that these represent the whole of each locality. We were eating at the markets and in cheap cafes and restaurants while in transit around the country. So what I write has to be taken with a sprinkle of bonito flakes and a pinch of salt!

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It was an amazing series of taste and textural experiences in a short period of time. The  Tokyo version was quite firm with what seemed like a lot of flour in the batter. I noticed that when the chef flipped it over to cook on the other side, the thing bounced a bit like rubber! Very dense indeed. I watched the other chefs cooking other varieties for other customers at the long teppanyaki grill table, and they were all of the same dense texture.

I Kyoto, the batter was a lot thinner and the resulting texture was a lot more fibrous with the cabbage showing a major influence on the finished dish. There is a very slim layer of batter applied to the hot plate first. Then a big pile of cabbage is placed on top. a dressing of some sort of liquid is ladled onto it and after some time a little hole is made in the pile and an egg is cracked into it.

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Some more batter is ladled onto the cabbage pile and then the whole thing is flipped over and the other side is cooked. If bacon is to be included, it is added on top just before flipping over.

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While in Osaka, the texture was soft and creamy. I’m told that they use a local mountain potato or yam, that when it is grated, it turns directly into a thick, sticky liquid and it is this that defines the taste and texture. I don’t know, so I can’t say. This is just what I was told, so I’m repeating it.

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At the Toji markets in Kyoto we make a point of always having the okonomiyaki from the same stall. It’s a hot day this time around and the pancake goes down very well with a chilled beer. It’s a filling cheap and cheerful respite from the crowds and all the hussle and bussle and delicious with it.

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In Arita, down in Kyushu, we were served a special okonomiyaki, made at the table of our friend, for a dinner party of mixed international visitors. This was the most rewarding to eat, because of the circumstances and company. We are very fond of the friends that we have made here in Japan and we value their friendship highly.

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Traveling South to Kyushu

We say a temporary good-bye to Kyoto with its cherry blossoms all finishing up. Mostly on the ground. Its raked gravel gardens and Maiko make-over girls. We’ll be back, we always seem t find an excuse to return here.

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We take the long train ride south to Kyushu. We leave Kyoto, and after a while the concrete high-rise scenery starts to diminish slightly and is replaced with low-rise. After a very long while we realise that the buildings are far less common and there is farm land starting to appear. It’s not that there isn’t any farmland near the bigger cities. There is a small, very small, plot of rice being farmed only 1 kilometre from Kyoto’s main central station. Amazing!

As we rumble on, we pass through farming districts and extensive fields of golden crops already for harvest with their heads golden of bearded barley ripening in the sun. I can’t imagine that harvest time for these crops is very far off.

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We also see farmers out in the flooded fields with their mini tractors and rotary hoes, working up the inundated mud, presumably preparing the silt for the coming planting of the rice crop. Ploughing now, if you can call this ploughing, is to kill off the weeds and any competition for the young rice seedlings that will be planted soon.

When I was last here 6 months ago, they were smack in the middle of rice harvest in the autumn. We arrive in the far south in Kyushu, not too far from Kumamoto, about an hour away. Everything here is OK, different strata or geological sequence? We only had a level 2 shake up here. So the kilns are still standing and all the pots are still on their shelves.

It’s all foggy, rainy and damp when we arrive and the hills are coated in a beautiful mist.

Our first visit here is to a place near Karatsu on the North West coast. We visit an old pottery studio that has existed in this little secluded valley for a couple of hundred years. The old lady tells us that her family have always been potters here since the arrival of the Korean potters 400 years ago. The war Lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi launched 2 failed invasions of Korea in 1592 and 98. Each time he captured and brought back prisoners of war. Some of whom were potters. One in particular found and developed the first porcelain pottery in Japan in 1616. Exactly four hundred years ago this week.

She is a sweet old thing and at 83, has seen a bit of life. Her son is now the resident potter here. She tells us that there were once 300 houses in this valley, most of them making pottery and farming rice and vegetables. Now there are only 5 houses here and only one potter.

They are in the middle of packing the kiln when we arrive. It’s a well-loved old nobori-gama wood fired, 3 chambered climbing kiln.

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They pack the pots on rice husks to stop them sticking to the kiln shelf during firing, as rice husk is composed mostly of silica, which is refractory. It also creates a shiny ‘flash’ of colour on the exposed clay at the foot of the pots.

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Later, we travel home to Arita via the ‘Hitakata’ ancient kiln site. This little valley once had a number of korean potter families working and farming here. But they are all gone now and only the archaeology remains. This site has been fenced off now to stop looters from stripping the site of old artefacts.

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It was one of the first Korean kilns built here way back in the late 1500’s. It is set in a beautiful forested glade with a small but fast flowing stream nearby. Quite idyllic! This kiln was built without the use of fire bricks. It was constructed out of rammed earth. The local soil here doesn’t look particularly refractory, so it probably had a short life and needed to be rebuilt often.

I can’t read the Japanese on the information board, but the illustration shows 9 steps or doorways into the tunnel-like chamber. My teacher back in 1973, the Japanese potter Shiga shigeo, to whom I was apprenticed,  trained near Kyoto after the war and his teacher,  Saburo Saito had a 3 chambered climbing kiln, all made from rammed local refractory clay and home-made bricks. I was told that the fire-box needed rebuilding after every firing and the first chamber arch was likewise re-built after every 2nd or 3rd firing. This was the traditional way back them and is still used by some potters even today, if they are keen on reproducing the old effects.

Janine and I made all of our own fire bricks to build our wood fired kiln. The current kiln has had twenty firings and is still going strong. However the time will come when it needs to be pulled down and rebuilt.

Such is the way of the world.

Nothing is ever finished, nothing is perfect, and nothing lasts!

Fond regards from Steve and Janine in the shaky isle of Kyushu.

The Shosei-en Garden

We decide to make the pilgrimage to the shosei-en Zen garden before we leave Kyoto.

This garden has a very long and chequered history. It started its life as a beautiful orange grove , called the ‘Kikoku-tei’, somewhere in the Heian era around 800 to 900 AD. Built by the son of Emperor Saga. In the 1600’s the Tokugawa shogunate ‘acquired’ the land and passed it to the Higashi Hinganji Zen temple. Perhaps to appease their conscience?

Anyway, whatever its past history, god had her own way and it was completely burnt to the ground in 1858, and then just to prove that she really meant it. She did it again to what was rebuilt 6 years later. Get the hint!

In the early years of the Meiji restoration around 1870 to 1900 Everything was rebuilt and restored to what we can visit today. A beautiful, tranquil space, right in the middle of Kyoto, just a few hundred metres from Kyoto’s busy main station.

There is a very pretty tea house on the lake – lovely !

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San-syou Pepper

I love San-syou pepper. It seems to be quite hard to find in Australia. We can get some that is already ground, from the Japanese supermarket in Sydney, but it is quite old by the time that we get to it and has lost a lot of its flavour. I’ve always been happy with it, but I didn’t know how good it could be fresh.

We are lucky enough to stumble onto a place where they are preparing some fresh san-you pepper. We get to see, smell and taste the whole seeds, as well as the freshly ground san-you pepper directly after being ground.

I didn’t know that it has a high citrus note in the aroma when it is fresh. It’s great stuff. It’s hot and spicy and so delicious. Be careful however, because if you get too greedy like me and take too much, then it suddenly overdoses the taste buds in the tip of my tongue and my tongue goes numb. It’s powerful stuff. Restraint is the key.

A little goes a long way.

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We Go To The Markets

We go to the markets in the grounds of the Kitano shrine and see some amazing thing, but not what we expected.

On our way to the bus station we see men at work.

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At the markets, we see how okonomiyake is really cooked here in Kyoto, or at least one of the versions of it. best of all we get to eat it and it is delicious.

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We meet the amazing cat lady and her fashionista cat.

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We see lots of old pots, a few of which I buy. But only the smallest sake cups, as we still have 5 weeks to go and I don’t want to be carrying too much.

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We end an amazing day with a meal of fish grilled over charcoal. Oishi des!

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