To Korea

We start to think about what else we want to do in our last day in Kyoto. We fly out to Korea tomorrow and then on to London. We have a job in Stoke on Trent to build one of our small-scale, fuel-efficient wood fired kilns for the new ‘Clay College’ that has started up there this year.

I decide that I will go back to the Aizenkobo indigo workshop and buy a jacket. I have been carrying the image with me of trying it on now for the whole time that we have been in Japan, as it was the first place that we visited when we arrived. I have chosen a hand dyed indigo, hand-woven, hand-made, tight, dense, cotton fabric, jacket. It’s more expensive than I have ever paid for any piece of clothing in my life at $300, but you only live once, so here goes. I really like it.

We arrive in Seoul and the first thing that I notice are the carpet tiles in the entrance area at the airport. I’ve been here a few times before, but I haven’t noticed them previously. Imitation indigo nylon carpet floor tiles. It’s the perfect segue from our indigo adventures in Japan to Korea.

 

Miss Kang has given us a present of some special fermented tea from Jeju. Korea has an island to its south called Jeju island. It is a volcanic island and therefore the weathered basalt soils are very rich and fertile. It has elevated slopes that are just right for the cultivation of tea. Being south of the peninsula, it is sub tropical and warmer than the mainland, but being quite elevated, the higher slopes are cooler at night. Apparently it makes for an ideal tea growing climate. There is one particularly large tea plantation that draws all the tourists that visit the island. They grow several cultivars, each one specially suited  to each specific soil type, aspect and micro climate.

Miss Kang has chosen for us a particular blend of fermented black tea, that is very mild and low in caffeine. It is processed, fermented, dried, but then re-moistened with steam and pressed into little bricks, then re-fermented and aged up to 100 days in what is described as a Post-fermentation process. Each finished little brick is individually  wrapped and the whole lot packaged in tray that is then packaged a very impressive presentation box.

 

 

It’s really beautifully done! The packaging is certainly very impressive and the flavour of the tea is very mild, low in acid with a distinctive aroma. I haven’t come across anything quite like it before.

The little individually paper wrapped tea leaf brick is impressive. I like it. It swells up into a pot full of fully formed tea leaves. I have read about ‘brick’ tea in the past, but never actually come across it. It’s a particularly asian thing. As I understand it, ‘Brick’ tea, or blocks of pressed, dried tea leaves were used as a form of currency in China and also throughout parts of Southeast Asia in time past. It was light to carry, easily stacked and packed and could even be crumbled apart and eaten to get a bit of a buzz to keep the labourers going on long treks. There is a rather long listing on wikipedia about brick tea, particularly in regard to the tea trade from China up into Tibet.

I thought that I had better enlighten myself, so I downloaded this quote from Wikipedia;

Ya’an is the main market for a special kind of tea which is grown in this part of the country and exported in very large quantities to Tibet via Kangding and over the caravan routes through Batang (Paan) and Teko. Although the Chinese regard it as an inferior product, it is greatly esteemed by the Tibetans for its powerful flavor, which harmonizes particularly well with that of the rancid yak’s butter which they mix with their tea. Brick tea comprises not only what we call tea leaves, but also the coarser leaves and some of the twigs of the shrub, as well as the leaves and fruit of other plants and trees (the alder, for instance). This amalgam is steamed, weighed, and compressed into hard bricks, which are packed up in coarse matting in subunits of four. These rectangular parcels weigh between twenty-two and twenty-six pounds—the quality of the tea makes a slight difference to the weight—and are carried to Kangting by coolies. A long string of them, moving slowly under their monstrous burdens of tea, was a familiar sight along the road I followed.[2]

The brick tea is packaged [in Kangting] either in the courtyard or in the street outside, and it is quite a complicated process. When the coolies bring it in from Ya’an, it has to be repacked before being consigned upcountry, for in a coolie’s load the standard subunit is four bricks lashed together, and these would be the wrong shape for animal transport. So they are first cut in two, then put together in lots of three, leaving what they call a gam, which is half a yak’s load. Tea which is going to be consumed reasonably soon is done up in a loose case of matting, but the gams, which are bound for remote destinations, perhaps even for Lhasa, are sewn up in yakhides. These hides are not tanned but are merely dried in the sun; when used for packing they are soaked in water to make them pliable and then sewn very tightly around the load, and when they dry out again the tea is enclosed in a container which is as hard as wood and is completely unaffected by rain, hard knocks, or immersion in streams. The Tibetan packers are a special guild of craftsmen, readily identifiable by the powerful aroma of untanned leather which they exude.

Another prominent guild in Kangting is that of the women tea coolies who shift the stuff from the warehouses to the inns where the caravans start. They have a monopoly on this work and the cheerful gangs of girls are a picturesque element in the city’s life. They need to be immensely strong to do a job which consists of carrying over a short distance anything up to an entire yak’s load several times a day. Many of them are quite pretty (and well aware of the fact); they look very gay and rather brazen as, giggling and chattering among themselves, they move along with their heavy burdens, which are held in place by a woolen girdle around the chest.[3]

So brick tea has a very long history in China. This doesn’t really enlighten me about tea in Korea very much, but it is interesting to me just the same. The Osullooc tea plantation has only been in business since 1979. So it doesn’t have a long history in itself, but uses the long historical aspects of tea in all it’s advertising. The tea plantations are all certified organic, so that is a very good place to start.

I can say that post fermented tea is an acquired taste. The Osulloc company make many claims for the tea. A particular selling point is the clean environment of the island, but they also make special mention of the long, post-fermentation aspect of the curing process. They claim that they use the long and ancient history of Koreas skills in fermentation. As ‘fermentation’ is the current buzz word in culinary circles, I’m just a little bit suspicious, But that’s me. They also claim to use traditional Korean fermented pastes. I don’t know what these are, and they are not saying, it’s certainly not Kim Che.

I can’t say either way, as to whether it is good for you or not, but it has a unique quality. I think that it would possibly be a good bed time tea, as it is low in stimulants and that could be good? I’m certainly impressed with the effort that has gone into the presentation, pity it will all be thrown away! Maybe if they could develop a special paper made out of tea leaves, then we could infuse the wrapping as well, still have a great ‘cuppa’ and reduce waste?

Looking at all the effort that has gone into the presentation and advertising, I think that it just might be a triumph of style over substance.

Maybe it will help me sleep better?

Unfortunately, that isn’t one of their claims!

We enjoy our tea from a Gwyn Hansen Piggott tea pot with matching cup and saucer.

 

 

 

  1. [2]  Migot, André (1955). Tibetan Marches. Translated by Peter Fleming. E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., U.S.A., pp. 59-60.
  2. [3]  Jump up ^ Migot, André (1955). Tibetan Marches. Translated by Peter Fleming. E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., U.S.A., pp. 83-84.

Heading for the Temple

The ladies of the Village are planting rice while we eat and drink.  I think about their back-breaking work, I appreciate what they are going through in this image. I have done the odd day of hard work in my life of attempted self-reliance, but not like this. I’m soft, lazy and indulged. I just play with the idea, my livelihood isn’t dependant on the seasons and the fickle vagaries of the weather. These people have worked hard everyday of their lives.

Later we head for the temple, but we take a long time to get there. There is always too much to see.

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It’s a hot day, so we have to stop for a green tea ice cream along the way.

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We can’t visit Japan without having at least one green tea ice cream in the this hot weather. There are pot shops and galleries all along the way, so we don’t quite make it to the temple on this occasion, but one is always there in the background. They are never very far away.

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We manage to fit in a couple of nice meals along the way. There is always a nice meal to be had in Japan. Sushi for lunch is always a favourite.

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and  glass of good cold sake.

 

While walking the back streets and laneways in Nara, we come across this little sign hung on a fence. It’s already 2.00pm and every little cafe that we have passed along the way in this back street area has been full with a waiting queue or closed for lunch by now. So this is worth a try

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We read the sign as saying ‘footpath cafe’, we follow the footpath and the tiny home-made signs. They are all different and a little bit amateur and somewhat rustic. We are directed down some very small walkways and alleys. We eventually come to a dead-end blocked off alley closed with rough wire and old sheeting. The rest of the little narrow walkway is full of rubbish and weeds as far as we can see. At first I’m a bit baffled. I’m glad that I’m not walking here very late at night

It’s just about at this point that we see the other sign. So small and easy to miss. The arrow points into the last doorway before the blockage. The hand written sign reads ‘Footbath Cafe’, not ‘footpath’. This is a little bit strange but intriguing, we decide too go in anyway.

It turns out be a very small cafe in a small house, each room fitted out with table and chairs to be a small dining room. All the furniture is miss-matched, old, sort of seventies retro, vinyl coated. The hosts appear to be mother and son. A woman of a certain age, she leads us through to our own room with a table and 2 chairs. and brings in a menu and a wood footbath tub. it is filled with very warm water spiced with green tea, fresh herbs and a layer of small pebbles on the bottom to massage your feet while they soak. There is only one item on the menu. A set menu of half a dozen small dishes, something I imagine to be like a tasting menu. There lady is generous and very friendly. She takes our order and brings cool water with a hint of lemon on this hot day. Janine relaxes with her feet luxuriating in the generous warmth of the foot bath.

 

The son is the cook and set about preparing our meal which arrives in no time al all. There a 2 others in another room and a third customer comes in while we are there. I’m the only male. Foot bathing appears to be a fully female pass-time. The food is delicious and the matron appears to top up the footbath with extra warm water.

It’s a very unique and enjoyable experience. I can’t help but think that this tiny cafe, is their home each night after they have moved all the tables out of the way. Whatever the circumstances, it’s a very nice meal in interesting and pleasant surroundings with a quirky couple with delicious food and all at a very affordable price. Unusual and unexpected experiences like this are what travel is all about for us.

Thoroughly recommended!

We walk a little bit further around in these little back lanes and come to a traditional merchants house that has been restored and is open today with historians, architects and restoration experts, all giving tours and slide lectures. We can’t understand most of it, but the house is very grand in that period Nara Matchiya merchant style. We have to file through with a lot of other visitors.

 

 

We do finally make it to one temple near Nara at Uji. The home of the golden Buddha. It’s called the BYOdoin temple. I can see why, because there isn’t a bottle shop in sight!

 

We’ve been here before, perhaps a decade ago, but it’s not the golden Buddha that we have come to see. I can do without the bling. We don’t even take the inside tour this time. It’s more the general ambiance of the place and the gardens, in particular the amazing pruned and trellised wisteria tree. it has to be the biggest wisteria That I have ever seen. It’s beautifully organised on its frame. The plant must be hundreds of years old to get to this size. all through its very long life, it has been pruned and trimmed and untangled from the frame that supports it. Carefully laying the new growth down so that it sits on top of the supports and doesn’t get a chance to twine around any part of the structure and then crush it.

 

After we have walked all around the beautiful and very peaceful gardens, we take the walk down to the river to see the cormorants fishing for their masters, but it’s the cormorants RDO today, so we have a snack in a cafe overlooking the river instead.

We stroll back to the station and catch the train home to Kyoto. We still have an appetite after all this walking, so call in for a beer and a plate of gyoza near our inn.

Cheap and cheerful, it’s a perfect way to end a great day of cultural experiences.

The Fabric of Japan

After we leave the Aizenkobo indigo workshop, we walk back to the main road and cross over to the Kyoto Archaeological Museum. It’s a small un-assuming building with a couple of exhibits on two floors, plus a research library. It’s free and quite informative of the local city archaeology. It dates back to the earliest inhabitants tools and objects, through the early ‘Jomon’ ceramic period, up to more recent periods. I liked it. We spent an hour in there.

Back out onto the road and we walk back to the big intersection where I know there is a big textile museum. I walked up to this part of town in the 80’s when I first came here. I remember, more or less where it is. The Nishijin textile museum is quite interesting, but not as interesting as being in an indigo artist workshop. We watch an old lady weaving with gold thread on an old wooden Jacquard card-programmed, semi-automatic loom. She is very quick at it after a lifetime of practice. We watch for 15 minutes and she gets just 1/4″ of an inch completed. She is working with some hundreds of threads per inch. it is unbelievably fine work. God only knows how much this length of fabric will end up costing? It’s destined for someone’s very special kimino I suppose.

We stop there for lunch in their cafe. Miso, rice, pickles, tempura and tea, all simple and just what the doctor ordered at 2.00pm after a long walk and a busy morning.

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We walk back across town and wait for a bus to take us halfway back to the city centre. This time we are heading for the Kyoto Shibori Museum. We find it easily, first time. It turns out to be exactly where I thought that it might be according to the map I have. I see it’s distinctive facade at a distance as we walk down the street. It looks a bit cheesy at first entry, but the girl at the door speaks really good English and welcomes us in, explaining what goes on here and how she can help us.  As well as being a private, family-run museum, they also teach Shiburi classes here, but that is not what we are looking for today. We want to see their private museum upstairs. We pay the $5 and she takes us up to the next floor so that we can watch an introductory video. We know next to nothing about shiburi techniques, having never attempted it, just a little general knowledge, so it is all very informative for us. It’s a really good video, well done and primes us to go into the museum to look at all the examples of what we have just seen on the screen.

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A detail of a tightly knotted piece before dyeing.

This stuff is insane! We can’t believe what we are seeing and handling. This ought to be impossible. But here it is being done right in front of our eyes. The guide tells us that it is getting harder to get done, as a lot of the people trained in doing this are very old and are dying off. Soon there will be very few people left that are capable of doing it properly.

It’s a dying trade. Just like so many other skill-intensive craft-based industries. This loss of skill is not unique to here! But while it’s still being produced, it’s a joy to see and handle.

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This white, tightly-bound Gorgons head of fabric becomes an amazingly compact stretchy scarf after dyeing and un-binding.

What an amazing experience to see a whole lot of techniques explained in such a short period of time. I loved it. I was informed, educated and entertained.

Wow!

Japan Blues

Janine and I have spent a short time in Japan. We are on our way to the UK via Korea, so decided to spend a week or so in Kyoto on our way to break the trip. We love Japanese culture and often visit Kyoto when we go to Japan as it is a favourite of ours. While in Kyoto we do all the usual ceramic related things, and spend time in the Higashiyama pottery district, looking at the ceramics, galleries, potteries and Museums, I have written a lot about this in the past so won’t bore you with it here. However, on this occasion, we also take a little bit of time to explore the north-west of the city and the fabric district.

I have had an interest in indigo dyed fabric for many years and always go looking for old second-hand indigo dyed fabrics when we visit the antique markets that are held towards the end of the month in the temples around Kyoto. I usually organise our visits to Kyoto to coincide with these markets each time. Some years ago, on a previous visit to Japan, we spent some time traveling in the north of Japan and found a very old indigo workshop that had a 600 year-long history. It was in a very beautiful old building constructed from twisted and bent beams, all mortised together in that unique Japanese way with amazing craftsmanship. Janine bought a lovely fine shiburi patterned top on that occasion. She still wears it often and has actually brought it along on this trip.
We take the subway to the north and then walk half an hour across town to the west to find a small indigo dyeing workshop called ‘Aizenkobo’ hidden away in a very tiny back street, or possibly more properly described and a lane way. The workshop wasn’t particularly well-marked on the day that we first arrived there, as it was a bit overcast and showery, so there were no signs out. I knew that we had found it however, because I took the liberty of looking it up on the internet before we left, so I had an idea of what I was looking for. On subsequent visits, the day is clear and the signs are out, but I already know where I am on these later occasions.
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We are welcomed in by the owners, a husband and wife couple, possibly our age or a bit older? Janine gets to try on a 100 year old patchwork coat and an amazing fireproof, indigo dyed and hand stitched, multi-layered old fireman’s jacket and hat.
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Janine buys a scarf that has been tied in the amazing shiburi style of micro tying technique and then dyed in multiple different strengths of indigo. A truly astonishing piece of work. We get to handle the product in the ‘before’ and ‘after’ states.
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Before and after. This generous scarf which started life at 1.5 metres long, is reduced to 400 mm long after all the shiburi knots are tied, but before dying.
We are taken for a tour of the workshop and get to see the dying vats and hanging and drying areas out the back.
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One vat is slowly fading, as another is in full bloom, the older vat will be cleaned and re-charged with a new batch of indigo. It takes about two weeks to get the fermentation going and up to full strength. A vat lasts about a month, so the process is repeated on a regular basis to keep a continuous supply of fermenting indigo ready for use. As the traditional method requires a natural ferment of indigo, the temperature is critical to keep it alive and active. In the winter, the vats have to be kept wrapped in a doona-like cloth to keep them warm.
The workshop uses 4 x 60kg = 240kg packs of local composted and dried Japanese indigo leaf ‘cake’ each year.
Indigo is a very ancient dying technique and has been developed on most continents independently through time, with each continent using a different local plant material to obtain the blue dye. However, the resulting technique is remarkably similar. Washing the fresh leaves in water and thoroughly oxidising the watery mix, then reduction through fermentation, which is when the dye becomes active. The dye only affects natural fibres. So indigo is only used on silk, wool, hemp, cotton and/or other natural plant fibres. I saw one piece of cloth that had been stitched with nylon thread, so that after dying, the cloth was dark blue but all the stitching on the seams was stark white. I didn’t think that it was particularly attractive look, but I’m sure someone will love it. I didn’t.

Magnitude 6 Earthquake

Janine and I find ourselves in Japan for a short time. Just in time to be here in Kyoto to wake up to a magnitude 6 earthquake, very exciting!
It’s the second time that I have been here and experienced an earthquake. Luckily we are staying in a 200-year-old wooden building that has survived worse than this, but it was exciting. After the 60 seconds of violent shaking and rumbling that started off slow and then increased to a maximum crescendo, the building was left rocking for another minute until the energy slowly dissipated.
We went down to the ground floor where we met our host in the corridor. I asked if we should go outside, but she said NO! We’ll go and watch it on TV and see what has happened.

I’m totally amazed that within 60 seconds of the quake dissipating the TV channel was broadcasting automated quake readings and a map showing the epicentre just to the southwest of us. It was a magnitude 6 and centred between Kyoto and Osaka. They even had live video coverage from the top of major city buildings showing the degree of  the rocking and shaking of the tower.

I’ve experienced 3 earthquakes and 2 of them have been here in Japan. We were in Mashiko just a few weeks before the big earthquake and tsunami at Sendai that caused so much devastation in that area and the ongoing radioactive problem that still isn’t fixed.
Interestingly, both times here in Japan I have been here with Janine and she has either been in the bath, or this time just returned from the bath, with only just her flimsy cotton ‘yakata’ gown. She was understandably reluctant to run out side! So I’ve learnt something, beware when Janine has a a bath, the earth can move.

The third earthquake was at home in Balmoral Village in 1976 or 77. It was short and sharp and came and went with a sudden ‘crack’ sound. It rattled the window panes but little else in the house. I rushed outside and every bird noise had stopped. It was almost totally silent – except for the sloshing sound of the water in our big water tank outside, up on the tank stand. Ten tonnes of water sloshing back and forwards in the tank. That took many minutes to slowly dissipate. It takes a lot of energy to move 10 tonnes of water so violently.

We are fine and so is everything and everyone else in this city it seems. It’s just another magnitude 6 quake. Just another day. We look forward to seeing a lot of pots, potters, pottery shops and galleries,  and eating a lot of sushi in the coming days.
Everything normal.

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.