From Side-stoking in Stoke to Wwoof-ing in Wales

Before we leave Stoke-on-Trent, we have to go to a local English restaurant and try the local fare. I have been told – and I don’t know if this is an urban myth or not – but the most popular dish in Britain is Chicken Tikka Marsala with mushy peas!

I haven’t even seen it on any menu, but I live in hope. We do try the local Indian and have a very nice meal. Shame about the mushy peas though!

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From Stoke we make the drive across country to Wales, which isn’t very far, half an hour and we are over the border. I read somewhere that there is no place in the UK that is more than 75 miles from the sea. That doesn’t seem very far, about 120 km. That is about as far as we live inland from the south coast beaches. We’ve been known to go to the beach for the day with Geordie when he was young. The difference is that we don’t have British traffic and narrow lanes.

The drive is uneventful and we are soon with our friends Annie and David. Annie is the daughter of Sally and John Seymour. The seymours were at the forefront of the post war self sufficiency movement in Britain. We met Sally Seymour when she called in to see us at our home here in the late seventies. She had our names from a common friend who she had known in the UK.

We didn’t know who she was, but welcomed her into our house as a guest. Only in conversation over the next day or so did it become apparent to us who she was and that we already owned a couple of her books, as we have always had an interest in Self-reliance. That is why we moved here, way out in the sticks, where we could afford a derelict ruin with acres to make our projected lifes ideals come to fruition.

Sally came and visited us a few times over the next decade and even stayed and worked in the pottery with Janine for a few months while I was away studying in Japan in the 80’s. Apart from all the hard physical work of pioneering self-sufficiency in Britain with her husband John Seymour, she also raised 4 children. Their life is a very inspiring story and can be read in a series of books, 3 of which we own.

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Sally is also an accomplished potter. She learnt from her mother who was largely self-taught, as I understand it. Sally did al the illustrations for their books.

There is a new edition of ‘Fat of the Land’

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These books are available from Carningli Press; <http://carninglipress.co.uk/index.php&gt;

Sally had a stroke a few years ago and now lives with her Daughter Annie and Annie’s  husband David on part of the original farm that Sally and John bought back in the 60’s.

Annie and David are continuing on with the family tradition of self-sufficiency. Annie makes pots and David makes furniture. Together they work a few acres with extensive vegetable gardens and fruit trees.

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We help Annie pick black currents. A very labour intensive job, as they are very tiny and are suck to the bush very tight. Each tiny little individual berry has to be individually pinched and picked off the cane. after picking, the currents are spread out in trays on the kitchen table and carefully sorted to remove any extraneous material that might have found its way into the bowls. Some of the currents are washed and frozen, others boiled for deserts and puddings and some are dried for storage.

We work in the sunshine in the garden while David goes about making the days batch of  a dozen sourdough loaves. The drought is all mixed by hand in small batches. The drought is left to ‘prove’ and rise in plastic bags to keep it humid and draught free, and from developing a hard, dry top which will prevent it from rising well.

David’s small organic bread-making business is just one of many small income streams that they survive on. All the bread is sold locally to people within just a few miles of their home. Mostly people come and collect directly, but David does make a few deliveries to a some customers a bit farther away, when he goes out to do other jobs.

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It’s a pleasure and an honour to be able to take part – in just a very brief way – in this wholesome and creative life experiment. it’s also great to be able to catch up with old friends like this, spending time doing the most menial of jobs while catching up on news and gossip.

We  have a day ‘out’ to visit a local archaeological site. An archaeologist has been working around here for the past 30 years, every summer, he brings his students from the University to do a dig locally. He has been looking for the site(s) where the Stone Henge capping stones came from 5,000 years ago. It is well-known that the capping lintels came from Wales and more specifically from the Preseli mountains around here near the Carningli peak.

This year he has finally found the exact site. They have unearthed a finished lintel stone ready for transport. It is all set up on wedges ready to have the wooden rollers inserted underneath. It is sitting on a flat stone-flagged path which leads directly down to the river at the bottom of the slope. Apparently, mineral analysis has proven that this is the exact same stone as is found on-site at Stone Henge. The rest of the excavation on site has been re-filled, but they left the stone uncovered.

To my mind, this answers two questions, where they came from and how they were moved. It’s pretty obvious to me that if they built a flat, paved, stone path down to the river, then they were floated away on a raft from here. Presumably to be shifted to a larger boat down near the coast and then sailed around to Wiltshire.

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Later we visit the standing stone ‘Dolman’ burial chamber. This grade stone triptych and capping stone would have originally been buried under a hill of soil.

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On the way home we call in to visit the local Community Hall, where archaeologists have excavated one of the oldest and best preserved roman era pottery kilns in Wales. it was covered by the stage in the hall for many years, now it’s all cleaned up and preserved behind glass. Back in the day, it seems that it was just too much work to pull it down, so they built the stage over it.

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Fond regards from Old South Wales.

Coals to Newcastle

Here we are building a kiln in Stoke on Trent! What could be more strange than for us to travel from Australia to Stoke-on-Trent to build a kiln?

The staff and students at the Clay College are all really great and we all get along really well. We are billeted with staff member Richard Healey and his wife Lucy – who is a chef. WOW! Great food all week. A really lovely couple. It must have been a bit stressful for them to have a couple of total strangers in their home for 2 weeks, but we got along very well. We had a great time. I hope that they have recovered.

They live in an amazing old house called the ‘Flax Mill’, that has its own little stream and pond, on a site that goes back well before the English civil war. A decisive battle was fought right here on these grounds. There is a monument in the adjoining paddock. This is some kilometres out of Stoke, and is the site of our kiln building experiment. Lucy is setting up a cooking school on site and Richard has his studio, where he makes blue on White contemporary hand painted and thrown porcelain. Beautiful work. If I lived locally, I’d be enrolling.

<http://richardheeley.com/index.html/home.html&gt;

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We spend a week in the construction phase, mostly laying bricks, Then I give a master class on kiln building at the college on the Saturday. This is open to the public and is fully subscribed – which is pleasing.

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All the students flat-out, hard at work bricklaying!

Janine and I spend the Sunday at work on the kiln by ourselves, cleaning up, but most importantly doing a lot of the welding on the steel bracing that will be necessary to completely support the kiln structure while it expands during firing. It’s a lot easier to do this welding while there isn’t anyone else around.

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Janine and Grace volunteer to get into the firebox and throat area of the kiln to wash the floor of the kiln with alumina kiln wash. A shitty job. Thank you!

The packing and firing goes pretty much to my expectations, although Janine did overhear some chat about people expecting to have to fire for 40 hours. When I was asked what to expect in terms of firing time I said that I expected to fire for around 12 to 14 hours. If everything goes well. However I don’t know anything about this wood that we have to use for this firing. So it might take a little longer. As it turned out the firing lasted for 13.5 hours and the results were good for a first firing. I left them with the recommendation that they should plan to fire the kiln again a second time, as soon as possible, without me being there to advise, while it is all still fresh in their minds.

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The firing can be very clean when using a down-draught style firebox like the Bourry box that I have developed to a such a sophisticated standard. When it comes to side stoking the main chamber, there is inevitably going to be some smoke and this needs to be managed carefully. However, when the time comes to drop the last remaining butt ends of the sticks into the firebox. There is a brief moment of quite intense smoke as the amount of fuel outweighs the available oxygen for about 1 or 2 minutes.

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While we are in Stoke, we make time to go to the local Museums. First we take the tour of the Gladstone pottery Museum, which was good, an excellent experience. The working conditions of their employees must have been horrific back in it’s hey-

day. A time long before any thoughts of OH&S in the minds of the factory owners and government.

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For me, brought up in Australia, it’s really interesting to see actual bottle kilns. There weren’t that many of therm here in Australia. I am of an age where i was able to see the old ‘Fowlers’ Pottery in Marrickville in Sydney, before it was torn down. I ended up with a truck load of dense fire bricks from their old bottle kiln and they are now incorporated into my wood fired kilns here.

We also spent a long time in the city museum where we saw a really extensive ceramics collection. Amazingly, it is here that we finally find a collection of pots made in the Plymouth Pottery Works by William Cookworthy from the Tregonning Hill, Sericitic, weathered granite.

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This is the best collection of Cookworthy work that I have seen. The V&A has nothing and the British Museum, only has one piece.

After the unpacking of the kiln, I get a nice little wood fired cup out of the firebox area.

A sweet little thing to remind us of our working holiday trip.

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Moon jars and indigo in the UK

We fly into Heathrow. I can’t just get off the plane all jet-lagged and hire a car and drive off, so we stay in London for a couple of days to acclimatise a little. One of the first things we do is to go to the British Museum and the V&A.

There is such a lot to see a day isn’t enough, and although we have been here before there are still a few surprises. Like this lovely pot. We’ve only just left Korea and here we are back in it’s orbit.

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Out in the street we see that London is a decade ahead of Sydney in regard to electric vehicle acceptance and support facilities.

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The next day we head to the Portobello road markets and what do we come across, but more indigo.  What with Moon jars and indigo, we can’t seem to leave our Asian adventures behind. This time it’s Chinese silk, dyed using Indian indigo, by a Nepali minority hill tribe, in a remote area in the mountains of Nepal. The lady is quite sweet, she tells us that she is here working and studying and travels home each year to visit family and bring with her new stock that here family have been making and dying at home. I choose the shiburi knotted, indigo dyed silk scarf on the far right.

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We eventually leave London and drive our hire car, which by the way is a ‘Smart for 4’ car and turns out to be not so smart and quite inefficient on fuel. I’m not impressed with it. Our 13 year old Mitsubishi Colt at home is more fuel efficient while being a bit more powerful. The original Smart for 4 was a rebadged Colt. The new model Smart for 4 is now built in Eastern Europe somewhere. We chose to buy the Colt instead of the Smart car, as the Colt was half the price. No need to pay for an expensive badge.

We head for Stoke on Trent to build our kiln, but on the way we stop off at the ‘Earth and Fire’ potters market, as it is on our way. We get to catch up with so many of our English potter friends, as they are all there selling their work. The standard of work that we see there is really high. We spend  the best part of  2 days there, meeting, catching up, chatting. We even buy a few small things.

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This is the ‘Gin Fairy’, I’m guessing that she turns up at about 4 pm for this potter and rescues her? I really don’t know. I just made that up. It’s a lovely image, so we bought it. It now hangs in our kitchen, but the icon hasn’t managed to work its magic yet on this side of the other hemisphere.

We turn up for work on the Monday morning at the ‘Clay College’ in Stoke. We introduce ourselves, show a short video and a presentation of other kiln building jobs like this that we are about to build.

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The Clay College is a brand new start-up pottery training college located in the grounds of the Middleport pottery factory grounds. The building is a grade 2 listed nation trust building that the Prince of Wales Trust has refurbished. The school is funded entirely by charitable donations and closely associated with the ‘Adopt-a-potter’ charity founded by Lisa hammond, who was recently knighted, if that is the correct term, with an MBE? So maybe she is now possibly Dame Lisa? I’m not too sure. I’m sure that someone will correct me. She has worked very hard to raise funds for the practical training of potters.

England didn’t have any full time practical hands-on pottery courses left. All the ceramics courses had been closed or converted into ceramic design courses over the past decade or two, so Lisa decided to start the ‘adopt-a-potter’ charity to fund apprenticeships with professional potters. That appears to have been very successful. So this is the next step.  Start your own Art School! I’m really pleased and honoured to be associated with the school and charity. I really believe in what they are attempting to do there.

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Old Middleport Pottery bottle kiln in the grounds of the Clay College.

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.

Kita- a Japanese Mountain Village

Janine and I are currently on the indigo trail. We have visited two indigo workshops in Kyoto and one in the north in Mashiko. Today we are making the trip to the Miyama Valley and the little village of Kita. This is rumoured to be a very pretty village of thatched roofed houses a few hours north of Kyoto in a mountainous region. although this sounds gorgeous, it is not the real reason to search it out.

The valley isn’t on any main road or train line, so the trip can be quite a long one, even though the distance isn’t particularly great. The isolation of the village has been its saving grace in terms of architecture, as not much has changed there in a long time.

We are advised to allow 3 to 4 hours for the trip. We can’t know the exact time, as we don’t know all the service times and connections. The journey will involve 2 train journeys and two bus trips. As it turns out, we seem to end up catching the wrong train, even with advice from the tourist information bureau. Our train stops a few stations short of the station that we need to get to in order to connect with the next train. We are a bit lost and bewildered by this, so by the time we get to ask the station master which platform we need to be on to get the next train north, he tells us that it has just left on the other side of the station.

This is a bit of a bummer, as the next train isn’t for another hour, then we need to connect with a local bus, that connects with a much smaller local bus to get us up the mountain to where we need to be. Our incompetence with the language and life in general puts a bit of a limit on our travels sometimes, but our optimism and luck is a good counter-balance on many an occasion, so we make the best of our situation. We decide to sit in the sun outside the station, but on the way out we see this sign.

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Luckily for us we have time to burn, so I decide to try and decipher it. Luckier still, it has some English on it. We march back in and ask the station master. He nods, Yes, the bus departs from outside in half an hour and goes direct. It has nothing to do with the railways. We will have to work it out for our selves. We sit and wait in the sun and as 10.30 arrives, a big coach pulls into the parking area. I wander over and ask in my clumsey, half-baked, abreviated Japanese. “Miyama desuKa”. The driver nods, “Hi desunae”.

It’s all good. We’re off again.

As it turns out, it just happens to be the first day of the summer tourist coach service company’s new offering to run a coach from this station to Kita village direct. It turns out to be a very comfortable one hour luxury coach service. As I remember, it cost us just $12 each. Excellent!

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We arrive in the village cool and relaxed. As we desend from the bus, the driver is there at the foot of the steps holding a sign in Japanese that i can see has the time 15:30 written on it. I understand from this that we had better be back here a few minutes earlier than that time. I look at the driver and point at the ground at our feet. He nods. Here!

The village looks beautiful. I love Japanese thatched roofed houses at any time. The loverly and I made the pilgrimage to Shirakawago village up in the snow country a few years ago. That was a great experience. Staying overnight in an ancient thatched roofed minka house was a real cultural experience. The ancient lady who owned the ancient house cooked us a lovely multi-course dinner from an ancient recipe. I wrote about it at the time, it will be here on this blog back in the ancient past-posts somewhere, so I won’t bore you with it again here. Only to say that there are some similarities with Kita.

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The big difference between them is that where as Shirakawago is all a ‘level 2 national trust preservation environment’, so nothing can be changed, up dated or altered, only maintained as-is. The up-side there is that you have to pay a fee to enter the ‘National Park’ status environment and all the money goes to the village to pay for it’s up-keep and re-thatching. Here in Kita Village, everything is privately owned and all the buildings are just peoples ordinary houses. The residents are farmers and some are commuters, so there are signs everywhere to remind us that we are on private property and not to disturb the residents or try to enter gardens or houses.

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Kita is beautiful, but the main reason to come all this way is to visit the ‘Little Indigo Museum’. Hiroyuki Shindo came to live here many years ago to site his indigo dyeing workshop here. He has been working here ever since. His museum is situated at the top of the village and was once the village Headman’s house. It’s a large house with room for him to raise his family in one half, while his workshop is in the other side of the ground floor. His private museum is located in the roof, and what a beautiful roof it is. All bamboo poles lashed together with rice straw rope. A traditional thatched roof is a truely exquisite piece of craftsmanship.

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Shindo san is an internationally recognised indigo dye artist and luckily for us, he is a really nice guy who speaks quite good English. We get a tour of his workshop and some work in progress. He shows us how he winds the cotton fabric to get a striped effect in the dye bath and also shows us a finished piece of the work.

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We buy a small piece of his work, We have to think small as we are in the first week of a 5 week journey and we have to watch our weight limits. Interestingly, Shingo san’s daughter is a potter and has her own show room on site. However, unfortunately, she is away at the time and the show room is closed.

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Most of the houses have vegetable gardens in their back yards, it’s a nice place for me to wander, being a bit of a back yard gardener myself. The village has a restaurant – which you have to make advance booking for. That counts us out. Luckily for us it has a small cafe as well, right at the top of the hill. They use ‘illy’ coffee too, so the coffee is the best that we have had in Japan. The owners have spent time in Italy and the cafe is called the ‘Milan’ cafe.

We make our way back down the village and walk along the river to the bus stop, it’s quite idyllic. one of the beauties of living in a small village is the trust that the locals have for each other and everyone else here. The bus stop has a bunch of cushions provided by the residents for everybody to use while waiting. It’s a beautiful gesture.

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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!