Archive for December, 2006

Day Ten – Fukui to Kanazawa

December 29, 2006

Collected our clean clothes from the hotel’s laundry service and headed to the station. Took the 44 minute express train to Kanazawa.

Kanazawa has a good vibe and was bright and sunny today. We went on a bit of a shopping spree, especially for lacquer ware bowls and chopsticks. There’s so much lovely stuff on offer – especially in Kanazawa, which is a bit of an arts and crafts centre of Japan – that it’s difficult to know what to buy and take home, but this decision is mostly made for us by our hand luggage capacity and the high security restrictions on hand luggage items at the moment. Having been mad about pottery and ceramics, today I find myself appreciating the simple but arduous beauty of lacquer ware (and the lightness of it!). A lacquered bowl starts as a block of wood that is carved into a lovely bowl shape and then sanded smooth. A coat of lacquer is then applied, allowed to dry and sanded again. This process is repeated many times, often more than ten, until the final coat and decorations are applied, and the lacquer left to dry in a dust free environment.

We also went to the Higashi geisha district, which is one of the best preserved, authentic geisha districts in Japan. Kanazawa in general is one of the best preserved bits of Japan, as it escaped being flattened by Allied bombing during WW2 because it had no military targets.

Visited the famous shop of the Sakuda Gold Leaf Company and got the telegraphic Japanese/English explanation of how gold leaf is made. Basically, by pounding and cutting and re-pounding and re-cutting ad nauseum, a piece of gold the size of a 10 yen coin is turned into a tatami mat sized sheet of gold leaf cut into neat 10.9cm square squares. The gold leaf is so thin that it dissolves when held between your fingers and can be eaten (or drunk in tea). The professionals handle it with very fine chopsticks and flatten it by breathing softly across it, the gold leaf rippling like cloth or water. We watched, hypnotised, as a woman worked with the rough squares, neatening them up, and transferring them to a finished stack. She had a box of scraps beside her that were in constant movement, tossed about by the tiniest air movements within the box.

On the way to the Sakuda shop we popped into an older style tea shop, where large quantities of tea leaves and mixes are stored in jars, flasks and boxes, stacked on shelves. The old chap serving us dug in each box with a metal pan with a shallow funnel at the business end, and poured the tea onto a scale. The weighed tea was transferred to a bag and then vacuum sealed for freshness. We bought 200g of hojicha (roasted green tea) and 100g of a roasted rice and green tea mix.

The next sight to see was a genuine ochaya (tea house) where geisha lived and worked, entertaining wealthy male clients. Most of the upper floor was divided into three entertainment areas, each with a main guest room and a ‘behind the wings’ waiting room beside it. The house was arranged around a central garden, with balconies running along the inner walls upstairs. Downstairs were the hearth, shrine, kitchen (with lots of fascinating kitchen stuff in it), the well, bathroom, dressing room and a place for the women to sleep downstairs. Outwardly many of the houses in the Higashi district evoke old-world Japan; inside, though, most have been restored or modernised. This ochaya, Shima, is in a mostly historical, unrestored state and was fascinating to wander through. In its heyday, the doors and beams would have been lacquered – smooth and glossy – and the tatami mats would have been replaced every three months to keep them fresh and dry. That would have been about 180 years ago.

Murataya ryokan is clean and friendly, with lots of English spoken and a hand-drawn map of the area and major sights on offer. Some muzak outside our window at the moment but hopefully that will wind down in due course. The Japanese seem to enjoy more muzak than is good for you, in my opinion, especially in the shopping centres. We get quite exhausted sometimes by the vaguely familiar tunes rendered as if played on a child’s toy keyboard – your brain eventually realises that the sweet notes, with their synthesised resonance, add up to a Sinatra or a U2 song, but it takes a while.

Today North Korea claimed to have detonated an atomic device under their sacred mountain. I had not previously realised, geographically speaking, that Japan and Korea were so nearby. Kanazawa is about as close, within Japan, as you can get to Korea, without swimming out to sea a bit.

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reading for Q4, 2006

December 29, 2006
  1. Winnie-the-Pooh by A A Milne
  2. Service of All the Dead by Colin Dexter
  3. Testimonies by Patrick O’Brian
  4. A Theft by Saul Bellow
  5. Mother’s Milk by Edward St Aubyn
  6. The Dead of Jericho by Colin Dexter
  7. Star Trek 11 by James Blish
  8. King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild
  9. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  10. Star Trek 10 by James Blish
  11. Star Trek 9 by James Blish
  12. I Am a Cat: Volume 1 by Soseki Natsume
  13. Patrick O’Brian: The Making of the Novelist by Nikolai Tolstoy
  14. The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury
  15. Star Trek 8 by James Blish
  16. The Book of Evidence by John Banville
  17. The Art of Fiction by David Lodge
  18. The Poorhouse Fair by John Updike
  19. Star Trek 7 by James Blish
  20. The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
  21. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

Day Nine – Eihei-ji

December 28, 2006

I slept well last night, my head on a half feather, half bean pillow. Up at 7.30am and down to a “Viking” breakfast (as a Western smorgasbord/buffet breakfast is referred to in Japan).

To the station to find out about transport to Eihei-ji temple and discovered that we had a 90 minute wait until the next bus. Bought a paper and read it over tea served in the English manner, on fancy floral china, with a handle-bearing cup and saucer. Bought our tickets from a demonstrative man in a little booth and stood amongst the other tourists and some faithful, milling about at the bus stop for Eihei-ji.

30 minutes on the bus to Eihei-ji. Awesome bus – it had all the seventies glamour you could hope for, including a square, plastic chandelier light embedded in the ceiling near the back. Eihei-ji is an impressive temple complex sitting in the hills above a little village seemingly entirely devoted to selling religious tat and nasty street food. Surprisingly the momiji (Japanese maple) leaves here were still a vibrant green, with only a very few showing a light pink tinge. We were surprised, as the leaves in Kyoto, behind us now, were closer to turning that in Fukui-ken, which is only a little bit more northerly. The avenue leading to the temple gate was lined with large, swishing momiji, their little spiky leaves rustling and jittering in the breeze, so many of them that they looked like waters rippling above you, the sun glittering through and in between them, like light dancing on waves [ 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 ].

The temple is one of the biggest Buddhist temples in the world and a leader in its school of Buddhism, and has occupied the site much longer than any of its particular buildings have been standing. It’s a working temple, with young shaven-headed monks in long black robes with pointed shoulders (looking much like young Vulcans with D&G specs on) running to and fro. A visit to the temple is structured as an educational tour and begins with a lecture in Japanese that we were expected (and happy) to sit through before moving on to view the temple buildings and artefacts.

You can visit the temple for a number of days, on a sort of religious working holiday, but we chose not to put our irons in the fire – the list of chores, beginning at 3am or something, and the prospect of lots of sitting up put me off, especially.

We trotted about from one building to the next, enjoying again the weird sensation of being out and about in our socks, our shoes safe in a plastic carrier bag. Being almost the only Westerners amongst the crowd we drew a few stares and a couple of muffled or surprised soundings of ‘gaijin!’, especially from the children. Some friendly questions from an old man who spoke English lead to an introduction to his one year old granddaughter. I noticed that where I did the equivalent of ‘koochi-koochi-koo’ to introduce myself, the young lady was encouraged to bow and say ‘konnichiwa’ (whilst perched on her grandfather’s hip), aided by a firm hand on the back of her head pushing it down and forward. And at that point we realised, as the one year old was made to bow in greeting, how deeply the culture of politeness runs, and how the bow is a gesture of life-long training.

Highlights of the temple include the old hall at the centre of it, the main gate, with its super-clean shiny floor, and the monks’ bathhouse, at the top of a dramatic flight of steps, where they bath every full moon, or thereabouts.

Back to Fukui, having run the gauntlet of tat shops at the foot of the temple. 30 mins of snorting, coughing, smoke-breathing yukky man on the bus, and then back to the hotel for tea and TV and a bit of lounging about. Fukui doesn’t have a lot going for it, and we felt the stirrings of black van and hooded lads dodginess during the evening foray out into the town for dinner – a local speciality of soba (buckwheat noodles) with prawn tempura and with donburi, the soba served cold with its own dipping sauce.

MLW had a wonderful cultural exchange and some ‘skinship’ in the ladies bath as she got chatting to some middle-aged women who ended up scrubbing her back and encouraging her to wash her face with some black seaweed soap (to which she must have been mildly allergic, as her face was very red for a few hours afterwards). They compared notes on Britain (the lack of hot springs and outdoor bathing shocked these ladies, and the sushi must not be as good because Japanese rice doesn’t taste the same as other rice) and Japan. I had chickened out of another cultural confrontation in the mens’ bath and instead took a very hot, long soaking bath in a very short, deep tub in our private en suite bathroom.

Click here for a list of the day-by-day posts about our trip to Japan >>


for convenience sake…

December 21, 2006

…I’ve created a page listing all the day-by-day posts (thus far) about our trip in Japan.

Significant SF at NTC

December 15, 2006

(From The Silver Eel)

Update: marked a few new titles as ‘read’ (03/09/08)

The Key:
Bold the ones you’ve read.
Italicize those you started but never finished.
Put an asterisk beside the ones you loved.

1. *The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
2. The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov
3. *Dune, Frank Herbert

4. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein
5. *A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
6. Neuromancer, William Gibson
7. Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke
8. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick

9. The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
10. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
11. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe

12. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
13. The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov
14. Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras
15. Cities in Flight, James Blish
16. The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett
17. Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison
18. Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison
19. The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester
20. Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
21. Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey
22. *Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
23. *The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson
24. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
25. Gateway, Frederik Pohl
26. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling
27. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

28. I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
29. Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice
30. **The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
31. Little, Big, John Crowley
32. Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
33. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
34. Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement
35. More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon
36. The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith
37. On the Beach, Nevil Shute
38. Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke
39. Ringworld, Larry Niven

40. Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys
41. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
42. *Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut
43. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson

44. Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner
45. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
46. *Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein
47. Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock
48. The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks

49. Timescape, Gregory Benford
50. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer

I think Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness will always be my favourite SF novel. It is a brillant transposition of the gender puzzle into an SF context that reveals new ideas about gender that conventional fiction never could. It’s also an eloquent, Jungian study of nationalism. And a cracking good read.

Other favourites include Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5, which is a stunning novel with funny and tragic moments, some great lines that have stuck with me, and a strange potion of unsettled temporality that, when taken, somehow imparts a bit of existential comfort.

I’m on a bit of a Blish binge at the moment – just finishing up the Star Trek books, and I’ll soon move on to Cities in Flight.

I think, as with all lists, this list is not definitive at all. Blish’s A Case of Conscience is not there. And what about E E Doc Smith’s Lensman series? Lem’s Solaris? And so on. But it’s fun to reflect a bit on things read years ago, and this list is a good stimulus for that.

Day Eight – Kyoto to Fukui

December 13, 2006

Both slept deeply last night. Toast and coffee with cremora for breakfast. Checked out of Hiraiwa ryokan and was sad to go as it had been a good experience staying there. We needed to kill some time before catching the train to Fukui but we were all templed-out in Kyoto. So we bunged our rucksacks in station lockers and went shopping in the massive station building. Found okonomoyaki for lunch, which had been there all the time I’d been hunting for it everywhere else. We enjoyed watching the cooks create the big pancake omelettes and flip them up and over, doing various things to them, depending on what people had ordered.

On the terraced steps of the station interior there was a concert happening – the final round of a national schools talent contest was in full swing. So we settled down on the granite steps, huddled under our transparent umbrellas, and watched the show. We were impressed by the energetic and imaginative acts, ranging from cheerleading, to a sort of tumbling about gymnastic dancing with attitude, to an odd synthesis of ancient and modern instruments, and a magic act. Finally, getting a bit cold and wet, we decided it was time to head for the trains.

Our bright and cheery enquiries at the JR info centre about trains to Fukui were met with a worried intake of breath and the frowning face of a very helpful JR info person. She explained that Fukui is not a popular destination on a Sunday and that only the very tedious local trains were running (this woman had clearly never taken trains in Britain). She helpfully wrote down the details of our route for us, which today would take over three hours and three trains, when normally one train would do the job in under an hour. We were unconcerned, as half the idea of taking trains around Japan was to see the passing countryside.

What we found was that each station we arrived at and each train we subsequently caught got progressively less modern and less tourist ready (I won’t say less tourist friendly, because they were all very accessible in that sense). So train number one was a new-ish one from Kyoto to Nagahama, after which things all got a bit provincial. At Nagahama we had our longest wait for a train in Japan (about 15 minutes) until a fabulous, top heavy machine arrived, coloured cream with blue stripes, that looked like it was from at least as far back as 1960. The shape of if, seen from the front, made me think of a loaf of bread that has risen over the top of the tin, or a Moriarty figure, his frontal lobes massively over-developed.

Train number two was from Nagahama to Tsuruga, upon which I read the Japan Times from first page to last, and watched the mountainous, pine-clad landscape close in on us, and the darkness, in turn, close in on it. There were some great long tunnels that we passed through, all rushing noise and underground light and close walls. Some stops were not on the main line, and the train entered these stations frontwards, and then reversed out of them again, back to the main line. As the stops racked up and we began to suspect Tsuruga was around a corner or two, we struck up a dialogue with a middle-aged couple across the aisle, who were from Hiroshima, we learned, and travelling to Tsuruga as well, to visit family. So we detrained when they did.

Train number three – as old or older than number two – got us to Fukui, looking out of place and anachronistic arriving at its bright lit and shiny white station. We bought bento boxes in the station and found the Riverge Akebono hotel, where none of the staff spoke English. This was the sternest test of our Japanese so far, as we had to request a different room to the one we’d been assigned. An arduous few minutes of communication resulted in a 30% discount and a new room, so I must have said something right!

We enjoyed our bento boxes (except the ‘meat’ bit) in our room, then headed to the rooftop baths – Japanese style – that the hotel is famous for (at least within Fukui). The baths were impressive, with a bamboo and cane chair style dressing room, and lots of black marble, mosaic tiles and shiny chrome taps in the bath. The windows were from floor to ceiling, wrapping up over your head for about a quarter of the depth of the roof, and the full moon was shining brightly. Boys and girls had separate rooms but we could hear the girls over the dividing wall. A segment of the crescent bath swept along the curve of the wall, a think curtain of hot water pouring continuously in. I followed protocol and first rinsed my body before stepping into the hot water of the soaking tub. I had done exactly what a man who entered the bath at the same time as me had done, but remarkably the three men already in the pool promptly stepped out when I stepped in. MLW did not experience this – on this night, the other women in the bath largely ignored her, and she enjoyed a private soaking and cleaning time. I, on the other hand, felt distinctly self-conscious now. I soaked for a bit, and then got out and sat down on one of the little wooden stools provided, and set about washing myself quite thoroughly. The men trickled back into the soaking pool, and then finished up one by one, so that by the time I was back in the bath they were mostly leaving and when I was ready to get out they were all gone and I had the place to myself. I think they relaxed a bit after the initial shock of my arrival, but I am also sure that they didn’t really want me there.

This shared bath is a lovely ritual and this was a particularly smart facility that reminded me of the swimming pool changing room at the Johannesburg Country Club in Auckland Park. It had the same smell of talcum powder and hair oil, the ranks of lockers and benches, with white towels hanging from their edges, and a clothes brush on each bench; the sound of water splashing and men mumbling to each other, one or two whistling or humming, and the air all hot and humid and clean. I would have loved to be able to share that experience with my family members or close friends – a good place for healthy male bonding. On the train earlier, I was reading an article about changing attitudes in Japan to parents bathing with their children, and I was reminded of it by the father and son (about 5 years old) who were entering the baths as I was leaving. The article was describing a loss of innocence, as public ‘skinship’ becomes darkened by the spectre of paedophilia, and this is unsettling people and making them think twice about taking their children to public baths. (Here is a link to the article on the Japan Times online – but you need to register to access it.)

We’ve been noticing how cute and beautiful Japanese babies are – smooth almond skin and shiny jet black hair. And they have bright and clear voices, piping up in curious tones, more often than not. The children are generally respectful and happy, and we’ve been struck by the lack of histrionics from them. They seem more contented and composed than the tense little mini-adults we breed in Britain.

To Eihei-ji temple tomorrow – the proximity to this complex is the reason for stopping in Fukui. I expect it to be much like Nanzen-ji in Kyoto, but on a bigger scale. Nanzen-ji has stayed in my mind since we were there. What seemed just simple and nice when we were there seems radiant and peaceful now that we are not. Lights out.

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