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

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