Archive for January, 2007

the masters’ house

January 12, 2007

famous writers

Originally uploaded by ricoeurian.

Henry James and TS Eliot both lived in this mansion block – Carlyle Mansions – on Cheyne Walk, London. James lived at #21 and spent his last years there.

Later, TS Eliot lived in the same block, in the flat below James’s (#19).


Day Eleven – Kanazawa

January 8, 2007

A busy morning in Kanazawa visiting: the famous Japanese garden, Kenroku-en; an emperor’s mother’s retirement villa in the garden, Seison-kaku; the Ishikawa Prefectural Museum for Traditional Products and Crafts; the samurai district and the Nomura family samurai house.

The villa and samurai house were very similar, each possessing gorgeously decorated rooms, each set in a traditional Japanese garden, and each surrounded by a nightingale floor for security. The shoji (sliding doors) in the samurai house were painted gold, with flower and bird designs, and reminded me of the Leaping Tiger rooms at Nanzen-ji, in Kyoto. In the Nomura family samurai house, there was a sense of peace and compactness, befitting a warrior intellectual, with neat built in shelves and easy access to the watery sounds and verdure of the garden, with its pond full of glittering koi carp. In Seison-kaku, built in 1863, there was a sense of space and grandeur befitting an empress, and has clever touches such as decorated panels at floor level (easily noticed if you kneel on the tatami mats and bow to the empress) and a hidden room beside the audience chamber out of which her guards could leap to her defence, were she attacked. The house is built of rich camphor wood, and kimono are displayed in the rooms, their startling colours and intricate embroidery never failing to draw your eye. Whilst outside filming MLW walking on the nightingale floor (to impress my niece who is potty about Lian Hearn’ Otori books), we fell into conversation with a venerable old gent who had been an English teacher at the local college for most of his working life, and had travelled to England on a number of occasions. We discussed the beauty of the garden, and he told us that there is a very beautiful Japanese garden in Chester.

Here is the video of MLW walking across the nightingale floor, proving that such a floor is, indeed, a bit of a squeaky challenge.

Kenroku-en is regarded, within Japan, as the third best garden in the country. It has an area of 114,435.65 square metres, 183 species of plants, and 8,750 trees. Akin to the follies of an English garden, there are decorative bridges, stone lanterns, and artfully placed rocks mixed in amongst the earth, water and trees. The gardeners are in evidence all around you, stirring up ponds, tipping cups of water onto moss beds, and up on ladders, clipping pine needles – one by one – from the branches of trees. This constant attention, performed to a plan unknown to me, seems almost daft, especially with regard to the trees, which are pruned beyond their capacity to hold themselves upright, so that branches and whole trees must be braced and supported to keep them from breaking and falling. In winter, the gardeners famously suspend the branches of each tree within a cone of ropes, drawing them up toward the top of the tree, and protecting the branches from the weight of snow that settles on them. The garden was between seasons – no blossom left, and no red leaves yet.

In the museum of prefectural arts and crafts (taken at a near run) we saw contemporary examples of the ancient arts of the region, including Wajima lacquerware, Ohi pottery, Kaga embroidery and a neat line in Buddhist altars. I admire and respect the thriving arts and crafts tradition and industry that is evidently alive and well in Japan. I think it shows a valuable continuation of and appreciation for your own cultural effort. And like the insistence on eating only Japanese rice in Japan, it must feed the economy on multiple levels. Some of the products – kimono, gold leaf, pottery – command extraordinary prices (£10K for a large decorative plat, or £15K for a kimono and obi or belt) and I think this is also good, as it shows that these arts and their products are prized within Japan. Before we left for Japan, a dear friend advised us to take something small with us that we could give to people we met, as a sign of esteem and to grease the wheels a bit. Then our friend took back her advice, saying ‘Of course, you can’t find anything that is marked ‘Made in England’ anymore’. The gift would not mean much if it was not from our home.

Back to Murataya ryokan for an afternoon ziz (this is a holiday, after all). MLW has developed a cold – she is sneezing and clearly feels a bit rotten. Hopefully it’ll mostly be over by the end of tomorrow, which will mostly be spent on trains to Matsumoto (it’s a 6 hour journey). We passed through the samurai district on the way home from the garden: unlike the geisha district, where the houses are wooden and the doors easily opened, the streets here were narrow and lined with walls and heavy gates. It makes sense – the geisha house is meant to be inviting, and a place of entertainment; the samurai house is a retreat to be defended. The walls were topped with ceramic roof tiles, and beside them fast flowing streams rushed along stone channels, dug to heighten the wall without eclipsing the roof of the house.

Patronised a Japanese Italian restaurant at dinner time. This place opened onto a central ‘piazza’ ringed by Italian restaurants that obviously pings all the Japanese ideas of an Italian setting. Not on as grand a scale as Montecasino in Johannesburg, but a similar idea. Our dinner was an interesting and not entirely successful fusion of the two cuisines. Starter was a salad of lettuce and seaweed with squid, scallop and tuna sashimi on top. Main was separate elements of the course arranged on wide, horizontal dish, with a pile of spaghetti arrabiata on the left, a prawn and salmon fillet covered in melted cheese (not a happy marriage), and vegetables on the right, in a square dish atop the main plate, served as pickles in a Japanese meal are usually served. Dessert was a yoghurt cup with a blob of ice-cream and layers of jam and cornflakes – nice but odd. We encountered cornflakes a few times in Japan, but never served for breakfast.

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