The Zen temple Shuuzenji in Shuzenji

Saturday, December 29th, 2012

On our way back from Heda (West Izu ), Mr. Seki said that he’d like to visit Shuuzenji temple. This temple is in the town called Shuzenji. It has good access from Mishima which has a Shinkansen (bullet train) station. Izu Hakone railway takes you from Mishima to this town, which is also famous for its hot springs and old Japanese style inns. One inn even has a Noh stage and puts on performances of this ancient form of theater.

Our visit was at the beginning of December. The autumn leaf colors were past their best but we were still struck by their beauty. We were lucky to have a chance to see the garden of Shuuzenji temple. This garden is open to the public for just one week or so every year and we arrived on the last day. The garden is magnificent and the trees along the river in Shuzenji are beautiful, too. It’s nice to take a walk and visit some of the gift shops.

I wondered why Mr. Seki is interested in Zen temple. As he was a student in Japan, he stayed at a zen temple to experience zen training for one week.

In fact, his major is philosophy.

He was told to do zazen all day long for the first few days. He felt he was doing nothing and that just doing zazen was very hard and so when he was told to sweep the garden, he was extremely happy to work. I thought people who don’t feel like doing anything might try this. After that they will be willing to do many things.

 Sometimes we have too much to do and too many things in our minds. During year end and new year vacation, I’d like to clear my mind by doing zazen.

Kitakata, local delicacy

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

Kitakata is also famous for its ramen noodles. Kitakata’s population is 55,000 and the city has more than 100 ramen shops !

Many people from other parts of Japan visit Kitakata to enjoy ramen noodles. From morning to evening, I saw people line up in front of the popular shops.

I heard some people speak in western dialect. I thought many of them who are lining up are tourists. “ Asa rah “ is getting popular. It means eating ramen for breakfast. “ Asa” means morning and “ rah” is short for ramen.I guess some people from different cultures might have some psychological barrier to trying this. In fact, a friend of mine told me that having something salty for breakfast is strange, let alone noodles. But he can eat noodles for lunch or dinner. The landlord of the inn insisted that I should try “asa rah” since many ramen shops are only a few minutes away from the inn. I heard that some people stay at the inn to get good access to ramen shops. On top, in the morning, it’s less crowded. So I went to the one near the inn around 7:15 AM to find a relatively long line ! I was also surprised to find out that many of them are local people. The line moved quickly and I didn’t have to wait for long. I was satisfied with this ramen. The noodles are rather thick and the broth tastes good.


 I also tried local delicacies for dinner:tofu topped with soy bean paste, salad with grilled chicken etc. They all go well with local sake. We could enjoy drinking and eating in an old fashioned room. The service is good and price is also reasonable. One of the good points of Kitakata city is that one can walk around and see many places. The size is right for walking but the day I visited was too hot.October or November might be a good season to walk around. 










Kitakata , the town of warehouses

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

Kitakata is located in northwest Fukushima Prefecture. Aizu Wakamatsu city is less than 30 minutes by car. You can find old warehouses all over the city. I heard there are as many as 4,000 in the city. This area has been blessed with good water and rice and that enabled people to make good sake ( rice wine ) and miso ( soy bean paste).

Kura (warehouses ) can keep the food stock in perfect condition. Many people worked hard to make money to build warehouses by the age of 40 in that area.

Long ago, refrigerators weren’t available but kura provided environmentally friendly storage. In summer the inside of the kura is cool and in winter it’s warm. Nearly 100 years ago, a big fire broke out and burned down many houses in this city but the warehouses were fire proof. After that people realized the value again. Thanks to kura, Kitakata keeps many old things.

   I stayed at an inn to find nice furniture in our room and asked about it. Then the landlord introduced me to the person who repaired it. I visited the shop.


I was very excited to see many fantastic pieces of furniture and goods he made and repaired. Also the old fixed drawers aren’t as expensive as I thought. He used the old chest of drawers as a cupboard. Since the top drawer was broken, he placed some cups on it. I like the idea. As he made tea for us, he told me that he can design and build houses. I really like the sink and counter which he designed and made. He finds some old things which are not in use and fixes them to make something new. Or he goes into the woods to find material for his new furniture.








He knows which wood makes good chairs or tables. For example this chair looks very hard but when I sat on it, it felt warm, soft and comfortable. This chair is made of walnut. That reminded me of sitting on grandmother’s lap as a child.

According to him, trees are cut into wood and become furniture but wood is

alive so it makes us happy and provides us with comfort. He thinks to make good use of wood and keep using old wooden things are very important. By cherishing them, we can show our gratitude to nature.


Shoju-an, Zen temple in Iiyama, Nagano

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

I have always wanted to visit Shoju-an in Iiyama since reading the book on Hakuin( Wild Ivy), the famous Edo era Zen priest. Hakuin was born in Hara (Shizuoka) about more than 300 years ago. He trained in many temples in Japan. One day he visited Shoju-an to see the head priest Etan. That time Hakuin was kind of conceited and the old sharp priest at Shoju-an saw through Hakuin’s mind. The old priest was very hard on him but Hakuin somehow came to respect him. However the old priest didn’t accept Hakuin as his pupil. Eventually Hakuin was allowed to stay at the temple and he learned a lot from the old priest.  

   This uphill path to the temple is called “ Hakuin keotoshi no saka “.

“ Keotoshi” means to kick one down and “saka “ means slope. It is said that Etan, a son of the lord of Matsushiro (Nagano) kicked Hakuin down the slope. Etan ( the old priest at Shojyu-an)  went through a lot of harsh training, he became a distinguished priest and was offered many good positions and donations but he kept turning down many kind offers. He was happy to be at Shoju-an, which is small and located in country.



 The night before I visited Shoju-an, I had dinner at an Izakaya style restaurant. I had a chance to talk with the owner of the restaurant. He told me a lot about Iiyama City and Shoju-an.

   He was an alpine skier himself and he has been a coach for Olympic competitions. One of the famous skiers who he has coached is Aiko Uemura.  According to him, Iiyama has been famous for manufacturing skis. The ski firms Ogasaka and Imura are from Iiyama. They were originally manufacturing furniture. The owner also knows a lot about Zen.

  His story about the present priest of Shoju-an was very interesting to me. This area was affected by a big earthquake a few years ago. One day a person offered some amount of money to repair the building of Shoju-an but the present priest turned down this kind offer. Everybody asked him why he didn’t accept the donation. He said that the money would help him and the temple only temporarily and he shouldn’t grow to always expect that kind of money. He is far from greedy. For example, he grows vegetables at the temple and he often gives them away to the supporters of the temple. He probably takes after Etan’s spirit. Shoju-an is not big but it is a very pleasant temple.

   I really enjoyed listening to the owner’s story. The food they serve is very delicious. I also like the wide line up of their sake. The quality of the food and drink are good but the price is very reasonable. I strongly recommend the people who visit Iiyama should go to this restaurant called “ Rokubei “.



 Another interesting thing I found in Iiyama is this golden lavatory.

I asked why they applied gold on a lavatory. Iiyama is also famous for making family Buddhist altars and the interiors of these expensive altars’ inside are covered with gold. I was just amazed to see it and I felt kind of guilty about using the toilet. I just viewed and took some photos of it.







Tea gathering at Kobayashi En ( Fuji, Shizuoka )

Sunday, November 13th, 2011

I went to a tea gathering at Kobayashi En with two Americans who study Japanese Literature. Kobayashi En is a tea farm in Fuji city. They grow and process Japanese green tea. They have a beautiful garden with three traditional buildings. We usually have sencha and sweets in one building.

After that, we went to another tea room called a chasitsu. On that day we arrived a little early. As we were waiting outside of the gate, the young owner came out to usher us in. I asked him about another building I haven’t been to, and he showed us inside the building willingly. We were all amazed to see the beauty of the room and the material they use for the building. The wood used for the building is about 400 years old and the building is made of one big tree.


 They are on good terms with many zen temples such as Ryutakuji ( Mishima ), Nanzenji ( Kyoto ), Myoshinji ( Kyoto ), Tofukuji ( Kyoto ) and etc. so they have calligraphy or drawings made by Roshi ( head priest of the temple ). I was also intrigued by the calligraphy written by old politicians and the story behind it.

 They were going to have a group of tourists on a bus that day. The tourists were to have lunch in this building. They ordered Obentou ( box lunch ) from the Japanese restaurant nearby called Takito-rou. In summer, people can observe fire flies at the small stream in the garden while having a cup of tea.








We stayed too long in this building since the place is cozy and his talk was interesting.



We moved on to the chasitsu. One of my companions has experienced this gathering last month but the other person looked a little nervous since it’s his first experience. I told him that going through the entrance called Nijiriguchi is just like going inside John Malkovich, and then we all laughed.


In tea ceremony, they change the style of serving or setting of the chasitsu depending on the season we are in. Since it’s November, the fire place called “ Ro “ is moved closer to guests. This is only one of the ideas of hospitality.

The tea ceremony teacher looked very happy to have two guests from foreign culture and knowing they are American, she brought up the topic of Donald Keene and was excited to know that one of them studied under Donald Keene at the graduate school of Colombia University. The tea ceremony teacher always gives us a lot of information all about tea ceremony related things.

Tea ceremony is related to almost all parts of traditional Japanese life so it must be a good way to know Japanese culture.


We are very happy to share a luxurious time with delicious home-made sweets, matcha green tea, and the first sencha we tasted won the first prize for green tea this year ! It tasted very delicate and elegant.

 Anyone who is interested can join in this gathering. The next gathering is December 4th from 10:00AM to 13:00PM. Fee: 500 Yen each.





Cherry blossom viewing in Kanbara ( Shizuoka )

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

We had Hanami ( Cherry blossom viewing ) in Kanbara on April 10th.

Many events or celebrations have been cancelled because some people feel bad about celebrating happy events after the series of disasters and unresolved problems here in Japan. However I think staying at home depressed doesn’t help. Last year I went to the same place for cherry blossom viewing, Kanbara, which is located between Fuji and Shizuoka. In fact, it became a part of Shizuoka City a few years ago. Kanbara was the 15th station on the Tokaido Highway, counting from Nihonbashi in Edo (now Tokyo ).

 This woodblock print, “ Kanbara yoru no yuki “ or Snow at night in Kanbara made by Hiroshige Ando is very famous. Kanbara is in Shizuoka and it almost never snows and probably did not in the Edo era either, but in his woodblock painting, it has snow. Hiroshige traveled on business to Kyoto from Edo in summer. So this woodblock print is total fiction but it looks very beautiful. I’d like to know why he made this. To cool him down on hot summer  days ?

We visited some old houses in the town, including one that used to be a dental clinic. This house was renovated in 1914 to start the dental clinic.

In the middle of the garden, a pump imported from Germany was equipped for the water used in the clinic on the second floor. In those days in Japan, seeing a dentist must have been a special thing. I mean only relatively affluent people could get dental care. Count Tanaka, who used to live in this area, was one of the patients. He waited for his turn in a VIP waiting room. I heard some Geisha women from Atami visited for dental care. Now we can get to Kanbara from Atami within one hour by train but in those days once they visited Kanbara, they stayed about one month to take care of their teeth staying in the house behind the white-walled kura or warehouses !


We visited some old houses in the town, including one that used to be a dental clinic. This house was renovated in 1914 to start the dental clinic.

In the middle of the garden, a pump imported from Germany was equipped for the water used in the clinic on the second floor. In those days in Japan, seeing a dentist must have been a special thing. I mean only relatively affluent people could get dental care. Count Tanaka, who used to live in this area, was one of the patients. He waited for his turn in a VIP waiting room. I heard some Geisha women from Atami visited for dental care. Now we can get to Kanbara from Atami within one hour by train but in those days once they visited Kanbara, they stayed about one month to take care of their teeth staying in the house behind the white-walled kura or warehouses !


We spent too much time looking at the old houses. Finally we went to the Hanami site called Gotenyama. At the beginning of April, they usually have Sakura festival but they didn’t hold one this year. When the festival is on, we can buy many different kinds of food and drinks such as Oden, Yakisoba, Yakitori, hot sake and cold beer at a very reasonable price. This year we did B.Y.O.B ( bring your own booze and Bento) And this is my bento.





Cherry Blossom Viewing Part2

Monday, April 12th, 2010

This young man is from the U.S. Since Hanami (or Cherry blossom viewing) was a first experience for him, he was very excited to take part in Hanami. He studied history in the U.S. and is particularly interested in the Japanese toilet or sewage system of the Edo era and he even wrote paper on it !



This young lady is from Scotland. She is trying to fix her camera but it’s not easy for her. She has already had another Hanami party before so it’s not new for her but she is excited to find something new.


I took these photos in front of an old inn called Honjin where feudal lords called daimyo used to stay.?In those days feudal lords had to alternate their residence between Edo ( Tokyo ) and their local town. Their wives had to stay in Edo rather like hostages. For feudal lords it cost a lot of money to travel with their followers but on the other hand it must have stimulated economic activities. It is said that when their processions were going on commoners were not to look at them so they got down on the road with their heads down. When commoners were not around the processions the group of feudal lords moved very quickly so that they could save money.  












We visited another old house. It is said to have been built more than 120 years ago. This house is very unique since outside is western but inside it is in typical Japanese style.

After Meiji Restoration, Japan took in a lot of western culture. After a long period of international seclusion, many Japanese might have longed for something western. The owner of this house was a carpenter and his son became a dentist and then remodeled the house as a dental office.

As patients he had VIPs such as Count Tanaka who spent his retired life nearby. Or in the back of this house, we can see another old house. I heard some patients who came from?far away place used to stay for a month or so for their dental care. For example geisha from Atami. Thanks to bullet trains we can travel from Atami very quickly but it took a long time to travel then.

It must have been very luxurious to have dental care.  This is a waiting room for VIPs. It has an alcove and goldensliding doors with gorgeous painting on them.








I also encountered “ Sakura Zensen Otoko “ or the “cherry blossom front man”.He carries a guitar and karaoke equipment with him. He travels around famous cherry blossom viewing sites. Japan arches from south to north and this man travels according to cherry blossom blooming. He suddenly appears at Hanami site and sings songs.

This lady asked me “ How do you say konnichwa in English ?” She said “ hello “ to him and they greeted each other. At Hanami people have fun in a friendly atmosphere.

Cherry Blossom Viewing Part 1

Monday, April 5th, 2010

We went cherry blossom viewing in Kanbara. It was called Kanbara town but now it’s a part of Shizuoka Cty. This area is usually quite but it was very busy on that day.

During the Edo era, it was the 15th station ( from Edo ) of the Tokaido Highway. It still has many old houses.

First we went to the oldest house in this town ( about 180 years old ). In 1854 a big earthquake hit this area and many houses were destroyed but this house survived.

 We went inside and they showed us many old kimono.



This is a jacket for a fire fighter in old days. It’s very thick and heavy. This jacket and hood are reversible.

When fire broke out, fire fighters soaked these gears in water then wore them and went into the fire to save people or extinguish the fire.

When they succeeded in their job, they put the jacket and hood inside out to show that they ae heros.



Here she tried on interesting kimono. It looks gorgeous but this is underwear for kimono. This is very expensive kind.


I heard that kimono can be judged by its lining. Probably it goes the same on underwear.

            She bought this kimono coat. It was almost new. It was a little cold and she needed something to keep herself warm. She was wearing very modern fashinable clothes but somehow this old kimono coat matched very well. It was only 2,000 yen. 

We spent too much time in this house. We had booked lunch at a different house so we hurried on.

   They served ” Edo Gozen”. It means Edo style meal. The theme of today’s lunch was spring.

We had chirashi zushi, soup with prawn dumplings, radish salad called ” shiraae” ( the sauce seems to be made from tofu, sesame, salt sugar and broth ), grilled sea bream and a dumpling called Joruru manjyu.

We all enjoyed each dish and nobody left the food and some people even asked for seconds on sushi ! After lunch our exploring continued but I’ll save the rest of it for the next entry.