Seeking out the snow in Hanamaki (Iwate )

Monday, January 21st, 2013

 

It has been really cold in Japan and it has snowed a lot. But I suppose there wasn’t enough snow for me where I live in central Japan so I travelled up to Hanamaki City in the northern prefecture of Iwate. It is not a big city but some distinguished people were born in this place, including writer Kenji Miyazawa and statesman and educator Inazou Nitobe, both active in the earlier part of the last century.

 

This city also has very good hot springs. I stayed a night at one called “ Yamanokami hot spring “ “ Yamanokami “ means ‘mountain god’ and the inn was designed and built by carpenters who make shrines and temples.

I enjoyed the snowscape from my room and as I was taking a dip in the open air hot spring, the snow fell on me and the breeze cooled my head, so I could stay out in the fresh air for quite some time.

   

After taking a bath, I got great foot massage for 30 minutes. It was very painful for me at the time but worked wonders afterwards. It was my second time to try a foot massage in Hanamaki and each time I was quite impressed by the skills of masseurs and masseuses. Hanamaki must have a good school for massage or good teachers to keep their level high! I had no chance to ask about it but next time I’m going to inquire further. I think it’s worth traveling to Hanamaki just for their hot springs and massage. I like people in Iwate because they are often funny. However, I haven’t had very delicious food in Iwate. I wonder why.

 

I visited Kenji Miyazawa’s museum and learned a lot about him. He was such a surprisingly versatile man. Some of his stories are very sad and some are very funny and sarcastic. He called his hometown “ Iitohabu” , which means “ Iwate “ in Esperanto. He was one of the supporters of the Esperanto movement for a common language for the world. His work was translated into many languages. Near the museum, I found an interesting restaurant called “ Yamaneko ken “. Clearly this was inspired by Mitazawa’s funny and rather interesting story called “ The Restaurant of Many Orders.” Two gentlemen go hunting and get lost in the woods. They feel hungry and find a restaurant whose billboards says “ Anyone is most welcome. Please do come in. We especially welcome those who are heavy and young.” This story is one of my favorite ones. I am happy to find Miyazawa Kenji’s spirit is still alive and well in this area.

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.

One of the mysteries in Izu ( Shizuoka )

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

At the beginning of December, we had a year-end party after a study meeting about economics. I often go to study meetings on economics in Numazu. The organizers know many different kinds of people and they invite guests to give us lectures. And for the December meeting, we had a person who is very familiar with Chinese related matters. He is Chinese but has been living in Japan more than 20 years, married a Japanese woman and became a naturalized Japanese citizen. He has published some books and occasionally on TV. His name is Mr. Hei  Seki.

As everyone knows, some problems underlie the relationship between Japan and China.

Personally, I’m very worried about it and so are my friends.

By listening to his talk, we got new ideas and understood the things better.

I think a person like him is a treasure for both China and Japan. He can help both of us to understand each other.

 

After the lecture, Mr. Seki and some of the members went to Heda village located in the western part of Izu. This village is said to be one of the most loveliest traditional Japanese villages, with a view of Mt. Fuji over the ocean, beautiful paddy fields, a fishing port and mikan orange orchards covering the hills. We all enjoyed eating fresh fish and drinking high quality Japanese rice wine from all across Japan.

The following day, some went orange picking. But I was in a group going to Shuzenji on my way home.

 

 

 

The weather was not perfect but we could see Mt. Fuji over Suruga Bay.

We also overlooked the Ose promontory as we drove. This promontory jutting out into the ocean has a pond called “ Kamiike “. “ Kami” means god and “ Ike” means pond. This pond is in the precincts of Ose Shrine, surrounded by a juniper wood, which is a protected plant. Strangely, the pond water is fresh, not salty, even though it’s located only 20 meters away from the ocean and only one meter above sea level. Fresh-water fish such as carp, crucian carp and catfish are living there. The water is not very transparent so we can’t see into the pond very well and no in-depth studies have been conducted on it because people say that if we investigate the pond, a curse will come on us !

I have been scuba diving in the nearby ocean but I haven’t visited the pond and shrine. I’d like to do so someday. This is one of the famous scuba diving spots in Izu with many kinds of sea animals.

This place has an interesting festival on April 4th. Many fishermen wear women’s costume and makeup and they go on board. In Japan, March 3rd is called girls’ festival, May 5th is boys’ festival. So maybe this festival in April, lying between March and May, could be a gay festival!

Mr. Seki seemed to enjoy himself viewing Mt. Fuji. Talking with him was a lot of fun.

 

 

Going to the art exhibition

Sunday, December 23rd, 2012

 My friend and I went to an art exhibition by Yukiko Kasahara, who I have known since high school days in Sendai. She went to art university in Tokyo and we have followed different paths, but we are still good friends. Some of her artwork is small enough to fit in my living room or study but she has made many big pieces for public facilities such as hospitals, schools and public buildings in some communities. I think public space affects people’s mentality or behavior very much. For example, hospitals need something that makes people optimistic and free. Often I feel really depressed when I visit some hospitals I’m afraid. Good hospitals should have some good artwork like this to give people more energy to live. My photo skill isn’t good enough to describe her work well so please have a look at the site below.

http://www.echigo-tsumari.jp/artwork/metamorphosis_the_memory_that_dwells_in_place

 

Many of the motifs in her work involve plants. Before making a piece, she does a lot of field work to study about the plants, insects or nature all around the area with some people who are familiar with the area’s nature and vegetation. Her field work takes much longer than I expected. It sounds interesting and I wish I could join the work someday. When I visited her atelier in Hayama ( near Kamakura ), I saw more than 100 kinds of plants in her collections. One of the most encouraging things she told me is that as she gets older, she has more things she feels like expressing in her artwork.  

In the middle of busy days or daily routines, we often fail to realize who we are and what we are in nature. She said that traveling or staying in India can give us new ideas about our lives. I’d like to visit India in the near future for the stimulation.

 

 

 

 

 

Organic Yuzu

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

Yuzu is my favorite fruit. The flavor and scent of this citrus fascinates many people. It can be used for many kinds of cooking. For example its ground or chopped peel can be added to soup, grilled fish. Or its juice makes a great dressing for salad when combined with other seasonings. We also put whole yuzu in the bath to enjoy its smell while hoping the essence of yuzu will make our body beautiful and keep our body warm. It is said that if you eat snacks made by pumpkin and azuki beans and take a bath with yuzu on the winter solstice day, you won’t catch a cold.

I visited Fujikawa town in Yamanashi the other day and discovered organic yuzu. They are free from chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or disinfectants last 30 years.

Yuzu sometimes taste bitter but these are not bitter at all. Growing them organically must be difficult and the price of this kind is much more expensive, though. I also learned that yuzu is good food for the people who are suffering from diabetes, high blood pressure and gout.

   

 

I heard that the town harvests a lot of good yuzu every year. The town has an old temple (probably more than 700 years old) and the priests at the temple planted yuzu to use it for shoujin cooking. The history of yuzu in this area is very old. Like many other country towns, this town doesn’t have young people to take care of agricultural production, so they ask people outside of town to help with harvesting or taking care of trees etc as volunteers. Or they invite people to gain ownership of yuzu trees. Once I wanted to plant yuzu in my garden but got discouraged having heard that it takes 18 years to harvest the first yuzu. It takes many years to get it started and once we quit doing it, it can get out of hand or wither very quickly. We have to do all we can do to keep the land free from any kind of contamination and maintaining the right style of agriculture. I’m always amazed to learn the contributions of temples in olden time. The person who introduced tea first was a priest and in this area it was a priest who started to grow this wonderful fruit. Of course the lords of areas encouraged him to keep going, too. Temples have been and should continue to be centers of culture.

Agriculture is a long lasting investment. We also enjoyed viewing beautiful colored maple leaves. This year’s autumn leaves are very beautiful. I heard this years’ are the best in the last ten years.

 

Tea ceremony in November

Sunday, November 18th, 2012

November is a special season for tea ceremony. They start to use a kind of fireplace used charcoal called “ Ro “. From November to April, they use “ Ro “ to supply hot water to make tea. Demonstrating how to handle charcoal is a kind of important skill of tea ceremony. For the host of the tea gathering, sharing the same fire with their guests as they surround the hearth is very meaningful thing to do. Probably that’s because fire is a significant thing for human beings. It’s a very nice thing to hear the sound of water boiling in the iron pot in the quiet tea room. People say it’s like listening to the murmuring of pine trees along the windy beach.

It’s kind of sad but reminds me of the beginning of my favorite season. As for the tea itself, they open a new tea caddy since this is the best time to taste it.

 

We also have seasonal confectionery called “ inokomochi “. “ Inoko “ means baby wild boars. Since wild boars are fertile, people wish for the prosperity of families. Inokomochi doesn’t look colorful but it tastes much better than it looks. Sweet sesame paste is covered with rice cake and soybean flour. This persimmon one is another seasonal pleasure. 

Here is a real persimmon and it is said that it contains a lot of vitamin C to make your skin beautiful and prevent you from catching cold and hangover. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

 November is my birthday month and it should be a beautiful time but many things are happening these days. As I watch BBC World News, it covers major events happening in the Middle East whereas NHK News covers only domestic political issues. In reality, the Japanese economy is affected by the world and now we have a lot of relationships internationally through so called globalism. We can’t go without knowing what’s happening in the world. People might think that Japanese are indifferent to the issues or simply stupid. I hope the quality of mass media in Japan goes up. I also wish the people who are fighting would stop one time to have tea and talk.  

Green Tea and Japanese confectionery YOKAN

Friday, November 2nd, 2012

   

After long hot summer days, it finally got much cooler – sometimes quite cold, even. Now I think it’s time to enjoy hot green tea with Yokan.

 

This is my favorite Yokan made by Shintsuru in Suwa ( Nagano ).This shop was founded more than 130 years ago and since then they have been making Yokan by hand without compromising on anything. They still burn Japanese oak wood to cook the azuki beans. I heard Japanese oak keeps a perfect temperature for cooking beans. They make many kinds of confectionery but this shio-yokan is the most famous. Yokan basically contains beans, sugar and agar. And salt is added for this shio-yokan. These days we have a lot of variation with sesame, green tea or chestnuts etc.

 

The idea of yokan is originally from China. If I break down the two Chinese character “ yo” and “ kan”. “ Yo” means sheep and “ kan” means soup. In China, people had sheep soup and Japanese priests brought back the idea

However priests were vegetarians so they changed the ingredients and made something completely different. Instead of meat, they used cooked beans.

 

I also think the combination of green tea and yokan is the best. They help each other to enhance their taste. Some people add some sugar to green tea but I can’t imagine the taste. I heard taking liquid with sugar is very bad for teeth. But after eating something sweet and taking green tea is a very good combination.

 

Or the people who want to lose weight can simply drink green tea. I don’t know if the substance of the green tea helps you lose weight but drinking tea when you are hungry makes your stomach full and it makes you lose weight.

All in all, thinking about green tea and confectionery is very interesting.

Ink Stone in Yamanashi

Monday, October 15th, 2012

I went to Amahata village in Yamanashi. This village is located to the north west of Minobu. It is a very quiet but interesting and slightly spooky place.

This place is famous for ink stones – the stone used to hold ink when painting caligraphy. I found this ink stone museum. It’s awesome.

Ink stones were first produced about 700 years ago. Nichiren , the founder of Nichiren sect in Buddhism told his student to explore this area. He discovered beautiful stone in the upper stream of the Amahata river. The priest asked a local person to carve the stone and the person made a great ink stone. Since then, ink stones in Amahata became very famous all over Japan. The golden age was the Meiji Era when about 100 artisans were working together there. However, after the Second World War, the number of artisans decreased to only a few and today only one person carves ink stone in Amahata. It’s a shame that so many traditional skills have been abandoned.

    

 

 

 

You can see how to make ink stone and if you want, visitors can learn how to carve their own ink stone. This stone doesn’t absorb water very much so even if you keep ink in the stone over one night, the ink stays as it is. The hardness of this local stone is just right for ink stone. You can cut it with a normal saw but it’s very durable. Once you buy one you can use it for a very long time. Since the quality is excellent, the prices are not low. A small one is cheaper, starting from 3,000 yen and a very big one with elaborate one is 350,000 yen.

 

 

 

They are all beautiful. I felt like learning calligraphy. Yamanashi also produces good handmade Japanese paper. Paper for calligraphy, postcards, pads and envelopes, brush, and Indian ink are sold. This museum is designed very well. The windows are set in the lower part of the wall so that we can see the lake Amahata ( a dam lake ). The color of the lake is mysterious and the big sandy mountain made the scenery more interesting. The sandy mountain in the lake was made by heavy rain. The sand ran down from the mountain to the nearby dam.

They say the end of November is a good time to view autumn colors. I hope to visit Amahata again at that time to enjoy hot springs and tofu dishes.

They don’t have many visitors. Probably not many people know this place.

I would like more people to visit it but on the other hand I don’t want it to become a noisy place. I have mixed feelings.

 

 

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.