delete
Springtime in Matsumoto

Springtime in Matsumoto

We did manage to have a taste of spring weather and the cherry blossoms during a recent trip to Japan. One of the ways that the Japanese celebrate the cherry blossoms is by lighting up their gardens and famous places during this time. We caught the last night of the “light-up” at Matsumoto castle, where the entire castle is surrounded by rows of cherry trees and also freshly budding weeping willows (or something like a weeping willow). Matsumoto castle is one of the 12 “original” castles in Japan and it’s quite nice. We visited inside the next day, including a climb to the top for those who are agile enough to take on the many sets of steep stairs. This is a beautiful castle which is kept in excellent shape. The location is a little unusual, in that it was not build specifically to defend a strategic position – it’s in the low lands and, as one of the last castles built, it was more for governing than war. The most notable difference this makes is the lack of high walls. The castle sits rather low, and, in fact, is barely visible across town from the 10th story of our hotel (we had to ask where it was and we could only see the very top when it was pointed out between some tall buildings). This is quite different from some of the other famous castles (Himeji, Kumamoto) that we’d been to, where the defensive position was a key consideration in the castles placement and construction. The definition of “original” also is a little oblique, since all castles have are made of materials that require regular replacement and renovation. We’ve never been able to get a clear definition of what makes a castle an original vs. a reconstruction. Whatever its provenance, though, the castle is beautiful on a cool spring night as the cherry blossoms finish off their short...
delete
Sword Holding

Sword Holding

We often get requests from travelers who want to visit a “swordmaker” based on their casual interest in the Japanese sword, or katana.   However, the world of swordmaking in Japan is not quite a spectator sport and, for the most part, unless you’re truly a collector or a potential purchaser of a sword (which runs upwards of $20,000), visiting a swordmaker is just not easily done.  There are, however, a few festivals and exhibitions throughout the year that include public displays of swordmaking.   One is in the Nagano area, in the town of Sakaki, where a series of workshops are done during a two month period in the late spring.  Another is in the town of Seki, where traditional Japanese sword making is demonstrated to the public at the Cutlery Festival every year. Another option, though, for a true aficionado is a visit to one of the many artisans on the periphery of the sword world – including those artist masters of the various fittings and elements.  We had one such opportunity with a visit to a master sword polishing school.   This ancient discipline has been handed down for generations and hundreds of years.   The polishing of swords is an art, and the practitioners in Japan apprentice for years before going out on their own.  In addition to understanding all the nuances of polishing, they also must become experts on the history of the swords they polish, the evolution of metallurgy, the creation of their own tools and even geology (since polishing is done with a variety of stones, each more finely grained than the last). The most unusual aspect of the polishing is the set up for polishing, with a bench that allows the polisher to perch part of his body on one foot, wrapping one toe around the base and then balance the sword in front on him.   Below I’ve included a picture of my guinea pig boyfriend trying to manage the correct position – not recommended for those without significant yoga practice and strong feet. The best part of the visit, though, for someone with a true love of swords, was an opportunity to learn how to correctly hold and examine a sword and, in the course of doing so, to handle blades as old as 800 years.   Sword collectors in Japan take great care with their collections and regular and correct polishing is necessary to maintain the blade.   Visiting a sword polisher was an interesting way to gain a greater understanding of the depth of love the Japanese have for their...
delete
Reigando Cave

Reigando Cave

Took a visit to Reigando Cave, the site where Miyamoto Musashi, the famed samurai and swordsman, wrote the Book of Five Rings.   This cave is located way outside the small city of Kumamoto, up in the mountains – windy road there, then, once we got to the turn off (by some beautiful terraced rice fields), there was another climb up a very windy road to the entrance way.  There is a small shrine right at the front – where we were greated by a pilgrimmage couple beating an hypnotic rhythm on a drum and chanting in preparation for their entry into the sacred space.   Then there is a bit of a climb up and over several large rock formations to get to the actual cave.  Very slippery when wet, these seemed  to form the perfect metaphor for the end of spiritual quest, which often gets more difficult the closer to the objective you get.   The route is lined with hundreds of sitting Buddha’s that were placed there several hundred years ago and now are in quite disrepair after earthquakes and weather.   The  story is that each person can see themselves in one of the Buddha’s faces – as our guide pointed out, this was more likely before westerners started arriving.   The cave itself is a large, shallow cave that opens on to a view of trees.  There is a large central rock, on which someone has places a small statue, some alter-like area and stairs and wooden floor built in to make it more accessible.   For those with a serious interest in samurai studies, this is a must see destination, well worth the personal pilgrimage to...
delete
Kumamoto Volunteer Guide

Kumamoto Volunteer Guide

Some of what my last trip to Japan was about was exploring some places where American tourists don’t generally go (well, at least not on their first trip).   Kumamoto is a small city located on the western edge of Japan, about halfway down the west coast of Kyushu island.   My visit here included the first time I’ve had a chance to use the volunteer guides that are often found throughout Japan.   We had a wonderful day exploring Kumamoto Castle and Reigando Cave with Kano-san.   Despite the dreary wet weather that day, the castle was wonderful – very accessible, featured lots of information and exhibits, was very picturesque and is well worth the visit, even if it’s out of the way.   Here is a picture of our guide – Kano-san, showing us his name on the small wooden placques that honored donors to the castle’s restoration fund.   Kano-san was a fabulously enthusiastic guide who clearly loved his city and the castle.  One of our fond memories, though, is about our lunch encounter.  We ate lunch in a Chinese restaurant that, for some totally unexplainable reason has olive oil on the table.  Since I normally eat olive oil on rice, and after days of traveling really missed it, I took the liberty of dousing my perfectly fine Japanese rice with olive oil.  “Unbelievable!” exclaimed Kano-san.   He was truly dumbfounded that these crazy Americans would put olive oil on rice.   Soy sauce is considered quite gauche, so you can imagine how olive oil seemed.   Probably about the same as putting motor oil on it.  Oh well…   I wasn’t eating like the Japanese that day.   Here are some nice pictures of the castle (Hokosawa Family; original about 1607; this is reconstruction.   More about Japanese castles at...
delete
Knife Making in Takefu

Knife Making in Takefu

There are lots of places in Japan to see various artists and artisans, but one of the more unusual is Takefu – where you can go to a forgery where a wide variety of artists create knives.   These aren’t just regular dinner knives – but knives taken to a new level of mastery. Various artists work here, creating works of art with unique patterns created through special forging and polishing techniques.  To get there, you take a cab ride some miles out of town (from the train station).  You’re dropped off at a large, free-standing building in what seems like the middle of nowhere.   Upon entry, there’s an open area with displays of the history of some of the artisans and a wide variety of products on sale.   There’s a self-touring area where you can watch the various works in progress, from the steel creating to forging and polishing.  It’s got some great photo opportunities – here are a few samples.  The most interesting part about this is that, as with so many aspects of Japan, you will find a group of artists who are dedicated to their art and continuing it on to the next generation.  There’s a wall picture that depicts the various masters and their students – a profound way of sharing their pride in both craft and...
delete

Samurai, Swords and San Francisco

While you can travel through Japan with any number of themes in mind (traditional arts, manga, ceramics, contemporary arts, nature and hiking, etc), getting ready for a themed trip from the US can have its challenges. This weekend, however, I had the opportunity to travel to San Francisco to attend a Samurai Symposium put on by the Society of Asian Arts at the Asian Art Museum. This was in conjunction with their visiting exhibition called Lords of the Samurai, featuring a wide variety of works from the Hosakawa collection. The symposium was great – with a lot of speakers who managed to make what could have been some pretty esoteric topics accessible to the non-expert. Topics ranged from the history of the family’s collection to how Noh drama is related to samurai culture to a demonstration of sword handling. The exhibit itself is superb – featuring a range of art and artifacts, highlighted by a superb set of samurai armor. There are a number of beautiful sword blades (note that the blades are often displayed separately from the fittings for true historic swords) ranging over a few centuries. There are battle banners, equestrian fittings, calligraphy, tea utensils, screens, sumi-e, tsuba and a wide range of items all from the collection of one family which spans several centuries. Having the opportunity to learn a little bit about some of this aspect of Japanese culture before heading off to Japan is a great way to prepare yourself for a trip and to learn more about what you’d like to focus on when you get there. The fruits of my labor are being put to use in preparing for Esprit’s new trip: In the Shadow of the Samurai, which is open to the...