Nippon 23.

Nippon 23.

Hunger gets the better of us, the seafood place is nearly closed, but in a street a few blocks down a restaurant specialising in tempura beckons. The serving is so large its hard to finish, but I make the supreme effort. We waddle away full of food, finding the fabrics street, in fact the street in which Emi once worked. Whilst the shutters are down on the majority of shops the few open are upmarket, the fabrics superb. Prints and materials to wrap presents in, all manner on kimono lengths and wedding fabrics. All made in Japan, it’s such a contrast to see pride in country of origin, in fact I don’t think the purchasers here would ever bother to think that they would buy from overseas, it’s very much a closed market. On the roads, the cars are all Japanese and all nearly new. A Peugot here a BMW there, but they are rare. It requires serious money to buy other than Japanese.
On the way home we head underground to the subway. A band is setting up. The lead is tuning a Swedish folk instruments which is bowed like a violin, but the left hand presses on a keyboard which impacts the strings. It’s a rare sound, and rarer are the Irish, or is that sexism rollicking folk songs and reels which the band entertains the growing audience with. It’s a promo for their concert tour in the week ahead through Kyoto, and they do a brisk trade in their CD and invites to their paid venue.
In time we make the trains, they are packed, it’s an experience I had been trying to avoid and at the same time wanted be be able to say that I had been a Japanese commuter sardine, at least once, and now I can say that. There is no need to hold the hanging strap, it’s impossible to fall over when somehow or other there has seemed always to be room for at least one more person in each overcrowded compartments.
When we return to the house everyone has gone to bed, we have been out more than twelve hours, it’s been so so different with a guide to take the edge off always fearing being lost.


Nippon 22. Walking Kyoto 2. Awesome

Nippon 22. Walking Kyoto 2. Awesome

The shrine is not as extensive and any panorama of old from it’s front gate is now obliterated by a sea of traffic lights.
“We came here to celebrate New Year,” Emi says, it was very very cold, and there were thousands of people, the places were packed down this road ( the one leading directly away from the shrine, and on the cross arm roads. There many many of police.”
I try to imagine the throng, at least the cold is here, but at near to midday it’s hard to imagine the press of people and tourists on that night.
“When midnight came, people politely crapped, and the tourists were amazed,” she said.
I was amazed too as she continued,
“The tourists expected fireworks and huggings and kissing but after the time passed the crowd went away to home again.”
“Ah,” I said, “So people came to the temple to wait for the midnight time to pass, clap and leave.”
That seemed to make more sense to me now, so I smiled knowingly
“What would you like to do now, do you prefer seafood? Emi asked.
“I love seafood, any seafood,” I said.
“But do you like the seafood not cook?” she asked a little more quietly.
“Oh yes! Shall we eat seafood for lunch then? I replied.
So we head off in search, through covered walking market streets, each specializing in this or that. Fabrics, meats, utensils, crockery and the like. Many shops selling the same or similar goods makes for price competition and eases the distribution task for the wholesalers. The array of goods is endless.
In the utensils street, there’s a tea pot shop. Emi has walked on by, but I stop to examine the displays in the open shopfront, then go in. There are crockery, iron, brass, porcelain and copper teapots. There is no way to simply decide which is right. Is it size or weight or price? I chose a price point and look for design in that range. One stands out. It’s dimpled on the outside with a sassy little stainless steel strainer, it’s so damn cute. The price becomes immaterial. My penchant for converting everything to Aussie dollars is put to one side. The proprietor carefully wraps the pot, then boxes it, wraps the box, before slipping the box into a red crimson carrier bag. I am so proud carrying the bag from the store into the crowded mall.
We wander the mall, and I assume we are looking for the seafood house. We seem to pass many, from what I see of the sample meals displayed in the windows. The samples fascinate me. They are accurate and ubiquitous, well at least in the category of restaurants I am looking into.
“Do not worry we will come to the restaurant soon” say Emi. It’s clearly her place, she loves the sights and speaks animatedly about this and that. We enjoy the chance to hone her speaking skills, she is enjoying herself as it must be difficult without the chance to bounce words off ears which are more attuned to precision pronunciation.
“This is a shop which only makes metal kitchen um …” she says struggling to find the collective word.
“Utensils?” I say “Would that be the word you are looking for?”
“Hai!” she replies and we both laugh.
The store front is more elaborate than many others, a skilfully lit window shows a fine array of knives, shredders and mesh scoops.
Along the left and right walls inside, hundreds of knives hung. Beautifully shiny, they could be silver, but they are steel of the highest quality. The sizes range from chopping knives, the size of hatchets down to the smallest spring knives, the blade curvature set to suit the user and the use to which the knife is put. Each one is handcrafted, the name of the shop and the maker chiseled into the blade on its thicker topside to the topside close to the handle.
We wander up and down examine the wall mountings, and look into the glassed in cabinet display in the centre of the shop. Laid out there are associated sharp things, all hand made. On the left wall, near the front, are tea strainers and metal canister tea caddies. They are in copper and give a sense of perfection when the outer lid is slid to close over the inner sleeve. The fit is exact. The squeezing together of lid and barrel compresses the trapped air, like an engine piston shoving into a cylinder. I can’t resist opening and closing the display caddies, the smaller and the larger ones. The larger one in copper with hand soldering evident on the inside rim of the lid, will be the perfect complement to my teapot.
Emi finds an assistant who finds a sister canister of the one displayed under the shelf and together we take it to the counter.
“Is this a gift?”I am asked in Japanese. Emi translates.
“Well it is for my self ,” I admit.
“What would you like written on the lid,” I am asked. Emi queries me.
“Kyoto would be lovely please Emi,” I tell her and she quickly writes the characters onto the pad which is offered, handing it to our assistant.
By now he is aproned, behind the counter, and has the canister unwrapped, shows us it is unblemished and places the lid over a steel mandrel, slightly smaller in size than the body of the canister. With the deftest touch using a four ounce hammer tapping a fine chisel he inscribes the kanji script for Kyoto onto the lid. It’s done in minutes. He lifts the chisel to see where to start the next character stroke, each stroke is fully formed without him able to see where he is chiseling. He twists the edge of the chisel to form the sweeping and straight lines, most impressive being the curvatures like the number 3 done in a singles sweep, fingers twisting the stamping chisel, the tip of the chisel controlled by skilled finger and wrist twists. It’s a masterpiece of craftsmanship. Without exaggeration, it’s awesome.

Nippon 21. Glass as Art

The upstairs room in which I have slept is accessed by a steep wooden flight of stairs. It’s a cross between a ladder and staircase. In the morning I stumble down in the freezing cold. Someone has been awake before me, the table is already laid with yet another little feast. It’s been decided we will walk in the city around the Gion, the geisha district, then the markets where we arrive in the weak mid morning light.
No geisha, no bars, all shuttered up readying for tonight’s action. Strangely for an area which is renowned for it’s nightlife, there is no garbage from a night’s revelry. A slow revving black Lamborghini slides out of a side lane.
“Yakuza, I whisper”
No answer, so I leave it like that. Maybe a successful merchant, and we stroll on. Stroll on to the banks of a canal, set between dressed granite blocks, a glimpse of old Kyoto. Geisha houses, tea houses, and residences all timber, with that Japanese history feeling in brown and browner, maybe some black. Three geisha walk before us, along the canal’s edge.
“Are they geisha?” I ask somewhat redundantly.
” Well they might be” Emi says.
“Might be, … Huh?” I respond, “How so, might be”
” Might not be geisha, might be dressed up as geisha” she replies.
And dressed up they are, obi, white socks, wooden sandals, hair piled up with decorative silver or gold, finely ornamented from above their ears, and bejewelled hairpieces. The trio turn, to the photographers with them who catch them posing and primping. But there’s something not quite right. The photographers seem to be part of the party rather than simply photographing some geisha they have caught out for a stroll. The geisha seem to move in a manner less elegant than I had imagined, is that possible?
“They are tourists” Emi whispers to me, ” They have come and been made up to look like geisha and to walk the streets for a little and have their pictures taken. The whole performance must have taken an age to set up, especially in make up and wardrobe. I am reminded of what happens at the Gold Coast. Newly wed or about to be wed, take the advantage of a few days off of work to come to Australia, to be decked out in full white bridal outfits and be photographed in settings especially designed as backdrops, the outsides of a church, local parks, or grounds of civic buildings, maybe even the sandy expanses of suntanning beaches.
The wanna be geisha sway away strolling down a narrow lane way to their next picture opportunity.
We stroll too. Up hills across slopes and into very minor streets. Away from the Gion district housing changes, it’s light retail, and amongst the shops, one stands out, a fine antiques store. In the window my eye is caught by some glassware, a single lampshade in fact. It has a toadstool brown gaze, almost black.
“Emi, let’s look in here” I say to her, and she scurries back from three shopfronts further down the road”
“Ok,” she says “What have you seen, that is a very expensive shop”
The proprietor speaks perfect English, and shows me another the piece similar to the one in the back of the front window, though this piece is taller and more slender, also in the very early art deco style. In fact this heavy ware is not exactly glass, more a cross between. Glass and pottery. It can be dated to an exact period from 1901 to 1914, the craftsmanship of one french a prodigious talent. This heavy glassware style was only made by him, reviving the parre terre technique, first accidentally discovered by the Egyptians, when fires lit on the ground vitrified the sand silica in certain circumstances. The revival was short lived, the art book volume the shop owner shows me has pictures of the smaller piece in the shop window, and a very similar version of the taller lamp shade. As casual as I can summon, I ask,
“How much is this one?” I say pointing at the taller piece in the shop.
He goes to his counter and looks up his register.
“That one is rare” he says, “I have not found another for sale in the world though a handful are known to exist from the records of the maker. It’s ¥1.5 million”
My head calculator takes the fifth zero off the end of the one point five million to come up with one hundred and fifty thousand. For ease of calculation I round down to one hundred and forty thousand. If I take an exchange rate of AUD 1 = ¥ 70 then seven goes in to one hundred and forty thousand. It goes in twenty thousand times actually. Twenty thousand dollars, Australian.
Emi was right, it was an expensive shop.


Nippon 20. Kyotonese family

Nippon 20. Kyotonese family.

We walk from the strret lights of the main road into the half light of lesser laneways. Past sleeping houses no sound, no wind, just our tentative conversation. The pack on my back makes difficult face to face conversation, I feel embarrassed to speak english more slowly, when I should be trying japanese. Not knowing where the paths lead I seek out landmarks in the dark, an off centered corner here, two lampposts close together, an electricity transformer perched precariously high on a landing. I am trying to make the trail of breadcrumbs of the fariytales in the event I should need to find my way back out.

With enthusiasm and coy embarrassment, Emi points to a house coming up on the right side of the next corner. It’s two story and from the angle we approach seems to be of the same size as the houses we pass. Then again how would I know.
“Welcome to our home, I am sorry it is so messy” she says as she pushes open the glass panelled timber framed front door. The door isn’t locked. I step into the veneered timbered vestibule, a step lower then the matted floor of the dwelling.
“Please let me take your pack” she says as I struggle with the hump on my back trying to lean down to undo my boots. I sway about like a pregnant camel.
“No, no I insist, ” I say none too convincingly. But she takes the pack anyway and drags it through the doorway just ahead and to the right. There is a strong smell of warmth flooding though the doorway, a tv to the left and a corner lounge propped across the space to make a separate living area from the dining table.
“This is my mother, ” says Emi.
I bow low in deference, she likewise, welcoming me to her home. Her face beams . She is very clearly proud of her daughter. From the kitchen, hidden way to my right Emi’s dad emerges. He is straight backed, with studious glasses framing a gauntish face, cheeks slightly sunken.
“Hello ” he says and bows, ” Welcome to our house, we are pleased you,….could come to… visit with us” he says in perfect though faltering English. He is ten years retired from a career teaching English at schools. English is compulsory for high school students. A lack of practice with native speakers has rusted his confidence, though his grammatical understanding is strong.
“You must be very tired” Emi says, and translates this for her parents. Her mother has already been fussing with food and a simple meal is laid out, rice, soup and some vegetables, possibly from their earlier dinner. It’s delicious and warming, the family gather round while I demonstrate my chopstick skills.
“You use chopsticks well”, the father says.
“Yes I learnt as a small child” I reply.
The parents withdraw and we are left alone. The warmth of the room though not rising has eased my aches.
“What would you like to do tomorrow,” Emi ask, “We have many famous temples and shrines around Kyoto”
My face screws up a a little and she smiles back.
“So not the temples then?” she guesses.
“Well unless I must, I would prefer not to, thanks”, and she laughs approvingly.
.”Well Kyoto is not just temples, let me think a little and we can go early in the morning.”
After leafing through my pics on iPad, she gets the idea, yes there ‘s a few temples but she picks up on the natural scenery, the built environment and the homeless people.
“Ok, she says, “We can walk around the Gion in the morning, and the market, we don’t have to see the temples”
“Well, I won’t be able to red what they are about, nor do I understand the symbolism, beautiful and all as they are” I say.
“Yes you are right and I am not so interested myself, I thought people coming here would want to see them all” she explains.
“Well maybe one if we stumble on it” I compromise and she laughs softly.
“Ok one then, but we won’t make a point of going there, I can explain on the way when we walk, ok?”
So it’s settled and we decide to be up early to make the most of the day
“If you want a bath , the water is still there, my family have all used it, but by morning it will be cold”
“Are you sure?” I say, “That would be lovely, thank you.”
“You are very welcome” she says.
It’s a phrase that I will here often over our time together.

Nippon 19. Meeting mine host

Nippon 19

The castle grounds close to the echo of the loud spoken female voice threatening the closure of the “Big Wooden Gate” of the Shogun’s palace
“Go to the gate you come in” she invokes. The small group in the souvenir shop wrestles finalizing purchases. I am in several minds at once. Not being able to photograph inside, the grandeur and majesty is not captured in the postcards I leaf through. Small replicas of the most stunning of the screen paintings are displayed, and to help the buyer they are helpfully labelled as only being available here. My purchases are made to the clatter of shutters rolling to the floor, press them safely into my day pack and am near to last through the low door let in the side of the main gate. I avoid a night with the Shogun.
A very crowded bus takes me to the safety of the station. The rush hours are in full cycle. Determined office workers make for their trains, certain of where they are headed. Some are diverted by the chance to win a prize in a lottery or wheel of chance which I stand watching for some time, unable to work out what the prizes are or how the tickets are purchased. I find later that the tokens redeemed are for shopping above a certain value which entitles the buyer to one or several chances. I try to work out what they are winning and why most everyone is happy with the outcome. Smiles, the first I have seen in public. I have several hours to kill, time to write and time to people watch. It’s cold in the station forecourt but the public eating area is provided with foot level heaters which I snuggle up to while drinking hot chocolate, comfort food against the uncertainty of whether I will meet with my host later in the night at 10 pm.
To be sure of being on time I leave early, arriving on the destination station an hour ahead of time, to wait in the waiting room way out in the suburbs. More writing, two trains come and go after the one I arrived on, to make the time close enough to ten o’clock. Upping my pack I head out into the comparative darkness of the streets. Dialling the number in the phone box, memories of the Nagoya phone box time come back. This time however there’s and answer in English.
“Hello, it’s David, is that Emi?”
“Yes it is Emi, are you at the station?” comes the reply.
“Yes, I have arrived I am in the phone box outside the station, I just arrived”
“Really” she says “I will be there quickly,”Are you in the phone box outside the station?”
“Yes, right outside the station, on the main road I think”
“Ok, I am here then” she says.
And as I turn away from the phone after hanging up to pick up my pack, there’s a lady standing behind me putting away her mobile.
“Are you David?” she says.
“And you are Emi?”
I think she has got out of the car which has been parked adjacent to the phone box as if waiting for a commuter to arrive.
“Yes” she says, ” I am Emi, you are much bigger than I thought you would be”
And she is much smaller than I thought she would be.
We chuckle in the light of the lamp post.
“So nice to meet you” we cross repeat.
She hasn’t come in a car. She has been waiting in the station entry possibly for as long as I have been writing in the waiting room on the platform above.

Nippon 18. The No Tea Ceremony

Nippon 18 The No tea ceremony

Crossing through the station from the Shinkansen tracks in the crowd, my pass VIP’s me through the wicket. Guide books can remark how some places should be seen, this is one of them. The entrance to the station soars above the forecourt, in a cavern of steel, glass and excitement. In one direction two even story towers are bisected by a cascade of stairs to the right side of which is an escalator rising seven stories. Seen from the skywalks at the tenth level looking down the the people ascending and descending are extras in a scene reminiscent of Kafka.
I wander around and up and down, past sculptural pieces to bring a sense of well being to the building. A plaque explains the design principles of the gate to Kyoto, the building fills the brief.
To save my back and maintain my energy, pack and all have been stuffed into a locker for the day, of maybe three hundred lockers I am lucky to have got one. My emailed instructions had given me line and station, which common sense told me me I should ensure I could find in this myriad of tracks later in the day. Ten pm is no time to be getting lost in a station.
I decide to take lunch in a little restaurant at the fourth level off the stairway. There’s an air of elegance. Five cubes of beef in a stewed broth and swirl of cream traced through the light chocolatey broth. A quartet of egg and ham sandwiches, no crust, a delicate bowl of yogurt top with a segment of mandarin and raspberry confit.
Eventually I find the bus to the temple, underground my sense of direction has gone haywire, worse I don’t trust my compass anymore blaming the steel in the con feet for it’s gyrations and my lack of ability to stay on any course I decide based on it’s swinging and swaying. The bus threads its way up oneway street. Anywhere beyond the main streets and avenues laid gridwise like Manhatten, the buildings are lower and interspersed with domestic houses and houses with shops as fronts. It’s seems to take ages, I am glad I have not hired a bike as was my intention. The terrain is flat, but there’s a lot of distance to cover, before the Niji castle is reached. That’s far enough for me. I’m outta here, off the bus and into the castle. Great choice.
As a centre of power and capital, Kyoto’s history is proud and decorative. Niji represents a large part of this. Kyoto’s temples and shrines (never found out what the difference was) slipped off my itinerary early. Pretty much one the same as the other, and a camera full of indistinguishable curved arch roofs, red and gold, lying,sitting,squatting Buddha’s and big fat ropes with single bell attached to shake and bring blessings wasn’t going to be my fate here.
In timber, from the fifteenth century, the nightingale floor under the wide wide enclosed verandah was meant to squeak as it was traversed to provoke warning of intruders. The sense of the Shogun’s audience rooms and the bra duet of the original paintings adorning the walls forced my reflection on other castle sites and power projections, for example the same period in Europe. The grounds delighted after circumnavigating the castle interior. This castle was lightly defended, a moat sufficing, clearly built in an era of peace. The Shogun’s dominance had been exerted militarily and this building received the vassal lords and supporters in style and elegance to cement the Shogun’s power.
A further ¥700 to enter a small reflective garden with a tea house at it’s head seemed an extravagance. The lady at the booth took my money, I wandered in.
Approaching the tea house the two open rooms faced out with separate views of the garden. The one directly ahead took a view of the low moss laden arched bridge and steam, to the right the path ended around the corner of the room taking in a rock garden with fine trees, possibly for contemplating springs blooms or autumns variegated foliage fall.
This room was large, maybe twenty four tatami, and from the right side a lady appeared, as if from nowhere, beckoning me to the far end of the room.
I wondered if my shoes need to come off.
Seems like no.
I went this way then that, neither direction seems to please her.
I tried for the far end of the verandah but it was blacked by a low bamboo screen. Seeming trapped I smile and bowed, offering
“I am sorry, I do not understand”
She backed away, slid the door silently and was gone.
Years earlier I had been to see a Noh performance, which to my then untrained eyes and ears was bouts of caterwauling interspersed with silence. There was noise here in the garden then less as i left the room.
What was that about?
I left the garden
No tea ceremony. I hadn’ t seen the tea cup and pot on the back of the sign as I entered.