Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Akita - text fixed.

(I posted this in a hurry without checking how it appeared, and discovered some hours later that it was pretty well illegible because of a load of junk html which had appeared.  Blogger does this. I've now removed the junk and hope that it will display properly)

Whenever we told our various Japanese friends we would be visiting Akita, they asked, politely,  "Why is this?"    I think they were surprised to find that Western visitors with a limited time in Japan would make the long trip up to this rather remote area.   But actually, Akita was fantastic.  We originally headed there because we were staying with people who lived there, but something about the region  "spoke" to me, and I would love to return another time.  

One place I'd particularly like to return to is Nyuto Onsen.   This is actually a collection of ryokans (traditional inns with hot springs) inside the Towada Hachimantai National Park.    Weather permitting, you can hike in the surrounding mountain and valleys, and visit all the ryokans and onsens if you feel like it.  The picture below shows the type of scenery, (although I think they only have sections of boardwalk in ecologically sensitive or marshy areas.)  


  We visited in October and were lucky to catch the most spectacular autumn leaves. 


I like to know what trees I'm looking at, and I did identify beech and maple, both of which have brilliantly coloured foliage, but many of the other trees weren't familiar and as you see there was quite a variety, stretching away for miles. 


Given unlimited time and money, I think I'd have hiked some of the trails between several different ryokan, but we only had time to visit Tsurunoyu Onsen, perhaps the best known of them all.   You approach it via a very narrow road. this picture doesn't show the hairpin bends and steep gradients and the deep ditches - but it is certainly rustic. Passing the occasional car or bus was a bit of a challenge, and I did wonder how people manage when it's deep in snow - they most certainly do come then, because the onsens look fabulous and are popular in the winter.  Anyway, we got there in one piece, with me admiring trees all the way - partly so that I didn't have to think about the hairpin bends and steep drops...


And I loved the many lively streams and  little waterfalls in the woods.



This ryokan has traditional samurai-era lodgings - you can see some of them in the photo below.  Here, you live in traditional Japanese style, and your food is cooked for you in a fire pit in the floor.  I was too polite to photograph the people I saw through open doors and windows, sitting and eating.



The central pathway shown below leads to the pools.  And I'm sorry to be disappointing, but I was too polite to snap away with my camera there too.  The tradition is that you are quite naked, and although it did not bother me, I am not sure I'd have liked someone coming in and taking photos of me.      



The women's pool, Kodakara-no-yu (I'm told it means “blessed with children”) is three or four feet deep. It seems to be almost unchanged from centuries ago, with its bamboo pipes bringing in natural hot and cold water,  rough wooden changing shelter hewn from logs, and long white banners hanging over the entrance.  It is milky green-white in colour, and pretty hot, and a couple of strides from its edge there's a tiny shrine, set on the black volcanic rock. Traditionally, women who hoped to conceive used this pool and prayed at the shrine.

 I learned afterwards that the shrine is supposed to have a sculpture of a penis in it, but somehow I missed seeing that.  So I guess I won't be having any more children as a result of my visit. 

This is the entrance to the mixed pool, which you can glimpse if you look at the little opening on the left.





The place has been left in a very natural state, very clean but not groomed and "prettified."  Being surrounded by silence and natural beauty is very relaxing, although if you got near to the waterwheel, you could hear it trundling around. 





I'd like to write a bit about the Namahage, godlike creatures who live in the mountains and visit homes in the depths of Akita's harsh and snowy winters at New Year.  Also about some wonderful architecture that we saw.   But that will have to wait for my next post.  I will leave you with a picture of the famous Akita dog.

This breed is rather like a husky, bred to cope with the savage winters. It is said to be an independent and dominant breed that is fond of its owners but doesn't relate well to strangers.  Although we called to this one, it took absolutely no notice of us but continued to lie there with its eyes obstinately closed.  Perhaps that is how it showed it was independent and dominant and didn't like strangers.   But what a lovely dog, or at least I thought so.


(By the way, I have been meaning to say that my artist pal The Chubby Chatterbox has a superb picture giveaway on his blog - and it only has two days to run.  Take a look here for more details. )

Monday, 28 November 2016

Teshima, Part 2.

So, we had already packed a day's experiences into half a day in Teshima, but there was more.  The most famous artwork on the island is the Teshima Art Museum by Ryue Nishizawa and Rei Naito, and I definitely wanted to see that. 

 It's not my idea of a museum really, but it is a most striking and zen-like place.   Set on a terraced hillside overlooking the inland sea, it is approached by a woodland path.  After removing your shoes you enter through a low white tunnel and find yourself inside a white, irregularly shaped dome, illuminated only by the light from the sky which enters the dimness through two large holes in the roof.  You stay silent or speak only in whispers in the cathedral-like atmosphere. 

Do you see the people sitting silently below? 



Many of them were actually watching water oozing gently from the floor.  The floor isn't level, so the drops of water emerge slowly from it and then run, apparently at random, to blend with other watr-drops to form tiny streams and gather into pools which eventually seep away.  

 I think the idea is to help you think about life and our place in the universe, how we ourselves are just like drops of water which eventually join the great stream. Or, that's how I understood it, anyhow. 


I found it so absorbing that I could have stayed there for hours. We only actually stayed about half an hour, and to be honest, T was less enthusiastic than me.  Having obediently removed his shoes, we both kept accidentally stepping in little puddles of water, and he didn't enjoy having cold, wet socks.

 Outside again, we dried the socks in the sun and noticed something was going on across the road, in a valley surrounded by very small,  terraced fields.  So we walked over, through strips of cosmos and other crops.




What could those people be watching?  We bought some rice and vegetables at a stall and joined them on the edge of the valley.  And this is what we saw....



I had absolutely no idea what was going on. Something was written on a blackboard in Japanese but it meant nothing to me, nor did I understand the purpose of all the balloons you can see in the film.

On we wandered, with something unexpected, it seemed, around almost every corner. These two life sized dolls were standing in a farm barn together with what I suppose are bags of satsuma fertiliser. 



We passed a place called the Lemon Hotel, an artwork you can really stay in, apparently.  It is a place where people take selfies of themselves with lemons ....



And drink lemon squash



... and even the phones are lemon yellow.


To be honest, I didn't think the Lemon Hotel was up to the standard of the other art installations, or perhaps my brain had had as much art as it could handle that day.  Anyhow, the shadows were lengthening, so we caught the bus back to the main stop, which was about a kilometre from Kurieshi's house, and walked back.

We passed quite a collection of cats -  must have been at least a dozen by the water.  "Cat tourism" is a feature of some of the Seto Sea islands, and not a very popular one, because feral cats are often sick and some of the visitors who seek to feed them often trespass right into peoples' homes, I was told.

But most of these cats had collars, which suggested that perhaps this was just a place where cats like to go to socialise - if cats do socialise.  I never thought they particularly did, but on Teshima, who knows?


Kurieshi's house was interesting. It was actually his old house - I think his grandma might have lived there. Anyway, he's built a new one across the courtyard for himself and lets out the old one on Airbnb.  It is traditional Japanese style and boasts what is known as a goemon buro - a traditional stone bath, at least a hundred years old, lined with metal and originally heated from the bottom with a fire. 

In my picture, you can see the loose circular white plate at the bottom that you crouch on to avoid getting burned by the fire below - but I'm glad to say that Kurieshi had converted the hot water to electricity so we didn't have to worry about that problem.  



Goemon was a sort of Robin Hood character in old folklore. It's hard to know if he was really good or bad, but one good thing about him is that, when he was being boiled to death for his sins, he held his son (who'd also been put in the pot with him) above his head to protect him. 



Most Japanese people I spoke to about goemon buro remembered their parents or grandparents having one. Several people said that, as children, they were rather scared of it, and with that fire at the bottom, I'm not surprised.  It was interesting to bathe in it, but I decided I preferred the modern sort of Japanese bath, which keeps the temperature at 42 degrees and tells you in a bright little voice when it's ready. 

So we unrolled the futons, had a frugal supper, and a bath in the goemon buro,  and that was our day on Teshima. We had to leave early next morning, and I know we didn't see half of what there was to see.  I hope we can go back one day and see more of the art. Maybe by then, Kurieshi (who is nuts on all kind of vehicles) will have got his  Mini Cooper roadworthy again.  It would certainly be fun to see that neon welcome sign flashing for us at the port.


If you are interested in finding out more about the art islands yourself, by far the best resource I have found is David Billa's blog, "Setouchi Explorer."    David is French, but married to a Japanese, and he also speaks perfect English. We had a very interesting meal together in Takamatsu, in which he told me so much about the background of these island art projects, both in Teshima and elsewhere. He has fired my wish to return. 

Friday, 25 November 2016

Teshima, Part 1

I've been trying to decide what to write first about Japan.  We saw several different aspects of this interesting country, so I'm going to start with the most unusual part of the trip - our visit to the islands in the Seto Inland Sea.  And of the three islands we saw there, I think Teshima was the strangest. (Click here to see where Teshima is.)

In fact, there was so much to see on Teshima that I'm going to divide my post into two parts. Otherwise, like me, you might end up with a spinning head.

So, let me give you some brief background. (VERY brief - I apologise if you're an expert and know how much I'm leaving out!)

Like much of rural Japan, the Seto Sea islands are depopulated and poor, in great contrast to the ultra-modern cities and famous tourist areas.  The area, though, is one of great natural beauty.  Some years ago, a wealthy man, CEO of the major Japanese company of Benesse Co, hired top architects to create some remarkable buildings on the Seto Sea island of Naoshima. They included a unique underground gallery (by Tadao Ando) which houses both his collection of Monets and some very large art installations, like the huge room below, which is created with, among other things, pure gold leaf. 


Over following years, more buildings and artworks were commissioned.  Eventually the Setouchi Triennale festival was founded to bring more art to more islands, with the focus switching to giving these islands a new life.  Major artists have created work that reflects the life and history of these forgotten places. Several have taken over existing derelict buildings and turned them into artworks, but there is no predicting what they will do. Some of the work is temporary, but much of it is permanent, so you can visit them at any time of year. 

You need weeks if not months to see everything, but we were lucky to catch the last few days of the 2016 Triennale. We started our trip from the port town of Takamatsu, and I hope the picture below captures that exciting feeling of waiting at a ferry on a bright, sunny morning, heading for somewhere new.  There's our boat approaching. - a high speed launch called ARTBOAT.

Once we were aboard, it roared off, spray glittering in its wake.  It was exciting and beautiful - though I noticed that at least two young passengers weren't enjoying it much... 


And soon we saw Ieura port, on Teshima.  


We were greeted by Kureishi, our Airbnb host.  Airbnb, in case you don't know, is a site where private individuals are supposed to rent out holiday accommodation. I haven't always been that thrilled with it, but Kureishi was just the kind of host everyone hopes to get.  He was so friendly, kind and fun, and he really wanted us to get the best from our trip.

He took us to one of the art houses just round the corner from the port.   It was created from an old house by German sculptor Tobias Rehberger. * It overlooks the sea and appears pretty ordinary from the outside...


When you enter, you must remove your shoes and put on slippers, as is normal in Japan, and you pay a few hundred yen at the desk.


Inside, the structure of the house is completely normal, except that it is painted with dazzling optical effects to trick the eye.  




Here's the cafe, (which was closed at the time)


I can't help wondering what food they offered when it was open. Liquorice allsorts, perhaps? 



A narrow staircase leads to the upper floor


The stripes gave way to spots on the stairs.....


Reminds me a bit of the Sea of Holes in the film "The Yellow Submarine."


You can see the fishing boats through the window, and the roofs of neighbouring houses.


So that was enough to make the head spin, but just round the corner, we discovered the Yokoo House, which was equally eye catching.   This was created by the Japanese architectural practice of Yuko Nagayama & Associates. We weren't allowed to take many pictures inside, but this is how Yokoo House reflects the outside world.  



I don't know how it's done but this is how it looks when you step inside the door.  



The house features a traditional Japanese garden in bright and unexpected colour. Carp, symbols of good luck, swim on the mosaic stream-bed through the garden and right under the house, which has both a glass floor and a glass ceiling. 


I liked standing inside and watching the carp swimming under the floor. 



The house contains many rather startling paintings which we weren't allowed to photograph. Actually, though, I thought the changing visual effects were more interesting than the paintings.  


I did consider retreating into the restroom to give my eyes a break. But I soon changed my mind when I saw ever more abstract versions of myself repeating into infinity....


You can see more about this house, including fascinating photo notes of how it was transformed from a ruined wreck, if you go here.

Kurieshi drove us back to his house to leave our bags, and then we took a bus to the Karato Oka area, to see "Storm House."  The artists were George Bures Miller and Janet Cardiff. She's essentially a sound artist so you really have to experience her work first-hand, but I've wanted to know more about her since experiencing her "40 Part Motet" a few years ago. 

It was a bright sunny day, and, seeking "Storm House," we wandered around that satsuma orchard I mentioned in the last post ...


....and past hillside shrines...


....and wild flowers growing from rocks...


and found Storm House, to all appearances a small, wooden, and rather shabby Japanese house.

As you enter, the temperature drops and you gradually experience just how it would be to endure a severe thunderstorm storm in this house, with the electricity flickering and then dying, the rain hammering on the roof and water dripping through into buckets on the floor.

It's quite eerie, although (as with all installations, you have to be there to experience it). The followings video gives you a faint idea of that experience, but what it doesn't show is the shock of stepping from cold and dark and rain and noise into calmness and sunshine again afterwards.



But, as I said, it wasn't all art houses by any means.   Still, I'm going to end this post here, and post Part 2 soon.

*PS The house's name is "Was du liebst, bring dich aus zum weinen" - "What you love makes you cry."  I'd thought it was "Il Vente" ("The Wind") but that is just the name of the cafe.   Thanks to David Billa for pointing this out. David's amazing blog "Setouchi Explorer" helped get me interested in the Seto Sea artworks, and I link to this in Part 2 - but hey, I'll do it now, too. 


Thursday, 10 November 2016

I'm Back in England


This post will be politics-free, except to say that I am thinking of America and everyone who will be affected by today's news. Actually I've carefully avoided keeping up with world news during my month in Japan. It wasn't that hard, since I hardly had time to look at the internet, and I couldn't understand any of the newspapers, but let me thoroughly recommend stepping out of the flood of news that you can't do anything about, once in a while, just on principle.  Il faut cultiver notre jardin....

Japan was, if anything, even more fascinating than last time I went, two years ago.  I covered many miles  - and a fair bit of water too, as you see from the evening picture above.   I'm still feeling tired and jetlagged, but here are a few photos just to give you a flavour of what I did and saw.  I wasn't doing any travel articles, but I was doing some work there, and so one bonus was that I got to some places that were way off the tourist routes.

Japan's big cities can be magnificent but overwhelming, but much of the countryside is depopulated. This unbalance is not good in some ways, but the loneliness does leave enough mental space to consider the spirits, ghosts and the other supernatural beings who traditionally dwell in the Japanese landscape. Sometimes really got the feeling that they couldn't be too far away in the woods and mountains.  


Not that I'm suggesting this inoffensive couple were spirits - they just happened to be walking in an overgrown garden of a large mansion in Kakunodate. This is a small town in Akita prefecture that is known as a well preserved samurai town.  Akita is not a tourist area, though, so tour groups seemed noticeably absent and we had the place almost to ourselves.

The winters there are long and hard, and by now, I suppose Akita is covered in snow, so I am glad I saw its beautiful autumn. Japanese maples are the most delicate trees with brilliantly coloured autumn leaves. Imagine a place where they grow wild....the colours so bright they almost hurt your eyes.


I wish I'd had three times as long in Tokyo.  Below is something I snapped in a shop that sells festival and musical products. It looks impressive, but I don't know exactly what it is! Can anyone tell me?


This little group of Tokyo children were being shown an outdoor fish tank, and I was amused to see that all of them were interested in the fish, except for one little boy .... who was fascinated by me.


These folkloric characters seem to be making sake out of rice. I don't know who they are supposed to be, but in spite of their horns and fearsome appearance, they look pretty good tempered to me.


And this was my Halloween lunch, complete with pastry ghost (if you look carefully you see it is howling).  They couldn't find an orange pumpkin, but hey.  This photo was taken in the cafe of an art gallery on the 53rd floor of the Mori tower in Roppongi Hills where we saw a great exhibition on Art and the Universe. Actually it was almost worth paying the entrance fee just to sit in this cafe right next to that dizzying view!


When I went to Kyoto, a friend took me to the famous food market in Nishiki Street, where I snapped through the window of a specialist mushroom shop. 


At present exchange rates, 20,000 yen is £154 or $191 so the mushrooms this gentleman sells aren't really suitable for anyone's Sunday morning fry-up.


Also in Kyoto, I loved watching these friends having a bento picnic in the royal palace grounds.


Japanese aren't nearly as keen on sweets and cakes as Westerners, but I went into a nice old fashioned coffee shop in the city which had lovely cakes, which in this case are guarded by a pottery dog on the plate.  At least, I think it's a dog. What do you think?


We were lucky to have good weather throughout our trip, which I appreciated when we spent a few days at Takamatsu, on the shores of the Seto Inland Sea. We got quite used to chugging around the place on ferries taking a look at various islands.   I specially liked Ogijima, which hardly anyone visits. Here's the guardian of the Ogijima lighthouse doing some litter picking on the beach.  I only saw him and two other people the whole afternoon.



The image below was taken on the island of Teshima.  Several empty houses on the island have been converted into art works, and this one, called "Il Vente," is entirely decorated in an optical illusion style. The picture shows the cafe area, which is partly in an open courtyard - it was shut when I visited, but that just meant that nothing distracted from the artwork. Downstairs, the weird visual effects in the house were created by shadows, lines and accents of bright colour. Upstairs, a combination of spots and lines was even more disorientating, yet somehow the place managed to have a pleasant atmosphere when you were inside.


The islands offer a chance to roam around unspoiled countryside with many views of sea and mountains. It is sad that so much of Japan's countryside is neglected, for some of it is very charming. Small scale and traditional, it usually offers something to see before you have been walking for too long - ricefields, cosmos fields, neat rows of splendid vegetables, the occasional cow, fig-trees,  many persimmon trees and, every now and then, a satsuma orchard.



Oh, and of course, any number of bright wildflowers.



Finally, here is an image from the Hiroshima peace museum.  I am not that easily moved to tears, but it was a most sobering description of what happens when nuclear weapons are used. I will write about it, but today isn't the day to do so. 

 The shot belowshows is a clip from a film of the bombing, overlaid with a moving poem written by someone who was a tiny baby when the bomb went off, and how his mother fled with him through scenes of devastation. I think all politicians should have to take a trip to this museum. It's so upsetting but when you get outside, it's encouraging to look around and see what a busy and thriving city Hiroshima is today.



So this is a taster of what I did in Japan. Apologies for any misspellings, etc. I am just too jetlagged to notice, I think. But I'll be writing more, and explaining more, when I ave tackled everything that has been waiting now I'm home! 

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