|Japan's Smaller Towns: A Reverence For Tradition|
Photos: Kip Miller
a crisp autumn morning in Japan's Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park where we
have just spent the night in a traditional ryokan. We're about to depart
for the Japanese Alps, part of the Gizu Prefecture, a remote region famed
for its unique architecture and a reverence for times past. As our bus starts
out toward Hakone's train station, I am filled with great anticipation and
gleefully wave back at several hotel staff who have gathered to bid us good
Japan's bullet trains, Shinkansen, are among the world's fastest, with speeds up to 200 miles per hour.
I have been itching for an opportunity to discover the old Japan, to walk on streets lined with historic homes and shops displaying artisanal crafts, and to mingle with the locals as they go about their daily routines. Our traveling companions, Kathy and Eric, share our excitement as our train winds through a pristine alpine landscape dense with pines. By mid-afternoon we arrive in Takayama, a town of 90,000 surrounded by mountains that are 10,000 feet tall. No rice paddies here, I observe, or at least, very few. With unlimited sources of wood, townspeople here always made their living by constructing houses and shops. Renowned for their superb craftsmanship, they soon became the builders of most of Kyoto's temples and shrines during the Edo period.
a local bus and are greeted by Nogukosa, our first female driver. "But
before we go into town," Jay announces, "I want you to experience
the beauty of a traditional tea ceremony." "Terrific,"
Kathy says excitedly as we pull up at Takayama's Chanoyu Museum and Dokaku
Tea House. "Irasshaimase (welcome)," a tea hostess of indeterminate
age at greets us with a discrete smile. Removing our shoes is de rigueur
and we shuffle behind her to a spacious room with tables and chairs arranged
in a U formation. Seasonal flowers and calligraphy screens decorate the
space. She is being assisted by two younger women, all clad in traditional
An authentic tea ceremony in Takayama includes a demo of how to wear a kimono.
At the Hida
Hotel Plaza, Takayama's tallest structure, we sample Hida beef, the local
wagyu beef, renowned in these parts and rivaling the more familiar Kobe
beef that we've enjoyed at home. In the lobby, a large float is on display,
typical of traditional illuminated floats that are paraded during the
bi-annual Takayama Festival dating from the 1600s. "Too bad we're
missing the festival by just a few days," says Eric. According to
tradition, these elaborate, hand-painted floats (yatai) are mounted on
wheels and pulled by costumed townspeople through the streets of the old
town. "I am eager to see those streets tomorrow, even without the
floats," I remark to Kathy.
At Takayama's Kokobunji Temple, an array of colorful fabric votives are meant to protect children.
Although the chill morning sky is gray with clouds, Ai, a local guide, is ready to take us on a walking tour through Takayama's shopping streets. "I lived in Cerritos in Los Angeles where I studied English," she reveals as we depart the hotel. We pace ourselves, slowing down to take in as many details as possible. Ai points to an orange sign for Chitose, a popular restaurant specializing in soba fried noodles, and then to Tsukuni Soba, known for thinner noodles in a lighter broth. "They are all worth trying later when you have free time," she claims. "But now we are going to visit an important Buddhist site, the Hida Kokubunji Temple, originally built 748 by Emperor Shomu. Here you will find Takayama's oldest gingko tree, reputed to be 1200 years old." We peer into the courtyard to find a gnarled tree, perhaps 10 meters in circumference. "The local people believe that it is a winter weather predictor," Ai explains. "If there is going to be a lot of snow, all the leaves will drop in one or two days; if the snow is going to be lighter, the leaves drop bit by bit. The tree is about 65% accurate." She points to a row of Jizo statues of Buddah bearing red cups that are used by worshippers "to gather the souls of babies who died before their time." There is also a display of unusual amulets for children in a variety of colors, some made of kimono scraps. "Red means family happiness, green means longevity and health, blue signifies education, and gold prosperity," Ai enumerates.
Koujiyamiso, Takayama's renowned miso shop, offers shoppers free tastes of steaming hot soup.
The Miyagawa morning market, the local version of a farmers' market, stretches on the eastern side of a river of the same name, across the Kajibashi Bridge. While the river is somewhat turbulent, its water is crystal clear, and I can see fine white sand on the bottom. We stroll past stalls selling bulbous yams, tiny eggplants, red turnips and aromatic ginger. One vendor specializes in dried fish, another in freshly grilled octopus balls. A colorful flower booth showcases locally grown bouquets. On the opposite side are tiny eateries and mini shops selling specialty products. A little grander is the Koujiyamiso Shop, Takayama's finest miso emporium, offering a large selection of miso products, including a freeze-dried version. A smiling matron, perhaps a family member, offers us cups of steaming miso to taste. It is delicious, the perfect beverage on a chilly morning. "I can see you liked it!" interjects Ai, motioning us to continue to our cooking class, to be held at a nearby Buddhist shrine. Back on Kajibashji Bridge, Jay points to two bronze statues that flank each side: the long-armed man and the long-legged man, two figures revered in Japanese folklore for their cooperative spirit: "Long legs wades in the river carrying long arms on his back as the latter grabs fish right out of the water." "How clever is that," Eric chortles.
Takayama's Kajibashi Bridge is famous for two bronze statues that are part of the local folklore.
At the edge
of the town's world renowned historic district, Takayama Jinya is Japan's
last standing government house complex from the Edo period. Because Takayama
was rich in timber, gold, silver and copper, it was put under the direct
control of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the late 17th century. The Jinya
complex is a popular tourist site, visited by thousands of people from
all over the world who come to view its public rooms, storehouses, old
torture chamber and living quarters, or to simply admire its unique all-wood
construction. The Jinya also marks the entrance to Takayama's colorful
old town, lined with distinctive timbered houses, shops and bars. Nearby,
a special building shields one of the city's prized yatais. "The
yatais were originally built to appease the gods after Japan was ravaged
by an outbreak of plague," Jay explains. He leads us down one of
its three main streets, past elegant private homes and tiny inns, alongside
colorful shops and bars, to Funasaka, one of six sake breweries in Takayama.
A ball made out of cedar hangs over the entrance, denoting its status
as a brewery.
Funasaka, a popular brewery in the heart of Takayama's old town, has been producing high quality sake for over 200 years.
It's a crisp
blue sky morning. Our bus coils through the rugged Gifu Prefecture toward
the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Shirakawa-go, one of three villages
in Japan that are famous for their steep thatched roofs, known as "Gassho-Zukuri.''
Unique in the world, most of the houses are at least one to two hundred
years old, the oldest reportedly 400. In a region known for its harsh
winters, these roofs are built without a single nail, their shape resembling
"praying hands" which enables snow to fall off easily and the
interiors to stay warm. "This unique design also provides spaces
for living quarters, attic storage and room for carrying out domestic
chores. The roofs have to be rethatched every 15 to 20 years," Jay
explains. I gaze at a few houses ahead and, strangely, I am reminded of
Alberobello, another UNESCO site in the Puglia region of Italy and its
"trulli" houses, characterized by steep roofs built of stone
without mortar. Not weather-related, the trulli were devised for instant
disassembly should any tax assessors arrive.
Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a unique thatched-roof village nestled in Japan's rugged Gifu Prefecture.
The village charms at every turn. We cross a field with four scarecrows, already up for Halloween, on our way to Kanda House, one of the largest structures in the village and open to visitors. The house dates from the Edo period when it was built over ten-years by a carpenter from Ishikawa. Its multi-level interior is beautifully finished with gleaming floors. The "irori," a central fire pit, burns continuously, creating enough energy to warm the entire structure and allow for cooking. We notice that the house includes many modern improvements in keeping with the Gassho style, all held together by a system of ropes, pulleys and support boards. Small openings on different levels enable occupants to "watch out for fires that can escape the fire pit when gusty winds blow," our hostess explains. "Now let's head to a lookout point at the top of the ridge, the Ogimachi Joseki, where you can enjoy a panoramic view of the entire village," Jay announces as we depart. "There we will also have a traditional lunch featuring local specialties." Indeed, the view does not disappoint and our tasty lunch includes fresh trout and rustic buckwheat noodles.
Our bus loops through the mountainscape to Taira, a road station near Gokayama village. Here, a local factory produces "washi," an exquisite, hand-made paper derived from mixing fibers from mulberry branches and an extract from a hibiscus plant. "Time for another hands-on experience," I whisper to Kathy. "This paper has been made for over 1200 years and many historic documents written on washi were preserved by the old imperial court," Jay interjects. "Should washi paper ever get accidently wet, any ink writing on it will not be lost." A brief film summarizes the entire process, prepping us for our foray into papermaking, beginning with wet pulp and ending with a dry finished product. The staff is efficient and helpful and we each are gifted with our handiwork and other samples to take home. I am awed by how reverently the Japanese cling to age-old traditions. To this day, washi remains the paper of choice for cards and stationery, and especially for woodblock prints.
terrain continues for another hour as our bus traverses the mountains
through a series of inky, winding tunnels, including one seven miles long.
Ahead lies Kanazawa, a prosperous city flanking the Japan Sea and one
of the best preserved municipalities in the country. During the Edo period,
Kanazawa was the domain of the powerful Maeda clan who ruled for three
centuries from a magnificent castle surrounded by a series of moats. The
city boasts some of the finest fish in the country, with numerous sushi
restaurants that attract an international following. "Before we arrive
at our hotel, we are going to stop at one of Kanazawa's old geisha areas,
the Higashi Chaya District," Jay announces. Under overcast skies,
we follow him through its picturesque streets, past lantern-lined alleyways,
artisanal shops, and several teahouses where geishas still entertain customers
with traditional songs and dances. The streets are packed with tourists,
including several young ladies from neighboring Asian countries who like
to dress up in colorful kimonos and strike a pose. They can easily pass
for locals and are delighted to be photographed. "There are a couple
of popular geisha houses here," Jay notes. "One has 24 active
girls. A typical show lasts 90 minutes and can cost $3000. All geishas
must be able to carry on intelligent conversations and also be amusing
and clever, in addition to performing for about three hours at a time."
Kanazawa's historic Higashi Chaya District boasts several old geisha houses that attract locals and visitors. Girls from other Asian countries love to "play geisha" and pose in colorful kimonos.
Kanazawa's famous train station, rebuilt in 2005, is famous for its illuminated gate, Tsuzumi mon, resembling the drum used in classical Noh Theater.
One could not ask to be based at a better hotel than the modern, 25-story Nikko, located just across the street from Kanazawa's dramatic, architect designed train station. Originally built in 1898, the station received a complete overhaul in 2005 by noted architects Sejima and Nishizawa. A massive cedar gate, the Tsuzumi-mon, is illuminated at night and resembles the drum used in classical Noh Theater. It has become the new trademark of the city. Inside, a ginormous glass and steel dome covers the central plaza, providing shelter from Kanazawa's frequent rains and heavy winter snows. "My recommendation is that we head to the Hyakubangai Shopping Center which connects to the station," Jay suggests. "There you will find many choices for dinner, from top sushi restaurants, noodle and tempura specialty places to Italian and fast food joints." He leads several of our group to Mori Mori, his very favorite sushi emporium, renowned for quality, freshness and presentation. "In my opinion Kanazawa's seafood surpasses Tokyo's," he asserts as he dives into his artfully arranged platter.
At Mori Mori, a sushi platter shows off the city's exceptional bounty from the Sea of Japan.
Kanazawa's 27-acre Kenrokuen Garden is renowned for its ancient pines and flowering trees, ponds, bridges and teahouses.
The centuries-old Nagamachi neighborhood is distinguished by winding cobbled lanes edged with earthen walls, water-filled canals, and intimate gardens. We stroll toward a restored home once occupied by the Nomura clan, a high-ranking samurai family with a penchant for refinement. Maeda purposefully encouraged all his top samurai to dabble in the arts. As a result, Kanazawa remained at peace and was not invaded for several centuries, its warriors perceived by rivals as posing no threat. We carefully cross over stepping stones to the entrance, past a gleaming suit of armor, through rooms with carved transoms and painted wall panels, to an intimate tea room overlooking a jewel of a garden with a waterfall and a pond stocked with koi. Several rooms on the first level showcase the family's collection of priceless artifacts. "Very well done," says Eric as we exit past a long line of visitors patiently waiting to enter. "It's good that we came early," he adds. I scan the crowd. Most of them are tourists from other parts of Japan eager to discover how the samurai elite once lived.
is famous throughout Japan for its high-quality handicrafts. First among
them are its world renowned ceramics, known as Kutaniware, each piece
made by hand from blended clays, and expertly painted and glazed. At Kutani
Kosen Kiln, we are hosted by Koichiro Toshioka, the firm's president and
principal artist, a sixth-generation artisan with an exemplary command
of English. He takes us through their entire creative process, deftly
throwing pots himself on a wheel, enumerating the kiln's sources of quarried
clay and the firing and painting techniques used by the art staff. The
tour comes full circle at the gift shop where both antique and modern
pieces are for sale. "Our company was formed in 1870," Toshioka
brags as he wraps our purchase, a small vase glazed in brilliant yellow
and green. "Traditional Kutaniware dates back to the Edo period.
The name means nine valleys and surviving examples from the early days
are priceless," he explains. "With proper care your vase could
Omicho Market, also known as Kanazawa's Kitchen, is a bustling food hall with a huge selection of local fish.
The bus deposits
us at our final afternoon stop: the city's Yasue Gold Leaf Museum. Kanazawa
is Japan's largest producer of gold leaf, used for millennia to decorate
temples, palaces, statuary and even paintings and ceramics. "Gold
leaf is often added to cosmetics and to ice cream," Jay reveals.
A staff artist demonstrates the process of gold extraction, deftly applying
a thin sheet of gold leaf to an art object. "A few of the museum
staff actually live on the premises," Jay brags. "It's really
an amazing facility. There are workshop and conference spaces in addition
to a valuable collection." But for us, the stellar attraction is
a high-tech light show that reenacts the Maeda clan's history. The centerpiece
is Lord Maeda Toshiie's gilded suit of armor complete with his tall catfish
hat. Lights flash and dim, colors burst and dissolve, music blares and
fades as the clan's 300 years in Kanazawa gloriously enfold. Our visit
ends with a lesson in making a gold leaf plate. In a classroom, we are
each assigned a small lacquer plate and a stencil. After affixing a stencil
to the plate, we add some glue and lay a sheet of thin gold leaf on top,
then gently press to remove the stencil. The staff polishes our handiwork,
a perfect take-home souvenir.
Lord Maeda Toshiie's gilded samurai armor is the centerpiece of the Gold Leaf Museum's high-tech light show.