Katsura Villa and Shugakuen: Kyoto, Japan
Katsura Villa and Shugakuen: Kyoto, Japan
The Japanese make an event of going out to see cherry blossoms, Spring emerging. This phenomena is rooted in Japan’s art and literature that savors Buddhism’s bittersweet appreciation of the inescapable changes in life. Cherry blossoms bloom; a week later the blossoms fall to the ground, still perfect – young and fragile.
I remember when I first lived in Japan. A Japanese man asked me why Americans like roses so much. He personally found roses disgusting. Admittedly, the rose bud and its mature flower is beautiful, but the flower will slowly decay…eventually turning black on its own branch. He preferred the cherry blossom that perched on its branch for a very short time and then gracefully floated down to rejoin the earth. Today the Japanese like roses as much as anyone else. But, nothing is loved as much as cherry blossoms.
Shibori is the 400 year old art of indigo dying in Japan. Often taking months to create one piece of fabric, the art from Arimatsu is an endangered craft. Chinese students now come over from the mainland to learn how to make shibori.
But, the shibori from Arimatsu is the most revered.
Saturday, a few weeks before Christmas and New Years. I expected to fight through crowds on the streets and in shops. The streets were virtually empty and no one was in the shops. How tragic! Some of the work is breath-taking!
How to get there: Take the train to Arimatsu, either from Nagoya Station or Kanayama -go to the Meitetsu-Nagoya Line. Get off the train, follow map at the station to the shibori region.
Arimatsu is Japan’s historical center of shibori (tie-dyeing) workmanship, since the seventeenth century, dating back to 1608. Arimatsu was an old Edo-period (1603-1867) post station town on the Tokaido highway between Kyoto and Tokyo.
The technique found its way to the Nagoya area when craftsmen from Oita in Kyushu, skilled in the shibori technique were ordered to help in the construction of Nagoya Castle by the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu and later settled in the area.
Arimatsu Narumi Shibori Kaikan is a good place to start. Classes are taught on how to make shibori: http://www.shibori-kaikan.com/kaikan-e.html.
Here is a charming video of the old ladies that spent a life time preserving the art. I am sorry, it is in Japanese, but you will see how the work is done and you can watch the women at work.
On the main street of the old quarter there are a number of fine, preserved merchant houses, with Nurigome-style, anti-fire, clay coatings and second-floor latticework windows, including Takeda’s house.
The original buildings were destroyed by a fire in 1784 and the houses seen today date from after that year, when the buildings were rebuilt with thick plaster walls and tiled roofs as a defence against fire.
I can’t be home with our family for Thanksgiving and I am feeling a bit homesick. So I wanted to talk to you about food.
Thanksgiving is much more than food, isn’t it? Thanksgiving is an experience, a memory. It is about sharing stories and conversations. And, of course, Thanksgiving is about family.
Thanksgiving for our family is memories of a farm on an island in the Puget Sound, a fall storm and turkey cooked on the barbecue, board games, a visiting donkey and puppies born under the kitchen table. Thanksgiving is pumpkins, apple pie and stuffing. Thanksgiving is Barney with a plate too big for him to carry and little girls dressed up and dancing on the deck.
We don’t celebrate American Thanksgiving here in Japan. Today, just like any other work day, we were up at 6:00 a.m. and then off to school to teach at our international school near Nagoya.
However, tomorrow is a holiday, Kinrō Kansha no Hi (勤労感謝の日-Labour Day). The holiday is a mixture of thanks for the rice harvest, appreciation of hard work done, human rights day and other things all thrown in together.
We will be happy to take the three day weekend to have dinner with friends, go visit a new Japanese crafts town, and maybe do some Christmas shopping.
The Japanese celebrate food. They show thanks for food at nearly every meal. Like the Italians, good food is very important to the Japanese culture. If you know a few Japanese words for foods, you should have a head start in Japan.
As I rode my bus home this afternoon, I looked out the window and saw food growing on trees and nestled in family vegetable plots. Persimmon (kaki), mikans (satsuma) and nashi (Japanese pear) hang from trees at the entrances to homes. My favorite vegetable plot is lush with onions, cabbage and greens. Hanging gems of small purple nasubi (eggplant) and red chilis peak out between fence posts.
Saturday Don and I made an easy salad with a few fresh vegetables. We were inspired by a delicate little okazu (side dish) we had as part of an obento last weekend in a nearby town, Mino. Mino is famous for its handmade paper art: scrolls, paper lanterns and shoji paper.
Vegetables are honored here in Japan and there are a surprising variety of them. In this recipe, the crisp clean taste of the thinly sliced vegetables is enhanced by the warm dressing made of ground sesames and miso.
Autumn vegetable salad with sesame dressing
Ingredients and directions:
Choose crisp bright colored vegetables. Cool in refrigerator until very crisp. Slice thinly these 3 vegetables.
Sesame-miso Dressing (You can also use this dressing for hot vegetables such as spinach or broccoli.)
4 T of fresh sesame seeds.
If you aren’t luck enough to have one of these great little suribachi bowls, use a mortar and pestle. You will enjoy the slow soothing process of grinding the seeds. It is a kind of ‘zen-like’ process and the warm aroma wafts up from the bowl. There is nothing quite like using one of these ceramic bowls with ridges carved into the inside of the bowl. Just Hungry, a blog by Makiko, my favorite Japanese recipe blogs, says it better: “The rough-surfaced grooves, which are called kushi no me since they are made with a comb-like device on the wet surface of the clay, help to mash and bruise whatever you are grinding a lot more efficiently than a smooth surface. It’s ideal for grinding up sesame seeds, which is what I use it for mostly.”
2 T of miso (white or brown rice miso)
1 T of Japanese vinegar
1-2 T sugar
1-3 T corn oil
Now apply the dressing to the vegetables. Apply according to your taste. But, a little bit goes a long way. Start with less and add as you desire.
That should be it. I did find that the dressing was very thick. This thick dressing is fine with hot vegetables, as the warm vegetables ‘melt’ the dressing into a better consistency. For the cold vegetables, I found the consistency worked out fine even though it seemed thick.
Higanbana – 彼岸花
The last kanji (Japanese characters) of higanbana means flower (花). The first two kanji (彼岸 – higan) refer to the week of the Fall Equinox. During that week there are special celebrations in Buddhist temples.
Buddhist temples celebrate the Fall equinox when day and night are equal.
The observance is a reminder of life’s impermanence. Higan literally means ‘the other shore.’ This ‘shore’ is our everyday life. The ‘other shore’ symbolizes nirvana after a practice of patience, morality, meditation, generosity, energy and wisdom.
The equinox is so important in Japan that the day is designated as a national holiday. This year the equinox fell on Saturday, September 22. The celebrations around the equinox have been a part of Japanese customs for over a 1000 years. The tradition is kind of like the Mexican Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos), where families take flowers, incense and food and go to visit their deceased family members at the cemetery.
Leave it to politics to corrupt a perfectly nice day in September.
In 1868, following the toppling of the Tokugawa Shogun, the Meiji government (1868-1912) made efforts to stimulate allegiance for its new government led by the titular head, the emperor. The Meiji government directed that the Equinox should be converted into a day to pay respect to past emperors and their family. The government renamed the holiday Kōreisai (皇霊祭 – lit. emperor spirits ceremony). Was the government just making a small request that the Japanese folk add their emperor to their family’s list of deceased? Or was this simple decree, a more insidious political effort to fashion a mindless populace to follow their emperor anywhere, even into war?
I had trouble finding neutral information on this small issue.
I do not believe that early Meiji leaders such as Ito Hirobumi were deviously planning an international war or a super-nation. The Meiji oligarchs looked for ways to help the new government survive. In the early years, following the overthrow of Tokugawa , the Meiji leaders dealt with uprisings by samurai and protests from the disenfranchised. In 1868, whether the new Meiji government would survive was still a question of history.
60 years after the deposition of the Shogun, super-nationalists would take power in Japan. These usurpers led Japan to expansion and war. The militarists realized the advantage of appropriating vestiges of the Tokugawa dictatorship: propaganda, censorship and an education system suffused with conservative, traditional ideals. The despots retooled the institutions the Meiji government had used to maneuver through the first difficult years of modernization and democratization. The nationalists turned Japan into a military dictatorship.
What an apt warning from history!
The United States of today and Tojo’s Japan and Hitler’s Germany are different. In the 1920s, Japan and Germany were embryonic democracies whose leaders and people had little skill molding their cultures to fit democratic institutions. They didn’t have much time to appreciate the advantages of a liberal society. Too soon after beginning the democratic experiment, the people became more concerned about making a living than defending a new fangled right to vote. Democracy called for conversations, compromise and slow solutions to problems. Having to deal with fear and deprivation spawned by the economic Depression in the 1930s, many Japanese and Germans were happy to return to the old autocratic governments instead of fighting for a new democracy they didn’t understand.
Be wary of the use of temporary oppression. How benign that sounds…temporary oppression. Oppression is oppression. It is a malignancy. Today some American politicians are comfortable with the suspension of human rights, i.e. phone tapping, incarceration without trial, and use of torture, as a temporary necessity to fight terrorism.
History would lead me to believe that it is dangerous to fiddle with freedoms.
But…back to our innocent red flower and the Equinox.
After WW II, American Occupation officials were thorough in their search for signs of “emperor worship.” Wanting to wipe out what was viewed as an ideology supporting the rise of extreme nationalism, the Americans insisted on the obliteration of the ‘worship’ of the emperor. Little Shūbun no Hi could no longer be connected to the emperor and his ancestors.
On my calendar in 2012, this national holiday on September 22nd is now again labeled “Autumnal Equinox Day.”
I am happy for the Japanese. They have recovered their day of thanksgiving for a good harvest, a day to meditate on the impermanence of life and a day to visit with loved ones who have moved on.