Disclosure, I’ve been to the Suzume exhibit in Tokyo before seeing the movie. To the exhibit’s credit though they really didn’t spoil much. I was aware of some of the characters that showed up, and they showed two edited clips from the movie’s two climaxes, so I knew roughly that something was going to happen but had no idea of the context nor the words that accompanied those scenes.
Now on to the movie itself.
First impression is how short the film felt. The movie started, went right to the plot then never stopped, kept up the pace and tension all the way to the end, which did feel a little sudden. From a pacing perspective this is very different from Your Name or Weathering with You which both had a distinct intro, musical montage transition, reveal, buildup then climax, with notable pauses in between them. Suzume instead came in very quick segments owing to its road trip structure. There is a late climax reveal followed by a longer segment but even that was fairly short.
It is debatable whether this new structure made the film better or worse. It’s better in that it definitely kept things moving, the flipside is it never quite gets enough tension built up to blow it up in magnificent fashion like Your Name did. It’s more gripping throughout the experience but doesn’t leave as strong an impression, at several points I’m left wanting the scene to last just that much longer to properly absorb what was on the screen.
Thematically Suzume is as predicted, Shinkai’s retake on Child Who Chase Lost Voices, about coming to grips with deaths and losses. It’s a very difficult theme which Shinkai flubbed in Lost Voices. In Suzume, there are still some issues; the foreshadowing isn’t laid out too well and the emotional beats felt like they were moved on a tad too fast for them to land solidly. The problems are mostly in the execution rather than how they are envisaged, tonally and story wise they are incredibly well for what is a very difficult topic.
There are a few other elements that played to varying degrees of success. Suzume’s relationship with her aunt was a surprise; it was hinted at early on and still caught me off guard how heavily Shinkai leaned into it, with some of the best dramatic and poignant scenes of the film. The romance with Souta (seriously Shinkai did you really have to give him long hair too like Shun?) is good but not great, their interactions are very cute and sweet and the first climax did hit quite hard (but not hard enough). There’s not enough runway to let it reach the same depth as Your Name with Suzume’s main focus elsewhere.
Your Name had at least 4 dramatic rollercoasters that were all devoted to Taki and Mitsuha’s fate and relationships (Itomori reveal, sunset to pen drop, train scene, open hand) followed by 10 minutes of masterclass trolling at the end with a final ultimate gut punch and name drop. Suzume only really had two, one at each of the climax sequences and the closing scenes were fairly tame. It had to lend other dramatic moments to Suzume and her aunt’s climax and Suzume’s past reveal, and let Suzume have the final moment for resolution too.
Suzume’s romance isn’t the focus and perhaps it’s unfair to judge it too much on that. At the same time I do recognize that Suzume didn’t lend enough moments for Suzume’s personal journey to fully land either. Essentially there were two main plots. The romance and Suzume’s relationship with her past and those around her, each done well but not enough to shine as brightly as the magnified focus of Your Name.
Shinkai apparently mentioned that he originally wasn’t going to have a romance in it and it was going to be two girls on a road trip. From a PR perspective it does explain why romance took a backseat but I’m not convinced the film was going to have no romance at all, two girls on a road trip sounds yuri-tastic to me. The playful relationship between Souta and Suzume with some edits make for the perfect more-than-senpai-kouhai relationship.
Music wise it is the weakest of the three films by RADWIMPS. To be precise it’s the one with the weakest song. Since Shinkai dropped the MV styling this time there isn’t a place for RADWIMP to insert a song. The Suzume theme song is quite hummable and recognizable for the short segments they are allowed to shine through, but won’t be revealed in full till the credits.
Ignore the songs, the music score is much better than WwY and better than YN in places, if not as recognizable as something like the Itomori tune or Date. It’s interesting that Shinkai chose to rely on music and not song to carry the emotional weight of key moments, perhaps a signal that he is more confident in his ability to let a scene speak for itself.
A departure from the whimsical jpop of the previous two, there’s added elements of traditional instruments, chorals, that all gave a very different feel. They evoked a mystical, unsettling atmosphere and fuels the tensions during the action scenes. During the Tokyo scene the music instilled fear like invisible tendrils that reached beyond the screen, still the air and caressed one’s spine.
In terms of visuals there are some notable call backs to Your Name with the starry skies of the other world, and a few harbour town seagulls and boat scenes practically lifted out of Crossroads.
Two things stand out. There isn’t a scene that was made just to show off visually like the firework scene in WwY or the falling comet in YN. Overall the quality was raised higher even if the lack of a showcase piece made it hard to point out any scene specifically. 3D effects are used more liberally (and perhaps too liberally, some places especially flowers could better have been done as 2D composites). The 3D animated Shouta as a chair is a thing of marvel, and I was surprised how much emotion the chair could convey as a wooden chair without deforming into an anthropomorphic nightmare.
The other is that the cuts are long. Shinkai’s previous works tended to have rather quick cuts as transitions, but Suzume had a lot more tracking and zooming shots from the use of 3D and long action sequences. There is so much running and flying Shinkai has to be testing the waters for a more action oriented film, a brave direction as that is not his forte definitely.
Two scenes really stood out to me, one is the skies over Tokyo with the visual intercut and doom it managed to evoke, that disaster is ever so near yet people went about oblivious and hapless.
The other scene is Suzume in the shower and then getting dressed, fine as a hairlined and unbroken vase.
Suzume is a film with a lot more subtleties and plays with a more delicate touch compared to the laser focused Your Name. While Your Name contains more symbolisms and layers, as a theme that is being tackled, the approach is a lot more direct. With Suzume’s theme Shinkai had his work cut out for him, it’s much harder to distill down, or to even describe. Best exemplified by the tagline. Your Name was simply Searching for you whom I have yet to meet. Suzume’s was… On the other side of the door exists all times, which while true it’s more a descriptor of something that exists in the film than its theme. And it seemed the promotion team couldn’t decide either and sometimes promoted with the words ittekimasu.. Ittekimasu, which roughly translates as “going now”, “I’m leaving and will be back”, are words that actually prove to have multiple meanings that ties into the theme.
On the surface level, it’s a word to suggest Suzume starting out on her journey, throughout the film it also relates to Suzume finding her determination to depart on her last quest, then somberly for all those who said the words in the morning but could never say “tadaima” or “I am home/back” on 3-11, and finally for closing the wounds of the past and moving forward to a bright tomorrow.
It’s a faceted tagline fittingly viewed from many many angles, the problem is by itself without context, it doesn’t evoke that same poetic beauty. At least it’s better than Weathering with You.
Back to the tagline, there are too many ways to look at the overall message of loss, acceptance, remembrance and embracing the future, it’s hard to be distilled to a single sentence.
A lot of things that happened or shown throughout the film adds their light touches that weaves finely on the side of the line that is the obscure. It feels like a lot of elements could be removed without impacting the plot, but ultimately makes the film weaker overall. And I think that is what makes Suzume such a hard film to assess, because it is a film not just about a single story or an event, but about society, about people, about experiences, about the past and future and connections.There’s many mundane moments in Suzume that works in the end because they provide a portrait of daily life in the past, present and future. Ask people what makes a society, and there will be an infinite number of responses.
For me, Shinkai did succeed in conveying the message he wanted. In a very strangely reminiscent of the Shinkai of old, that tranquil emptiness. I wasn’t happy, nor particularly sad during the first viewing. None of the moments brought me to tears or made me cry out with amazement. But something lingered long after I walked out the theatre. A calmness, full and unfulfilling. That made me thinking back again and again to what happened, enough to drive me into going back to watch it again the next day, even at full ticket price; something I had never done before.
I am not from Japan. Though I love Japan and go there almost every year, my understanding and affinity to the country is distant. I was not there when 3-11 happened. My memory of that event was the horror of seeing the tsunami on the news, that Madoka (and many other animes, but mainly Madoka) was postponing their episode release. Followed by the lengthy distant worry of happenings at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
I went to Japan the first time later that year, at the close of the year. Already then the earthquake felt like a distant memory. The Christmas light shows in Tokyo went on as usual. There were prayer candles as part of the light exhibit in memorial and solidarity with the Touhoku regions. But like the dirtied banners draped across pedestrian walkways, they felt more ceremonial than heartfelt, at least to me.
When I later visited the Touhoku a few years later, the aftermath of the earthquake felt a little more real. Sections of the local train lines remained inoperable, and there was a sense of economic hardships long from the bubble collapse exacerbated by the quake.
3-11 was always distant to me, it was something I understood, but never affected.
I was there in Taiwan on the night of 9-21 quake, when I was still little. I still remember being woken up by my mother, and running down the stairs of the apartment. Driving our car out to an area clear of highrises while the orange flames of the oil refinery burned against the dark cloudy skies. We didn’t know whether the refinery had exploded or not at the time, fortunately the flames were from burning off excess fuel as part of the shutdown procedure.
I remember the next few days watching the news of search and rescue going through collapsed buildings. Not much more beyond that, I was still too little to understand the gravity of the situation.
Maybe in some small ways the scenes of earthquake and the loss in Suzume struck me more than I realises and its message burrowed deep within.
The theme and the goal of remembering the event and other unfortunate events in life, and how to find closure and continue on, was worthy of praise for even daring to tackle.
There’s a lot of small details that adds to that sense of loss, wrongness and overcoming them. The chair is missing a leg, the butterflies that accompanies Suzume, the red spider lily flowers, the odd things about Suzume that’s hard to put a finger on the first time watching.
Shinkai poured a lot of detail into Suzume and it’s without doubt his best and faceted character.
Her design isn’t as recognizable as Mitsuha with her braid or Hina with her hooded vest, which made her characterization all the more amazing.
She is very colourful both in personality, expressiveness and appearances. She’s a bit more mature but doesn’t lose that youthful girlishness. Throughout the film she does what she likes, whether it’s skipping school to look for a handsome young man, or running up a departing ferry chasing after a cat and a chair, or deciding to hitchhike across Japan. She relies on Souta as Souta is the closer who knows about the mimizus and doors, but is also quite happy to pull him in directions she wants, pointing out Souta is just a chair and in no position to refuse her help, pulling Souta over to sit on him so as to not leave him out of the party.
Yet she’s still vulnerable and have that youthful innocence to her; not being able to tell wine glass from water glass when pulled to help out at the night bar whose owner had given her a ride from Shikoku to Kobe, being frightened when she almost fell out of a ferris wheel, or longing to see her mother, or at the end shriveled up shyly not sure if Souta is going to just leave her on the platform.
In outfit she has two main sets, a school uniform and a casual outfit with an open denim jacket, white T and short culottes, and switches often between unkempt hair, ponytail, braid and a very sisterly half-up small ponytail, and a fully down straight hair.
It’s a really sweet combination, especially with the hair, that allows her to be presented in many different ways, whether it’s mature, frail, playful, frightened or forlorn.
She is the most human of Shinkai’s characters so far, her lack of a distinct style makes her memorable, not as a striking poster girl but deep within the heart, how much like a regular person she is. She is very plain, and very special.
She’s the one actively driving the story forward as the main character. Souta is arguably a side character. And that goes for the romance also.
From the first moment Suzume crushes hard on Souta, skipping school to look for him, calling him a handsome man, before laughing at herself for basically hitting on him. Throughout the journey their relationship remain one sided, Suzume tries to kiss Souta on multiple occasions, sits and steps on him, admittedly with him as a chair. Souta on other hand felt like he appreciated her as a companion but hadn’t gotten to inspect his own feelings.
And throughout, the way she calls out Shouta’s name shifts gradually, and notably in one scene multiple times in very stricken longing fashion. In short, Suzume is likely a little rotten inside but that’s just fine with me.
More than her general appearance though, it’s what’s deep beneath her that is troubling and captivating.
At the very start, the moment her eyes saw Souta, she was immediately drawn to him. When she went to search for him in the abandoned resort, she called out that she feels she has seen him before. This was immediately brushed off by her laughing at herself for making a cringy pick up line. This ended up being much more by the end.
When the worm came out the door, she ran to help Souta without much hesitation despite facing a danger never seen before. This happened again at the abandoned school, and Souta admonished her asking is she not afraid, to which she replied curtly she is not. Suzume said this again and with more elaboration to Souta’s grandfather, that she is not afraid, and death is only a matter of luck.
This is a pretty odd take from a 17 year old girl in hindsight, even if initially it might be seen just as the heroine effect.
After losing Souta, she falls out of the darkening sky in a mesmerizing scene of tearless quiet. Her eyes covered by wind swept hair, her beautiful form still and accepting, embracing the death that is to come. Full of distress and terrible beauty.
This aspect of Suzume is something Shinkai could have emphasized more, that there is something odd about her view of life and death. It’s there, but too subtle.
Suzume isn’t afraid of death because of her survivor issues which skewed her view on life. To her it didn’t matter if she ends up in a situation that cost her her life, it was all a matter of fate and luck, and she was more than willing to give her life up for Souta.
Through of her experience with Souta she realized how much she wanted to live. What she said to Souta’s grandfather that she was afraid of a world without Souta, and what she said when saving Souta were.. a little awkward, to be honest, during my first watch. They were strange to say even in a romantic context, you’d expect something more direct, more about the importance of the person, not about being scared. But on reflection, the scene isn’t as much about her love as about her finally finding something to grab on to, to fear losing, especially since it followed grandfather’s question on is she not afraid of going to the afterlife.
On her romance with Souta, it’s definitely a little quick and can be unconvincing. On first watch it did feel forced to me, especially the aforementioned scene about being afraid. On later viewing I had time to notice the subtleties and with the knowledge of what is to come, her infatuation with Souta actually feels really sweet, even more than Taki and Mitsuha. The problem is it really takes the full context fo Suzume’s past and that won’t be revealed till the end. I don’t know if there’s a better way to portray it, either beating over the head with foreshadowing or giving up the reveals early and lose the impact.
It’s an innocent first crush rather than a full blown romance. Souta being turned into the chair was an interesting take, on surface it seems to make some audience hard to understand the infatuation, but in a way shouldn’t love be about what’s within and not outside?
I find the chair being a brilliant way to bring Suzume closer to Souta. The meaning of the chair (being the last memento of her mother) would have transferred in part to Souta, and with Souta being a chair, Suzume can be more daring in expressing her feelings. There’s no way she would try kissing, sitting or hugging Souta if he were in his human form.
Souta comes to her aid multiple times and never blames her for releasing the keystone that ultimately led to him being cursed. Even as a chair his gentle and thoughtful nature shines through, and after the ferris wheel incident Suzume visibly becomes much closer to him.
He incited the events that led to her running away from home and embarking on this amazing journey across so many different sights. To her, he came into her world and change everything.
On subsequent viewings a lot of the initial issues was lessened. For Your Name, the plot twist was so great the first viewing was incredibly entertaining even without knowing the subtle things. I think that’s the problem Suzume has. A lot of issues aren’t issues in full context, but they feel weird on first viewing and the other things aren’t interesting enough to keep them in the back of the mind.
It’s a film with more issues and less entertaining than Your Name, but Suzume is one that I love a lot more and look forward to seeing again and again more.
I long to see Suzume being swamped by the two little devils and Souta stepping out to her rescue, to see Suzume falling asleep while hugging Souta on the shinkansen and later complaining about missing the chance to see Mt Fuji. To see Suzume leap after Souta onto the mimizu. To watch Suzume cry out in despair in the sky over Tokyo. To see her broken and fall through the air. To see her wash and dress herself with somber and fierce determination. To hear her cry out for Souta again and again. To see her blackened diary, and her little self search for her mother. To see her launched into the air, invert and tumble against the backdrop of a burning world, and prepare to drive back the mimizu.
With Suzume, Shinkai has branched into even more cinematic tracking shots and almost action like sequences, something rarely seen in his works. I think it’s a good balance between the new and the familiar, and with Suzume almost a closure on his message regarding disasters, the next film looks to be a new chapter in Shinkai’s life.
Day 3 in Kanazawa. I was glad that I had cleared most of the city’s attractions the day before. The fair skies had been replaced by a light drizzle.
There was no time to go out for breakfast. I had some coffee and rice ball bought from the Family Mart the night before and hurried checked out and headed to the only remaining item left on the itinerary in Kanazawa. Myoryuji, or the ninja temple.
The temple was tour by reservation only. It was possible to register on the day of course but there was no guarantee for a spot. I had booked months ahead for a place in the first tour of the day.
Originally I had wanted to bike down there but it was raining, I boarded a bus from the station and got off a few stops early at Katamachi. I had left early to give a good buffer in the event there was traffic and given time to have a stroll along the cherry blossom lined riverside.
The south end of Katamachi nestled up against the north bank of the Sai river. The shorefront shaded by branches of pink that drooped over verdant floodplains. The riverside had been reshaped into a public green space. People came for walks, or as a shortcut getting across the city without bothered by roads or traffic.
I was just another umbrellaed passerby in the morning drizzle. The blossoms themselves slumbered in the sound of rain, unaware of appreciating gaze.
Round the south east I crossed to the other bank. The bridge’s railings were pink, I noted absently how well it matched against the flowery backdrop.
My pace picked up. The flower or the rain had slowed me down more than I had allowed for. I bounded up back to the main street and turned south to Myoryuji. I watched my progress on google map, counting the streets before I needed to turn into some alley. I missed it, doubled back, and somehow passed it again. I looked about the empty parking lot near a convenience store and compared it against google map. Finally I fixed my eyes on two parallel rows of storm water drain running perpendicular to the main street. It could not be wider than a metre and a half, yet, this had to be it. My gaze followed the storm drains in and sure enough, there was a small opening in the walls of the neighbouring block which had to be the alleyway.
The alleyway turned into an L shaped bend which at its corner, was a small gate that had the name of the temple written on a small plaque. The temple could not have been any easier to miss.
I went in and circled to the front of the temple where a large mob was already waiting. The majority of them were foreigners, each just as puzzled as I am as to where we should be waiting and looked to each other as assurances in number.
Eventually some temple staff came out and herded the crowd into the temple. Shoes off, as many places in Japan required. And they took the roll and the 1000Y fee on the way in.
Behind the office there’s storage space for our bags. In the main prayer hall, two gas heater burned warmly and we crowded around it appreciatively. No photos allowed within.
We were asked to split into foreign and local groups. For us they handed out english guide pamphlets to be returned at the end of the tour. I gave it a quick flip through; it was numbered and contained short descriptions of the rooms and clever defenses we would soon be shown.
The Japanese went off in one direction and we went in the other. The guide’s english was passable, not great, but definitely better than the average Japanese english guides. He went through a couple of rules necessary due to the confined nature of the many passages and rooms.
The guide was quick to first dispel the notion that the temple had anything to do with ninjas despite how it’s commonly called. A nickname which I was certain the temple administrations had no small part in promoting.
The prayer offering box was built into the floor. It seemed a little odd at first look but seemed innocent enough as an aesthetic choice; in fact during times of danger the offering box’s cover could be removed and then in the dark room becomes a pitfall for any enemies who charged in.
Like many temples the hall consists of a central portion with elevated high ceilings reflecting the heavens, and beyond the ring of pillars was an outer hallway space. Between the pillars were decorative boards that divided the space overhead between the outer and inner hall. Here a secret room had been built behind the dividing boards so the daimyo could visit and pray at this temple without being seen by the regular worshippers.
Why a temple was built with these strange contraptions was because of the complicated political situation of the Kaga domain in the early Edo period.
In the Edo era daimyo was only allowed a single castle and were not allowed to raise additional fortifications. This removed the ability of any daimyo who dared to challenge the shogunate to resist an invasion. This presented particular danger for the Maeda clan for while they were awarded for their contributions in the Battle of Sekigahara, the clan had historically not been closely affiliated with the Tokugawas. In fact one brother of the Maeda clan had fought for the opposite side. Their award for fighting for the Tokugawas made them one of the largest daimyo in Japan and simultaneous made them a potential threat to the shogunate for they now held too much power, and relationships between the daimyo and the shogun was uneasy and the domain was ever under watchful eyes for its every move. Things were serious enough that the shogunate had drawn up plans to suppress the Kaga domain.
Under these circumstances, the Maeda clan was forced to take measures to defend themselves. Myouryuji was one of several temples built by the daimyo for such purpose.
Seen from the outside as an inconspicuous two level temple, it was in truth an anchor in a series of temples and houses that formed a defensive network. The temple itself was actually a six level fortification built to resist attacks and safeguard its inhabitants. It was ready to defend Kanazawa castle without drawing attention from the agents of the Tokugawa such it’ll give the shogunate the excuse that’ll force the temple to serve its intended purpose.
Thankfully such fierce fate never came to pass, and the temple became just a curious marvel of architecture.
The main wing of the temple circles a large well, it’s said that this allows most rooms a direct access to the well where people could hide in, and it’s rumoured that within the well, a secret passage leads to the castle.
Contraptions complex and simple are scattered all over the temple, their purpose to confuse and deter enemies and buy time for the defenders.
A small passage between a concave in the raised half level, at ends end was a flight of stairs leading up. But remove the planks of the passage and it’s revealed the stairs continue down into the basement. The stairs also had their own special designs. The rise was not made of wood but translucent paper, the shadows of whoever step on the stairs would be quite visible to those hiding beneath the stairs, aiming with a sharpened spear ready to thrust through the floorboard.
A side entrance to the building was built in a funnel like angle, from the outside the right hand side of the sliding door was angled outward while on the inside the double door was flat, this left a small triangular space between the outside and the inside. In the triangular space was a slight of shallow stairs leading to the level above. If a defender was retreating from the enemies from the outside, he would dash in, close the door behind him and run up the shallow stairs. When the enemies follow in and open the door, it would naturally slide over and cover up the stairs leading up, leaving the enemies looking left and right at the empty corridor in confusion.
Closer inspections would, no doubt, draw attention to the strange dimensions of the sliding door and reveal the hidden stairway, but not before the defender had escaped upstairs to raise the alarm and prepare a defence.
Since the temple had to have the appearance of two storey construction on the outside, the inside was a series of half levels. The main reception room was connected to the guard’s room via the top half of a closet. The ceiling for the rooms were also lowered to hinder the swinging of swords and spears.
There were some twenty odd rooms, many of them interconnected and accessible through many different corridors from different approaches, providing multiple avenues of escape and confounds the enemy.
The main tea room was painted a verdant blue, which I had learned from Higashichaya to be a most luxurious colour was the pigment could not be obtained locally. The main tea room was connected with another room in the back via an arch bridge, perhaps to depict a bridge over great waters. Above the tea room was the formal tea room, accessible only through a concealed stairway hidden behind a wall. This might have been where the daimyo treated his closest vassals and supporters.
Because the temple had to maintain the facade of a two level building, the tea room could not afford more than a small slit of windows. Guests could not be entertained with magnificent gardens or distant mountains. To overcome this they carved a vista of Mount Fuji into the wall itself, layering a shelves as clouds within the circular alcove, and the back wall hollowed in the shape of Mount Fuji, taking advantage of the neighbouring corridor to give it the feeling of depth and space, one could appreciate the tea and gaze into the distance.
Atop the tea room was a watchtower built into the roof space where defenders could look out the slits in the ridge cap of the roof and observe happenings outside. From here they could monitor both in the direction of the castle and the main approach to it across the Kaga plains. Due to the deteriorating condition of the structure of the watchtower, regular visitors were forbidden from going up.
Toward the back of the building down the middle of a narrow flight of steps, a small room extends off to the left, its door small and the room cramped. Within the room is another room. Together the pair was isolated from everything else in the building. It’s said that this was the room for seppuku. When everything else fails and escape was impossible, the lord would retreat here with his most loyal servants. While his men defended the outer room with their lives, the lord would prepare for ritual suicide and kill himself in the inner sanctum to the honor of his house.
But a samurai is cunning and death is a last resort. The aim is to escape. Behind the main buddhist altar is a secret panel that opens up to the floor space beneath, from there someone could choose their direction of escape and emerge from under the building. The panel is concealed and cleverly secured by integrating the rails for a cabinet door right into the floor panel itself. While the cabinet door is closed it sits on the panel locking it in place and prevents anyone, especially anyone who has crawled under the house from the outside, from lifting it while also concealing the cut in the board. Only when the cabinet door is opened to one side is the panel free to be raised. Making both the cabinet door and the panel as a kind of one way lock combination.
There were many other secret passages and hidden doorways, the geometry of the walls ensuring one could never be sure where one was within the structure. It was unsettling for someone usually fairly good with orienting oneself within unfamiliar space and directions such as myself.
The thoroughly entertaining tour took just over an hour. It was great insights to the ingenuity of past craftsmen and the historical context of the time that compelled a daimyo to go to such lengths to protect his rule. The only shortcoming that could be nickpicked would be that the guide was pretty much reading off the script; I would be keen to hear what the Japanese group side heard, perhaps some small funny stories or rumours to the temple’s past.
It was still raining so I took the bus directly back to the hotel and took out my luggage. I first went to the station and bought my ticket to Hikone. The Hokuriku rail pass covered my journey down to Tsuruga but after that I had to pay the difference. I had been a little concerned with purchasing tickets in this way, with part of it covered by a pass, but the lady at the counter seemed quite familiar with such usage and as soon as she saw my pass and my intended destination, she punched in the tickets I was expecting.
After this I considered my options. Here my decision to not buy the gold leaf ukiyoe the day before was starting to haunt me. The station’s Hakuichi store to my disappointment, sold only the high priced gold leaf lacquerwares and not the ukiyoe sets. I could go back to Higashichaya but that will be close to an hour round trip, in the rain no less.
Perhaps the better choice would be to see what other gold leaf items I could find in the other stores. The agitation had gotten to me and I spent an unreasonable time going back and forth between the handful of shops selling gold leaf souvenirs, closely looking over all the items trying to find one suitable.
Finally I settled on a pen holder with five pointed leaves and cherry blossoms, symbolizing the spring and autumn.
The delay made me miss the initial train I had planned to be on, the next one was due in just over half an hour. Time perhaps to squeeze in a lunch to make up on lost time. It had to be within the station though, and fast.
I settled on Go Go Curry. I already went past it the night before while looking for the ramen place and since it was the most well known Kanazawa curry shop, it would serve a good point of reference to Turban Curry.
The shop was not very busy which was good, the last thing I needed was pressure to finish my food. The menu was very similar to Turban, just with more choices in portions and toppings.
The standard curry I chose came in no time. It was also strongly flavored as Turban was, but lacked in the same depth in richness. The terms to describe some delicate differences was beyond me, other than there was some lack of attention or enthusiasm in Go Go’s Curry that made it feel a decidedly plain affair.
The stack of take home curry packs arranged on a table by the entrance did not escape my attention. Was it its taste that allowed the chain to be known nationally, or was its success in commoditizing that allowed it to expand and assume the face of Kanazawa curry.
The train from Kanazawa to Hikone was just over two hours, with most of the journey on the white egret Shirasagi express, with a transfer at Maibara for another 5 min on a local train.
Around Fukui I fell asleep and woke up as we approached Maibara. Maibara, the station in any case, I’ve been through several years ago while visiting Toyosato on my K-On pilgrimage. The transfer presented little of note.
I reached Hikone close to 1pm. Right outside the station Ii Naomasa greeted from atop his bronze horse. The great general and warrior was a favored retainer of Ieyasu and he was given the lands around Omi province as rewards for his bravery in battle. The clan ruled this vital junction on the Tokaido road and built Hikone Castle as their seat of power.
Hikone Castle was one of 12 castles in Japan that still retains their original keep, and Hikone contains many features rarely seen elsewhere.
Situated about 800m away, it’s a straight line down the main street. I first lock up my luggage at the tourist centre at the bottom of the stairs on the left. As usual there was a shortage of coins, solved by exchanging with the tourist help desk.
A few Hikonyan welcomes and directed guests toward the castle. The street was fairly empty and one glance told the tale of a town in an economic spiral. The awnings and shop fronts were old and rustic, yet the sidewalk was well paved from hotpodged and ineffective attempt at revitalization.
Hikone was just an hour from Kyoto, as a bed town it was not facing depopulation but since most retail needs could be better served by the city and local business had little hope of competing. Then its semi-rural surroundings meant households had to have a car and every day shopping needs shifts toward the outskirts near main roadways. The town center lacked the means to remain the center of livelihoods. Even with the famous castle, the lack of shops aimed at tourists would suggest that numbers were not great, or tourists saw the castle as a single point of interest with no need to linger.
During planning Hikone had always remained a marginal choice. It was just far out of the way that coming out here required dedicated effort. For a castle town that should be steeped in history, the town strangely had no well known sweets or confectionaries, no local crafts or cuisine. The town lacked a story, a story like Kanazawa had successfully woven around it, true or not. Other than the castle I could not identify any other attractions of appeal.
Hikone also needed to compete with Omihachiman. The other major attractions on the east bank of Lake Biwa. As two towns with similar background, one being a castle town and the other a canal town, and only twenty minutes apart, they should complement each other. Unfortunately their proximity to Kyoto seems to just as often relegate both to half day trips, with Omihachiman coming out on top. A whole day was just too much to ask when one had an endless number of temples within Kyoto, and for day trips places like Hifune and Uji inevitably ranks higher.
Hikone and Omihachiman was not first rate attractions. It only made the list since I passing Lake Biwa from the north anyway so Hikone was not that big of a detour and I’ve already got a good collection of castles so I might as well keep up the stamps.
In any case, I reached the outer edge of the castle in less than 10 minutes walk, where a gokoku shrine was. From here on the castle moat was lined with cherry blossoms, though they were slight past their full bloom compared to Kanazawa.
The castle was protected by a set of double moats, creating an outer perimeter sandwiched between the two. Within this protected space the lords of Hikone had built a garden on the north side and remains of the barracks and stables can still be found in the south.
The stable was one of its largest kinds still found intact and considered an important cultural treasure. The building was in an L shape and had space for keeping as many as 21 horses. Above each slot was hooks for hanging up the saddle and reins.
The path was lined with giant festival lanterns written with the names of the sponsoring business embraced by the season’s pink flowers.
Upon crossing the inner moat was the ticketing gate. I went with the 1200Y complete set which included entry to the castle, the garden and the museum also.
The museum was host to a large collection of the treasures of the Ii family, including the national treasure Hikone Folding Screen which was only put on display this time every year. The screen was painted on gold leafs and depicted the pleasure quarters of Kyoto. There was woman playing shamisen, men and women playing board game, an early example of the genre as usually such scenes would be considered too crude for adherents of the formal painting schools of the time. The screen was very well known and often depicted in other paintings..
The Ii family was well known for the red armors the warriors under its banner ride into battle in, many wore by successive generations were on display, some menacing, some fierce.
Within the museum is a real Noh theater from the Edo period, built in the 1800s, and performances are hosted here several times a year.
The former residence of the daimyo has also been restored as an extension to the museum. Visitors can admire the rooms and connecting hallways and the views of the surrounding garden they afforded. The main building was the lord’s living spaces and where he might have entertained some of the guests. Deeper in the sanctum through a long hallway, was the lord’s private space and study, adjoining was a small two level building, the only one in the complex, where the ladies of the household lived.
Upon leaving the museum, I was confused by a crowd ushering into the now open gates next to the museum into the lord’s garden. I followed them and soon found the answer. It was Hikonyan, putting on a show on the engawa of the residence.
Hikonyan is basically a white cat mascot wearing a horned red samurai helmet similar to one worn by the Ii clan in the museum’s collections. It was based on the legends told of the 3rd lord of Omi domain, Naotaka. It was said that during a storm the lord was beckoned by a white cat to take shelter in a temple and was saved from a lightning strike.
The performance was… hard to understand. The mascot could not speak and it relied on the host to narrate, the lack of context made it difficult for me to parse out the words.
I broke away from the performance and took the opportunity to head up to the castle while the crowd was occupied.
It’s a steep climb up to the top, the steps were laid in uneven gait, said to foul up the momentum of those charging up to the castle. Near the top the path goes between two stone walls and underneath a wooden bridge. The path circles about onto a ramp from which connects to the castle’s main gate over the bridge.
This is the only place in Japan where this castle bridge design can be seen. The bridge could easily be destroyed in war time to prevent access by attackers.
The approach and the bridge was defended by a long row of hoarding with many arrow slits and gun ports.
From here up to the honmaru was another flight of steps that passes a time bell, said to be amongst the best 100 sounding bells in Japan.
Within the honmaru were many more cherry blossom trees, providing that postcard perfect view of the keep towering above canopies of pink. The keep has three levels above the stone basement. The exterior was decorated with different gables creating an intricately layered appearance. In total there are 4 design of gables, two for each north-south, east-west facing.
From the top of the keep one could see the western courtyard known for its thousand cherry blossom trees, a rolling canvas stretching from the castle keep to the distant watchtower. If the sun was out it would truly be a sight to behold.
The back trail circled down the hill to the garden on the north side. The Genkyuen was a garden built by the daimyo for entertainment. By this point it feels like just about every castle of note have a garden. Which was only reasonable of course, as this was really the only means for daimyo to experience lands far away without embarking on travels expensive in both time and money. Even a trip to the nearby mountains was an endeavor in the past.
The garden was modelled on the gardens of the Tang dynasty, there were ten supposed sights, at its center was the pond with four islands interwoven with nine bridges. Not as large or well maintained as the major gardens, the many bridges and twist and turns did make the garden very interesting, and the islands and bridges could be viewed from many different angles.
Next to the garden was the Rakurakuen, the residence of a later daimyo. It was undergoing renovations so it could only be viewed from the outside.
After this I headed to the west side, where Yume-Kyo-Bashi, a shopping street restored in the appearance of a castle town street, with old wooden shop frontages and well paved sidewalks.
It was past 3 by this time, the shops were starting to close on a regular week day and short of a handful tourists the street was without spirit.
Then I discovered that due to the incredible amount of schedule shuffling I had forgotten the chicken restaurant I had my sights on was closed on Wednesdays. I dragged myself to this side of the castle for nothing.
Annoyed, I went back to the station, hoping I’ll figure out the next plan during this time. I took the path around the main part of town instead of doubling back through the castle, it took me through the two supposed shopping streets of the town. Neither could not even be described as struggling.
The train to Kyoto takes at least 50min and the next train was not due for almost twenty minutes. Thus I could wait at least an hour and 10min to get to Kyoto before finding some food, or I skip the next train, use some time till the one after that to find some food, then when I do get to Kyoto I won’t need to be hungry while sorting out check-ins and buying the things I need.
There’s not much choice near the station, which was good in this circumstance. I picked the only eatery, checked the menu and went in; an item on the chalkboard had caught my eyes. Omi-beef suji curry udon with rice. I didn’t know what suji was at the time. The word was not unfamiliar to me, just temporarily failed to connect in the context of food. What mattered was that it sounded good at the time.
There was only one other customer. I found myself a seat and sipped on the cold water offered. The Japanese eatery was an old couple operation. No fancy affair but very homely. The space was neatly cluttered, the tables old and shone with decades of attended care. For the state the township had looked the eatery looked to be in good shape.
The old lady asked if I wanted rice with my beef-suji udon… which had me confused, wasn’t it meant to be included? Either way, we were able to meet an understanding that yes, I would like rice.
The udon was covered in a curry dark and saucy, with a generous garnish of spring onions. I poked around at the strange glutenous substance and realized that suji was, of course, tendons. I had ordered a beef tendon udon.
The mystery resolved, I quickly enjoyed my 930Y dinner. Using the rice to balance the curry. It was excellent, though mostly unremarkable.
After the meal I used the remaining time and poked around the Heiwado retail complex opposite the station. It’s a bookstore home living shop.
I arrive at Kyoto almost at 7pm. It felt much later, it had begun to rain. My stay, Smart Stay Shizuku is one major street block down the main station front street and a small block off to the right.
The Global Cabin I had stayed at last time in Tokyo was more of a bunk with private study space, so Smart Stay Shizuku was the first true capsule hotel for me. It’s a fairly new hotel that looked pretty slick from the website images. The reason I chose it was two fold.
Firstly, hotels in Kyoto with good locations is very hard to find, especially around Kyoto station. Most of the new low cost hotels that sprung up in the wake up of tourism boom congregated around the retail district of Kawaramachi, where old buildings are aplenty for conversion.
Kawaramachi is by no measures a bad location to stay in Kyoto, it’s by the bank of the Kamogawa river and close to Kinshichi market, Gion and Kiyomizu temple. It has access to Hankyu and Keihan private rails that links to points of interests south of Kyoto such as Fushimi and Uji, and further south to Osaka, and the metro is not unwalkable at Karasuma. Being the heart of the retail district it’s also a foci for buses that spans every corner of Kyoto.
Kyoto station works out a little better for me because I had to bounce in an out of Kyoto so the less transfer needed the better, and Kyoto station had plenty of lockers and even luggage keeping service if it came down to it.
The other reason was because I booked really really early, I managed to get off-peak price for the capsule hotel in the middle of cherry blossom season. It’s a steal at one third the price which rendered a lot of other factors moot.
And right now a third reason, for most of the way it’s connected by an underground passage. There’s an underground passage from Kyoto station, adjoining the station front underground mall, and runs beneath the station front street for one major block, so I was spared from the weather for the most part. Underground connections always contributed to my considerations though never did I appreciate it as much.
From the end of the passage it’s a mad dash up the stairs to street level and about four buildings down the side street. I ran past a small izakaya and thought how cozy that looked. But, I digress. Onto the hotel.
Shizuku’s street front was of modern Japanese style, with a small rock garden before large glass panes illuminated with the warm wooden glow of the interior. Immediately on entering is a foyer raised about 10cm from the ground, there’s a ramp so dragging luggage is no concern. On the walls of the foyer are shoe lockers where guests have to lock up their shoes. The shoe lockers comes with a key that need to be handed to the front desk for the access wristband, and on heading out the access wristband for the shoe locker key. It’s a labor intensive but clever process that ensures the access wristband is never taken out of the hotel and people entering and exiting the hotel have to pass through a staff member to filter out any suspicious person.
I announce myself, got my wristband and paid for the stay at the nearby machine. There’s also an options to include breakfast. I saw no reason to pre-order since breakfast can also be paid on the spot the next day at the same price. Who can tell what I feel like tomorrow, I’ll look at what’s on offer and what time I wake up before deciding.
The staff quickly gave some rules and instructions and introduced the layout of the hotel. Room on level 5, shower and bath on the first floor down a passage next to the lobby. Lounge and breakfast on third.
The hotel’s key is a wristband with a magnetic knob which is needed to gain access to points throughout the hotel, such as the elevator, the shower and the door to your capsule’s floor. Such control is pretty common for modern capsule hotels and makes me feel pretty safe leaving behind luggage and keeps the genders separate for security.
The capsule floor’s entry door didn’t respond to the wristband initially and took some tries. A fellow guest saw my struggle and opened the door with his wristband, giving me a big grin. I laughed appreciatively and made a comment about the stupid wristband.
The floor was neat and utilitarian, the black and wooden themed space lit with relaxed dimness. There’s subdued quietness, the long hall swallowing up any noise both in and out.
Along the wall are luggage spaces where there’s a bar with cable locks on them where one could secure luggage to. It won’t protect against anyone rummaging through them but it does prevent a quick snatch and dash.
There’s two doored away areas, one is the toilet room with generous number of stalls and another a washroom, a much appreciated separation. In the washroom are basins lined both sides with mirrors and disposable toothbrushes, shavers and other amenities,.
My capsule is the lower one. It was easier to get in and out and to organize luggage; could simply pull the pack right up along the capsule. The capsule measured 1.1m wide and high, and depth of 2.1m, it’s more spacious than the average capsule hotels, many are only 1.05 or 1m. It feels more spacious than I expected, I could sit up, could roll over or curl up, all without worrying about running out of space.
The width is actually even wider as the capsule design here included a cleverly utilized side cavity. At the center of the sidewall is a nook about 15cm deep. In it hung the TV and the nook acts as a bedside table which I’d later find immensely useful for placing phones, glasses, toothbrushes, breakfast buns and other various small items. Beneath the nook was a slide out table, also of good size, enough to balance my chromebook on it plus a drink. The nook space made the inside of the capsule less claustrophobic and the eyes have something to look into.
The feature most valued had to be the small lockable cabinet occupying the space by the nook. It’s deep enough to fit in my backpack with space left on top to cram in a jacket, a camera, a book and whatever other things I have out. Throw in the luggage cable key and lock up the cabinet, then all I have to carry while inside the hotel was the wristband and the cabinet key, which I’ve found easy enough to tuck under the wristband also.
Not all capsule hotels have lockers, and not all that does have the locker right within the capsule. Some provide storage space but no locks. Smart Stay Shizuku’s design allowed me to keep the backpack within easy reach without taking up precious sleeping space, while secure enough to not require it be carried everywhere within the hotel.
I feel comfortable enough to leave things in the cabinet for short stints away from the capsule without taking the important things with me. Going to the toilet, checking on the laundry, a coffee break at the lounge. It made the experience much less stressful for one overly cautious like me.
The only shortcoming was the location of the laundry and bath. Located at the back of the first floor it was impossible to go there without bumping into freshly arrived guests coming in from the reception with huge suitcases. It made for uncomfortable pass bys, carrying towels and changes of clothes or bag of laundry.
The number of laundry machines was also gravely inadequate, only 2 sets of washing machines and dryers. The washing machines was not such a problem but dryers take at least 2 cycles to get to moist-enough-to-hang-up-overnight dry and had far less capacity than the washing counterpart, it made for awkward waits. There was, at least, the vending machine right next to the laundry to get a drink to pass the time.
I hit the bath, taking a quick shower. The shower and baths are very well equipped and kept to a very high standard. Then I threw my accumulated clothes into the laundry and went upstairs for a coffee.
The third floor was Shizuku’s statement for what image it wished to impart on its guests. Split into two halves, the back portion was a manga lounge with shelves of free to read manga, other books, comfortable couch chairs and massage chair, and TVs.
The front half was the bar and dining area. The bar served light meals such as curry and pastas, dishes that did not require a full kitchen to prepare, and alcohol and non-alcoholic and snacks. There were plenty of tables and row of window counter seat as well as seats at the bar counter, enough for one to enjoy some personal space.
The lounge and bar level made the hotel feel a little piece of home. One is not confined to the small capsule and had plenty of space to lounge out, read, relax, have some food, chat and make friends.
The nice thing about Shizuku was that I did not even need my wallet with me to purchase a coffee from the bar. The staff took my order and scanned my wristband. Any purchases made was paid on check out.
The coffee was typical Japanese black, with added cream. The bar did claim it was their own roast and indeed it was of decent quality, better than I expected for a capsule hotel.
I sat down with my laptop and coffee. I was now in Kyoto. It was time to plan.
I planned to have breakfast at Ikiikitei, a seafood bowl specialist shop at Omicho market. Kanazawa is on the Sea of Japan coast and has access to some of the freshest fish in Japan, seafood bowl is a common cuisine in Kanazawa.
The shop opens at 7 so I had the bread and coffee bought the night before first.
When it came time to go, the Machi-Nori bike dock terminal refused to operate. Not in service, it kept saying. After a few goes, I checked the service website, to discover that the bike does not operate before 7.30.
Why? Maybe system maintenance. Whatever the reason it meant I had to walk to Omicho Market instead.
It’s only 600m to Omicho so I was not too bothered by this. When I got there however it took me a few minutes to find the small restaurant.
Tucked away in one side alley, the shop was so small it only had maybe 10 counter seats. I had to check twice to be sure I had found the place.
Seafood can often be a bit pricey, often 3000Y or more, and having so much raw seafood in the morning can be overwhelming. Here they serve a mini-bowl option for just 1500Y, and if one wasn’t choosy even a 800Y bowl of the day choice.
I squeezed in and found a seat. The place was not crowded but also no shortage of customers as several streamed in after me.
The chef held up a bowl, asked me how much rice I’d like. The normal portion, I answered.
The portion was more than expected, a dozen sashimi slices of various fishes whose name I had no hope of recognizing, a leg of octopus and a prawn. There were even gold specks decorations on top, as everything in Kanazawa are obliged to have.
The seafood was very fresh, though not particularly notable compared to the rice which were quite flavourful.
Afterward I head to Higashi-Chaya area, the most historical district of Kanazawa.
Similar to Kyoto, Kanazawa was spared from air raids in the war and retained many of its historical districts. Higashi-Chaya was once the entertainment quarters in the Edo period. Some of the teahouses here are still in operation and when dusk falls the district takes on a different atmosphere and the sound of music reverberates behind screened windows.
Higashi-Chaya is situated to the north east of the castle, a quick 5-10min ride from Omicho. The Asano river separates it from center area of Kanazawa.
Just before crossing the river, on the south bank was another former tea district called Kazue-Chayagai, smaller in scale and fewer historical buildings. It distinguishes itself by being on the riverfront with a bank of cherry blossoms. The alleys are tight and there are several restaurants tucked away in its backstreets.
Underneath the blue sky, the cherry blossoms greeted early tourists energetically. The night’s rain had barely dimmed their luster, only a few fallen petals laid on the ground.
I followed the river south, crossed at a small bridge then circled about the other bank to the direction of Higashi-Chaya.
It was still early and there were few people about. Unfortunately the various shops also took this hour to load/unlock inventories so there were many cars and vans going to and fro on the main street, making a clear shot for the camera difficult. It was still too early for the preserved teahouses to be open, and I spent some time wandering the quarter first.
Despite being the largest of Kanazawa’s three Chaya districts, Higashi-Chaya is still only about a hundred twenty meters in length, consisting of a main street and three other side streets in parallel joined by connecting alleys.
Toward the back of the quarter I run across a shrine, the Utasu Shrine. Nestled on top of a small flight of stairs, within the grove of tall cherry blossom trees, the tori and hall’s roof of the shrine peeked from behind canopies of flowers like geishas behind standing screens.
The shrine was empty other than the lone security guard who swept the grounds dutifully, oblivious to the scenery he was a part of.
It felt appropriate to give a little offering. While I loitered around a pair of teenage couple came up, awwing and taking photos of each other.
When I circled back to the main street the chaya Shima has opened.
Shima is one of the best preserved teahouses in the quarter, retaining much of its original furnishings from when it was built in the Edo period.
Like other teahouses Shima is a two level construction. Two storey buildings are a rare sight for houses of this period, houses for commoners were only permitted to have a single storey, teahouses were one of the few trades that were exempted from this restriction.
After paying the 500Y fee at the entrance, the guide route goes upstairs on a narrow flight of stairs. The top of the stairs opens up into the main entertainment room that connects to three other rooms where dances and music were performed to entertain guests. None of the rooms were very large, the largest at best 5 or 6 meters wide and could not have seated more than a handful of people, and the dances would have to be performed with the smallest movements. Sound from other guests would also surely have been major issue, the rooms separated only by paper doors. To me it was hard to imagine what entertainment could be had in these narrow confines.
I can only reason, in a time when travelling to a shrine at the foot of the distant mountain constituted a pilgrimage, the world must be a smaller place. And perhaps, the small confined space adds to the intimacy creates the feeling of being a world apart to the outside.
The teahouse characterized much of what I’ve come to understand about pre-modern Japan. The plainness, the carefully measured layouts. The small details in the corners. The seemingly nonsensical way the rooms connected. When the high class room had its wooden frame and pillars lacquered in luxurious red and the best regarded room had translucent paint to bring out the natural grain of the rare timber used.
Above the alcove and doorways hung faded ink paintings that for time ageless bore witness to the coming and going of samurais and merchants till the light of its abode faded and the wealthy patrons were replaced by the curious.
The facilities of the teahouse were housed on the ground floor, well preserved. Toward the front was the owner’s living room, the office where cash books were kept and recorded the spending and bills for patrons and salary for the courtesans, some of these books were on opened on display, the writings difficult to decipher. In a small room facing the street the room was crowded with shelves displaying the tools of the old trade. Instruments and hair pins, ceramic and lacquer wares of most exquisite workmanship. Magnifying glass were provided to study the fine lines and details drawn or etched on the surface.
Toward the back was the old kitchen that saw the creation of many fine dishes on the woodfire stoves. There was a well and beneath the stairway an underground cool store used to keep ingredients fresh in the hot summer months. At the far back of the ground floor was a teahouse where one can have traditional matcha and sweets while appreciating the small Japanese garden.
I did not see the signs till almost finished touring, that photo using mobile phones was allowed.
The street had come to life, the blue sky backdrop to the verdant painted wood.
A pair of to be wed stood posed before praising eyes of DSLRs. Shuttered doors opened to welcomed customers.
The second teahouse, Kaikaro, still functions as a geisha house in the evening. At night it received selected guests only, in the day the mystic was lifted and the place opened to the curious public.
Kaikoro was at least three times the size of Shima, laid out in similar fashion.
The interior was better maintained, even possible to describe as glamorous in places. In the tokonoma hung well painted scrolls of flowers and birds. The rooms contrasted with luscious red and deepened blue.
There was also a cafe within the teahouse with slightly more expensive menu.
The pride of Kaikoro was a room of literal gold. The threads of the tatami was woven with gold threads and the timber lacquer laid with gold leaf. When I had read about it initially I had imagined the epitome of bourgeois opulence; lavished crudeness of riches as shallow as the gold leafs. In person it was actually quite fitting of an aesthetics to be expected of Japan, the golden tatami reflected in a unremarked regal light, reserved with hint of splendour visible just beneath the surface.
After Kaikoro I wandered around some more. There are many cafes and other small shops in the area, most numerous were the gold leaf shops. Every craft workshop had to have a presence here of course.
The smaller souvenir shops held works from less known workshops, some possibly even unknown ones that might well have been imported from China. They were also very souvenir looking and didn’t earn more than a glance from me.
There were two gold leaf shops of note on the strip however. Hakuza Hikarikura and Hakuichi.
Hakuza Hikarikura is the more trendy and modern shop with many jewellery and accessories, gold leaf wine (which gave me pause and many questions as to why) and bags and lacquerwares. What makes it worth the visit though was that it boasted a gold leaf plated kura or storehouse, thus the name of the place. The kura was not as well lit as it might have been and the lustre cannot be compared to the golden room of Kaikoro.
Hakuichi on the other hand is very traditional with a strong focus on craft. The Hakuichi has several shops around the city and it hosts workshops that lets tourists create their own gold lacquerwares. During planning I had been very keen to book a workshop but ultimately could not because of time constraints.
The place sold gold leaf ice creams, many fine lacquerwares, gold leaf cosmetics and other art items, such as paper fans and even small armor sets. I had my eyes set on a series of ukiyoe printed on gold leaf (or gold leaf as one layer of the ukiyoe print, could not really tell which). I really wanted to buy it but failed to decide on the spot. There was still tomorrow, I told myself. Plus if I buy it now it might get wrinkled in the bag. There’s a shop at the station, it’d be better to get it there.
Hakuichi is without doubt the more interesting of the two. And I spent a long while there looking through the various items.
I headed to the gold leaf museum, on the edge of the district by the side of a busy road.
Officially called the Kanazawa Yasue Gold Leaf Museum, it is the only museum in Japan dedicated to gold leafs. Named for a gold leaf artisan Yasue Koumei from the Meiji period, the museum contains a gallery showcasing the history and process of gold leaf making in Kanazawa, as well as exhibition spaces displaying various art items utilizing gold leafs.
The exterior was an unremarkable building with black claddings with gold linings and letters. The entrance might well have been mistaken for the local library, with little fanfare or signage.
As I have come to expect of most traditional museums the place was completely empty. The two front desks were genuinely surprised when I asked for the musuem daily pass, a pass which for just 510Y granted access to many of Kanazawa’s museums and art galleries.
The first floor was a multi purpose exhibition space that was playing some Kanazawa tourism videos. I headed up stairs to the main gallery.
The first section was about the history of gold leaf in Kanazawa. The text was quite dense which proved challenging, the timeline seemed to have skipped over some details as some seemed contrary to each other. One thing for sure was that the development of gold leaf making in Kanazawa was a much more recent development that the image the city would like to portray. Though that was true for many other things in Japan. It’s easy to forget that many traditions, especially those outside the home provinces were not formed till the Edo period.
As the foundation of commerce and wealth, gold leaf making was of course a restricted trade in the past, controlled by the shogun.
Toward the end of the Sengoku period Toyotomi granted the lords of Kanazawa the right to create silver leafs. The records weren’t clear but gold leaf making in Kanazawa likely began at the same time. In the early 1800s gold leaf artisans were brought from Kyoto to supply the material needed to rebuild the burnt down castle buildings. After that there were several periods where gold leaf making was banned and this was where the descriptions get vague, but the implication was that the craft continued in some capacity through out.
During the Meji period gold leaf making grew and out of a need to control quality of gold leaf produced in Kanazawa an association was formed and the city began to dominate gold leaf production in Japan.
The growth brought by industrialization went into decline with onset of war, luxury items were severely curtailed and the craft would not see its rebirth till the 1960s. Even then with rise of foreign imports the gold leaf making trade continues to struggle.
My impression was that Kanazawa became renowned for gold leafs more as a matter of being the lone survivor in Japan than any extroadinary heritage, and its image was somewhat a modern invention.
The next section introduced visitors to the process of gold leaf making. Where rough sheets of gold was bound in leather and special paper then beaten under a machine repeatedly, the bundle moved and adjusted by the hand of the craftsman. Then the gold leaf would be trimmed, rebound and put back under the machine. Beating, trimming and rebeating until the gold leafs were so thin a light breath sent ripples across its surface; yet the thin sheet holds, exhibiting the remarkable strength and elasticity of gold.
There were also interactive displays to show the weight of gold compared to other materials. Some explanation of the different metal mix of gold leafs and their colour. Some had more silver, others a little copper, brass, zinc.
The edible gold leafs added aplenty to every kind of food here were ones without addition of copper. Gold alone was very stable and when digested would simply go through the digestive systems without being absorbed by the body.
The third hall hosted some rare items utilizing gold leafs. A golden threaded Noh play kimono, statues of Buddha laid with gold and of course various lacquerwares.
The museum was comparably small, perhaps a little light on details. I would have liked to have seen some videos of how gold is applied in various crafts.
After this it’s whirlwind tour time. Kanazawa had so many places to see and time was compressed due to the cherry blossoms.
First stop was the Kenrokuen again, having been foiled by the rain yesterday.
The sky was clear and people crowded into the teahouse row and garden. It was early 11am, not quite lunch time but thinking about the schedule it be more efficient if I grabbed something now. It meant skipping the original sushi train lunch plan at Katamachi but I’ve never had reservations about trading food for time.
I got a yakisoba from one of the festival stalls. Just as it’s not a market without a grilled sausage in Taiwan, in Japan it’s not quite a festival without having some yakisoba.
I had my little own Hanami. Sitting on a bench beneath a blue sky and pink blossoms. The heavy taste in the mouth. People walked here and there, some had sticks of cornknobs or squids, other had the all famous Kanazawa gold leaf wrapped soft cream.
Back at the Shima there were discount coupons to the teahouses outside the garden, of which I had taken a few. 80 or 90Y off the price of a soft cream, and I opted for the kind with a sprinkle of gold and not one wrapped with an entire leaf. Gold itself had no taste. It’s the novelty factor. Looks good in the photos.
I took a brisk stroll across the garden, looking at reflections of cherry blossoms on the surface of the pond and streams.
It was not as large as Korakuen in Okayama, but much more intricate. With small twists and turns and groves of trees and moss. It might be a benefit of being situated on top of a hill and able to take advantage of the elevation differences. The scenery was ever changing as one wanders through the grounds, as opposed to Korakuen which was very spacious and open.
Descending the slope to the 21st century museum, I took a bike toward the west side where the old samurai district called Nagamachi was.
The main thoroughfare between the 21st century museum and the old samurai district was Korinbo/Katamachi, Kanazawa’s main retail precinct with several department stores and shopping complexes packed in close proximity. I biked around Tokyu Square, the road followed along the Kuratuki Canal, one of several canals that once supplied the city with water, for drinking, for fighting fires, for driving mills and machines. The many canals were vital to the city’s development up till early modern times.
Then turning further west, I continued till the road ended after crossing another canal, the Onoshou Canal. Right at the intersection was the Kanazawa Shinise Memorial Hall. Shinise roughly means old store. An establishment with a history, a shop or trade that has been in business for generations.
The Shinise Memorial was once a medicine store belonging to the Nakaya family. The family first established a traditional medicine shop back in 1579 and was given the honor of supplying the local daimyo with various remedies. The shop has since been moved a few times, with the current merchant house built in 1878 in honor of Emperor Meiji’s visit and later donated to the city in 1987.
The place retained much of the original layout and feel of the Meiji era, with very wide storefront with shutter doors that could open the house to the outside.
The entrance was via the side through a small gate. There’s an 100Y fee. An amount that might as well be a donation when an average temple might ask for 300-400Y. Not that it mattered being covered by the one day pass.
The middle aged man stamped my day pass (which after 3 or 5 could be traded in for a small souvenir) and welcomed me with a smile and explained that everything can be photographed.
I was not the only visitor; there were footsteps upstairs. Though for the time I was alone on the ground floor.
The tour path began at the store front area where customers would have come up to ask for a remedy for their ailments. The store area itself was on raised tatami but customers could approach and wait at the doma, the dirt floor before the raised area. The doma actually goes all the way around the house so people could access most of the ground floor without needing to remove their shoes.
On the shelves were packets of drug prescriptions named for powerful sounding than efficacy. Kidney and heart pills, pill that cures ten thousand illnesses. There’s a strange number of Kougentan, a secret recipe that roughly translated meant mixing of essences.
On the wall hung many other labels of divers drugs, the symptoms they treated and boastful claims of efficacy. The simple design and bold lettering declared the simple and hopeful period they were from.
The next room was the medicine store where prescriptions would be grounded and mixed with the various tools displayed.
Around the back was the guest room where guests were welcomed with hot tea from the pot hung over the hearth. Now doubling as a makeshift display room for shelves of Kaga temari large and small. Yarnballs, a local traditional craft. Traditionally they were toys for children, now they also serve as talismans for good fortunes. Intricate woven balls of brightly coloured silk strings, the balls glistened in the light much akin to christmas tree baubles. Some were small, the size that fit comfortably in one’s hand, some big, the size of a bowling ball that were assuredly for show than use.
Going upstairs. The level above was devoid of fixtures or decorations. Rows of glass displays presented the works of other shinise of Kanazawa. Prints, dye houses, gold and lacquer works. Candy shops; behind a large glass cubicle sat a dense ikebana where the stem and petal of every flower were crafted of sugar.
The shinises were proud, but through the dull, almost historical displays, there was also a trace of sadness.
At an angle opposite the shinise museum was the Maeda Tosanokami Shiryokan Museum, the Museum for the Records of the Maeda Tosanokami family. The family was a chief retainer of the daimyo (actually direct sibling, but I’m not sure if it’s a branch family), one of the Eight Family of Kaga. The Eight Family was so called as the most important retainer family of the daimyo holding the highest offices and positions in the Kaga domain, each receiving an annual stipend of over 10k koku, the foremost Honda family even receives over 50k. The Maeda Tosanokami family received a stipend of 11k koku for most of the family’s time as one of the Eight. Through the generations accumulated huge stores of valuable documents and items. These are now made available in the museums on a rotating basis. The collections so large that even with 4 rotations a year it would take years for all the items to be shown.
The reception stamped my pass then to my puzzlement, began tearing off the stamp collection. There’s a souvenir for collecting three steamps, she said.
I had thought five stamps were needed, did this mean there was a bonus one at three stamps? But then why was she tearing the stamps off.
Perhaps noticing my confusion, she stopped and asked if I planned on visiting more museums. To which I answered that yes, I was planning on visiting the Noh museum and Suzuki Museum.
Oh, was the reaction. She further explained that there were different souvenirs for 3 or 5 stamps, and if I wanted to I could exchange the stamps now, otherwise I can wait till I had collected 5 of them. I preferred the small notepad one got for 5 stamps. The lady found some tape and helped put the stamp card back.
The first floor housed the permanent exhibition introducing the Maeda family. No family showcase can go without a set of armour and sword of course, and here they were displayed in utmost honour and respect, flanked on all walls by the family’s treasured art works.
The back of the first floor opens up into a garden viewing room, a space with some benches that offered an excellent view of the Japanese garden. I dwelled here not. The room was walled in with glass and the aircon exceedingly weak making the place rather stuffy. The garden while beautiful, was not something of spectacular worth beyond what I have seen elsewhere.
The second floor was where things became interesting. The articles of the museum, because of their nature of being items passed down within the family, were not necessarily glamorous paintings or ceramics; books and scrolls that were near impossible to read were a plenty, not only because of the florid calligraphy but also the use of old formal prose. The contents, with some helpful translating to more modern Japanese vernacular, actually were quite illuminating and as I would find out later, helped provide much needed perspective into the next few attractions I was going to visit.
The rotating exhibition at the time of my visit was given a spirited title, Kaga Domain’s High Ranking Samurai, Income’s Uses and Expenditures, Money is Needed!
In the Edo period a daimyo kept the service of many retainers. Each were given a stipend measured in bushels of rice, the currency of the day. A low level officer might receive a couple hundred bushels while a high level retainer like the the Maeda received tens of thousands.
The Kaga domain was renowned for being a domain of a million koku, giving some idea of the economic powers and the number of retainers that could be afforded.
In the days a koku of rice was roughly the amount of rice needed to feed one person for a year. By that measure even a few tens or hundreds of bushels sounds like a large fortune. And it probably was in comparison to the common farmers toiling in distant fields who were one bad harvest away from starvation, but for the samurais the stipends by no means guaranteed a life of luxury or even one without worrying about making ends meet.
As a samurai and a member of the ruling class, certain expectations were required if not by law then by customs. One was the number of clerks, guards and other servants one was expected to keep; the daimyo had high level retainers who themselves had retainers, a pyramids of people serving ones above.
A samurai’s position also demanded a level of fineries, lacquers, kimonos, other exotic items for ceremonies and parties, all of which had to be bought and kept up to latest fashion.
Then there were other expectations such as horses, armours and gears one had to make available for one’s lord at a moment’s call.
Worse still, rice was a poor means of storing or transporting wealth, one could not reasonably cart about and pay with hundreds of bags of rice so a samurai had to convert his stipend into cash with the merchant class who charged huge margins for the service.
What seemed like initially immense fortunes quickly dimished into mere pittances and many samurais struggled to make ends meet. Of course compared to the rural villagers the samurais, even the lowest ranked ones, could hardly be called poor. But many must have wondered about the lavished life their urban artisan and merchant compatriots lived.
Coins, ledgers. There were letters too, of mundane communique between the lord and his retainers. Written in prose whose meaning could only be glimpsed through modern translations.
Japanese today is quite subtle, often a person’s meaning is couched in coded words that takes care to pick out. These letters however are on a whole different level of formality and one must be excused for coming to entirely different understanding at first reading.
Together both museums took near an hour to go through at a steady pace without pause.
From here I walked north along the waterway. The area was the so called samurai district where those who served the lord used to live and the houses from those days remained well preserved.
The walls were a yellowy earthern colour, unique as I have seen in Japan thus far. The impression was softer and richer, refined, markedly different from the ashen white that defined the image of traditional urban landscape.
The streets were narrow, enough to let two palanquins pass by. One could imagine samurais of rival clans squaring off in the narrow confines and rounding the block to surround their opponents.
Some of the houses had signs requesting considerations while others had been converted to workshops or tea houses selling souvenirs and sweets.
There were three main attractions in the area. The first was the Nomura residence, belonging to a samurai of note on a stipend of 1100 koku. When I got there a tour group of european happened to be lining up outside waiting to go in. I continued on, to visit on the way back with hopefully less crowd.
The second was the Takada House formerly belonging to a mid ranked samurai on a 550 koku stipend. The main residence was long gone and only the garden remained, and a long house gate restored and maintained by the Kanazawa city. Given there was only really one building with two rooms, the city perhaps decided charging any paltry fee was more trouble than it’s worth and left the place open for all to wander freely.
There’s only the long house and the curator cleverly made the place be about the servants instead of the masters. The long house gate had the gate at its centre. On one side was a stable and store room and the other was the servant’s waiting room, a space of a few tatami with a firepit at the centre for staying warm in winter and preparing their own meals.
The servant’s job was to see to their master and accompany them when their master go to their offices and attend to their lord. When receiving their master they were to bring out their master’s shoes and throw it before them. Neither rude nor disrespectful, it was a show of being in awe of their master’s superiority.
A samurai had a duty to maintain soldiers for his lord, the numbers differed based on the period and stipend, as an example, a samurai of 500 koku had to provide 2 swordsmen, 1 spearman, 1 archer and 7 servants. So though on the surface a stipend seems a lot, the whole household suffered in poverty.
The garden of the former residence was of little value, only a small pond and few shrubberies.
The third attraction was another block away, called the Ashigaru Shiryokan Museum. A set of two small houses of the lowest rank samurais on just 10 to 25 koku. Although there were no obligations on them having to provide additional servants and soldiers so they might not have been much worse off than a low to middle samurai.
Each house belonged to a different ashigaru household, Takanishi and Kiyomizu, each standing on their own plot of land separated by low hedges and small gardens. They were larger than I had expected from warriors one rank away from peasant; supposedly Kaga’s wealth meant they could afford such spacious housing, in the capital an ashigaru would live in cramped rows of adjoining townhouses.
Roughly divided into two rows of three areas that formed the formal areas and living areas, the house felt spacious and comfortable. On the left was the entrance way and hallway, depending on the layout there may be a small room with a small hearth, perhaps as a waiting room. Toward the back was the formal room which opens up onto the engawa adjoining the garden, granting beautiful bright vistas. On the right side was the kitchen, the chanoma (room for tea, but perhaps closer to dining/living space), the private storeroom or sleeping room.
The rooms were of fair size, the windows and engawa let in plenty of sunlight, the air was fresh and cheery.
One of the houses was unattended and was mostly empty except for a few signs explaining the lives of the ashigaru. The role of the ashigaru in the strongly hierarchical edo society placed them squarely on the lowest rung of the ladder, serving the most mundane tasks of the bureacracy. A household of six nominally would need six koku of rice alone, not to mention other expenses such as soy, salt, wine and other basic necessities. With just 20 koku over half of the income would be spent on food alone, add in other household expenditures then they would barely scrape by. Ashigaru often took up other occupations and produced handicrafts at home to supplement their income.
The other house had a small office. The two houses had no entry fee so there was no need for a ticket window, the office probably served as an equipment store and prepare room for when there are arranged guides, otherwise I saw little need for an office. Having an attendant did mean they could furnish the house with scrolls and chests and other items to show how the place might have looked in the past.
In the living room five table trays with plates were laid out, ready for a family meal. The kitchen was stocked with pots and urns. The place felt lived in, cozy, and would not be surprised if some man in kimono walked out from behind the screens and welcomed visitors to his humble abode.
After the ashigaru house I return to the Nomura residence. The group of westerners had not left yet, either that or another group have followed on their heels, for the place was full.
The Nomura residence once belonged to a middle-high ranking samurai whose descendants later sold it to a wealthy merchant. The new owner kept the place well maintained and furthered the house and garden with his own touches.
It was not large, or perhaps it was a trick of the mind with so many people in the house that it could not be helped but feel crowded.
There was an entry fee of 550Y, a little on the high side. But given the other two were free it balances out and I shouldn’t be critical. Immediately upon stepping up the entrance, a suit of armour belonging to one of the Nomura ancestors welcomed guests in very “this is a samurai residence” sort of artifical way.
Round the short corridor with the main attraction of the house the L shaped room that opened onto the pond and garden. The garden was rated as one of the best gardens in Japan, on the same list as Adachi Museum in Shimane and Rikyu Palace in Kyoto, and the house as a whole awarded two stars by the Michelin guide.
Not sure if the house and garden lived up to such high praise.
In anycase the garden was a water feature garden, with the engawa extending directly over the koi pond. The shores were densely planted with moss and short pines, a few well placed stone lanterns provided depth to the scene. A small stone bridge crossed to an island and had a sign asking visitors to stay out. The garden felt a little messy, the barren branches sticking out through pine needles. It might look well in summer.
In the centre of the house was the Jodan no Ma, a special room reserved for hosting the daimyo. The joist and struts featured intricately carved wooden panels, the fusuma doors painted with mountains rivers by a renowned Kaga painter from the Kano school.
Toward the back the house connects with the old kura (storage house), with thick mud bricks and heavy doors designed to protect the contents within from fires that were all too common in the edo era. The kura has been converted into the Onikawa Bunko, a library holding a collection of historical arts and items of the Nomura family. There were many fine katana swords, wall scrolls and other precious objects that gave great insights into the life of a former high ranking samurai, and elevated the collection to one of great cultural significance.
There was a narrow stairway at the side of the house. It was open to the outside at its corner, where a delicately arranged water sprout was placed. Water pooled on the first level before spilling out the spout in a gentle trickle. Moss and fern covered the stone’s surfaces, and to celebrate spring, a length of bamboo with small branch of flower inserted at its middle, was placed across the pool as a bridge and viewing pavilion. The small insignificant decor held my attention more so than the main garden.
The stairs led up to the tea room. The upper floor was added by the merchant to enjoy the garden and highly recommended by many. Access was limited to customers who ordered the tea and sweets set, and there was no time for such enjoyments.
I rounded off the samurai district and its side alleyway. No time could be spared to the workshops and souvenir shops that dotted the area. In hindsight I wondered whether I should have moved Hikone to give Kanazawa the time it deserved.
Anyhow the whirlwind tour continued. I biked through Katamachi down the Tatemachi shopping street, a pedestrian shopping street spawning off the main thoroughfare in Katamachi. It was the foremost fashion and retail precinct in central Hokuriku, full of trendy shop fronts and and modern signages.
It might be the day of the week (being a Monday where many shops closes), the street did not feel as lively as what ought to be the busiest street in Kanazawa, and I even missed the only animate in town because of how inconspicuous it was. Not even a wall plastered with moe girls as one could expect in Tokyo.
The street laid in a shallow north west west to south east east axis. It took me across the south end of the central district and I circled up the east side back toward the museum district.
On the southern end of the museum district was the D.T. Suzuki museum. The bike station was outside a Lawson on the side of the road, still some distance to the museum which was tucked away behind a large parking lot through a mangle of small streets. Signage was poor and I had to check google map several times to confirm I was on the right path.
I had not heard of Suzuki before this trip. Philosopher, zen master, he was apparently quite well known and responsible for advancing zen teachings in the west. Born in Ishikawa prefecture and a celebrated son of the Kanazawa.
The museum was built in the suburb where Suzuki was born and designed to comemorate Suzuki’s life and teachings and provide a place of meditation and thoughts.
True to its zen roots the museum’s exterior was plain and dangerously easy to miss. Simple ashen concrete with well defined right angles. The side facing the courtyard was walled with slit poles drawing inspiration from the slit windows of Higashichaya. Upon entering the hallway was dimly lit, yet where there were windows sunlight shone through brightly, casting long dark shadows.
The museum was included in the museum pass, otherwise entry fee was 300Y. A small folder containing note papers was given to the visitors to take notes and record their thoughts. And I got another stamp on my pass.
Taking photos on the inside was not allowed. The galleries mostly held original works of Suzuki and various quotes of his. The photo ban was most likely to avoid people distracting others’ contemplation than any copyright rules.
At each section of the gallery a small info sheet was available for visitors to add to their folders and their knowledge of Suzuki’s perspectives on life.
A brief interruption came when a man approached with a pad for a quick survey of the origin of each visitor.
The halls at last opened up onto the main water garden feature which the museum complex was built around.
Square in shape, the pool reflected the world about. At its center the room of contemplation rippled, the tower of its roof rising above, breaking the confines of the walled space.
The contemplation room was open on all sides, allowing the cool breeze in and visitors to sit freely and inspect their thoughts in the surrounding water.
It’s doubtful how many visitors use the room for its intended purposes. Of the six or seven people I met during my visit, most, me included, were content to grab a few photos of the reflecting pool and continue on with their day.
I left without feeling tranquil nor insightful. A museum on zen required time I did not have.
Next stop was the Noh museum, bringing me back to the centre of the museum district.
Once again the museum did not particularly stand out and its mostly glass modern construction might be mistaken for a fashion retail. It sits on the main thoroughfare on the same block as the 21st century museum.
I got the final stamp here and traded the collection for a notepad. The Noh museum consists of two floors, with the ground floor area sharing the same space as the reception foyer, fenced off visually only by a tall panel and display cases.
Noh is the traditional Japanese performance for the aristocracy. It mirrors the kabuki which was performance for the commoners. Kabuki is loud, full of expression and outlandish stage props. Noh in contrast is incredibly restrained. A Noh stage is always the same. A stage with posts in four corners reminiscent of kaguya stages of shinto shrines. The backdrop of the stage is always a pine tree, and the entry bridgeway to the stage’s left (from the audience’s direction) is lined with three small pines. The right of the stage sat a band that played traditional instruments while the actors performed on the relatively small stage.
The biggest difference, was that kabuki actors wore colorful makeups allowing them full range of facial expressions, while noh actors wore masks that covered the entire face. In noh, emotions were conveyed through voice, movements and clever positioning of the mask alone. In a Japanology episode, it described noh as acting through movements of the feet. The way the actor lifted his feet, the pace which he stepped, the angle he placed it down. Hesitance, sorrow, excitement, tension, they could all be conveyed by simply looking at the actor’s lower body alone.
Patronized by the ruling class, Noh has throughout the ages sought to distinguish itself from the latest entertainment of the commoners by holding fervently to its original form, resisting changes and continued to be performed in its ancient style as stalwarts of tradition.
The noh play in Kanazawa is of the Hosho school, said to be more abstract in its performances. It later developed into its own style called Kaga Hosho, which became something for even common people after the Meiji restoration abolished the samurai class. There’s a claim that in Kanazawa, noh falls from the heavens, in other words the art was so popular even the common gardener or carpenters sing noh chants while they worked in high places. A doubtful claim; the city positions itself as the centre of traditional culture, second only to the ancient capital and I would not be surprised by a few hearsay exaggerations.
The first section of the floor introduced noh plays. Taking inspiration from the noh stage the area was separated from the foyer by a pine tree wall and framed by four columns, each having the name and purpose on stage.
The column at the back and left, by the entry bridgeway was named the shitebashira 仕手柱, main character’s pillar, for it was the direction where the main character would make his entry.
The column at the back and right was named the fuebashira 笛柱, literally flute pillar, for it was near where the flute players sits.
The column at the front and left was named the metsukebashira 目付け柱, the sighting pillar, for it was an important point of reference for the actor whose vision was limited by the mask. By anchoring himself relatively to the pillar, the actor can position himself to the correct spot on stage.
The column at the front and right was named the wakibashira 脇柱, the secondary character’s pillar, for where the secondary character would sit on stage while the main actor performs.
Around all sides were wait high glass displays showing various items used in Noh plays. Flutes, item of clothing, small props, masks. A few showed tools and methods used to craft the masks.
At the centre of the display area was a miniature model of the noh stage to give a visitor a better idea of what one looked like.
Generally speaking the information offered was rudimentary and did not offer a proper introduction to Noh plays. It felt simultaneously too shallow while assuming visitors already had some notion of what Noh is. To be fair to the museum Noh is not an easy concept to convey and I still grapple with what it is despite having read a few books on it. Noh has the honor of being the oldest surviving form of theatre, a tradition that dates back to the 14th century and far removed from modern sensibilities. The music is rhymetic and slow, the speech difficult to understand, the tales draws on ancient folklores and historical figures, the performances are abstract and requires familiarity by the audience for understanding.
At least it is not court music which is more monotonous than water dripping down a bamboo pipe; at least the later is soothing.
There was an experience area, visitors were welcomed to put on a Noh mask and dress with the assistance of the attendants. The two old ladies there were incredibly enthusiastic and excited by the prospect of a visitor. Clearly they haven’t seen many guests that day or any at all.
Initially I declined, not wanting to go through the troubles. I looked at the clothing and masks by myself. The masks, the surface incredibly smooth and seemingly made of clay and weighty.
“This looks heavy,” I commented.
“Oh no, not at all,” the ladies replied. They seized the opening, “Here try holding it.” They picked one up and presented it to me.
It was lighter than even my lightest estimate. It was made of wood, very very light wood, as though a hefty wind would take it into the air. The mask was almost 7 or 8 mm thick yet weighed maybe a third of what I felt wood of the size should.
“Wouldn’t you like to try putting it on, come, we’ll dress you.”
They nudged me onto the raised platform and presented a choice of two Noh dresses. One orange and another a darker indigo. I chose the orange one.
The dress was not hard to put on, more of a coat then a kimono. When it came to the mask however there were some confusion.
Before this my Japanese had served me well, but here there was a single word that I could not understand and could not guess from its context. I thought they wanted me to do something with the mask but not to put it on.
After a few back and forths the lady finally performed a posture herself. She bowed. Of course, I felt a little silly at myself. In Noh masks were sacred, said to possess spirits themselves and one had to first pay respect before putting them on.
I held the mask face up and gave it a bow, and finally was allowed to put on the mask.
Vision within the mask was severely limited. Coupled with the lack of glasses I was barely aware of my surroundings. I was at the mercy of the two ladies. Who happily led me through a few different poses and paces.
This pose means sadness. They would help position my arms and head. This pose means laugh. And so on.
It is another aspect of paradoxical Japan, where the everyday reserved body languages are traded for exaggerated theatrics.
They helped take a few photos in Noh wear then helped me out of the dress. They apologized for being insistent, which I replied that I had fun too.
The second floor was more museum like. A quiet space with walls of dark velvet set displays. Various masks and Noh outfits hung on the walls. Masks of gods, demons, jesters, courtesans, ministers, monks. The proportions were doll like, yet life like. The gods (some anyway) were kind, the demons frightening. The ministers were stupid and the courtesans sensual.
The various texts outlining the development of Kaga Hosho Noh is a little hard to understand, mostly speaking of lineages and important Noh performers that guided the development of Noh in the region. It’s not clear what distinguishes Kaga Noh from regular Noh, but it was emphasized that it is quite distinct and is recognized as an intangible cultural heritage.
Overall a good fun experience. Even if I did not have the pass, the Noh dress up experience and the numerous masks in display was well worth the 300Y fee.
The Noh museum concludes my whirlwind tour and I was free to make use of what’s left of the remaining sunlight.
There was the 21st century museum. Perhaps the most well known tourist attraction after the Higashi Chaya district. The museum had a series of outdoor arts that was very iconic, such as the room beneath a swimming pool such that it looked as though people walked on the bottom of the pool, a giant dog…
I was wandering through its outer halls looking for the ticket booth, while contemplating whether to spend time here or to go check out the castle grounds, when I was yelled at by some staff. Apparently there’s no single entrance to the restricted area, there’s several hallways and they were all restricted and to pass through required checking one’s ticket. There was no way to cut across the circular museum directly to the ticket booth; the only way was to circle all the way around.
None too pleased getting yelled at for an honest mistake, I decided to skip the museum. The sun was beginning to set and outdoor sculptures are better viewed in a full sun.
I ascended the cherry blossomed slope and crossed the bridge into the castle, properly this time. The castle keep was long gone and only the restored walls and barracks and storehouses stood as testaments to the once mighty lords of the Kaga domain. It was easily one of the largest castle grounds I have seen, exceeding that of Himeji or Nagoya castle. Because of its hilltop position, the grounds were formed of several natural layers.
The bridge from the garden acted as a backdoor for after a double gate it opens directly onto the main San-no-Maru courtyard.
In the distance was the raised Ni-no-Maru inner courtyard encircled by a tall walls and wide moat. On the left the long wall stretched to connect with the inner hon-maru area where the castle keep would have stood hundreds years ago. Not all of the walls have been restored which made the courtyard seemingly divided at random places.
The storehouses open to visits have now closed, and the visitor centre too. I wandered without aim. The visitor centre held a restaurant/cafe, a relaxation room with wide open glass walls for people to sit and view the wide open castle ground. The history of the castle was plotted out on a time axis along one wall. On another the TV was playing a very well made Kanazawa tourism ad promoting the colourful and varied four seasons of the city.
Outside the visitor centre was a short patchwork segment of wall. It was specially constructed using four different ways of wall building, used for different walls throughout the castle. Course irregular rocks used in wall foundations; square cut rocks for the upper walls and gate buildings; there were tiled walls; another was plaster on wooden frame and reed straws.
If time permitted, I would have liked to have gone on one of the rock wall touring route suggested by the castle guide pamphlet to check out all the different applications of wall buildings. As it was all I had time for was a short walk around the inner courtyards and snapping a few photos of the closed storehouses and the gun slits in the walls.
There was something magical about the white facade of buildings and walls in the sunlight before twilight, as if seeing into the past itself. A glorious melancholy of witnessing a past of lords and honor.
The plan for the evening was to go back to Higashi Chaya for some night time touring.
I was running only on excitement at this point, barely holding together after a whole day’s walking and biking. In times like this I tend to start making mistakes, the brain unable to pause to consider things in full for weariness would overtake it.
Too tired to find a restaurant, I went back to Katamachi where I saw a McDonald earlier in the day. As it had become by now, McDonald was my go to quick fix when I could not be bothered to work out where to eat.
There were no specialties menus on, which was disappointing. I ordered the teriyaki meal then went upstairs and found a seat. Glad to be finally sitting down, I grinned abit to have understood the staff asking if I was eating in or that was all I’m ordering.
I had some trouble finding the Korinbo bike station, partly due to poor marking on the map and partly because visibility was poor at dusk. Eventually I located it behind the Daiwa department store.
The ride to Higachi-Chaya was long. I wanted to get there before Hakuichi closed, determined now to get the ukiyoe gold foil print.
Pass the bridge and down the small street, I stopped in the courtyard at the entrance of the Chaya district and where Hakuichi was located. It was closed.
The warm glow of the lanterns cast no shadows in the murky blue surrounds. The lights of the shops and teahouses shone through the slits windows like portals to a fanciful world.
Some of the teahouses here still operated at night and it’s said that when the night deepens the street becomes filled with music and cheer. Can’t say I feel the liveliness. There were plenty of tourists enjoying the atmosphere of the old district in the evening, it was one of a still pond of serenity.
After some time I headed back to the hotel reluctantly.
I stopped by the bike station to swap the bike, then I realized that I should have also swapped the bike on my way to the chaya district. As it was I had exceeded the 20min free period and would be charged for a small fee.
I was smarting about the mistake while riding, which was probably why I then took a wrong turn at the Musashigatsuji intersection. I did not notice at first, but after a few minutes of the area turning more and more residential, I pulled out google map and saw my mistake. As a result it took me another 10 minutes before I got back to the hotel.
After a shower things began to feel a bit better. It was near 8 and my stomach was starting to feel empty.
Thankfully I had a long list of candidates and knew precisely what I needed. Vegetables.
Ever since discovering champione noodles back in Hakata, I have found a balanced diet is the key to keeping the body from getting upset. Vegetables aren’t the easiest thing to find on the eat out menu but there was one in the restaurant street in the station. Number 8 Ramen. A place the specialized in heaping plenty of vegetables on top of a bowl of ramen, much like Ringer Hut’s champion noodles.
It was a good thing the hotel was so close, if it had been any further I might not have worked up the will to venture out. Past evening rush hour the station was not terribly busy and the gift shops were closing up. It took me a full circle before finding Number 8 Ramen.
I ordered the yasai ramen (green vege ramen) which claimed to have half the daily recommended greens intake. It’s about 640Y, on the cheaper end for a bowl of ramen, at least compared to the big cities. Ramen might generally be cheaper here.
The place was half full. While I was lost in the restaurant streets I noticed that other than the sushi shop and izakaya, the rest were generally not packed. The former attracts more tourists and the later probably more office workers, leaving the remainder a middling unnotable bunch.
There was a giant logo on the wall and slogans promoting the history of the shop. It was nice and clean, the lighting bright. The decor was akin to Ringer Hut or similar non-traditional ramen shops that aims for a more family friendly atmosphere.
The noodle itself was more salty than Ringer Hut. It was a ramen after all, still much lighter than regular ramens. There was a generous helping of cabbages and beansprouts as promised, a small slice of meat and nice white noodle of above average thickness. Nothing eye opening, just good solid taste.
Satisfied, I finally went back to the hotel and concludes the long day.
I land in Taoyuan airport in the early morning. There’s a two and a half hour wait before departure for the flight to Toyama. After a 9 hour flight I was ready to get to the lounge and have a shower followed by some hot breakfast.
There’s a chinese saying: faster is slower. After running to the transfer gate I found that my boarding pass to Toyama was nowhere to be found. I doubled back to the airbridge, then back.
Having found nothing, I went up to the transfer counter. Thankfully I was flying China Airline who also staffed the counter, and I was able to get another boarding pass printed. The luggage receipts on the back of the original pass could not be helped, hopefully I would need them.
The delay took away 30 minutes of precious lounging time, more seriously when I got to the lounge a queue had formed outside, waiting to be checked in. There’s a lot of guests looking for some breakfast before the morning flights.
This was the first time I intend to use the shower at the Plaza Premium lounge. Upon enquiring during check in, the staff handed me a set of towels and pointed me toward the shower rooms in the back.
The shower room is spacious and clean, but decidedly less comfortable affair compared to the Cathay lounges in Hong Kong. The tiles are of a coarse cut and the space emitted a cold atmosphere, the amenities brandless. Basic but adequate.
After the shower I grabbed a bowl of hot beef noodle and sat down in the crowded lounge. For some reason the inflight meals this time were terrible and sat poorly with the stomach. The hot noodle soup was like nectar from heaven, soothing every fibre of the body.
Back in the lounge, I sat down with some coffee and finally began doing some itinerary inventory. I had forgotten to print out my rail pass booking. Why JR West even required rail pass booking continues to be a puzzle, it’s not as if they can run out of rail pass and I highly doubt such bookings would be much use for capacity planning at their ticket office. Either way they were adamant that the booking receipt be printed out. Thankfully the lounge reception were more than helpful, and asked me to forward the booking email to them and printed out for free.
The hour and half spent napping did my spirit much good. I had been feeling quite uneasy about the trip due to the lack of planning but now there is eagerness. Especially since the cherry blossom reports have been favourable.
Despite China Airline operating mostly out of Terminal 2, the flight departed from a gate in the old Terminal 1 wing which took forever to walk. When I finally reached my destination the gate was already open. There was no air bridge, the gate opened onto the apron and a squatted bus awaited.
The plane was parked on the other side of the airport. The ride took so long one might be excused for thinking the driver got lost.
The 737 was without the luxury of its long haul brothers. There were no personal screens, only lonely drop down TsV that presented shows few paid any heed in the short 3 hours journey.
The plane flew over Kyushu, across the Seto Inland Sea and up over Kansai. It cross the Noto peninsula, descended and crossed the coast inland toward Toyama.
Toyama Airport was only a few kilometres south of the city, as we flew over it we were low enough to see the cherry blossoms lining the river banks. If only I had picked a window seat to capture the stunning scene.
Excitement sprung forth, and I peeked out and studied the budding earth. The plane followed the river south into the valley flanked on three sides by sprawling ranges, descending, and descending, passing the airport and continued for what may be minutes, then executed a stunning low level 180 turn. The bank so steep and so long that it felt the tip of the wing might touch the tall lone pines guarding the intersecting fields.
The plane exited the turn aligned to the flow of the water and within seconds landed on the runway built on the riverbed. Driving to the end of the runway, the plane did another 180 and drove back up to the terminal halfway up the runway. The riverbed was so narrow there was no space to put in a taxiway and airplanes had to use the runway itself to and from the ramp. Not often do I get to fly into small regional airports and experience such memorable approaches.
Passing customs went smoothly. Less than 20 minutes. I stood at the entrance of the small airport concourse. The concourse was narrow and long, with the international end at one end and the domestic at the other. The international end could barely be considered a concourse, closer to an anteroom where the only fittings were a makeshift visitor info kiosk and a sim-card vending machine.
The sight of the vending machine was of great relief. The umobile website did suggest that they sold sim-card at the airport but one could never be too sure, could have easily sold out or cancelled recently without notice. There were several backup options of course. The souvenir shop upstairs also sold So-Net sim cards, then the convenience store at the north side of Kanazawa station, though the sim card plans for either of the backup choices were not ideal. If all else fails, I can attempt to survive on wifi till Kyoto where sim cards are readily available at Bic Camera and other shops, not an ideal scenario of course but not totally out of the realm of possibility.
The sim-card on sale was not the same kind I was expecting. The umobile sims advertised on the website, the one I had used in my last trip, had daily bandwidth quotas that throttled speed if exceeded and resets every day. The ones sold by the vending had a single data cap for the entire validity period.
The daily quota ones were better in that if I blew the quota by accident, it’ll only affect me for the rest of the day, while the single quota one would put me at a slow speed for the rest of the whole trip.
So long as the quotas weren’t used up, which for me was to be expected, the plans differed little. I exchanged a 10k note into 1k ones with the info desk lady and bought my sim.
The info desk mostly stocked flyers about Toyama. The Kurobe ranges and the coastal areas, the Gokayama thatched hut village, and Toyama city itself. I thanked the lady and went on my way to explore the concourse.
The next bus to Toyama city was not due for another hour, there was time enough for me install and activate the sim card then check out what few shops and restaurants the place had to offer.
For filling one’s stomach, there’s a noodle shop, a western pasta pizza restaurant, a cafe and a sushi restaurant. None of which enjoyed much customer at time.
A few fellow Taiwanese tourists was already browsing the general souvenir shop, looking through the aisles stocked with local produce and sweets, sake, travel items such as books and lotions. On one pillar was a poster advertising the So-Net sim cards. There were some attempts to appeal to foreign tourists, if the effort seemingly lacking focus. Doubtfully enough foreign tourists to make every label multilingual, not to mention many of the tourists likely aren’t skilled in English.
Everything held an earthly small town feel, down to the oversized bus ticket vending machine.
A long line had formed by the kerb ten minutes before the bus was due to arrive. There were much fewer people than expected, the others must had left on tour buses. Each had with them giant suitcases that as soon as the bus showed up, it was obvious there was no way they would all fit in the underside compartments.
The bus had plenty of seats, the driver waved the rest onto the bus and we placed the luggage in the vacant seats next to us.
Toyama airport was fairly close to the city center as far as airports went, the bus ride takes only 25 minutes.
As we drove along the main road the surroundings immediately struck me as different than other areas of Japan that I’ve been to. Toyama was not very dense. It was not barren lands nor endless rice fields, nor was it rows of residential houses. Restaurants and shops and other businesses lined both sides in spacious plots devoting plenty of spaces in front or to the sides of the buildings for parking. The stereotypical Japanese cities were very compact which favoured pedestrian traffic, here things were obviously catering to people who drove. It’s a trend I’ve read much of; shopping streets in traditional city centers are losing to suburban malls and shops as people’s preference shifts to driving, perhaps especially so on the Japan coast where snowfall is heavy.
We entered the city centre, pass the light rail tracks that looped the main commercial district. The city was much more lively than I expected and I wondered if I should have spent the first night here as planned initially.
The view suddenly widened up and there was a unified gasp, a split moment of silence descended followed by audible excitement.
Behind a wide moat was the long wall of a castle braced by clouds of cherry blossoms in perfect full bloom befitting the front cover of calendars.
The bus made a stop pass the canal where the cherry blossom festival was taking place. There was an urge to jump off the bus then with all my luggage and walk to the station later.
I held back. If Toyama, which was not known for cherry blossoms was like this, then the flowers was going to be even ten times better in Kanazawa. I had to get to Kanazawa early. I had not built in allowance for cherry blossoms and unconsciously I was already shifting things around in Kanazawa to make time.
Before Toyama station was also a sparse row of cherry blossoms. The highschool students looked on with curious understanding at the unloaded bus full of tourists snapping away at a few lonely trees, enamoured by what to them must be ordinary and unworthy of mention.
I allowed myself a few minutes of indulgence and reigned back the excitement. Had to get moving. Before deciding what to do for the rest of the day I had to get my rail pass, once that was done there would be a clear idea how much time there remained in the afternoon.
Getting in and out of the ticket office took maybe 10 minutes with minimal waiting. It was just past 1 in the afternoon, the next shinkansen to Kanazawa was just a few minutes away.
Originally I had planned to head directly to Kanazawa but upon seeing the time table I decided against it. The train after next was about 40 minutes away and still puts me at Kanazawa a little after 2pm; having lunch here is better than having to snack on riceball on the train plus still having to spend time looking for a place to eat after reaching Kanazawa.
Up till about a month ago I had planned on spending the afternoon in Toyama and had done some research on its restaurants. Though I did not plan to go to the canal park and the Starbucks there, nor the castle remains, I immediately knew where to go for lunch.
Adjoining the station was a shopping plaza that sold Toyama specialties as well as several restaurants. One of them, the Shiroebiya specialized in Toyama’s famous white shrimps, their signature dish a rice bowl topped with fried shrimps.
The place was much smaller than the photos suggested. There were maybe six tables, plus about eight or nine counter seats. There was only one other person at the counter so I asked to sit at a table.
I ordered the Toyama special, a bowl that contained the signature seafoods of Toyama: White shrimp from Toyama bay, firefly squid and amberjack fish from the Sea of Japan. While I waited, which wasn’t long, several groups of Taiwanese tourists showed up. From their luggage and outfit they were likely from the same flight as me and had similar idea, glad I managed a few steps ahead of them.
The squid was fantastic but there were only two of them and I wished there was a bowl with only squids, the fish juicy and rich in the flavor of the sea, the shrimp had a fantastic aroma but prickly in the mouth.
There was also a shrimp cracker that went perfectly with tea, a tie in advertising trick that I gladly fell for as I later bought a box from the shop outside.
Full stomach accomplished, I circled the plaza, took a quick browse of the shops then boarded the shinkansen to Kanazawa.
Kanazawa is around 60km west of Toyama. By car or local train a 60min journey, the shinkansen takes just 23 minutes with a stop at Shin-Takaoka.
Toyama and Kanazawa were both cities with population of around 400k, their positions makes them a twin city on Japan’s northern coast. Usually the northern coast region encompassed Niigata and Fukui also, but Niigata being on a different shinkansen line, and Fukui not yet connected by shinkansen and also being smaller and further away, makes Toyama and Kanazawa closer geo-economically. Toyama was the manufacturing center and Kanazawa the commercial and cultural center.
Capitalizing the opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen, Kanazawa especially went all in on its cultural heritage of arts, tradition and heritage, the hundred thousand koku fief, a branding campaign that raised its profile significantly above that of its long time rival Niigata, at least internationally. Hotels are sprouting up like bamboo shoots after the rain and land before the station is one of the few places in Japan where prices are going up in double digits.
The scale of the city’s ambitions was keenly felt. The concourse immediately reminded me of Hakata, with its grand thoroughfare connecting east and west and corridors branching off either side to restaurants, souvenirs and department stores. And refined. While Hakata was like Tokyo where the station building was modern and clinical, the interior of Kanazawa station had its edge rounded out by the use of wood and lighting, and the place spared no expenses in artistic decorations that showed off local craft heritage. Kanazawa knew how it wanted to be seen and was confident in that identity.
The tourism info center took prime spot at the gallery connecting the concourse and department store. Never have I seen a city/prefecture devote this much space toward promoting itself to visitors. In an open space about the size of 4 shop fronts, the first section is an info counter offering multilingual support providing services to introduce and recommend activities, booking accomodations and other help. The second and third area are stands of an incredibly comprehensive collection of flyers: walking maps, food maps, biking maps, activities, festivals. Everything including Kanazawa, Noto peninsula and Ishikawa prefecture as a whole. The fourth area showed local crafts with brief explanations and a small scale model of the famous Drum Gate that stood before the station, that has become a symbol of Kanazawa.
I grabbed a few guide maps. One that would prove most useful was the bike-sharing map. Kanazawa have a Machi-Nori system where bikes are available for rent from docking stations around the city. For just 200Y a day, one could ride as many times as one wants for free so long as the bike is returned to a dock within 30 minutes. The map laid out where all the docking stations were and the suggested roads to ride on to avoid traffic.
Out the eastern entrance and passed under the Drum Gate. My stay was about two blocks away, less than 5 minutes walk. On the way I checked out the nearest Machi-Nori station and how they worked. The dock station was very close to the hotel, only one alley closer to the train station, more convenient than google map suggested.
Continuing on to Hotel Nakada, a small family run business hotel that was old and cozy. Nicely timed to 10min to 3pm, I was certain they wouldn’t mind letting me check in a touch early. The first floor immediately to the left is a hall that in bygone days saw meals served, now it sits mostly unused. A long narrow corridor leads pass the tiny alcove that served as the reception and at the end of it the elevator. Squeezed against the wall was a water cooler and a coffee machine.
One complimentary coffee, the lady told me, handing me an old fashioned key chained to a rectangular rod engraved with the room number.
The room was decently sized, a little larger than the business hotel chains in Tokyo. The furnishings were old, but clean and well cared for.
I had wanted to drop the bags and head back out immediately, but a weariness took over me, and with a long breath I took up the offer for free coffee.
The coffee was typical Japanese UCC coffee, deeply aromatic and went smoothly with cream. I made use of the break to pour over bike map. The main bike path led south from the docking station, then go east at the first major road puts me at Musashi ga Tsuji, then bike down for a short distance then east again puts me at the north end of the castle park, from there it’s an easy cruise along the walls till Kenrokuen where the cherry blossoms are.
I collected my thoughts and headed out.
The Machi-Nori station had instructions in the major foreign languages and registration was straightforward. I registered using my credit card then swiped a bike console with my SUICA. The money was deducted from the credit card, the SUICA only served as an identification mechanism. The dock beeped and being unaccustomed, I had to wrangle the bike out the railing.
The sturdy bike was basic and functional. At the front hung the stereotypical bicycle basket and in it was a plaque card giving instructions on how to return the bike. On the handle bar was the gear change switches and a bell to warn pedestrians.
I trundled down the road through residential suburb. Along the way I stopped at a strange lone slice of earthen wall boxed in on all sides by the roads, preserved as an archaeological site of the old castle town’s outer moat.
Musashi ga Tsuji one of three major shopping district of the city, the other being the station area and Korinbo-Katamachi. Musashi ga Tsuji was anchored about Omicho market, a large fresh produce and seafood market place. I did not pause here and biked through the busy intersection.
Between Musashi ga Tsuji and Korinbo laid the concentration of office buildings. The wide road and sidewalks were filled with traffic. I only followed for a short block, turned left up a side street till I reached a small shrine situated at the north western corner of the castle ground.
The clouds have gathered and the weather turned a little chilly. I followed the road south, the roadwork made me disoriented and I soon lost bearing and could not find the docking station for the Oyama shrine. This was one problem with Machi-Nori, a lot of times the docks were tucked behind buildings or at the back of carparks and the maps weren’t detailed enough to help locate them. As a result, I continued on and would forget to come back to visit Oyama shrine.
The narrow road walled in by the tall castle wall opened up, the wall retreated to give way to wide expanse of moat and parkland. Tourists zipped this way and that on Machi-Nori bikes. This was the focal of Kanazawa, to the north where I came was the castle, Kenrokuen to the east, 21st Century Museum, Suzuki Museum and many other arts and cultural space to the south, and Korinbo in the west, all within a few hundred meters.
I parked the bike at the 21st Century Museum dock and crossed the road to the entrance of Kenrokuen. I was about to head in when I became captivated by the sight.
Kenrokuen and the castle were situated on two adjacent hills separated by a road in the valley. On both banks were tall cherry blossom trees like a rolling ocean of pink and white. I stood there, finally understanding why cherry blossoms were so cherished. I have seen cherry blossoms before, a few, even dozens of them, they were beautiful but never moving.
This was the first time beholding a hundred cherry blossom trees all in full bloom, a magical world thought beyond nature’s imaginations, something of a cliche invented by paintings and animes. Even underneath a white moody sky they beckoned with the warmth and wellwishes of spring.
I walked down the valley, endlessly looking all about me, till I reached the far end and joined the crowd in climbing up the narrow street toward the bridge connecting the garden and the castle.
Cherry blossom festival. Before the main gate to the garden was a line of teahouses, and now in the empty space were food stalls selling all kinds of festival food. The required yakisoba, others mouth watering scents of grilled squid, skewers, hotdogs, small custard cakes. Festival, this was a festival! I screamed internally.
Rational thinking left me, I wandered back and forth along the strip, basking in the crowd and atmosphere, studying the cherry blossoms, seeing the joy on people’s faces. I drifted with the crowd into Kenrokuen, free entry during the cherry blossom season.
Kenrokuen is known as one of the three great gardens of Japan, created by ruling daimyos as a place of relaxation and to entertain guests. Different from Korakuen of Okayama and Kairakuen of Mito, Kenrokuen’s location on the northern reaches of Japan means it gets plenty of snow in winter, many of its best known scenes are one of tranquil black and white, and the tent like structure erected to protect the pines from being crushed under the weight of snow.
A gust of wind picked up and the skies darkened in a sudden downpour. Everywhere people opened umbrellas and headed downhill out of the garden for shelter. I walked down slowly, taking a few photos here and there as I went.
It’s a shame, the weather.
I reached the bottom of the path, when as if hearing the complaints, rays of golden sunlight fell into my eyes. Could it be?
The rain had stopped as sudden as it had come. The last rays of the afternoon sun shone gloriously like the namesake of this city.
I rushed up the hill back to the teahouse strip. People were filling back into the strip, coming out of the teahouses and from underneath awnings. A few shop attendants busied wiping down benches.
The sunlight filtering through the blossoms brought out the vibrant pink of the flowers, a translucent pale white that glimmered in the light.
I wandered across the bridge into the castle grounds and out the north side. Then I made up my mind that I had to come back for the night viewing. Although tired and wanting an early start tomorrow, I could not let this chance slip past. The sky was clear, it’s better to stay late tonight than leave till tomorrow night.
I flipped through the notes. Dinner was meant to be a sushi train back at the station. In the Korinbo area I had marked a few places as potential alternatives for tomorrow. The one that looked most interesting, Turban Curry, closes at 7. It was close to 6, should be okay if I moved quickly.
I biked back to 21 Century Museum and followed the road toward Korinbo. Turban Curry was just on the left hand side a short distance from the main thoroughfare, a dinky retro looking eatery.
The place was not big, there’s a few tables along the windows and a long counter typical to Japanese eatery. On one corner of the ceiling was a TV tuned to the local news and menu board hung above the cooking area could only be described as effective.
I sat down toward the center, facing directly the giant pot of curry cooking on the stove. The middle aged woman came over with a glass of iced water and I pondered over the menu. I had my sights set on the L-Set. Why it was called the L-Set I could not tell, other than it did not refer to portions, as the L-Set was further broken down into medium and large in brackets. From the picture and description it had everything, the sausage, hamburger and pork cutlets. Which explained the Set, but still no hint to the L.
Not all mysteries required answers.
For less than 1000Y, it was better than fantastic. I wolfed down the curry, wondering if I should have seconds.
Kanazawa curry is a local specialty very different from the regular Japanese curry. It was dark and thick, bold and unrefined both in presentation and taste. It looks and tastes like something out of the lean postwar periods, cheap, simple and effective, a stamina booster after a long hard day. Perfect in getting ready for the night’s activities.
The teahouse strip was just as if not more busy than before. Brightly lit, bobbing dark shapes hustled beneath the snow like blossoms. The air smelled of grilled squid, a most devious street food that tugged one into struggled lips licking looks. People clamored about chattily, sharing in food and joy.
The pink cherry blossoms were white, and blue and gold, soaking up the nearest lightsource. Ascending the slope up to the pond in Kenrokuen, through the forest of ghostly cherry blossoms into a fantastical realm.
The rivers glowed with the reflections of the fiery petals above. The wind was chilly yet no one seemed to mind. Joyful, peaceful. The words from the Cambridge History of Japan came to me. They endure the cold of winter and weather the heat of summer for the colors of spring and autumn. The words were referring to Kyoto, but it must equally applied here. After a long snowed in winter, how it must be to welcome the arrival of spring with pomp and fair.
From the garden I moved to the castle.
The castle moat was covered with cherry blossoms. Above, below, the flowers were endless. I had lost all words and minds. All I knew was no pictures can possibly capture what was before me.
After I don’t know how long, I eventually made my way back to the hotel, just when it slowly began to drizzle. The weather knew I was finished with the day.
About half a block from the hotel at the intersection was a convenience store, where I grabbed some instant coffee and bread for snacks and plum wine for sleep, and a small neighbourhood supermarket, where I grabbed some oranges, an expensive but necessary supply to balance out all the savoury food to be consumed over the next dozen days.
First day, already more perfect than I had thought possible.