January 4, 2012
Recently I had the opportunity to attend a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, held at an old Japanese confectionary shop in the old part of Gifu City known as Kawara-machi (川原町). Now, there are several uses of the word "old" in the previous sentence, but I assure you, this is a GOOD kind of "old"...the kind that retains a deep sense of history and longstanding tradition while still maintaining relevance in the modern day and age.
Before I get into a description of the sweets shop and the tea ceremony itself, I should briefly introduce Kawara-machi for those who are not familiar with it. One of the first things that most Japanese think of when they hear "Gifu" is ukai (鵜飼), the 1,300 year-old traditional method of fishing using cormorants to catch ayu (sweetfish) on the Nagara River. The loading docks for the ukai viewing boats are in Kawara-machi, which is located right on the riverside, leading to a close relationship between the town and ukai that has existed for a long time. In fact, one of the most famous, award-winning products of the confectionary shop Tamaiya (玉井屋本舗), where the tea ceremony was held, is an ayu-shaped sweet. Kawara-machi is quite an old town, but gems like Tamaiya, which has been in-business for over a century, are sprinkled throughout!
On to Tamaiya, then! This sweets shop makes products of infinite variety, as you can see with just a brief glance through the shop's website (http://www.tamaiya-honpo.com/okashi/namagashi.html). I highly encourage you to browse this site (http://www.tamaiya-honpo.com/nousaijiki/index.html) for a minute or two; even without any Japanese, clicking any entry on the left-hand list will reveal the stunning confectionaries that the store has produced in the last several years. One of the distinguishing characteristics of traditional Japanese sweets is that, along with taste, visual aesthetics are of the highest importance. I know that I could spend all day marveling at the visual beauty of each and every one of those sweets...except there's probably not enough time in one day to do so! I was able to taste one of the currently-produced sweets (well, SEVERAL, actually, but all of the same type!), and I can assure you that it was just as delicious as it was visually striking.
But the appeal of Tamaiya doesn't stop there...the shop itself is gorgeous and is a tribute to traditional Japanese architecture, with a small garden in the middle and a traditional tea room as well. It was here, of course, that the tea ceremony was held, led by a kind teacher of the Urasenke school, one of the three main schools of Japanese tea ceremony. I had been to a Japanese tea ceremony before, but at this session I was free to ask questions (it's usually a fairly quiet function), so I learned a lot about the history, culture, and various other aspects of tea ceremony.
For one, I did not previously know that at a tea ceremony, there is a spot for the guest of honor, who, as you might guess, is served before the others. I also learned that (at least at "official ceremonies") the seating order/arrangement is directly according to this "scale of honor," meaning that those closer to the guest of honor are in a "higher" position than those who are not. And what I found REALLY interesting is that the host-the person who makes and serves the tea)-is the one who decides this order, which means that, to some degree, the host actually has to KNOW everybody attending in order to come up with the seating arrangement! That surprised me for a moment, although it does in fact make sense when you think about when tea ceremonies are held-especially for occasions such as weddings and when celebrating the changing of seasons-usually times when one is with family and friends.
The general flow of a tea ceremony is fairly simple...the guests are presented with sweets, then the host makes the tea, offers it to the guest of honor-who then drinks it ALL-and then proceeds to do the same for the next guest, and so on. And yet, as a guest, there are many intricate responsibilities that you have that make it quite a challenge, even for the guest of honor! For example, there are three different degrees of bows that are used in the tea ceremony, and they are each clearly differentiated, have their own names, and are used at specific times. So knowing when to use what type of bow, and towards whom-the host, the neighbor sitting to your left, etc.-is something that undoubtedly takes time to get used to. So in a sense, being a guest at a tea ceremony is an art unto itself!
One particularly memorable part of the ceremony that I didn't previously know existed was the part where the guest, after draining the bowl of tea, takes his or her time to inspect it carefully, admiring its shape, color, etc. Bowls used for tea ceremony are often extremely old and valuable, and this practice of really APPRECIATING the work of art is illustrative of that fact. While it felt unnatural at first to lean forward and look closely at the bowl for literally a minute or two, rotating it in my hands to see it from every angle, I understood that this was an important part of the ceremony, and I came away with an understanding that the act of appreciation is at the very heart of Japanese tea culture. (This idea is further strengthened by the fact that the tea ceremony is the origin of a Japanese proverb-"ichi-go ichi-e"-that encourages one to treasure every meeting and moment as if it will never come again.)
Some other intriguing tidbits that I came away with include the fact that you are not supposed to step on the edge of any tatami mat in the room. While it is no longer necessarily the case today, the edges of the mats were often made from extremely expensive fabric and were branded with the seals of noble families, and thus stepping on the edges was avoided. Another fact is that maccha tea used in the tea ceremony is made from crushed tea leaves, whereas Western tea is made by soaking the leaves in water. Finally, I learned that the tea ceremony was, in its early days, used as a political and business tool by those in power-among them, Oda Nobunaga, who controlled Gifu Castle for a time.
In the end, I came out of the tea ceremony-with the sweet aftertaste of the confectionaries and the bitter taste of the tea balancing each other out-with an increased APPRECIATION (keyword!) and heightened knowledge of various facets of Japanese tea culture. It's a very ritualistic experience, but in the pre-determined actions, there is a lot of significance that gets at the heart of what traditional Japanese culture-not just related to tea-is all about. So attending a tea ceremony is a great way to learn about Japan and to just try something new!!
October 25, 2011
A few weekends ago I had the privilege of going to see the 18th Mino Washi Akari-Art Exhibition held every year in the old district of Mino City, Gifu, and I can tell you that it honestly surpassed all of my expectations in terms of the beauty of the town itself and the quality of the works of art made using Mino Washi Japanese paper and utilizing light.
On the way from Mino Station to the old, historic district, where the exhibition is held, I passed the old Mino Station, still intact and with a couple of train cars that people can enter and relax in for a bit. It was nice touch to see that kind of thing preserved.
Here is the entrance to the old district, marked by some festival food booths while it was still light out...
...And here is the same scene an hour or so later, after it got dark and the exhibition got underway.
Aside from the works of art themselves, the town was very much a focus of the Mino Washi Akari-Art Exhibition, and this included spotlights drawing attention to the "udatsu," which you see in this photo. "Udatsu" are walls between houses that prevent the spread of fire from one house to another in the case of a large fire that would otherwise threaten the entire wooden town. They are one of the more famous features of the architecture in Mino. In fact, the historic district in Mino is named for the "udatsu," as is is called "udatsu no agaru machinami," or the "town where the udatsu rise."
And here are particularly memorable works of Mino Washi art that I was impressed by!
Even though this one with the flowers was towards the beginning of the neverending chain of works, I was convinced that it would be among the winners! (I was not correct.)
The design spells out "Mino Washi Akari-Art Exhibition!" Would be great as an advertisement for the exhibition!!
It may be somewhat difficult to tell from the photo, but this work featuring the cherry blossom tree was really exquisitely done.
And this one was probably one of the most colorful. It very much had the feeling of a traditional work of Japanese art.
Finally, a traditional Japanese Daruma (Dharma) doll.
And though there were still a bunch more fantastic works that I wanted to photograph...my camera died at this point! It had served me well, however...
The sheer number of Mino Washi pieces of art truly was impressive...it felt like an eternity had passed until I finally had seen every last one. I certainly not expected there to be that many, but I suppose that that speaks to the reknown of the festival.
In addition to several musical performances at several locations throughout the night, at the end, there was an awards ceremony where the winners of this year's contest were announced for the first time. The judges had been going around all night looking at all of the pieces, just as I had, and each chose one piece that he or she thought most deserved recognition.
None of the pieces that I had pegged as the best technically, most impressive, or most original made the cut, however. And yet, it was fascinating to hear the reasoning behind the judges' decisions, which they each elaborated on. How the piece made the best use of the qualities inherent to Japanese Mino Washi paper, how the piece could be taken as reactions to recent events such as the March 11th disaster, and the initial impressions that the works gave were all elements that the judges discussed. In the end, four works were honored out of the three hundred or so, and not all of them were made by Japanese artists, which again shows the international reach of this exhibition.
I was extremely impressed by what I saw and I can't wait to go back next year, and I hope that you will make an effort to be there too!!
October 19, 2011
Two weekends ago, I made my way to the annual Cutlery Festival held in Seki City in central Gifu Prefecture, so here are some of the highlights of what I saw there!
Dozens of ayu (sweetfish) being grilled greeted me as I arrived, the salt balancing their natural sweetness as is customary here in Gifu! I really regret not buying one of these...
There was also delicious yakitori, or grilled chicken on skewers, which comprised a part of my lunch! It was tender and tasty and as good as it looks here! It's hard not to love the food stalls at Japanese festivals!
These are the figures that greet you as you enter the Seki Sword Tradition Museum, a place that details the sword-making process, displays many gorgeous Japanese swords as well as other blades made in the famous city of Seki, and offers-during the Cutlery Festival as well as at other times-live demonstrations of the different stages of sword-forging.
Some of the raw materials that are eventually made into the hard, steel blade of the sword. "Iron sand" is combined with some copper and other metals to eventually form the final metal that is used in the forging process.
Learning to make fine charcoal flakes-used to cover the metal and allow for it to be uniformly molded-from burnt wood like this takes much skill and time to master, and this ability is one thing that is required before one can be licensed as a swordsmith.
Pieces of metal are melded together onto these rods, at which point they are tempered, elongated, and folded back against themselves, which results in what you see at the end of the bottom rod. This process is repeated over and over. And over. And this layering is what gives the steel much of its strength.
Two of the swords on display at the museum. Simply stunning works of art. Notice the pattern on the edge of the blade...this pattern can vary drastically depending on the swordsmith and the exact process he uses to temper the steel.
A tsuba, or sword guard, on display with beautiful decoration. This is located just above the sword's hilt, when attached.
Some swords have blades that are intricately designed, as you can see here under the magnifying glass.
More intricate blade designs...this one is actual writing, which is easily made-out at this magnification. This design runs up and down the entire blade!
Outside the museum, there was a metal forging demonstration, which involved four swordsmiths, each with his own specialized role. Seeing the sparks flying in all directions upon each hit of the hammer never fails to leave a deep impression.
Inside the museum, four craftsman were demonstrating different operations involved in the sword-making process. This first craftsman, called a "tsukamak-ishi" or "hilt maker," is expertly weaving the threads, making the standardized yet very distinctive pattern that adorns the handles of Japanese swords.
A close-up of the hilt maker at work.
Next is the "togi-shi," or "polisher," who drips a faint amount of water on the blade and then scrapes it against these blocks repeatedly. The edge is not yet sharp, so there's no need to worry about him injuring himself holding the blade this way!
Then we have the "saya-shi," or the sheath maker, who we see here shaving what will be the inside of the scabbard/sheath so that the blade fits perfectly like a figure into the mold from which it was made.
Lastly, there was the "shirogane-shi," or decorative part maker, who we see here making the "habaki," the piece of metal located above the guard that serves the dual function of preventing the guard from falling off and keeping the sword firmly in the scabbard when it is sheathed.
Reportedly the largest katana (Japanese sword) in the world!
Some of the other types of blades made in Seki that were on display at the museum included these unbelievably thick, multi-functional Swiss army knives! Which would certainly not fit in any kind of pocket...
Elsewhere, there were sword unsheathing and sword cutting demonstrations, as seen here. Just about to being his swing...
...And mid-swing as he slices the target cleanly in half!
The next demonstrator about to slice through a collection of targets as part of an "obstacle course" that he had set-up.
Then I finally arrived at the street buzzing with the stalls I expected to see at a Japanese festival!
While some stands were selling food, others, like this one, were selling blades of all kinds, shapes, and sizes! People came from around the country to buy the highest-quality kitchen knives at greatly reduced prices! ...And I personally came away from the festival with a (replica) katana in hand!
October 11, 2011
The Battle of Sekigahara, perhaps the most famous battle in all of Japanese history fought in 1600, determined the course of the nation for next several hundred years. It's significance is widely regarded, and it still captures the imaginations of many Japanese to this day.
This coming weekend, on October 15th and 16th, the annual Battle of Sekigahara Festival will be held in the town of Sekigahara itself, the sight of the climactic fight. As in previous years, a grand parade of soldiers, a gun firing ceremony, and a battle-reenactment that brings to life the historical picture scrolls depicting the actual battle are highlights of the festival. From all around the country, more than 200 armor-wearing, rifle-bearing people will be coming to participate in the above events!
...And as a special treat, this year's festival will be adding a brand new element; not only will the battle be recreated and celebrated on the field, it will also be recreated on the stage, through theater and music! The Qublic Theater troupe will be performing "The Gale of Shimazu," which honors the battle participants not through swordplay but through dance. And there will be several live performances by two singers/groups whose songs share the thematic element of Sekigahara. This multi-faceted tribute is sure to be entertaining and stirring, so you won't want to miss it!
In addition to all of the above events, there will be much more, including but not limited to discussions, social gatherings, and markets where you can find all sorts of historical goods and foods to enjoy!
Generally speaking, the theatrical and musical performances will be on the 15th, while the battle reenactments, parades, and firing ceremonies will be on the 16th.
Time: 10:00am - 4:00pm
Venue: Sekigahara Fureai Center and its surrounding areas and the Mt. Sasao Parking Lot, Sekigahara-cho, Fuwa-gun, Gifu
Access: Train from JR Gifu Station to JR Sekigahara Station on the Tokaido Main Line towards Maibara (transfer at Ogaki Station may be necessary)
October 7, 2011
To be held this Sunday on October 9, 2011, this annual festival held in Toki City, Gifu is said to have begun in 1623 when the lord of Tsumaki Castle offered a horse in exchange for good fortune in battle. To this day, horses still play a central role in the festival, as archery on horseback is the main attraction! Six elementary school boys, riding up the mountainside on horseback towards the shrine, each take 6 rounds of shooting as their horses whiz pass the targets-3 times in battle garb, battle helmets and all, and 3 times in the garb of ancient Japan. Aside from that event, the horses themselves are paraded for all to see, there is a matchlock rifle ceremonial firing, and finally there is a parade of school children fully equipped with samurai armor. It is a relatively unique event among Japanese festivals, so if you have time this weekend you should definitely check it out!
Location: Hachiman Shrine, Tsumaki-cho, Toki City
Time: 11am (horseback archery from 2:30pm)
Access: Train to JR Toki Station South Exit à Tohnoh Tetsudou Bus on the Toki Tsumaki Line à Get off at Tairaguchi à 10 minute walk to the Hachiman Shrine
Last weekend, I was able to attend the Gifu Nobunaga Festival 2011 in Gifu City, a festival that honors the great historical figure Nobunaga who did so much for both Japan and for Gifu (which he in fact named). Exiting the train station, this is the sight with which I was greeted: taiko drums! One of the three essential parts of any Japanese festival, taiko performances are pervasive, and yet...for me at least, their power to enchant never fades.
Along one of the main streets of Gifu City, the long parade began at around 1pm, and it was headed by this marching band.
Following them was this group led by Minamo, the official mascot for the upcoming National Sports Festival of Japan to be held in Gifu in 2012. "Minamo" literally means "water surface," and indeed, Minamo is supposed to be a fairy that lives on the surface of a beautiful river, evoking images of the pure rivers on which Gifu prides itself. You can make out the water surface around his torso area.
Next came the ceremonial firing of matchlock guns by this group of 16th century warriors. To be honest, I could not see very well with the crowd before me (the camera is way over my head here), and I was not expecting the incredibly loud firing shots when they came. I was quite startled, to put it mildly!
After firing off one round, the men in armor continued to parade...they would later fire off several more rounds at intersections farther down the road!
Standard bearers marching in front of the nobility.
And here is the man of the hour, Oda Nobunaga himself!
Following closely behind is Nohime, Nobunaga's wife.
And then Oichi-no-kata, Nobunaga's youngest sister.
And another noblewoman.
After the parade ended, the "festival" part of the day began, with crowds assembling around the food stalls and game booths, both elements that traditionally mark Japanese festivals. The above photo is of a man making what is known in Gifu as "pon-haze," which is similar to popcorn except that it is made with rice instead of corn kernels! On occasion, it made a "pop" just as loud as the matchlock guns and released just as much smoke...but with much sweeter results!
The finished "pon-haze" was shaped and packaged in different ways...like rice krispies treats, but also in bags in which all of the kernels remained unattached to each other. Either way...it was delicious!
A little further along at a hands-on pottery station, a ceramist was helping this girl and another boy shape clay on potter's wheels.
It turned out that the Gifu Nobunaga Festival was not the only festival in town this last weekend. There was also a festival promoting kimono, traditional Japanese garments. And here, at the end of one road, I spied a bunch of birds sitting along the rim of some portable swimming pool-like object. Lo and behold, they were cormorants! Again, something for which Gifu is well known...cormorant fishing on the Nagara River! This fellow on the left was the only one that would spread its wings, though.
And here's a closer look at the proud, impressive bird.
All in all, a successful day!