Tag Archives: Kyoto

A short stop in Tokyo + Fast Train to Kyoto

I have belatedly realised that I didn’t start my account of our trip to Japan at the beginning.  We began with a day, just one, in Tokyo. Of course, we could see little in this time, but how amazing to be in Tokyo at all! My beloved’s internet hivemind of global travellers had said that the fish market was the place to see.  So we were booked into a hotel right on the edge of the market.  I didn’t realise my beloved had cunningly planned this, so was delighted and surprised when we came out of the hotel right onto the edge of the part of the fish market that was out on the nearby streets.

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Crowds of people, cooking on the street, and stalls with all manner of things from vegetables and pre-cooked food to knives and dishes.  And fish, of course. I even saw dried, smoked fish being shaved into bonito flakes.

I can see from my photos that I was taken by Japanese-style cuteness right from the start… and that I felt I couldn’t take pictures of all. the. things.  So many amazingnesses!!  I know what it’s like to have people photographing everything in the central markets in my home city. And a friend who grew up in Taiwan has since informed me that for any person from China, a fish market would be the obvious place to see in a new city.

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Eventually, we left the fish market and I followed my bold beloved onto the train system.  Needless to say, unfamiliar plants and places and things were everywhere.  I couldn’t get over these capsule stations, full of weird and wonderful things. This display was in a department store, in a stairwell or corridor.

After some wandering about in a shopping district, we took a break in a beautiful park.

We had to investigate what “pachinko and slot” was (as it is advertised all over the place and in very big buildings).  I have since read Pachinko by Min Jee Lee, which is more of a multi generational account of Korean immigration in Japan than it is an account of pachinko–but pachinko is a low-end form of gambling that is a little like pinball.  It is very loud and accompanied by the smell of cigarette smoke, so far as we could tell at first sight, and apparently a predominantly a male occupation.

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We had a very funny experience of being in a shop in the geek district of Tokyo and being hailed by an Australian friend of my beloved.  Just so we’re clear–Tokyo itself has a population almost the size of the entire country of Australia.  And–the pictorial signs of Japan were gratefully received by me with my pitiful Japanese, but they also have a very different aesthetic to Australian signage.  This one I especially enjoyed. I held onto my hat.

And then we had to travel to Kyoto. There had just been major flooding in Japan, not far from Kyoto, so we were lucky to be able to catch the train at all.  Some of my beloved’s students had arrived early and been evacuated along with locals, and others had struggled through travel rearrangements made necessary by damaged rail lines and roads.  While we didn’t catch the fastest train Japan has to offer, it was still very fast by Australian standards.  And very clean and lovely too.  All the signage inside the carriage (about the next stations and such) was in at least three languages–more gratitude from me.

I spent the time taken to travel out of Tokyo marvelling over its size and density. Oh, and knitting a sock.

Once we left Tokyo and were in more rural areas, I was amazed to see rice growing all the way up to the train line.  I don’t know why, exactly, as wheat grows up to the train line in Australia.  But even seeing rice growing is pretty amazing to a person from such a dry place.  People live right up against the major inter city train lines too, and there were market gardens all the way to the train line that we passed.  We passed Mount Fuji in the distance too.

Even just being on the train made vivid why so many lives and homes are lost in floods, typhoons and mudslides in Japan–people live very densely by comparison with Australia.  The heartbreak and trauma of the flooding just before we arrived was plain even through the language barrier on Japanese TV news each night. And for the train buffs, here is a view of the train from the front, most unlike any Australian locomotive I’ve encountered. Much faster and much quieter too!

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Nijojo Castle, Kyoto

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Nijojo Mae (Castle) is a World Heritage Site in Kyoto.  As it happened, it was walking distance from the place we were staying, so it was my first stop in my walking tour of Kyoto. I live in a country where people have been living for thousands and thousands of years. Yet they lived lightly on the land, and in ways that shared resources far more equally than the historical powers of Asia and Europe.  So, to me, it is always amazing to be in a bus travelling along a big street in a modern city and encounter a massive monument dating back hundreds of years (in this case, to the 1600s). This watchtower (above) stands on one corner of the Nijojo Mae.

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The Castle has a long and complex history both in terms of the flows of power that led to its creation and subsequent modifications, and of the nature of its buildings. It has two immense circles of fortification–two moats, two circles of earthen walls with supporting structures of wood and stone.

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In addition, it has beautiful and extensive gardens, some of which would have been for practical use–cherry groves and other fruiting trees–as well as pleasure- and beauty-gardens.

Even the gates were astonishing and beautiful. I spent hours wandering around the outer area of the mae and then more time inside, and being a little lost at times.  As usual, I founds myself fascinated by the scenery and the buildings but also focused on the very small things. Trees sprouting with other plants.  Gingko trees hundreds of years old–and vast in size, much bigger than an I had ever seen. Roof end-tiles. Staking and rope-typing strategies for coaxing wisteria into becoming tree-shaped. Moss and lichens and fungi.

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Even buildings with apparently everyday uses were beautiful to my eye–this is an earthen rice storehouse.

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How important it must have been to keep rice safe in any year, let alone one in which a siege was possible.

The inner moat had a sloping wall and there were koi (carp) swimming in the moat. Carp are a pest species in Australia.  It was so interesting to see them where they belong, have profound cultural and aesthetic meaning and are venerated.

Eventually I decided I needed some downtime and found a teahouse in one of the very splendid formal gardens, where I had an extraordinary dish of fruit with ice cream and bean paste and saw other people eating ‘snow mountain’, which seemed to be shaved ice with syrup poured over it, served in a  bowl with a bamboo grate in the bottom, to prevent the whole thing descending into a puddle. There were at least fans in the tea house on this 39C day!

While I was wandering, to my surprise my phone rang, and it was my sister-out-law.  I’d posted her a bag I made before we left Australia and it had arrived on her birthday (which I have to admit was a complete accident, and had I tried to arrange it, surely it would have arrived a day before or a day after!)

I was entirely struck, looking at these gardens–by their beauty and by the care that had been lavished on them, in some cases over hundreds of years.  There were explanatory signs about specific trees and their lineages.  There were accounts of the restoration of buildings and gardens after natural disaster, fire or conflict.  But I was also struck by the evidence that they were organised by principles that I have read about but do not understand in any deep way.  That they arise from a different attitude to nature and plants, to history and scenery, than any I have ever inhabited. So–a place of mystery in the company of others’ cultures and traditions.

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I kept finding myself checking my own assumptions about the cultures from which I’ve arisen.  In a place that is so fully fortified it speaks to an expectation of conflict and even war everywhere you turn, there were carvings of peacocks and butterflies that seemed to me so different to anything that might have been associated with warriors in Anglo Australian history. That had me remembering the Wars of the Roses and the association of warring families or tribes in English history with plants and even with flowers.

Near the end of my journey around Nijojo Mae, after I spent a lot of time watching an eagle or hawk gliding over the castle right in the heart of Kyoto, I came upon a tree that had descended from those exposed to the atom bomb, planted here so that it might be remembered in hope of peace.

 

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Misuyabari: the hidden needle shop of Kyoto

In my attempts to research where I should go in Kyoto, I found an intriguing blog post about visiting a needle shop.  A needle shop?  I was fascinated, sitting at my computer at home and reading about this place.

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There was more than one blog post about this place.  And how hard it was to find.  I attempted the search after a few days in Kyoto in which I had begun to understand the several pedestrian malls in the downtown area and had become, frankly, quite fascinated by the Nishiki Food Markets, which is set on a pedestrian mall.  I walked there every day for about five days in a row at one stage, progressively decoding what some of the things for sale were, trying more of them and always returning to a particular mochi stall. But I digress. In my first few days I discovered that Google Maps is quite helpful in Japan, where the conventions for explaining how to find a place or building are different to those I am familiar with. Google maps made light work of finding the secret needle shop of Kyoto. But it was still amazing to walk down a bustling pedestrian mall, find a walkway down the side of a very pink shop (like a dollar shop really), walk down it, through a doorway, and out into a courtyard.

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Surely there are prosaic, weedy courtyards somewhere in Kyoto.  This wasn’t one of them.

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Nestled into it was a small wooden building dwarfed by its bigger modern surroundings.

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Stepping stones led up to the door of the Misuyabari needle shop.

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It was tiny! Most of the room was taken up by this display of needles, snips, scissors, and all kinds of notions with miniature objects modelled onto them– tiny sculptures, literally on pinheads. (This is the reason for the magnifying glass you see on the counter).

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There was also a selection of sewing boxes and mending kits, all exquisitely crafted.

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In the end I bought one of these small mending kits… I feel sure it will be the perfect gift at some future moment. And a pack of needles, of course. They came with a brochure about the needle shop and the history of needles in Japan.  I spent a lot of time poring over it later with Google translate, which renders Japanese into English in a most poetic way but does allow some insight!

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I feel it isn’t every day that a tourist can have an experience that is part magical mystery tour, part practical implement acquisition, and part whimsical cuteness.  Highly recommended, and especially as you really must visit the food markets nearby!

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Fabrics in Kyoto

I think regular readers will have worked out that there were some obvious reasons I saw textiles everywhere in Japan–after all, I was seeking them out! I must admit though–and I’ve already explained that my ignorance and lack of language are a limitation–that fabric in Kyoto seemed far more accessible than at home. I was really impressed by the range of scrap fabric and recycled fabric available, and the range of places it was for sale. My friend and I bought scrap packs at a high end Shibori store.  There were packs of scrap fabrics available on street stalls during the evening street parties that came with the Gion festival.  Kimono is a big business in Kyoto and no doubt especially during the Gion festival, when people clearly go out of their way to dress up and dress traditionally, and tourists often do so as well.

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This may be one reason that secondhand kimono are for sale in so many places. The amount of silk made into clothing in Japan (relative to Australia) might also account for the availability of bolt ends of kimono silk and for some of the scraps which seem to have been torn off when a hem was raised, for example. But to my ignorant eyes it also seemed there was a different kind of reverence for beautiful fabric and design. During the Gion festival when community treasures are on display, fabulous garments were among them.

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When the Gion floats were paraded through the streets, they were hung with amazing, and in some cases, ancient, tapestries and carpets, often imported (long ago and from far away).

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Here is another example.

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And another!  It was amazing! I had been watching some of the floats being assembled out on the streets (remember the temperature is 39C or above every day at this stage), visited them on display once complete and seen the Gion Bayashi musicians rehearsing in them. Then we saw them lifted, pulled or wheeled through the streets on one of the two parade days. To see them all was extraordinary–each with a complex history and a heavy freight of symbols.  How hard it must have been to be pulling them through the streets–some of them weighing tonnes and with antique wooden wheels, being kept on track by a wooden chock dextrously applied as the wheels turned, and cornering without steering by use of wet bamboo slats and brute strength.  Sweaty work even for the very committed.

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But wait, there’s more.  I’d researched some things prior to departure and understood Nomura Tailor was not to be missed. The main store was on the big shopping strip of Kyoto (the Rundle Mall of Kyoto for local-to-me readers). It looks small here but there were four, or perhaps five, floors!

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I was entirely unsure whether it was acceptable to take photographs, and found myself in someone’s way no matter where I stood on any floor with a small reprieve on the top floor where haberdashery was for sale. I was utterly embarrassed!

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Here was for sale every kind of cloth. Every colour of linen.  Lots of cute prints (I now understand a little more about the cute aesthetic in Japan, but not a whole lot)! In the image above you can see an entire display of Marimekko. I have never seen so many Liberty prints outside a Liberty store. And so on (remember, this is only what I could recognise). It was overwhelming. I try not to buy new stuff as a general rule–but I really wanted to buy here and could find no way to make a decision about where I would stop if I started. I came back on a second day to see if I had more judgment or perhaps it was less crowded.  I still could not bring myself to buy fabric, overwhelmed by how I would ask for it, not understanding how to initiate a purchase, not wanting to hold up the queue, and in general feeling all heffalump in a very organised and efficient space in which I was unable to grasp the key organisational and efficiency principles. I bought some braid, some Japanese zippers and some sashiko sampler packs. The difference between buying fixed items and negotiating yardage is profound, or at least it felt that way to me on the day!

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The sashiko samplers turned out to be cushion covers but only the shape of the fabric and the pictures with the Japanese instructions inside allowed me to work this out.  I became ill a week or so after returning and did a lot of stitching!

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None of these was the highlight for me. The highlight really was going to a shrine sale the day we left.  We went to the flea market, and it was immense.  It was not a fabric sale–pottery, tools, metal, ready to eat food, brushware, vegetables, pickles… just abut everything!  It was over 40C that day and I inhabited a fantasy that I could look around and come back to things sighted earlier.  Oops! That is one thing I do regret.  Here was every kind of fabric, new and second hand. New garments and second hand garments. Second hand sake bags.

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Sacking, advertising materials on fabric (as far as I could tell). Cheap mass produced stuff. I bought what turned out to be strips from the ends of bolts (lengths?) of white silk kimono fabric. Then there were so many second hand fabrics whose origins I could only guess.

There were plant dyed clothes, and while indigo was prominent some were dyed with nettles, cedar bark or wormwood (that is what I could understand at any rate–)

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There was vintage clothing and fabric in every stage from well preserved to utterly disintegrating and in every stage of being mended from a patch here or there to rags stitched together–the boro tradition.  There were also many stallholders converting scraps of beautiful silk or vintage indigo dyed fabric into small items of loveliness, honouring them by transforming them.

I have read about boro and seen images, and read its history.  But while some of these items spoke of thrift and long wear, some were so ragged and so much mended that I was confronted by a sense of grief and awe for the people whose suffering and resilience created these clothes and cloths. While they now sell for a good deal of money (which does not go to anyone who used them), these items speak of the sheer poverty and difficult lives as well as speaking of the diligence, skill, love and care that must have gone into them.

In the end, I felt as though the flea market was an education in the life of everyday people through textiles. The museums I visited focused on things of high quality and amazing craft and design skill (as museums often do). Yet, this means museums often tell the stories of the wealthy and powerful, even when it is their clothing that is on show. At the flea market, the incredible effort that went into staying warm and covered for so many people who made that wealth possible was on show instead.

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Japan: String and yarn

Recently I had the opportunity to travel to Japan with my beloved, who had a fortnight long work commitment in Kyoto.  I took annual leave and went for the ride.

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If I’d had the chance to choose where to go, I might have chosen Kyoto. It is a historical wonder even in Japan.  It was not bombed and has retained ancient sites of global significance.  It is one of the textile centres of Japan from historical times into the present.  And it is beautiful.  I had less opportunity to prepare than I would have liked because of my own work commitments.  But I did what I could and since I have not been much of a traveler, I expected to wander about with my mouth open in awe.  Only my attempts to be polite prevented this, and I’m hoping to write a series of posts about this experience, in which some topics will be bigger and some will be smaller, because I was fascinated by small things no less than big ones.

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On our last day in Japan, we went the shrine sale at To-Ji Temple, which is a famous flea market and antiques market. There is a lot to say about this amazing event! But I’m going to begin with the string seller.  There is a link at the end of the post to the very interesting www site for Aoni Textiles given to me by the man in this picture.

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Just quietly, Kyoto was sweltering through record heat the entire time we were there.  Australians know what 39C feels like, and it was at least 39C every day we were there. We had the sad experience of sharing the hottest day Kyoto has ever had.  I hope their media is not like ours and that it was saying CLIMATE CHANGE.  Being in Kyoto did make me think that the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in Kyoto surely at least in part because in Kyoto there is much to be lost and therefore much to be gained by concerted international climate action.  Anyway–the man in this picture is hot! And he is selling “string”.

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By the time we found this stall, I’d been to the Museum of Traditional Arts and Crafts with our friend (who shared one of the weeks we were there), in which string is an entirely different category to thread that would be used, for example, for weaving garments.  It seemed to encompass things I would think of as rope (for industrial use) as well as things I would think of as strapping or narrow weaving.  But of a quality unknown in most contexts where any of these things are used where I live.  This was (mostly) not string in any sense I have known it. Some of what was on sale here was extremely fine and came with example knitted lace garments. Some was robust and quite thick. Some was plied, quite a bit was singles (not plied). While I don’t doubt the complexity of translation is part of it, and so is my ignorance, I think string is treated with more respect in Japan. I have not seen such quantities of rope made from natural fibres since I was a child, and perhaps not then.

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Some of the fibres on sale seemed to me to be one of the lesser known silks. The cocoons (if indeed I have understood what I was looking at) in the bowl at bottom left in the image above were huge by comparison with those for regular old silkworms, and the yarns made from them were relatively thick and coarse.

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This might be hemp or ramie fibre (and just look at the way it comes wound, with a waist on the “ball”–something I’ve never seen before). After some time with the three of us muddling our way through conversation and speculation, the stall owner put down his fan and pulled out a guide to the fibres he was selling that confirmed some were ramie, some hemp, some banana fibre (but not as I have previously known it), some pineapple leaf fibre–and there was more I was unable to understand, and the pressure of time and heat and the enormity of the flea market. The bunches of strappy materials visible hanging from the canopy in the first image were mostly hemp which I assume was being sold for other people to spin or use for basketry and other crafts/purposes.  But perhaps this is all my imagination!

Should you wish to see more, the www site can be found here. As I write it is in Japanese, and Google translate helps a little but in a poetic rather than an entirely informative way. It is richly illustrated and there are some amazing videos.  There is also an inactive button/link that makes me think they intend to translate into English but haven’t quite got there yet.  So if, like me, you speak English but not Japanese–maybe more will be revealed in the future!

 

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