Japan

さよなら Sayonara

1 month ago…

“As from tomorrow, the countdown will begin; I will have one month left in Himeji as a JET program teacher. While I’m determined to make the most of every moment, everything I do for the final time, I can’t help but be pulled out of the present by surges of nostalgia for the past two years, or unbearable anticipation for the next two.

 Last week I said my first farewell to an elementary school. As I was endeavouring to savour that bittersweet moment, I realised that this month of endless goodbyes might be a bit more of a challenge than I had anticipated. I have rotated through four elementary schools every month for the last two years, but this is my final cycle. As some (by no means all) students come to the realisation that this time I really do mean ‘bye bye’, expressions of incomprehension slowly cross their faces; one student even asked when I’m returning to ‘my world’. I feel a bit like Mary Poppins floating away with my brolly and carpet bag. Indeed, an endless source of foreign wonderment (weirdness) and pedagogical fun (bingo) is returning to the magical (rainy) island on the other side of the world that she came from. 寂しい!(sabishii – I’m so sad)…until the next ALT comes. If I can get through the next few weeks with the poise and cheer of Julie Andrews, I will consider my career as a cheerleader for English language learning a success. If I could have the bottomless carpet bag too, that would be ace.

 Spring has just melted into summer here in Himeji, but before the rain and heat rudely interrupted our blissful spring sunshine, I was able to go wandering to any number of wild and exciting locations – I include museums under that category. So, before I commence my final month of living in final moments, I’d like to share some of the splendid moments I enjoyed in the past few months…however, because I am at present trying to live in the moment, this will be done through the time-efficient method of pictures.”

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Now…

It’s been nearly a week since I left Himeji, and it turned out to be less traumatic but, in the final hours, more dramatic than I imagined when I wrote the above words. I received some wonderfully heartfelt goodbyes from my students in the form of letters, cards, plastic beaded jewellery and laminated flowers. Teachers and friends were equally generous, presenting me with copious amounts of delicious food and drink and beautifully wrapped souvenirs. All in all it was four weeks of consistent consumption occasionally interrupted by outbursts of emotion.

The most traumatic experience was not saying goodbye to friends, which turned out to be a great opportunity to drunkenly reminisce about the last two years and part with an optimistic “また会いましょう!” (mata aimasho!) “see you again!”, rather it was the weather. Had I opened a brolly in Mary Poppins fashion on the day I left Himeji, I may well have been whisked back to my world; when Typhoon Number 11 slammed into the Kansai coast at the end of last week, more than a few umbrellas took flight. In fact, umbrella seemed like a preferable mode of transport when I realised that getting to the airport by any conventional means was nearly impossible. The highway was flooded and the national rail service suspended which left the invincible but expensive bullet train and perplexing subway as my only way to traverse the stormy coastline of Osaka Bay to the airport.

After a few hours of barely contained panic, I did make it to the airport on time and enjoyed an otherwise uneventful, pleasurable trip home (15 hours in a travelling cinema with unlimited wine isn’t so bad after all). Having had a week to recover from this final, distressing experience, this story is not merely the harmless dinnertime anecdote it has quickly become, but as a final ‘test’ of nerves and resourcefulness, it has demonstrated to me how much I learned during my two years in Japan.

The first time I attempted to use the sprawling Osaka subway system, I got profoundly lost; the second time I conducted comprehensive research, planned my route and printed an English map in advance. This time, out of desperation and with a little experience up my sleeve, I successfully winged it. I’ve never been a natural ‘winger’ and this was my first successful experience of winging anything, but perhaps I have left Japan with a touch more flexibility and spontaneity than I arrived with. Of course living in a rigorously ordered country like Japan has done little to diffuse my rigid tendencies (how will I ever wear shoes inside again?), however the experience of living and teaching abroad has challenged me in ways I could never have conceived of before. For this, and a great many other things (please read this blog), I am incredibly grateful.

Although I’m saying sayonara to teaching English in Himeji, I’m yet to wave goodbye to Japan. While one exciting chapter of my Japanese experience has drawn to a close, another is about to begin – mata aimasho! 

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沖縄 Okinawa

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With the final months of my JET contract approaching, I’ve realised that I’m fast running out of time to check off all the destinations on my travel wish-list. Therefore, having gone all the way north to Hokkaido in February, I ended March by travelling all the way south to Okinawa. Situated in the Pacific Ocean some 400 miles south of the Japanese mainland, Okinawa is a tropical retreat quite different from Honshu and the polar opposite of Hokkaido. Not only the climate and landscape of the Okinawan islands, but also the Okinawan people have a distinct and unique culture. As my mum happened to be in Japan, I took her along too, which was a good idea as she helped me navigate the narrow roads of Naha in our tiny cubic rental car and furnished me with tropical cocktails and exotic snacks at regular intervals (not while driving of course).

 Upon our arrival in Okinawa’s main city, Naha, we used the extremely convenient monorail to escape the shed that serves as the LCC airport terminal and traverse the city to the rather more impressive Shuri Castle. The ride itself constituted a sightseeing tour as the elevated monorail track winds its way over the city affording good views of the streets which sprawl from the sea to the hills, where we found the castle solidly built on one of the higher slopes.

Shuri Castle was originally built in the 14th century as the seat of the Ryukyu Kingdom which occupied the Okinawan islands for 400 years before being claimed by Japan. The present castle however is a 20th century reconstruction necessitated by the complete destruction of the original during the Second World War. Despite this, it was well-worth a visit as the reconstructed castle is both beautiful and historically enlightening. The squat, vermillion main hall, with its huge sweeping roofs and colourful carvings appears more Chinese than Japanese, and is a splendid visual testament to the diverse cultures that traded with and influenced the Ryukyu Kingdom.

It seems that while the mainland fostered what are now regarded as uniquely Japanese modes of expression during the Edo period, the Ryukyus imbibed a rich mélange of cultures to produce a vivacious culture of their own. The more recent influence of American culture upon the islands does not seem to have superseded this identity but rather to have been adopted by it; whether this is a welcome addition to Okinawa’s cultural history or not is certainly a point of contention however.

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As my last post about Hokkaido amply demonstrated, I’ve become a bit of a gourmand during my time here; this is perhaps unsurprising in a country where food reportage is a fundamental part of the morning news. While I was not tempted by the whole hog, which is quite literally eaten by the Okinawans, I was keen to seek out some of the unique dishes I had seen tantalisingly illustrated page after page in my Japanese guidebook. Kokusaidori, a bustling, brash shopping street that carves through the centre of Naha and is amply served by all-you-can eat steak restaurants and sweet shops, offered me the chance to try some of the treats I had been salivating over at my desk the previous week. These included purple sweet potato pie (紅芋パイ – beni-imo pai), salted biscuit (金楚糕 – chinsuko) ice cream and hefty little balls of sugary donut.

The second of our four days in Okinawa, we escaped the city in a rental car and headed for the more sparsely populated northern side of the island. As a kei-class vehicle designed to comply in the most minimal way with Japanese tax and insurance regulations, our rental car resembled a blue lego brick and drove like a lawnmower. However, on an island where the roads never exceed two lanes and the speed limit is, well, limited, we were not to be deterred. Choosing to follow a smaller coastal road rather than the expressway, we cruised past beaches and tropical forests and enjoyed the spring sunshine.

Aside from reaching the hotel, we had two further quests to fulfil on our drive; first, to admire some Okinawan pottery on our way through Yomitan village, and second, to procure some alcoholic beverages for our mini bar. We arrived at the hotel having successfully completed both missions and, upon being delivered to our room, we immediately set about opening some perfectly chilled Okinawan beers which we savoured along with a view of the paradisiacal Emerald Beach. This was soon followed by a delectable Hibiscus Mojito at the hotel bar, from which we admired a slightly different view of the beach and finally, we decided to take a break (from our drinks) and actually go to the beach.

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Unfortunately, during our stay it was slightly too early in the season to swim, and even if we could, signs on the beach seemed to suggest the waters were infested with a host of poisonous creatures, so perhaps sticking to some modest paddling was for the best. The evening brought with it more drinks which were accompanied by some local dishes including bitter melon stir fry (ゴーヤチャンプルー – goya chanpuru), grilled fish and vegetable-fried rice. Despite enjoying the bitter melon (when washed down with generous slurps of wine), the sole reason for its continued cultivation can only be the belief that it’s responsible for the extended lifespan of the Okinawans, among which there are over 700 centenarians.

Next to our hotel was the entrance to a tree-lined coastal path running through the pretty village of Bise to the tip of the Motobu Peninsula, so having raided the hotel’s breakfast buffet, on our third day we set out for a leisurely, late morning walk. The path, which is in fact a maze of smaller sandy paths, is lined by dense, sturdy fukugi trees which were planted as windbreaks to protect the village from typhoons. The paths create a grid-like pattern so that, each time an intersection is reached, a cinematic view of the sea, a house or a garden is revealed and framed by the trees. Strangely, I was reminded of snapshots from the Mediterranean, Africa and Caribbean all at once. These exotic scenes were punctuated with seemingly incongruous reminders that we were in Japan, such as the ubiquitous garish vending machine. The whole experience made for a bizarre but pleasant wander which has left an indelible impression on my mind, like a recollection from fiction or a dream.

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Coming out of our hotel and turning away from Bise, towards the south we were offered a completely different experience; the massive Churaumi Aquarium. Having spent the morning in the dreamy quiet of Bise village, in the afternoon we walked a couple of minutes in the opposite direction and found ourselves in the midst of schools of exotic fish and excited children. Churaumi is famous throughout Japan for having not one, but three gigantic Whale sharks housed in an equally enormous tank. Thanks to the provision made for the Whale sharks, it is also the second largest aquarium in the world. The aquarium houses many more less awesome but equally interesting fish, corals and crustaceans which, according to an expert panel of 10-year-olds overheard observing some giant lobsters, looked delicious.

While the coral and deep-sea exhibits were delectable, the star attraction was undoubtedly the Whale shark tank. It would have been easy to stand staring at the huge fish, mantas and stingrays that accompanied the Whale sharks on their laps around the tank for hours, but fortunately the pressing need for another Hibiscus Mojito broke the trance-like effect of the tank and we escaped the submarine corridors of the aquarium in time to admire a gorgeous sunset over the distant silhouette of Iejima Island.

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北海道 Hokkaido

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It’s been a while since I last updated my blog, but finally, after spending the first few weeks of 2015 studying for (another) test, I have something worth committing to blogosphere memory. Having spent many a winter weekend holed up with a blanket, pile of textbooks and a couple of tea lattes, one Saturday in February I finally extricated myself from my local Starbucks and headed north, all the way to Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan to see the renowned 雪祭り(snow festival – yuki matsuri) held in the island’s main city, Sapporo. As the name implies, the festival celebrates snow, of which Hokkaido has plenty; not only is there snow in the sky and on the ground, but at the festival it’s seemingly swept up and with some superhuman force, or heavy machinery, sculpted into massive palaces, larger-than-life cartoon characters, and even Darth Vader.

The very tip of Hokkaido reaches out to Russia, and it certainly felt Siberian when the snow and wind greeted us during evenings out. I stayed in Sapporo with a group of friends from all over the world, but despite our range of climactic experience, we were all in awe of the massive snow drifts swept up along the roadside and piled up against buildings. Outside of the city we saw houses topped with thick crowns of snow which had frozen layer upon layer over the winter until it looked like the towns we passed through were populated with giant marshmallows.

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At times I found the cold outside intolerable, but the fruits of Hokkaido’s cool climate more than make up for the pain I felt in my extremities. As a sweets-lover, I have to begin with the dairy products. They were divine. Chocolate and ice cream to die for, in copious quantities, everywhere; it was heaven. Enjoying ice cream in icy conditions sounds unappetising but it was that good. The creamiest vanilla, caramel, and chocolate soft serve you can imagine, and then some. Chocolate cake was taken to a whole new level in one department store café where I was seduced by the KitKat Monster (pictured above)…this was followed by a trip to the delicious 白い恋人 (shiroi koibito) chocolate factory where delectable langue de chat biscuits are painstakingly baked and sandwiched together with a pillow of milky soft white chocolate.

Surprisingly a day spent in Sapporo felt, on the whole, much warmer than a day down south in Kansai. This was due to the very welcome presence of central heating. Although it can get pretty cold in our part of Japan, heating only exists in the form of gas stoves and temporary electric heating units which are only brought out at times of utmost frozen need. A day at school may as well be a day in refrigeration; no heaters, just layer upon layer of clothing. So although sojourns outside could be punishingly cold, being inside was delightfully warm. Even better, in Sapporo it was hardly necessary to venture outside as underneath the icy ground an extensive system of heated tunnels and walkways criss-crossed the city, mirroring the network of streets above.

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 A trip to Hokkaido in February is not just worth it for the spectacular snow sculptures, but for the phenomenal seafood which is abundant during the winter months. In order to enjoy the freshest fare, we took the train out of the city and along the wintry coast to Otaru, a beautiful harbour town buried under several feet of snow. The fact that we managed to battle through a Japanese menu devoid of the usual illustrative photos, featuring a variety of unknown sea creatures, and cobble together an order that resembled a maritime feast is testament to the fact that we ALTs have learned more than how to play the ‘keyword’ game and bingo during our time here. The platters of sushi and sashimi that arrived at our table were a kaleidoscope of colours, textures and tastes, and needless to say, it was an experience we all relished.

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At the same time as Sapporo’s massive snow festival, Otaru hosts a quieter but no less enchanting festival of its own during which the streets of the downtown area are lined with snow lanterns. Arriving before dark, we saw groups of local residents sculpting these lanterns with the snow and ice readily available on the street. It seemed that, similar to sandcastles, these lanterns were mostly made by compacting snow into buckets, which were then carefully tipped over to produce lantern-like mounds. Candles put inside these ‘snowcastles’ gave them a soft glow, and as it grew dark the already scenic snowy townscape was cast into a romantic winter wonderland. This was all very lovely, but the snow falling from above was not. Accompanied by a bitter wind, these conditions proved to be more than I could handle and after enduring about thirty minutes admiring the lanterns I was taking shelter in a beer brewery with a cup of hot cherry beer and a freshly-baked chocolate cake.

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We concluded our trip to the deep north with an absolutely essential onsen (natural hot spring bath) excursion. Japanese hot springs are always a rare pleasure, but this experience was particularly memorable due to the perfect synthesis of bath, snow and beer. Having been recommended an onsen with a rotenburo (outdoor bath) in the mountains that, more to the point, allowed visitors to enjoy a drink or two while bathing, we crowded on a local city bus with other intrepid tourists and headed ninety minutes into the countryside.

Our destination was the final stop, the middle of nowhere, and it was stunning.The rotenburo was nestled in between snowy slopes and pine trees, and was beautifully framed by traditional architecture. Thawing muscles frozen from days of festival walking while watching the snow softly falling on the steaming surface of the spring, I felt serene; while this may also have been a side effect of the beer I was simultaneously enjoying, the view was undeniably picturesque. After finally raising our core body temperatures by a few degrees, and before heading back out into the cold, we savoured the warmth of a creamy curry at the onsen‘s very own, very delicious Indian restaurant.

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食欲の秋 Appetising Autumn

The end of the year is finally approaching with the arrival of the winter season. Before I look forward to the festive season ahead, I want to take a moment to bid a fond farewell to my favourite season, 食欲の秋. Read, ‘shokuyoku no aki’, in Japan autumn is known as the season to indulge your appetite, and this I gladly embraced. My appetite for food, drink, travel and art has been well and truly sated. However, fortunately I have 別腹 (betsu bara), or a separate stomach to plough on to the next dish, so I’ll have no trouble handling myself around a mince pie or two this Christmas.

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 From top to bottom; 1) Green momiji at Mount Shosha, Himeji. 2) Owls at the Owl Family Cafe, Osaka. 3) Kyushoku school lunch 4) Carp swimming in a pond at Momijidani Park, Miyajima, Hiroshima. 5) Matcha green tea and a momiji-shaped sweet at my friend’s house. 6) Dusk over the Kamo River, Kyoto. 7) Homemade Daigaku imo candied sweet potato snack. 8) Takoyaki with accompanying sparkling wine in Dotonbori, Osaka. 9) Local neighbourhood autumn festival, Himeji. 10) Baskin Robbins’ deliciously cute Halloween parfait. 11) Beer and gyoza at my favourite Himeji ramen restaurant, Koba and More. 12) ‘Lee Mingwei and His Relations’ exhibition, Mori Art Museum, Roppongi, Tokyo. 13) Melt-in-your-mouth Kobe beef at Wakkoqu steak house, Kitano, Kobe. 14) Full autumn colours at Tenryu-ji, Kyoto. 15) Hojicha parfait in an Arashiyama tea house. 16) Autumn momiji in Arashiyama, Kyoto. 17) Chocolate chip scone and hot chocolate to die for from the City Bakery, Osaka. 18) Golden ginkgo leaves, Heian-jingu, Kyoto. 19) Goldfish at the ‘Art Aquarium’ Nijo Palace, Kyoto. 20) Teishoku meal at a Kyoto guest house.

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Miho Museum

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Autumn is absolutely the best season to travel in Japan, and with my dad visiting from America, the beginning of November also offered me an (unwittingly) willing travel companion. Thinking fondly of my trip to the Adachi Art Museum last autumn, I persuaded my dad to hop on one train, then another and then a bus with me to the Miho Museum in Shiga prefecture.

The museum is tucked well away in the Shigaraki Mountains, about an hour southeast of Kyoto, and despite the inadequate leg space provided on the various buses and trains we rode that day, I think we both came away from the museum feeling it was well worth the long, winding road there.

The museum houses in magnificent, yet elegant style, the superb collection of Mihoko Koyama, the heiress of a textile business, one of the wealthiest women in Japan, and incidentally the founder of a spiritual movement, Shinji Shumeikai (神慈秀明会)…I hope you’re still following. According to my thorough online (Wikipedia) research, there are 300,000 Shumei adherents, who among other things, believe that the Earth’s balance can be restored by building architectural masterpieces in remote locations. Enter I. M. Pei and the Miho Museum.

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The museum is breathtaking, and indeed, its beauty does seem to derive from the union of fantastic architecture and sublime landscape. However, as you enter the museum vicinity through a gorgeous tunnel, which quietly pierces through the rugged side of a mountain and behold the central pavilion of the museum, preceded by a mini suspension bridge spanning the valley below, it becomes all too clear that this well-endowed architecture owns the landscape.

To say that the museum design was borne from the ancient Chinese tale of the Peach Blossom Spring perhaps conveys the grandeur of the museum’s concept and realisation; in this tale written over 1000 years ago a lost fisherman stumbles upon a grove of blossoming peach trees and, pursuing a ray of light through a nearby cave, winds up in the paradisiacal land of immortals. Having compelled generations of Chinese landscape artists to pursue ever-greater pictorial expression, this utopia finally materialised in the mountains of Japan through the vision of I. M. Pei and his patroness. Even seen in the antonymous season of autumn, the museum and its surroundings were ethereal, and the collection within offered even more.

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Sadly I have no photos to describe the wonders within the museum; but as a visitor I’m always glad to be made to shelve my camera in favour of my eyes. The permanent collection, largely amassed by Koyama during the 1990s, is shockingly beautiful, so much so that when the museum opened, many questioned the authenticity of its pieces. The jewel-like quality of the artworks, some of which date back to the second millennium B.C., does defy belief. Solid gold vessels and jewellery lavishly inlaid with lapis lazuli adorn the West Asian galleries, while in the Chinese rooms, entitled ‘In Quest of Eternal Bliss’, visitors are spoilt by a beautifully curated collection of rare treasures cast in bronze and carved in stone.

Although the collection is vast, the displays are sparse. Pieces have clearly been carefully chosen and painstakingly displayed so that you have no choice but to marvel at the handiwork of millennia of Egyptian, Asian, Greek, Roman, Chinese and Islamic artisans. Having spent a year with the British Museum on the doorstep of my university campus, I thought I was virtually immune to the splendour of the ancient world, but the Miho museum really took my breath away.

The pursuit of beauty through art and the appreciation of nature can be tiring activities, particularly when you’ve travelled three hours to even begin, but fortunately for us the Shumei spiritual movement also believes in ‘natural agriculture’, and therefore the museum cafe offered exquisite plates of locally sourced, delicious organic sandwiches.

The scope of the museum collection may be global, but its architecture and its sandwiches are delightfully Japanese. The open, central spaces of the museum, crowned with pristine glass roofs, crisply folded into geometric shapes like origami, offer a generous view of the tree-covered mountains that extend towards the horizon. As I’m sure my granddad would agree, a day out is never complete without a few sarnies and a good view. With the latter well in hand, I can further attest to the fact that it is significantly enriched when these sarnies are transformed into delightful morsels of slivered vegetables and cocoa infused cream cheese. When in the Peach Blossom Spring…

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直島 Naoshima

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Having spent a day in hot and heavy Takamatsu, it was with great excitement that I boarded the high speed ferry to make good my escape to the first of the Setouchi islands I planned to visit, Naoshima. Naoshima is the biggest of the group of remote islands collectively known as the Benesse Art Site. With a name derived from the Latin for wellbeing, I had high hopes of a refreshing and life-affirming artistic experience over the next two days; having tackled, survived and enjoyed nearly a whole year in Japan, I felt this was the perfect way to take a moment to slow down and reflect amongst the beautiful sites and artworks of the Inland Sea before heading home for the summer.

As a somewhat highly strung traveller, I had anticipated that in order to actually relax and enjoy this island-hopping ‘adventure’, I needed to know exactly when the museums opened, the ferries departed and the buses ran; I didn’t take any comfort in the idea of getting stranded alone and hotel-less on Naoshima, no matter how romantic the surroundings. Thankfully, the transport aspect of my visit went exactly to plan; like the rest of Japan, Naoshima has a reliable and punctual (but slightly more cosy) transport network.

Arriving at Naoshima port, visitors are greeted by a bright crimson, ladybird-spotted pumpkin, squatting on the end of a big pier. This surreal creation was spawned by the equally surreal mind of Japanese artist Kusama Yayoi, and it has a bright yellow twin on the other side of the island. Although these gourdy sentinels don’t have big, cutesy eyes, they have taken on the aspect of mascots who, in Japan, can always be relied upon to welcome visitors to a new town.

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I had reserved my entry to the Chichu Art Museum online (over-anxious traveller mode) and therefore sailed off the bus and into the museum while hoards of visitors queued up in the already unforgiving sunshine to buy tickets. The Chichu Art Museum, as its name ‘Chichu’ (地 ‘chi’ – earth, 中 ‘chu’ – inside) implies, is built underground, however, this underground design, created by Tadao Ando, is anything but subterranean. The sunshine, which outside felt punishing, was transformed into an ethereal light as it poured into the soft white interiors of the exhibition rooms through ceiling-lights at ground level.

This light was the single greatest feature of the museum for me; Monet’s waterlilies have never been better experienced than in a room bathed in diffuse natural light. This visual experience is augmented by the tactility of the exhibition space. Before entering the waterlilies’ gallery, visitors first slip into some cream slippers and then step into a marble-tiled vestibule; made up of tens-of-thousands of two-centimetre-square cubes of Carrara marble, the floor is a work of art in its own right and flows throughout the gallery and up to the paintings. The gentle differentiation in tones of cream and grey is complimented by the subtle changes in texture felt underfoot as you walk through the exhibition. For me, it was an aesthetic paradise and the memory of the paintings and their setting is an image of real beauty.

The exteriors of the museums on Naoshima, although often very understated, can be as remarkable as the interiors. While waiting for my allotted entry to the Chichu Museum, a helpful guide suggested I visit the nearby Lee Ufan Museum. Nestled into a hillside facing the sea, this museum is invisible as you approach it along a road sloping down to the coast. A flight of concrete steps with a supporting wall featuring the museum’s name in metallic font opens up to the right of the road, and suddenly the museum is very exactly and neatly laid out before you. Although I can’t claim to fully appreciate the minimalistic aesthetic of Lee Ufan’s work, the composition of the museum, and the unfailing attention to detail in its design were beautiful. I’ve never considered concrete an attractive material, in the UK I associate it with failing 1960’s architecture and new town concrete cancer, however in the Naoshima museums it is a sleek and delicately textured material that is at once forceful and quiet.

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After spending a peaceful morning wandering the pristine museum interiors, I took a bus to the other side of the island and enjoyed the more organic, outdoor exhibitions littered around the landscape. I stopped for lunch at a lively beach presided over by the ladybird pumpkin’s twin; the beach was crowded with barbecue parties and swimmers. I made camp for one, away from the holiday-weekend revellers, and enjoyed a just-vended, lukewarm chuhi (something like mildly alcoholic lemonade) as I watched a fluctuating line of visitors queue up to have their photo taken with Kusama’s yellow pumpkin. There was something portly and regal about the gourd as it accepted its line of visitors from the end of the pier that was its throne…at least musing from my perch on the beach with chuhi in hand, thats how it seemed.

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A few stops further along the bus route, I visited Honmura, a village which hosts the intriguingly entitled ‘Art House Project’. Various houses and temples around the village have been converted into art installations, which can be visited with a pass purchased from the wonderfully air-conditioned local visitor centre. Each installation represents an artist’s interpretation of, or interaction with, the village’s rural architecture; I was never sure what to expect as I approached each house, and the contents ranged from modest, in the form of the skilful and careful restoration of historical furnishings, to bold, where a replica of the Statue of Liberty burst angrily through the floors of a two-storied house.

At one site, thick glass steps, like blocks of ice, formed the approach to a Shinto shrine which sat atop a mountain on the edge of the village. Having become used to the common sight of Shinto shrines throughout Japan, this unusual meeting of materials reminded me of the real significance of these shrines as liminal, magical places where the mundane world meets the spiritual. While some of the installations made me feel uncomfortable and others were simply beautiful, they all created a strong impression on the body and mind, and in the midsummer heat, it was a satisfying but exhausting experience.

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As per my schedule, I arrived back in Takamatsu in time for dinner. Having exhausted my appetite for (organised) adventure that day, I found a bar with a distinctly Western menu and devoured a tiny pizza with a smattering of tabasco sauce (a great Japanese intervention in Western cuisine – try it). As I ate I noticed a series of Lego world monuments lined up along the bar, including several of London’s more famous sights; as it turned out, the owner had lived in London for a few years, and after a day of weird and wonderful encounters with art, I enjoyed a chat about the more familiar locales of home.

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Stone & Pine: Mure & Takamatsu

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Just when I had started to believe the suffocating Japanese summer was beginning to wind down, today I found myself sighing and perspiring down Himeji’s main street, cursing the 30 degree, 90 percent-humidity weather. On the positive side however, I was reminded of the first weeks of the summer holidays, back in late July, when I was full of early holiday optimism and breezed through the sauna-like conditions with the prospect of a month of adventures ahead of me. The first of these was an artistic pilgrimage to the Seto Inland Sea; the perfect trip to celebrate the 海の日 (Marine Day) national holiday weekend.

Along with the Adachi Museum of Art, the Benesse Art Site, scattered across a small group of islands in the Inland Sea, was at the top of my ‘things to see before I leave Japan’ list. Fortunately I’ve signed up for another year in Japan so have bought myself some more time to tackle my list, unfortunately the longer I stay in Japan, the longer the list grows…

Having thoroughly researched my mission to modern art heaven (the Benesse Art Site), I also found that there was a lot to see around Takamatsu, a city on the northern tip of Shikoku and the ideal base from which to explore the islands, and thus as an aesthetic appetiser, I spent a day exploring Mure’s Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum and Takamatsu’s Ritsurin Garden.

It was in New York, where he first established a museum, that I heard about Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi and his body of sublime sculptural-functional artworks. That there is also a Noguchi museum in the small town of Mure in Shikoku is perhaps less well known, but was totally worth the effort to visit (you must make an application, by postcard, to enter the museum). Walking from the tiny train station, through the deserted streets of the town and up to the museum site, nestled in a landscape of dense green and chalky white hills, was an experience in itself; the town is full of stone masons and consequently the streets are lined with an array of weird and wonderful stones, roughly hewn, and sculptures, elaborately carved.

The museum was formerly one of Noguchi’s workshops, and so visitors can enjoy an introduction to his sculptures in the setting in which they were created. The buildings that comprise the site are almost as of much interest as the sculptures; Noguchi imported an old sake warehouse and a samurai townhouse to the site. Both structures were very subtly and ingeniously adapted to suit the artist’s creative and quotidian needs; for example, the worn Edo-period floorboards of the house mask an underfloor heating system. Although I was the only Westerner visiting the museum that day, the curator was fluent in English and passionate about Noguchi’s work and life, and I therefore received an immersive and instructive introduction to Noguchi’s beautiful oeuvre. 

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After spending several hours musing over monolithic sculptures in Noguchi’s sun-baked garden, I was grateful to be dropped off at the local train station by a group of very cute, very friendly female Japanese road-trippers who had tottered around the Noguchi museum tour in their wedges and heels. Once I was back in the city, I resolved to make the most of the marginally cooler evening by visiting the famous Ritsurin Garden.

The English-language brochure describes the garden as an ideal expression of ‘cultivated natural beauty’, which seems to nicely sum up the approach of traditional Japanese landscape gardeners; at once inspired by and fighting to hone and perfect organic beauty.

The garden is massive, and unbeknownst to me, takes a good two hours to stroll around (because you always have to ‘stroll’ through gardens). The sheer scale, as well as the overwhelmingly verdant palette of the garden was what impressed me most, and the image that lingers over a month later is that of the box pines, so called because they have been trained over hundreds of years into contorted box shapes, like overgrown bonsai. Other less pleasant images remain (oppressive humidity and bloodthirsty insects), but thats what comes of visiting a massive green area at dusk in summer in Japan. Lesson learned.

With my aesthetic senses fully awakened by the cultivated natural beauty of both Noguchi’s sensitively rendered rocks and Ritsurin’s lovingly trained pines, I enjoyed a hearty bowl of Takamatsu’s speciality Sanuki udon and went to sleep ready for my marine excursions to the Benesse Art Sites the next day.  

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