Hatsugama and Kanazawa

Hatsugama is the first tea ceremony of the year, and although not everyone celebrates this, we were lucky enough to get to.  This was a really amazing experience and something we feel very fortunate to have been invited to.  The Tea ceremony was originally adapted (or “Japanized” as one of my students always says) from China in the 9th century when it was brought from China to Japan by a Buddhist monk.  Matcha tea eventually replaced  the tea that was popular in China and Japan at that time, and although originally the ceremony was part of Buddhist rituals, it evolved further into a luxurious status symbol of the warrior class.   I think it was also important in terms of negotiations for samurai as to participate in the ceremony they had to leave all weapons outside the teahouse, and the entry to the tea house required everyone to duck their heads down low to get through the small door of the teahouse.  In this way, even high ranked officials were made to bow their heads in ‘respect’ and in a symbolic way they were all thought to be on equal footing while sharing tea.    Tea was always of the highest quality, as was the equipment used, some of which we have seen in various museums.  Beatiful gold plated and lacquer-wear, silver, delicate bamboo, and handmade pottery.  The lacquer wear is actually wood coated in lacquer which is poisonous black sap from a lacquer tree, a technique learned from the Chinese in ancient times.

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Now, the Tea Ceremony is still a highly regarded art-form, that requires a lifetime of practice to master, but is enjoyed by many as a hobby for the love of tea!  There remains a spiritual component to the ceremony, in terms of it being a meditation and a way of valuing and appreciating the tea as well as the surroundings.  In addition to the high quality special equipment, the tea ceremony takes place in a special room with tatami flooring where everyone kneels on the floor, and a hanging scroll and flower arrangement are found in a nook in part of the room.  The flowers and scroll change depending on the season and the guests to attend the ceremony.  The room itself is part of the art of tea ceremony as are the tools and the way it is served and drank.

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There are (what seems like) hundreds of meticulous exact steps that must be taken with precision and without haste for the master to prepare and serve the tea, but funnily enough once served the tea you’re expected to gulp it down quite quickly.  Hatsugama was a special tea ceremony though because we were also served a huge meal of high quality, amazing, traditional, fancy Japanese food.  I was actually pretty nervous about walking blindly into this event where I’d be eating a plethora of food that I had no idea what it was or if I could stomach it.  From experience I know that Japanese food can be pretty strange sometimes.  I plan to write an entire blog on slimy Japanese food that is basically a food group on its own here.  But surprisingly there was only one thing that was “so-so” (which is the Japanese way of saying I was deep breathing to keep my gag reflex from acting up). Everything else was really amazing, we had great sake, amazing sashimi, all sorts of vegetables we’ve never had before, soups, lily root, seaweed, dumplings, duck, black beans, chestnut paste, miso, and more fish eggs than I cared for…so much stuff I really don’t know how Hideko prepared it all for such a big group of us.

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You can tell from the Camera angle, Hideko took pity on us and gave us stools to sit on because she knows that as foreigners our ligaments are tight and we can’t kneel for hours on end like everyone else in this country, so we ate on tables and chairs like kings looking down on our peasants.  It was awkward but she insisted and I was secretly happy to be free of pain.  After the food, we shared in the drinking of ‘koicha’ which is a type of thick tea made with the highest quality matcha, and is like drinking bitter green paste.  Then we had plain matcha and sweets after.  We tried our best to accept the tea appropriately but lots of Hideko’s friends who were there said they come every year and still can’t remember how to do the ceremony properly, so we didn’t worry too much about doing it wrong and offending everyone.  Mostly people helped show us how to drink it, how to examine the pottery afterwards and where to place the bowl after drinking etc etc.

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Here is Hideko preparing the Koicha for us

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Because it was a special occasion everyone was wearing Kimonos.  I wish that I owned one so badly, but I can’t really justify buying one for the price, considering I’ll probably never be invited to another tea ceremony again, but there were so many beautiful silks there.  I love the cranes on this one.

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And here is Andrew and I with Hideko and 2 of her lovely friends who babysat us through the whole ordeal.  Notice how big Andrew and I look next to them…that’s saying something!

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Our latest excursion was to a town called Kanazawa, about 4 hours north and along the opposite coast from Nagoya.  We got a taste for the old Japan which is what I feel like I’ve been desperately trying to learn about but having a much harder time that I thought I would.  Japan is just so much more industrialized and developed that I had imagined.  Andrew keeps reminding me that it’s a first world country.  Part of me thought that its old traditional culture would be much more obvious, but I personally find it really hard to find authentic, historic Japanese culture that isn’t completely touristy, or that is in some form of English.  But Kanazawa was our ticket, although it is also like most other major cities here (very modern and developed…because of course it’s  first world country despite whatever image I have in mind), it has well preserved cultural pockets, at the same time it wasn’t flooded with tourists like Kyoto was when we were there, so we could actually enjoy our surroundings.  We arrived and went to the fish market for lunch.  Being right on the coast it has excellent seafood, and crab was in season.  I’ve never seen so much fresh fish or felt so compelled to buy crab.  We held out though and ate a restaurant in the market and got to enjoy crab and sushi there.

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The crab ranged in price from about $15 – over $300

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At first I thought this huge head outside of a restaurant was fake, but it most definitely was not.

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Octopus and squid are also very popular here

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I see these in the supermarket in Nagoya as well and can only assume they are intestines although I’m actually not sure and I’m scared to ask since I’m not ready to try them yet.

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There were fish in every nook and cranny of the market place.

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Next we headed to the old Geisha district, where a few of the old Geisha houses have been preserved.  After getting pelted with snow on the main street of the old pleasure district, we went for a tour of one of the Geisha houses.  Although we couldn’t take pictures, it was amazing to see all the beautiful jewellery, combs, musical instruments and tea ceremony equipment that was used to make these women living works of art.  There was a market for this expensive accompaniment since Kanazawa was a very rich city under the Tokugawa Shogunate, due to it’s wealth from rice cultivation.

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The front of the Geisha house

Next we headed to one of the most famous landscape gardens in Japan, Kenrokuen, which means ‘Garden of Six Qualities’.  It exhibits the six superior characteristics  judged necessary by the Chinese Sung Dynasty for the perfect garden: spaciousness, artistic merit, majesty, abundant water, extensive views, and seclusion.

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All the trees had these big poles holding them up as they are sculpted a certain way and can’t loose their shape during the winter when heavy snow can weigh down the branches.

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A nice view from the edge of the park

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I have to admit how much I feel like these pictures don’t capture the elegance and beauty of the park, but hopefully you can use your imagination a bit.  It was really lovely.  And since we are crazy about Matcha we had some tea in a quaint little teahouse on the pond with a great view:

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After strolling around the gardens we headed to our hostel and then out to dinner. We went to a small Izakaya, or ‘sake shop’ which is really just like a little drinking establishment that also serves food. We were blown away by the hospitality and generousity of the owners and other patrons! At first we were a bit hesitant to enter since it was really small and cramped but we sat down and the owner said ‘Sushi ok?!” and handed us plates of sashimi and big glasses of sake and the rest was history! We had a riot trying to talk with them, and the food and sake just kept coming.  I’ve since learned that Izakaya are often all you can eat and drink (for a set period of time) and are so cheap because they are either chains or deal directly with the fisherman at the fish market and get their products really cheap.  We started sweating a bit 3/4 of the way through our meal wondering if we were in for a huge bill, but we were flabbergasted at how economical it was.  Not to mention the owner just threw in a bottle of his own homemade sake for us.  Some other people there bought us some sort of chewy snails.  One woman was in love with my blond hair and kept saying ‘pretty pretty!’.  Her husband and her where quite intoxicated as the night went on and had about 10 english words between them that they knew, yet continued to try talking to us.  After the woman commented on my hair, the husband looked at Andrew and said “Skin Head!!…..NICE!” We killed ourselves laughing because of all the vocabulary he could have known, why he knew ‘skin-head’ is a mystery to us.  Some of you may know, Andrew had an unfortunately shaving accident involving the guard falling off and him shaving a big patch of his hair right down to the scalp.  He regrettably shaved the rest down to the scalp so it would blend in.  I think its turned out well though and I like his new cut. Anyway we ate tons more of new food, including ‘Buri’ or yellowtail sashimi, cod roe, sardines, daikon and mackerel.IMG_1851

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This was such a riot and we were completely stuffed.  We also got to practice our Japanese a lot which was hands down the most entertaining way to practice speaking Japanese.

The next day we took a tour of Myoryu-ji, a buddhist temple that was built under Toshitsune, the daimyo of the area and he built it with escape in mind in case of invasion.  In the Edo period, the Tokugawa shogunate demoted local lords and integrated them in order to unify the nation.  The shogunate imposed multiple restrictions that made it extremely difficult for any one of the daimyos to gain power.  One of the things Toshitsune did to counter this was build this temple to protect himself should there be an attack.  This temple is full of trap doors, secret passageways and hidden staircases.  This temple violated regulations  set by Tokugawa but it doe so in a hidden, way using complex architecture and has a really confusing layout.  Viewed from the outside it appears to be a two-story building but it actually is a four-story building with a seven-layer internal structure.  It also has a deep water well that apparently tunnels all the way to Kanazawa castle (a couple kilometers away). It also has a secret ‘seppuku’ ritual suicide chamber, where the lord could go to commit suicide if capture was inevitable! We took a tour of this crazy temple and got so turned around in the process it was easy to see how an intruder could be tricked.

IMG_1865The outside of the temple.

Next we went to the Yuzu Silk Centre were we learned about the intricate artistic process of hand painting silk kimonos and the process that goes into creating an appropriate design.  Rice and soy are used for everything it seems here, in fact even part of the painting process used for kimonos!  We also saw a bunch of impressive hand painted kimonos on display.  Multiple people are involved in the Kimono process as each step is such a specialized skill that requires decades to master, no single person can possess all the skills necessary to complete the project single handedly.

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Next was the remains of a samurai house.  Many samurai houses were destroyed when the feudal system broke up.  Although a lot of this house was rebuilt to resemble old times, parts remain authentic and it is an experience to see what type of house one of the wealthy samurai lived in.  The garden was stunning and the house was large and well made but the simplicity and almost bareness of it, like other Japanese houses we’ve seen, is surprising.  They always feel a bit like tree-houses, made out of wood and with paper windows, little to no furniture, and as usual, no heating.  You sit on the floor at low tables and futons are rolled out of closest where they hide during the day when you want to sleep.  It just seems so empty and basic it’s strange to think it is the house of one of the wealthier samurai.  But it was speckled with valuable lacquered objects, pottery and artistic Ikebana.  The sliding doors have been protected with plastic, but the artist who was commissioned for the walls of this samurai house was considered one of the most talented at the time.  The glare from the covering made it hard to photograph though, sorry!IMG_1886

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The samurai district

Lastly we walked around the impressive castle grounds, which are built up on this big plateau, giving the whole castle and surrounding area a nice view of the city.  This castle was definitely bigger and fancier that one’s we’ve seen elsewhere but I think this again speaks to the wealth of the city in times past.

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That’s all for now, until next time! :)

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