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At last I can post what I’ve been trying to for the better part of three weeks. Welcome to the delightful little town of Nagahama. Today trees! Tomorrow toys! and things not beginning with a T. I ventured out there on Sunday the 15th of February and when I say ventured I want to stress just how much of an adventure this was. It required a 5 HOUR round trip! Including a 2 hour train ride over flat, dull plains out into the heart of the inaka. Our destination was Nagahama, a tiny town on the shores of Japan’s largest lake, Biwako. Our goal was an exhibition of plum trees, housed in the Japanese equivalent of a mansion, in large pots. The trees that is, not the mansion. Japanese houses aren’t contained in pots. Well except for the ones with the old school earthquake defences. Now, I really, really like plum trees. In fact I find them to be slightly more aesthetically pleasing than sakura. Sakura is beautiful of course and the combined effect when all the trees turn pink every April is breathtaking. Yet, there is something about the minimalism of plum trees that I really like. The sparseness of the branches that are lined with small clumps of delicate but gorgeous flowers is a perfect minimalist motif. Simple lines that provide a relief to a small area of focused complexity and simple colours spotted with bright sections that seem almost too colourful to be actual flowers are less overwhelming than sakura and equally pleasing to the eye. However. 2 HOURS! To go and look at trees, even really pretty trees seemed to be asking a lot. And so it was with a lot of trepidation and with very low expectations that I boarded the train and settled in for a looooooong ride. I started to get excited sometime after we had gone past Kyoto and all the surroundings were suddenly completely new to me. At first these views were pretty damn boring and brown but I started to spot snow covered mountains in the distance. Eventually the suburbs gave way to the countryside and I was treated to tiny Japanese villages with traditional roofs and the occasional glimpse of the great lake itself. The most mysterious stop on the route was when we had to sit in a train station for about 15 minutes whilst we changed trains. We sat on the train, idling on the rail and noticed a large group of families all waiting on the opposite platform but far too far down to actually board the train. There was a kind of fence on either side of them turning the platform into, well, some kind of viewing platform. I later found out that Nagahama is home to the oldest continually operating train station building in Japan, dating back to the Meiji-restoration era. And what’s more they still have a steam train that runs along the modern track. I had just seen a massive clutch of Japanese train spotters! The lovely scenery and the feeling of being somewhere uninhabited, strange and old fashioned started to get me really excited so that by the time we finally got to Nagahama I was actually quite giddy. The big question of course was, ‘were the plum trees worth the trip?’. They Were Amazing. Of course you could tell that just by looking at the beautiful photos I have dotted this post with. Not being one for flowers normally I don’t have the language to describe such gorgeous plants so I shall let you drink in the pictures yourself. Apparently this is a practice called “bonbai.” Bonbai is much like bonsai in terms of it’s techniques, the shape of the trees and how they are cultivated but unlike bonsai it doesn’t strive to create vistas in miniature. Rather the trees grow to a natural size and the shaping is purely done to give them a pleasing shape. And some of the shapes are incredible, especially the trees which seemed to be almost dead but were happily flowering. I mean just look how thin that tree is at the base. It looks like it should have snapped in half. But yet, still flowering. This particular tree was over 400 years old and many of those in the exhibition were about 200 years of age. We were so impressed that on a complete whim we bought our own tree. A bonsai. Sadly this entry is a bit late and our tree has already flowered and withered away before I could take a photo of it in bloom. I’ll try my very best to get photos next year (assuming Fran can keep it alive for one year.) Afterwards we had a walk in the Japanese garden of the mansion and it too was wonderful, full of elaborate rockeries and stone formations, all covered in a rich green moss. Oh and there was this guy too. The thinnest sumo wrestler I have ever seen. So, so much so good. The trees were really good but I was still dubious about the time spent. And then I had a wander around the town. Come back tomorrow to discover what it was like.

Most people who come to Japan list “experiencing the culture” as one of the major reasons that they made the trip, be it a holiday or a longer stay. For the vast majority of cultural tourists all this amounts to is eating the food, watching a dance/traditional theatrical performance and touring the temples of Kyoto.

Truly immersing yourself into Japanese culture is an incredibly difficult goal. Numerous obstacles stand in the way of the foreigner who wants to understand some Japanese art. Value and ideological differences, language barriers and the major problem of simply finding out where and how one can learn these things all prove a barrier to the eager student of Japanese culture.

Put simply, it takes a lot of effort to try and learn and take part in tea ceremony, calligraphy, etc and frankly most of the time I can’t be arsed.

However, this weekend I indulged in my most intensive session of cultural tourism yet as I attended a festival of Japanese culture in Kyoto.

My opening diatribe aside this wasn’t really an opportunity to truly immerse myself into a Japanese art form; rather it was a sampler session. Lots of stalls were set up to give we gaijin a chance to try out calligraphy, tea ceremony, ikebana, etc for a few minutes and see if we had any interest. It was to cultural tourism what a free sample in a supermarket is to a gourmet meal. The speed dating of Japanese culture. Still I had a great time, whiling away a few hours playing games and having fun and I figured I’d relate my hastily-formed opinions of what I did.

Shodo

Shodo is Japanese calligraphy, the art of drawing kanji (Chinese characters) in ink with brushes so that they look astonishingly beautiful.

If I may I’d like to go into a tangent about Kanji.

For those who don’t know Japanese uses three written alphabets. Hiragana あいうえお、 Katakana アイウエオ and Kanji, which are incredibly elaborate pictograms. Whilst the first two function similarly to our alphabet so that a ka sound is always か and か always means ka Kanji works so that symbols mean words. Thus the kanji 来 can be pronounced both rai or ashi depending on the other Kanji around it and the context it is used.

The usefulness and importance of Kanji is currently undergoing something of a debate in Japan in part because the present Prime Minister can barely read it and increasingly young Japanese people cannot use Kanji as effectively as their parents. This is almost universally regarded as an immense shame as the Japanese take huge pride in their culture and how their culture has been maintained throughout the years.

Critics of Kanji site more practical objections to it. It is enormously difficult to learn, both for native speakers and for foreigners trying to learn the language. The difficulty in using it lowers literacy levels amongst Japanese. The changing meaning of certain characters can cause confusion and misunderstanding. It is slow to adapt to the changing world (nearly all modern inventions are rendered into Japanese using katakana, the alphabet reserved for foreign loan words, and so have no appropriate Kanji). Finally it makes using dictionaries very difficult and until recently typing impossible.

Defenders have to fall back on more ephemeral but no less compelling reasons for maintaining Kanji. It looks beautiful. It provides a link to Japan’s proud cultural history. It is crucial to Japanese literature. It provides for layers of meaning and subtlety that more plain spoken language cannot; including the creation of all kinds of puns that the Japanese love so much. And the fact that it is difficult and requires thought and study is sometimes perceived as a good thing. The thinking is that if writing is to have any value at all it must be worth expending effort upon.

And both sides are right. For all that it is difficult and ill-conceived Kanji is beautiful, subtle and deep. I am currently trying to learn Kanji and whilst I am constantly frustrated by it I am equally as rewarded.

So shodo then. Shodo demonstrates the sheer respect and reverence that the Japanese have for their language, and for art in general. Shodo is the correct way to write a kanji, on a sheet of beautiful paper, with a brush and ink. The Japanese love a “correct” way to do something and shodo is so respected that it is even taught as a subject in schools.

My attempt at it was not quite the graceful and poetic painting I had imagined. I sat myself down at the desk, selected a kanji I wished to write (love 愛) and attempted to replicate it on the paper in front of me. Now, I perhaps naively assumed that what I did with my brush would in some way resemble what had been drawn on the paper in front of me forgetting for a moment that I lack even the most rudimentary of artistic skills. I can’t even hold a pencil correctly, let alone use it to try and capture the world. My special skill with drawing appears to be completely misjudging the proportions and distances of objects and producing people with differently sized eyes and noses far too small for their heads. Considering shodo, and kanji in general, is mostly about the correct positions of strokes and lines in relation to each other I was probably being a bit optimistic to think that I would have any talent at this whatsoever.

The instructor obviously agreed and decided to come over, teach me how to hold the brush (you keep your wrist straight and move only your arm apparently) and then manually force my arm around the picture. He seemed to think I would be happy with this but I wanted to try and do it on my own. So I had another go and produced something that in no way matched the order or directions of the strokes he did and looked rubbish. After some discussion I finally got him to write the direction and stroke order down so I had something to work with. I then tried again and again and again to produce something that vaguely resembled love and eventually ended up with this.

Hmmmm, I think I have a lot of work to do.

During all this a very nice woman drew my own name in Kanji. This doesn’t strictly speaking work for foreign names as the syllables don’t translate but she had a crack at doing a-da-mu (アダム) and came up with this.

Which apparently means love, realize, dream.

Although I was crap at it I really enjoyed the shodo. It was relaxing to just try and focus on achieving something so exact. There was a kind of meditative quality to the act.

Ikebana

Fran’s mother teaches ikebana. Being a man I gave traditional Japanese flower arranging a miss but Fran had a go. She reported that it all felt a bit rushed but she managed to make this.

I do like ikebana actually. I prefer the more minimalist Japanese style of home decoration and gardening to the overblown stuff that is more western.

Wearing Kimonos

I’ve worn Yukata before and this seemed to be identical to that but with a proper obi (belt). I think the girls enjoyed it much more than I did.

The Fan Game

Throwing fans at a small target on a pedestal.

Although there were dozens of ways to move the target and thus score points all of them were dependant on you actually hitting the target; something that I saw not one single person do. I managed to hit the pedestal a few times but no luck.

Tea Ceremony

I mentioned above that the Japanese people love a correct way to do something. A formalized order for an activity, but drinking tea?

The Tea Ceremony is probably one of the more famous examples of Japanese art since it seems so bizarre. It is easy for us to grasp how drawing or flower arranging can be construed as an art but the drinking of tea seems a little stranger. Surely you just drink it?

Well no. Instead you prepare it and drink it in a manner which is so incredibly formalized that it becomes a kind of seated dance. The woman running the stall, clad in a gorgeous kimono, served the tea and so did most of the work but even we gaijin had a role to do.

The exact steps were very fiddly and I can’t remember them all but it basically boiled down to this:

. pour hot water into cup
. use tea brush to whisk it round
. empty cup and wipe with a cloth
. spoon matcha powder into cup
. add hot water
. use tea brush to mix the powder and hot water into a lather
. hand to first drinker
. drinker turns the bowl three time so that the front is not facing them
. drinker takes at least 3 sips and downs their cup
. drinker turns it three times the opposite direction and then gives the cup back to the host

However it was much, much more intricate than that. The woman serving was very careful with the position of the scoop for hot water, lids, cups and other paraphernalia which all had to be in a set place at every stage. She also had an incredibly complicated way of folding a cloth over to hold each item before she picked it up.

The matcha itself was much nicer than any I have had before. Much weaker and less bitter. As is customary we enjoyed our tea with a Japanese sweet, a daifuku.

The formalisation and pattern is intended to promote focus. The tea ceremony should be done in a natural setting and is usually accompanied by attempts at composing haiku. Effectively it serves as another form of meditation. Providing mental focus to help enhance the appreciation of the natural scenery; this then can be channelled into a creative activity like haiku or shodo, themselves both simply ways of meditating nature.

Incense Game

Finally we had a go at a smelling game. The leader of this stall prepared three traditional incense scents; moon, flower and snow. We each smelled them and held them in the traditionally accepted fashion (again there is a formal pattern to even how one is meant to smell incense. The holder then gave us a small mystery pouch containing one of the scents and we had to identify which one it was. Sadly nobody playing at the same time as me successfully identified what the scent was, oops.

Although I take solace in the fact that the woman running it described me as a “cool type.”

There were various other stalls there too but frankly these were the only ones that really were worth mentioning.

In conclusion I don’t know if I gained any new startling insights into Japanese culture but I did while away a few hours happily, and frankly that’ll do.

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