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The Japanese are renowned for their cutting-edge design and technology, and Tokyo has more Michelin star restaurants than any other city in the world. However, as a lover of the simple Japanese aesthetic, I went looking for old Japan and its ancient artisan culture. I also wanted to experience some of its art disciplines. The Innovative Travel Company and its fabulous team in Japan organised a literally “hands-on” bespoke tour for me.
Arriving in Tokyo I was excited to be staying in the Imperial hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It is beautifully appointed and in the bar of the hotel you can see his exquisite pen and ink drawing which extols his architectural vision.
Tokyo is a very exciting city, and on an enormous scale. Being so populous, it has endless shopping, sightseeing and dining possibilities. As if to highlight the premium nature of space in this metropolis, a restaurant I found nearby occupied the span under a rail bridge. It was buzzing with locals and visitors and the trains rumbling overhead every so often just added to the excitement of the evening.
The next morning, with my wonderful guide, Saori, I was off to the village of Ome. An hour by train on the Chou line from Tokyo, and although still part of greater Tokyo, Ome is considered the countryside and has a village feel and appearance. Aizome, indigo dyeing, has been practiced here since the 13th Century and I was here to take a lesson in dyeing and learn about the lengthy process of making the dye which includes several sprinklings of sake!
I was soon up to my elbows in the aromatic indigo over the circular dye pots set into the floor. After a strenuous morning that has given me a new appreciation of this art, I was thrilled with my efforts that will become a linen dress and a scarf.
The Japanese are very spiritual. Temples and shrines are an integral part of life and a great part of my visit. Every shrine or temple has a garden, wet or dry, and every garden is different and is immaculately cared for. To enter the Meiji shrine in Tokyo there is a woodland path with a wall of beautifully decorated sake barrels near its end. You cannot help but be contemplative as you stroll through, and much like parkland in a city, it is a quiet refuge from the hustle and bustle.
I am soon back into that busy city, but this time in a curiously pink street full of teenagers. This is Takeshita street. The street is not long, but cuteness and childhood are the theme. The street is lined with pink and innocence and is itself a temple, but one solely dedicated to early consumerism. This could not be anywhere in New Zealand. It is certainly a culture apart and some of the storefront signage in English only adds to this curiosity.
Definitely without pink and more where my interest lay, was walking along Omotesendo Street, and visiting the Yohji Yamamoto store. Omotosendo street features many architecturally interesting buildings, new and old, housing the most luxurious brands. Window shopping here takes on new meaning when the building is a point of interest as well. Towards the end of the street, the road narrows and the tree lined street has more of a village feel. This is also where the stand-out Prada building is located. Its façade is a series of large billowing glass panels. It is quite remarkable and is a triumph of construction and design and has been recognized as such. The interiors of many of the buildings are also extraordinary. The Yohji store has an industrial angular construction and to my mind is perfect for this very talented and thoughtful designer. 
The most interesting interior was yet to come…not for the walls but for the contents. This was the Tokyo national museum , its interior is resplendent with treasures of Japan’s ancient past: beautiful kimono costumes, painted decorative small boxes and lacquerware, delicate ancient calligraphic scripts, gold-leafed and Sumi-e painted screens, Samurai armoury and weapons and other objets d’art. More contemporary was an interactive digital display of Japanese Tansho cranes. The number of cranes landing corresponded to the number of people arriving, and the number of cranes flying out of the room were direct in number to those people departing. A light bit of fun and a good break from my treasure hunt.
Particularly interesting were the Ukiyo-e wood block prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige. I was later to learn, during a class in a Mokuhanga wood block printing studio, just how precise you need to be to make a print using this method. Printing one colour at a time by circular hand movement with a bake brush, the slightest variation of position registration of the new colour would render the print useless.
My last art class in Tokyo was in Sumi-e ink painting. This was fascinating, with the master and his son both teaching. I was to learn about some of the method and the philosophy behind the art and as such all Sumi-e ink painting has had a greater breadth of perspective for me since.
I wanted to walk the old Nakasendo Trail Road, the walking path used by the Emperors and the Samurai between Kyoto (the old capital of Japan) and Edo (now Tokyo-meaning east capital). Near to this, and on the main trainline from Tokyo is the small city of Matsumoto and as it has one of Japan’s significant castles and a Hokusai museum, it was a great place to break the journey. Matsumoto is nestled in against green hills that were spectacular in the mist, and it was very easy to get around with the castle being an easy reference point.
I loved walking in the pedestrian area with its interesting artisan shops, several selling fine lacquer-ware, ceramics and antiques. All these, plus little restaurants sit astride a small mountain river. Getting around the broader area of the city is made easier by using the “Town Sneaker”, not a running shoe, but a series of small (to get around some narrow streets) local buses, very frequent and inexpensive. The name Town Sneaker was itself incentive enough for me to climb aboard.
The train journey into the hills and mountains to Narai is very picturesque and was made more beautiful by the wildflowers growing near the tracks and roadsides. The air was cool, and the mountain stream was bubbling, it was all very invigorating.
Narai is an old post town ( where the Emperor and his retinue would stop for the night). It is one of the best preserved and most accessible of the post towns along the 566 km Nakasendo trail. It has a small museum. No English is spoken but the kind and enthusiastic attempts at explanation from the attendant were heartfelt and appreciated. My stay there was to be in a traditional Japanese house, a Ryokan. The Echigoya Ryokan, an Edo period inn, is a delight to stay at and provided a memorable, authentic experience. This Ryokan has been in the same family for several generations. The young couple running it now, along with their two children, took wonderful care of me. They organised a tea ceremony on arrival. The utmost care is taken as in a scientific experiment. Dinner was of equal ceremony, with a tray of different small dishes: each one a work of art.
Whilst I was enjoying a private cedar wood Onsen bath, the dinner had been cleared away and a comfortable futon had been laid out for the night. With only two sleeping rooms for guests a restful time was ensured.
From Narai you can either ascend the Torii pass trail, or, as I chose, follow the path by the mountain stream down to the next town: Kiso-Hirasawa. I passed dark stained traditional houses, beautifully shaped niwaki trees and in the gardens I saw carved dosojin stones. They show a couple: a man and a woman holding sake: they promote fertility, marital status, protect the traveller and ward off sickness and evil spirits. A one-fits-all solution in a beautifully carved stone and a lovely ornament. Kiso-Hirasawa is renowned for its lacquer-ware. I visited a modern studio-house selling fine trays and exquisite small boxes. The charming owner also took the time to show me around her small pristine garden. It was an impressive reminder of what can be done with a small space.
A local train took me down through the giant boulder-strewn Kiso valley to connect with the bullet train to Kyoto central station. There on the platform was our Kyoto guide, Maru-san. His driver outside, ready and waiting to whisk me off to Fushimi Inari temple with its 5000 vermilion Torii gates.
Although they are expensive, I found a guide and a driver were essential and I could not have seen nearly as much in the time available without them. Some of the temples and gardens are not in the middle of town.
A photographer’s dream is the “The Golden Pavilion”, Kinkaku-ji. Covered in gold leaf, then reflected in its own lake, it is truly fabulous and ensures that everyone takes at least one great photo.
With less bling, and appealing to me for its Wabi-Sabi aesthetic of simple elegance, is the silver pavilion, Ginkaku-ji, which never received its silver covering.
The sky-scraping giant Bamboo forest Arashiyama is impressive. However, if you continue to walk beyond it, you will reach a little temple, Jojakkoji – so very memorable because it is set in a postcard-pretty, mossy, leafy glade of the most brilliant green. Another temple is the famous Ryoan-ji, where you will find one of the finest surviving examples of kare-sansui, dry landscape. 15 rocks are set into raked lines of river pebbles(to encourage meditation). Despite being told by every guidebook that only 14 of the 15 rocks can be seen at one time from any vantage point, you cannot help but join the other visitors, pointing and counting, then moving and pointing and counting.
Don’t miss the Sanjusangendo: 1001 statues of Buddha. It is astounding in its complexity and scale. It is virtually next door to the stylish Kyoto Hyatt Regency, where I stayed. It is a very sacred place to the Buddhist Japanese, and as no photography is permitted, it is a place I would like to see again.
Over the 4 days I was in Kyoto, Innovative Travel gave me a great mix every day of temples, gardens, art classes, shopping and local cultural activities.
Shibori-dyeing classes are held at the Shibori museum. The class is a practical introduction to one of the many types of Shibori dyeing. The museum has an impressive display of the intricate possibilities of this art.
My Shodo (calligraphy) class was held by two gracious ladies in Kimono. It is great fun even if you have never picked up a brush before. I made some progress during the class, and, encouraged by this, was determined to find my own Sumi-e ink stone and brushes. A visit was organised to a most wonderful small art supply shop, Saiundo, “Painted cloud”, a family run Business since 1863. This tiny shop is a mecca for artists from all over the world. They sell hand-made watercolours, powdered pigments, brushes of all descriptions, Hanko seals and a variety of red pastes to stamp your art with. I absolutely loved this little shop.
Another favourite shop is Morita Wagami, specialising in Washi, Japanese hand-made paper.
The great thing about the classes, is that you meet local people, learn something, and create something to take home.
It is the same with the gold-leafing class. After learning the basics of how it is done you are given a choice of objects to decorate and are then guided through the whole process. The next day I met a true master of this art, Noguchi-san, a fifth-generation gold leaf artist. I visited him in his home, an old Meiji-era town house. I was given tea by him and his wife, surrounded by stunning works by him and his son, whilst looking onto their beautiful stone and water garden. I was then very privileged to go upstairs into his studio and be shown his own techniques. A genial man, he is quite the alchemist. As a gold-leaf specialist he was flown to New York to speak at the Gustav Klimt exhibition.
I made a day trip out of town with my guide and driver to visit Himeji Castle (white heron castle-called this because of its colour). It is Japan’s finest feudal castle and a Unesco site. It is impressive in its imposing size on a hilltop, its engineering and its elegant white appearance with its multiple curved roof layers.
From there to the Arima Onsen hot spring spa town, which has been attracting the Japanese for over 1000 years to the healing “gold” and “silver” waters.
Nights in Kyoto were spent around the Pontocho river area. The tiny narrow lanes are packed with bars and eateries, there is a great energy there and it makes for a fun night out. Close by is Gion, where Geisha and Maiko privately entertain their clients. They only appear between appointments as they quickly rush from one restaurant to another. They do not stop for photos and it is in these moments when the entertainment begins for the public.
Surrounded by other tourists, brazenly, without consent, I pursue the little scuttling white-faced apparitions in beautiful silk kimono. Pangs of guilt are pushed aside as a fever of shutter clicks capture these living exhibits. You are compelled by a paparazzi-like fascination until sanity prevails and the camera is put away. As you leave the tourist area, normal courtesies resume and just as if to find yourself tested, another Geisha waits to cross with you at the intersection. You do not reach for the camera, a part of you is human after all.
I loved my visit to Japan. It was totally artistically inspiring for me. I felt very safe and the people are very friendly and polite. Everywhere is incredibly clean. And thanks to my wonderful guides: my very fit marathon-running Maru-san and stylish Saori I was able see all and be navigated through the nuances of etiquette of this ancient and modern culture.
The iconic feature to see in Japan is Mount Fuji- and I missed it! But, you must always have a reason to return, and along with the cherry blossoms, the autumn colours, the Kyoto ancient costume pageant “Festival of the Ages” and many more places to see, this is it.
Reading list;
I used many guidebooks, but particularly liked books on Kyoto by Diana Durston. I recommend “ Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden and “The Printmaker’s Daughter” by Katherine Govier. ( a novel about the mystical daughter of Hokusai named Oei, who may have done some of his work).