Shinkanshen – Black castle – New art – Old ryokan

Shinkanshen – Black castle – New art – Old ryokan

Thursday, March 20.  Rain, cold, nasty.  

I head off to Rappongi Hills  to find the Tokyo National Art Center, a stunning glass and concrete waving wall of a museum with vast open inner spaces clustered around upside down concrete cones.  (where are the galleries?)  I am too busy inspecting the gift shops with intriguing clever designs for silly things – paper-cutters, buttons, vases. I cluck and chuckle at their cuteness, have soup, check out the bathrooms, ride the escalators, try the high design chairs, watch the pouring rain, admire the umbrella lock stand and watch the people. 

Tokyo National Art Center

Everywhere museums at mid-week-day are populated by the nattily dressed retired, bored students and wide-eyed travelers. Some of the women are stunning – steel grey hair and square shoulders, patent leather shoes still tiny, no expanding waists.  After a snack I head to mid-town which is decked out for cherry blossoms which feel months away in this weather;  purchase way too much prepared food for our bullet train ride tonight and stumble on a Uniqlo branch – where I optimistically purchase a top in Medium although the metrosexual polyglot at the cash warns me that “M” in the US usually means “L” or “XL” in Japan.  Of course he’s right.  Back at the condo Sash arrives from work and we heft the food bag, larger than either clothing bag, and taxi in heavy pre-holiday (Spring Equinox) rush-hour to Tokyo Station where we dash to the Nozomi Shinkanshen (super extremely fast bullet train that takes 3 hrs 15 min to go 415 miles or Boston to Wash DC) and wait at our designated gate while the cleaning crew (pink uniforms for women and baby blue for men) cleans out the trains and flips the seats on their rotary blades to reverse direction.  People flood on to the train on cue – no hanging around.  Bullet is no exaggeration. When the announcer says “we will make a brief stop in Yokohama” she means brief and people know it.  For the record, Yokohama is a one hour regular train ride from central Tokyo and 10 minutes by bullet train. 

The super-fast Nozomi arrives

Okayama is a mid-sized city that was totally wiped out in the war so is basically bland and new, but I love small provincial cities which feel so much more real.  No sophistication, and we are the only foreigners in sight. We walk down a packed night-time alley where hundreds of kids mingle and giggle in their high-pitched girlie voices with pumped up platform shoes on wobbly (bow-legged  — sorry, it’s true, pigeon-toed – feet.).  A young guy (again stereotype-sorry, but these are the least dude-like men I have ever seen) approaches us delighted to practice English (rare in Japan) and he chats with Sash in enthusiastic, slightly drunk barely intelligible English and wants to know why we came to his town. Basically, Sash wants to know the same but I have my methods.

The extremely cozy bar we initially find is full, and a waiter leads us with no explanation to a garish, neon ballroom where we are the only people in what looks like a banquet hall with a rooftop view. People drift in and you know you are not in Tokyo anymore; it looks like we just dropped in to the equivalent of a Days Inn in Japanese Kansas where someone’s 50th anniversary party is about to happen, and people are dressed in their unfashionable best with big teased hairdos.  I am so unfashionable of course, that I feel as though I am in a new dimension of hip unfashion-ness; clunky shoes, ugly brown coat which is saving my freezing ass, black sling sack to haul my stuff, two scarves which I have not yet lost and gaudy earrings.

We have a hilarious lost-in-translation moment in the neon bar where the “cacktail” menu lists a martini but the waitress is clueless and looks  panicked and the bartender approaches with a bottle of both white and red vermouth and offers me a choice to mix with gin. There is no way that he will consider mixing with vodka.  Evidently this is unheard of or against the rules, and that’s that.  It’s clear that I should definitely opt for Scotch but I want to see what he comes up with. None of the wait staff speak a word of English (and this is in a large chain hotel…).  According to Sash it’s not even clear that they speak Japanese. 

The rooms are “small” doubles – a size that does not exist in the US and is slightly larger than a berth in a railroad car – quite cozy, but you’d have to be two tiny people to survive in that room.

Friday, March 21. Okayama. Happy Spring. Sunny and cold.

The next morning we splurge on a buffet breakfast —  I love the mix of American and Asian breakfasts – noodles and eggs,  brioche and lychee, strawberries and sesame tofu.  We walk in the direction of Okayama’s claim to fame – the Korakuen Garden, one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan.  

Plum trees in bloom Korakuen

Korakuen pavilion

Wedding march

Even though Okayama is 400 miles southwest of Tokyo, spring is not yet here – in fact it’s freezing.  The garden is indeed, beautiful, and will be spectacular in a few weeks, with all the harmonious elements and unifying symbols of rocks, streams, small lakes, topiaried pine trees, seasonal  ornamentations, rice paddies, plum and cherry trees, delicate bridges, tea pavilions, waterwheels, shrines, cranes in their aviary and koi in ponds. We drink mochi and eat sweet bean paste and watch wedding photographers and the beautifully kimono-ed brides. On the periphery of the garden is the Black Castle – moated, gated and imposing, looking just like every postcard of Japan. The inside is not as interesting, being heavily restored, and the view from the top is sadly very urban — but you can just about sense what it would have been like in splendid isolation 400 years ago.

Black Castle

We walk back to town, stopping in an arcade for yet more food, udon and not great tempura, then on to the station and a short hop to Kurashiki.  Sash is not optimistic, but Kurashiki is one of the only preserved merchant towns left in Japan with an old historic and very preserved  center; the old store houses and textile factory beautifully restored – touristy, yes, but delightful after very high-rise and crowded cities.  It reminds me of Rockport in a vaguely New England way.

Kurashiki old town

Roasting tea

Bridge in front of Kurashiki Ryokan

We stay at the delightful Kurashiki Ryokan which is a real splurge and my first ryokan experience.  It’s another world – 5 rooms in a series of old merchant storehouses connected by passageways, courtyards and surrounding a garden. Unfortunately it’s freezing and the only thing between us and the outside is rice paper doors and thin wood walls.

Kurashiki Ryokan – Five Old Merchant houses connected together

Our rooms include a private dining area and meditation room. We sample sakes in the lounge overlooking the garden while Ritsuke, our hostess explains all the various rules and there are many (shoes off here, slippers on with over-slippers, slippers off, only socks on tatami).  I book the small onsen bath for an hour and have to learn the rules for this (no soap in the tub ever – must scrub at the small shower seats first. Great fun, but I suspect I am breaking some of these rules as well. The water is scalding — it takes me 10 minutes to get in to the tub and I soon look like a lobster.

Passageways, Kurashiki Ryokan

Dinner is an elaborate multi course event in our dining area seated on the floor (the heat is on full-blast – how did people survive before heat? These houses would have burned down in two minutes.)   The menu is seasonal and the presentation, explanation and serving is at least half the fun.  The portions are tiny but the dishes and edible flowers are eye and mouth candy.  The highlight is grinding wasabi root (like horseradish) on a sharkskin  — as in days of old. Ritsuke tells me that I must be calm and meditative as I do this. I oblige. Sash had heard of the sharkskin method and recognized it immediately; quite tickled to see it in action.  

Ritsuke and Wasabi root with sharkskin grater

Sash indulges

Saturday, March 22. Art Island Seto Sea. Sunny and cold.

Panorama from Benesse Art House, Naoshima Island, of the Seto Inland Sea

The next morning, after a unique breakfast of grilling fish with heads and tails at our table in the lounge, Sash dashes off to the temple to have his temple scroll book signed by the monks.  I had hoped to spend the day in the Kurashiki O’Hara museum and move on to Hiroshima, but Sash insists that we head to the art installation island of Naoshima in the Inland Sea.  


Good bye Ritsuke; Sayonara

I have protested this move for several days but it’s not worth the argument, so we take a taxi, train, and ferry to what I can predict will be cold slabs of stone and concrete masquerading as art strung out at inconvenient locations around an island without transportation — and – bingo – guess what?  So, I contain my annoyance and we march from site to site where people wait in line to see a room in darkness, and small underground bunkers that are supposed to represent a link to the outside and/or the past.  Many of the buildings are designed by Tadao Ando, famed Japanese architect, who – the ticket-taker casually tells us – is inside talking to the a small audience. (Ando is the architect of the in-progress new extension of the Clark Musuem in Williamstown, Mass.)  Of course I understand nothing, but the Japanese audience treats him like a god.  Otherwise the building is frankly, ugly, in raw concrete and looking like — as Sash put it — a Holocaust memorial.   Finally we march up to the large Ando-designed museum run by Benesse Art House and have a lovely lunch looking out over the rocky shore, the mountains in the distance, the many islands, the very blue, very cold sea.  Could be the Croatian coast — who knew?   The view is otherwise ruined by the concrete hard lines and angles of the building — but this is my opinion.  The hotel in the museum is entirely booked — thank God, otherwise I might have made the mistake of trying to spend the night here – and what would you do with absolutely nothing around but the wind?

Tadao Ando, architect with his trademark raw concrete construction


Benesse House — AKA the bunker

Could be the Dalmatian coast!

We walk the rest of the island back to the port because the bus shuttles are completely unpredictable or full of people wearing ridiculous high heels to march around in the cold. We reverse direction and take two local trains back to Okayama and our Shinkanshen train back to Tokyo.  On the local train we pass non-stop villages and small cities, surrounded by fruit trees, fields, rice paddies, cultivation everywhere — crammed, crowded between mountain and sea, identical from region to region.
Arrive Tokyo late Saturday night, phew!  I crash and Sasha’s evening is just beginning.