Archive for May 24th, 2008


Saturday, May 24th, 2008

Komatsu 小松市

Hiro used the ofuro last night to clean up and refresh herself after the 20-hour journey, but I collapsed immediately after just a quick shower. This morning though I awoke early enough to make it downstairs to the ofuro before just about anyone else.

The breakfast included in the price of the overnight stay was a surprisingly large buffet spread. There were only a few other tables occupied, but the diverse offerings could have kept a much larger crowd happy: pickled vegetables, tiny fish, onsen-boiled eggs, rice, nori and more. The fun-food this time was a self-prepared salad with shredded lettuce, corn, light sesame oil and soy dressing, and a crunchy breakfast cereal with dried cranberry topping.

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Komatsu to Kanazawa by JR Hokuriku Line, 31 minutes, ¥480.

Kanazawa 金沢市

The famous Kenrokuen Garden 兼六園 was the place to see in Kanazawa, so we headed straight for it from the JR station, taking a city bus for ¥200 and getting off just past Ishikawa-mon, the gate to Kanazawa Castle. We quickly oriented ourselves to the local scene, snacked on a green-tea soft ice cream cone from a walk-up window vendor, headed uphill past the obligatory omiyage stores to the garden's ticket booth.

Officially a National Site of Special Scenic Beauty, the garden is laid out on grounds adjacent to the 16th century Kanazawa Castle. At that time the garden grounds were cleared and used to house retainers, then redeveloped many times into fashionable gardens for viewing the moon and the turning maple leaves; from the mid 1700's until 1822 continual redevelopment fashioned the grounds to meet current gardening tastes. The latest garden was reopened to the public in 1874.

Being a Saturday the garden had a full crowd of visitors, but its layout and size kept some of the smaller focal spots intimate enough to encourage us to linger. The river of irises was spectacular: an artfully meandering sward of vibrant violet (or were they almost blue?) blossoms sitting on lush green sword leaves under a canopy of fresh deciduous trees.

The other garden watercourse was unadorned with flowers, but was curious in its own way for its intense management: we watched as three maintenance workers swept the river clean; all three in unison stroking the riverbed rock with natural fiber brooms, in lock step fashion swishing their way across the width of the river, then back; disturbing the system bottom just enough to keep algae and macrophytes from becoming established. It was such a different approach from my own management leanings on riverine systems (where healthy systems are measured by the abundance and diversity of macroinvertebrates), that I was at first taken aback; but of course this is a garden, and this is Japan, where every rock is kept in its proper place, and every bed of sand combed clean, and every leaf swept up and removed.

The garden's central pond was less of a focal point and more of a separator than I would normally hope for, what with waterways being such an important part of my own professional life. The solitary heron sitting on the tea-house roof overlooking the pond was the only passing interest for me. Perhaps it was the season or the time of day that disappointed; another visit might be in order. Still, the view across the pond to the far side gave us a sense of anticipation and desire to pursue our garden explorations.

At the far end of the garden we paid an additional ¥250 to visit the Ishikawa Prefectural Museum for Traditional Arts and Crafts which exhibited regional craft-work: kutani porcelain, urushi lacquerware, nanao candles, paper umbrellas, and even a taiko drum. The collection was diversified but small, mostly demonstrative of the types of craft work done in Ishikawa, rather than a collection of superb specimens. I was satisfied to see a step-by-step guide to making a wooden lacquer bowl: the unexpected step was the addition of a fine woven mesh glued into the bowl bottom, presumably to prevent splitting later on; over-all there were a lot of sanding steps before getting to the lacquer itself.

The remainder of Kenrokuen was the usual mix of azaleas, pruned conifers, curving walkways with compacted sand substrate and bent bamboo quarter-height fences. The orderliness was classic for this type of Japanese garden, lacking any of the profusion and disarray popularized by a Monet-style garden, or charm as typified by an English cottage garden.

The traditional ocha experience looked like it was possible for a modest fee, but it was the wrong time of day so we passed the long tea-house with open shoji doors and tatami mats without only a slight temptation to pause.

Just before passing out the south gate of the garden we were treated to another pond, much nicer than the one on the high plateau; this one was nestled below a steep cliff densely covered with a mixed forest of trees, none of which were showy specimen: the effect was one of wild but concealed containment; cool because the sun's rays are almost always blocked out; and energized by the splash of the waterfall cascading down the embankment into the otherwise still pond.

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I momentarily lost my normally good sense of direction upon leaving the garden and we briefly walked east instead of south towards Nagamachi Bukeyashiki 長町武家屋敷跡. This small residential neighborhood housed samurai until recently; it is still architecturally pure with imposing yellow-ocher tinted earthen walls separating the streets from the residences. We choose to walk through without paying additional visitor fees to go inside; maybe next time.

The rain was impending and Hiro was anxious to find a convenience store selling cheap umbrellas. And as hoped for, a cheap plastic umbrella was soon found for only ¥700 (not the ¥500 as assured by Hiro, but still a throw-away bargain.)

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The guidebooks suggested that Omi-cho Market 近江町市場 was worth seeing. For the foreigner unaccustomed to Japanese street markets Omi-cho must be a real eye-opener; and admittedly even for me—having shopped these types of places many times before—this market had very diverse offerings: shellfish, whole fish, dried and soy-prepared fish, vegetables, roots, pickles, and other prepared foods. For twenty minutes we maneuvered through shoppers and hawkers; over uneven concrete floors; out of the light and into the shadows; through varied stalls with bins and buckets of fish stacked and stacked, arranged by the mongers to show off their bright colors and shiny skins and striking shapes—and their abundance. Fresh. Noisy. Bustling.

Hiro asked the sake vendor to recommend a good local restaurant that offered lunch, and we soon found ourselves seated behind the counter of a small lunch-spot at the end of the marketplace, one that accommodates no more than six at the counter and maybe eight at the low tables to the side. I always like to try the local specialty, which was the right choice here: a small but tasty whole white fish (the name being unfamiliar, I've forgotten it) served traditionally with a side of rice and miso and pickles. I couldn't resist a beer—my first in the country this time—even though it was only lunchtime. A few local merchants came in to quickly eat lunch and at least one other merchant picked up a large order to go. This was a perfect local spot, a treat for me to feel part of it all, and a refreshing 45 minutes of rest for my tired dogs.

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Kanazawa to Takaoka by JR Hokuriku Line, 38 minutes, ¥740.

Takaoka 高岡

With ryokan reservations in Takaoka tonight we departed Kanazawa after lunch, arriving in the mid-afternoon. The map showed the ryokan to be just five city blocks from the station, so by prior agreement we walked the distance, me with my yellow backpack strapped on, Hiro with her compact airline suitcase in tow. Finding new places in strange cities always creates anxiety and I was particularly careful to downplay that emotion since these types of luggage-in-tow-adventures had triggered discord in the past. Fortunately, we were neither tired nor hungry at the time, so the anxious feeling had no fuel to get out of hand. Within ten minutes we could see the sign above the Daibutsu Ryokan 大佛旅館.

Our host showed us to our tatami room and served the traditional green tea and the ever familiar omanju-in-a-wrapper: standard ryokan welcoming courtesies. I had arranged our itinerary to see Takaoka for its famous bronze casting, so despite the light rain we went for an exploratory walk, but ended up see nothing more than a street market that was all but closed for the night, and few choices for dinner. We saw a couple of bronze statues on the street—the kind where bronze people are sitting on benches, and one which was a sultry looking young woman (was she announcing that this was the red-light district?) There were no shops open for browsing; maybe we'll have better luck in the morning.

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Daibutsu Ryokan 大佛旅館, ¥11,550 for two with breakfast; small tiled 
ofuro; large tatami room overlooking a courtyard koi garden; toilet at far end of the hall.
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