Friday, August 20, 2010

from Kanazawa: the pull

Friday. At first I thought we’d do another excursion on this day. Our last, as next week I have more teaching hours than you could possibly imagine and Ed, not surprisingly therefore, will be heading back to the States.

But, I started the day with catch-up work and so had second thoughts.

And then came the pull. Stay in town, take it easy, do some work, relax, or...

...go to another city, one that is completely new for me. New streets, new sights, different from Kyoto, away from this crowded corridor of Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka-Kyoto, away toward the west coast...

This magnetic pull toward exploring an unknown is, to me, as basic, as familiar as anything else that I know in life.

And so even though it is late, I suggest that I get my coffee, finish up my work and that we aim to leave by 1p.m.

We walk toward the local coffee shop – you know the one – cinnamon toast and all, though today I pick scones, so that I am not reminded of work...


It’s always interesting to pass in our neighborhood the orderly, small houses, the fields of rice and rows of planted eggplant. Today, in an empty field, one person is burning spent growth.


Burning garbage is the Japanese alternative to our heaping it underground. When you separate trash for recycling, you take out combustibles.

I watch her working in the heat of the day (because as usual, it is hovering close to 100 and again as usual, it is quite humid). I wave, she waves.

We stop at the bakery, where Ed buys cheesecake. What’s the difference between this slice and the other – he asks, with the help of gestures. He's greeted with a flood of Japanese, with only one English word recurring – cheesecake. If there is an Americanization of the Japanese everyday discourse, it comes in curious places: on t-shirts, in bakeries (“cheesecake”), on the subway line ("subway").

By two in the afternoon we are at the Kyoto station waiting for the train that will take us to Kanazawa.

Once the fourth largest city in Japan, now with a mere half a million, it lies on the less visited (certainly by the likes of us) western coast. It is known for its castle, its samurai houses and its Museum of Contemporary Art. But for the Japanese, it is the place to go to for the Kenroku-en – a garden first developed in the seventeenth century and now holding the honor of being regarded as one of Japan’s top three gardens.

Of course, it is likely to be crowded during the day. But we are arriving late in Kanazawa ( a train station that is a fantastic modern structure – incorporating some elements of tradition, but mostly impressing with its monstrous glass dome; here you have three views, the last from our hotel window).




Indeed, it is so late, that a true garden fiend would find it ridiculous to even attempt entry now. We are at the garden gates just forty minutes before they close.

And it is the best time to be here. Nearly empty now, tapped gently with the golden strokes of a receding sun.







The garden is green, entirely green. With ponds, arched bridges, gracefully curved trees, small shrines and tea houses – it is sublime.



We cover nearly every lane, nearly every nook, until the loudspeaker ever so gently reminds us that the gardens are now closed.

From here, we walk past older shops and houses that line the garden's edge...


...past the castle the towers (yes, Kanawaza has that as well)...


...all the way down to Nagamachi – a neighborhood of rushing streams and cobbled streets, with old houses hidden behind caramel colored walls.



They say that this is where the samurai and rich merchants once lived. Now it is an oasis of calm in a city that is, after all, right there, joining in the flash and glitter of the twenty-first century.



It is dinner time. We pulled a listing of a small place off the Internet and now comes the real challenge: finding it. We know the neighborhood where it should be located, but not much else. We ask several times. People want to help, but no one has heard of the place. Finally, a very sweet young medical student uses his cell phone magic to locate it. He takes us up and down winding streets and stops in front of a doorway with Japanese banners. Here you are: Hirosaka Tei.


The meal will stand out as one of the best if not the best that we will have had in Japan.
The restaurant is tiny: two booths, and a counter with seating for three. It’s a one man show (and the owner-chef speaks some English, learning it, he tells us, from Nintendo).

He is reluctant to seat us. One booth is filled, the other is about to be filled with a reservation. The counter? He usually has an assistant helping him. But she was in a biking accident today (no surprise there – bikes whiz along sidewalks as if there wasn’t a single other being on them, in a country with many many beings...), so he is alone. He doesn’t know if he can handle it. But he wont turn away the truly unusual – the American guest. “I was in US once. In Atlanta. For cooking.” (I imagine him to have been in some cooking demonstration or other, but Nintendo did not teach enough for me to find out.)

He is sweating profusely. Every part of him is shining from the heat of the stoves. There is kitchen clutter and who knows what else there, behind the counter. Kitchen knives. Of course, those.


But he is in control. He takes over our menu, serving us a plate to share, then another, then another, all with foods from the area.

Edemame, clams, octopus in wonderful spicy broth. Custard with shrimp and mushroom. Tempura – wonderful shrimp and beautifully sliced baby eggplant. A salad with local tuna, a stew of vegetables and seafood.








In between courses, he works in sentences about his kitchen, his family (two daughters!), asking questions (Chicago.... is that where OHare airport is?), filling in the pieces one small shape at a time.

And then we say -- enough! We can eat no more. He smiles proudly, we thank him.

Walking back, we pass a Japanese city fixture -- the garish pachinko parlor. The noise, the smoke -- they are, to me, always overwhelming. It is interesting how these gambling places can exist in a country where gambling (at least for cash) is illegal. Apparently you win balls, exchange those for prizes, then elsewhere, off premises, you cash in prizes for money. Where there's a law, there's a way...


Late at night, from our hotel window, I watch the lights from the modern station below. Is there ever a trip that I regret taking? Sure, the ones that had, in the past, nearly bankrupt me. But not any other. Certainly not this one.