Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sankien Gardens, The Sequel

The above pictures are of the exterior and interior of a Japanese farm house from the Gifu prefecture circa 1750. "An Important Cultural Property", this building is one of many in Sankien that had been carefully taken apart from another place in Japan and rebuilt in the gardens. The thatched roof, probably a foot and a half thick and covering a massive structure, completely amazed me. How long must have that taken to construct?

As we entered the "front door", we saw that the stable/barn connected openly to the living room and kitchen. When I brought this oddity up in class, my students explained that Japanese farmers do not see their animals as food but rather as one of the family workers. So, they are kept cozy and safe in the most important part of the house.

Inside, the polished plank floors were dark and cold...even farmers/villagers take off their shoes at the door. Two traditional charcoal fire pits (the blog's main picture) warmed the living area and the kitchen. The fragrant smoke drifted up the narrow and steep stairs to the second floor, creating a somewhat magical light. The smoke, I learned, helps keep the grass-thatched roof free of bacteria and mold.

The second floor, one large room and formerly the sleeping quarters, held a small, mildly interesting display of farming instruments and pottery in its center. By this time, my feet were going catatonic from the I hurriedly looked through the cultural items, I noticed that both sides of the room were slatted and open to the floor below.

Lily freaked out when she learned that these areas were used to raise silk worms, a lucrative commodity in Old World Japan. She was not impressed by how rich a farmer could get by raising these little critters. In a not so demure voice, she exclaimed in disgust, "Ewwwww! The silkworms could poop on their heads?!"

Instantly, I imagined Lily as a Japanese girl from yesteryear, wearing a wide-brimmed hat indoors and constantly in a state of the willies. What do you want to bet, 10 years from now, that she remembers that bit of trivia above all else when asked about her travels in Japan?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Sankien Gardens, Part One

I am very disappointed in myself. After almost three years of living in Japan, I had never visited one of its top gardens, Sankien, near Tokyo, a mere 30 minute drive from the base, until my friend Keikosan invited me to go last week.

We couldn't have custom ordered a more magnificent day--cold, clear, delft blue skies--a perfect day for skiing...or strolling around a quiet, still Japanese garden.

When I first arrived in Japan, my romantic, minds-eye vision of this country was shattered. Tokyo lies in the Kanto Plain, a wide, flat expanse of wall-to-wall humanity, packed into sturdy, earthquake-proof concrete blocks. Every bit of available space is used residentially or commerically. Green spaces suffer as a result.

Sankien is nestled between two, wooded hills. It tricks its visitors in a most kindly way, as a parent might carefully mislead a child about Santa Claus, into believing that this Old Japan still exists. Guests can walk a large expanse of trails which lead over the central pond via crimson bridges and into ancient houses, barns and pagoda. Plucked from their original resting places in Kyoto, they have been painstakingly reconstructed in the park for modern urbanites to delight in.

I thought that I might be disappointed by the lack of flowers. Sankien is renowned for its seasonal floral displays and not much is blooming this time of year. In less than a month, the plum blossoms will pop out and dazzle the crowds but right now the garden is resting.

Without the leaves, I found instead that I could really admire the park's bones. The branches, stark and bare, display their normally hidden inner character. You can see how the unnecessary twigs have been eliminated over time and how only the most promising limbs were patiently pruned in purposeful but unexpected directions...quite stunning in their own right.

I hope that I can enjoy as long a life as these trees. I wonder though, at its end, when all my green ornaments have fallen away, if I'll be fortunate to see the surprising ways my life has formed and the purpose inherent in it?


Recently, I went on a trip with Lily's fifth grade class to a local ice skating rink. By trip, I don't mean a little jaunt. I mean a caterpillar-toking, falling- down-a-rabbit hole adventure. You might wonder: Can ice skating really be that different in a foreign country? After all, it mainly consists of skates and ice and falling. Deep tissue bruises pretty much look the same on everybody.

As we entered the facility, I immediately spied a row of vending machines. This is common. The Japanese have an abiding love for this invention. In public spaces, there is one literally every 5 feet, stocked with strange drinks, piping hot and ice cold, with equally odd names such as "Pocari Sweat" or "Qoo". I think I read somewhere that there are more vending machines than people in Japan.

The weirdest seem to reside in ice rinks. The first vending machine I came to alerted me that perhaps this might not be an "ordinary" skating rink. It held a charming display of 64 crayon-colored gloves. I guess it's embarrassing to be lacking gloves that match some day-glo color in your outfit whilst skating in Japan. Although it's ingenious to sell gloves, a frequently forgotten/lost item in a skating rink, utilitarian black just doesn't cut it here. Maybe the garish colors are easier to see on the ice and fewer finger dismemberments occur as a result. I am sure I'll never know.

The next machine caught my eye because apparently men often forget to bring (or lose?) their jock shorts, too. Now, I know for sure that you CAN actually buy anything in a vending machine in Japan. I've seen jello juice and corn soup and fresh vegetables. But never men's underpants. I didn't even know that you needed jock shorts to skate. Intriguing.

After some neanderthal grunting and pointing to charts, all the kids found their Japanese ice skate sizes and strapped them on. I headed off to the cozy snack room to get some hot coffee from the vending machines. I can't tell you how disappointing it is to go looking for an elegant canned beverage/snack, only to find, "24 Hour Casual Frozen Foods."

Later for lunch, Lily and I enjoyed some of these frozen-to-cooked foods, such as chicken nuggets and french fries. They were really hot and surprisingly delicious but yet, so depressingly...casual. What a shame.

When I wasn't engaged in vending machine gawking, I studied the skaters. I noticed a few oddities, i.e. the 75 year old woman effortlessly gliding down the center of the rink. Although it doesn't seem wise to tempt the hip gods, older folk here are in excellent shape.

Also, several Japanese yochien (preschools) had come to play for the day. As I watched them suit up, I mentally beamed out a message to the other skaters, "Good luck finding a spot on the ice that doesn't have a three-year-old splayed out on it." I imagined a hundred marbles dropping onto a hard surface and bouncing in wild directions.

Did you know that you can organize preschoolers in ice skates? Like fish in a hatchery, their leaders penned them in a corner and released them into the stream every few minutes. Then, they all skated like madmen around the circle twice and returned to their "tank" to wait their turn to start over. The little girls all skated hand-in-hand, their little pig-tails bouncing. The boys pushed each other or fell down purposely like they were sliding into second base. One little guy spent the whole time throwing his gloves and hat on the ice and skating away from his handler, all the time laughing maniacally.

Lily had a great time, too. She told me later that she felt free and joyful on the ice, like she was flying. I felt the same way, but my feet were planted firmly on the grimy,rubber mats.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Leaping Before Looking

The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.

by W.H. Auden

It's time to move on with my life...literally and figuratively.

This summer, we take up new residence in Denver after 5 years of living in Japan. In the next few, short months, I have to start looking for a new house, cleaning out some scary closets, packing up our house and saying goodbye to a country and friends I love dearly.

There are some big questions to be answered, and much too soonly* for my liking. This fact makes me anxious.

What are we going to?

What do we need to leave behind?

I've grown up a lot in Japan because the lack of choices here has forced me to make due with that I've been given. My life is exceedingly comfortable and happy here. Now, I am going back to the land of unlimited possibilities and I am afraid that I will somehow choose the wrong one. I am starting to feel...overwhelmed.

Should I look before I leap or keep my sense of danger? If you are still reading out there, I would love to hear what you think.

*(I heart Engrish)