I have a feeling this one might be a tough one to write. Who knew that five days could be so packed? My one-person trip was wonderful. That being said, there’s no way I could talk about all of it. So I’ll talk about some of it, in a disjointed fashion. Some choice moments, the way I remember them, as I remember them.
Kanazawa is a mid-sized city about 2 hours away from Kyoto by train. It was raining when I arrived and very chilly, but luckily my hotel was close by and the first day was by far the coldest and wettest.
After checking into the hotel and calling a few people, I realized that it was time for dinner. After getting lost twice and becoming quite cold, I finally found the restaurant that was recommended to me.
One thing that I found was different about Kanazawa was that people either immediately spoke English to me, or didn’t speak English at all. I suppose it’s a combination of it being a slightly more westernized city but also not having quite as many tourists as Kyoto.
When I walked in, I talked to the waitress in Japanese and she spoke English back to me. This continued for a little while before she realized that I could speak and understand Japanese. This made everyone happy. I was even happier when they gave me a warm towel for my cold hands.
The staff talked among themselves and decided that it would be too lonely for me to sit at a table for four by myself, so they sat me at the bar in front of the chef, shifting two foreigners from the bar to the table in order to fit me. There was a Japanese couple off to the side of these foreigners who looked happy to see them replaced by my quiet, lone, Japanese-speaking self.
I struck up a conversation with the chef in Japanese and sometimes English. His English was amazing; very natural and easy to listen to. I suspected that he had spent a lot of time in the States. But I preferred to try my Japanese and he seemed to appreciate my efforts. The food was amazing, and I ordered a few glasses of sake to go with my meal. That seems to always start conversations in a Japanese restaurant. Kanazawa is by the sea and has an amazing culinary history, so amazing sushi there is both startlingly delicious and relatively cheap. As soon as I tasted it, I suddenly, as if it was a long-lost memory, remembered what seafood is supposed to taste.
I ended up eating and drinking quite a lot, which made the chef/s happy and the Japanese couple still next to me vaguely amused. The woman eventually struck up a little conversation with me in Japanese.
“Where are you from?”
“Oh! Are you living here now?”
“Yeah, I’m going to school in Kyoto.”
She paused. “Which school?”
She looked surprised and smacked her date on the arm. “Hey, this guy over here says that he he’s going to Doshisha.”
The man turned towards me and pointed at himself, eyebrows raised. “Oh really? I guess that means I’m your senior classmate!”
He explained that he had also gone to Doshisha, although his hair was greying around the edges and claimed that that was ages ago. Because of this he called himself “ojichan,” [aka Japanese ‘Pops’], and that’s what I’ll call him the rest of the time here.
They invited me to sit in the chair right next to them, and after talking a bit more, the woman asked if I had any time after dinner. To do what I wasn’t really sure, but I knew I had plenty.
“Good. I was already planning on going to my favorite bar after this,” said the ojichan. “How about we all head over together?”
The chef gave me a knowing smile as I put on my coat and headed out the door together with the couple.
On the way there, we walked though what I later figured out was the famous Higashiyama tea house district. Ojichan kept telling his partner to take pictures of me in what seemed like random places. It was pretty trippy to be walking through this multi-level maze of teahouse streets at night with an already tipsy ojichan and his girlfriend. The layout and architecture is pretty much untouched since they were built 300 or so years ago.
Since he was from Kyoto and she was from Kanazawa, he eventually admitted that he didn’t know the way and ojichan and I ended up following her to the bar.
When we arrived at the bar, the bartender was waiting for us at the door. We walked in and took a seat at the bar. Ojichan immediately took a wallet that the bar sold from a jar and slid it to me. “Here, it’s a gift.” One of the bartenders looked a little nonplussed, but ojichan looked at him and said, “is that alright?” There was a pause from the bartender and he cocked his head t one side. “…Yes, of course.” It was a good atmosphere, though. It was clear ojichan and these bartenders went way back.
He had his usual whisky and then proceeded to order me many different kinds of sake to try.
We ended up talking about politics, religion, love, history, family… Not seriously or philosophically, though.
“What are you, Christian?”
“Well I’m Buddhist. Japan is one of the few places in the world when two people like us, a Buddhist and a Catholic, can drink together. Kanpai!”
I remember how often he kept slapping my shoulder. He also had people take various pictures of me with him, or of me and the bartender. I thought about posting them on here, but decided against it. If you want to see them ask me to show them to you next time we meet.
It should be noted that at ever bar or restaurant I went to on my trip, I invariably ended up talking about the upcoming election. I never brought it up myself, either.
At one point he pulled out a piece of paper and tried to explain to me the concept of “一期一会[ichigo ichie],” which is actually a very important concept in tea ceremony and because of this I was already aware of it. But I let him explain it anyway.
“Each time, only once. You know what that means? It means tonight. It means that tonight, maybe…”
He paid for all my drinks, even though he raised his eyebrows quite high at the final bill.
By the time we finally decided to leave it was around 2 AM. We all made it down the stairs and into the night air. Ojisan immediately hailed a cab, and before I knew it I was headed back to my hotel.
I remember looking through the rear window a little while after the taxi started up, realizing that I never got to thank him. In fact, I never even knew his name. He’ll always be ojisan to me. I wonder how he’s doing.
The next day I was recovering from my night. I went to a shrine to get a stamp for my goshuincho, and ended up getting a map and a recommended one-day tourist route from a priest there.
By the time I got to the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, I was already tired and a bit hungry. I got a ticket to the centennial exhibition of Inoue Yuichi’s calligraphy.
I hadn’t heard of him before, but I fell in love with his work.
One thing I remember the most was how hungry I was when looking at his works. I suppose I was hungry before, but as I walked through room after room of his calligraphy, I got hungrier and hungrier. And somehow that felt right.
I almost felt dizzy, and I wasn’t sure if it was the art or my body. Probably some combination of both. One of the reasons I love calligraphy so much is how much it shows off the human who made it and the tools that they used.
You can see the brush strokes–every little bristle, if the brush is big enough and dry enough. And you can feel the hand of the calligrapher holding the brush. You can almost hear the brush move on the page.
It ends up being almost three dimensional at times, like smoke or the streaks a drop of dye makes when it’s in water.
There was something reckless and bold about these pieces, but also mature and human.
More than anything, they felt hungry, and I loved it.
My hotel in Wajima (a little ways up from Kanazawa, on the Noto Peninsula) was quite a story in itself. That’ll have to wait for another time, though. I’ll say at least that it was a traditional family-run Japanese inn, and all the walls and doors were covered with patches of Japanese paper. It kind of felt like you were walking through a giant blanket-fort made out of slivery quilts. But another time.
My hotel was located about a 10 minute walk away from Wajima’s famous morning market. If you think of Wajima in Japan, you think of the morning market. If not the morning market, the lacquerware.
When my bus pulled into Wajima, I realized that I was in a part of Japan that had no safety net for foreigners like me. It felt like a cross between a town you find on the highway in the west, and an old beach town. Small-town Japan. Trucks rolling through town and not too much public transportation.
On my first morning in Wajima, I went to the morning market. At the market I saw fish, happy grandmas, and absolutely amazing lacquerware. I guess I hadn’t really understood lacquerware before Wajima. It was always something that seemed more like a coating or piece of furniture than an actual labor-intensive process. It actually takes as many as 124 steps to make a normal piece of Wajima lacquerware, and the help of many specialists.
And there they were in the morning market, lacquerware stores open next to grandmas selling seaweed and charms. But just because it was in a morning market and in Wajima didn’t mean it was cheap. If it’s made right and the real thing (you can usually tell because the artist signed the bottom), a small bowl or cup is around $80. It’s hard to describe just how breathtaking it was to see these works of art in so many stores–each piece the real deal being sold by authorized dealers all over town.
I didn’t end up getting any. I decided that if I was going to get something it was going to be the real thing. Instead I just walked back and forth through the market and enjoyed all the grandmas calling me oniichan and cute. It felt great to be spoken or even called to in Japanese with no question as to whether I could understand them.
A video of me making Wajima lacquerware chopsticks with the help of one of the store owners. To make the very elaborate gold patterns in Wajima lacquerware, you have to etch your patterns in first and then lacquer the surface a bit. Then you sprinkle in gold dust and laquer it again. As you wipe the excess away, it looks like the patterns are appearing out of nowhere. It was really difficult to etch patterns onto such a small surface. Surprisingly difficult. So I decided to just have fun and make my own patterns that seemed to work for me.
A family that was across from me that seemed to have given up halfway though and decided to gripe about their trip came over and huddled around me as my design was revealed. Their reactions are great (jouzu=talented).
My last day in Wajima I took a bit of a hike around town before coming down at night to find a place for dinner. As I looked at the river, I realized that my mind thought I was seeing lacquerware. I had seen so much lacquerware over those days that I actually thought the dark night-time river was actually the surface of a lacquerware table or bowl. So of course I had to take a picture. Most pictures usually don’t turn out quite the way you want them to, but I feel like this one is just how I remembered the river looking.
The restaurant was pretty nice as well. The chef made amazing tempura and I ended up talking with him at the bar a bit. He looked pretty tired and kept sitting down while customers ate. He was an older man who looked like he’d stayed in Wajima for a long time. I started to talk to him about foreign customers. He said that not too many come by, but when they do they always bond over sports. He told me that his upstairs room is currently full of sports jerseys, plastering every wall. “When they go back home they always send me things and more often than not it’s a jersey or a baseball cap.”
I didn’t have a lot to give him, but I still had one or two potato pins I brought with me from Idaho. They’re these little pins that are literally potato shaped and have “IDAHO” written on them. I’ve had to correct some people because they thought they were turds.
He was so happy that he immediately disappeared and returned with what he told me were two limited-edition stamps. “You can’t even get these in Kyoto! Just released this year!”
But even then, on my way out he gave me a bag full of cooking chopsticks and two pairs of Wajima chopsticks.
“For your Mama and your Papa,” he said to me in English. “Please, come back. Bring something if you can. We’ll talk again.”
Maybe I will.
In contrast to Kyoto, Kanazawa and Wajima might be what people call the “real Japan.” That is, the Japan that isn’t meant too much for tourists. Then again, Kyoto, in comparison with these small towns and even Tokyo’s Westernized grandeur, is also often called the “real Japan.”
I’m not sure you’ll ever really find a “real Japan.” But in my experience, if you look, you’ll find a Japan. I think there’s a bit of guilt and self-imposed punishment that happens when you’re traveling if you’re not careful. Especially if you’re alone or feel alone for some reason. You have to find the real thing, or else your trip is a waste. You have to outshine these other travelers.
I don’t know where/what/when the real Japan is, but I think that finding anything worthwhile requires a bit of self-forgiveness. Forgiveness to just do what you do, see what you see, and find what you find. Forgiveness to find your own place in your trip. Because that might be the hardest thing in the end: to find a place for yourself amidst the grand design of your trip.
Maybe, if there is such a thing, the real Japan (or anywhere for that matter) is where you find a place for yourself. Where you find a place you can sink into. It doesn’t even have to be a physical place; maybe it’s just a feeling. That’s at least how I felt during this trip. Forget about finding the “real” anything. If can’t forgive yourself, it seems difficult to let that go. I had the best times just being where I was and doing what was there.
Till next time,