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From the Floating World

Updated: Apr 13, 2019

I am traveling, but am I travelling through space or through time or have I landed one completely different planet? It seems to be the latter. I have spent my whole day somewhere totally alien. It started off in my hotel, a 100-year old house surrounded by a gorgeous garden, with stone lanterns and big stones and cherry trees...

As I leave my hotel

It continued as I admired the ukiyo-e drawings at the Prefectural museum, where there were two women dressed in kimonos, old Japanese men – one of whom tested my limits of patience by sniffing his nose every minute. The Japanese think it's bad manners to clean your nose once and for all and that it's more polite to keep sniveling all though a quiet museum while others try to immerse themselves in art. I could picture myself jumping on him and strangling his sorry thin throat. But that's not good manners, so I would breathe and try to get away from him. I succeeded a few times but he always turned up again in some other room! Anyway. The exhibition was fabulous, of drawings from the 16th till 19th centuries. I have been reading "The Pillow Book," written by a waiting lady to the Empress xxx 1500 years ago, and I could hear her voice all throughout. She really has an audible, clear voice which becomes an ear worm after the second page. I miss her when I stop reading.

The entrance to the museum -- Japanese contrasts at play' The elegance of what is announced on the panel in the background and the KWAAI cuteness of the statue symbolizing Nara in the forefront -- with the inevitably masked Japanese in the middle.

Actually, today I was in the "floating world" – doubly so, since it rained the whole day… The "floating world" is English for ukiyo (ukiyo-e : pictures of the floating world). Allow me to cut&paste: During Japan’s Edo period (1615–1868) ukiyo evoked an imagined universe of wit, stylishness, and extravagance—with overtones of naughtiness, hedonism, and transgression. Implicit was a contrast to the humdrum of everyday obligation. Today was pure aesthetic pleasure (except for the last 20 minutes or so when I was hungry, tired, and cold), belonging to another floating world.

From there, I walked to the 100-year old Isuien Garden, next to the 300-year old Yoshiki-en garden, which I had visited the day before. They are both the most beautiful gardens I have ever seen in my whole life. Isuien is a "borrowed landscape," meaning that it uses the surroundings – in this case, three mountains -- as a backdrop.

It used to belong to a rich hemp-cloth merchant (hemp cloth was used by priests and samurai) who used this house as a retreat from his stressful life. He employed a strict tea master to supervise the building of his tea house. There is a big pond, a river running all throughout and around the garden, stone lanterns, huge stones taken from the foundations of an old Buddhist temple which had burnt down, there are stone bridges, an artificial island, a decorative water mill, a moss garden, stepping stones, and of course hundreds of flowers and trees such that one or the other is always in flower – it is a world unto itself. You walk carefully on the stepping stones, which force you to remain in the present, and delight in everything you see. The sound of water accompanies you everywhere (the garden's name means "dependent on water").

A guide jumped on me as I entered, saying he would be my English guide, and although I wasn't too enthusiastic for the first second, I quickly realized that this was yet another opportunity to speak with a local, and I am travelling alone, after all, so it's nice to talk with someone once in a while. He was nice, though a bit bothered by the number of questions I asked and which he couldn't answer. A lady ran after us to give us both an umbrella and sure enough it was soon raining like mad, adding even more charm to the garden, as it filled the pond with circular patterns.

At the end of our tour, I asked the guide where I could have tea, because I had heard there were two tea gardens. He asked someone, who informed him there was one spot left at the 1 o'clock tea ceremony, to be held in half an hour. I had had nothing to eat apart breakfast, but this was too good to miss. So I went around the ceramics exhibit in the old house and fell in love with a tea pot. I took a photo, and saw the price which was €300. More about this later.

My teapot :(

Then I went to the tea ceremony waiting room, where I joined three Japanese ladies, all friends, of around 60-70 years old. They asked me where I was from, and it turned out that the one who spoke some English had visited Turkey. They were lovely; talking and laughing, so sincere... The tea ceremony master picked us up to take us to the ceremony room – which was not heated. These old houses are marvelous, but the walls and window panes might as well not exist... Two of the ladies had low chairs, but I was on my knees and after an hour I was IN PAIN. My friend, seeing me change position, actually asked if I would like to take her chair!!! There were three Japanese, two women and one man, who stayed with us throughout the ceremony. The elder lady prepared the tea, staring at each object (the whisk, the ladle, the tea spoon) as if trying to remember what she was supposed to do with it. Each one of her movements were dictated by strict tradition. She was like an automat. Her way of walking, kneeling (ouch, she was also in pain), serving the tea, everything was so artificial, but it reminded you that what was going on was serious and that you should pay attention. I was very happy to have read about all this before coming to Japan, otherwise I wouldn't have understood half of what was going on! Like when they handed the instruments down to each of us so we could admire them one by one – but I made a mistake by taking the pot which contained the macha in my hand – no!, they exclaimed – I wasn't supposed to take it off the tatami. I had to admire it as it was placed on the floor. But then they took the little macha ladle in their hands... A lovely lady – they were all dressed in traditional kimonos, of course – served us beautiful pink sweets. One of my friends indicated I should eat, and I indicated that I was waiting for her so I could watch and learn! Everything was so complex and codified, I took my time, trying to figure things out. Lots of bowing, and I never understood if I had to bow when the lady next to me was bowing, but she often indicated I should bow. I should have put on some make-up and jewelry and dressed better today... They all thought I would find the tea too bitter, but I think I love all tea... And the sweet was delicious, too. The man who remained with us – he seemed to be there to lead the conversation, a type of male geisha? They laughed heartily and talked about each tea cup (we were served twice, each time in a different, beautiful, unique cup), and the artist who had made it, and the iron cast kettle, down in its hearth, and the utensils, and many other things I couldn't even guess at. Strangely, I didn't feel excluded, and I sincerely enjoyed listening to their delight, and watching the man's lovely smile, and I simply enjoyed being there, in that simple room, overlooking the gorgeous garden. You will make fun of me, but had I allowed myself, I would have cried from joy.

Then I went out to enjoy the garden on my own this time and took a zillion photos to show Serge and to serve as inspiration / a reminder for my garden in Sart-Risbart. We already have stepping stones and a pond – we need to plant more trees, in special places, and use the huge stones we already have...

Three types of covering to protect the moss underneath

The round stones are the remains of the foundations of an ancient Buddhist temple which burnt down and the landscaper re-used

Two things:

One - Each time you go inside in Japan, whether it's a museum, or a hotel, a house, or even some shops, you take off your shoes and wear the slippers that are provided.

Two - Throughout Koyasan and Nara there were umbrellas in front of temples, shops, restaurant, which anyone could take and I hope I didn't misunderstand this and steal anyone's umbrella, but a lady at a shop yesterday indicated I should take whichever one. You take an umbrella, you use it, then you leave it in another umbrella stand somewhere else for the next person in need. It's so cool. It gives you an idea of exactly how much it rains here!! They're all the same transparent plastic umbrella. In Tokyo, every hotel, restaurant and department store had a simple machine which would cover your wet umbrella in plastic. When you exited the restaurant, the guy at the door takes the plastic off with a deft movement. No other country must use such an inordinate amount of plastic. More about that later. Right now we're on another planet… Plastic is too mundane for this one; let's not even mention it.

The park includes a ceramic museum, which I visited right after the park. Looking at the works of art, I thought they closely resembled what I had just admired in the tea ceremony building... I sat down for a second and a beautiful elderly lady came and asked me where I was from. We talked for quite some time, and it turned out she was the artist who had woven the beautiful tapestry in the exhibit. I asked her whether these were all the works of contemporary artists, and she said yes. So the works here are the works of the artists whose works are inside the house?, I asked. She said yes. I thought of the teapot I had admired, in cast iron, and its relatively low price, and ran back there (wear shoes, take off shoes). And found the teapot, and found a guy, and tried to explain to him that I wanted to buy it. He wouldn't understand. I found a lady who I knew spoke English, and told her I wanted that teapot. I WANTED IT. She said, in cash or by card? I said, oh, I have cash. She sort of faltered and said, fine. She then took the price tag in her hand and started to count the zeros out loud, using her finger, and that's when I understood, to my great shame, that there were more zeros than I had wanted to see – it cost not €300 but €3000.... I laughed, blushing. She laughed, another lady who had overheard what was happening laughed – and now I sigh with longing for that teapot. It's not going to be easy to buy anything here; I went to some other shops today and even the tea cups cost €300...

The artist I met with her tapestry

I left that neighborhood (blushing) and came to Naramachi which is one of the most exotic places I have ever been. The houses are all 100 years old two storied buildings, all with dark wood lattice fronts, with a tiny maple tree up front, a beautiful garden in the middle, or the side, or all around... I was able to visit a few, and a few have been converted to shops or restaurants, but mostly it's a residential area, extremely quiet and lovely. The shops all sell traditional crafts, or trendy stuff, and sometimes you have to be courageous to go and see them, because all you see is a sign then it's a long, dark or unkept alley... You walk and walk and suddenly there's the shop, but you can't see inside and you have no idea what they sell!!! But I was energetic, I was curious so I just went in – you really have to want to go in, because again you must take off your shoes and wear slippers... The fact that it was really cold and raining also contributed to the fact that I was ready to do anything to take refuge anywhere.

There are also temples all around this neighborhood, with incredibly beautiful gardens, ponds, the whole package.

I try to make it a rule to stop touristing BEFORE I start to want to die. You know – BEFORE the cold, hunger, exhaustion make you want to just sit down and die on any street corner... Today I passed that limit, especially because it was 3 o'clock by the time the tea ceremony had ended and I had left the ceramics debacle... All I found to eat was a tiny sandwich, and I hadn't wanted to lose time sitting somewhere to eat – THERE'S JUST TOO MUCH TO SEE. My hands were freezing but I had to use them to find a restaurant on my phone, and I finally found one right across the street where I was prepared to lie down and die and here I am, again on tatami mats, again with lovely ceramics, again surrounded by sliding rice-paper screens, again in my socks... I ate splendidly well (eel with rice, a specialty) with warm sake, which warmed my cold bones and although I am not ready to face the cold and rain again, I know I will go to a beautiful hotel where I will remain in the same atmosphere as throughout this beautiful, long day. I left the hotel at 10 AM and it is now 19:25 – I am so glad that Japanese restaurants open at 17:30!

Grilled eel with rice -- wasabi, eel sauce and soja sauce. Delicious.

When I close my eyes in bed tonight, I will continue to see the concentric circles created by the rain on ponds surrounded by beautiful, as yet naked maple trees, with tall cedars willowing about in the wind, and just off the pond, a wooden house with glass sliding doors, a wooden porch all around, the smell of tea, the feeling of warm, round ceramic satisfyingly engulfed in my cold hands, polite yet sincere Japanese voices, the taste of delicious food served on elegant ceramic plates, and slippers, slippers, slippers in cotton, in bamboo, in leather...

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