Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sept. 10: Takayama, Kanazawa

The tail end (actually the front end, as we’ll see) of a typhoon hit late last night, sort of breaking the heat wave. At any rate, it was definitely raining when I woke at 7:15 this morning, making me wonder if I was actually going to be able to do any further exploration in Takayama before my train left just before 1. But the first order of the day was breakfast. I headed downstairs to the Baker’s Field coffee shop (which advertised itself as a California restaurant), resigned to a Western breakfast because when I’d checked in, the girl assured me there was only American breakfast to be had. The pictures made it look semi-appealing, however, so I didn’t seek out any other places, and frankly don’t know where I would have looked.

You’d have been hard put to make a decent American breakfast out of what was on offer, though: some horrid-looking scrambled eggs and a few pastries, plus coleslaw and potato salad. Instead I went for the miso soup, a cup of rice, a wide assortment of pickles, some smoked fish, and a tiny cup of that legendary substance of debate, natto. Folks, natto is gooey. No getting around it. There was a tiny packet inside the well-packed cup with some mustard and something that sort of looked like shoyu, and I mixed that in, but I gotta say it didn’t do much for or against the flavor, which was not unlike baked beans as invented by the Japanese. But gooey? I later found a slime trail down my t-shirt, which must have gotten there from an ill-aimed jab of the sticks.

It was getting onto 8:15 after I’d nabbed some coffee from the vending machines and typed in yesterday’s notes, and I had decided to investigate the north end of town, starting, of course, with the Morning Market. I was starting to get a bit wet by the time I got there, but at least I’d beaten the bus-driven crowds I saw later. What was on offer was what was seasonal. One lady offered me a generous slice of apple from a pile she had, each not only perfect (all Japanese apples are perfect; I guess the rest get made into applesauce or something) but with a trademark, probably put there by applying scotch tape with the trademark in black letters so it doesn’t ripen as dark as the surrounding skin. Amazing. Another granny lady insisted I take an odd green sweet, which was barley sugar and ...something. I eventually gave it to the river, because there was so much else to taste.

One lady was putting the finishing touches on a turban squash, which she’d made into a funny face, and I shot her picture. Another guy insisted I try one of his not-too-sweets, made from sesame (“This one peanut, sesame; this one peanut, sesame; this one peanut, sesame” he said of three different colored varieties of the same thing, each of which tasted differently, and none of them of peanuts), and there were also eggplants in sizes between thumb size and the length of my hand, okra, those peppers that look like large serrano chiles but are mild, some early gourd squashes, some really sick-colored tomatoes (reminiscent of the ones I grew in the Bay Area before I learned you can’t ripen them there), and several miso and shoyu merchants who were grilling those leaves like I’d had for dinner last night.

Past the market was the road to the two houses, the Kusakabe Mingeikan and the Yoshijima-ke. The former Nick’s book describes as a “folk art museum,” but it’s hard to tell what exactly is on display here, since the little English sheet they give you doesn’t really say and there’s no other English documentation. It’s a nice enough house, built in the 1880s by a master builder for a guy whose family made most of its money loaning money to the local government, after his ancestral home burned down. They serve you tea and rice crackers after you pad around the tatamis in your socks, but I wasn’t too impressed, especially since a video downstairs which explains the house in Japanese has some of that horrible fake classical music the Japanese seem to do so “well,” cf. the hall music in the hotels, and you could hear it vaguely from just about everywhere in the place.

Since it was next door, I went to the Yoshijima-ke after watching some guys across the street make tatamis for a while. This house is notable for what’s not in it. No collection of ceramics and kimonos, just great bare lines, amazing light, a scroll or two, and, at the moment, some contemporary artist’s ink paintings. It was built in 1905, and after looking at the pictures of the Hamburg art collectors’ houses in the teens and ‘20s at a show earlier this year, I tried to imagine the impact something like this would have had on a European who was used to the clutter and chaos of lines that, even in the ‘20s, were the norm. Any architect with any pretensions towards reform would have had his brain strip-mined by this place. It’s still avant-garde. And they insisted I have some coffee afterwards, so now I was full as could be.

There was still a lot of time left before I had to grab my bags and head to the station, so I headed back to Sannomachi, where, not being desperate and hungry, I took things much slower.

This time I noticed the globes of cryptomeria above the sake brewers’ shops, looked carefully at some of the weird food items (mostly pickles), and found that you can buy miso and leaves for grilling (of course this means you then have to buy a charcoal burner and a little screen to put the leaf on), checked some of the lacquerware and ceramics on sale, and just dawdled around. Takayama is famous for its spring and fall fesivals, which involve a dozen or so floats being carried through the streets. The rest of the year, they “live” in sort of garages throughout the town, and there’s a plaque in front of each explaining its history. Before each, there’s a little box with a rubber stamp. I guess Japanese tourists carry a book with them and, having found each float, stamp the book with its image. Voila: the origin of Pokemon: gotta catch ’em all!

Still having time to kill, I walked down to the street where I’d bought the ale the night before and strolled it slowly, checking out what Takayamans really buy. At one place, I saw a guy making vegetable sushi, just about to start dealing with some he was unwrapping. He saw me looking and waved me in. He was a young guy, in his 30s, and spoke impeccable English because he’d hung out some in San Francisco. We talked food (“Indian food is the best: I went to Calcutta and Benares to eat it.”) and he showed me how this pressed rice was covered with ginger and then layered with pickled daikon. I didn’t want to delay him, since the lunch hour was coming on and people would be in to buy bentos, but I left feeling good, once again.

That street stretched on much further than I’d thought and pretty soon I was walking under a New Orleans-like covered sidewalk checking out this and that along the way. Best was a record shop with a poster for what might be a battle of the bands, with the words “Pizza of Death Crap” at the bottom. Definitely worth a pic. And, opening up off of this street was what was evidently the “entertainment quarter,” jammed with bars and places with names like Ruby Snack, which sure didn’t look like they served many snacks. But the bars all seemed to be tiny and they were jammed together like nobody’s business. Weird: in America, you’d try to have as big a bar as possible and attract a lot of folks to it. Here, a ten-man bar would seem to be the norm.

Death Pizza Records turned out to be an interesting story: started by a guy who'd financed it by being a pizza delivery guy, who said "Desu pizza" -- "Here's your pizza" -- each time he delivered one. "It sounded like 'Death Pizza' to me,' he said, so that became the name of the label. Oddly, it featured wispy folkie acoustic stuff, for the most part.

Trouble is, that took me out from under the cover at a point when it really started coming down. I was pretty soaked by the time I got to the hotel to claim my luggage, and I noticed that I hadn’t closed the flap on my shoulder bag and some of my reading matter was the worse for water. Ugh.

Finally made it to the station, waited a few minutes, and here came the train to Toyama, where I’d change for the 45-minute trip to Kanazawa. Great trip, too: nearly all agricultural, especially once we climbed out of the mountains and got into the coastal flatlands. Rice predominated, in tiny fields stuck anywhere they could be stuck. Often, a small cemetery looked out over the rice-fields, which I found moving. Farmers in conical hats and the traditional jackets were working them, too, right out of Hiroshige’s Manga. There were orchards, several kinds of squash growing here and there, lots of taro, with its elephant-ear leaves, and other stuff I couldn’t identify. The scale of the fields -- I don’t eat much rice, but I probably could empty one of the smaller ones in a year if you count restaurant food -- made me wonder where the giant agribusiness was. Surely it’s there.

Certainly other kinds of giant businesses have imposed themselves on Toyama. It didn’t look like such a hot place and doesn’t get many words in Nick’s book. Pretty soon the Thunderbird, headed for Osaka, came and I headed to Kanazawa.

Kanazawa greeted me with more rain, and although I could see my hotel, I couldn’t seem to get to it, which was frustrating. I eventually plowed through the station’s bus depot and found my way there. The Holiday Inn, recommended by Nick’s book, was...a Holiday Inn. I’d hoped it was the ideal combo of East and West the Best Western had been in Takayama, but it turned out to be the good old green and shades-of-brown Holiday Inn of the ‘60s, from which it almost certainly dates. It being way too early for dinner, I decided to find the market, which had been recommended (the sushi guy in Takayama called it the “Fisherman’s Wharf of Japan”), and took off uncertainly towards it. This city, for certain, wasn’t as tourist-friendly as Takayama, which, to be fair, probably makes a good deal of its living off of tourism (and as such is a pretty good orientation spot for this country). There are no maps, no tourist brochures, in English, and no tourist office in the train station that I could ever find. But I eventually found the market and it was hopping at 5 o’clock as people jammed it, searching for late-day bargains. What was evident was that the crab were in, several different kinds, in fact, including one which looked like it was covered with hair, as well as the more famous snow crab. There was also a weird medicine stand with dried snakes and turtles. But people were pulling up their stands, and I’d gotten a good idea what was there, so I made my pass through and decided to head back. Since the Miyako across the street from my hotel had a good skyline profile, I decided I wouldn’t get lost if I deviated from my previous route, so I walked down a street and found another market. This was a covered one like the food market, but had other kinds of shops in it; some marked with what appeared to be the seal of some organization which specialized in certifying the place’s adherence to tradition. One made shrines for the home, another cloth. The place was almost deserted, although some shops were still open. I left, walked down a road leading to the hotel, and passed a huge shrine which abutted the covered market.

Back at the hotel, I was wet, sweaty, and badly in need of a shower, which I took, phoning the front desk for a reservation (which it turned out I hardly needed) at the recommended seafood restaurant in the basement. I typed the first part of this, read about the town in the book, and wondered if I’d be able to venture out at all tomorrow. At 8:30 I went down for dinner, and got a “set” of mixed seafood with something resembling mayonnaise; a soup called jibujibu which was brought to the table raw and mounted on a brazier, which heated the iron pot and boiled the soup, cooking the duck meat, mushrooms and vegetables within; sashimi, including the local “sweet shrimp”; a small portion of crab; various pickles, miso soup, and the piece de resistance, a fried crabshell filled with crabmeat and breadcrumbs, resembling an American “stuffed crab,” right down to the mayo and frozen green peas. Weird.

After that I headed to a beer-store nearby I’d found on my walk and got a couple of cans of that Kirin autumn beer, which had a light sourness to its usual ricey crispness that was hard to place. Very nice stuff; I saw Sapporo also makes one, so that’s for tomorrow night. Bed at 11:30 (good heavens), only to discover the infamous Japanese buckwheat-husk pillow. Ow.

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