As a corollary to my recent trip to New York, the visit to Nippon deserves a post of its own. Before leaving Japan, I asked a friend who used to work for Asahi television in USA for an authentic japanese restaurant in NY. He had no hesitation in recommending me “Nippon”, on E 52nd street, also known as the “unofficial cultural Japanese Consulate in NY”.
I kept the visit for the last day (Sunday) at lunch and when I arrived I had the shocking surprise to find the restaurant closed! Somebody was moving inside and I decided to knock on the glass and at least say hello. They were very kind to let me in and started talking. The restaurant was closed as they were having a tasting session by the Japan Airlines officials as – yes! the restaurant Nippon is providing the food consumed on the flights back to Japan. Hearing that I am an architect, they showed me the private tatami room near the entrance, simple but striking, built with premium material by a japanese “toryo” master carpenter.
The restaurant was opened here in 1963 by Nobuyoshi Kuraoka and his wife. Since then, they have been frontrunners when it comes to delivering the authentic japanese culinary experience to the USA. Mr. Kuroda purchased farmland in Canada to grow soba buckwheat, installed a machine to produce tofu in the kitchen and won a 5-year long legal battle to legalize the import and consumption of the potentially poisonous (but delicious) fugu blow-fish.
All celebrities you can think are regulars here: from baseball Hideo Matsui to Bloomberg the Major. From Japan`s prime minister Shinzo Abe to tennis champion Novak Djokovic. Mr. Kuroda is also famous for having supported many athletes and golf champions who were struggling at the beginning of their careers. Too good to be true?
If it sounds like a plot for the next superman`s movie, well it is not. Mr. Kuroda and his wife left this World in 2018 but their outstanding successes are a shining example of what a man can do when he has motivation and clear vision.
Now the Restaurant is in the capable hands of the general manager Yasuhiro Makoshi, his wife and the chef Akira Azuma, for 40 years behind the counter.
But the story does not end here. While the restaurant was closed, the manager and his wife offered me to sit on the bench in the waiting area and served me a “small snack” – service from the chef. What come out from the kitchen was a delicious soba noodles salad with wagyu thin sliced beef. I really felt like the prodigal son returning home without notice and finding the benevolent mom and dad happy to feed me with what was in the house. This confirms that the generosity, sense of hospitality and warm heart planted by Kuraoka did not depart with them but are now part of the DNA of Nippon.
On a side story, with so many celebrities enjoying the delicious cuisine of Nippon, I suggested that if Donald Trump ate this soul food, chances were that the curse would break and Donald would turn into a nice guy… On the other hand, I had the feeling that he would not be welcome here. Sorry, Donald…
On the quest of a woodworking atelier that can help me create the right furniture for a super-brand store I am working on, I met with Toshio Tokunaga.
His atelier is in the Kobe countryside, next to his residence (who he built himself 25 years ago) and in front of a vegetable garden is also adjoining a temple which hosts a festival once a year.
We arrived there in a winter afternoon and the setting was just like stepping on a stage of Kurosawa Akira. Smoke, sharp strokes of light from the dying sun, country sounds. The atmosphere was primed with an explosive concentration of poetic charm.
Tokunaga sensei was surrounded by young apprentices, friendly, understated. But the wood board floor showing the scars of thousands of births, the table we sit at, stained with sweat and passion and the religious dedication of his apprentices were clear signs of the genius.
Tokunaga sensei was himself disciple of a giant: the Kyoto based woodwork artist and “Japanese National Cultural Treasure” Hekigai Takeuchi. Tokunaga`s core concept is based on the use of the japanese hand planer (kanna). With this tool it is possible to cut sharply the wood fibers (as opposed to the use of sandpaper) thus conferring shine, hardness and durability to the object he finishes which do not need any paint finish. Here below is a comparative microscope photo.
Let me mention two other points about his “kanna thoughts” I really found enlightening.
Tokunaga sensei uses the plane also to finish curved, three dimensional and organic shapes. “When you use the plane on a curved surface, you create narrow faces of a polyhedron. Each face reflects the light and provide sharp edges to guide the eye. When finished with kanna, a curved shape becomes more iconic, its line is crisp and meaningful.”
using kanna is not only finishing the wood, it is more like communicating with the material. While planing, you feel the wood direction, its soft and hard spots. You interpret the message already contained in the wood, you help revealing the shape that is already there. He goes as far as saying: “It is difficult to become a good craftsman if you do not have an understanding of nature. All people that played in a river in their childhood (before turning age five) have the potential of becoming a skilled craftsmen”.
(I read a similar concept about mindfulness from a 3rd century Chinese classic “Prince-Wen-Huis-Cook” and his technique in cutting meat! – but this is another story…)
Mr. Tokunaga speaks English so you can contact him directly for any information/project/quotation etc. If you need some help, let me know: any alibis is welcome for me in order to be able to work with these incredible craftsmen who reveal the deep philosophy of life through their hands.
After 21 years of living in Japan, I finally had the opportunity to visit Hiroshima. The A-bomb memorial left me very deep emotions. I feel more adult, more responsible, I feel stronger after the visit. Again, photos and videos are here if you want to visit through my eyes. https://photos.app.goo.gl/kD9QotW8YP8yLLLh9
From there is also possible to board a powerboat to Miyajima (about 45min.), the famous shrine with the orange torii emerging from the waves. You can buy the round trip ticket but if you get the one way only, you will have more options to choose from for the return trip.
Miyajima was wonderful beyond the imagination! I do not know why it took me 21 years to make it here! There are friendly but wild dears strolling around. Unfortunately, the famous torii was under restoration: an additional reason to come again.
On the island, the atmosphere is relaxed, few cars, the shrine surrounded by the sand and water is just spectacular and all the other sites and the village itself are a paradise if you enjoy taking photographs. I am an amateur photographer and just used the phone but I hope that the photos at the link below can stir your appetite… https://photos.app.goo.gl/fk3VTAUbBKxn2EHy7
This december day was blessed by a warm sun, wild clouds and the colors of the autumn maples. The only problem was the little time. I definitely want to return soon, maybe in springtime and definitely with a full day to mindlessly stroll around…
Following from the previous blog entry, after the visit at the Furuya house, we had lunch with the city hall staff and other consultants and I spoke about the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route and how many European tourists skip the beaten track and head straight to the Koya-san monasteries.
(If you are not familiar, the Kumano Kodo is a 4 to 6 days pilgrimage trail also designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Wakayama prefecture)
Wouldn`t it lead to positive results both culturally and economically to appeal to these tourists rather than opening yet another aquarium with jumping dolphins?
My comment was maybe superficial – also considering the fact that I did not yet walk the Kumano route myself. I just felt that if we had to find the Hannan hidden potential it was probably not on the tetrapods of the reclaimed shores but rather on the trails connecting Sakai to Mino and to Koya-san. This generated a very interesting conversation about Shugen-do and maybe with some potential to change the destiny of the area.
Shugendo is a syncretic theosophy, with some similarities to the shamanism of the American Indians or the celtic druidism at its base (just to add another layer of syncretism…) Shu-gen-do (literally: PRACTICE + MIRACLE + PATH) is the “path to gaining special powers as the result of training”. It was founded by En no Gyoja in the VII century and combined elements of ancient pre-Buddhist, Shinto worship of nature together with the doctrine and ritual of esoteric Buddhism (Mikkyo), Taoism, Onmyōdō, astronomy, medicine etc.
The Shugen-do practitioners are also known as Yamabushi and have to spend time in the mountains (one trip for each season, 4 times a year) and learn from nature the truth about life. Thanks to this experience, they gain knowledge of curative herbs and in the past acted as healers and were believed to have superpowers. (As a side story, many ninjas used yamabushi techniques for fighting and disguised under the robes of pilgrims.) You can find a lot of information on the internet about yamabushis: let me just add one comment (as I did not find it elsewhere) : the best definition of what “Yama”-“bushi” are can be found in the literal reading of the kanji: “mountain” + “human + dog”: in the sense that practitioners seek freedom from the control of their rational mind to become like animals a part of nature and understand its rules and power.
Shugendo was outlawed by the Meji government as the newly established Emperor was aiming at creating a simple pyramidal structure where he was the chief of a depurated Shinto religion and therefore Buddhism and Shintoism had to be forcibly separated. (Before then, most of the sacred sites included Buddhist and Shinto buildings side by side, as you can still see in Asakusa – which is now an exception). In any case, the Yamabushi continued their training in secret until they were rehabilitated after WWII. During the years of concealment, Shugen-do was mainly absorbed within the Shingon Buddhism and Tendai Buddhism influencing its present structure and rituals.
But the core component of Shugen-do is very simple and there is no sacred text or theory. You just have to walk (in silence) in the mountains and go through trials like climbing a steep cliff, meditate under a cold waterfall or walk on fire. Nature will teach you the truth about life, without the necessity for any interpretation or mediation. No theory, just do it! Isn`t it powerful?
There were hundreds of holy mountains providing the challenges and the teachings necessary to become a wise man but the most famous areas for wanderers are:
The now lost paths of Mino (north of Osaka) and Ikoma mountains where En no Gyoja, fascinated by the red maple leaves started to develop his practices.
The most famous of all times is the Omine mountain range which includes the Kumano, Kinpusen and Yoshino super-holy sites, making it the mecca of the “mountain wisdom seekers”.
Koya-san was not properly a Shugen-do site but of course distinctions were much more fuzzy in the past. It is technically part of the Kii-Omine mountain range but it is so sacred that I am listing it separately. Koya san was connected to Sakai and Osaka by a pilgrimage route.
Dewa Sanzan – the Three Sacred Mountains in Yamagata prefecture (north-west Tohoku). Mount Haguro, “the mountain representing the existing world,” Mount Gassan, “the mountain representing the past,” and Mount Yudono, “the mountain representing the future,” alone can teach you everything you ever hoped to know … and more!
Hakusan (lit. white mountain) is the collective name for a number of sacred Japanese mountains that converge along the borders of four prefectures (Ishigawa, Fukui, Gifu, and Toyama) in northwest Honshū From early on, Hakusan was known as a “mountain realm inhabited by kami” and banned to normal people.
The Isu peninsula with its ancient hot springs holy sites and Shinto-Buddist – one thousand handed Kannon statues
Mt. Ontake in the Kiso Region (Nagoya)
The Katsuragi mountain in Nara prefecture
The Ishizuchi mountain in Shikoku Island
Last but not least, Hiko-mountain in Kyushu featuring giant buddhas carved in the cliff.
The practice included some rituals before “entering-into-the-peak” (nyubu girei) but as those traditions were handed down orally, there are very few traces remaining nowadays. But most importantly (and here I am coming to the point of this long entry) each path consisted of a number of stages: practical experiences to be done in order to absorb the wisdom from nature. These stages were marked by stone tablets or kannon statues, so that the practitioners could understand where to stop and what hint to look for. The Omine path has en route 75 ascetic practice stages called “Nabiki“. Other paths consist of 33 stations, symbolic of the 33 manifestations of Kannon Bodhisattva.
And here is my idea and proposal. Did you know that the twenty-eight chapters of the Lotus Sutra were buried among the peaks in the Katsuragi range which extends from Futagamiyama (Nara) to Kada (at the gates of Wakayama)? At present only a few stations are known (#1 being a cliff in Tomogashima and #7 being a cold waterfall). Also, it is amazing that the Katsuragi route would connect to the Omine and the Kumano pilgrimage route forming a triangle. Onigashima is the island with the spectacular ruins of the Japanese Imperial Army batteries which is worth a visit alone! And there are 26 sutras that are waiting to be found in the mountains leading back to Yoshino, in the heart of the old country of Yamato, the heart of Japan.
Don`t you think it would be extremely thrilling to re-discover the forgotten Shugen-do path together with its treasures of wisdom? The location is also ideal making it easy for the visitors of Koya san to intercept at least some stations. Also, being the Katsuragi mountains quite low it would be possible to cover the pilgrimage in 2 days creating an introductory experience for those who could then decide to wander the Kumano or Omine range on their next trip. It would be culturally exciting – and I think also commercially successful to rediscover and restore in a non-invasive way the old Shugen-do Katsuragi path and all of its 28 stations. What do you think?
Giving it a try, instead of just wrapping ourselves in theoretical thinking. Learning while experiencing this wonderful World we have all for us: isn`t it the perfect antidote against the invisible force that sucks our time and confines our lives behind a virtual facebook avatar?
I would appreciate it if you let could let me know your opinion about such a project (via email or by commenting below) as I could use these data to convince the authorities to look at concrete ways to implement the project. I know, it is not an easy way but – hey! – if it was easy what is the point?
I have been invited by Hannan City, in Wakayama prefecture to participate in a committee to study ways of promoting tourism and valorizing the historical heritage. Hannan City is just east of the bridge conneting to the Kansai Airport artificial island. Since most of the traffic is westward (towads Sakai and Osaka), Hannan City – as well as Wakayama City – is cut out
It is needless to touch in this article the shadows of the whole deal: the mountain flattened to infill the airport, the abstract monument made of rocks on the beach and closed to the public by a barricade, the strategies and alliances to split the cake of the public aids or create yet another theme park with dolphin shows.
But there are also chances to save the old buildings still standing, with some compromises. One of the more notable house is the Furuya house. Boosting a 1200 uninterrupted lineage as rulers of the area, the Hatanaka samurais, at the time of the Meji restoration had to pick up a last name as a “civil” family and properly picked Furuya which means Old house (in the meaning of old lineage). The Hatanakas owned a land of about 20 cho (200 hectares). A military airport build during the WWII deprived them of 50 hectares and the Nankai trail line exprepriated some other land and left them with the about 6 hectares of the present lot. Which is still a huge lot by any standard.
From some 400 years the Furuyas have been the rice tax exactors on behalf of the government and the property consists of a kind of maze of some 10 buildings connected by courtyards and gardens. The lot has its own 500years old well and its own river: unfortunately its boulders have been cementified but nevertheless, this forested area is a paradise for the birds and kind of an unreal experience for us that are not used to hearing birds chirping. The property has 5 tea rooms and many artifacts worth being classified as important historical asset. The asymmetrical ranma transom, the sword guards used as door handles attracted the attention of the academics for the past 40 years but as there is no benefit but only burdens in listing the house as an historical property, the owners have been steering off this way. As the owner age approaches 94, I hope we will be able to do something to preserve the property: a rare piece of civil architecture left to show us the structure of the society in the Edo period and even before.
I am splitting the description of the Hannan city visit. Please check the next blog entry as well.
I am dedicating this post to my friend Anke who is an architect like me and I am sure would love the architecture and displays of this museum.
Takenaka Komuten Co. is one of the most famous “super-general contractors” in Japan, having built the Tokyo Tower, the Tokyo Dome Stadium as well as other major airports, public buildings, skyscrapers. Being founded in 1603 it is definitely the oldest of the “big 5” general contractors (with Obayashi, Kajima, Shimizu, and Taisei) After the WW2, when Japan was exposed to power tools, reinforced concrete and steel frame construction, Takenaka felt the need to preserve the heritage and the memory of the glorious japanese timber frame construction techniques and culture and founded this “Tools Museum” https://www.dougukan.jp/information?lang=en
It was transferred 7 years ago to an idyllic location just a few minutes away from the shinkansen “Shin Kobe” station making it easy to visit even if you have to make a detour. I am telling you: it is definitely worth a visit and after having a clear understanding about japanese construction culture and details you will appreciate much more your visits to the temples in Nara or Kyoto.
The beautiful high-tech and warmly handmade building by Takenaka Komuten is a must-see in itself, featuring maniac woodworking details, huge glass openings framing the luxurious green and the plasterwork of the master Akira Kusumi.
Big news within the news: I will be offering a guided tour of the museum in english for visitors coming to Kobe on a cruise. The organizer is JTB the tour operator and at present we are looking at a schedule of about once a month starting in january 2020. For this purpose I was showed around by the museum director himself: wonderful man formerly member of the design section of Takenaka Komuten. I took some 224 pictures and I would like to share them with you hoping they can provide a good enough excuse to bring you to Kobe. I am not going to share all of the 220+shots, but they will still be too many for a normal blog post. I will try to use a photo gallery plugin hoping it works. Please let me know of any usability or compatibility problem.
In the past year I have been developing a friendly relationship with Mr. Kitayama: an art collector and art broker from Kyoto. He has amazing pieces and he would be interested to know foreign art collectors interested in purchasing/trading. Of course he is very cautious but he agreed to this blog post. I hope I can act as a bridge between him and western collectors who can appreciate his pieces.
Most of the information is confidential but he allowed me to publish here 3 photos just to explain the type of items he can offer.
He has many Buddha statues. One even from the Nara Period, with some minor fire damage (but I could not publish the photo). Some statues are slightly unfinished and were never displayed. Also I saw many photos of kakejiku scrolls, byobu screens ceiling decorative panels etc. from the Muromachi period (XIV century) to the Edo period (XIX century)
The reality is that most japanese art collectors are now very elderly. Their heirs are not interested in those pieces and they are scared at the thought that their jewels could be sold in bulk to some Chinese trader for 1/10 of the value.
His network includes many owners of collections of hundreds of baroque violins, french impressionist paintings and ancient chinese porcelain. Of course, I cannot swear on the originality of every item but I have trust in Mr. Kitayama and know of too many scrolls and porcelain thrown in the dump together with the debris of the house after the owner passes away.
He does not have an homepage and most of the items are hidden in “kura” buried among old furniture and cardboard boxes. For those interested, please contact me by email.
Sometimes a name keeps popping up that intrigues you but doesn’t register on a deeper level. Such is the case for the word or name Nipponia. I first came across the Nipponia Hotel in Kushimoto, Wakayama. One of the newest hotels in the chain, it’s not quite on the radar yet – watch this space!
We’re huge fans of Wakayama with a couple of our own projects in the area.
With the name Nipponia coming up more and more often I started to do some research. I immediately fell in love with the concept of this hotel group and I think you will love it too.
You may not know that Japan is in the grips of a crisis that shows no signs of abating. The problem is that of the ageing population, with 30% or more people over the age of 60. Another problem that exacerbates this is rural-urban migration. Japan is littered with small rural towns barely eeking out an existence after jobs dried up and young people moved to seek work in cities like Tokyo or Osaka.
Enter companies like Nipponia
(parent company VMG)
“… creates tourism demand through the use of old houses in Kushimoto-Cho, Higashinada-gun promotes exchanges utilizing the rich nature and food of Kushimoto-Cho and makes use of local resources for income or employment. The purpose is to make efforts to increase the number of people and to revitalize the region”
Nipponia Hotels are being developed right across Japan with a keen eye towards nostalgic stays and memory-creating experiences. Traditional homes and buildings are lovingly converted into hotels and restaurants, preserving as much of the history as possible to retain the unique charm of the era and the area.
We think a couple of months stay in Japan should be enough time to experience each of these rich historical areas. We’ve created an itinerary for you. This is an unbiased, non-sponsored post. We just love the concept and want to share it with you. With most of their resources in Japanese, it’s hard to discover these gems by yourself.
First stay near Tokyo
Start your adventure in Tokyo, flying into Narita or Haneda.
The merchant town Edo Experience, staying amid the 600-year history of Sawara.
Merchant town Sawara, which flourished by taking advantage of water transportation on the Tone River in the Edo period, has been designated as one of the Important Preservation Districts for Groups of Historic Buildings, and the Sawara Festival, which has been held since the Edo period, has been registered as UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage. Sawara Merchant Town Hotel NIPPONIA portrays Sawara town as a single hotel with buildings, including at least one merchant home built more than 200 years ago, in various parts of the city. The atmosphere of Edo, which has been lost in Tokyo through the changing times, remains fresh and alive here in Sawara, with nostalgic but fresh spectacles appearing before your eyes. As you stroll through town with a fresh breeze blowing, imagine the history of Sawara and experience the culture of this living merchant town.
You’ll make your way west to Nara (by train) where you will stay at the:
NIPPONIA HOTEL 奈良 ならまち / Nipponia Naramachi (link)
Experience the charm of sake and the ancient capital in Nara, the birthplace of sake.
Nara is said to be the first place in Japan where sake was brewed using rice. Realizing the concept of a “sake hotel,” NIPPONIA HOTEL Naramachi stands in the Naramachi area in the former grounds of Gangoji Temple, in a precinct that retains distinct townscapes from the Edo to Taisho periods. In line with this concept, the hotel was renovated from a grand traditional residence and the former brewery of the Toyosawa Shuzou company, which was founded in the Meiji period. Dine at a counter in the hotel’s Restaurant Le Un in a space renovated from the former doma earthen floor part of the residence. The restaurant has an extensive cellar, including rare sakes exclusive to Restaurant Le Un and raw sakes delivered directly from Nara Toyosawa Shuzou. Enjoy to your heart’s content the pleasure of pairing sakes with dishes highlighting the local produce of Nara.
Bypassing Osaka, you will head directly to your next destination (again by train):
A town-center auberge located in the center of Toyooka.
Auberge Toyooka 1925 was renovated from the building used as the Toyooka Branch of the Hyogo Prefectural Agricultural and Industrial Bank (formerly Toyooka City Hall Southern Building). It is now modernization heritage designated a National Registered Tangible Cultural Property. Offers rooms designed to preserve the modern architecture of the early Showa period, and French cuisine prepared from local produce. The hotel also has a sweets shop and a bar. Get in touch with the history of Toyooka at Nakajima Jinja Shrine, which enshrines the sweets deity Tajimamorinomikoto and is not far away. Tsuiyama fishing port is close, so guests can enjoy the delights of seafood from the Sea of Japan, while the fertile soil has also made famous such brand produce as Tajima Beef, Kasumi Crabs, and Kounotori Rice. One of the best parts of your stay will be to stretch your wings and do a tour of the hot springs at Kinosaki Onsen. We hope you enjoy a relaxing time.
Your journey continues to take you west, this time to:
Relive the days of the “Hama-danna” in Takehara, made prosperous by the bounty of Setouchi, salt, and sake.
Takehara is a salt town that retains the beautiful townscapes of olden times when the salt industry flourished. The splendid residence of the wealthy salt farm owners, known as the “Hama-danna” (“salt magnates”), sits at the heart of the townscape today. Their scholarly attainments were extensive, they had very discerning tastes in food, and now Takehara’s food culture thrives. Thanks to the Hama-danna, the town has an extensive historical legacy of development. NIPPONIA HOTEL Takehara Salt Farm Town lets you experience the life and culture of the Hama-danna. Superior local sake made by 3 long-established sake breweries established more than 150 years ago. Produce such as seafood, citrus, and olives nurtured in the mild climate of Setouchi. Expand your gourmet horizons by combining a variety of sakes and produce with the different tastes of salts from different areas made using different methods. Experience a journey of new discoveries through the cultivated lifestyles of the Hama-danna in a city that retains this culture.
If you think you will make it as far as Kyushu (why not?!!) then the last in the chain is:
HOTEL CULTIA 太宰府 / Nipponia Dazaifu / Hotel Cultia (link)
What do you think?
What an incredible tour of the pockets of Japan. Let us know which ones you plan to visit. You could take advantage of a Japan Rail Pass for this trip!
See the entire list here on Google Maps and you’ll see how much of Japan’s magnificent landscape and history you can experience:
Hinoki Esential Oil is both calming and uplifting. Like the scent of a forest on a warm summer day, the scent of Hinoki is earthy, lemony, fresh.
Our original Bartok design Hinoki Essential Oil is the purest you will find. We extract the oil ourselves from off-cuts, shavings and wood chips – all real wood. There are no twigs, leaves or bark in our product resulting in a pure clean scent that is unparalleled. The complexity of our oils is exceptionally deep.
The Bartok design Pocket Onsen Set contains a choice of two oils:
Hinoki Cypress is extracted from trees roughly 40 years old. A ‘young tree’ used in construction, for decorative items, religious artefacts and furniture. Our bath accessories are made from this wood which gives us a good supply of offcuts from which to extract the gorgeous essential oil.
Special Reserve Hinoki 250 is extracted from mature growth trees, usually at least 250 years old. The wood from older trees is compacted tightly which makes it ideal for use in wet zones such as the bathroom. Therefore we use this wood to make our Japanese ‘ofuro’ soaking tubs. Like a fine wine, cheese or whiskey, the aged product has a complexity and depth not seen in younger wood.
*It is also possible to order a ‘compare set’ with one of each oil.