Japan is nicknamed as the “land of the rising sun” but not everybody knows that New Zealand actually enters the new year one hour earlier than Japan.
Nevertheless, considering the landscape, the culture, the personality of the Japanese, I think that there could be no better nickname!
In Japan it is custom to spend the last evening of the year laid-back at home and get up early to climb on high ground to contemplate the first sunrise of the year.
This year I was in Shikoku, on Inoyama – also known as Sanuki Fuji for its beautiful perfect conic shape – near Zentsuji in Kagawa prefecture. The sky was clear and the angle was unobstructed. The sun is popping out as an egg yolk being tossed out from the belly of the mountain. I can understand the sense of surprise and reverence that pre-blue-screen generations may have felt everyday contemplating the most important daily event on earth: the rise of the sun.
Even if it is only once a year, assisting to this extraordinary miracle always has a powerful effect of filling up my energy cells while grounding all the negative stress. I do not know if I can call it a mindfulness experience but I am a big fan of the “hatsuhinode”: the 1/1 sunrise watching.
Of course one could do it 365 times in a year (366 times in 2020!) but nothing compares to enjoy it from a place like this, with the mindset of january 1st, feeling the warmth of the first rays shaking the winter night.
I wanted to share with you this moment with the auspice that 2020 can be a shining year for you: bringing happiness, health, and prosperity!!
2020 is also the year of the Olympic games and I am sure you will feel closer to Japan than ever. If you want to celebrate the games with a bottle of sake, do not forget to dress it properly with our “kimono bottle covers”. New colors, new package. Check the shop here-> https://bartokdesign.com/product/kimono-bottle-covers
Then I visited a construction site on Central park West and hugged the owner with whom I have been in contact for few months. The view from the living (and from the glazed bathroom and bedroom) is absolutely breathtaking!
Then I visited a huge loft in Greenwich Village. Also here 2 hinoki bathtubs and a very open layout.
The adventure continues with the visit to an aroma shop who is selling my original hinoki essential oil. Enfleurage Inc. – 237 W 13th St, New York (near 14th station @ 8th Ave)
Lovely space, lovely smells, lovely people!! Tantalized by the fast pitched New York schedule, I forgot to take a photo with the people in the shop (the owner was traveling to Italy – I knew it). This is the biggest regret of the trip – at the same time a perfect excuse to come back again soon!
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.
We’re huge fans of this beautiful country. Japan has so much to offer, from gorgeous scenery to historical places to stunning centuries-old temples. You could spend decades here and not see everything (as we can attest to).
Unfortunately, like many places around the world, Japan suffers from a new phenomenon, overtourism.
Overtourism describes destinations where hosts or guests, locals or visitors, feel that there are too many visitors and that the quality of life in the area or the quality of the experience has deteriorated unacceptably.
If you’re like us then you probably don’t love crowded places and you definitely don’t want to experience first-hand the devastation caused by overtourism (litter, graffiti and a general disrespect for the place).
But at the same time you have a bucket list with things on it. We get it, you want to see Kinkaku-ji and the Great Buddha or Todai-ji.
A photo at Fushimi-Inari-Taisha … would be epic but did you know there is an even better place to see these iconic red tori gates? Motonosumi Inari Jinja is “an impressive sight” in a beautiful location, in Yamaguchi prefecture.
Bartok design fans tell us they love Japanese architecture. While you are in Yamaguchi you must visit the Kintaikyo Bridge it is “quintessentially Japanese”.
And we all know that one of the BEST things to do while in Japan is visit an onsen hotspring. Check out these off-the-beaten-track places: JNTO onsen recommendations. Our friends in Beppu speak highly of the new Intercontinental hotel there. Oita is full of more budget-friendly places too. We wrote about that.
The Japanese Tourism promotion board is serious about welcoming wonderful people of the world to this fine country but also wants you to enjoy your trip and not have to deal with the negatives of overtourism. They’ve created this whole website for just that. We love their categories: Onsen & spa, Meditation & mindfulness … our suitcases are packed if JNTO wants us to visit 🙂
The team here at Bartok design love off the beaten path destinations in Japan. This past year we visited the Kumano Kodo sacred pilgrimage trails and the historical Nakasendo Trail. Check out our blog posts about these trips.
Tell us where you are planning to visit and why you chose that location? We’d love to hear more. If you post to Instagram tag us so we can share snippets of your trip to Japan!
In a world where it is as easy as a click of a button to start the process of a bathroom renovation, it’s equally easy to overlook where the products you’re using were sourced from and where the products you will dispose of actually end up.
It’s important to us that you know your Bartok design, wooden Japanese bathtub comes from sustainable resources and is ultimately a biodegradable item at the end of its lifecycle.
Japan is only a small country, roughly the size of the state of California. With its huge population of 120 million people, would it surprise you to learn that Japan is almost 70% covered in trees?
With such massive forests and few other natural resources, it is no surprise that trees and the wood they provide have an important place in history. Wood is the main building material used in the construction of houses, buildings and religious buildings such as temples.
Historically the five trees of Kiso were most prized. Hinoki, the king of trees, was reserved for use by nobility. Whole mountains were claimed as the property of feudal leaders and of temples in order that the wood needed for new construction and repairs would always be available.
Starting in 1600s Japan began to view theses natural resources as worth caring for and conserving, mainly at the behest of a conservation-minded feudal lord. Huge swathes of forest were designated as national parks and native species came under the protection of the lord (with severe penalties for illegal felling or even gathering wood from the forests).
We note that this is way ahead of other civilisations!
Wood remains an important material in Japan and is also viewed globally as being a sustainable material.
Of course, there is an economic motivation behind this as well as a conservation perspective. In any country, forests provide a source of income for rural areas. Our operation at Bartok design is made up of several smaller companies each taking a role in bringing your bath to you. Your purchase enables us to continue supporting our local artisans and craftsmen.
The hinoki (and other native wood) we use in the construction of our Japanese soaking tubs is generally from ancient forests. The trees are between 250 to 300 years old. Understandably we need to be careful not to overuse these ancient woods so we trust our lumberyard partners to abide by the regulations that govern the use of this wood. In most cases, as part of a healthy forest management program trees of this age either fall naturally or are part of the cull to ensure the maximum health of the surrounding trees and healthy undergrowth, which contributes to overall biodiversity in the forest.
Trees prevent soil erosion and landslides. Trees help maintain a clean supply of water, sequester carbon and produce oxygen. It’s been said that an initiative to plant just 10 million trees on earth would offset global warming in a major way.
We recognise the role wood manufacturers that play. Governing bodies accept the responsibility they have in offsetting climate change and global warming but at the same time, without a market for the wood that is grown, it’s hard to convince the private sector to take part.
When you buy a genuine Japanese wooden ofuro you can rest assured that the wood has been sustainably managed over its growing period, right through to how it was harvested and processed.
You are adding a thing of beauty to your home and are adding one less chemically derived product to the world. Bartok design ofuro are not varnished or lacquered so we do not use any unnecessary chemicals in the manufacturing process. Your ofuro will continue to breathe in your home, absorbing moisture and toxins from the air. Read more about our wood here.
Properly cared for your bath will last ten, twenty or even thirty years. When you’re finished with it you can safely recycle it into firewood or feed the pieces into a wood chipper to create mulch for your garden. The whole bath could become a planter for herbs in your garden. It’s a full circle environmentally safe product.
If sustainability is important to you then get in touch today to start designing your wooden ofuro soaking tub.
When asked to smell a piece of hinoki wood many Japanese people appear to be transported back to childhood or to a happy memory in their lives of being with family at an onsen resort or visiting grandparents.
In this video, Iacopo hit the streets to ask people for their impressions of our Hinoki Essential Oil.
A new study has shown that people feel more energized when smelling citrusy scents. Productivity increases by up to 54% according to a Japanese study.
Our interviewees overwhelmingly said they felt relaxed and they all smiled when they smelt the oil = Happiness!
There is research underway in many areas of neurology including studies into Alzheimer’s and dementia treatment, mental health, workplace happiness, the list goes on.
We’ve provided hinoki bathtubs for eldercare homes. The combination of the scent, the buoyant quality of the water and the improved circulation from being in hot water all contribute to overall health in the elderly, especially on brain function and memory.
From our own personal informal research, we have heard from our clients that the presence of a hinoki bathtub in the home emits a sense of calm and happiness. Guests will note the fresh smell when they enter the home — these are benefits without even soaking in the tub which has endless positive effects.
At Bartok design, we can build baths of all shapes and sizes, from a variety of native wood. In order to elicit maximum benefit for your olfactory system, we recommend hinoki. Sawara and asnaro are closely related scent and appearance-wise. We also supply our own 100% pure hinoki essential oil.
None of our wood is varnished or coated which means it continues to absorb moisture and give off its scent, it contracts and expands depending on the air around it. Wood in this natural state contributes to healthy air in the home. It actually absorbs and filters toxins, according to some studies.
We’ve compiled this article from a number of sources. Check the Global Wellness Summit page for more references.
Get in touch with us directly if you would like more information about Japanese soaking tubs and health benefits.