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The Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage

Introduction

In the Wakayama area of Kii Peninsula, there are a number of ancient walking trails which are collectively known as the Kumano Kodo. Traversing mountains, passing through lushly forested gulleys and crossing racing rivers, you’ll see some of the most spectacular nature Japan has to offer. But enjoying nature is just a side benefit. This area is deeply spiritual and is steeped in history. For more than a thousand years pilgrims have used these trails to reach the three Grand Shrines of Kumano: Kumano Hongū Taisha, Kumano Nachi Taisha and Kumano Hayatama Taisha (source wikipedia).

We love being close to nature so took a couple of days off work during rainy season (July 2019) to visit the Kumano Kodo. Here is our account of the trip.

View of mountains in Nakahechi

Day One

My travel companion joined me from Tokyo so my first stop was Kansai Airport to pick her up. From there we got directly onto the ‘Hanwa Highway’ which is the direct route to Wakayama and the Kii Peninsula. It’s an easy drive of about an hour and a half to Nanki Tanabe Interchange which is where we left the highway.

Are you planning to drive in Japan? Here are a few things to remember:

  • the speed limit on the highways is a maximum of 80km per hour but on rainy or windy days it can be reduced to 60km per hour, this is indicated by round electronic signs reading 60 or 80. You might not see many police cars or speed cameras but this highway is patrolled by unmarked vehicles and hidden cameras so for your safety and to avoid a ticket, stick to the limit.
  • along the highway, you will encounter toll booths. If your car is fitted with an ETC machine you can drive through the electronic reader lane, usually purple signage. If you don’t have the machine you’ll need to go through the manual payment lane, indicated by a green light. You can pay using cash or credit card. The amount due will be displayed on a sign next to the toll booth after you hand over your ticket.
  • toilet breaks and snack pitstops are possible at the many ‘rest areas’ which you can enter freely without having to exit the highway. Use these because you’ll save money by staying on the highway until your final destination.

Nakahechicho Area

Nakahechi Trail Kumano Kodo
Tondagawa River

We were booked to stay at a mountainside cottage which we had booked through AirBnB. It was raining heavily on and off all day so after a quick lunch at a local noodle place, we grabbed a few groceries and headed to our accommodation.

The purpose of our trip was not hiking given that it is rainy season. Landslides and flooded rivers are a real possibility at this time of year so rather than hike we simply planned some R&R. Our cottage was just perfect for that and I highly recommend it.

It has a hinoki clad bathroom with a view over the mountains! Gorgeous.

If you are planning to hike the Nakahechi Trail and are starting at Takijiri-oji then this cottage is a great location for that. Link to more info.

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Kameoka ready for test start

Following all the talks in April and May, we are finally ready to start with the enrollment of students interested in learning the traditional japanese wood construction crafts!!!

We are starting a new renovation project and are ready to enroll students.
Officially we are aiming at July 1st but if you are planning to come to Japan in June, we are basically ready to welcome you anytime.

The students will both the taught the principles of the craft and will also have the possibility of working in the actual construction site.
It will be an experimental phase with the following conditions:

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update about the Wakayama project

Thank you again for the smart ideas and the kind support about the project of infusing new functions in the Kiwata-house in Wakayama.

Last month I presented the conceptand we are now discussing on how to implement it. Apologizing for the delay in getting back to you, let me summarize the main points.

The first chart exemplifies the structure of the project.
Striking a parallel with the cycles in agriculture:
*rooting = 5 basic ideas I illustrated in the mailing message
*seeding = based on the (biased) opinions of all of you who replied I selected some concepts and lines of intervention
*watering = many of you gave me great indications for the overall branding
*growing = some ideas about the promotion and management
*reaping = goals to be fine-tuned, reached and further developed.

In the PDF (see below) I am also including a selection from the comments I received from all of you.

The second table is a tentative plan of the house with come ideas about functions that can be hosted and their interrelations.
You can download the whole pdf here, inclusive of all your comments.

The concept that stuck me the most are:
ONE DAY IN LIFE:
* the house provides the experience of “just a normal day in prewar Japan”
* second meaning: one day in the life of each visitor. We want to leave a memory that can entangle with and become part of their personal story-roll.

TOTALLY TRADITIONAL – TOTALLY CONTEMPORARY:
* the house is historical and original therefore should not be faked. Any addition or modification should be in harmony but cutting edge.

MUSEUM OUTREACH / COLLABORATION
* we should explore the possibility of operating in connection with a famous museum. This could widen the scope of the project and hopefully make it become a model for other beautiful houses in Japan that could be rescued and preserved.

This is all for now.
We have more meetings coming up this month and I will keep you updated on the solution that the owners chose and about the next steps of the project.

Thank you!!

iacopo


japanese traditional patterns coloring book!

From the beginning of this year I have had the privilege to associate with Jogan Yoshio, kimono designer in Kyoto. I visited his atelier, had the chance to attend some events with him and we are also starting to collaborate on some projects (such as the one in Wakayama) .

He is really the quintessential Japanese artist/craftsman: soft spoken, passionate and humble. His right arm is the charming Hiroyo, with feline eyes riding high heels and sports cars: it feels like she could have just come out from a 007 movie or a Lupin III cartoon. The matching and the positive contrast of different elements is somehow a trademark of Jogan sensei.

He practiced since his childhood in the ateliers and along the water streams of Nishijin, the area where Kimonos are woven, dyed, block-printed, painted and embroidered with the collaborative work of dozens of separate companies. Kyoto is famous for its rigid and at the same time soft structures. Rules are not written but are so strongly encoded in the social behaviors that create a kind of invisible system of relations that puzzle the westerner. The secret is to learn every thing with the body rather than with your rational mind.

Rules are not there to be discussed but can be interpreted. Traditional patterns cannot be modified but of course are filtered through the sensibility and the DNA of each individual artist.
I think you will understand what I mean by watching this video:

check below for more photos and info to purchase the book.

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new yield of hinoki oil

We made a new production of hinoki oil, both DSB quality (young trees) and SR (special reserve kiso valley old growth hinoki)

I bottled 100 – 10ml. flasks per type, and I am willing to sell the rest in larger bottles at a discounted price.
DA – DA – DA -DADADA DA !
A) 1 bottle 100 cc of young trees oil (plastic bottle, no drip cap) = 12,000 JPY
B) 10 bottles 100 cc (1 liter in total) of young trees oil (package as above) = 80,000 JPY
C) 1 bottle 50 cc of special reserve oil (glass bottle, no drip cap) = 12,000 JPY
D) 10 bottles 50 cc of special reserve oil (glass bottle, no drip cap) = 90,000 JPY

*) packaging and shipping worldwide 1,000 JPY per parcel (air mail – no EMS)
– one parcel can hold up to 300 ml in any combination –

stock is limited so if you are interested please contact me at japan@bartokdesign.com asap!!

(see below for the production photos)

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kimono in the forest. An unforgettable memory!

this photo will inspire many! A tatami room immersed in the forest!

I received some beautiful pictures from Helen, a lucky owner of a Bartok design`s ofuro.
Here is her story:
When we travelled in Japan in 2013, we never stayed in hotels, but in Airbnb’s (of course, the price too is favorable) and once in a ryokan (in Nara). This gave us the best of all our Japan experiences on that summer!

We stayed with an elderly couple in Okayama prefecture, and I asked the woman (no English, just body language:) to show me how to tie the obi, as we had bought some old kimonos at the market in Kyoto.

This led to the most beautiful experience, as she was so engaged and happy for our interest, she collected all kimonos she had, showing them (her daughter is a textile artist, and had made a masterpiece of a hand painted kimono as an art project) and dressed us up – I think the pleasure of this was indeed mutual.

Then she persuaded us to wear them during a visit to a special restaurant in the forest, very traditional – and there we all sat, on our knees in our kimonos, eating all the strange and beautiful dishes. We will NEVER forget it. 
Well, now you got this long story (just an example, I have got so many!)…sorry for this! I just feel so passionate about making this kind of experiences available, as I enjoy them so much myself!
Good luck! I look forward to follow the project!
(see all the splendid pictures here below)

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The Nara Garden

As you know, there is nothing more soul-destroying for us here at Bartok design than to see old Japanese homes and gardens destroyed in the name of blind speculation. From time to time we hear about the impending doom before it happens, as in the case of this spectacular garden in Nara prefecture (east of Osaka).

A person I know that empties old houses has to throw away this garden in Nara…

We’ve been given the opportunity to share these pictures and we hope that with will be able to re-home some of the ornaments or even some of the plants.

We cannot say for sure how old these items are but we hope to bring more information to you soon. If you are interested in being kept in the loop please contact me via email (urgently) japan(at)bartokdesign.com

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MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA

We are deepening our relation and collaboration with the kimono designer Yoshio Jogan.
Jogan sensei is based in Kyoto and went through the long and steep path of mastering traditional kimono patterns since his youth.
But he believes that Art must always be in movement and the worship of a mummified tradition is not going to keep the Art alive.

Jogan sensei is a master in bridging the subtle traditional knowhow of kimono patterning into interior design, contemporary products and computer art. We will talk more about Jogan sensei in the next few weeks, but here I would like to anticipate a news that is also going to impact our Wakayama pre-war mansion re-branding project.

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a house for the arts – idea competition

Finally, my prayers seem to have reached some sensible ears up in Heaven…!

An enlightened owner inherited a high grade and extremely well preserved house in Wakayama. The house is a 1,400㎡ (mostly 1 story, 2 rooms on the upper floor) timber frame house on a 3,100㎡ lot.

K-house is relatively new (1940) but being pre-war, it belongs to a sensibility, culture of material and aesthetic sense that unfortunately is now lost and unknown to post war architecture.

I am not being nostalgic: it is an evaluation based on the virtue of the design elements: knowledgeable but with a scent of fantasy.
If you look at the photos below (↓) you will agree that the sukiya-zukuri style in the Taisho and early Showa period is probably the highest point reached by Japanese architecture. The materials are selected with respect for their features. There is wit and irony. Nature mingles with architecture and even penetrates it as branches become railings and full moons become windows.

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Wandering the Nakasendo

According to the newspaper it’s popular among tourists to hike the Nakasendo trail between Magome and Tsumago post towns. We opted for the easy way – rented a car. But still, the views were stunning and having a car afforded us the opportunity to see more than just the trail towns.

The Nakasendo is an ancient foot highway that connected Tokyo (or Edo as it was known then) with the rest of Japan to the west. Follow the whole road and you will eventually arrive in Kyoto. It dates back to the 1700s.

Our interest in this area stems from two things: we enjoy learning about and appreciating Japanese history; and we are enamoured with the forests of Japan. The portion of the Nakasendo which is best preserved is in a geographic area called the Kiso Valley. In this area you will see the massive forests of conifer trees, Japanese hinoki (Chamaecyparis obtusa), sawara (Chamaecyparis pisifera ). These are just two of the Five Sacred Trees of Kiso which are favoured by bathmakers.

We started our trip in Nagoya, which is centrally located between Osaka and Tokyo. It made a convenient meeting point for our party of three. Getting an early start towards Gifu prefecture was made easier for being only an hour or so away.

Day One

We took an express train from Nagoya station to Ena station. We had arranged to pick up our car from Ena. The map showed where the rental place was but we were not sure if it was walkable or a taxi was a better idea. Calling into the Ena Tourist Information centre gave us our answer (taxi) and a whole host of other information.

Following the advice of the Tourist Info Centre, we spent the morning walking along a part of the Nakasendo that isn’t as well preserved as what we would later see, but still a nice stroll with enough interesting facts to get us excited about the rest of the trip.

After lunch, we took in the view from the Shinonomeo Bridge, which overlooks the Kiso River. With free parking nearby and quite an elevation, this was a great tidbit to learn.

You can see how high we were because look at the tiny car on the right! And this was our first glimpse at the forests!

Shinonomeo Bridge
Overlooking the Kiso River

Our next stop was the ruins of the Naegi Castle. This time we were immersed in the forests and got to experience the feeling of shinrin yoku briefly (forest bathing), although being a public holiday it was busier than usual.

The short hike from the carpark was worth it. Look at the views over the Kiso Valley! Look at the trees!

Day Two

The first post town of significance we visited was the beautifully preserved Magome Juku.

Magome Juku – these homes are between 100 and 300 years old
Magome Juku on the Nakasendo in Gifu Prefecture
A souvenir shop on the Nakasendo
It’s not a long hike between the post towns – this was about halfway, near the Odaki Waterfalls

Our next stop was Tsumago Juku. One of our favourite places was the old school – built from wood of course! It closed in the late nineties.

Kyu Nagisocho Tachitsumagosho School
Kyu Nagisocho Tachitsumagosho School
Each building and shop is decorated with flowers

A lot of effort has gone into preserving this area and piece of Japanese history. According to Wikipedia the area prospered until a major vehicle highway in the area bypassed the towns. Facing demise and economic ruin a few of the towns’ forefathers elected to renovate the old houses and buildings. In 1987 the central government granted them historic status.

This whole area is fascinating especially if you’ve come to Japan and are hoping to see some history but are feeling overwhelmed by the number of temples and shrines. The Nakasendo / Kiso Valley area is very much a piece of history with roots in commercialism – the trade routes of Japan. It makes for a nice change of pace because it’s more recent history than the temples which date back thousands of years. It’s actually possible to imagine walking along these routes, stopping for a night in a ryokan inn, grabbing a plate of local soba. I highly recommend you visit!

Sacred Trees of Kiso Valley

In my next post I will talk more about the trees, forests and how important they are both now and then, to the ofuro makers, such as Bartok design.

If you are interested in tracing our route please take a look at the custom map I created on Google maps of our stops. I am more than happy to give more information on anything. -Jacqui (Bartok design team member)

https://goo.gl/maps/wv9v81eWKyu5bu9x8

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