Today was another incredible experience. It’s clear that Douglas has more than “done his homework.” He has challenged himself over the years to meet more and more interesting people, visit unusual places, and provide a unique experience to those who take his tours. He loves speaking with locals and has an intense curiosity. He is a tall man and stands out in a crowd with his beard, shorts, and blue and white polo shirt. He knows no strangers. He chats up the youngsters and older people. He encourages the young Japanese kids to be good students and to learn English. He engages restaurant owners and business people, then puts together these trips, enlisting the aid of those with whom he has established sincere relationships.
Today was a long day. My pedometer said that I walked 18,683 steps, and that was before the battery died on the train on the way home. We left at our usual 8 am, taking the subway to Kyoto station. Got a JR (Japan Railway) train to Nara, about an hour’s ride south. It was an ancient capital of Japan and is well known for letting dear run freely. Drivers are more likely to stop for a deer than a pedestrian.
First stop was the private Yoshiki-en Garden. It was lovely, though needed some serious upkeep. Douglas said that the owner has gotten too old to care for it as carefully as he once did. The home was used by American forces during the Occupation for seven years. Across the fence was another lovely garden, but we didn’t know that we would be treated to seeing it in its full splendor.
It is the Isui-en Garden, an estate and small museum in a quiet neighborhood. It has several tea houses, and we watched workmen update and repair one, not realizing the treat in store for us. We rounded a corner of one of the large buildings, and, oh, my goodness…we all gasped at the beauty. We just couldn’t stop exclaiming over the pond, the shaped azaleas, the near view, the middle view, the borrowed scenery in the background, including a temple roof and two mountains. It was amazing, in the best sense of the word! Finally, we also saw some fall color in the leaves. The enkianthus was beautiful, and a few maples were starting to show shades of red and orange. We are a bit early for the full color display. We wandered into nooks and crannies of the garden, exclaiming over and over at the beauty around every corner. Many of us agreed that it was our favorite garden so far.
We took turns standing on a large stone that Douglas said is featured on the cover of his magazine, Sukiya Living, next month. Now he has his choice of models!
After absorbing about as much beauty as we could stand, we struck off through the neighborhoods, stopping to peer over fences, snapping photos along the way. We rested a bit at a Chinese-shaped pavilion on the middle of a lake that is part of the large Nara park, then set off for lunch at Hari-Shin Restaurant. We sat around a hibachi (thankfully, not lit, as it was very hot and humid). Lunch was a delicious bento with tempura. The restaurant had a charming small garden.
Nara is an old city, and has preserved some of its machiya style houses. One is open as a sample of that architecture, so we spent a few minutes in that model home. Then it was off to lunch at Harishin Restaurant. The restaurant is a 200-year-old house of ocher-colored walls and a wood-slat facade, and dining is on tatami with a view of a garden. Our bento included light tofu flavored with sesame, soup, rice, pickled vegetables, and tempura.
We thought we might escape the rain today, but it was not to be. It was hot and humid all day, and the rains finally came, though not in the quantity of yesterday. Was glad I spent 105 yen (about $1.20) on a clear plastic umbrella.
Certainly, a highlight of the trip was the afternoon’s final activity. Douglas has gotten to know Mr. Nagano and his wife. Mr. Nagano is a highly specialized artisan who makes the ink used in sumi-e and calligraphy. It is made from either seed oil or soot from burned tree roots plus glue made from various animals and a fragrance. When finished, it is sold in cakes or sticks that artists mix with liquid to create the very black ink. Mr. Nagano is one of only 12 such creators in Nara, which is the capital of this industry.
Upon entering his home, we noticed beautifully written letters on washi paper lining the walls of his genkan (entry way). In his tatami room we found low tables and pieces of paper set out for us. He wrote each of our names in Japanese letters and had us practice the brush strokes. Then he presented each of us with a small wooden box, upon which we wrote our names as practiced.
Then he demonstrated making the ink, mixing the ingredients, rolling them together like bread dough, and putting them in molds that were centuries old. After a short pressing, they were ready to dry for several weeks. We were amazed that he then made a block for each of us, having us mold them individually in our hands. His wife carefully placed them in the boxes that we had made earlier. As if that weren’t enough, he then gave us each a box with a 25-year-old stick of ink embossed with blue and gold letters.
Mr. and Mrs. Nagano were a wonderful team, and it was a special treat to meet their 5-year-old grandson, a very bright, sweet boy who lives in the house with his mother.
After presenting our gifts to the Naganos, we stopped for coffee and then wandered the shopping arcade in Nara before taking the train back to Kyoto.
Tomorrow is a “free day,” giving Tamao and Douglas some much-needed rest (though I’m sure they will be planning for next week). Several of us are going to the Miho Museum, a building designed by IM Pei. It is supposed to be incredibly beautiful.
Our group has bonded exceptionally well, and we look forward to some time on our own. Douglas has taught us carefully about trains and subways, directions, etc. so that even those who are visiting Japan for the first time should not get too lost! We’ll see what adventures await us.