Modern Tatami Design

Pawprints for Petlovers?

Have you ever dreamed of building a Japanese tatami room in your own home?  A tatami room is more than just a beautiful accent to your home’s interior; it’s a personal expression of who you are.

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Photo by Tatami Kobo Noguchi. See products at https://i-love-tatami.com/

Genuine tatami mats are made of igusa, Japanese rush, woven and stretched over tightly bound straw wadding, and they are always adorned with a thin strip of fancy border cloth. Though it is the natural padding and rush cover that make the tatami so comfortable and healthy, it is this border fabric – the tatami-beri, as it is called – that gives each tatami its special look.

These ornately patterned strips of cloth can be made of cotton, rayon or synthetic textile, and are sewn with durable colored thread (often of gold color) in jacquard relief that will never fray or fade. Although there are countless traditional patterns for the tatami ‘hem’, recently the rather monomaniacal Japanese are designing all kinds of new themes – one of the more popular being paw prints for pet lovers (see below.) So remember, if you decide to create a tatami room in your home, choose a motif that reflects your ‘beri’ taste and lifestyle!  (Believe me, if you can think of of a particular hem design, I’m sure Japan’s tatami makers can create it!)

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The Motomachi Buddha of Oita

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A Fading Beauty in Stone

Oita prefecture is the unrivaled heartland of Japan’s magaibutsu (Buddhist stone reliefs.)  While the old fief of Bungo is famous today for its plentiful hot springs (onsen), it is also home – somewhat mysteriously – to the largest number of lithic carvings in the country. Included among these are the twelfth-century national treasures of Usuki, in the south of the prefecture.

A Little-known Urban Relic

I recently went in search of one of Oita’s lesser-known reliefs, the Motomachi sekibutsu (stone Buddha.) Unlike most of the region’s carvings, which are found outside of small towns in the countryside, this stone deity is located in Oita City suburb of Furugo.  But don’t ask a local for directions to it; this neighborhood, thought to have been the capital of this land more than a thousand years ago, is a long walk from the central station, and hardly a well-known tourist destination.

I went there because longish walks attract me, and soaking in hot springs is nice, but not my raison d’être.  To my mind, pondering a thousand year-old work of art adds a bit of dimension to the day.

The Setting

The Motomachi relief is housed in a temple-like shelter on a dead-end street just a stone’s throw from the tracks of the Kyudai railway.  There isn’t much around, houses and a highway, though just around the corner is an old tumulus (but don’t expect much there.) As you enter through the gate and approach the shelter you notice to the right an exposed stone cliff; it appears that carvings might have once adorned this outcropping, but are now gone.  On the double doors before you hangs a sign that says they shall be kept shut; but the doors are unlocked, and there is no fee to enter.

The Characters in Question

Inside the doors is the central carving of the Yakushi Buddha.  It is nearly three meters in height, larger than most reliefs, with a face quite serene but also sadly deteriorated. According to the literature the damage to the carving is the work of salts that have soaked into the volcanic rock over the years.

 

 

Yet it is surprising that so much of the central figure still exists; the attendant deities on either side, Fudo Myoo (the Warrior King) and his disciples Cetaka and Kongara, on the right, and Bishamon (the God of Wealth), Kissho and Benzaiten (I think), on the left, are largely disintegrated, far beyond the point of restoration.  (Nor can I understand how the identities of the deities on the left were construed; they are no more than fragmented, ghost-like outlines on the stone.)

An Enduring Image

The oldest photo of the central (Yakushi Buddha) figure, dating from 1915, shows it protected within an open shed under a bulrush roof.  Indications are that as early the Edo period efforts were made to protect the central figure, with plaster added in the Meiji or Taisho era to repair the worst damage.  Still, it is amazing that the original carving endured as well as it did for so long; the work is believed to date from the middle to late Heian period (795 – 1185), and clearly reflects the Jocho school of carving, with obvious similarities to Jocho’s Amida Buddha of the Houou-do (Phoenix Hall at Byodo-in.)

A Treasure Worth Preserving

In recent decades concerted efforts have been made to save this treasure from further deterioration, including the construction of tunnels under the surrounding rock to divert water, and the injection of resins into the carving itself to slow its disintegration. Sensors have been placed on the effigy, as well, to detect and record changes in the rock substrates. In 2012, UNESCO designated the site for further study and preservation.

Once a Splendid Thing

Yet it appears that nothing will stop the continued dissolution of this old religious icon, which must have been a splendid sight for several centuries after its creation.  In those days there would have been nothing to block an expansive view of the wide Oita River and distant mountain ranges beyond.  Given the natural positioning of the figures, and the unique mise-en-scène, the entire stone retinue would have appeared fluid and lifelike.  Among the many reliefs of Oita, it was probably once the most beautiful of all.

The Motomachi magaibutsu is a 40-minute walk from Oita Station, or a 16-minute walk from Furugo Station (but not many trains stop here.)  If you are good with the bus system it is a two-minute walk from Yakushido stop.  Use your GPS to locate ‘Motomachi Sekibutsu’; hopefully your internet connection is good.

 

 

Dreaming at Groom Expo West

Last week Domo Communications assisted pet grooming scissor and accessory manufacturer Dream Industries (from Wakayama, Japan) at the Groom Expo West, in Pasadena, CA (Feb. 14-17), where Dream shared booth space with longtime U.S. partner Healthy Spot, a leading L.A. area dog daycare and grooming provider.

As trade shows go Groom Expo West is a small one, but the level of excitement was high, with the ambience akin to a combination canine fashion show and red carpet event.

Billed as “the West Coast’s Most Illustrious Grooming Show,” and sponsored by the American Kennel Club (AKC), the venue included a center-stage grooming competition that ran all day each day, showcasing new and veteran groomers, including such industry celebrities as master groomer Kenichi Nagase (of Tokyo, Japan), who appeared in the recent Netflix docuseries “Dogs.”

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Master groomer Ken Nagase demonstrates his style of grooming at the Healthy Spot booth at Groom Expo West.

 

Dream, which specializes in high-quality grooming scissors, thinners, blenders, brushes and related products, is a prominent player in Japan’s pet care industry, and also enjoys a dedicated following among grooming professionals in the U.S. By minding and incorporating the specific demands of America’s elite master dog groomers over the years, Dream has developed a wide variety of well-received shears, including high-cobalt steel models of exceptional durability and precision.

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Dream blending and thinning shears made with high-cobalt alloy steel.

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Videri, Smog City Win Good Food Foundation Awards

 

 

The good people at Videri Chocolate (Raleigh, NC) and Smog City Brewery (Torrance, CA) have won awards at the 2019 Good Food Foundation Awards, held in San Francisco, CA, on Jan. 11, 2019.

Our friends at Videri won for their delectable 70% Classic Dark Chocolate (we’ve been fanatics of this one for years!!) and Lavender Black Pepper Carmel, while our neighbors at Smog City Brewing Co. earned a prize with their Kumquat Saison. We’ve tasted this lovely brew, as well, and can attest to the superb craft that has gone into all of these products.

The Good Food Foundation gives awards in over a dozen categories of artisanal foods (snacks, spirits, coffee, confections, oils, to name a few) that meet its stringent standards, including locally and responsibly sourced ingredients, socially responsible and sustainable practices, no GMOs, organic ingredients, low or no chemical production, and other guidelines specific to each category.

Bessho Onsen

Soul-Cleansing for the Tokyo Day Tripper

Although Bessho Onsen is a quaint hot spring town with an impressive history, it’s very small, and very quiet. (Don’t get it mixed up with Beppu Onsen, Japan’s thermal wonderland, in Kyushu.) If you visit Bessho on a weekday, when no events are scheduled, you might want to bring a friend.

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Get Ready to Slow Down

From Ueda Station (the Hokuriku bullet train stop) take the Shinano line for Bessho Onsen.  Some of the stops along this thirty-minute, double-car ride amount to little more than a block of cement by a cabbage patch.  There might be seven half-asleep people slumped on the benches with you.  This single-track chugger, arriving at the empty wooden station that is your destination, seems like something straight out of Spirited Away.

If you’re thinking this place is just what the doctor ordered, it could be that you, too, are suffering from TTSD (Tokyo Traumatic Stress Disorder.) You should check this place out.

 

 

Don’t Call a Taxi

From the station, just walk.  Take it slow. If I forgot to mention it, this place is pretty small.  The temptation to find a map, and do something ambitious, like exploring in the hills beyond town, disappears quickly.  Why bother? For soaking there are several public baths (the ¥150 kind), a few small inns to consider (in case you want to stay longer), and plenty of history to take in.   Just unwind.  There’s zero noise pollution; the air is pretty fresh.

 

 

A Wealth of History

These springs had already been settled for centuries when the fierce warrior Yoshinaka Minamoto galloped into Shinano to muster forces against the Taira, in the year 1180, and burned the original Bessho temples to the ground.  Long before, Sei Shonagon had referenced the town (by an older name) in her famous work The Pillow Book (c. 1010.)

Miraculous Waters

In fact, Bessho is said to be one of Japan’s oldest hot springs, and Nagano’s oldest, known at least from the time that nearby Zenkoji Temple was founded (c. 625.) Rebuilt in 1252 (after Yoshinaka’s unkindness), it became popular in later centuries with betrothed ladies because (take note) its thermal waters were said to make a woman’s skin more beautiful. After a dip in one of the public baths – and a non-descript bath, at that – I noticed that even mine was greatly improved!

The Main Attraction

Bessho’s “North-Facing Kannon” temple is a rarity in Japan, as few Japanese temples are built facing north. It is said that praying at this temple will remove evil from your life. Far across the distant valley, low on the horizon, is a range of mountains, snowcapped in winter. Somewhere out there is the “South-Facing Kannon,” at Zenkou-ji Temple, harkening from beyond the swift-running Chikuma river. If you really want to expel your demons, you must pray before the deities of both temples.

 

 

Scarce Amenities

There are just a few places to eat in Bessho, much more local in vibe than touristy, and the favorite dish here is buckwheat noodles. Simple fare. People out here are polite, but also just plain people. There’s a visitor center, and a souvenir shop or two, on your way back to the station.

 

 

Good for a Day, or Longer

This is an easily missed corner of Nagano, with a colorful history and countless places to explore. You could visit nearby Unnojuku after your foray to Bessho, if you want to see some fine old architecture, and still get back to Tokyo in time for dinner. Zenkou-ji is not too far for a quick visit (and that second prayer!) Much better, you could treat yourself to a really nice hot spring bath at one of the venerable Bessho inns, and make it an overnight affair.

And feel that TTSD just dissolve away.

The Miyasako Magaibutsu of Bungo Ono

Japanese History in Stone Relief

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Not far from lovely Harajiri Falls, in the Bungo Ono district of Oita, Japan, are the infrequently visited Miyasako Magaibutsu (Miyasako Stone reliefs), which are more often referred to by the people nearby as the Ogata sekibutsu (the latter being the common word for ‘stone buddha,’ while ‘Ogata’ is the historical place name.)  There are actually two sites, the West and East reliefs, both with carvings in hollowed-out volcanic rock outcroppings. The East relief is in somewhat better condition. (And is the only site shown in these photos.)

From the parking turnout (where there are men’s and women’s restrooms) a paved walk of several hundred meters leads past terraced rice paddies up to the East reliefs.  (In fact, there are two paths, with no sign indicating which to take. Use the one on the right as you face the hillside; it goes directly to the site.  The left will also get you there, so long as you follow the faded “Miyasako East Sekibutsu” sign pointing right a few hundred meters up the trail.)

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There is no temple or shrine at these reliefs, and no indication there ever was any.  The carvings are estimated to be over 800 years old, and were purportedly commissioned by Ogata Koreyoshi, a local samurai who won fame in the Gempei War, the final conflict of the Heian Period (794-1185.)  The central statue of the East relief is of the seated Dainichi Nyorai.  Though the overall condition is quite deteriorated, the expression of this figure is very distinctive, not at all typical of the style of the period, but clearly one of wonderment and human-like imperfection.

The Nyorai is guarded on his left by the sword-carrying Immovable One (Fudou Myou-oo), and on his right by the God of Wealth and Warriors (Bishamonten), as well as a Nio-oo warrior (depicted, as always, with hand on hip) on the far right.  With this entirely martial retinue, it seems possible that the face of the central Nyorai might actually have been modeled on the heroic samurai himself, Lord Oogata.

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I should add that these reliefs are a five minute drive from the ruins of Oka-jou Castle.  Work on the castle started in 1185, at about the same time as the Miyasako carvings.  Nothing remains of the castle’s keep, or any other buildings, but it was a very large fortress with extensive battlements.  It offers commanding views of the lush hills and valleys of Bungo Ono.

 

The Kumano Magaibutsu

Japanese History in Stone

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I don’t recall when I first became enamored with the shape and beauty of stone, but it hasn’t been too many years since my love of things lithic morphed into a fascination with images carved upon natural rock surfaces. I’m referring specifically to Japan’s stone reliefs, images of Buddhist deities etched into cliffs or hollowed out rock outcroppings. These immoveable renderings are referred to as magaibutsu, in contradistinction to free-standing stone statues of Buddhas, commonly called sekibutsu.

 

While natural rock reliefs are found throughout Japan, the most famous magaibutsu are at Usuki, in southern Oita prefecture, and it is in this region of the country that one finds many of the finest old reliefs. When I say “old” I am referring to works of the late Heian (794–1185) or early Kamakura (1185­­–1333) times, the beginning of long centuries of feudalism, when common Japanese folk began to seek refuge from war, calamity and uncertainty in the Buddhist faith.

 

While there is much speculation about the reasons for the preponderance of reliefs in Oita prefecture, here I’d like to draw your attention to just one impressive work, one of the largest and oldest in Japan, which is located in the northern part of this scenic prefecture. It is the famous Kumano magaibutsu, on the rural Kunizaki peninsula. For anyone smitten with an interest in such relics, this one is a “must see.”

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The Kumano site is actually two large faces carved into a high rock precipice, accessible only after ascending several hundred stone steps from the parking lot of Taizou-ji Temple. Though very little is known about who or why most of the old reliefs were commissioned, about this one the temple history clearly states: “A monk went up to Kishu to receive the authorization of Kumano (to carve the image), and upon returning completed the work in four or five years.” The work referred to is the eight-meter tall, sword-brandishing Immovable One (Fudou Myo-ou); the other image, the face of the Dainichi Buddha, was carved an estimated one to two hundred years later.

Perhaps at this point you are asking “so what?” Well, not only is this relic designated a Significant Cultural Asset of Japan, with a distinct connection to the ancient Kumano tradition; it is located in a serene glade, high up in an old-growth forest, offering a lovely spot for mediation. Moreover, it is historically associated with nearby Usa Hachiman-gu Shrine (which was burned down in the last years of the Gempei War, just around the time the carving was initiated), and is located at Taizouji Temple, where Japan’s native Shugendo faith, which combines the spiritualism of Shinto with the core tenets of Buddhism, is still practiced today.

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That’s a lot to think about, I know, and then there’s this: While viewed straight on, the expression on the Immoveable One’s face is a seemingly impossible curl of the lips, and clearly a smirk of resignation, or even disdain. Yet when viewed sidelong, from the final stone steps leading up to the shrine above, it is something quite different.  From this vantage the expression becomes a gentle smile of patience and understanding.

 

What a fine labor of love that monk left for future generations to ponder and enjoy!

The Booksellers of Jimbocho

Tokyo’s Bookworm Wonderland

Many years ago, when I took my first job in Tokyo, at the publishing house of Graphic-sha, in Kudan-kita, I discovered a place that I would wander through during my lunch hours, on free weekends, and at any opportunity I’ve had in the ensuing thirty-five years of my life. That place is Jimbocho, along nearby Yasukuni Boulevard, and it is home to one of the world’s great agglutinations of second-hand bookstores.

In case you weren’t aware, the Japanese love the printed word. Gutenberg may have invented the moveable type, but the Japanese invented the phonebook-thick manga comic book, and that’s just a peculiar example of their capacity to devise, produce and consume any and all types of printed matter. Equally important, they are one of the great collector cultures of the world. Their monomania includes an obsession with books, in both Japanese and the better-known Western languages.

Where the printed word has taken refuge

While we can surely bewail the iPhone and its ilk for destroying humanity’s ability to turn and read pages of bound text, there’s still some hope for the venerable book. Like a refugee camp from the war on literacy, Jimbocho is a haven where the printed word has taken shelter. From art collections and historical tomes to old glossy magazines, specialized dictionaries, children’s books and those classic novels you crave to reread, they’re all likely to be found somewhere in this haphazard paradise of printed matter.

The Jimbocho tagline claims that it is the world’s biggest shopping town for books. I’ve never been to Timbuktu, but I’m inclined to accept this claim as fact. Since there are literally hundreds of small and large booksellers here, the neighborhood even offers its own information center. This is located on Suzuran-dori, the street parallel to the boulevard, just behind Kitaguchi Bookstore. Seek it out with your questions about where to go for what. You’ll be handed a map of all the local bookstores, and the clerk will circle the places to begin your search.

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This district also offers a plethora of shops where one can buy genuine Ukiyoe prints and Japanese art, and a few used record stores, too, including Fuji Records (located on the ninth floor of the Kanda Kosho Center, a few doors up from Kitazawa Bookstore) which is equipped with turntables that spin any speed of vinyl, even their old 78s. For those with a thirst for modern bookstore amenities, there is Tokyodo (also on Suzuran-dori) which offers a coffee bar and tables where you can sit and read.

Then again, if someone just doesn’t believe in owning anything as unwieldy as a book (perhaps because he imagines that the entirety of human knowledge has already been uploaded to the internet) he can haul his dead Japanese grandpa’s boxed-up library here to sell. The book dealers will give him fair value.   (So please don’t leave those books piled up in the garage; the termites always eat the best ones first.)

For the bibliophile prospecting for something rare a few trips to Jimbocho might be required. Even with the map – which as far as I know is only printed in Japanese – there’s no way of knowing exactly where that gem you seek is hidden. The careworn fellow at the back of any store can usually point you in the right direction, so try asking. Otherwise, explore the stacks, climb the narrow stairwells, and ride the rickety elevators up and down until you chance upon it, and Archimedes whispers in your ear – Eureka!

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The Solace of Unnojuku

Before I pitch a visit to this gem of architectural history, a word of caution; if you like throngs of sightseers, busy souvenir traps and long, clamorous lines outside noodle and ice cream shops, Unnojuku is not the day trip for you. This old post town in Nagano Prefecture is a portal to the past, and can look rather like a ghost town on a chilly, mid-winter’s day. The food here is for thought, and what you take away for memory and the imagination.

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The Old North Road

Ninety minutes or so from Tokyo on the Hokuriku Shinkansen, and a short taxi ride from Ueda Station (or a twenty-five minute walk along the free-flowing Chikuma River) Unnojuku was a wayfarers’ stop and sericulture (silkworm raising) center in Edo and Meiji times. Today this old streetscape, with dozens of well-preserved structures hundreds of years old, is designated as one of Japan’s National Conservation Areas.

In fact, the history of this location dates to the Heian and Kamakura periods, when the surrounding lands were controlled by the Unno clan. Centuries later, when Japan was united under the Tokugawa government (1600-1868), Unnojuku was born (“juku” meaning a place to stay, or lodge.) Ideally situated on the North Road, which was used for the transport of gold from Sado Island to Edo, and by pilgrims traveling to and from ancient Zenko-ji Temple, its prominence and wealth quickly grew.

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Decorative and Functional Design

Some of the architectural styles preserved here, such as the ornamental projecting shoulders (sode udatsu) on the large inns, are as striking as any to be found in Japan, and a sign of the prosperity the town enjoyed. Along either side of the stone brook one sees intricate, Unno-style latticework, decorative tile facades, basic projecting shoulders (hon udatsu, which served to hinder the spread of fire), heavy beam construction and the fine finishing work so typical of this period of Japanese town architecture.

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Adapting to Change

Because the area turned to sericulture in the Meiji era (when traffic on the highway fell off due to the construction of railroads) numerous structures were modified with secondary, ventilated (kinuki) roofs, and other features unique to the keeping of silkworms. It is this variety of architectural specimens from the middle Edo period to the early Meiji era, and the combination of functional and decorative elements, that make Unnojuku such an invaluable cultural asset. No wonder it is included in Japan’s “One Hundred Best Roads” collection.

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What to Expect

On a quiet weekday you may find that just about everything along the street is closed. If you prefer music and dancing, come for the “Fureai” festival in late November, when characters in period garb fill the streets. In warm months, when the willows are green and the flowers are blossoming, the soba and coffee shops will be open, allowing you to relax inside, sip tea and nibble sweet manju, while observing passers bye like a wealthy Japanese traveler of long ago.

Shiratori Shrine, a vestige of the days when the legendary warrior Minamoto Yoshinaka (1154 – 1184) came here to muster forces against the Taira, stands at the south end of the street. Here a massive Zulkova tree, over seven hundred years old, shades a small fountain and the surrounding grounds. If old Japanese architecture isn’t your thing, you might want to have a look at this tree, and ponder all that it has witnessed over the centuries.

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The Creations of Yamakatsu

A seminar on Kuromontsuki dyeing

Nagoya and the surrounding environs, which lay rightful claim to the birthplace of modern Japanese culture, offer the visitor to Japan unlimited potential for historical and cultural exploration. If one is fascinated by traditional Japanese apparel, for instance, there is no better place to study the art of silk kimono dyeing than Nagoya’s Yamakatsu (Nakamura Shoten); as for the very unique practice of kuromontsuki (black and white crested dyes), it might be the only place.

The people at Yamakatsu specialize in hand-crafted dyeing of kimono and other traditional Japanese apparel. All of the methods used at Yamakatsu are labor intensive, involving a great amount of specialized knowledge, materials and equipment. The beautiful patterns of bokashi-zome (seen below) found on an authentic, hand-made kimono are a pure form of art, a labor of love in the truest sense. Sadly, with the exception of a few dedicated artisans, very few places in Japan still create genuine hand-dyed kimono fabrics.

 

 

Yamakatsu also prides itself on its lovely kuromonstuki creations. These stylish patterns are traditional, yet boldly eye-catching and seriously modern. Achieving an evenly-graded blend of black and white is the challenge in this method, and much more difficult than one might expect. By using any of the lovely, multitudinous Japanese crests – which is only possible with the use of original patterns and materials – one has the opportunity to create a design that is fashionable, striking and personal all at once.

 

 

Yamakatsu offers the occasional workshop in traditional dyeing techniques. On March 17 a kuromonstsuki class will be held at the Nagoya Castle Hotel. Here’s an opportunity to visit beautiful Nagoya, take in the castle as the first cherry blossoms are emerging, and even create your own kuromonstuki design.  Lunch is included.

For more information, or to make a reservation, go to:

http://www.castle.co.jp/hnc/event/detail.php?id=471