Japan Blog

The Spirit of Benkei

Of Ramen and Road Warriors

IMG_5081

Here is a story steeped in legend; a tale of loyalty, gratitude and – I vouchsafe it – some very good noodles.

Just Another Lonely Noodle Shop

Many years ago there was a ramen shop in Horikiri that brewed an especially rich pork bone broth. The place had a following – truckers, night owls and the like – but traffic was never heavy.  It was on the outskirts of town, far from the nearest station, with nothing separating its counter from the street but line of rickety stools, an old noren and the sidewalk. Like the famous warrior monk of old, the shop was named Benkei.

A Lucky Driver

One day, out of the blue, a cab driver domiciled nearby was invited by a Tokyo TV station to be the street food cognoscente in a daytime docu-series on eateries of the local working folk. How he was selected for this distinction is a mystery, but all agreed he was perfect for the role. When asked to produce his list of five essential food stops he did so with little hesitation, and one of them was – you guessed it – Ramen Benkei.

Japan 2-2018 062

Under Hot Lights

There’s no need to describe in detail the events that followed. I won’t recount how, under a hot strobe, with the videocam rolling, the cabbie hunched over a bowl of his favorite miso chashumen, sucking down that thick miasma of crushed garlic, diced green onions, sliced pork and egg noodles, with the facedown determination of a sumo rikishi. Grunting like a caveman to his superfluous interlocutor, he remained focused on the bowl until, with his last slurp, he pushed it away with both hands, belched and calmly wiped the sweat from his brow.

The Buzz

One day, many weeks later, in this land where everyone refuses to pay their hapless NHK fee collector a plastic penny, but still watches public TV anyway, a gaggle of utter strangers coalesced on the sidewalk outside that lonely ramen shop; street traffic slowed and clotted, with rubbernecking, and even some honking; and a row of bicycles grew like a helter-skelter, metal hedge upon the curb.

Japan 2-2018 072

The Boom

As days passed this phenomenon, instead of diminishing, only intensified. Within a fortnight, Ramen Benkei had swarms of hungry bodies cramming its counter from noon to night. Word of mouth had kicked in. It was catapulted from serving a couple dozen customers a day to feeding hundreds and hundreds. (The occasional female was even sighted in the crowd!) Pundits claim that this was the exact moment when Japan’s ramen “boom” was ignited; MSG stock tripled in value overnight.

Remembering a Loyal Customer

All this occurred some 33 years ago, just about the time the above-mentioned cabbie became my father-in-law. By then, the owners of Ramen Benkei were already sending him gifts of gratitude each summer and winter, something they have done without fail ever since, even as they have opened new locations in old Tokyo. In fact, after being implored countless times to desist from their kindness – and even after learning that the cabbie had departed for that eternal noodle stand in the sky – they continue to honor their benefactor’s widow with delicious o-chugen and o-seibo every year.

Japan 2-2018 075

Where It’s At

Benkei has locations in Horikiri, Asakusa and Monzennakacho.   Only downtown Tokyo is the real deal! Everything west of Shinbashi is fake news! So slip into your geta, and go get some now!

Historical Note:

It is said that the warrior monk Musashibo Benkei singlehandedly battled a force of three hundred attackers while defending his master, Yoshitsune Minamoto. Refusing to retreat, he made a stand on a narrow bridge, and fought to the death, annihilating great numbers of attackers while Yoshitsune calmly committed ritual seppuku.

In the proper posture of a true noodleman, Benkei died standing up.

This all happened a long time ago, before the invention of the ramen shop, but it must never be forgotten.

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.

Goto Onsen and others 057 - Copy

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

IMG_E6249

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.)

IMG_6209 (1)

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.

IMG_6218

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

IMG_6337

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.”

IMG_6333

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.

IMG_6309

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.

IMG_5940

 

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!

IMG_5916

 

Beware Your Japanese Tea Kettle

It may not be what you think

One of Japan’s leading cast iron cookware companies, Oigen Foundry, a member of the Nambu Tekki Cooperatives Federation of Iwate, Japan, recently announced that the group had lost its eight-year battle in Chinese courts to retain its “Nambu Tekki” trademark. (‘Nambu’ is a Japanese name, ‘tekki’ the Japanese word for ironware.) In China, the right to use this venerable Japanese brand now belongs to a “third party.”

Why this is significant to Japanese manufacturers, and to those wishing to purchase high-quality, Japanese-made ironware goods, is multifold. Before discussing these ramifications, let’s briefly review the history of Japan’s Nambu Tekki industry.

 

A Long and Illustrious Tradition

Version 2
A ‘Japanese nambu tekki’ tea kettle in an American home. But is this treasured product authentic or fake?

Cast iron kettles and cookware are a traditional industry of Iwate Prefecture, in Northern Japan, where iron casting has been practiced since Fujiwara clansmen built the northern capital of Hiraizumi, in the year 1090. Many of Japan’s oldest foundries, and the finest of its artisanal producers – including families in continuous production of these goods for over 400 years – are clustered in this region, where iron-bearing sand, carbon for coking, and good clay (for casting molds) are found in abundance.

Nambu was the name of the lord and clan that controlled this area during the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), when the fluorescence of Japanese arts, including the Tea Ceremony, created new demand for chagama (ceremonial tea kettles) and other refined cast iron merchandise. It was at this time that the Nambu brand gained prominence throughout Japan.

The first association of local producers using the Nambu Tekki name was established in 1948. In 1972, this group was renamed the Nambu Tekki Cooperatives Federation of Iwate.

Along with their exceptional durability and artistic craftsmanship, Nambu Tekki kettles are said to soften the flavor of water, and infuse it with traces of iron, an essential mineral often lacking in the modern diet.

The Current Situation

The appropriation of the Nambu Tekki trademark by a third party in China is a potentially damaging turn for Japan’s cast ironware producers, who have already been hit hard by a deluge of cheap, mass-produced replicas of questionable quality and material purity. Now, ironically, genuine Japanese goods can no longer be exported to China under the original brand name.

One can safely say that, outside Japan, the Nambu Tekki name – which once represented a heritage of uncompromising quality – has come to symbolize the immoral and rapacious character of modern global business.

Perhaps more importantly, the sanctioned theft of this trademark has allowed these low-quality knock-offs to be deceptively marketed as “Japanese Nambu Tekki.” How serious is this deception? A search of “Nambu Tekki” or “Japanese cast iron teapot” on Amazon.com will produce dozens of results, all labeled as “Japanese Nambu Tekki teapot” in the product description, yet nearly all fakes – low-priced knock-offs using original Japanese patterns and designs.

To the eye of an ironware expert these copies might be laughably obvious, but what about to the father in Minnesota, looking to buy his daughter a graduation present to take to college, or the frugal tea-lover in London or Singapore, seeking the health benefits of a pure cast iron kettle of the highest quality?

Think about it.

And for collectors considering the purchase of an heirloom or antique Japanese teapot – perhaps in a rare, square-shouldered mozuya form, or a classic turtle shell shape, possibly with the traditional hailstone surface pattern, or a lovely stallion and cherry blossom motif – be advised that online auctions like Ebay, and all the rest, are infested with forgeries and counterfeits.  Don’t be fooled. Even on the streets of Tokyo, great care must be taken when shopping for genuine Nambu Tekki.

***

 

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.

Japan 2-2018 116

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.

Japan 2-2018 111

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.

IMG_7540 copy

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.

C7CC074F-CD92-4922-B79D-F8B4D44F7FCF

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.

IMG_5162