Sunday, December 6, 2009


Grab a cup of coffee ... this entry is a long one.

After our side trip to the pottery town of Mashiko last week we headed for Nikko. As we made our way towards Nikko, we could see the mountains in the distance. It was a race against the sun for us - what looked on the map to be a short distance and an easy route ended up for us to be a marathon drive of stop lights and nearly missed turns. There is a bit of excitement about driving here - aside from the whole other side of the road thing. It's the constant vigilance the navigator needs to maintain. We were following what looked like to be the equivalent of a state road back home - you know, the kind that has the state road route number at every intersection and then shortly after an intersection another marker letting you know that yes, you did make the correct turn and you're on the right road. Well, I'm sure the Japanese must be clued in, but for 2 Americans we still haven't quite figured out their system.

Most of the ride went something like this:

Jeff (navigator) "you want to take a right coming up here ... I think"

Jane (driver) "where? here? I don't see the route number!"

Jeff "no wait, go straight"

Jane "no, I think you're right, I see the route number! We're supposed to turn."

Jeff "no - go straight!"

Jane "no, look - between the trucks going by, you can see the route number on the telephone pole (it was about the size of an index card)"

Jeff "right, I see it, o.k. turn right!"

Thank God the kids were all connected to technology and had their head phones on. Mitchell and Walker were probably just wishing they could beam themselves the hell out of this car, and Wrenn, in the way back, was trying hard to fight off motion sickness from all the stopping from traffic lights.

We finally reach Nikko, but in the dark. We went through what looked like some really beautiful forests but the roads were very narrow and it was dark and I was trying to stay focused on not getting sideswiped by oncoming traffic. When I say narrow, I mean really, really narrow. At one point I flipped the switch to have the side view mirrors fold in because the on coming traffic (trucks - clearly much more comfortable traveling at high speeds on narrow winding roads in the dark than I) seemed to be uncomfortably close when they passed by (why is it we suck in our breath when vehicles come so close to us? It's not like we actually believe we will somehow make the car skinnier ... just something to ponder).

We arrived at the Turtle Inn Annex, our first Ryokan - a Japanese style hotel and slept on tatami mats and futons. It was a nice place, very clean and English friendly and I would recommend a stay there. It turns out to be a popular place with the Yokosuka crowd as I ran into two people that I know that were also up for the weekend. If you'd like to see the Turtle Inn visit:

It was a clear night and quite chilly – I think all of us wished we had packed a few extra layers as we walked to the closest restaurant (Chinese!). Along the way we could hear rushing water. I love that sound – when we went to the Mt. Fuji Fire Festival we heard it as we walked along the streets. It speaks of nature and power to me – the rushing water coming down from the mountains. After dinner we returned to the ryokan and with not much to do we decided to call it an evening. FYI - if you are thinking of trying out a ryokan you need to adjust your western mindset – if we had wanted to watch the tv, we would have had to feed coins into a slot. There were no reading lamps to hang out and read in “bed” by. We were all lamenting the fact that we had not thought to bring our Uno cards. As one friend here said, staying at a ryokan is like paying $300 for the privledge of camping inside. Don’t get me wrong – we liked where we stayed and yes it was pricey – you just have to know what you’re in for and adjust your western expectations.

Temple or Shrine?

For the Westerner, it may at first be hard to distinguish between a Shinto Shrine and a Buddhist Temple. I suppose for someone coming to the states from Japan it may be something like trying to figure out what the difference is between a Baptist Church and a Greek Orthodox Cathedral. In Japan about 84% of the population follow Shinto and Buddhist teachings. Disclaimer: I am putting out a disclaimer right now - I am not a student of world religions nor am I an authority of Japanese religion. The information below is only as good as what I was able to glean from the internet and a couple of books I have on Japan and it is given in the spirit of trying to help my friends and family follow along on our journey in Nikko. If you would like to know more, these two websites were most helpful in my research: and


Shinto is the native religion of Japan and almost everyone in Japan at some point in their life is involved in a Shinto ritual. Newborn children are presented at a shrine and most marriage ceremonies in Japan are at a Shinto Shrine. Shinto beliefs are based on "The Way of the Gods" - rooted in animist folk religion it stresses the importance of harmony between humans and nature. It has no doctrine or scriptures, instead worshippers are moved by awe and reverence. The shrines are usually located in beautiful natural settings but the buildings are usually modest traditional Japanese style, the grounds feature large expanses of gravel. The priesthood is a hereditary post serving the community by maintaining the shrine. A Shinto shrine is recognizable by the torii (the distinctive Japanese gate), which is there to act as part of the barrier to separate our living world and the world the kami (gods/nature spirits/spiritual presence) live in. There are often two guardian animals placed at each side of the gate and they serve to protect the entrance.


Buddhism is a religion and a philosophy encompassing a variety of traditions, beliefs and practices that are largely based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as Buddha (Enlightened One). Of the 300 million Buddhists worldwide, about a third of them are Japanese. According to the teachings of Buddhism all life is suffering, the cause lies in attachment, desire and ignorance - the remedy is found is abstinence, righteousness, learning and meditation - the steps along the path to enlightenment. There is also Karma - where the path or conduct you choose in this life determines the quality of your reincarnation in the next life. After death, those who have attained enlightenment break the karmic cycle of suffering and enter nirvana, a blissful state of higher consciousness. Buddhism was brought to Japan over 14 centuries ago, and there are several different sects but the Zen philosophy may have had the most influence on the culture of Japan that is still apparent today. Zen's focus is on austere self-discipline, frugality, and hard work. Especially appealing to the samauri, it gained wide popularity through the 15th-17th centuries. The Zen philosophy brought innovations to calligraphy, poetry and painting; invented the tea ceremony and reinvented the art of flower arranging (see previous blog entry on Ikebana).


The Shrines and Temples of Nikko are a designated World Heritage Site by UnESCO (United Nations Educations, Scientific and Cultural Organization). They are a sacred site and known for its architectural and artistic genius from the Edo period. The shrines and temples, along with their envionment are an outstanding example of a traditional Japanese religious centre. The Shinto perception of the relationship of man with nature, in which mountains and forests have a sacred meaning and are objects of “veneration” in a religious practice that is still very much alive today. For more about this World Heritage Site visit:

Tosho-gu Shrine

This complex consists of more than a dozen Shinto and Buddhist buildings set in a beautiful cedar forest. Tokugawa Ieyasu was the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. Ieyasu was the first shogun to unite Japan, and his Tokugawa shogunate ruled Japan for over 250 years until 1868. The significance of this site to the history of Japan cannot be underestimated, in one blog I read on the site it gave the analogy of Americans visiting the homes of George Washington and/or Thomas Jefferson. Initially the mausoleum for Ieyasu was a simple complex, following the request of Ieyasu at the time of his death, but just over 20 years after his death Ieyasu's grandson, Iemitsu, had a much different idea. He enlisted some 15,000 craftsman who used more that 2.5 million sheets of gold leaf in the lavish decoration of the complex. There are more than 5173 sculptures in Toshogu Shrine complex.

The Nikko Shrines and Temples are in an cedar forest – beautiful ancient cedars surround you as you walk through the complex. Even with the crowds, there was a peaceful serenity to the place, with the Shinto beliefs of harmony between humans and nature apparently taking hold. It was a brisk morning, the scent of the cedars and the faint smell of insense in the air, and a bright blue clear sky – it was a perfect morning to enjoy the Tosho-gu Shrine. Jeff and I both commented about how we wished we knew more about what we were looking at - and it wasn't until we were driving out of town that we saw the visitors information center that I'm sure had a lot of useful information for English speakers. Sigh. Next time we'll know better. Most of what follows is what I found out after we came home - and then had the aha moment of why so many Japanese were standing in a group all taking pictures. Luckily, I followed along and took pictures too!

Ishidorii – Torii Stone Gate

The Ishidorii is one of the best three stone-made torii gates in Japan, but it is the biggest among the stone-made torii gates in Edo period.

The Five Storied Pagoda

Located just past the Ishidorii (Stone Gate), there are no floors inside – each story is connected directly.

Omotemon and Nioh

The Nioh, which are 4 meters high, are put on either side of the Omotemon. The Nioh is a pair of Deva Kings, and are guardians of Buddhism.

Sanjinko – Three Sacred Warehouses

Kamijinko (Upper Sacred Warehouse), Nakajinko (Middle), Saijo (Sacred Rest Room),

Imaginary Elephant

There are two big sculptures of elephant on the gable of the Kamijinko. However, ears and tails are different from the real elephant because the chief painter, Tanyu Kano had not ever seen the real elephant when he painted. Therefore, those sculptures were called the Imaginary Elephant.

Shinyosha (Sacred Stable)

There are 8 panels that contain sculptures of monkeys which express the ways of life. The most famous of which is the “See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil.” Monkey spirits were once believed to protect horses.

Karadou-torii – Bronze Gate of Torii

The Karadou-torii was the first bronze Torii in Japan. In today’s currency the grandson of Shogun Iemitsu spent 200,000,000 yen to have it made. There are Lotus flowers carved on the foot of the pillars, which is unusual since the lotus relates to Buddhism (vs. Shinto).

Yomeimon Gate (Gate of Sunlight)

The Yomeimon gate is designated as a national treasure with more than 400 gilt carvings divided up into categories of sages, immortals, chinese children, animals, imaginary animals, flower, birds and patterns. There is apparently a law for the arrangement of these carvings. The photos just do not do this masterpiece justice. On a beautiful fall morning, with the sun glinting off of the gold it was a breathtaking site.

Kitouden (Prayer Hall)

In 1872, the Meiji government ordered Buddhist temples to be separated from Shinto shrines, but this building was excused from the order. One of the uses today is for wedding ceremonies and as I was walking back from the Okusha Inner Shrine a group of us were stopped to let a wedding party pass by - now how cool is that?! In this beautiful setting I had the opportunity to see a Japanese bride dressed in the traditional white wedding kimono called shiromuku (white kimono robe). Maybe it was the setting, the kimono, but I thought she looked beautiful.

Sleeping Cat

The master craftsman, Jingorou Hidari carved the Sleeping Cat which lies at the entrance of Okusha Inner Shrine and is designated as a National Treasure. There is a sculpture of a sparrow on the backside of the Sleeping Cat. The sparrow will be eaten if the cat is awake. However, the sparrow and the cat co-exist, meaning that the nation wide chaos is over and a peaceful society now exists. Sorry folks, I did not get a picture of this because I did not know the story until I did my blog research - it just means I'll have to go back when friends or family come to visit.

Rinnoji Temple

Rinnoji Temple is not a name of the building, but it is the generic name of Buddhist temples in Nikko. The central building of Rinnoji Temple is the Sanbutsu-doh Hall. Sanbutsu can be translated as three Buddhas. In fact, three images of Buddha are enshrined inside. The temple's main building, the Sanbutsudo, houses large, gold lacquered, wooden statues of Amida, Senju-Kannon ("Kannon with a thousand arms") and Bato-Kannon ("Kannon with a horse head"). The three deities are regarded as Buddhist manifestations of Nikko's three mountain kami ("Shinto gods") enshrined at Futarasan Shrine. You are not allowed to take photos of the Buddha’s inside the temple – so you’ll have to take my word for it, they were quite impressive.

We made our way through most of the complex, visiting the Futarasan Shrine and the Rinnoji Taiyun Temple and you can see the slideshow that has photos from these two areas. It was a long day, and after a seemingly endless amounts of walking (I counted just over 120 steps up to the Rinnoji Taiyun Temple – darn, why didn’t I have my step counter on?!) we decided to stop at a restaurant on our way out of town. Glad we did because it was probably the best meal we’ve had so far in Japan.

Hippari Dako

Hippari Dako is a little, teeny restaurant with only 3 tables, located on the main street and if someone hadn’t told me about it we probably would have passed it right by. It appears to be a favorite among westerner’s by the walls that were covered with business cards from people who have come from all over the world. Jeff and I had the vegetarian tempura which was awesome, Mitchell had the Udon Noodle Soup, Wrenn the Gyoza (dumplings) and Walker the Chicken Yakitori. All the plates were empty – so that would be a first for us here in Japan – a resounding 5 thumbs-up from the Cleary’s.

With a 4 hour drive ahead of us, we headed home, hoping against all odds that Tokyo traffic wouldn’t be too painful. It was a great trip, I think we all appreciated the beauty of shrines and temples of Nikko and would highly recommend a visit here. Till next time, sayonara.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Daisei Gama

With a 4-day Thanksgiving weekend ahead of us, and Jeff itching to get off the base, we decided to head north to Nikko, with a side trip planned to Mashiko.

I had been to Mashiko about 2 weeks ago (see previous entry), and when Jeff saw the photos there was some grumbling about “all the cool places you’re getting to see while I’m stuck here on base.” So I thought if we were headed to Nikko we could take a side trip over to Mashiko on our way. I sent an email ahead to the Daisei Gama Pottery – asking if it was possible for us to have a tour of the pottery studio. Not being sure if they had received my email we showed up hoping for the best.

When we entered the shop area it was deserted, but within a few moments Mosako Otsuka walked in and she remembered me and said that if we could wait until 1 p.m. that she and her son would give us a tour. We were served green tea with some little candies and crackers while we waited and Otsuka-san told us a little about the history of the Daisei Gama kiln and the different types of glazes that Mashiko is known for. It was all quite interesting.

The Daisei Gama has been in the Otsuka family for seven generations. They are the last pottery studio in Mashiko to continue using the wood fired kilns, with the other studios moving to either gas or electric. The area is known for their golden brown glaze, which she said is also known as the Persimmon glaze, for the fruit found in that area. There is usually a celadon glaze that is used as an accent or contrasting glaze.

With time to spare before our tour, we all carefully selected individual teacups and looked around the studio at the beautiful work. I found some gorgeous vases that I could envision Ikebana arrangements in – but as Jeff will clearly point out, I have a way of “falling in love” with the most expensive items on display. I will be saving my Yen from my teaching and will make a point of returning to Mashiko before our time here in Japan has ended. There is a beautiful vase there that has my name on it.

Seiichi Otsuka, the son, entered and with introductions made he took us on a tour of the stepping kiln. We learned about the firings – they are getting ready for their next bisque firing – and how when they are firing the pottery with the glazes they have these little “thermometers” that are inside the kiln. When the temperature reaches a certain point one of the peaks melts and with a very limited range of only a few degrees the second one melts – this very small range is where they need to keep the kiln at for the firing of their pottery. The picture shows what they look like after they come out of the kiln.

After the stepping kiln tour, we went behind the scenes to see one of their apprentices working on the wheel. He was making one of the parts to a traditional Japanese teapot. The kids each had a turn at sitting on the kick wheel, and getting a feel for what it would be like to use their foot power to spin the wheel. Mosako returned to guide us up the hill behind the studio and kiln where her husband, the master potter Kuninori Otsuka, was chopping wood for the kiln as well as burning wood for the ash they use to make the glazes. As Mosako Otsuka said, when it is a family run studio they have to do it all.

With the tour over we made our purchases and said our good-byes. My return trip to the Daisei Gama pottery studio was as wonderful as my first visit. It helps of course that both Seiichi and Mosako speak English, Seiichi is fluent having spent a year in the United States as an exchange student when he was younger. But not having the language barrier is only a small part of the delight in visiting this studio – the obvious joy they take in making their work and sharing their knowledge is infectious. This was my second visit, but it is most definitely not my last.

We headed back to the car and started the journey towards Nikko. With map in hand we chose to go the scenic route … mmmm, well we're not so sure we choose wisely. Look for the next posting to find out more.

Till next time, sayonara.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Mashiko is a small town located in the Tochigi Prefecture, about 2.5 hours north of Tokyo. It is known for it’s rustic, utilitarian pottery and became famous when Hamada Shoji settled there. He became a National Living Treasure here in Japan and was part of the Mingei movement (see previous blog entry on the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum). I had the opportunity to travel with a group from the base, and unlike my previous trips I did not do my homework before getting on the bus – I pretty much went to Mashiko blind, not having a clue what to expect. Boy, was I in for a surprise.

As we left the Tokyo area behind us, there was a distinct shift – the concrete buildings faded away, more traditional Japanese houses were visible and there was much more breathing space. It became more rural and quite lovely. Once we left the highway and started to wind our way towards Mashiko, on very narrow roads, there were photo ops galore. Beautiful Japanese homes surrounded by lovely gardens and fields; a Bamboo grove; a Persimmon tree with all the leaves gone but the brightly colored red-orange fruit was still dangling in contrast – this was the first time since arriving in Japan four months ago that I realized this is what I imagined Japan would look like. We arrived in Mashiko and our bus parked in the center of town. Our guide (who is another Navy spouse and has traveled extensively throughout Japan) provided us with a map of the area and set us loose with a 3-hour time frame. There are over 400 pottery studios in Mashiko and unlike my trip to Seto (see blog entry) we were there during the middle of the week and there was not a pottery festival going on. It was a cool, overcast Fall day and the streets were fairly empty – so with map in hand my friend Ami and I started to make tracks, knowing 3 hours would barely make a dent in all there was to see.

The plan of attack was to head down one side of the main street and when we hit the 1.5 hour mark start to head back. Well something caught Ami’s eye and she crossed the street and I followed – what great luck, because if we had headed down the original path we may never have reached the Daisei-Gama pottery studio and kiln within our deadline. Instead it was one of the first places we went into and I fell in love. Most of my photos are from this studio and the work there clearly spoke to me. I hovered over Sake sets and bowls (still not sure which are for rice and which were for miso soup) – but with not much time and this only the second stop on our whirlwind tour, I decided I would wait and see if I saw something else making note to allow enough time to come back.

There were many shops, some with similar work, and with my very limited Japanese it was hard for me to know if they were just a shop selling many different artists work or if their work was by a resident potter. Like in Seto, I favor buying work from the artist – I like to look back on my purchases and remember the artist I bought the work from, the piece then has so much more meaning to me.

At the very end of the street there was a building tucked back from the street that is an indigo dyeing shop. Here is where I kick myself for not having done my homework … it is Higeta Cottage and shop and you can take workshops explaining the traditional indigo dyeing technique. Sadly for me, when I arrived they must have been taking a lunch break because there was no one to be seen. But now that I have their name and number I will have to go back before my time is up here in Japan.

With time ticking I made my way back up the street, determined to get back to the Daisei-Gama Kiln. I am not a potter, and truthfully I know very little about the process – I certainly appreciate the craft though, having watched Greg, one of my studio mates at The Hermitage, create like magic, art out of clay. But even someone as unfamiliar as I am with the process would be able to see the beauty in the work at this studio. The lady who was helping me make my selections was very helpful and thankfully spoke English. They take a lot of time and care in wrapping their packages and while she wrapped mine I wandered around the store, kicking myself for not having brought more Yen with me. The next thing I knew I was being offered some tea and was sitting at a small table with 3 Japanese Nationals – who I gathered spoke about as much English as I spoke Japanese. So we just sat and smiled at each other while the shop owner acted as our translator. After they had made their purchase and left the shop I asked about a beautiful Sake tray (or she said I could use it as a cheeseboard) – but as lovely as it was I explained I was out of Yen. She uttered the magic words – “oh, we take Visa!” Yes! With time now ticking and with much help I selected 5 bowls for us, each slightly different. And with help from her son, who spoke flawless English (he had spent some time in the states as an exchange student) they quickly wrapped things up and I hurried to make my bus in time.

Once home, I told Jeff about what a wonderful experience I had had that day and how I wanted us all to go back to Mashiko and in particular to the Daisei-Gama kiln and studio. Through some help from one of his co-workers who is fluent in Japanese, we found out the name of the artist - OTSUKA, Kuniyori (I hope I have that spelled correctly) - and that it is a family run kiln. This particular kiln is the last wood-burning kiln in the village of Mashiko and has apprenticed many world famous potters. The colors of the pieces from this kiln are complex, and it can take up to a week to complete the glaze process. If I understood correctly, they have a firing (?) 2 to 3 times a year – I hope that we can come back to see that – especially after being shown 2 pieces with the same glaze but they looked quite different because of their placement within the kiln. I am quite intrigued.

It was a great day and the pieces I purchased that day I will treasure. Mashiko was definitely one of the high points so far on my journey here in Japan.

Till next time, sayonara.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

International Quilt Week Yokohama 2009

This week was one of the largest quilt shows in Japan. I knew about the Tokyo Quilt Show, it’s already on my 2010 calendar, but I was not aware of the Yokohama show. Thank goodness my friend Kathy, savvy Gaijin that she is, not only knew about the show but had planned an outing to attend. Sign me up!

Upon exiting the subway we had a fairly good idea which way to head but it became obvious as we followed the masses. It was like a slow flowing river with all these side tributaries feeding in, flowing in a steady stream towards fabric, buttons, and lots of inspiration.

I’ve mentioned in previous blogs about the Japanese attention to details, so it should have come as no surprise upon entering the exhibit hall you immediately saw these huge patchwork balls and then looking up with out a doubt the largest quilt I have ever seen (see slides). The message was clear – this was not going to be like any quilt show I’ve seen in the U.S. (just in case any quilters out there get all riled up – no, I have not been to Houston – but I have been to quite a few nationally ranked shows, Mancusco does a nice job but they should come here and take some notes). The quilts are displayed like a real exhibit (not hanging on what is basically curtains), with exhibit walls and proper lighting – now maybe that sounds a bit picky, but all my fellow quilters out there will know exactly what I’m talking about. It makes a HUGE difference in how the quilts show.

We enjoyed the quilts immensely. As usual, I was fascinated by the many different techniques and stood there wondering, “now how did she do that?” My photos are of the entrants, none of the professional quilts nor the special exhibits were available to photograph. The octopus quilt you see in the slide show was one of the three grand prize winners. It was drop dead gorgeous. The attention to detail was amazing.

After feasting our eyes on the quilts and getting high on inspiration we headed over to the vendors. When we turned the corner it was like … oh, boy – maybe we should have come here first! It was packed – solid. I was getting my daily work out just trying to get through the crowds. There were so many great vendors there it would take me quite a while to get through them all so I’ll give just give you the cliff notes (an aside – did you know that cliff notes are now passé and that Sparknotes are “in” – I discovered this doing research for one of my books for bookgroup. They are great and you can go online – just FYI for any of you out there with kids who need to understand the importance of books like Catch-22, like we had to do this summer.).

Purses and more

OMG!! The Japanese appear to really be into making purses. And I have to admit, I could see getting sucked into this. There were vendors selling nothing but handles – all kinds of really cool handles – like nothing I’ve seen back in the states. And weaving, there were vendors selling tools to help you basically stitch fabric and weave purse bottoms – sort of like those placemats we used to make when we were kids. But way more sophisticated. Now I stood for quite a while watching a demonstration and it was very cool but the one thing that was holding me back was I put my sewing machine in storage for three years. Why? Well I knew my space here would be limited and I figured it would force me to focus on hand stitching – exploring new areas fiber art. My mom said I’ll never make it three years with out caving in and buying myself a sewing machine. I have to admit, standing there watching the endless demonstrations – it seemed like nearly every booth had a demo going on – I was starting to think she may be right. But for now, I purchased a few items I could make by hand and if I really can’t control myself I might just have to hit up one of my unsuspecting sewing friends here and ask to borrow their machine.

It was a great day, I loved seeing the many different techniques. From what I understand, this is just a warm up to the Tokyo show in January. I can hardly wait.

Till next time, sayonara.

Azamino Shibori Exhibit

This past week has been a fabulous week for getting off base. I had several opportunities to learn more about this fascinating culture, to see an exhibit of some beautiful shibori work and finally to go to the Yokohama Quilt Festival.


One of the things I really wanted to do while here in Japan was to have the opportunity to teach English to Japanese students. O.k. before any of you Grammarphiles out there suck in your breath in horror and think “How could she? She writes with run on sentences, she breaks grammar rules left and right, using dashes and ellipses with abandon.” Just chill – I am not passing myself off as someone who has a Masters in ESL. I am looking for students who are interested in practicing conversational English and exchanging cultures. As luck would have it I have recently acquired three new classes of students. One of those students has a family member who has been studying shibori for the last two years and as it so happens this week they were having an exhibit of their work in Azamino, a suburb of Yokohama. It was my very good fortune that two of my new students offered to take me to the exhibit to see the work and introduce me to the sensei (teacher). A train ride with a transfer to the subway system finally brought us to Azamino – all in all about 1.5 hours from my house. We all laughed about how if they had not been my guide I never would have gotten there – it would have been “Jane lost in Japan … again.”


For those of you who have no idea what the heck I mean when I say “shibori” – it is a technique that manipulates fabric through folding, stitching, twisting, binding or a combination of and then the artist dyes the fabric, sometimes multiple times to achieve the desired look. The process is very organic – for all your efforts at control you never really know what you will unfold. There are many variables, the type of fabric, the tightness of the binding, the intensity of the dye – these are just a few that come to mind. For the last two years I have been a studio artist at The Hermitage Museum and Gardens in Norfolk, Virginia. This was an opportunity for me to continue my self-taught journey into the world of Shibori. Two of the essential books to a Shibori artists library are Shibori: The Inventive Art of Japanese Shaped Resist Dyeing by Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada and Memory on Cloth: Shibori Now also by Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada. I found these two books to be indispensable. Shibori by Karren K. Brito was also a book I never had far from me with Americanized ways of practicing shibori.

It was through these three books that I experimented and tried the many different techniques of Shibori. The positive results ended up in two of the gallery shows that The Hermitage Foundation Museum and Gardens had show casing the studio artists. But as wonderful an opportunity as it was to have my own studio I also realized that to be able to study in Japan with a shibori master would be the chance of a lifetime – something I really never dreamed I would have. Moving to Japan was not even on our radar screen. Go figure.

Japanese Shibori

The Japanese are known for their beautiful Shibori work, primarily dyed in indigo. Not having had the opportunity to learn indigo dying yet, I really wasn’t sure what to expect but let me tell you that when I walked through the door of the exhibit I was speechless. There were gorgeous shibori works hanging from the walls in all shades of indigo blue – some intensely dark, some light. There were many of techniques I had seen in books but never in person. There was a demonstration area where I had the opportunity to meet the sensei and she showed us some of the techniques. I am not sure they quite knew what to make of a tall, blonde American woman walking into their exhibit … but once they found out that I knew a bit about shibori they were very happy to share their knowledge. As I was walking out my door that morning I had stuffed a few samples of my work into my backpack, not really sure what I was going to do with them but figuring why not. I am so glad that I did – I was able to share them with the sensei and I guess I demonstrated enough interest in this art form that it was agreed that I could join the monthly class, taught by the sensei. If I understood the translation correctly, it is called 100 Shibori Ways (or Techniques). She has a strict curriculum that must be followed – if your technique does not pass, you cannot move to the next level. With less than 36 months to go before we leave I am not sure if I will be able to make it through all 100 – but as those of you who know me, know I love a goal and a challenge!

Proper lunar alignment

Was it luck? Were the moons properly aligned? Fate? Serendipity? Happenstance? Who the heck knows … all I know is that because I met a woman named Kathy (my Yoda), who introduced me to Diana (gift giver of Japanese friends), who gifted me a group of her students, where one of them happened to have a family member studying Shibori, who happened to be having an exhibit, who happened to introduce me to the sensei – I now have the opportunity of a life time to study shibori here in this amazing country full of surprises at every turn.

Was is a good week? Oh yes, it was a very good week.

Till next time, sayonara.

For those of you who would like to follow me on my shibori journey you can also check out my blog This blog is geared toward my love of all things shibori and interesting fibert art I encounter while here in Japan.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Japanese Folk Crafts Museum

Last week I had the opportunity to visit the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo, also known as the Mingeikan Museum. The museum, built in 1936, has over 17,000 items made by crafts people. The term Mingei (folk art), was coined by Yanagi Soetsu who used it to refer to common crafts that had been brushed aside by the industrial revolution. Yanagi “sought to counteract the desire for cheap mass-produced products by pointing to the works of ordinary crafts people that spoke to the spiritual and practical needs of life” – this came to be known as the Mingei Movement.

To celebrate the 120th anniversary of the birth of Soetsu Yanagi, the Mingeikan Museum currently has an exhibit of 400 works selected by Yanagi that reflect his philosophy of finding beauty and art in everyday items. In his words he described the beauty of Mingei as “wholesome, honest, natural, innocent, free, simple, and pure.” The works on display had to meet the following criteria in order to be considered Mingei – made by anonymous crafts people; produced by hand in quantity; inexpensive; used by the masses; functional in daily life; representative of the region in which it was produced. Photography was not allowed inside the building but I would encourage you to take a few moments to check out their website -

The photos on the slideshow are from the grounds and exterior shots of the 2 buildings. One is the museum, the other is the Nagayamon (long gate house) which was built in the 19th century in Tochigi Prefecture and moved to this site in the 1930’s. Sadly, we were not there on the day the long gate house is open for tours but I plan to go back. In December, they have an annual show called the New Works Competition where craftspeople are asked to submit their work – and I have already spied some shibori work from previous shows. Like a moth to flame … shibori calls me to return.

You will notice from the photo with the basket of slippers that once again, I had to take off my street shoes and tour the building in surippa (slippers). If you are planning to visit Japan, making sure you always have a pair of socks with you is highly recommended – especially in the summer time, sticking hot, sweaty American feet into the provided slippers is sure to offend someone! Of course, the Japanese are probably way to polite to ever say anything – they’d just discreetly whisk away the contaminated slippers. If you can find some easily compactable slippers to put in your backpack or purse – that would be a good idea. Most places provide slippers but the problem I seem to have is my big American feet hang off the back of the slippers and I end up shuffling along like some sort of degenerate.

My friends and I lucked out on another glorious Fall day, and after leaving the museum (with countless creative ideas swimming in my head after the beautiful and inspiring works) we stumbled on a park and decided to take a detour as we wound our way back to the train station. The park, Komabano, was at one time used as a hawking area during the Edo Era and during the Meiji Period the first military review was held there. With history crammed into every nook and cranny here the Japanese appear to take great care of their public spaces. Over and over I will probably continue to share my astonishment at how clean everything is here – there was not a single piece of trash, candy wrapper, cigarette butt, water bottle to be seen lying on the ground throughout the park. Nor walking down the numerous streets we were on that day. I am also impressed with all the details – the lovely iron gate for instance that led into the park. It seems that everywhere I turn here, there is opportunity for eye candy and inspiration.

Till next time, sayonara.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Chozubachi Stone

This weekend Jeff and I had a Sunday morning trip planned to the Machida Shrine Sale. This sale is on the first of each month, except January. Figuring that this would be the only chance Jeff would have to go for a long while (May and August are the only two months in 2010 that fall on a weekend), he was a good sport and agreed to set out on another adventure outside the gates. We left early, map in hand hoping to score a few hits with some items I hand in mind.

There is a center here on base called the Fleet and Family Support Center that offers some great classes, information and among other things directions to some of the more popular destinations within driving distance. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am grateful that they even have directions at all … it’s just well, somehow every single time we follow the FFSC directions we manage to get lost. And this outing was no different. The hopes of getting up and back to the shrine sale in a timely manner were soon dashed as we tried to decipher what “turn right after 7-11 5 minutes” exactly meant. Finally realizing we must have missed the turn and were now 20km passed where we thought we should be we turned around, hoping if we retraced our steps we would stumble on the Shrine Sale. Finally, matching the Kanji we found the location for the sale … but there was nothing there. After all of that, it turns out that for some reason it was not being held that day. Sigh.

Not to be deterred from having a total loss of an outing, Jeff decides to pull into a stone shop that we have passed by probably a half dozen times – usually on a way to one of the children’s sporting events, that we are already late for because … we got lost. Each time, he hears “ooooooh! Look, there’s that stone shop, I sure wish we could stop there sometime … it looks like they have some really cool things for a garden.” I guess he figured with no children in the car, no sporting event that we were trying to make, now was as good a time as any. He squeezes our car into a teeny, tiny parking space (there was only one) that is just inches away from the main road that has cars and trucks whizzing by at top speeds. We step out to discover there is a beautiful Koi pond, with a stone bridge crossing over it and a waterfall with a moss covered frog that the water spills out of. It was an unexpected treasure! I walk around seeing many items I would love to have, while I think Jeff was checking his pulse rate as he went into sticker shock. I had warned him and said that these stone pieces were expensive – maybe he and I need to have a discussion about what the definition of expensive is. Clearly we have a different price point! I finally settle on what is probably the least expensive item on the lot, a stone water basin – and the older gentleman who was helping me guides me into a little building and offers me a seat at a table and then promptly disappears. I think to myself, “well, this is different. I figured I’d point, pay and go but no this is clearly not the way a business transaction is handled in Japan.” My cultural education continues.

While I am seated at the table, wondering now what? Did they misunderstand, and where is Jeff? Jeff pops his head in to see what is going on, and why is it taking so long to buy a “rock.” Next thing we know we have tea being served to us and Jeff is now seated next to me and Mr. T. Ebisawa starts to pull out several books. I’m thinking “uh, oh … something just got lost in translation and he thinks we want him to create a Japanese Tea Garden or something like that” - but no he is actually taking the time to show us a garden book that has the flower that the stone chozubachi is modeled after! “Wild Beach Chrysanthemum” Asteraceae Heteropappus hispidus var. Arenarius, is a coastal flower, and best as I can tell native to Japan.

I found this photo off of the Wild Beach Chrysanthemum off of the mitomori website .

Mr. T. Ebisawa then pulls out a few more books, one of which is The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura – which to Jeff’s surprise I said “oh, I have that book!” This book is considered a classic essay on “tea drinking, its history, restorative powers and rich connection to the Japanese culture.” The granite stone water basins, chozubachi, or crouching bowl, were designed by Japanese tea maters for guests to wash their hands and rinse their mouth as a symbol of purification. These low crouching bowls were meant to humble the guest and create the right state of mind in the tea garden before entering the tea house. Often these bowls are fed with water from a bamboo spout called a “kakei.” Mr. T. Ebisawa, proceeded to pull out a kakei … but we would have to save that purchase for another day.

As we were wrapping up our transaction Mr. T. Ebisawa gave us the brochure for the Ishino Yoshidaya Company – beautiful shrine lanterns for me to save my penny’s (or Yen?) for. Jeff and I both noticed at the top of the business card attached to the brochure it had “Since 1592” – we pointed to this and Mr. T Ebisawa proudly stated that their company had been in business for more than 400 years. Jeff and I just started laughing, talk about cultural history! (The closest American company I could find was J.E. Rhoads and Sons, 1702 – they make conveyor belts today, but started as a tanner and harness maker.)

As we rode back home, with our chozubachi carefully wrapped in the back of the car with instructions to “not scrub off the moss,” we talked about how much time and care Mr. T. Ebisawa took with us – even though we were probably his lowest sale of the week, you would never have known it. He treated us like we were buying the most expensive shrine lantern on the lot. He was patient, treated us like guests in his home by offering us tea and took the time to educate 2 Americans on one more aspect of this very rich culture. This outing turned out to be one of my favorite memories so far, and it reminds me that just when you think you’ve had a bust of a day, if you open your eyes and your heart life’s happenstance will reward you greatly.

Till next time, sayonara.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Mikan Picking

This weekend we were invited to go Mikan picking with a group of families from the base along with Tokiko our Yokosuka Fairy Godmother (Tokiko is the lady who took us on the outing to the Fish Market). We started off with overcast skies, keeping our fingers crossed the weather would hold out. Four cars, caravan style, headed outside the gates for another adventure in Japan.

The Mikan orchard was about a 30 minute drive south of here along the Miura Peninsula. It was an easy drive, passing by Miura Beach where there was a Wind Surfing competition taking place – the wind was strong and those guys were flying across the water. At the top of a hill, just after Miura Beach we all turned off onto a narrow road towards the water. The road was so narrow that a truck headed in our direction “forced” a car ahead of us to back up until the truck could get by. Not far off the main road the caravan pulled into a teeny tiny parking lot where we double parked our cars in order to get us all in. When we all piled out we discovered that just below us, carved out of the side of the hill was the Mikan orchard and off in the distance you could see Kaneda Bay – it was very picturesque. With space so limited, the Japanese seem to be able to fit in fields and orchards where we Americans would probably think it’s not possible. The first photo was taken from the top of the hill, the Iijima Mikan Orchard was just below us.

Honey Citrus

Mikans are Japanese tangerines – also called Satsuma, the seedless mandarin. Closest thing we have back home are Clementines. These little citrus fruits are sweet and delicious and the name translates to “Honey Citrus of Wenzhou” – that should clue you in to just how good they are. The kids all had fun picking them and it’s a good thing they eat the Mikans like candy … we have quite a lot.

Tokiko knows the owners of the farm and so in addition to picking the Mikans we had the added bonus of a side trip to a sweet potato field to dig up our own potatoes. If you notice the first photo from the slide show you can see some fields way off in the distance – towards the water – that’s where the sweet potato field was. We all piled back in our cars and followed the Iijima Orchard guide, winding our way past fields, traditional Japanese houses and then right at the edge of the sweet potato field was a more modern neighborhood. Our kids had fun digging up the potatoes, and the ever efficient and courteous Japanese even had gloves there for everyone to use! Check out the photo of Jeff and Mitchell showing their “catch of the day.”

Kojima Kojin Mocks Me!

Remember how I mentioned in a previous entry how much I loved sweet potatoes? I think Kojima Kojin, the “God of the Cooking Range” decided to have a little fun with me … “Ahhhh, she like sweet potato! Let’s see how much she like!” (I am learning that in Japanese they drop words, because they are inferred, and they have no participles - o.k. I have to confess, I am relearning my English grammar – when our teacher told us “The Japanese language has no participles” I was thinking to myself … “come on Jane, participle, participle … think, think.” Thank goodness the classmate next to me muttered under her breath “now if I can only remember what a participle is” whew, glad to know I wasn’t the only one!). Well, it is true, I do love them but … even someone who loves sweet potatoes has to wonder what in the world she will do with over 20 lbs of Sweet Potatoes (I know, I weighed them). Jeff said we’ll be like Bubba from Forrest Gump … Sweet Potato Pie, Sweet Potato Pudding, Sweet Potato Soup, Roasted Sweet Potatoes, Mashed Sweet Potatoes, Sweet Potato Crisp, Sweet Potato Balls, … anyone have any “to die for” sweet potato recipes? If you do, email them to me – I’ll be cooking sweet potatoes for quite a while. For more information on Kojima Kojin go to:

Uummmm, does anyone know what these are?

As we were leaving the Mikan picking area we were each handed a bag that contained radishes. Very large radishes. Lots and lots of radishes. Each of us were given a bag of beautifully cleaned radishes – I have 5 bags worth of radishes (see photo)! I’m starting to feel like I need a root cellar. I’m thinking, what in the world will I do with all these radishes? So off to the library I go, checking out 3 Japanese cookbooks to try and figure out different ways I can use these ... I’ll let you know how successful I am.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention – or is it “The Necessary ...”?

The day ended with a stop at a family style restaurant – reminded me of a Japanese type of Denny’s or Big Boy. It was fun – every time I turn around there’s always some unexpected experience. I decided before we headed out that I would visit the ladies room and crack me up! When I entered the personal toilet area all of a sudden I heard a “waterfall sound” and I realized that there must be some type of motion sensor to set off a nature sound to cover well, um, your own nature sound. I just starting laughing – leave it to the Japanese to come up with something like that! I guess when you have so many people living close together they come up with all kinds of ways to be discreet.

Tokiko gave us such a wonderful gift that day. A “thank you” seems inadequate when she opened up another door to the Japanese culture that we wouldn’t normally have, had she not shared her friendship with us. I am truly grateful for the good fortune that has brought her into our lives.

Well, tomorrow I head to Tokyo in the afternoon – will report back if anything interesting pops up – how can it not, in this fascinating country? Till next time, sayonara.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Ikebana International

Ikebana International is a nonprofit group that’s aim is to stimulate and cultivate the continuous study and spread of Ikebana; to develop a better understanding of the Japanese people and likewise a better understanding between all nationalities; to strengthen the friendship between Masters, teachers and students; to stimulate international friendship and spread goodwill throughout the world.


From the Ikebana International website IKEBANA is the Japanese art of flower arrangement. It is more than simply putting flowers in a container. It is a disciplined art form in which the arrangement is a living thing where nature and humanity are brought together. It is steeped in the philosophy of developing a closeness with nature.

As is true of all other arts, IKEBANA is creative expression within certain rules of construction. Its materials are living branches, leaves, grasses, and blossoms. Its heart is the beauty resulting from color combinations, natural shapes, graceful lines, and the meaning latent in the total form of the arrangement. IKEBANA is, therefore, much more than mere floral decoration.”

For more information on this beautiful art form go to:


When a spouse moves to the base here, there is an opportunity to join Ikebana International – they have monthly programs that offer you a chance to get out and experience the culture. Or, if you know someone who is a member, you can attend a monthly program as a guest. This is how I was able to attend the fabulous program offered last week – my friend Kathy asked if I would like to join her and of course I said absolutely! We arrived at the Kita-Kamakura train station and I was surprised to find when I got off the train that this was a tiny stop, in vast contrast to the stations in Tokyo. Back in the states we might call this a one traffic light town (I’m not sure they even had that) – the areas I saw were absolutely charming and there was no doubt as I walked towards the Temple that I was in Japan. We had to walk (imagine that!) up a slight incline to the temple grounds where the program was being held. It was another beautiful Fall day and we headed off – passing lovely traditional Japanese homes with beautiful well manicured gardens and small restaurants with their tempting dishes on display.


Kita-Kamakura is the home to the oldest Zen training monastery in Japan, Kencho-ji, and it is the first-ranked of the five great Zen temples of Kamakura. Work on the temple was completed in the fifth year of the Kencho Era (1253), from which the temple takes it’s name. The grounds of Kencho-ji house 10 sub-temples and 10 main buildings. These areas were restored after fires destroyed the buildings in the 14th and 15th centuries. The program was held in the Hojo (main hall) and it is often called the Ryuo-den (Dragon King Hall). The building was first used as the chief priest’s residence, but it is now used in the performance of religious services.

Kadou Honnoji

There are many different schools of Ikebana. Here on base, there are two different styles of classes offered at the community center where you can work with a master sensi (teacher) who has been trained and received certification in their respective schools. The Ikebana demonstration at the Kencho-ji was being performed by Tenshin Nakano – and when I say performed, I mean it - he stretched out his arms holding various organic pieces clipping away like Edward Scissorshand, until he had achieved the shape in mind or he used his clippers to score horizontal lines on the branches and then pressed them to his head until the form was reached and we could hear the branches cracking as he worked to achieve the arc of the branch he was seeking. He also used his metal clippers to sound out a beat while he was mulling over a piece before placing it in the container - reminding me of the chefs at the Japanese hibachi restaurants who perform with their knives. It was like no flower arranging demonstration I'd ever witnessed and Mr. Tenshin Nakano was the most theatrical flower arranger I’ve ever seen! He is from Kyoto and is the son and grandson of famous flower masters of the Kadou Honnoji School of Ikebana. There had to be absolute silence and no photos while he created the five different arrangements. After all 5 arrangements were completed he opened up the floor to questions and from that I scribbled down notes as quickly as I could – he was asked "what does he think of while he is creating his work?" and his response was as follows (now, this was through a translator so if I’ve lost something in translation I apologize to the artist):

The first arrangement he thought of a Dragon and he used rikka, which is the oldest style of Ikebana.

The second arrangement, he was thinking of the branch of heaven (highest branch), the branch of man (middle), finally the branch of Earth (lowest).

The third arrangement was about opposites – bringing the green line over the black surface.

The fourth was about how everything is inter-connected, we are all dependent on each other and cannot stand alone.

The final piece was in a transparent (glass/crystal) vase and so he said that because you can see through the vase you have to put something in it – in this case, a lot of leaves and to counter that he only used a single branch. A root was twirled and placed over the side – Tenshin Nakano said that this style of Ikebana always contains an old root.

With more visual treats swimming in my head the group moved to the second floor of an adjoining building where we sat on tatami mats and ate at the traditional low tables. We had a bento box lunch which was delicious.

I found the program to be very entertaining and I certainly learned a lot – I was inspired by the art form of Ikebana and the setting was lovely. As luck would have it, one of my neighbors had already asked if I would be interested in joining her Ikebana group that meets once a month. Her sensi teaches the traditional school, Ikenobo, and with that in mind I left Kita-Kamakura in high spirits, knowing that very soon I would be beginning a new creative journey - learning the traditional Japanese art form of Ikebana. Till next time, sayonara.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Yamato Shrine Sale

On the third Saturday of the month a Shrine Sale is held in Yamato near the train station. This is about an hours drive from the Yokosuka area (if you leave early) – and early did we leave! 6:30 a.m. was the pick up time, as four fellow Navy spouses headed outside the gates for another adventure in Japan.

Shrine sales are a lot like our flea markets back home – only much, much better. If you plan to visit Japan and looking at interesting items from another culture sounds like fun – I would highly recommend including a trip to a shrine sale. There are many shrine sales but all of them have their own schedule – I counted at least seven in the Tokyo area on varying days of the month.

The Yamato Shrine Sale is the favorite of many in the Yokosuka area – there were many vendors (I didn’t count but I would estimate over 100), selling all kinds of different items. I really didn’t have anything on my list – I was more curious than anything. It was an absolutely beautiful Fall morning and so, equipped with Yen (no credit cards), a shopping bag and a piece of paper with 2 key phrases I set off to search for treasures.

Gateway to purchases: “Sumimasen, Ikura Deska?” “Kaite Kudasai”

There was so much to look at – buttons (now that’s bad … I have a penchant for buttons, even with no sewing machine for three years I could envision just what I’d use all those very cool buttons for), kimonos – tons of kimonos. Kimonos on hangers, kimonos folded and stacked neatly in piles, kimonos piled up on the ground (see photo). I saw an American woman looking through kimonos at one of the vendors and stopped and asked her, how does she know what she’s looking at? There are more kimonos to look at than you could get through in one day. Apparently the hierarchy goes something like this: hanging – very good quality more Yen, folded on tables – good quality but there may be a spot not as much Yen; on the ground in a pile – you are going to cut these up and use the fabric for something else very inexpensive. Shockingly I stayed away from the Kimonos – I am in no rush, with very limited storage space and no sewing machine I decided to wait and learn more about Kimonos. There are cotton, polyester, and silk Kimonos with such a wide range of prices that without guidelines I could see I would get overwhelmed quickly wading through the rainbow of colors and textures. There were many vases of varying sizes, dishes, cups, tools, really just about anything you could imagine – many of which I had no clue what the heck they were for but no worries, I will be on a quest to find out! Not that I’ll use it for the original intended purpose but if I end up buying a Japanese bedpan thinking it’s a vase then I’d kind of like to know that! I’m all about repurposing.

The plan was to scope first and buy later (after checking everything out) but of course I didn’t even get to the half way point before that plan was blown out of the water. Equipped with my precious piece of paper – I whipped out my “gateway to purchases” and looking at my paper asked “Sumimasen, Ikura desuka?” (excuse me, how much?) as I pointed to a pretty blue and white vase. I think she got the sumimasen part (excuse me) but after that there was no connection – mmmm, guess we know who needs to work quite a bit more on her Japanese. So instead, I handed her the piece of paper that my Japanese Conversation teacher had written down for me along with a pen and said “Kaite Kudasai” (please write it down). I then received the response I was hoping for “Hai, 1000 Yen” – so Yen was exchanged and I didn’t break the bank on my first purchase and I have a pretty little vase. Yeah! Empowered, I moved on in search of more “must haves.”

One Persons Trash is Another Persons Treasure

I am not sure if we’ll have that saying on my dad’s grave marker (certainly not if he’s sharing it with my mom!) but at the very least it needs to go in his obit. My gene pool apparently missed out on the beautifully decorated house and food presentation skills (sorry Jeff) but it most definitely did not miss the “trash pickers” gene. Even my mom would have to reluctantly admit my dad has found some real treasures on the side of the road in someone elses trash pile. He has the eye for potential. While I’m not sure if I have that gift (jury is still out on that one) I do love rummaging through piles of well, apparent trash to find that one piece of treasure. So which picture do you think I plucked my pretty little vase from? The nicely lined up selection of various vases and pottery or the piles of stuff overflowing on the table? You decide.

One down – twelve to go!

By car or by train there are at least twelve more shrine sales within a reasonable distance to Yokosuka. Before we leave I plan to hit every one of them – at least once. It was great fun looking at all the different wares and getting to the shrine sale early was key. By the time we left, close to noontime, the aisles were packed. Yes, I did make a few more purchases – and I started on my Japanese button collection, buttons don’t take up much space or weight. Now that’s thinking like someone who’s moved more that a few times! Till next time, sayonara.

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