Japan – Lessons in Simple Living

Travels to Tokyo and Kyoto have given me and Jay a flavor for urban living in Japan, and in the Kyoto area the surrounding mountains and countryside suggested a rural way of life. And as we know from living on an island where some of us call the mainland “America” – remote, rural areas attract independent thinkers and alternate ways of life. So for a mix of reasons, when I heard that author, Andy Couturier, was visiting our local independently owned bookstore, Darvill’s, I was interested.

A Different Kind of Luxury: Japanese Lessons in Simple Living and Inner Abundance

Andy’s latest book:  A Different Kind of Luxury: Japanese Lessons in Simple Living and Inner Abundance, tells 11 peoples journeys. Artists, philosophers, and farmers who reside deep in the mountains of rural Japan living simply yet surrounded by the luxuries of nature, art, contemplation, healthy food, and an abundance of time.

As I learned at the book reading, many of the folks in the book spent years living in India and Nepal, and “what they learned there powerfully influenced everything from from their emphasis on making things with their own hands all the way to their spiritual and philosophical orientation toward life.” Now back in Japan they are living out their philosophy – providing for their needs with minimum interaction with the huge economic system that surrounds them and realizing great freedom.

As I read the chapters and savor the stories, I find myself thinking – what is my philosophy?  and how can I live more simply and joyfully while reducing my footprint on our planet. Good food for thought, and, as Andy says of his book, “even if it only serves as a window onto a different set of possibilities and lets you meet some very extraordinary people, and perhaps gives you a smile or a laugh, that will have been enough.”

About the author:  Andy Couturier has studied Buddhist meditation and many other Asian philosophical systems, and has traveled extensively in Africa, Southeast Asia, and India. He has been a researcher for Greenpeace and taught writing for more than a decade. He is the author of Writing Open the Mind: Tapping the Subconscious to Free the Writing and the Writer and has written for Adbusters, the MIT Press, Kyoto Journal, Creative Nonfiction, The North American Review, The Oakland Tribune, and Ikebana International. He directs his own creative writing center, The Opening, at www.theopening.org.

Springtime in Kyoto, Japan

April 2007 found us in Tokyo and Kyoto for 10 days… I tagged along on a business trip of Jay’s. Here are some notes and impressions I jotted down at the time… this blog covers Kyoto.

Sketch with watercolor of a shrine in Kyoto, Japan
Watercolor of a shrine in Kyoto, Japan

Springtime in Kyoto… showers of cherry blossoms. There is a happiness, a festive feeling associated with the blossoms as they fly through the air, some attaching to our jackets… a sense of the seasons… time passing.

Our overnight visit to Kyoto begins with the Shinkansen – the bullet train. Japan is where regular, high-speed railways began, and in 140 minutes we are transported from Tokyo, the bustling capitol of Japan, to the relatively quiet, historic city of Kyoto. At the recommendation of a friend, we stay at the Hotel Granvia Kyoto –  a beautiful 15 story hotel above Kyoto station – centrally located and convenient for our one night stay.

Hotel Granvia Kyoto is an integral part of the architecturally striking masterpiece, the JR Kyoto Station Building, which also includes a department store, museum, musical theater, and a vast underground shopping mall. For art lovers, the elegant Hotel Granvia is home to over 1000 pieces of stunning art based on the theme of “The Contrast of Modern and Traditional Art”. The artwork of Kyoto-based artists, some of the most famous in Japan, is prominently featured among the paintings, sculptures, and industrial art on display and accentuated by photographs adorning the guest rooms.

Hotel Granvia Kyoto, JR Kyoto Station
The Hotel Granvia is an integral part of the architecturally striking JR Kyoto Station Building

Our treasured guide for this first whirlwind experience of Kyoto is Old Kyoto – A Guide to Traditional Shops, Restaurants and Inns by Diane Durston. The author lived in Kyoto for 18 years and has compiled a very personal guide to Kyoto’s elegant past that can still be found if you are interested and willing to explore the city’s narrow, quiet side streets.

One of the pages I have turned down in Durston’s book is for the restaurant Takasebune whose lunch special is tempura. Located near the Takasegawa Canal and named after the flat boats that used to carry merchandise up the canal, Takasebune is a small family restaurant. Our “tempura teishoku” includes a generous bowl of miso soup, rice, pickles, and a basket of crisply batter-fried tempura shrimp, fish and vegetables. As recommended by Durston we dine at the tiny counter in front where we can watch all the culinary activity. Feeling like giants in this small historical space we are served a delicious, inexpensive lunch.

Takasebune known for crispy tempura and fine fish dishes
Traditional Takasebune is known for it's crispy tempura and fresh fish dishes
Cherry blossoms along a canal in Kyoto, Japan
Cherry blossoms along a canal in Kyoto, Japan

After lunch we continue our walk to Ippodo Tea which Durston says” has been perfuming the neighborhood for 140 years with the finest green tea from Uji, the most famous tea producing region in Japan, just south of Kyoto”. The smell draws us in as do the old timbers and old tea jars lining the wall. Helpful clerks will steep a sample cup of tea and guide you in your purchase.

Asahi-do Ceramics is easy to find, housed in a modern building on a main street. They offer the widest selection of Kiyomizu ceramics in Kyoto (ceramics made in the area below Kyoto’s famous Kiyomizu Temple). There are two types of Kiyomizu ceramics: porcelain and earthenware. Both types are thrown by hand on the potter’s wheel and decorated by hand. Lovely selection of ceramics displayed in a gallery setting.

Our final destination requires a cab to find and is well worth it. Aizen Kobo Indigo Textiles is on a narrow backstreet in the textile district of Kyoto. Master dyer Kenichi Utsuki still works in this 120-year-old building, where he was born and raised and where his father and grandfather worked as textile artisans as well. Today his shop is one of the only places in Kyoto where handwoven, hand-dyed, and hand-embroidered garments of hon-ai or real indigo are attainable.

The key to the rich blue that Japanese indigo and Aizen Kobo are famous for is in the microorganisms produced when the indigo plant is fermented. To keep these bacteria healthy and the dye potent, Kenichi must maintain it at an optimal temperature, and feed it a carefully calculated mixture of wheat-bran powder, limestone powder, ash lye and sake.

Getting the fermentation right takes about two weeks, after which the vat of indigo can be used to dye for a few months. Depending on the kind of material being dyed and the depth of color desired, an item must be dipped and then sun-dried between 20 and 50 times, a process that often takes months. This makes the appeal of chemical indigo dye pretty obvious: with chemical-based indigo, preparation takes less than an hour and one dipping usually does the trick.

Indigo textile dyeing at Aizen Kobo in Kyoto, Japan
Indigo textile dyeing at Aizen Kobo in Kyoto, Japan

Stimulated by the days experiences we arrive back at the hotel exhausted. I can’t walk another step. The hotel offers an array of dining possibilities and we choose a restaurant on the top floor with sweeping views of the city. After dinner, a great bath and lights out.

Modern technology meets traditional beauty in front of a Kyoto guesthouse
Modern technology meets traditional beauty in front of a Kyoto guesthouse

Our second and last day in Kyoto. We head out early, walking a route that takes us down the narrow and quiet side streets for a glimpse of Kyoto neighborhoods and daily life. For us walking is key… bringing all the senses to bear. We delight in seeing the vacuum sitting on the perfectly clean carpet in front of the idyllic garden area of a guesthouse, as we take in the pleasant aromas of tea brewing and cakes baking.

Cake making machine at a bakery in Kyoto, Japan
Cake making machine at a bakery in Kyoto, Japan

Nestled in the mountains of Western Honshu, Kyoto is known as Japan’s most beautiful city and is often called “the city of a thousand temples”. Kyoto was the capital of Japan and the residence of the emperor from 794 to 1868, when the capital was moved to Tokyo. Kyoto thus spent a millennium as the center of Japanese power, culture, tradition, and religion. During this time Kyoto accumulated an unparalleled collection of palaces, temples and shrines – built for emperors, shoguns, geishas and monks. And Kyoto was one of the very few Japanese cities to escape Allied bombings during World War II.

Springtime colors in the countryside of Kyoto, Japan
Springtime colors in the countryside of Kyoto, Japan
Temples in Kyoto, Japan
Temples in Kyoto, Japan
Buddhist monk begging in Kyoto, Japan
Buddhist monk begging in Kyoto, Japan

After a morning of walking around the famous temples and beautiful gardens surrounding them, we find ourselves back on the Shinkansen, headed back to Tokyo and our flight back home.

Recommended Reading

Old Kyoto: The Updated Guide to Traditional Shops, Restaurants, and Inns by Diana Durston

Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital by Judith Clancy

36 Hours in Kyoto, Japan a travel article by Jaime Gross at The New York TImes

Notes from our travels to Tokyo

April 2007 found us in Tokyo and Kyoto for 10 days… I tagged along on a business trip of Jay’s. Here are some notes and impressions I jotted down at the time… this blog covers Tokyo… Kyoto will follow.

Arriving in a foreign land is surreal. We board a plane that climbs to 35,000 feet, cruises for hours and then the door opens and we are half way across the globe. Amazing. Tokyo is amazing. Spreading for miles – seemingly never-ending, populated in numbers beyond conception, yet mostly experienced as orderly and clean.

The train station is where the vast sums of people are apparent. We experience Shinagawa Station during morning rush hour when thousands of Japanese head to the office clad in dark suits and white shirts. A low buzz of sound like an active beehive filled the air as orderly masses approached the precision run trains. Shinagawa, one of the oldest stations in Tokyo, opened on June 12, 1872. It is very near the hotel we are in. Mastery of the train system is useful as taxis are very expensive.

This is my first visit to Japan and the toilet in our hotel room is a main source of interest: heated toilet seat, button on toilet for bidet, we think, one button with male symbol and another for female – pushed female lots of action in bowl but nothing interacted with me. We are impressed with their energy efficiency, as you enter the room you insert your key/card into a slot that activates electricity – everything turns off when you leave and remove your key.

The hotel includes breakfast – extensive buffet options – very international with familiar western options of eggs, bacon and an extensive Japanese buffet with miso soup, fish, rice…

Easter Sunday we take the JR train to the Imperial Palace and Gardens, a large park area surrounded by moats and massive stone walls in the center of Tokyo, a short walk from Tokyo Station. It is the residence of Japan’s Imperial Family. Cherry blossoms, blooming azaleas and rhododendrons fill the gardens.

Tokyo Imperial Palace Garden with cityscape in the background
Tokyo Imperial Palace Gardens with cityscape in the background
Tokyo Imperial Palace Garden
Idyllic pond in the Tokyo Imperial Palace Garden
View of Tokyo Imperial Palace
View of the moated Tokyo Imperial Palace

Lunch is fun. We find a noodle soup place in the lower level of an office building with customers coming and going. We select and pay for our soup at a machine, then give the token/receipt we receive to someone at the counter. We can see the cooks in action behind her. A few minutes later a big bowl of steaming broth with rice noodles and chicken arrives. Tasty and cheap.

Full and satisfied we walk to the Ginza area. We are drawn to the elegant and historic Mitsukoshi department store. I read up on the history and learn it was founded in 1673 as a kimono shop, ten years later in 1683, the owners took a new approach to marketing, and instead of selling by going door-to-door, they set up a store where buyers could purchase goods on the spot with cash. My favorite floor is the  food department on the lower level – a wow! A bazaar of food with Harrod’s and many other Japanese food specialists.

Tokyo Street Scene
Tokyo street scene a la Beatles Abbey Road Album

Monday – Jay is working and I take a cab to Shinjuku – this is the area Lost in Translation was filmed. High energy, Times Square like. I walk through Tokyo Hands – our friend David’s favorite store – with everything from stationery to nails. I buy some lovely rice paper and a bag of tiny shells. Shinjuku is divided – the east side is constant chaos – shopping, eating, lots of young people. While the west side is high rises, luxury hotels and government buildings. With an estimated population of over 300,000 Shinjuku is a city in it’s own right.

Tuesday on my own, I take a cab back to the Ginza area. Mostly walk around, people watch and window shop. I check out Matsuya department store where I find an area devoted to Japanese artisans – many are present to talk about their work – paintings, prints, textiles, pottery.

Later I head to the Okura Museum of Art on the grounds of the lovely, historic Okura Hotel. The museum has an austere atmosphere, only a few people are present – offering a calm respite from the downtown energy.

Tokyo Okura Museum Sculpture
Ancient stone sculpture at the Okura Museum in Tokyo

From the hotel website I read the museum’s history: Back in 1917, an avid collector of Buddhist artwork by the name of Kihachiro Okura established, on his own land, a museum in which to hold and display his treasures. Over the years, this collection was added to by his son, the founder of Hotel Okura, Baron Kishichiro Okura, whose interests included modern Japanese painting, or Nihonga. Today, the Okura Shukokan Museum of Fine Arts houses some 2,000 items and 35,000 volumes — a collection that contains a number of officially registered National Treasures, Important Cultural Objects, and Important Art Objects.

Evening energy levels rise in Tokyo. Apartments are small and utilitarian, so many seek camaraderie with friends and co-workers in the bars after a long day at the office. Nightly we witness the packed tables, shrouded in cigarette smoke, everyone animatedly talking and drinking. It’s worth enduring the smoke to experience the high energy.

As often happens after a trip my antennae are tuned to that country. So when I come across a positive review for The Haiku Apprentice – a memoir by an American diplomat who joins a haiku group in Japan – I am on it. The book is not written to teach haiku yet I find myself dabbling in the medium as I read along during my commute and learning more about the country and people I have just visited.


Yokohama, Japan, with kids

Last night an email came in from our sister-in-law, Janet. She and the kids (our nieces – ages 13 & 11) are traveling in Asia with Andy on a business trip. Happy Father’s Day Andy!

Hello Jay and Sue,

We are having a great time in Yokohama. We were fortunate enough to get upgraded from SFO to Narita into business class and had a great flight. Gabrielle was so busy watching Avatar that she didn’t even know that we had landed. She saw everyone standing up and wondered what was going on. Now that’s a great 10 hour flight.

After landing in Narita we had to catch a bus to our hotel – Yokohama is an hour away from the Airport. We were all pretty jet lagged by now and the bus ride felt longer than the flight. From the bus terminal we caught a taxi to our hotel (planes, trains and automobiles). The taxis in Japan are so clean and I love the white seat covers and the gloved drivers. The cabs play 30-40s hits from America while using GPS. A bit of the old and the new and it works. We are taking taxis all over Yokohama (the kids love the automatic doors).

We are staying at the Intercontinental Yokohama Hotel. It is an easy landmark in Yokohama. The hotel is shaped like the sail of a ship. It is so distinct – you just can’t miss it. Andy and I stayed here 8 years ago when we were last here. I love being back. I really like this hotel. The staff is really helpful and all speak English. They are so polite and friendly. The restaurants in the hotel are great, Chinese, Italian, French and Japanese. Our maitre ‘d was from Lausanne, Switzerland in the French restaurant and he and Andy spoke French together. The French food was rich and delicious – I had a pumpkin soup that was out of this world. It’s a great experience. The girls said that after Italy this is their favorite country.

SOGO Department Store, Yokohama, Japan
SOGO Department Store, Yokohama, Japan

Day 1 – we go to one of my favorite stores – SOGO. It is next to the Yokohama Train Station. It is an amazing store on par with Harrods in London. It is 12 stories and one of the floors has a museum on it. The  sixth floor is home to the first in-store museum, the SOGO Museum of Art in Japan. We go through the exhibit and unfortunately none of the items had English subtitles. Danielle recognized an ink block and the tea brush used in the tea ceremony which she studied this year at school. She is excited to share some info with us. There is an exhibit of three handbags – we know they are hundreds of years old ( if not thousand since we can’t read any of the literature) but one of the handbags could have been in fashion today. You forget you’re inside a department store and it’s just a small portion of the sixth floor. But my favorite floor is the basement – it has foods from around the world. Every display case is more beautiful than the next. The food and pastry look like works of art. The staff is friendly and eager to serve you and they speak English. One young woman looks distressed when Gabrielle tried to order three truffles and finally she said “alcohol” so we knew not to pick those. We oohed and ahhed over the confections and went back two days in a row to sample the cream puffs. They cost about $2.50 each and the packaging is so elaborate. They pack them in a travel box, wet naps, napkins, utensils for us to take with a mini ice pack to keep them cool. We love it and came back a second day to do some shopping at SOGO.

Cosmoworld, Yokohama, Japan
Cosmoworld with the Intercontinental Hotel in the background - Yokohama, Japan

Next is Cosmoworld which is near our hotel. It is an amusement park with one of the world’s largest ferris wheels, 1125 meters high and can carry 480 people. We go on it and it takes about 15 minutes to complete the revolution. We have a great view of our hotel and Yokohama in general. After the ferris wheel Andy and Danielle ride the roller coaster. It goes underground during the ride and they are the only two people on it. We can hear them screaming as they fly underground.

Red Panda at the Nogeyama Zoo, Yokohama, Japan
Red Panda at the Nogeyama Zoo, Yokohama, Japan

Day 2 – Andy is working and we are off to the Nogeyama Zoo. It is a small zoo built in 1950 and the admission is free. I don’t know how they pay for the animals? We want to see a red panda and we do. It is the second exhibit at the zoo and we squeal with delight at this charming fellow. It is the first time we have seen a red panda close up. The first creature we see is a scarlet ibis – something else we had never seen before. They are truly scarlet and very beautiful birds. Another animal that is new to us is the colobus – this primate is amazing. Long black and white hair and a tail that must be three feet long. It was a wonderful sight to see. They have a petting zoo so different from the States. It has boxes of mice, then another box of baby chicks, then guinea pigs called “marmots” and then rats. You can pet the animals and they had slatted ropes all along the enclosure for the mice and rats to travel on. These are hung on poles across the exhibit so if you look up mice and rats are traveling on the mini slatted bridges over your head. The kids love it. The rest of the animals are the standard zoo variety but as we turn the corner on the cat house after being inside and seeing a tiger and lioness – a male lion is lying on top of a shed. We go “whoa’ because he is enormous. I had never been that close to a male lion. He is huge and I just hadn’t realize how huge. He is amazing and he has this intense stare so we all turn to see what he was looking at. We don’t see what he sees. It is hot and humid. I would say in the 80s and I hope we will be able to find a taxi to take us back our hotel. We step out of the zoo and here comes a taxi. What luck!

Nogeyama Zoo Peacock, Yokohama, Japan
Nogeyama Zoo Peacock, Yokohama, Japan

For dinner Andy and his client, Toshi, take us to an authentic Soba noodle dinner in Old Tokyo. The restaurant is over 100 years old. The outside is lovely – screens and well manicured entrance. We sit on tatami mats and are the only caucasians in the place. It is quite an experience. Toshi orders for us and Gabrielle’s udon noodles arrive in a beautiful black box with a lid on it. She loves the noodles. This is a dinner we will never forget.

We take the train and subway into Tokyo and back. It’s the girls first time on a subway and they don’t really like the crowded conditions. As a New Yorker it was pretty typical of a subway ride.

Day 3 – we go to the Yokohama Museum of Art. It is closed but as we take photos on the grounds, this business man approaches and without asking politely takes the camera from Gabrielle and takes our picture. Then he turns the camera, takes another shot, picks up his briefcase and continues on his way. We love the culture and politeness of the people. We cross over to the Landmark Tower. This is the highest observation tower in Japan. It is on the 69th story and the panoramic views are fantastic. The elevator is the fastest in Japan and in the Guinness Book of Records. It travels the 69 stores in 40 seconds. We love it. It is so fun.

Last night which was our 16th anniversary and our last night in Japan so we met Andy in Shin-Yokohama to go to the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum. We had seen Ramen Girl – starring Brittany Murphy several months ago and knew we were heading to Yokohama where this film takes place. So we said we would go and visit this Raumen Museum. We made good on our word and went. The basement of the museum is supposed to be a replica of what downtown noodle shops looked liked in 1958. It is very bizarre. Totally unexpected and hard to describe. We took some pictures which we’ll have to send but even that may not do it justice. It was a strange experience.

Umbrellas in Yokohama, Japan
The girls with their umbrellas in Yokohama, Japan

The girls purchased umbrellas at SOGO earlier in the week. They are hoping to get to use their new umbrellas. They are clear with colored polka dots. The clear umbrellas make it so easy to see where you’re going. Last night as we walked to the Raumen it was raining hard. It was an anniversary we won’t forget. Andy and I are under one of the polka-dotted umbrellas and the girls each walked with a new umbrella in the pouring rain. We are all happy.

Today we head to Singapore. The girls and I are excited about seeing a new country.