Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2021

© Will Aitken

The unusual Cat's Cradle Bridge was designed by an ikebana master.

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Japan less travelled

Hot springs, lacquerware and tatami mats in Yamanaka Onsen

I follow the wide, carefully tended path alongside the river. Straight-trunked trees stretch up to the sky’s blue immensity. A lone fisherman wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat prepares to cast on the opposite shore. The Kakusan Gorge is so beautiful, the air so clear, the birdsong so piercing, there’s an air of unreality about this walk, as though it exists outside of time.

In a way it does, because people come from all over the world to this isolated peninsula in northern Honshu, a three-hour train ride from Tokyo, to stroll this path and to view the same landscape that Basho, one of Japan’s greatest and most influential poets, first visited in 1689. He bathed at a mineral springs in Yamanaka Onsen, the village at the end of this walk, and afterward wrote these lines:

After bathing for hours

In Yamanaka’s waters

I couldn’t even pick a flower.

Which is precisely how one feels after bathing in the heated waters of local mineral springs, so relaxed and rubber-boned, the slightest effort seems out of the question.

Basho — his real name was Matsuo Kinsaku — was Japan’s greatest composer of haiku — the short highly structured poems that have become associated with Zen simplicity. In his day, these poems were a brief prelude to a longer work.

Basho perfected haiku as a serious form that could stand alone, changing it from a poem of amusement to one that takes an image from the natural world and, in one writer’s words, “leaves it suspended in the mind, like a raindrop at the tip of a leaf.”

For a poet noted for the stark simplicity of his lines, Basho led a fairly tumultuous life. Born into the samurai class but with no interest in fighting, he appears to have thrived in cosmopolitan Edo, as Tokyo was called. He dallied with ladies of the imperial court, had a common-law wife, developed an unrequited love for a Buddhist nun and also had time to be “fascinated by the ways of homosexual love.” Sponsored by wealthy patrons, he perfected his art and achieved fame as a poet.

By the age of 45, he had grown tired of his worldly ways and, over the next four years took four extended journeys on foot — the one that brought him to Kakusen Gorge and Yamanaka Onsen was more than 1000 kilometres long. Travel was as dangerous as it was arduous then, and he and his walking companion, Sora, also a poet, dressed as penniless Buddhist monks, wearing simple straw sandals and hats and leading a Spartan existence.

He wrote books about his journeys, which mixed haiku with brief but intense prose descriptions of life on the road. Like any writer worth his salt, he was not always truthful, claiming to have visited places he’d never seen. And as for his humble ways, he and Sora usually lived well in the villas of wealthy merchant-class patrons along the way.


Luxury pilgrimage

So I don’t feel so bad about staying at Kayotei Ryokan (tel: 011-81-761-78-1410; fax: 011-81-761-78-1121;; $330 to $550 per night, double, breakfast and dinner included), a traditional inn, conveniently located at the start of Basho’s path.

The Kayotei is one of Japan’s finest inns, a simple low-slung building of wood and glass that’s so a part of its hilly, wooded landscape that it’s hard to tell where the inn ends and the forest begins. Founded in 1976, the Kayotei has only 10 rooms and suites, all connected by a wide corridor that gives onto a splendid inner courtyard.

In the entryway, I exchanged my hiking boots for soft slippers and followed a tiny kimonoed maid named Chiyoda along an airy corridor decorated with calligraphy scrolls, antiques and large ceramic sculptures, its exterior glass wall giving ever-changing views of the courtyard garden.

The elements of the guest room in a ryokan are always the same — tatami mats on the floor, a long low lacquer table, a few cushions to sit on, an alcove featuring a flower arrangement and a calligraphy scroll and translucent shoji screens covering the window. It’s the harmonious and proportionate juxtaposition of these elements that distinguishes one inn from another, and at the Kayotei the effect is pure bliss: a spare elegant space that instantly calms the mind.

Chiyoda slid open the shoji screens to reveal a large balcony overlooking a dense wood. She brought me green tea in a small porcelain cup and departed. I took it out onto the balcony — it was like being in a treehouse, a hundred gradations of green, scores of birds swooping from branch to branch and the distant sound of a rushing river.


Edible Jewels

When Chiyoda tapped at my door an hour later, I hadn’t budged from the balcony. She urged to me to change into the simple cotton yukata (dressing gown) that was folded on the shelf in the closet, along with a heavier long vest.

“Dinner” is a poor word for the banquet the Kayotei chef prepared in the kaiseki style — a series of small perfect dishes, as delicious as they are jewel-like in their presentation. Kaiseki was originally a meal developed to accompany the tea ceremony, but now it simply means a repast with a profusion of courses. The Kayotei prides itself on preparing entirely organic meals, using local produce and the fresh fish from the Sea of Japan (vegetarian meals are available on request).

A kaiseki dinner is always leisurely, so one has time to appreciate not only the complex tastes of each course, but also the delicacy of the porcelain and ceramic bowls and the darkening garden beyond the window wall of the small private dining room.

I got up early next morning to take advantage of the outdoor private bath, a few steps along the corridor from my room. A stone walkway led to a small wooden pavilion and a spacious rectangular bath. I scrubbed myself down before entering the bath and then eased into the hot water. And there I lounged for an hour, staring deep into the forest and listening to the birds and the hidden river.


Gloss Over It

The Kayotei had arranged for me to visit the private studio of a local lacquerware artist named Satake Yasuhiro. Yamanaka Onsen is said to produce the finest lacquerware in Japan and that’s saying a lot, since Japan is noted for producing some of the best and most lustrous lacquerware in the world. They’ve been making it in this village for 400 years.

Yasuhiro took us first to a warehouse and studio where wooden bowls are turned on lathes before they’re coated with lacquer. In the warehouse itself, thousands of unlacquered bowls were stacked in scores of thick towers three metres tall or more, so that they appeared like the skyline of a city thickly planted with skyscrapers and hung with sawdust clouds.

In a smaller workshop, Satake’s 28-year-old son Yasuchi, who studied woodworking on Salt Spring Island, turned a bowl made of blackwood, a dark wood of the acacia species with a dense centre. The wood is so hard he used a converted metal grinder.

The bowl then went to a master lacquerer, who coated the wood. Lacquer comes from “the lacquer tree,” which turns out to be a kind of spruce with highly toxic sap. This sap is combined with sand to create a muddy mixture, which is applied to the wooden bowls. The lacquer must then harden for 10 to 12 hours in a humidor, after which it’s carefully polished, and several more coats are applied and polished until the bowl has a glowing, immaculate surface. Conventional lacquerware is the result of two or three coats of lacquer; Satake insists on eight coats.

The result is evident in the studio he has in his house, a breathtaking space full of bowls, vases, boxes and goblets, coated in jewel-like shades of orange, black, amber, red and plum lacquer. They’re so glossy they seem lit from within. Yasuhiro’s work has been displayed around the world, most notably at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the world’s greatest museum of art and design.

Seated at a low table, Yasuhiro showed me an oversized wine goblet in gold lacquer, which sells for $1000. I searched the shelves for something more affordable and came up with a shallow sake cup about six centimetres in diameter. The lacquer was clear so the grain of the wood showed through in the finest striations. The cup was like a feather in my hand and cost $70, which seemed a small price for a work of art.

But Satake insists his pieces aren’t art — they’re for use, not display.

He urges people to eat and drink from them and wash them the way they would their hands, with a mild detergent, a soft cloth and lukewarm water. “It’s important that lacquerware is exposed to humidity,” he says, “but using it once a week will keep it humid enough.” Never put it in the fridge or microwave but “don’t be afraid of marking it up — a mark on lacquerware is like a scar on your hand. You wouldn’t stop using your hand because of the scar.” For Satake, drinking from a sake cup or a tea bowl is the best way to experience lacquerware because “lacquer is softest on the lips,” compared to the cold hardness of glass and ceramic.


A Bridge of Sighs

You can see all of Yamanaka in half an hour’s walk, but why hurry through this charming mountain village? One of the most startling sights is Ayatori Hashi (Cat’s Cradle Bridge) that twists across the Kakusen Gorge to Basho’s Path. This steel span is like no bridge you’ve encountered, seeming more like an organic thing than an engineered one, its steel as pliant as bamboo. It was designed by the late Hiroshi Teshigehara, who headed Tokyo’s legendary Sogetsu ikebana (flower arranging) school.

The town’s central square includes a small jewel-box theatre for traditional dances and folksong performances, as well the Chrysanthemum Bath, named for the flower that the freshly bathed Basho was too weak to pluck. There’s also a mineral footbath for the weary feet of passersby. On streets giving onto or leading away from the square are shops specializing in lacquerware, ceramics and hand-blown glass. The quality of crafts on sale here is very high and, in terms of value for money, very reasonable as well.

For me the highlight of Yamanaka Onsen is the small museum dedicated to Basho and his writings. The museum acts as a gathering point for contemporary haiku poets, and has on display editions of his most famous works as well as a hanging scroll Basho wrote during his stay in Yamanaka.

In his most famous book, The Narrow Road to the Interior, Basho noted, “The moon and sun are eternal travellers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” Basho wasn’t only a great poet, but a consummate travel writer as well.

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