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Dueling Invitations

2008 July 12

Here’s the first written blog in a while; I’ve gotten only a little bit of feedback on the vlogs, so hopefully no one objects to those every once in a while.

This has really been the week of dueling invitations. I’ve spent days and days on my own, but all of a sudden, professors and acquaintances are inviting me to do things – usually on the same days that other professors and acquaintances have already invited me to do things. It’s a little annoying with the professors, though, as the two of them are not only right down the hall from each other – one wrote me to tell me that the other was going to invite me to do something, but apparently didn’t know when, and then invited me to something the same day!

On Friday, instead of joining Prof. Miura’s class for a lunch outing, I was picked up by Prof. Okazawa and his daughter. He drove us south to the small city of Kaga (pop. 10,000) while his daughter and I chatted in English; then we got lost in some residential neighborhoods while he tried to remember where the house we were looking for was. When we finally found it, an older couple and their son showed us around their lacquerware studio and displayed various pieces made of different materials and with different sorts of lacquer. They’ve gotten really creative with their materials; there was a small gourd that had been cut in half and lacquered for an interesting box, several seashell boxes with lacquered sides, and a box in the shape of an origami samurai helmet, made of paper covered with clay and then lacquered. The father showed us the mineral powders used to make the colored lacquers as well as a sample plate of how the color changes when mixed with the slightly brown resin. Black and red are the most commonly used colors, but there was also a decent amount of green that the father mentioned used to be fairly common, though Okazawa and his daughter found it unusual. The family said their stuff was hard to sell in usual stores, as it’s fairly expensive, so their son had started selling their work online. On our way out, the wife ran out with a couple wooden tea bowls and gave them to us, and the Okazawas promptly gifted both to me to take back to America. I’m collecting quite the kitchen set. (I’ve got a picture of those tea bowls, by the way, that I’ll post sometime.)

Professor didn’t remember the way to the next house, either, so we stopped off at the museum of a local art school to ask directions and look around. There were some nice samples of and informative plaques on gold leaf, and I also saw some samples of the shiny seashell insides that get inlaid into a lot of work. It was also neat to see the students’ crafts and how they progressed in complexity.

Next we drove to another small house, where a younger man took us upstairs into his studio, where his wife and daughter were hard at work. This family specialized in detail work and often collaborated with the lacquering family, though the husband showed us a lot of his smaller pieces done on amber and tortoise shell as kimono adornments, brooches, and so forth. It was really beautiful, and he used a pretty wide variety of colors and cultures for his designs. The room was full of reference books, so he showed me some – one with a dictionary of Japanese color names up front (apparently the Japanese don’t always remember these, as a lot of them are very old) and one with samples of traditional Japanese artwork. His daughter had attended art school and done some Japanese painting, so she brought up a box of mineral pigments and explained the process a little bit. I didn’t understand a lot of it, but I did understand about the paint itself -the minerals are in this case mixed with rabbit bone marrow just before use, and the paints themselves can’t really be mixed, so the proper technique is to paint one color and then paint another color on top of it. How long you let the first color dry affects how they interact. Also, being made of minerals, some of them can get quite expensive.

Next, we drove into town in search of a place to eat lunch. We found a little traditional restaurant and all got lunch sets with lots of food. My tempura came with some eggplant and dried/cooked fish, buckwheat noodles, soup with egg and onion, rice, cucumber slices, and some sort of congealed substance with tiny mushrooms in it. I think the drink was iced coffee, but it could have been some sort of tea. I had asked Okazawa’s daughter beforehand if I could pay, but she said in Japan, the oldest present traditionally pays, so I didn’t try.

Finally, we visited the local 九谷焼 museum to see some samples of this very distinctive regional pottery. The designs seemed very heavily influenced by Chinese art, but the colors are really specific – the kutaniyaki palette is limited to an orangey-red, Prussian blue, greyish purple, bright yellow, and a dark tealish green. Gold accents were pretty common, of course; some pieces were done only in gold and red, including a very striking one with a scene of a young man challenging an older man at go in a courtyard with an onlooker leaning over the young man’s shoulder. The color palette is a little bizarre to me, but there was some quite beautiful stuff, and the museum itself was beautifully designed. I think Okazawa’s daughter took that in as much as I did, being an interior designer; she told us all that one of the chairs by the entrance was a copy of a designer chair that really costs thousands of dollars.

So that was an informative and fun day, and perhaps I’ll go on another outing with them another time. Okazawa’s daughter says she’s planning a trip out to Houryuuji, a wooden temple that’s been standing since the year 600, and there’s a possibility that I can go along. Prof. Okazawa’s also given me some information on Noh performances at the city theater; he wanted me to attend tonight’s show, but I had two other invitations, so next week’s will have to do.

When I got back from my Friday out with the Okazawas, I had two messages. One was from the Romanian grad student I met weeks ago, inviting me to a dual birthday party at the 会館 tonight. A few hours later, Nita emailed a few of the VOTAK students about the 飲み会 she had mentioned hosting. So today, after checking several maps to figure out where the Saizeriya we were to meet in front of was, I emailed Radu to decline that party, then looked up the bus schedule for today. Unfortunately, I missed the bus I meant to catch by a couple minutes and was then distracted by a very enthusiastic American grad student who doesn’t speak any Japanese and was thrilled to see another foreigner. We hopped the next bus together, but it went a more indirect route than the one I was looking for, so I had to get off early and walk to the area I was looking for.

Other than that, the night went well. Nita, Hiroko, Miyuki, and Asami all worked really hard preparing a variety of fillings for handmade sushi (spreading rice into a square of dried seaweed, adding your own fillings, and folding) and for spring rolls as well. Min from Brunei, Marios from Greece, and Ben, Steven, and myself (the Americans) tried nattou, fermented soy beans; at one point, we played one of those high school chanting reaction games, and the punishment for screwing up three times was eating nattou with some of Nita’s casserole. Marios did not enjoy it, but Ben decided he’s now okay with nattou. It’s a very weird taste; sort of sour, but also sort of like a soft cheese, and very sticky. It smells pretty weird.

There was a lot to drink, but no one got drunk, which was a pleasant change from American parties! In the 5 hours I was there, I nursed a beer, then a small 梅酒, and then had half a can of something grapefruit-flavored (all of which were about 5% alcohol; I checked) – it was nice to drink casually and not have to stress about it, and I don’t think I really experienced too much. The warmth and the weird feelings in my stomach are already gone. Hooray for responsible drinking!

If only these invitations would spread themselves out… No idea yet what I’ll be up to tomorrow, but I’ll check back in soon. またね!

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