A Travellerspoint blog

Day 15

Matsuda Bookbinding Experience

sunny 12 °C
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A slow morning organising laundry. We have a plan set out for today. First up, at 10am is a traditional book making workshop. Then we're planning on going to the Pokemon Centre for merchandise for me and then Kiddy Land for a gift for a friend of Em's. If we feel up to it, we're then going to a temple or two.

We head off in plenty of time to make it to the Matsuda Bookbinding workshop. It is run by Mr Matsuda and his daughter Yoko-san. Mr Matsuda is 76 years old. He had been up at 4am binding thesis from the local Universities.

They let us into their home/workshop. Shoes off - slippers on. Seats taken. We're joined a little while later by 2 Aussies from Melbourne who are really lovely. We've been very lucky with the co-workshop participants that we've had along the way.

First up we need to choose the kimono material. Em chooses one that is dyed with local plants and I choose a simple black, textured piece with a bright aqua fan print on it. Yoko-san informs me that it was from Kimono designed for Louis Vuitton. Then we choose the colour of our ribbon for the book mark, the thread to bind the pages with, and the inner cover.

Matsuda-san makes the process look easy as he whips through the steps and tries to show us how to do it.

Stitch the 5 groups of pages together and tie the ends off in a particular way so that they stay in place. I race ahead as the needlework is easy - but then have to undo it as I've missed a step :( Pages bound together. That was the easy bit!

Place the front, back, and spine cardboard in the kimono material (that is backed in paper to make it easier for novices like us). Then space them out evenly. Once he has glanced over it and given his approval, trace around the corners of the 3 bits of cardboard.

Next comes the application of the glue with the brush that is made from sheep's wool! There is a precise way with which to do everything and we do it under the watchful eye of Yoko-san and her father. Front, back, spine glued in place. Nerve wracking!

Now we have to fold the material around the edges of the cardboard. We cut the corners of the material so it is easier to fold. Matsuda-san tells us to make 'small mountains'. My 'small mountains' look much more like Fuji-san and I say this to Matsuda-san much to his delight. Thankfully, we were always going to go home with a beautiful book because Matsuda-san fixes everything we stuff up!

Sides and corners glued down. Now to glue the material onto the paper so that it can be held in place within the cover. A precise way to do each step.

Finally our paper is glued in place inside the covers and the inner linings are placed and glued down. We're done. Now to practice embossing. I choose to have my name in Hiragana placed in the back of the book and the kanji for Kyoto and the year placed at the front. Matsuda-san helps us by doing the placement and ensuring we don't completely muck it up.

Em and I are both thrilled with the outcome and as a parting gift, Matsuda-san gives us another book, one that he has made. Now we can compare ours to his superior craftsmanship for the rest of eternity!

We share tea and snacks together and in amongst all of this, Yoko-san tells us the story of her family and how they changed from making kimonos to bookbinding. She also shares much of the history of her city. She is proud of her heritage and her city and it shows. Yet another amazing experience and so much better than simply showing up at a temple or shrine and ticking it off.


Next we duck down to the Kyoto Pokemon Centre. I have coveted the Pikachu in kimono that can only be bought in Kyoto for years now. I was all ready to buy the three of them - red, blue, and green. After searching around for sometime I give in and ask a store worker "Kimonno pikachū wa doko desu ka. Where are the pikachu in kimono? He is surprised (here we go again)....and says sumimasen (excuse me). So I repeat it again. Now his brain is able to decipher a westerner speaking Japanese and he replies with "so sorry, sold out".

I'm actually pretty disappointed as I'd wanted these for years. Em picks up a couple of things and I resign myself to the fact that I'm not getting anything special from the Kyoto Pokemon centre.

And then. As I've all but given up hope, Em spies these beauties.


They also have them dressed as a regular Western bride and groom but I have no interest in these. We head around to the checkout and I have a great conversation with the checkout lady about whether we want 2 medium or 1 large bag - we go with the 1 large. She asks if I speak nihon-go - chotto (a little) I reply. She asks if I play Pokemon-go and I pull out my phone and show her. Now I'm being swamped with special stickers, a Pikachu origami, and some special deals. This learning a language is paying off in spades!!!

Next stop, Kiddy Land, just around the corner. Em had promised to buy her friend some terrible Sailor Moon merchandise. I stay outside, not trusting myself around Snoopy, Winnie the Pooh, the cute thing that I bought a manga of but can't understand the font (fail!), and god knows what else I would desperately need in there. Mission accomplished, Em comes back outside and we go back to the hotel to dump our stuff off. We have vague plans of heading to a temple but we decide to flop on the bed instead. Uber eats in some katsu which doesn't agree with me and we have an early night - full day of traipsing around Kyoto with Kuzu tomorrow.

Posted by nattybats 08:59 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

Day 14

Em forges a samurai knife!

sunny 8 °C
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Guest blogger today. I figured it was only fitting that Em should write about her experience.

We're up early to catch the train to Gifu-Hashima. The Shinkansen stations are always well attended, and mum and I pick up breakfast in the form of coffee and sandwiches from a little stall on the platform, which has a little Charlie Brown figurine playing a fiddle on the tray where you deposit your money.

The train is punctual, always, and we set up for the journey. In between stations the landscape is distant mountains, small sleepy villages, wide plains and forests of bamboo and trees I can't identify. Gifu-Hashima is one of the smaller stations that lacks some of the high-tech amenities of the bigger ones; Kyoto has automatic gates in the railing that opens as the train stops, but this one doesn't even have railing. We make our way downstairs to wait for just a little while until we're to be picked up by our teachers for the day. A bemused but very friendly man asks where we're from in broken English while we wait out the front, and wonders off muttering to himself, probably trying to work out what we're doing here of all places.

Again, small town.

The other members of our class arrive, and then Samuel- a French apprentice and one of the few westerners having been granted permission to study swordsmithing- comes to get us in a van, and we chat to him about where he's from (Paris) how many years he's lived in Japan (four and a half years) and how long he's been an apprentice for (just one year).

The workshop is nestled in a quiet suburb; the forge itself is over a hundred years old. There's an impeccable quiet of a workshop when you're opening it for the day; back in Canberra in my own work it feels like setting the presses, wetting paper, retrieving ink from the cupboards. Here, Masaki- the far more advanced apprentice supervising- begins work for the day in spectacular fashion. He hammers at a rod of iron, gradually heating it with friction delivered precisely in each strike. When the metal glows red hot, he touches a match to it, and immediately it ignites, to applause from all of us watching. He explains (and Sam translates) that it's the purest form of fire, and thus the only acceptable way to light a forge of this nature. The ability to strike iron until it's hot is also a display of technique in hammering, something we're about to learn for ourselves.

Our knives we're going home with are a high-carbon steel, which holds an edge very well, but is far too hard to practice on to start with. So Masaki instead gets us a rod of softer iron, and invites us to practice. Key points of concern: keeping a steady rhythm when hammering, using gravity to help our swings, and, critically, not hitting ourselves in the face with the hammer. That part doesn't need translation.

So I hop down in the pit in front of the forge, get given a hammer, and practice my swings. Masaki seems impressed, but to be honest a key part of being a good art student is being able to repeat things as they're shown to you. Forging is a subtle blend of minding the temperature of the metal, technique in hammering, and ones own endurance. After the other two (Charlotte and Friso) have had their turn, we select the base we'll be working from and start the first process; forging.

My first act of hubris for the day is asking for a heavier hammer. I had (erroneously) assumed that they'd err on the lighter side to coddle the beginners. I quickly learn that 'being able to hold a hammer' does not equal 'being able to use a hammer for long stretches of time', and I pay for it in a sore wrist for the rest of the day. The carbon steel is significantly harder than soft iron, and to make matters worse, I've been set up at a significantly smaller forge than the main one. The primary forge features a set of box bellows that are a hundred years old, the one I'm set up at is a few bricks and an electric bellows that turns on and off by being un and re-plugged. But hey, if I can make a knife here, I can make it anyway. The first few attempts have me drop the knife on the floor, but time and patience rewards me eventually, and I get the hang of it more or less. Of course, it's impossible not to feel self conscious when Masaki edits my work, but it's a rare treat to see competency in a manual skill this close up and well worth swallowing my pride over.

Step one of forging is making the handle. Traditionally, a knife is finished with what's called a 'snake's tail'. The first part of this is hammering the end of the knife into a long thin length, then the careful forming of a circle at the end, and then curling the whole thing back on itself. I get 80% of the way to completing it when the metal cools too much and snaps off entirely- to a chorus of 'oh no's around the room. Undaunted, I repeat the process; if you can do something once, you can always do it again, and there's no sense getting precious.

Next, hammering the blade itself. Instructions received, I climb down into the pit and start forging. A couple of swings into the first round and I suddenly feel something brutally hot on my wrist- some of the outer 'skin' of the knife has fallen down my sleeve. Masaki and I both panic momentarily, but the damage is minimal- a love-bite more than anything. I splash some water on the start of a blister and get back to work.

When that part of the process is done, we get a brief break where water and beer get passed around, and the apprentices applaud us on getting through the hardest part of the process. The forge itself is dingy and utterly beautiful, with soot on every available surface and a coiling dragon painted on the back of the door, watching us at the table. All around is evidence of how much use this workshop gets- on the wall is notable quotes, phrases, and aphorisms from the apprentices, along with a map of the world and some assorted gifts from other forgemasters. Above and to the right of the forge is a simple shrine, with calligraphy curling beneath painted directly onto the dirt wall. The other students disappear into the shop attached to the forge to enquire about buying knives, and we talk to Masaki for a bit; he's polite and a little awkward, but earnest and very personable. Originally from the north island of Hokkaido, his career started as a pastry chef, a path that took him into the far flung reaches of southern France (despite not speaking much English and any French). We remark that it's a colourful journey, to go from pastries to knives, and he laughs in agreement, but tells us that he loves his life and his work, as difficult as it can be.

In order to harden the knives, they first must be evenly heated and then quenched in oil. The only way to determine if the knife is hot enough to quench is through the colour, so the teachers assist us in this by cutting out every light in the room. All the doors roll shut, all the vents are closed, and only a single artificial light is left. I climb down into the pit again, and Samuel switches the light off.

The forge is much hotter than it was in the last stage, and the fire shimmers a ghostly blue, radiating heat that is just slightly too hot to bear. The usual rhythm of the box bellows is around the same as breathing, but the forge has to be kept as steady as possible while heating the knife in order to bring it up to temperature evenly. So each 'breath' is long and slow, while you watch the knife buried in the coals for the perfect gold-orange colour, the charcoal plinking like sand on glass. The whole process probably doesn't take more than a couple of minutes, but it swallows you while you're doing it. When it's done, I plunge it into the oil, and it ignites in a quick and vicious flame. Masaki carefully takes it from my tongs to finish the cooling. The light switches back on again.

Here we break for lunch. We eat in the house of the master's parents, which is an old-fashioned building- rice paper walls and a screen door meticulously decorated with a scene of a riverbank. Lunch itself is convenience store food: fried chicken, a hamburger patty with cheese, onigiri, and some edamame. The other couple taking the class are conservationists working in Africa, and we have an engaging conversation about the realities of the work they do, and the difficulty of managing public perception with ecological necessities. My hands are shaking as I handle the chopsticks, and I can't regret trying the heavier hammer enough.

Thankfully, the next two steps are far less arduous.

Next, we shape the knives. The blade part is handled impeccably by Samuel in the interests of time, but ensuring that the handle is free of sharp parts and is comfortable to hold is up to us. I immediately recognize the files we're using from my university (we use them to prepare our plates), and I have my handle finished in maybe a quarter of the time the others take. All technique and practice, that's all any of it is, and I do my best to assist Charlotte while mum backseat-drives from nearby.

We have the opportunity to choose something to be stamped into our knife. Others choose their name, but the process has made me mull on printmaking and art as a practice. I choose the word 'discipline', as I'm thinking of the printmaker Sister Corita Kent and her 10 rules for her classroom. 'To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way', as she says, and cultivating personal discipline is key to blacksmithing and printmaking and all other crafts. Learning from teachers, practicing the craft, putting hours into the boring tedious parts that make your arms hurt, all of these lead towards the ability to make something beautiful and worthwhile. I cannot express how grateful I am to participate in it here, and to follow in the footsteps of masters, however briefly.

The final step is sharpening the knife. We're given a whetstone and our almost-finished knives, the technique is demonstrated, and off we go. The atmosphere is cheery and jovial, during what is objectively a mind-numbing process. It's impossible for us as beginners to tell if we're any closer to finishing the damn things than we were five minutes ago, and we rely on Samuel's eye the entire time. He tests it on his hair when we're approaching the end; a good knife should be sharp enough to cut partially into hair and pull it without slicing through entirely. Samuel is one of only few foreigners permitted to study under a master. No gaijin apprentice has graduated the rigorous and demanding process to become a master yet.

We mill about after we're done in the same way you mill around after a fun party- we goof off threatening to steal the expertly forged knives on the wall and testing our knives on paper while the apprentices call us taxis back to the train station. Lots of bowing, lots of earnestly thanking our teachers and each other for the experience, and just a bit of rearranging bags and such to hide our knives in. Technically knives aren't permitted on shinkansen. Whoops.

We bump into Charlotte and Friso a couple more times as we go- once getting tickets, and then once as we're boarding the train back to Kyoto. We leave Gifu-Hashima behind us at high speed, pacing past sprawling suburbs and back into the countryside. Kyoto is just one stop away, and we're back in a taxi and back to our hotel before we know it.

Mum and I laugh that we smell like wood smoke from the forge, and there's soot still on my hands and under my nails. I understand why
Masaki and Samuel both uprooted to learn at this forge, and a friend of mine jokes about setting me up at a forge back home. Hey, maybe. Never a bad thing to learn a new skill, and I like being a Jack of all trades. Better than a master of one, no?


Posted by nattybats 10:37 Archived in Japan Comments (2)

Oops - hotels!

Where did we stay in Hiroshima and Kyoto

I forgot to make comment or upload pics of the hotels.

In Hiroshima we stayed at the JR Gran Via hotel which is literally attached to the train station - we'll be doing the same thing in Nagoya for these quick overnight transit days.

We had a Gran Via floor deluxe twin which was huge. It had 2 firm but comfy beds and a large shower/bath room and toilet. Breakfast at the Gran Via lounge was included and it was a decent room rate for the size of room that we got. We also had a good view over the city given that we were on the 19th floor.


As I said in the regular blog post, I'd moved our hotel in Kyoto from something Western and near the train station, to something that seemed more Japanese and in Gion. Unfortunately it appears that either due to Covid or the fact that it's winter, a lot of the places around us are shut so I didn't really end up with the 'in the thick of it' experience I wanted. Still, it's a stunning area of the city and we're just a short cab ride from just about anywhere in this sprawling place.

The hotel is completely over the top and ornate. 4 huge mosaics cover the walls of the entry and the room itself is lavish and probably almost 3 times the size of our entire room in Tokyo. It has a spa bath resplendent with a TV (not gonna lie, it's been awesome having a bath and watching whacky Japanese TV) and the staf fall over themselves to help you. The beds are super comfy and the area is quiet. Quite a find.

Here's some pics of it and I'll be back later to finish up yesterday and today's blogs!


Posted by nattybats 23:49 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

Day 13

Kyoto - Sake appreciation course

sunny 11 °C
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Spent the day sorting stuff out and getting a few things organised for the week ahead. We also didn't want to cram too much into today as we knew it would be a lateish kind of night. We popped over to Kyoto station and sorted out tickets to get us to Gifu-Hashima tomorrow but that was about it.

I'd booked us on a 3 hour sake appreciation course as I certainly knew that I liked some sake, but had no clue why or really any idea about it at all. Well we definitely know a lot more now! We get a cab out to the meeting place as the guides have said it can be tricky to get to. We're met by two guides - Kotaro (who is a sake sommelier) and Momoko (who used to work in a brewery). The tour starts at 3 and will finish around 6.

We are expertly guided through a sake museum with laminated A3 cards explaining all the different information and processes clearly in English. We learn why Kyoto was the Japanese sake capital. We learn why it should be called nihonshu but only if it is produced in Japan. Sake, in Japanese, is simply alcohol. O sake, using the honorific, specifies japanese alcohol, but it could just as easily be whiskey. Nihonshu is specifically sake or rice wine. Now underneath the umbrella term of Nihonshu there are a number of varietals. And everything matters. The water, the rice, the rice polish level, the process. It's overwhelming.

Every year, at the beginning of the sake season (when the weather starts to cool down), a ball made of cedar leaves is hoisted above the door of the brewery. It is left up there for the entire brewing year. When first put up there, it is naturally a ball of green, but over time the leaves die and naturally change colour - an homage to the passing of the seasons and the time.

We're taught about aroma, and acidity, and the kanji that represents the kind of sake rice (Yamadanishiki). It's an endless list of information to remember and thankfully they're going to send us a PDF of it all. At the end of the tour we get to taste the local ground water (much better than the bore water at the farm dad!) in the sake cups we've been given as a gift. We then move inside to try out three of the varietals the brewery has on offer.

Time is then spent in the gift shop before we shuffle down the street to a back room of a small bar/restaurant. We have 7 varietals placed in front of us with a serious looking tasting sheet. Kotaro teaches us even more and tells us what to look for in each glass. It's amazing! Snack foods are then brought out to us and we are told which sake to pair with which food and why.

My favourite so far has been a dry 25 year old sake. We are told that we westerners eat and drink differently to the Japanese. We'll have a drink and then something to eat, then a drink again. Whereas the Japanese will put food and alcohol in their mouth together to create a new flavour. With that being said, Kotaro asks us to put a piece of cream cheese in our mouth, take a mouthful of the aged nihonshu and chew. OMG. Seriously. OMG. It was so good I bought 4 bottles to bring home with me! And it's cheap! A 25 year old aged nihonshu is about $40 a bottle aud. These are small 390ml bottles so only cost 1,700 yen each. Bargain!

As everything starts to come to an end it's about 6.30 and we ask Momoko where to eat. She directs us to Fushimi Sakagura Koji. It's a food hall with 120 local sakes! We are once more the only Westerners wandering around the streets in the dark and as luck would have it, we take a wrong turn and end up at a local little shrine. Bow out, sorry gods, and around the correct corner and we find the koji. Wow. No English is spoken by anyone around but it doesn't matter. Em and I choose a little restaurant tucked into the corner. I end up ordering karaage chicken and rice, Em orders mapo tofu and somehow also orders dumplings (chinese style). I choose a sake and the waiter/chef points and says amaidesu. Ah, sweet. Kekko desu - no thanks. Point to the next one - dry he says. Done!

The food comes and is delicious. The chicken is not at all greasy and Em thoroughly enjoys hers as well. The dumplings come out and they look like pork possibly but we're not sure. The guys are having a hard time with a leaking sink so I leave it until they are not as busy and I sumimasen. Kore wa toriniku desuka? Is this chicken? Ie - pork. Tragedy averted and Em has to eat all 4.

Dinner done, all of about 35 AUD and we're off to find a cab home. Easy done and we're swiftly driven home by a chirpy cab driver who asked where we were from. Ōsutoraria . He excitedly says G'day with the thickest most adorable Japanese accent. He and I chatted a bit as we drove home and had a lovely time.

Most people we've found are delightful. Cab drivers are generally cagey but a well spoken arigato gozaimasu tends to get you in their good books.

We're home and it's been a long day. Tomorrow we catch an early shinkansen to Gifu-Hashima for Em to do her samurai knife making experience and we're tired and excited in equal measures. Lights are off early in preparation for the day ahead.


Posted by nattybats 10:13 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

Day 12

Hiroshima to Kyoto

sunny 12 °C
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We check out as late as we can having organised our bags to be forwarded to Kyoto and wander almost bag free to the Shinkansen. We've completely worked out the train system and are almost locals now (sure Nat, keep dreaming). The JR pass makes it so easy that it's ridiculous.

On the train, travel for a couple of hours and we're here - Kyoto. I've moved our hotel to one in the centre of Gion having decided I didn't need the safety of the train station or a Western brand. Quick taxi ride over to the hotel and we're informed that they're expecting our luggage to arrive the next day (as we knew) and they'd bring it to our room.

We decide to just have a day of planning our week (and I had planned to catch up on my blog but napped instead!). We look at restaurants and find a yakitori (chicken on a skewer) joint that looks good and we make a reservation for 7.

We catch an uber over and I'm not 100% certain if it's the right place and I'm not sure I've got the language skills to check. Next time I will - as it was our place and we ended up having to wait half an hour to get a table!

But man was it worth the wait. Literally ate some of the best chicken I've had in my life and it was all so cheap. 5,600 yen for the 2 of us including alcoholic drinks.

That's really the highlight of today - no great detail (and I don't want to get too far behind!).

Here's photos!


Posted by nattybats 09:27 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

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