All about Zen!

Zen meditation has become one of Japan’s most successful exports, ranking up there with cars and Sailor Moon, yet its apparent simplicity makes it all the more mysterious and compelling. There are several places in Japan where you can try meditation, but few where you can ask the monk all kinds of questions about his traditions and everyday life, as well as eat delicious monastic food! It is not surprising, then, that the visit to a Zen temple is one of our most popular options.

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The temple is located at the top of an old stone staircase (but don’t worry, there is also a road up if you prefer!)
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Many stone Buddhas keep watch as you climb.
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“Welcome to my temple!”

The monk may not quite fit with your idea of a Zen practitioner: he is relatively young, and very approachable. However, he has completed studies not only in meditation, but also in temple cuisine.

Before the meditation session, he shows visitors around his temple.

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The temple is centuries old, and serves the local community
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Explaining how he conducts the daily services. The round gong is in the shape of a fish, which always keeps its eyes open, even while sleeping, and is a symbol of how believers should always be aware.
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Chanting the sutras

He even shows us the kitchen and living area.

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The dinner gong!
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A monk’s living room is picturesque but not luxurious…

Finally, it is time to try Zen meditation…

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The meditation area, with the necessary equipment: tatami mats and black cushions
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Demonstrating the correct way to sit. It is not as easy as it looks!

Zen practitioners usually meditate for around 40 minutes at a time, but beginners usually try around 10. Be careful not to let your concentration slip, however; otherwise, you will be rapped on the shoulder!

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Luckily, the teacher does not look too scary, even with that big stick!

After all that concentration, the reward is the temple lunch! Buddhist cuisine is vegetarian and does not use a lot of strong seasonings, but it is delicious and perhaps provides a welcome change after days of rich ryokan food… While you are eating, you have the chance to ask the monk all kinds of questions about his daily life and Buddhist customs.

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Temple cuisine may be simple, but it is not plain or austere

So why not add this temple visit to your next trip to Japan? We cannot promise that you will find enlightenment, but you are sure to come away with a deeper understanding of Japanese Buddhist tradition.

 

Bienvenue à Itoigawa!

La semaine passée, j’ai accueilli mes premiers clients francophones comme guide de Kotobuki! Nous avons passé une belle journée de printemps ensemble, en découvrant quelques expériences uniques ici.
La visite a commencé au jardin traditionnel de “Hisuien” (le Parque du Jade), où ils ont participé dans une cérémonie du thé avec le professeur et une de ses étudiantes. Ils se surprenaient savoir qu’on n’ajoute jamais du sucre au thé vert, quoiqu’il soit assez amer, mais le professeur leur a expliqué qu’il n’y en a pas besoin parce qu’on mange une friandise sucrée juste avant de le boire. Elle a suggéré aux Français des macarons!
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“C’était bien intéressant, mais c’est un peu dur s’asseoir par terre!”

 

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Une composition florale “ikebana”, et la terrasse qui se donne au jardin

Il faut plusieurs années pour maîtriser la cérémonie du thé. Cependant, le professeur a aidé le mari à préparer et à servir le thé à sa femme!

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“Itadakimasu!” Les formalités sont très importants dans la cérémonie du thé, mais l’atmosphère ici est assez détendue.

 

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Le salon de thé et le jardin. La neige ne s’est pas fondue qu’il y a quelques jours, alors on attend toujours l’arrivée du printemps…

 

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Mais ce cerisier était déjà en fleurs!

 

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Ce rocher énorme est du jade

Après avoir mangé notre déjeuner en regardant le jardin, nous nous sommes dirigés vers le marché aux poissons. En route, nous sommes passés par le vieux sanctuaire Shintô, où nous avons vu quelque chose de spécial: les jeunes garçons du quartier qui s’entraînaient aux danses traditionnels avant la fête du printemps.

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Les petits garçons, qui n’ont que 5 ou 6 ans, viennent apprendre des vieux chaque jour pendant les vacances d’école

 

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L’intérieur du sanctuaire

De retour au centre-ville, nous sommes allés voir – et dégoûter – le saké! Il y a 5 brasseries dans la ville d’Itoigawa, et celle-ci est la plus vieille de toute la province de Niigata, située  dans une ancienne demeure de samouraïs. Le maître-brasseur nous a montré le procès entier. Contrairement au vin, il dure moins de deux mois, et a lieu seulement pendant l’hiver, pour que la fermentation ne se déroule pas trop vite.

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Et voici le saké frais, avant d’être stérilisé. Le client a dit que c’était mieux que le saké disponible en bouteilles, mais il n’est pas en vente, alors vous ne pouvez le goûter qu’ici, et maintenant!

Notre dernière visite était au session d’entraînement de “kendo“, l’escrime au style des samouraïs. Là aussi, les clients ont pu poser plusieurs questions à l’instructeur, un expert du septième “dan”(niveau; il n’y en a que huit en total), avant de l’essayer eux-mêmes!

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“Je peux frapper plus fort?”

Enfin, nous avons beaucoup appris tous les trois (les clients, la culture japonaise et moi, du vocabulaire…). J’ai hâte d’accueillir d’autres clients francophones à ma ville d’Itoigawa!

 

 

 

 

Winter in the Snow Country

Here in Itoigawa, we are lucky to have four very distinct seasons. Winter is marked by pristine snowy scenery, delicious fish, the sake brewing season, and colourful festivals.

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Welcome to our winter wonderland!
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Discover old-time winter traditions in the Japanese countryside.

Niigata Prefecture is in the heart of the Snow Country, and you can find snow on Itoigawa’s mountains from around December until May – indeed, you can ski here until that time. However, because the centre of the city is on the coast, it rarely gets deep snow, meaning that transport links continue uninterrupted throughout the year.

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It may be snowy, but the roads – and the railways – are clear.
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In the mountains, you may see people shovelling the snow off their roofs.

This year, we are looking forward to welcoming our first guests for a snowshoe walk to the beautiful Shiroike pond. The deep snow in the mountains allows you to walk on paths that are covered by bushes at other seasons. And after a day in the snow, what better way to relax than in an open-air hot spring?

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Plenty of snow to walk on!

Winter is also a great season for gourmets to visit. Itoigawa boasts delicious seafood throughout the year, but those in the know consider that fish are at their best in winter because they put on more fat to combat the cold, giving them a richer flavour. One of the best examples of winter seafood is monkfish, a deep-sea fish that is available at just a few fishing ports in Japan, including Itoigawa, thanks to the deep waters near to our coast. If you are here in late January, you may be able to watch a monkfish being expertly prepared at the town’s monkfish festival; but don’t worry if you miss this, as you can find monkfish in the local restaurants until around March. New rice and freshly-brewed sake are also available at this season.

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Meet the monkfish, Itoigawa’s most famous deep-sea resident.

This coldest season of the year is also enlivened by a variety of New Year’s festivals. Each area has its own distinctive celebrations, so you can have a unique experience at any one of them.

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Omi’s Take no Karakai festival is a tug of war with bamboo!

Even if you are a Japan expert, come to visit us next winter and discover another side to the country!

 

Autumn colours in Shiroike

The hike through the woods up to Shiroike pond is always popular with visitors. In early summer, you can enjoy the delicate green of the new foliage and watch newts swimming in the pond, while at the height of summer you can see all sorts of trees and plants along the path, pointed out by our friendly local nature guide. But arguably the most stunning season is autumn. The mountainside above the pond is covered with beech trees, which turn a beautiful golden brown around the end of October. Here are some photos from a hike with Swiss visitors in early November.

 

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Outside the Salt Trail Museum

If you don’t feel like hiking, the start of the trail is also a perfect spot to sit and read!

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“Take as long as you like! Come back in three hours…”

This is some of the foliage along the hiking route.

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The mountains on the far side of the mountain show up clearly in the autumn light

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And once you get to the pond itself, the views are even better…

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Our guest wanted to explore further, so we climbed up the mountainside beyond to another pond and the pass over the mountains.

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It was worth the climb for the spectacular views looking back!

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The Sea of Japan is visible in the distance, beyond the town

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From this winter, we are also offering a hike to the pond using snowshoes. We look forward to welcoming you here and showing you our favourite spots!

Walking the ancient Salt Trail

Before the construction of the modern road network, Itoigawa was the start of an important trade route known as the Salt Trail. Men and women carried heavy packs and led oxen over steep mountain passes, taking salt to the thriving castle town of Matsumoto far inland. Our guests enjoy walking a section of this route, up to the scenic Shiroike pond, and picnicking there.

The first stop on the way is the Salt Trail museum, an old farmhouse that has been made into a museum by local residents to preserve the porters’ equipment, agricultural tools, and other artefacts which they donated. In spring and autumn, guests can sit round a fire in the irori, or open hearth. Japanese farmhouses had no chimneys, making them very smoky in winter, but this smoke played a role in preserving the timbers and thatching.

Old, thatched wooden farmhouse
The Salt Road museum
Frames made of wood and rope
Wooden frames for carrying loads – no rucksacks back then…

After learning a bit about the area’s past, it’s time to set off along the Salt Trail! Luckily, there are no heavy loads to carry, although we do bring along delicious lunchboxes for the guests. Along the way, the local outdoor specialist who accompanies us explains all about the trees, plants, and other nature of the area. There are also breaks to look at the views over the rice paddies and down to the coast.

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Time for a well-deserved rest!
View of trees, rice paddies, and then sea
The city of Itoigawa and the Sea of Japan in the distance

Our destination, Shiroike pond, is framed by mountains and has beautifully clear water. There is an abundance of nature to observe, including dragonflies, newts, and frogs.

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The clear waters of Shiroike pond
Observing the trees in the local forest
 Looking at the trees in the surrounding forest

And of course, it’s time for the picnic lunch! Local specialties include sasa-zushi (a kind of Japanese version of an open sandwich, served on a young bamboo leaf) and seasonal seafood. The spring water is delicious and cool, and the views are perfect…

Three people use leaf cups to drink from a spring by a pond
Learning how to drink from cups made of leaves

Classical Japanese music, just for you!

Japanese music has a long tradition, dating back to the households of the Emperor and his nobles. Our guests often choose to experience that tradition in the comfort of a private pre-dinner performance at their accommodation.

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Koto duet performing “Sakura, sakura”, a famous song about cherry blossom

Players perform several pieces on the shakuhachi (bamboo flute), shamisen (three-stringed instrument similar to a banjo), and koto (long, horizontal harp). They explain each piece and their instruments.

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Playing the shakuhachi flute

After the performance is finished, guests have the opportunity to try out the instruments and talk more with the performers. Sometimes they even sing a traditional song from their country, too! Music really does help to cross international borders.

Guests laugh with their teachers as they try to play the koto harp
Performers and audience share a musical moment after the concert

Make your own sushi lunch!

You have probably eaten sushi before, perhaps many times; but have you ever made it? Our recent guests visited a master sushi chef in his restaurant to discover the basics of the art.

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Women are not usually considered suitable sushi chefs as their hands are thought to be too warm. Luckily, our sushi making experience is open to everyone!

Professional sushi chefs train for years, but luckily it doesn’t take that long to learn how to make your own lunch! After the guests had carefully patted the balls of vinegared rice into shape, places slices of fish on top, and secured them with strips of seaweed, they sat down to enjoy their handiwork.

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The completed masterpiece!

Since Itoigawa has a thriving fishing industry, most of the fish used for sushi are caught that very morning and come from the local fish market, so this may well turn out to be the freshest sushi you have ever eaten!

Pieces of sushi on a wooden board
“Itadakimasu!”

Kendo: learn about the true spirit of Japanese martial arts

Japanese martial arts have become popular around the world, but here in their home, they are not just sports, but art and philosophy as well. Two of our guides, Chiho and Emma, recently went to a kendo practice to learn more and to prepare to show our guests this fascinating martial art.

The teacher, Ito-sensei, has long experience and teaches everyone from children to adults who have themselves already reached the seventh dan (only one level from the top), making the sessions at his dojo fascinating to watch. In between conducing rigorous training, he kindly answered many of our questions.

Q. You seem to have several high-level students in your dojo. Is kendo strong in Niigata Prefecture?
A. Yes, it is. I think it flourished particularly in the former castle towns.

Q. How old is kendo?
A. It’s difficult to say exactly, but wooden swords were introduced during the Edo Period. Even then, however, people sometimes died during practice, and so now we use swords made of bamboo.

Q. How about your mask? Tell us about that.
A. These flaps are made of a kind of fibre that is compressed very hard, several centimetres of it, and then stitched to become firm. Women used to be employed to sew these by hand, but no longer. This mask was made in Japan, but the stitching was done overseas. The cheapest masks are entirely made overseas, but of course the quality is not the same. Nowadays, if you want a mask made in Japan from start to finish, you need to order it. The craftsman will measure your face and make it to fit you. The position of these bars across the front is particularly important: if they are at eye-level, you won’t be able to see out properly. There are few craftsman left, so it takes them several months to finish your mask: by the time it arrives, you’ve probably forgotten that you ordered it! I have had this mask for about thirty years, but I don’t use it every day; I use various different masks, so they last longer.

Kendo mask and wooden swords hanging on a wall
Kendo mask and wooden swords

Q. Why do you slide your feet across the floor instead of walking normally?
A. Just before we strike, we lift up our foot. We need to be ready to strike at any time, so we usually keep both feet on the floor, to maintain our balance.

Q. When you’re hit, does it hurt?
A. A little bit, but not too much.
[One of the students looks unsure about this]
He thinks it does hurt! He always flinches before my sword hits him…

Kendo practitioner with his sword raised over his head
Demonstrating a move

Q. When you are engaged in a practice bout, how do you decide when it is over?
A. The student will tell the teacher when he feels that he has reached the end of his strength. Younger practitioners will sometimes end with one last attack, but for older people like us, we tend to say when we want to stop.

Kendo practitioner wearing mask and gloves and holding his sword
Dressed in full gear, ready for a bout

Q. Kendo is popular overseas now. What do you think about this?
A. When Japanese martial arts become popular overseas, they become more widely-known, which is good; but at the same time, they have to change somewhat in order to become sports. “Sports” are about scoring points, winning and losing, but in kendo, the way someone moves is equally important. It’s about art, and about the way you concentrate your whole spirit. Other martial arts like karate have asked to be included in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, but kendo has not volunteered; I think that this is the reason why.
I’ve sometimes been asked to go overseas to teach, but I’m too busy here…

Q. At the end of the session, after the students bow to you, you all turn and bow towards the front of the dojo, then towards the right. Who are you bowing to?
A. First we bow to our teachers who came before us, those who are no longer here. We acknowledge that there are greater teachers than us. Then we turn in the direction of the kamidana (the god-shelf), to pay our respects to the god of the dojo.

Kendo teacher and students kneel, facing each other and with eyes closed
Students and teacher alike pay their respects at the end of the session

Guests to Itoigawa can watch these fascinating training sessions, try on the kendo gear, try out the moves and, if they have some prior experience, even join the practice! So why not experience kendo with an expert?

 

Coming soon: Snow Country winter experience tour!

Here at Kotobuki, we are always thinking about new experiences that we can offer to our guests. At the moment, guests visit us from spring to autumn, but that leaves Itoigawa’s most famous season: winter! Located in the heart of the Snow Country, on the Japan Sea coast, Itoigawa is guaranteed to have plenty of snow. This will allow guests to experience various unique activities, including walking in the snowy landscape with snowshoes, building a snow cave under the guidance of an expert, seeing the architectural style developed to keep off the snow, viewing a beautiful formal garden in the snow, and visiting Niigata Prefecture’s oldest sake brewery at the height of the brewing season. Of course, they will also be able to relax in a natural hot spring after their time in the snow, and they will enjoy Itoigawa’s delicious seafood, which is at its best in this season. We can also offer various other options to allow them to make the most of their experience, including traditional music, Shiatsu massage, and skiing!

 

Winter scene of Mt Amakazari
Come and walk in this snow!

We are really excited about developing this new offer, and recently we visited Mizuno-san, our Snow Country expert, to talk about the possibilities. Mizuno-san is originally from Kyoto, but moved to Itoigawa 15 years ago. He has long experience working in forestry, and so he knows the woods very well in all seasons. As well as leading snowshoe expeditions and constructing snow caves, he can tell guests all about the local nature. As if this wasn’t enough, he is also an accomplished potter, and has built his own wood-fired kiln. So he can also offer pottery experiences to guests who are interested in Japanese crafts. We are very much looking forward to working with him, and to welcoming our first guests to the Snow Country!

Kettle hanging over a hearth with pots in the background
Some of Mizuno-san’s pottery displayed in his home