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  • Shelley Dark

17. komingei, kanji and kobe

There's a word in Japanese I just love. It's hai, pronounced hi, a clipped expulsion of air from the throat, short and swift. It's a very definite breathy plosive sound with no hesitation. It has a variety of meanings: yes, ok, I acknowledge that, I agree, that's right, there you go. If it's said twice, hai-hai, it means please continue, I'm listening. Ange and I are hai-hai-ing at every opportunity. It's a good word to use when you don't have a Japanese word to fit the occasion.

Every Saturday there's a farmers' market in Aoyama in front of the United Nations University about half an hour from here by metro. It's an upmarket sort of affair with organic veggie growers and a few antique dealers.

This nurseryman bonsais every sort of plant you can imagine and markets them in little sacks of moss. I guess they'd need the same sort intensive care as the bonsais you usually see in ceramic dishes.

Even a cute little dahlia.

click on one photo in the gallery above to bring up a slide show

It was mainly a vegetable market, with exotic-looking mushrooms, bamboo shoots, aloe vera leaves and a small green roe-like seaweed which the stall holder called sea grapes.

The roses were beautiful and so was the white tweedia - its proper name is oxypetalum coeruleum 'alba'. The normal pale blue one was my mother-in-law's favourite.

The display of seafood bottled in oil looked quite amazing.

Gorgeous prize-winning jellies and the best lemon marmalade I've ever tasted!

Woven bags from the Philippines were so perfectly made.

Like our choices?

This veggie grower was very pleased that I took a photo of her gorgeous cabbages. Doesn't she have a lovely face?

There were a few antique stalls under cover of the building. The Japanese seem to be crazy about French antiques. Who isn't, I guess. Many more French antiques than Japanese.

We admired this lily-of-the-valley cover on an old phto album.

The owner of the stand went to ask his friends if they knew of any antique flea markets on this weekend, other than Nogi Shrine which is our list for tomorrow. He came back with a no. What a darling to go to that trouble.

We wandered around the shops in Harajuku, Omotesando and Aoyama - I'm not sure where one ends and the other begins.

We visited the Spiral Building where a curved ramp seems suspended, and people were putting on goggles to watch a show which must have been projected on to the huge white sphere hanging in front of them. They didn't look to be having much fun! Loved Sempre - it's a cool sort of homewares shop.

One of the shops on my list, and one of Ange's must-do's, was an antique textiles shop, run by Kasiko Morita and her husband Tadashi. It was fabric lovers' heaven. Truly.

Ange bought some indigo boro (tattered and repaired fabric) for her shop and some for her own home. During the Edo period in the 1600's, commoners were not permitted to wear cotton, while silk was restricted to the ruling classes. It didn't matter to the people living in the north of Japan as they were isolated and didn't see cotton fabric until the 1890's when traders brought it by sea. They had always used home spun and hand-stitched hemp for their clothes and blankets, patching and re-patching them over generations until little of the original garment remained. They even pulled fabric to pieces to use the thread. Clothing was often quilted with old hemp stuffing for warmth against the freezing cold and was a matter of life and death. Boro has become a very collectable item.

She also bought a washi paper fabric printing stencil, stained with pomegranate dye, from the town of Ise on Ise Bay.

Two squares of Japanese furoshiki cloth - they were and are still used sometimes for carrying clothes - either folded, or the four corners tied at the top. One was in soft grey and beige, and a white bori bojagi cloth - also for carrying clothes, from Korea. It's made of strips of white linen, each strip double-hemmed so that no join is visible, only doubled fabric.

There were a few antiques.

And this was Kasiko Morita herself. She'd been wearing a mask, but took it off when I asked if I may photograph her. Speaking of masks, about 10% of people wear them here - I'm not sure if I've told you before, but we've been told that they're for hayfever, to stop people from giving others their cold germs, or for stopping them breathing in dust or infectious diseases. Who knows.

Because she finds it difficult to converse in English, every time we asked Kasiko a question, she turned to drawing to illustrate her point. We had asked her what the gigantic wooden hook was for. The answer was it's for holding a chain which suspended a cooking pot over a fire.

A pair of antique ice skates. They're rope thongs! Imagine how cold your feet!

Lunch was on the run as we made a dash for our calligraphy class in the middle of residential Shinjuku. It was quite difficult to find. We eventually approached it from the wrong direction, but thankfully ran into an American girl who told us that she thought it might be in the residential building next door. We retraced our steps and could see students doing kanji (Japanese characters) through a window below our street level.

We knocked on the classroom door and Atsushi opened it, very handsome in his suit, white shirt and spotted tie. This is a serious business. The room was spotless. He welcomed us very softly and showed us to our seats in the narrow classroom. The five students were working in total silence. There was an almost religious atmosphere in the room. I've heard it said that calligraphy is a form of meditation, and now I can see exactly what they mean. If anyone spoke it was in a whisper.

Kanji characters came from the Chinese script and there are still many similarities. But it's more than writing. It's art. The brushes are made of hair, and when dipped into the black ink, they immediately assume that wonderful pointed shape. (Yes Ange's beautiful nail colour is making me green with envy!)

One girl was painting vertical lines, over and over, on her page. Others were doing extremely complicated kanji. Atsushi gave us notes, poured both of us some ink, and showed us how to paint a line. You dip the brush in the ink, press down on it, and then drag it across the page. At the end of the stroke, you lift your brush without allowing it to leave the paper, and then press down again to form the end. We used several pages practising. It's very difficult!

We practised horizontal lines, and vertical lines. Then we did the kanji for right and left, up and down. There were drawings in the notes, showing order and direction of stroke. We both chose a kanji we liked from a list at the back of the notes. Ange chose light, I chose peace and harmony.

The time flew and I was so absorbed in my work that I didn't even notice a student leave until I looked up and the cast had changed. At the end of an hour and a half, we were given a gilt-edged white card on which to do the kanji we'd been practising. Atsushi handled it as if it were solid gold.

Ange did this marvellous kanji! Atsushi gave her a red stamp. What's that mean, I asked. It means you have finished your work, he said.

As soon as I started on my precious card, I made a total hash of the kanji. Just like when I was a school girl. Clean page = blot! This is the best I did on normal washi paper. Atsushi stamped that for me.

Doesn't Atsushi have a kind face? The patience of Job as well. I can see how his students spend hours doing kanji. It's very absorbing, they spend time with Atsushi who is like a calming presence, and it makes them be 'in the moment'. So, a meditation. But it's also tiring concentrating so hard!

Before we left we both went to the loo. Horror of horrors a cold loo seat. It's amazing how you get used to it being warm.

We had an early booking at a teppanyaki restaurant, Ukai-Tei at Omotesando. It's in an old renovated merchant house, shining circular teppanyaki plate with chefs behind, sheet glass looking out at the rainy night. What better place to be?

You choose one of three food menus, and three drinks menus. A champagne to start. Kampai Ange!

Our chef arrived, introduced himself and put down his tools of of the trade on the teppanyaki plate. The first two courses though came from the kitchen.

First, sashimi. You'd be proud of me. I ate it, and I loved it.

Next poached white asparagus with a sort of hollandaise and a raw-ish egg on top. When I'd finished I had a little intact egg yolk sitting in the middle of my plate.

Chef now sprang into action by cooking a delicious little baby lobster claw on the sizzling plate. By this time, we had our glass of white wine.

A little cold creamed onion soup to follow.

We were of course all eyes on the other chefs and the other diners. The precision of their movements had to be seen to be believed. They made their equipment sing.

Now to the main course. Kobe beef! It was melt-in-the-mouth tender. I like it more cooked than normal because it is so marbled with fat, rich and buttery. The chef was happy to oblige.

It was presented next to a bed of shaved spring onions (giant spring onion, sliced very finely and blanched over and over again - it was delicious!), and some garlic crisps. We had our glass of red wine to wash it down.

The restaurant was filling up, and a young couple had arrived on the side you can't see in this photograph. He looked mid-thirties, she was extremely good-looking, dressed casually in a t-shirt, about mid-twenties, very poised and relaxed.

She started talking to Ange, and as she did, the sommelier arrived with a silver basket containing their bottle of wine. I was watching the sommelier. It was obvious from his actions that it was a very special bottle, with a small amount of wine being poured into one glass, swished, sipped, tipped into another, swished and so on. The girl meanwhile told Ange that she was a student, her companion a day trader on the stock market.

Do you remember last year when John and I were in Burgundy and we were caught in a torrential storm walking from one village to another? That first village was Nuits-Saint-Georges where this wine came from.

Remember what we learned about Burgundy wines? In case you forget:

Grand Cru are known as the greatest wines, and come from the top areas. There are only 32 tiny areas (with specific boundaries as in the photo above) allowed to call their wines by this name. eg Le Montrachet Grand Cru

Premier Cru is next best in quality, producing consistently better grapes. eg Beane Premier Cru

Village Appellation are generally nice wines, from particular villages. eg the wine would simply say Beaune

Regional Appellation is the least specific label, generally meaning a decent table wine. eg Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits

Ange said to the girl, 'That looks very special. Is it a special occasion?' 'No' said the girl, 'it's our favourite. Would you like to try it?' 'Oh gosh no, said Ange, we wouldn't dream of it thank you.' The next thing we knew, we both had a glass of wine put in front of us. The sommelier said, 'You are very lucky!'

That bottle was a premier cru. Our lucky day.

We went to a different room for our dessert to free up the teppanyaki bar for the next diners. Ange chose strawberry Chantilly cake, I chose pistachio eclair with green tea ice cream

We ate it looking out through the glass at the rain. A perfect ending to another wonderful day.

Until tomorrow night buddies, sleep tight!

shelley dark, writer 

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