Travel: Culture and chaos in city of contrasts


Japan is a land of contrasts - modern and traditional, natural beauty and huge cities, refined art and comic-book kitsch. And the place where the greatest collision occurs is the largest metropolitan area on Earth - Tokyo.

It's easy to feel overwhelmed. Tokyo has a population of 35 million and, even from the observation deck of one of the tallest buildings in Shinjuku, the city stretches as far as the eye can see (on a clear day Mt Fuji is apparently visible to the west).

But wherever you go in Japan, glimpses of a traditional culture are never far away.

In spring join the "salarymen" with their suits and briefcases, and stroll under the cherry blossoms at Chidorigafuchi (part of the moat around the Imperial Palace) or visit bustling Asakusa Kannon Temple and enjoy glimpses of Tokyo Skytree, the world's tallest tower at 634m that was opened to the public last month.

Politeness is ingrained in Japanese society, and a visit to a department store at opening time (generally 10am) offers a whiff of how royalty must feel - staff, almost all young women, line the aisles, bowing and greeting each customer.

Visiting an artisan's workshop is a good peek into a life that is a world away from the high-tech gadgetry for which the country is renowned.

The Kubo family in Ogawa (Saitama province, northwest of Tokyo) has been making washi paper for five generations, just a drop in the bucket compared with the paper's 1000-year history. They turn out the cloth-like large sheets that are used for everything from screen doors to woodblock printing.

Three kinds of bark can be used to make washi: gampi (Diplomorpha sikokiana), mitsumata (Edgeworthia papyrifera) and kozo (Broussonetia papyrifera, paper mulberry).

The Kubos mainly make kozo paper, growing mulberry trees around their workshop as an annual crop and buying bark from other parts of Japan, Thailand and Paraguay.

The bark is pounded, cleaned and boiled with alkali until it has softened into the water. Then a mucilaginous plant, in this case hibiscus root, is added to provide the "glue".

The work is still done the traditional way using a wooden frame in a tub of cold water, while a simple pulley system helps lift the frame and swing it to help the fibres entwine.

Working from small sheds, the business produces 60,000 sheets a year with each sheet taking five minutes to dry in a room fitted with one of the few modern devices on site - heated metal panels.

But business isn't so good for geta sandal-maker Mr Kurata, who works from his home in the small town of Nikko in the national park of the same name.

People are forgoing the more expensive wooden-soled sandals (the inspiration for our jandals) for cheaper, rubber-soled versions - $15 compared with $230.

Geta were designed to keep the wearer above mud and muck outside, and for the wet floor in a bath-house. They feature two "bridges" of wood across the width of the sole, although Mr Kurata has "mountain climbing" geta that have one high bridge mid-foot.

It takes him six hours to weave an upper from rice straw, which is then fixed to a base made from paulownia wood, noted for its lightness.

A pair of bases takes two days to make.

He has several base types, including the Nikko style which is suited to snow, ones with spikes for ice and a children's style that includes a bell.

"Your foot should be about two-thirds in a geta, not right in," Mr Kurata says. "You need to walk with your heels down to keep them on, which has the effect of strengthening your back muscles.

"But it's not possible to make a living doing this anymore ... Even the temple priests are wearing rubber ones now."

Translations provided by Robyn Laing, tour leader for Travelworks, Auckland. Sandra Simpson paid her own way to Japan.

- Hamilton News

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