Japan

By Dorothy

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Finally arrived at the little island of Naoshima, but it was so late that the buses stopped running. The streets were completely dark and abandoned, except for a tiny shop, which turned out to be an old couple’s home/karaoke bar.

Fortunately, there was a young couple who spoke a little English, so we explained our situation to them. The girl called our lodge, who kindly offered to pick us up at the bar. The owners treated us to beers and we managed a bit of conversation with our new friends until the van arrived and brought us to our Mongolian-style yurt.

Even though our yurt was freezing, the space heater and fluffy comforters quickly lulled us to sleep.

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Woke up to find that the space heater ran out of gas in the middle of the night. Washed up, checked out of Tsutsuji-so and headed over to our next destination: Benesse Art Site.

On our way, we passed by our first of many art installations — a large yellow pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama. The bright, blobby form creates an interesting contrast with the serene waterscape.

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Passed a few art installations before reaching Benesse Museum. At the center of the museum is a round, three-story-high, concrete room that holds a single art piece: ‘One Hundred Live and Die’ by Bruce Nauman.

Other works in the museum include a large Hockney painting, Warhol’s flower prints, and minimalist photographs taken by Hiroshi Sugimoto of different seas and oceans around the world.

Sadly, photography is not allowed in any of the museums (though I snuck in a couple).

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Another museum designed by Tadao Ando. In order to minimize impact on the natural scenery, this museum was built underground. The structure is muted in color and blends into the surrounding landscape.

Jon and I were more impressed with the architecture of Lee Ufan than the art it housed — we failed to be moved by random rock and teacup-shaped formations protruding from a wall.

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The Chichu Museum was by far my favorite of the day. Before entering the first room, we had to remove our shoes and wear slippers. We walked through a large, dark hall into a bright, sunlit room containing five of Monet’s water lily paintings. The floor was lined with small, immaculately white tiles (thus the need for slippers). Wearing those slippers, I felt like I was taking in those giant paintings in a private, enormous bathroom.

Then we moved onto James Turrell’s works. Every one of his pieces tested how I perceived things and had me asking myself what was light and space versus three-dimensional form. It was a completely disorienting, yet novel and engaging, experience.

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We had dinner at Issen, the Japanese restaurant located in the Benesse Museum. It was fun being inside a museum after hours, and feeling like we had the whole place to ourselves. Our traditional kaiseki meal included fresh sashimi, chawanmushi, crunchy grilled bamboo shoots, grilled beef, miso soup, rice and pickles. Each dish was presented on elegant stoneware. Everything was fresh and delicious. Best chawanmushi ever!

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Not sure whether it’s off-peak season, or Naoshima isn’t a popular destination, but the island is surprisingly uncrowded. I like how the stillness of the island gives us the opportunity to fully appreciate its art installations and museums. We also noticed that we were one of the few non-Japanese visitors, probably since the island is a bit off the beaten path. I’m glad we made the effort to come out here, as it’s truly a special place.

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Went to the Honmura side of the island to check out Art House Project, a collection of old village homes that have been reformed into art spaces.

At the house project by James Turrell, we were instructed to walk single file into a pitch dark room and find our way to a long bench by feeling our hands along the wall. As our eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, we could see a faint rectangle of light. When the rectangle became a little brighter, we were instructed to stand up and walk towards the light. Much like at one of his other works in the ChiChu Museum, my sense of space had been altered in a way that I didn’t realize 1) how close we were to the rectangle and 2) that it was not a flat projection, but actually a lit space that we could reach our hands into.

We visited all six art houses. While some projects were more interesting than others, I enjoyed viewing them within the context of traditional Japanese homes.

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After checking into our hotel in Kanazawa, we had dinner at Daiba, a popular izakaya restaurant. We had duck stew (a Kanazawan specialty), sashimi, home-made tofu, cheese spring rolls with mentaiko fishcake, assorted yakitori, grilled nodoguro (blackthroat sea perch), sake and beer. The tofu had a really nice texture and the grilled sea perch was outstanding. Great, relatively inexpensive sake.

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After dinner we went to Pole Pole, a dive bar in the Katamachi district that plays reggae music and lets you throw peanut shells on the floor.

We grabbed the last two seats at the small and dark bar — all of the patrons were locals, except for one ex-pat from the UK. The staff was super friendly. After we ordered our beer (we tried beers from Cuba and Kenya), they poured peanuts on the counter and gave us some cookies for ‘White Day,’ which in Japan is the opposite of Valentine’s Day (girls offer gifts to their boyfriends). The owner also gave us a Sharpie so that we could write something on the wall.

While chatting with the bar owners and the ex-pat beside us, we learned that Kanazawa is located where the cold waters meet the warm waters, so all types of seafood are available here. This explains why the seafood we had at dinner was so darn good.

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It was a chilly and gloomy day, so we briskly headed to our next indoor destination: the 21st Century Modern Art Museum. The labyrinth-like layout was a little confusing. Several of the works were interactive. One room was dark except for a central spotlight on a piano and a projection video of a slowly burning piano. The piano was available for people to create music or sounds to accompany the video. Other installations included a swimming pool and a disco room filled with beanbags.

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We had dinner at Itaru, a cosy izakaya restaurant filled with locals. The majority of the staff did not speak English (my Aunt helped us book our reservation), but we were seated at the counter next to the one chef that knew a bit of English. He was super friendly and helpful, and through talking with him, we learned that he had worked at Taisho in NY for a few months.

This was our favorite meal of the trip. The sake was fantastic. We ordered the sashimi (included tasty raw octopus), raw squid in a squid ink dressing, grilled nodoguro, a huge portion of hamachi kama, simmered yellowtail and daikon, fried shrimp, oyster and vegetable fritters, local vegetables and sweet potato pudding to finish. All of the seafood was excellent and went well with the sake.

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Caught an early bus to Shirakawa-go, a historic village located a little over an hour southeast of Kanazawa. Fell asleep on the way and woke up to a small town covered in more than two feet of snow. The roofs are constructed with thatched bamboo stems that form a steep angle to prevent heavy snow from piling up. We walked around the peaceful village, grabbed a quick bite, headed up to a scenic viewpoint, then got back on another bus headed to Hida-Takayama.

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After checking into our hotel, we headed straight for Center4Hamburgers, a charming eatery located in the back of an antique shop. Filled with random kitsch, the restaurant seats no more than 15 people. We both ordered Hida beef burgers and dry ginger ales. The burgers were really, really good. The beef was juicy, the bun was buttery and slightly chewy, and the mayo and tomato salsa were a perfect complement. Well worth the $25 a piece, and proof that the Japanese can cook up a solid burger.

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Owned by a friendly butcher who raises his own cattle just outside the city, Yamatake Shoten is part butchery, part restaurant. We started by selecting our beef from a large refrigerated case. Though the owner informed us that a Japanese person usually eats a 200g portion, Jon was hungry and thought that 730g would be more suitable for the two of us.

While the owner chopped up and seasoned the beef, we helped ourselves to platefuls of vegetables and brought them to our table which had a small grill. We had three dipping options for our grilled veggies and steak: a sweet-ish vinaigrette, wasabi with soy sauce, and ground black pepper.

The highly marbleized Hida beef was melt-in-your-mouth tender. It was the beef equivalent of toro — mostly fat, but absolutely delicious. We really liked eating the steak with the ground black pepper, which was much milder than any black pepper I’ve had before. We signed their guestbook with the message, “Better than Luger’s!” Definitely one of the best steaks I’ve ever had.

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