I feel foolish.
I am standing on the second floor of Osaka Castle, garbed in a Samurai tunic and a tall, horned 15th century Samurai helmet, and holding a heavy wooden Samurai replica sword.
I saw the tourist gimmick “take your picture as a Samurai… only 500 yen!” and thought, what the hell.
My foolish feeling increases as all of a sudden a gaggle of 30 or so onlookers materialize from nowhere and begin to snap photos of the white man in Samurai gear.
The camera man gives me the sword and, instructing me to plant my legs shoulder-width apart, says “Samurai style!”
I think to myself, “well, you’ve already put your foot in it. Might as well play the part.”
I puff out my chest, put my hand on my sword hilt, strike the wide-legged Samurai pose and growl a guttural “HMMMMMMM!”
The swelling crowd exclaims a collective “Waaaaaaa!” in appreciation as camera flashes materialize on all sides.
I even get a big smile from the cameraman who has to put up with this gimmick 100 times per day.
Sometimes, its fun to feel a bit foolish.
Cherry Blossoms and Good Vibes around Osaka Castle:
Woodwork in Kyoto:
After nearly six months of solo travel, I am starting to meet up with more and more familiar faces.
One of these is Kieu, a fun and spirited friend I first met while studying abroad in Italy circa 2009. Kieu and Raymond, her fiancé, are on a whirlwind vacation to Japan, and our trips happen to overlap in Kyoto for a few days.
The three of us have a ball visiting shrines, eating street food, ramen, sushi, and fancy Japanese fare, exploring bamboo forests, riding picturesque trains and joking about Japanese quirks.
One afternoon Kieu says, “So, a friend of a friend recommended we go and see the house of a guy named Kawai Kanjiro. Apparently the guy was a master ceramic potter and woodworker last century. You guys want to go check it out?”
Sometimes, the funnest experiences are those least expected.
The tourist crowds thin into silence as we navigate deep into an ancient suburb of Kyoto. Turning a corner, Raymond says, “I think this is it.”
A completely unobtrusive exterior, a little plaque is the only indication that we are at the house museum of Kawai Kanjiro. We are more or less the only people there.
Apparently, Kawai was a master potter, artist, woodcarver, and human being. His entire house reflects an attentiveness to detail, a passion for symmetry, and a love for rustic beauty.
The two-story house was built in traditional Japanese country style, with a square layout, central open space, and surrounding rooms. A peaceful silence permeates the place, and the rough-hewn wooden beams, the hand-built furniture, and the symmetrical layout of every detail puts the mind into a tranquil reverie.
Apparently, the museum completely preserves Kawai’s original layout and style. Having done some woodworking myself, I love looking at his innovative chairs, tables, dressers and carvings. I look down at a beautifully rough-hewn desk and chair, with light coming through the window, and see a hundred year-old picture of Kawai sitting at the same desk, at the same time of day, with the same lighting. The photo, though ancient, seems like it might have been taken yesterday.
The house extends into a garden, and into a secondary structure that Kawai used for his pottery work. A massive kiln, built with clay and bricks, spans 40 to 50 feet up into a gentle slope. The whole place seems like a hidden gem, a time capsule into the creations of one man’s rough-hewn hands.
Walking out of the house, Kieu, Raymond and I all agreed on our current, mutual feeling: tranquil, pleasant, peaceful calm.
Around Kyoto with Kieu and Raymond:
Ever since I can remember, I’ve harbored a fascination for knives.
I don’t quite know why.
It might have started with my grandfather. A home builder by trade, my grandfather kept an entire workshop full of tools. I used to spend many afternoons in his workshop, with the smells of sawdust, wood, and earth ever present. Our projects almost always revolved around wood, and of course knives, chizels, and other sharp objects are the necessary instruments of woodworkers.
My grandfather also had a stubborn, depression-era aversion towards throwing things away, and used to prolong the lives of many tools decades beyond their usual spans.
I remember one pocket knife he used to carry. The 3 1/2 inch folding blade had been sharpened and re-honed so many times that the knife was almost gone, perhaps half of its original width.
My father, for as long as I can remember, has carried a swiss-army knife. I used to “borrow” this contraption at every possible moment, fascinated by the clever engineering, the compact size, and the sharp edge.
My fascination with knives has evolved over the years.
When I was younger I collected pocket knives, and reveled in the different shapes, sizes, and makes.
More recently, in the past five years, my fascination has evolved into kitchen knives. I do not have many, and none of them are the same make, but each one is high quality, sharp, well maintained and well loved.
Japan, as most people will know, is world renown for its steel prowess. These days the Germans might give them a run for their money, but the Japanese have a certain elegance to their metal craft. Perhaps is the feng shui thing. Maybe the samurai roots. Probably a bit of both.
While wandering around Kyoto, I stumble across a cutlery shop. My, what gleaming, razor-sharp goodness glowing from inside the glass display cases! The versatile santoku! The powerful deba! The fabled Sashimi slicer! Such style, such elegance, such beauty! I must have one! Look at that nine inch slicer!
“I want, that one——–
Oh, shit. Is that the price?”
Good knives are expensive. Anyone who cooks regularly knows the value quality steel.
But, I’m on a world-travel budget, and can’t afford to fork over three hundred bones for a knife. And let’s be honest, I don’t neeeeeed a Japanese knife. I have five or six beautifully crafted knives at home.
I just really want one.
So I keep moving—that place seemed a bit hoity-toity anyways.
A few minutes later I find myself in the central Nishiki market of Kyoto – filled with food shops and various merchants. Knives still fresh in my mind, I visit every knife store I come across.
Something just, feels wrong about each of them. The first is completely packed with tourists. They have a wonderful selection, but the prices are astronomical ($300-$600 for most knives, some of the larger ones over $1,000). I squish my way through the hot, stuffy crowd and realize there isn’t a single Japanese person here aside from the workers. Moving on.
The other shops also look pretty, but feel hollow. I don’t like the touristy vibe, nor the sales-pitchy brochures they hand you in English.
Defeated, I amble down a back alley, away from the market. Maybe I’ll find something in Tokyo.
Then something special happens.
I see a tiny doorway, and a few knives gleam within.
Heck, I think. This place looks alright.
Inside, the entire room is maybe eight feet by ten feet. Instead of a showroom, it looks like a workshop. A large, ancient-looking metal working machine takes up one side of the room.
For a change, I’m the only one in the shop.
A young man greets me warmly, and explains, in limited but polite English, the proper uses of the different types of knives. I see that the prices, though still high, are a fraction of what they were in the larger shops. I ask to see a few knives, and before I know it I’m cutting imaginary onions with 20 or so different specimens.
The Ontu is too heavy—and I already have a badass cleaver I bought in China. The Sashimi knife is lovely, but, honestly, how often do I cut Sashimi? Maybe once a year? The Usuba feels ok, but it’s about the same size as my Miyabi, and I know I would use the Myabi over this one. One feels too clunky in my hand. The handle is too long on one. Another feels too delicate.
The man patiently takes out new knives, and puts the “no’s” back.
Another woman worker bustles around the small space, and I am happy to note that 3 or 4 Japanese patrons come in to pick up or drop off parcels while I am trying my knives.
Finally, I find one that feels right. A one-sided, 6-7 inch slicer, ideal for cutting meat and vegetables.
Less than $100. The same knife would have cost double or more in the other shops.
Ok. Yes, I’ll take it!
The woman asks me to write my name down on a piece of paper. I’m a bit confused, but do as instructed.
Just then, an old man comes through the door, bows to me, says a few words to the younger workers, takes my knife, sits down on a stool, and begins to sharpen it on a wetstone.
The owner, of course! Ah, I’m in heaven.
He first sharpens the single edge, pausing every minute or so to let me feel the progressively sharpening edge.
“Bari!” he keeps saying. I infer this to mean “sharp!” in Japanese.
After five minutes or so he flips the knife over and finishes the back, flat side.
Once the sharpening is done, he takes the knife, and, with a chisel, inscribes my name in Japanese characters above the already inscribed name of the shop. Now I understand–the woman who asked me to write my name down had translated it into Japanese!
I watch over his shoulder with a big dumb grin on my face.
The younger man, who I now take to be his son, then takes the knife and wraps it up beautifully.
The three of them bow me out of the shop, repeating “Arigato Gozaimas, Nicholas Elliott!” over and over.
The old man, quirky and polite and fastidious, somehow reminded me of my own grandpa.
I wish my grandpa was still alive, so I could show him the knife when I get back home. I think he would really appreciate it.