Last month I took a trip to Gunma to visit famous Ikaho onsen and practice my driving skills. ^-^ It was the first time to drive the serpentine mountain road – a scary experience mainly because the road is a narrow one lane passage so if there is a car behind me I either have to stop and let it pass or speed up. I realized that the main reason people do speed up is because other cars are getting very impatient and can easily cause an accident. Conclusion – you have to drive fast to be safe. ^-^
My first stop was a big shrine right next to Udon village – a street with 200 something years old restaurants that used to feed samurai traveling between Edo and Nagano. The shrine’s gates were amazingly beautiful – the combination of deep orange, sky blue and gold yellow was truly magnificent and the intricate ornaments were one of a kind. Many people were burning scents and buying omikuji – little fortune messages written by priests. The door to the shop’s backroom was half opened so I happened to see three priests in full attire sitting under kotatsu, watching baseball game on TV and writing these fortune messages that they sell 3$ each. ^-^ How funny is that?
After shrine, I had lunch at Tamaruya udon shop – the oldest out of all shops on that street. Udon was perfectly cooked and all the good stuff that you put inside like dashi, ginger, miso, green onion and seaweed were delicious as well. Later, I bought udon noodles as a souvenir but couldn’t manage to cook it quite the same way. I guess it does take you 200 years to perfect the technique. ^-^
After lunch, I went to check all the local sightseeing places and my first stop was Toys, Dolls and Cars museum – a huge European style building that hosts various exhibitions from world’s chocolate and wine collection to old Showa toys, cars and rare teddy-bears, some of them costing hundreds thousands of yen..^-^
All those items belong to the same guy Masahiro Yokota – owner of the museum. He is a really famous collector and this museum is his main source of income. I just can’t imagine such peculiar place making any profit but apparently it does!
At the entrance, together with the ticket we got two plain Kewpie dolls that later we were offered to paint in the art room. Me and my husband were sitting on wooden benches and paining our Kewpies alongside with 5 year old children – you had to see it!
Now, who did it better? My husband may lack a steady hand but he certainly has imagination. ^-^
After museum, we went to a farm called “Green Bokujo” – a self-sustained contemporary park that allows you to observe the live of farm animals and enjoy a day on a luscious green field.
I chose to challenge archery. It requires a serious upper body strength so I could manage to hit the target only on fifth try.^-^
And I played with little sheep and goats. After reading Haruki Murakami’s “Wild sheep chase” I was a bit curious about the sheep. They do indeed look very intelligent. ^-^
In the evening, at last we arrived to the Ikaho onsen. We stayed at a ryokan called Chigira.
It had two rotemburo (outside) baths and 2 private mini onsen on each floor.
This was one of the best ryokan I have ever stayed in. The building, the room and particularly the service were exquisite. I really love traditional Japanese tatami rooms with night lanterns and paper sliding doors and little lacquer boxes for tea and stationery. There is always an alcove with scroll painting and flower arrangement; there are always yukata sets and floor cushions and paper fans and burning scents. I’m so glad that the tradition and old customs still play a big role in modern Japan.
The water in Ikaho area has a golden undertone because of a special sort of mineral in the mountains. It was told to be extremely good for skin and against fatigue. When you get out of water, your body is covered with a golden dust – that’s how intense the density of mineral is.
I took a quick dip in a private onsen and then went for an evening walk around the onsen settlement.
The local town was straight from a Showa fairytale : little kakigori, green tea and mocha cake cafes, traditional game shops, souvenir stores that sold locally made geta and fuurin and rare Kyoto scents. I felt stepping right into the perfect Japanese summer festival that I often see in many commercials and TV dramas. I have never seen such picture perfect before, mostly because it is usually all hidden behind the human mass in Tokyo. Here, there were only a few people in yukata strolling up and down the hill.
I bought as a souvenir a very cute kazeguruma (paper windmill) and scented bookmarks and potpourri satchels that you put into presents and letters. And I also got silk cocoon fuurin (wind-bell).. Again! ^-^
Next morning, I had a big Japanese breakfast with fried fish, soup, rice, pickles and nato (fermented soybeans) and then took a boat ride in the local izumi (lake). This attraction will never get old to me. I used to rent boats in the park with my grandmother and spend hours threading water with my feet, circling around small islands, feeding ducks… This is something that will always stay in my heart as a dear memory so whenever I have a chance to take a ride, I do it without thinking twice.
Then, I drove to see an ARC museum which is a Gunma annex of Hara Museum of Contemporary art – the first art space I’ve visited upon my arrival in Tokyo. The museum is built as a large scale wooden pavilion that fits perfectly into the expansiveness of Gunma’s green highland. The permanent exhibition displays both contemporary art and some of the finest traditional East Asian art which is together quite an unusual sight. It sort of eliminates the borders of time, creating a dialog in between centuries. It also triggers different levels of sensibility. Traditional art is usually esthetically more beautiful whereas contemporary pieces touch you on a more deeper emotional level, raising your imagination and hidden thoughts and desires.
There were two pieces that I loved the most. The first one was “the Hallway” by Miranda July – an installation in which introspective contemplation about life was encapsulated within the confines of a hallway. As you walk through a very narrow path, you see series of messages that take you deeper into the hallway and into your own thoughts.
The second piece was called “Exquisite pain” – a multipart project by Sophie Calle, a French photographer and recipient of Hasselblad award. Her piece depicted a visual autobiographical journey through the pain of romantic rejection and its emotional impact on her life. Inspired by the painful experience of loss, this narrative collection of photographs and texts addressed issues of rejection, self-pity and ultimately, recovery. Part I presents photographs and letters from a 92-day trip to Japan. On the last day, her lover back in Paris broke off with her by phone, and that is why each consecutive item is stamped ”92 days to unhappiness,” ”91 days to unhappiness” and so on.
Part II explains about the period after the breakup, during which photographer asked her friends to describe to her their most emotionally painful memories. Each story was embroidered on a plain screen and paired with Calle’s own story about breakup told again and again, with time becoming less and less emotional and at the end turning into a simple fact exhausted from any emotion.
I only saw the second part of the exhibition but later when I was researching Calle’s work I learned about the first and discovered this photograph, taken in Kyoto’s royal garden.
I took the very same picture 5 years ago with my mobile phone while visiting the garden through a special appointment made in advance. Apparently, it is closed for public viewing which is quite a pity as the garden is absolutely breathtaking.
At the end of my trip, I took a little detour and visited traditional British “Andy & Williams” botanic garden.
It had a beautiful collection of garden benches that I really fell in love with. They must have so many stories to tell, I wish I knew where they were used and who sat on them..Of course, I can always make my own stories. ^-^
And the garden had the grass I have never ever seen before. It was so plush and so soft and so green…I wish they would grow such grass in Shinjuku gyoen..Last time I read a book there, my skin was itching for a week from the sharp needles they grow there instead of grass..
All in all – one of the best trips this summer. I feel so grateful and so privileged to experience all these wonderful things that Japan has to offer and I’m surely not going to stop on that. My next destination is Izu!