Our bullet train quietly slid into Kanazawa. We collected ourselves and exited the train station beneath a giant metal and glass canopy fronted by an elaborate and beautiful gate. We found the taxi line. On the train I prepared my iPhone’s translation app with our hotel’s address. I showed this to the driver and said the name of the hotel, he read the address, and repeated the name of the hotel. We were there in 6 minutes. We dropped our backpacks and freshened up. I dropped 3lbs of Yen in coins from my pockets onto a table then immediately left to occupy ourselves. The jet lag followed us from Tokyo and was catching up fast.
Just a short walk from our hotel we found the Oyama Shrine surrounded by a small garden. We took in the sights and sat by the pond as the rain began. We took a turn down an alley behind the main street and found it bristling with izakaya bars and coffee shops. All closed. Dejected, we made our way to FamilyMart, cousin to 7-11, and found an ATM. Across the street we found a very fancy coffee shop named “Kissa”. We had green drinks made with soda and matcha.
It was still early but we were getting hungry. By now, though, maybe some of the restaurants were open for dinner. We found a tiny restaurant below a slightly larger restaurant called “Kitchen Hana”. We went in to find three young women buzzing around the place while an older woman cooked. Mother / daughters? Neighbors?
One of the young women buzzed by and dropped a Japanese menu off at our table. As we proceeded to get our phones to try and translate, the cook leaned over the bar and asked “English menu?” Yes. Thank you.
We ordered a “set” dinner each. When you can’t think or you don’t want to order, throw caution to the wind and get a set dinner. All the decisions are made for you. The woman explained that this was mama’s cooking, family cooking. Sure if you’re lucky. I had chicken karage with a variety of vegetables and tofu washed down with draft beer.
We finished dinner, hoping for a night cap. We left Hana’s kitchen and strolled down the alley and stopped in front of a tiny bar. The menu outside said “whisky” in English. As we entered we were greeted by the bartender, a older woman who tried to explain to us carefully that happy hour was over at 6pm. We tried to assure her that this was just fine. We got seated and mispronounced our way into a couple of whiskies. The bartender realized what we were about and warmed right up.
As we finished our whisky, I could feel a wave of weariness take over. We dragged our tired bones back to the hotel and tried to watch a movie for a little bit. Just trying to stay awake a little longer. No luck. I was dead to the world by 7:30.
I snapped awake at 2am and gave up the fight. 2am is a great time for journaling in the dark. It’s also a good way to practice your touch-typing skills. I worked on my previous newsletter for a couple of hours and finally felt tired enough to return to bed and sleep until 6am. I awoke (again) to my wife bringing in coffee and a smoothie from downstairs.
We showered and dressed and went down for breakfast. Another buffet of varied delights. Japanese hotel breakfast is shockingly good. There is grilled fish, buttery scrambled eggs so soft you have to eat them with a spoon, a variety of vegetables, sweets, breads, each a tiny portion so you can try everything and not leave bloated and miserable.
We let the front desk know that our luggage had followed us from Tokyo and would be arriving today and left to go wander.
We made our way back to Oyama shrine then followed mossy stairs up to a path on a hill behind the pond which led us to the gate for Kanazawa Castle. We wandered around the castle grounds, by the enormous storehouse, and up to various viewpoints, and finally through a large gate, over a footbridge spanning a highway to an entrance for the Kenroku-en gardens.
Jet lag is useful for beating crowds. We were among the first visitors and walked the grounds quietly, snapping pictures of all the beautiful things. The garden is immense with fish ponds, streams and waterfalls, all manner of trees and shrubs, all joined by meandering gravel pathways. We were fortunate to arrive at the turning of the season to watch workers prepare yukitsuri - a sort of conical tent made of rope and twine erected ted over a tree or shrub. The lines of rope extend down to branches where they are tied in place. This provides support for the trees in winter storms. If a heavy snow falls, the trees retain their carefully crafted shape.
After our wander, we stopped for a green tea ice cream then found an exit pointing us to the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. The logo for the museum is actually a sort of floor plan for the museum itself. A large circle of glass encloses courtyards and galleries under a vast flat roof. In this way the building blurs indoors and outdoors. The primary exhibition was a small retrospective of work by Yves Klein. Which, meh. But this was fine. I was there to see a swimming pool.
The Swimming Pool is an installation by Argentinian conceptual artist Leandro Erlich. I bet you’ve seen it online. It is very Instagrammable.
From the outside the installation appears to be a smallish swimming pool. Perhaps the sort of lap pool you might install on the balcony of your high-rise apartment if you were an eccentric millionaire. There is a limestone deck around a rippling pool of clean clear water. A ladder steps down into the pool. When you peer over the edge, there are people down below the water waving up at you. The water is an illusion. Just about 4” deep. The space below is a blue room with the bottom half of the ladder. The water above becomes a rippling skylight.
We learned that this piece is too famous too just drop in and see (see above, see also, Instagram). We made a reservation for later in the day and enjoyed lunch at the museum café.
We heard there was an old samurai district in Kanazawa and that it was close by. We planned to walk back to the hotel and then go find us some samurai.
As we were walking back to our hotel we saw a surprising photo of an infinite stairwell. This is another Leandro Erlich piece, apparently installed right here in a little storefront. We went inside to discover KAMU, a privately owned, somewhat mysterious contemporary art museum.
You can find them on Instagram here.
We greeted the attendant who began speaking to us as if we spoke Japanese. Apparently our KOH-knee-chee-wahs were a little too convincing and she assumed we could get by. After a small course correction we learned that KAMU is not this one location, but several locations strewn around the city. You could buy a ticket for the day, for 2 days, or however long it might take you to visit each site. We purchased a day pass and then walked into the next room to have our minds melted by a real-life Escher painting. After we cleaned our minds up off the floor we went upstairs to see two more exhibits which I felt bad for. Infinity is a tough act to follow.
The first KAMU location provides a street map with your tickets. Each location is stamped with a QR Code linking you off to Google Maps. Now we were on an art-themed scavenger hunt. The game is afoot!
Most of the KAMU locations were in or very near the samurai district, so we did both things. Tucked into the side streets of Kanazawa are the very old wooden homes of samurai. Walk along the street and you’ll suddenly see an elegant, ancient wood structure behind a wall with a garden sandwiched between ordinary modern homes and apartment buildings.
We paid the entrance fee, took off our shoes, and went inside. Screens between rooms and tatami mats on the floors. No one prepared me for how nice tatami mats feel under your feet. Slightly soft and yielding, but nicely textured. I spent more than just a little time rocking back and forth in my sock feet just feeling generally better about things.
The house looked and felt like an old movie set. I was prepared to fight for my family’s honor should some assassins crash through the ceiling.
The screens which separate the rooms are beautifully painted silks. Landscapes and floral patterns. One room held a number of artifacts: coins, swords, scabbards, and a few letters thanking a samurai for beheading a nemesis. One glass cabinet held an ink set - the kind which would have been used to paint those screens.
We used this kind of inkwell in art school The well is a flat ceramic or stone tray with deep depression at one end. You fill the depression with a little water by loading your ink brush with water and placing the brush in the ink well and dragging your brush across the lip of the well. Then ink, in the form of a small, solid, rectangular block is ground into a little water at the shallow end of the ink well. To make a dark jet-black, use as little water as you can. To make a softer grey, add more water. You can’t erase ink - drawing this way teaches you how to fail early and often and be OK with it.
Another room in the home hosted a small shrine. Between the outer wall and the house lay small, elaborate gardens with koi swimming in burbling water. We sat and watched the fish for a while and then found our way back out to the street to hunt for art.
Trying to find each of the KAMU locations took us through winding side streets and alleyways well off the busy main streets of Kanazawa. On the way to our next location we found ourselves walking by small drainage canals along the street. Or were these re-routed creeks and streams? These canals were paved with rough dark bricks and spanned with small bridges where needed. Here and there a tree grows out over dropping autumn leaves into the water. I know of a similar re-routed stream in Portland, near the soccer stadium. It runs through a concrete pipe buried underground. Why make something beautiful when you can bury something cheap and pave over it?
We followed the canals down a quiet street and found a KAMU installation - a short video work by Simon Fujiwara titled Once Upon a Who? The video is a short stop-motion animation with paper cut-outs describing the woes of sad bear in blue jeans named Who. It was tongue-in-cheek, snarky, and very Art School.
We traced our way back through the samurai district into a shopping district to find an installation by Ayako Suwa titled Talisman in the Woods. We showed our tickets to the attendant and step into a darkened hallway behind a curtain. The smell of cedar enveloped us as we stepped on a carpet of cedar boughs filling the hallway.
As we entered the main exhibition space we find most of a cedar tree, hanging upside down from the ceiling as if it were being preserved like cut flowers. The tree is brown but incredibly fragrant. Suspended at just about eye level is a wide metal ring, polished to a mirror finish. Reflected motion from around the room catches your eye. Below the tree, on a podium, sits a glass bowl of…water?…surrounded by four very bright pin lights, the only illumination in the space. Within the podium a speaker periodically generates a low bass rumble which shakes the water in the bowl.
The gallery attendant steps in and sweeps stray cedar branches back into the hallway with her foot.
We blink outside into the daylight again and head back into small side streets to find Daido Moriyama’s Lip bar. This appears to be a tiny but entirely empty bar, covered floor to ceiling in images of bright red sexy lady lips. Like something you’d see in a 1980’s music video. The same lips wallpapered on the floor, walls, ceiling, bar, and everywhere. The gallery attendant explained to this, that after 5pm it becomes a real bar. I like to imagine taking a first date to the Lip Bar. What? It’s my favorite local bar. I thought you’d like it.
The last piece on this art journey is labeled “Black Black” but is titled “Lithi”, The work is by Ryoichi Kurokawa, a Japanese artist living in Berlin. The title “Lithi” is cross-lingual - according to the explainer text outside, it is a transliteration of a word which means “oblivion” but also sounds like the River Lethe from Greek myth. This is the first exhibit to come with warning labels.
After showing tickets to the attendant, you find yourself in a pitch black room of indeterminate size. I understood from the sign outside that there would be sound, light, and lasers. Bring on the light show, I’m ready to party.
I hear a loud, percussive bang and a yellow laser beam appears just over my head. I ducked instinctively. I am not sure, but I think this is what being shot at feels like. A rhythm of lasers, sound, and strobe lights emerge and I begin to get a sense of the space I am in. It’s a long corridor. What seemed like a tremendous space overhead is a mirrored ceiling. Lasers and strobes alternate with percussive sounds which are almost but not quite musical. It’s mesmerizing and unnerving .
I think about the poor gallery attendant who sits in the dark all day with a tiny flashlight waiting for visitors to drop in. Maybe she’s a vampire and this is the perfect day job.
After returning to the light, we found the nearest little restaurant. A young man worked behind the counter doing all the jobs. Host, bartender, cook, and waiter. A young couple sat at a table near us and shared something sweet. We ordered two glasses of wine and recuperated for a bit.
Our reservation time was approaching, so we collected ourselves and made our way back to the 21st century art museum. We strolled into success and right into the museum basement to experience the bottom of the swimming pool. We found ourselves waving to folks up above the water. A European tourist joined us and we took photos for her.
The Swimming Pool, much like the Infinite Stairwell are both reality bending installations that force you to see common things a little bit sideways. They are simple - at least in concept, I’m sure it was not trivial to construct either of these pieces. I like to imagine the construction workers installing sideways stairs shaking their heads and drinking heavily after the work day ends.
The effect of these pieces is profound. You leave with your mind altered and your horizons expanded. Neither piece requires an art degree, a curator, nor wall text to explain it. Uplifting.
I floated out of the museum holding hands with my wife and as my feet started to touch the ground again we saw a tiny local bar with two people inside - the bartender and a tiny old man who reminded me of Popeye the Sailor in his little sweater. We ordered highballs, rested our tired feet, and talked about everything we saw that day. We didn’t stay long. I think Popeye was disappointed.
We strolled back down the hill towards our hotel, taking the side-street full of restaurants. We found an adorable looking place which served us sashimi, tempura, and sake. We tried to ask for one order of sashimi for each of us, but the wife of this husband-wife duo running the place admonished us that this was entirely too much and we should just get one. We agreed to her terms. She was correct. The buttery, delicate sashimi with the best tempura I have ever had was more than enough.
Back at the hotel I decided to take advantage of the communal bath. When I arrived, bashful and unsure of myself, I was reassured and reminded that no one cares. I scrubbed and rinsed and joined the business man and the long-haired hipster in a bathtub so hot that it burned away most of my sins and some of my skin.
The next morning we enjoyed another stupidly good breakfast and took a taxi to the train station where we climbed aboard the Thunderbird Express (number 18) bound for Kyoto.
“The jet lag followed us from Tokyo..” ah what a line! KAMU seemed like the ultimate immersive excursion. Great way to explore a city yet always with a certain intention throughout the way.