Imagine a magical land where trucks back up to the tune of Fur Elise and people clap their hands twice to help their wishes get granted. This is Japan, and I just got to spend a month there exploring the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido in search of artistic inspiration. My travels took me to remote villages within the mountains, to humid rain-drenched seashores, and to the hustle and spark of grand cities like Tokyo and Kobe. Here are some of the highlights that inspired me.
Maizuru Bay is a scenic gem, situated in the middle of Honshu prefecture, not far from Kyoto. Near the bay is a 2-mile long sandbar that now is home to 8,000 pine trees. This narrow strip of land is referred to as the “Bridge To Heaven” or Amanohashidate. It acquired that name since clouds often form a “bridge” from the treetops to the sky. After making my way through a series of meandering brightly colored bridges, I came to the narrow sandbar and continued my stroll through the dense pine forest, along the isthmus, and eventually discovered a traditional Japanese tea house serving lunch. My rice bowl was covered with plump juicy clams, and my wakame (seaweed salad) was deliciously pungent.
In search of outdoor art, I made my way to the Hakone Open Air Museum, a two-hour drive from Tokyo. This museum is comprised of rolling green hills at the top of a mountain with the goal of creating a harmonic balance of nature and art by exhibiting various sculptures on its grounds in combination with views of the surrounding valley and mountains. It was built in 1969 by a religious cult that believes art provides a way for spiritual enlightenment. Sounds good to me. As I wandered around the pathways, and delighted in the sculptures, each one brought a new joy and reflection in it’s own special way. This was quite a treat since there are 120 on display and over 1000 in the collection. When I happened upon a modern Japanese pavilion in the woods, I was shocked to find out that it contained two floors of original works by Picasso, over 300 pieces. (This was added in 1984.) To see a guide with photos and explanations of all the sculptures, check out this great blog by the Creative Adventurer, click here: https://thecreativeadventurer.com/blog/guide-to-the-hakone-open-air-museum
Another exciting art exploration day was spent at the Susumu Shingu Wind Museum. This outdoor park features sculptures created by Shingu, and each sculpture moves systematically when the wind blows. It was not a windy day during my visit, but his sculptures were still beautiful and quite impressive from an engineering standpoint. Shingu describes his work; “Sculptures that dance differently in the breeze, sending us their messages from nature.” He has placed benches underneath the sculptures for visitors to relax while enjoying the art. On the way there, our guide serenaded us with a local song, captured in video below.
I visited a small town known to be full of ceramicists. The town of Tamba Tachikuiyaki in Hyogo prefecture has been awarded a national industrial art designation with over 60 potteries, and Japan’s only vertical incline kiln. This kiln is so large that the potters climb inside and place their artwork in the sections of the hill where the heat will be right for their particular piece. The “tamba” pottery of this village dates back to 1180 and is known as one of the six ancient types of ceramics in Japan. I met with several potters and began to appreciate each person’s unique style and coloration of glaze . After a thoroughly lovely afternoon, I choose two bowls to purchase.
Art inspiration for me sometimes comes in the form of food! Hokkaido is Japan’s most northern island, which means cold water and delicious seafood. I visited Hakodate, a port known for its squid. I sampled the local seafood at a small backroom fish market restaurant, and I was not disappointed! As a traveler, I always cherish the occasional meal when I realize Scott and I are the only tourists in a restaurant. I had that thrill in Hakodate, Northern Japan. Over our lunch, I learned that Hakodate buildings are built with two stories; the bottom floor is Japanese architecture, and the top level is “Western European” style architecture. Hakodate was Japan’s first port open to foreign trade in 1854. This style of architecture proliferated from the European influence due to shipping, and the city planners wanted Hakodate to appear “modern” to all sea-going vessels. I also learned that cantaloupes are the most prized fruit in Japan. They are grown with bags over them for protection, and can be very pricey to purchase. The cantaloupes in this market were selling for $55 and $65 a piece.
Looking for further culinary inspiration, having Kobe beef in Kobe, Japan seemed like a bucket list item. I had heard that Mouriya was the spot to go. Upon entering, we were led to a seat at the long teppanyaki bar, and we promptly met our chef for the evening. Wagyu comes from four breeds of domestic cattle: Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Shorthorn, and Japanese Polled cattle. These breeds come from native Japanese cows that were crossed with Western cattle in the early 20th century and then selectively bred over several generations to maximize their organic unsaturated fat. This gives wagyu beef its world-famous marbling, which is high in healthy omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids that have a sweet rather than greasy taste and some serious umami flavor. In addition to these genetic factors, wagyu cattle are raised with special attention to their environment and feed, resulting in premium beef. Kobe beef from Hyogo prefecture is the most famous brand of Japanese wagyu beef in the world. Our chef started his presentation by sauteing slivers of garlic in oil. Eventually, he used that oil to cook our vegetables and rice. Our Kobe beef was handed to us on a platter prior to cooking to get plenty of pre-cooking photos. It was as if we were handed a new born baby in the hospital. With our mouths watering, we watched as our Kobe was cooked to our preferred temperatures. Juicy, firm, tender, flavorful, and scrumptious are some of the words that come to mind. It lived up to the hype. So did the price.
In Tokyo, there is a building devoted to the arts called the Spiral Market. Inside the building’s floors are areas devoted to exhibition, art, lifestyle, performance, music, live, beauty, and food. It’s Japanese creativity at it’s finest. After examining miniature origami and clothing assembled from fabric scraps, we experienced a modern tea ceremony in their contemporary tea room. The tea master wears a scientist’s white coat and mixes a teapot blend as if he were producing a test tube experiment. We didn’t know what to expect and were quite surprised when Scott’s teacup arrived in very, very, tiny proportions. Our minds were blown again when Scott’s remaining tea leaves were later scooped from his teapot and served to ALL of us to eat! (Tasted like bitter cooked spinach.)
The most futuristic artistic endeavor I experienced was Team Lab, the Digital Art Museum in Tokyo. After waiting in a long line to enter, we encountered a type of warehouse with digital video displays of moving flowers, forests, and other various scenes on the walls. Numerous people jockeyed for position next to the walls to take selfies. Some rooms contained mirrors, glass walls, stairs, and climbing surfaces. Visually moving displays followed us from room to room as we experienced life in a new virtual reality, complete with innovative soundtrack.
Artistic inspiration is everywhere in Japan. On this, my second trip, I found it daily. The natural environment, the artists, the food, and the culture ignited my creativity. As Buddha said, “Transform your state of mind by awakening the senses that integrate your mind, body and spirit.” Here are some of my favorite mind transforming moments (and one of Scott’s).