09 August 2009

Image Quilt Show 2009, Lowell, Massachusetts

Top: The Great, Great Grans Quilt, by teacher Roberta Horton
Middle: Spools of thread for machine quilting, vendor area

Bottom: Exterior, Tsongas arena

DH and I attended the Images 2009 show, part of the annual Lowell Quilt Festival. The show features about 160 juried quilts, and special exhibits. The highlights of this year's show were the exhibit of antique and vintage log cabin quilts, from the permanent collection of the New England Quilt Museum (NEQM) in Lowell, and another feature on the quilts of Miho Takeuchi.

Quilters negotiate the stairs from the vending area down to the show floor

First, some areas for improvement in the implementation of the show: there is little or no exterior signage at the arena. Why? Also not indicated is the best entrance, at ground level and around to the right of the arena. From the main entrance, the only way to access the show floor is by elevator - the enclosed stairway leads to the exterior. We were confused, and wandered around a bit, and encountered other visitors similarly lost and hesitant in their way-finding.

If the unwary visitor goes up the open stairs from the main floor, after purchasing admission and receiving an wrist bracelet, she reaches the vendor area, and there is only one minimally marked route back down to the arena - most of the stairs through the seating area are blocked. The show organizers might want to address these issues; the overall impression is one of disrespect for the visitor.

Three quilts by Miho Takeuchi
Top: Furoshiki
Bottom left: Autumn in Japan (detail)
Bottom right: Japanese blocks

I did reach my destination - the special exhibit of quilts by Ms. Takeuchi, who uses the traditional Japanese stitching technique called sashiko in her quilts. I've seen sashiko used as a quilting stitch, through all three layers of top, batting, and backing, but Ms. Takeuchi seems to use the technique primarily as embroidery of the top layer only. Her stitching is exquisite and detailed. Ms. Takeuchi teachers at the NEQM and other sites in New England and I hope to take a class with her someday.

Hexagon, Miho Takeuchi

In contrast to the refined work of Ms. Takeuchi, not to mention the older log cabins quilts from the museum, the works in the juried show seem almost gimmicky - loaded with beads, crystals, stitched with a myriad of novelty threads, and threatening to become, as my husband put it, "totchkes hung vertically." There was also an emphasis on literal recreations, in fabric and thread, of landscape scenes and figural images. Why? Are quilters inherently "tragically literal", to borrow a phrase from teacher Jane Sassaman?

A quilt, based on a painting by Picasso, by Diane Joe

At least one quilter, though, appreciates abstraction, and translated works she loves, by Picasso, into fabric and thread. Adapting an abstract painting into a quilt might be a good exercise for any quilter struggling to move on from the straight-jacket of realism.

Relief by Virginia Holloway

It was indeed a relief to find this quilt, by Virginia Holloway, showcasing excellent use of color.

Oil Spill, by Emily Fox

In the youth section, a very different use of color, by a teenage quilter who's not afraid of bold and bright. Good for her!

Bolts of marbleized fabric for sale

As always, there are lots of vendors selling fabric packs, fabric on the bolts, thread, notions, quilt patterns, even sewing machines and quilting machines. Quilting has become a big business, indeed.

DH works on laptop while spouse checks out vendors

A canal, en route from the arena to the museum

Fortunato's Italian restaurant, in one of the many wonderful old brick buildings in Lowell

After viewing the Images show, DH and I strolled over to the NEQM (about a five minute walk) and ate lunch at a decent Italian cafe, Fortunato, down the street. Our admission to the quilt show also included admission to the museum, and by lucky accident we were in time to catch a very good gallery talk by quilt appraiser and curator Vivien Lee Sayre, on Massachusetts Quilts: Our Common Wealth, an exhibit of antique quilts with links to Massachusetts. This exhibit is up until September 20 and is definitely worth the trip.

Exhibit flier, there is also a new book of quilts in this documentation project

For a brief review of the book, consider this link to a local press story: http://www.boston.com/ae/books/articles/2009/05/03/a_patchwork_of_life_stories/

06 August 2009

Kyoto Day 3, Fureaikan Museum, Heian Shrine, and Shopping

Structure at Heian shrine

On day three of our visit, I joined a tour group run by Nancy McDonough of Kyoto Kimono. Nancy, her sister Christine, and 4 other women graciously made room in their group for me for three days while DH attended his high tech conference. We began the day at a wonderful museum, Fureaikan, the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts. This is in the same complex as a major exhibition hall and some other municipal buildings, close to the Heian shrine.

Permanent exhibits display every type of traditional craft - bamboo, dyed and stenciled textiles, fans, paper, musical instruments, bows and arrows, metalwork, embroidery, masterpiece kimono, and more - with well-translated explanations in English. And - the best part for me- videos of work-in-progess, so the visitor can see the tools and techniques. I wish more American museums would educate visitors about process. After all, the descriptive "craft" is a bit of a misnomer - using specialized tools and techniques, not to mention chemical processes like dyeing and mordanting, is really proto-industrial production. Historically, craftsman (and women) dealt with issues such as division of labor, vertical integration of supplies and materials, marketing and distribution and so on. For more on craft as a "practical expression of social life", consider Edward Lucie-Smith's book "The Story of Craft"; the quote is from the book.

Interior of Fureaikan museum; metal screen recalls waving grasses

The Fureaikan is a complete facility for the study and examination of craft traditions - there are workrooms and classrooms for group activities, a library and a very good shop. Photography is not allowed in the exhibit space, but take my word for it that this site is worth the trip. There doesn't seem to be an independent website for this museum, but hours and location, at least, can be found at http://www.pref.kyoto.jp/visitkyoto/en/theme/sites/museums/fureaikan/

After the museum, we walked to a riverside restaurant, Ganko, with a delightful traditional garden, for lunch. The website is http://www.gankofood.co.jp/en/

View of Kamo river; our restaurant is one of the buildings on the bank

My lunch
Shadows are from overhead lattice slats; nice and shady in the heat

Here I had my first encounter with sushi, in the form of small squares of salmon and some other fish. I personally don't care for the chewy texture, but I'll be the first to admit that this daughter of the midwest has deeply ingrained cultural attitudes towards that most basic of culinary divisions, the raw and the cooked. We have wonderful fish in the Midwest - perch, bluegill, catfish, etc. - all delicious pan-fried. Needless to say, because of parasites, there's no tradition of raw fresh water fish, I dare say, anywhere in the world and certainly not in the Great Lakes. I believe that everything raw in Japan is a salt-water species. So I think my inherent aversion to raw fish has extra deep roots in that I grew up with the fresh water fish mindset that fish is cooked, end of story.

The seaweed, veggies and prawn were yummy and my chopsticks skills adequate, until I tackled the gelatinous glob in the upper right hand corner in the image. It looked and felt like a green eyeball, and it was just as well I never managed to manuver this object out of the bowl.

Everything was beautifully presented and absolutely fresh. Kudos to our Japanese liaison, Junko, who had scouted this restaurant for us. After lunch we had the opportunity to accompany Junko to the outdoor food market, Nishiki, or go with Nancy to the Shinto Heian shrine. We all chose the Heian shrine. Afterwards I wished I'd gone to the food market; I think my encounter with the green eyeball substance mentioned above influenced my decision, unfortunately.

From top: Chinese bridge, entrance gate to Heain shrine,
Shobikan pavilion, school girls tying paper prayers

Not that the Heian shrine isn't popular, particularly with Japanese tourists during cherry blossom season, or that it isn't, just for sheer size, impressive. The main gate, the orange structure in the collage above, is a photogenic, intense color, especially in contrast with the white gravel throughout the complex. On a sunny day, the reflection off that gravel is like the reflection off snow - sunglasses are a must or a parasol or hat. Of course, I knew exactly where my sunglasses were - on the kitchen counter, back home, placed carefully by the door so I wouldn't forget them!

The Heian shrine was built in 1895 and the buildings are replicas, at reduced scale, of the Imperial Court Palace of the Heian period (794-1185 AD). As Japan fitfully modernized in the late 19th century, disruption and dislocation brought morale to a low ebb, and this monument may be an embodiment of nostalgia for the era before Commodore Perry and his black ships forcibly opened Japan to western trade in 1853. Just ten years after completion of this shrine, Japan surprised the great powers by winning the Russo-Japanese conflict, annexing Korea and part of China; the stage was set for a resurgence of nationalism, and the eventual ascendancy of the militarists.

History aside, the stroll gardens are pretty, especially the Chinese-style bridge (top photo, above) where one can purchase pellets and feed the fish, but the whole place felt a bit ersatz to me, and I think I'll do the Nishiki Food Market next time.

Shopping arcade off Teramachi-dori, Kyoto
Large image is the Chicago used kimono store

Following the shrine we went back to the hotel, rested up, and then off again in the evening to a shopping arcade, with stores aimed mostly at young people, I think. We ate at a fun informal restaurant. Nancy then made a bee-line for a vintage clothing store called Chicago. One of the fun things about Japan is the seemingly random use of English names or phrases for places and items. For example, a popular chain of convenience stores is named Lawson's and a brand of bottled water available in vending machines is labelled Polcari Sweat (not too appetizing, I admit.)

There were a number of Western tourists shopping in the upstairs part of the store, for vintage kimono and other garments. Most of the kimono at Chicago were made of synthetic fabric and sold for about $20 each, all were neat and clean; there were a few in nicer fabrics. Uncharacteristically for me, I found an X-rated under-kimono with a pattern of line-drawings adapted from antique erotic woodblock prints. Dr. Ruth - remember her? - would have loved it. Nancy seemed very taken with the garment and bought it. Sometimes it is more fun to help someone else make a special acquisition.

After shopping we went to a Haagen-Dazs for ice cream; alas, few of the hoped-for Japanese flavors -no sesame? no bean paste? - but they did offer green tea ice cream, which was tasty. Early to bed this night as we were getting up very early Thursday for the flea market.

Kyoto Day 2, Kumihimo workshop

My kumihimo bracelet

Bracelet again - closure is magnetic
Medieval costumes with kumihimo used for frog closures, sandal straps, etc.

(click on image to enlarge)

On the afternoon of our second full day in Kyoto, I took a kumihimo workshop, arranged for me by the Japanese liaison, a woman named Junko, for the tour group I joined for part of my trip. Kumihimo is a traditional form of braiding developed during the Heian period (794-1185 AD). Junko met me at the hotel and we walked about a block to Kyoto's most prominent kumihimo maker, Adachi Kumihimo-kan. Since field trips to traditional craft workshops seem to be a big part of the Japanese school curriculum, the craft centers are set up with failure-proof projects for neophytes.

I worked in a brightly-lit upstairs room obviously set up as a classroom, sat on a mat and worked under the care of a young woman from the center, with Junko kindly serving as interpreter. No one speaks English, so it's necessary to have a liaison make the reservation for the workshop and preferable to have a guide accompany the Westerner also.

From a public domain photo, kumihimo braiding stand, with eight bobbins

At Adachi (for short) I was given a choice of projects and selected a bracelet, a project which cost 2,000 yen, or about $20. I didn't take any photos, unfortunately, but the braiding stand I worked on had two round wooden disks attached with dowels. The upper disk has a hole to accommodate the lengthening braid as it is woven, and the bottom disk is solid.

About six looms, called marudai, were pre-threaded with different color combinations, and I made my choice from these selections. The young instructor knelt on a mat and showed me how to weave my four cords - basically, two cords move clockwise, then the opposite cords move counter-clockwise. That's it - a ten-year-old could manage it, and the room was basically set up for school groups. There's a weight on the cord, to keep the tension even, and the weaver just has to play out more silk from the bobbins occasionally. My knees suggested I just sit on my mat, rather than kneel, and after about 15 minutes, I had finished a length sufficient for my bracelet.

While another crafts person made the length of cord into a bracelet by gluing the cut ends into the two parts of the magnetic catch, Junko and I were led upstairs to an informal gallery, with some examples of antique kumihimo, and looms set up for flat braiding variations, one with 64 bobbins and the beginnings of a very elaborate length of cord. In addition , there were copies of woodblock prints showing kumihimo weaving during the Meiji era. A special item was the prototype for beautiful cords which tied commemorative scrolls at a shrine in Hiroshima.

While this cord is one of those items that is easy to overlook, once you're aware of it, you see the cords everywhere in displays of traditional costume. In addition, it's another example of the way the Japanese craft tradition maximizes the aesthetic appeal of even the most seemingly mundane item. Kumihimo is also yet another part of the Japanese textile tradition that's been adopted by Western crafters, in a sort of cultural transfer. There are lots of mostly West coast based sources of supplies and instructions if you google kumihimo. My workshop was fun, but a little too pre-packaged - I would have liked to learn how to measure the cord, wind the bobbins, etc., but there are books available in English from one of these sites for more information.

After the session, Junko helped me buy postage stamps at a local convenience store - you can get almost anything at these handy places - and then we went back to the hotel. Junko went on her way to arrange dinner for our group that evening. While writing my postcards in the hotel room, I watched some Sumo wrestling on TV. Lots of ritualistic tossing of salt, to purify the ring, foot stamping, wiping down of body and face, and brief bits of actual action in the ring. At the end the twenty or so wrestlers, all massive, with hair in topknots, put on aprons with elaborate designs, and stood at the edge of the ring, performing a closing ceremony ritual.


Public domain photo, sumo wrestlers in their aprons, or kesho-mawashi

03 August 2009

Kyoto Day 2 ,The Philosopher's Walk

A shinto shrine within a Buddhist temple at Nanzen-ji complex
Aprons on stone statues are offerings

The entrance to the reception area at Nanzen-in temple complex

On our second full day in Kyoto we rose early to explore the Philosopher's Walk, a route that parallels a narrow canal on the eastern edge of the city. The route is about a mile long, although the distance is deceptive, as there are many sites and potential detours along the way. The walk is named for a philosophy professor, Nishida Kitaro, who strolled it frequently, and is described in the Dorling Kindersley's Eyewitness Guide to Japan and in more detail in the Walking Tours section of the Lonely Planet's Kyoto City Guide; for some reason, the walking tours are not indexed.

We began our walk at the Keage subway station, and, after a false start, did eventually find the correct exit and the pedestrian tunnel beneath a very busy ring road. Route indicators from the station to the beginning of the Philosopher's Walk present an excellent opportunity for Kyoto to add a bit of Western-language signage. Once on the path, though, it's fairly easy to follow.

Our first stop was the Nanzen-in temple complex, and we were early enough (before 9 am) to meet a few worshipers but no crowds. We were too early to access the interior of the massive Sanmon gate. For a photo of the gate, consider this link: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/japan/images/kyoto/nanzenji/sanmon-cc-dhchen.jpg. As it's a free standing structure, it's not really a gate in the Western sense of controlling physical access; but symbolically demarcates entry into a holy precinct.

Nanzen-in is a huge and illustrious Zen temple complex, with many maple trees, which must be spectacular in autumn, shading an under-carpet of greener-than-green moss thriving in the Kyoto humidity.

Enlarge to see image of famous painting, tiger drinking water, by Kano Tanyu

We made our way to the reception area, paid a small admission fee, received our tickets and a very welcome brief guide in English. After removing our shoes, we toted them in plastic bags and toured the Hojo, or abbot's residence. (I know, Americans of a certain age will have a frisson of nostalgia for Howard Johnson's, that orange-roofed temple to roadside food.)

A typical Japanese squat toilet
Immaculately clean

A word here about matters profane, and then back to the sacred. I've included a photo of a typical Japanese toilet, in the facilities at Nanzen-in, although this one is something of a luxury feature - it has toilet paper. Our our first day in Kyoto, I was confronted with one of these in the Kyoto train station. Toilet paper could be purchased from a vending machine for 100 yen, but as we had just arrived, we had no yen coins at all. Fortunately, habits developed during the care of young children are slow to fade, and I carry pocket packs of tissue with me. There is also no soap or towels in many bathrooms, even in the most modern facilities. Apparently Japanese women travel with their own small towel or tissues and hand sanitizer.

At this temple, however, mercifully there were both Western and Japanese style toilet cubicles and I began a practice of using the Western style facility whenever I found one. Whether using either style, the visitor changes into the special plastic bathroom slippers left at the entrance to the restroom. Adult and children's sizes provided.

Small garden at the Hojo
Looks natural; every bit is groomed and manicured

One wonderful feature of the Abbot's house, in addition to the aforementioned bathroom, is the "nightingale floor." The wide, irregular-width floorboards, smooth under stockings and socks, have been laid so that they squeak gently underfoot. This feature can also be found in Nijo Castle in Kyoto; we never made it to that attraction, but experienced the floor feature here. Evidently the squeaking floor is an alarm for intruders; understandable in a castle, but a bit mystifying in a holy place. Perhaps it's related to the fact that the Hojo was originally a part of an emperor's retirement villa.

We circumnavigated the outside of the rooms, on a covered but unenclosed veranda, looking to our left at the individual gardens, and to our right into dimly-lit rooms with painted screen walls, including the Tiger room, featuring wonderful painting of tigers and leopards, glowing on a gold-leaf ground. The 17th century artists, who had probably never seen either animal, followed the Chinese convention that leopards were female tigers. Biological classification aside, the paintings capture feline grace and suppleness beautifully. Photography of the interiors is not allowed, and I followed the rules. For more on Kano Tanyu, the court painter of the tiger drinking water screen, consider this link http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fa20021120a1.html.

Bounding tiger garden - the low rocks look like young tigers leaping through water

The cat theme is continued in the most famous viewing garden at the Hojo, the Toranoko-watashi, or "young tigers crossing the water", attributed to designer Kobori Enshu circa 1600. This is a great exemplar of this type of garden, with water represented by carefully raked gravel, rocks symbolizing animal life, shrubs and trees forming a miniature mountain landscape, and the borrowed scenery of the actual mountains surrounding the temple giving it all a backdrop and visual depth. It's all so refined it's almost enervating. A good book on Kyoto gardens is A Guide to the Gardens of Kyoto by Marc Teri and Ron Herman.

Zen rock garden - easy to lose any sense of scale during meditation

Of course, back in the 17th century, before central heating, there would have been little thermal difference when occupying the interior rooms or the covered veranda, although certainly the roof would keep occupants dry while rain fell on the garden. This traditional architecture clearly influenced the Kyoto train station (see previous blog post), which is roofed but otherwise vulnerable to the weather. Two building typologies, centuries apart, but with a similar response to climate and nature.

After touring the Hojo we followed the advice in the Lonely Planet guide and walked past the rather incongruous Meiji era aqueduct to a small temple, and on to a hobbit-sized gate in the outer wall. My husband conked his head on the door header, but he has a thick skull, fortunately. A footpath led up to a hillside shrine, Nanzen-ji Oku-no, with a charming rivulet of water, rather grandly called a waterfall by the guidebook.

DH next to hillside shrine and waterfall.

A well-tended shrine where natural rock and carved rock have a dialog

Looking back, and down, at our route up from the temple precinct to the hillside shrine

Still, it was refreshing to be in an area that was not raked, pruned and clipped into submission but still more or less natural and even overgrown, next to the inclined and somewhat slippery path. This little shrine was clearly an active place of worship, with the remains of incense and candles recently burnt.

Mindful that we still had a lot of ground to cover, we didn't explore Nanzen-in further. However , if I was here again at lunch time, I would ask at the reception booth for directions to one of the tofu-based Buddhist restaurants in the area, which are supposed to be among the best vegetarian options in Kyoto.

A window, with plastic food, on our route.

The Philosopher's Walk skirts the edge between a residential district and the parks and temples nestled into the foothills surrounding Kyoto, but there are occasional restaurants and shops along the way too.

DH walking along the canal, with maple trees

Entrance gate at Honen-in with mossy thatch

Our next stop was a small but delightful temple, Honen-in. While the Sanmon gate at Nanzen-in is massively impressive, the appeal of this smaller temple is irresistible, and not just because of its free admission.

Sand mounds, with raked designs on upper surface

The thatch-roofed entrance gate leads to two asymmetrical mounds of shaped sand. Evidently the priests change the surface designs every now and then; I would imagine after a torrential Kyoto rainstorm the sculptures - for that's what the mounds are, really - must be redone. I'd love to know more of the origin of this garden feature - why mounds of sand?

Another view of the entrance gate

Caretakers maintaining the grounds

Another feature at the temple, with DH going behind it to investigate...

...this interesting item - no idea what it is - melons? basketballs?

One last look

Back to our path to our final big stop, Ginkaku-ji, or the Silver Pavilion. The first thing to note is that it's not silver; the building was supposed to be covered in silver leaf, as a tribute to the Golden Pavilion, but the economic upheaval caused by the civil conflicts of the late 15th and early 16th centuries undermined that plan.

Famous hedge at entrance to Ginkaku-ji

Gardening with sand
The Pavilion is currently under reconstruction, so we mainly had a view of a lot of scaffolding, but the gardens were still fascinating, and we had the opportunity to see gardener-artisans recreating the Silver Sea, a representation of water in sand. Uniformed men and women worked with traditional rakes, wooden trowels, and straw brooms, and I suspect these tools look much as they did in previous centuries; the addition of garden plumbing must have been welcome.

The white sand reflects the moonlight, making the gardens special for viewing at night.

Artisans sculpting the sand

Edges are tamped and smooth

High contrast between smooth and rough

The Ginkaku-ji pavilion, under construction, with water garden
Gardeners are up the ladders, pruning the pines

Display of roof construction assembly - layers, and more layers, of wood roof shingles

The hedge as we exit

Well, we'll have to come back and see Ginkaku-ji when it's restored. After our approximately 4-hour walk, DH and I took a taxi back to the hotel - fare =1,350 yen or about $14 - and then on to our afternoon activities.