Sunday, June 24, 2007

Dutch Tulips & Japanese Porcelain

(As always, click on the images for larger versions.) MM and I headed out on Friday, March 23 to Huis Ten Bosch (click to visit their website), a huge, local amusemsent park. Unlike American amusement parks, there are no roller coasters, no "rides" (except a single, gorgeous merry-go-round), no midway games. Instead, Huis Ten Bosch is a huge Dutch village set incongruously on the coast of Japan, surrounded by typical Japanese mountains. I'd say it's a model of a city, but the owners are selling "canal-side housing" and hope to make it a viable community of 10,000 eventually (as well as an admission-charging place of entertainment).

There are museums, several shows, hundreds of thousands of tulips, windmills, restaurants, canals and shops. There are boat rides along the canals and out into the harbor, photo opportunities with costumed characters (think "Hello Kitty" as a giant cartoon tulip), and a huge fireworks and laser show every night. From what I understand, Huis Ten Bosch also has wine tastings and cheese festivals. (Click here for a .pdf brochure detailing current events at Huis Ten Bosch.) It really isn't a place I thought I'd visit, as I'm here to see Japan, not a reproduction of The Netherlands...but I was very pleasantly surprised.

Our first stop was the Teddy Bear Museum (see the giant floral teddy bear topiary beside MM's head!) I figured it would be cheesy and cutesy, but it was fascinating, with teddy bears and toys from all over the world, from the 1800s to the present, from simple children's toys to artistic concepts never meant to be played with. The first stairway was lined with bear-themed antique postcards, and the hallways between the various exhibits held framed photographs of the teddies of famous people. Though MM and I often enjoy some of the same things, we also often have very different ideas about what is "interesting"...and we each found much to hold our interest.

The flowers that day were really spectacular -- huge blocks of astonishing color, the banks of tulips much as I'd always imagined them to look like in The Netherlands (though of course on a smaller scale!) MM and I wandered slowly, stopping for a "cheese shake" (a tangy blend of fruit and some sort of cream but not cloying). MM explored the first big windmill we came to, as it's been outfitted as a windmill museum (he explored several spots without me, as my knee was really giving me fits that day).

I didn't realize M.C. Escher was Dutch, but he was...and there was a fascinating building filled with Escher-esqe paintings, mirrors and architecture. Pretty mind-bending! We stopped in to watch a short Escher movie, which was very interesting. It was written and produced by a Japanese film studio, and was a very Japanese story called "The Legend of the Waterfall." The story seemed to revolve around a little Dutch girl with blonde braids overcoming all sorts of Escher-type obstacles to find her dog and find her way home. I'm not really positive, as the whole thing was in Japanese. Oh, and it was a 3-D movie, complete with 3-D glasses, so the Escher-type creatures flew at the viewer, and water flowed into our laps, and a glowing sphere of water began and ended the movie. (???) For example, one of Escher's black and white woodcuts (?) is a series of black and white blocks that "morph" into different shapes. At one point in this piece of art, the black shapes are demon/bat creatures and the white shapes are angels. the movie, there is a black and white tile floor that begins to morph into the different Escher creatures...and the demon bat creatures fly out to attack the child. Her ingenuity somehow helps her fend them off, and the glowing angel creatures come to help her and bestow blessings upon her. The angels are complete with wings and halos, yet are somehow "spirit creatures" rather than Christian angels, even though they look like the angels on a Christmas tree...after all, Japan is not a Christian country. At the end, the child makes it to the magical city in the clouds, with Escher's impossible waterfalls flowing all around it. She gets her dog back, and flies home to live happily ever after. It was a very bizarre movie, very confusing...and lots of fun!! The whole experience was very Japanese...when the movie ended, everyone got up and politely and quietly filed out the doors at the bottom of the theatre, carefully depositing their 3-D glasses in recycling bins beside bowing attendants.

MM and I continued to explore, walking around the stables to look at the HUGE black draft horses, posing with the fluffy giant tulip mascot, pausing for a panini lunch (panini, in a Dutch amusement park, in about a cultural mix!), peering through a big freestanding, empty gilded frame that looked out over the flower gardens spread out in a riot of color -- seems one can take a photo of the frame and flower gardens, so it looks like a framed painting of the flowers. We stopped at the carillon museum, which was astonishing, with an absolutely amazing holographic video of little bell-crafting gnomes explaining the history of carillon bells (in Japanese). There were carillon bells from around the world, including several from the 12th century! They were not behind glass, and were within inches of us...we were simply admonished not to touch by discreet signs in several languages, and trusted to obey. It was a struggle, but I managed to keep my fingers off the bells! There was a huge working replica of a giant carillon there in the museum, standing two stories high, along with various "keyboards" like an organ, with each key and pedal connected by a cable to a bell. It was incredibly intricate, and incredibly interesting! MM enjoyed the music box "Fantasia" museum and show, which he said was fascinating. I skipped it due to lots of steps and the knee issue again, but next time, I'll have to check it out.

We enjoyed a porcelain museum, displaying some of the most highly-respected Japanese porcelain work and discussing the history of the Dutch influence and Dutch trade. The glass museum was an almost overwhelming display of mirrors and chandeliers and cut glass pieces, complete with a small, dimly lit "wedding chapel" on the top floor, with really amazing individual pieces glittering and glowing in the darkness from their solitary displays around the circumference of the room. We stopped in a gift shop that seemed to have half dedicated to Escher memorabilia, souvenirs and toys, and the other half dedicated to a men's clothing shop. I stumbled upon some really wonderful t-shirts celebrating the anniversary of Commodore Perry's visit to Japan, complete with a sketch of Perry's unsmiling face, and a cartoon speech balloon emanating from his mouth, printed with a cheery "Hello!" It made me laugh, imagining the imposing Black Ships steaming into Tokyo harbor, a somber Perry coming out onto the deck...and suddenly waving and shouting out a high pitched "Hello! Hello! Hello!" the way the Japanese schoolchildren shout it at me when they see me. With MM's urging, I shamefacedly explained to the saleswoman through charades and a few words of English that I was a direct descendant of Perry. She got so excited she was practically in tears, and insisted on taking several photographs of me with her cell phone!

MM and I enjoyed a wonderful Japanese meal in one of Huis Ten Bosch's many restaurants -- we each had a beautiful lacquerware compartmentalized box filled with beautifully presented eel, sashimi, pickle, egg custard, squid, tempura and spring vegetables. I'm so sorry my camera battery died early in the day, as the presentation was really lovely. After enjoying our leisurely meal, we strolled a little longer, ending up at the docks in the dark admiring the strings of tiny twinkling lights on the rigging of the reproduction sailing ships. I ended up not being able to resist temptation, and bought some mouth-blown, locally-made glass sake cups while MM perused the glassware, porcelain and many bottles of shochu on display. We'd hoped to stay for the nightly fireworks display, but the cool air and our aching feet dictated we head back to the car. Neither of us realized how far we'd walked from the entrance, and making our way back through the rapidly emptying streets became a real test! I was worried that we were headed for a "closed" entrance, as towards the end, we were the ONLY people visible...but MM's optimism kept us going, and we finally made our way out. Just before we reached the car, the fireworks began, and we were able to see a little bit of them through the trees before retrieving my car and heading home.

The next morning, after an omelette breakfast, we headed to the NEX on the base to get some good walking shoes for MM before pointing the car towards the Arita porcelain area. We paused for a lunch of deliciously garlicky ramen and another (failed) attempt to teach MM to overcome his American good manners and slurp his noodles properly. I can slurp them now with gusto, but still haven't mastered how to slurp without flicking the tip of my nose with the end of the drippy noodles!

We spent a lovely afternoon in Arita. We stopped at the Gen-emon kiln and showroom, which has been running for over 400 years, owned by the same family for all that time. We drove through the twisty main street of old Arita itself. I parked the car, and despite the rain, MM donned his rain suit and went out into the wet, looking like a skinny Michelin Man (no, that's not what MM stands for!), with a gleam in his eye to explore, finding the various shrines and temples built by the porcelain artists and potters and poking his head into various shops while I caught up on some paperwork in the car. (I know, I'm boring! But more about Arita later, as I have photos from my trip there with Mom and Bro!)

After MM returned from exploring in the rain, we headed back to Sasebo. Even though it was rainy, the long shopping arcade is roofed, so I knew we could walk around without dealing with the wet. We walked for a while, glancing into several shops and pausing at my favorite fruit vendor's stall for some fresh loquats, fragrant strawberries, and an odd, small, oval, yellow melon with a floral fragrance (it turned out to be sweet like a honeydew, but rather bland...not as delicately perfumed inside as it seemed from the outside).

Dinner was at my favorite tempura place, which is a tiny little room up steep wooden stairs, containing a horseshoe-shaped wooden bar surrounding the cook's station, and not much else. It's run by an elegant, silver-haired gentleman, a pretty middle-aged woman, and a young woman who runs out with rice, miso soup, pickles and drinks. I think the three of them are a family, but I'm not sure. We enjoyed various pieces of tempura made right there on the spot in front of us -- shrimp, squid, various vegetables -- incredibly light and delicious, dipped in lemon salt, green tea (matcha) salt, or a light sweet/salty tempura sauce. My favorite is the lemon's amazing! MM decided he wanted to try the potato shochu. We were both surprised when he was brought a very large pottery tumbler full of ice and potent shochu! I had a small sip, and it tasted to me like a mellow, slightly less strong version of vodka, but with that same metallic/organic aftertaste that sake always seems to have on my palate. That night, MM wanted to watch "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" but after the first thirty minutes, I think our adventures caught up with him, and he decided he was too tired to watch it all (it's a pretty involved movie, and you have to pay close attention!) so he headed to bed. I headed to sleep myself not too long after he did!

The next day after breakfast, I took MM to the train station so he could head to Nagasaki for an overnight on his own. He'll have to write his own adventure about his time there! Monday evening, I picked him up from the station, and took him to tonkatsu dinner (I've written before about tonkatsu, which is the breaded, fried pork cutlet that one dips in a sauce one makes from ground sesame seeds and a fruity sauce similiar to A-1). Tuesday we were off again, early for me (ha!) to head to Hirado Island and Ikitsuki Island.

Our adventures of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (3/27 - 3/29) to come in the next day or two...Hirado Island, Ikitsuki Island, Senryu Falls, the amazing Unzen, Shimabara Castle...and more!