Collections: Tenugui

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful. – William Morris

My tenugui
My tenugui

Tenugui (pronounced ten-oo-goo-ee), Japanese hand towels, are both useful and beautiful! They can be found in every Japanese home, and available for purchase in just about every store or shop. They come in an unlimited selection of motifs and colors to fit any decor, or match any interest or hobby. From Star Wars to Santa Claus, Hello Kitty to Halloween black cats, Mt. Fuji to geisha, there’s a design to suit everyone’s taste. While more traditional Japanese motifs appeal to me, two years ago I found one for Meiling of geisha wearing traditional wigs and kimono, playing traditional Japanese musical instruments in the garden – all the geisha are skeletons! If you can imagine it, it’s probably appeared on a tenugui!

Tenugui shop I visited in Japan. I found out their designs are copyrighted, so they weren't happy about me taking pictures. I did buy five towels from them though which smoothed things over.
Just some of the variety available in a tenugui shop I visited in Tokyo. Yes, there are whole shops that sell nothing but hand towels!

Made from 100% cotton, the creative and beautiful tenugui designs are silkscreened on to long bolts of 13″ wide fabric, then cut into lengths approximately 35″ long. A wide variety of designs are available all year, including seasonal or holiday designs (Christmas and Halloween tenugui are very popular). Well-know artists sometime design for tenugui, and many of these are worthy of being framed.

Sushi chef often wear a tenugui headband
Sushi chefs often wear a sweatband made from a tenugui

Tenugui are these days are mainly purchased and given these days as gifts and souvenirs but they still can be found in the kitchen in Japanese homes and are also used in the bathroom and for other tasks around the house. Tenugui are also used as headbands to keep sweat from running down the face, and the knots used to tie them on are often particular to the job being done. If you’ve ever watched The Karate Kid, the headband Ralph Macchio wears as he learns karate is made from a tenugui. The towels can also be used as gift wrap, especially for bottles of wine or sake. The more tenugui are used though, the softer and more absorbent they become, which after the design is their main appeal.

Summer designs and colors, including one with Mt. Fuji
Summer designs and colors, including Mt. Fuji
Indigo blues: Chidori (plovers), antique firefighter logos, waves, and Totoro
My indigo blues, with some of my favorite motifs: Chidori (plovers), antique firefighter logos, waves, and Totoro

These handy towels have become my favorite souvenir to bring home from Japan, and I always pick up a couple when I visit. They’re affordable (about $7 each), pack easily, and most of all, are both useful and beautiful! My oldest ones are more than two years old, and show little to no signs of wear even though they’re in constant use.

The legendary dog, Inu Hariko. I found this towel in Kyoto - every tenugui in the store was frame-worthy.
My favorite Japanese motif: the dog of legend, Inu Hariko. I found this towel in Kyoto. The cotton is a higher grade than the others, and every tenugui in the store was frame-worthy.

If you’d like to see the amazing and beautiful variety that can be found with these towels, check out my Tenugui board on Pinterest!


Let’s Talk Travel Plans!

I can guarantee that WenYu's desk will not look like this . . . it's too organized!
I can guarantee that WenYu’s desk will not look like this . . . it’s too organized!

I almost can’t believe (or maybe I don’t want to) that in just a few weeks it will be time to escort WenYu back to Massachusetts to begin her college career at Wellesley. I am both extremely excited for her, and so proud that I could burst, but I’m also growing increasing sad about her upcoming departure. We are all going to miss her calm, steady, and easygoing presence in our home.

I'm looking forward to getting to explore the Wellesley campus while I'm there.
I’m looking forward to seeing all of the beautiful Wellesley campus while I’m there.

The trip will be a bittersweet one. I am already dreading the day I have to say good-bye to WenYu and let her go, but I am also looking forward to reunions with good friends (during our San Diego layover) and former childhood neighbors who now live very close to Wellesley in Massachusetts. On the way home I will spend a couple of days with my mom before heading home to Kaua’i. I’ll only be away from home for eight days, but there’s a lot packed into that short period of time.

SO excited about getting to spend time with this little guy, and meeting our new granddaughter!
I’m already SO excited about getting to spend some time with this little guy next year, and meeting our new granddaughter!

We’re currently in a holding pattern on our Spring 2017 trip to Japan. We’ve got our hotel reservations, but airfares are still not down to where we’re ready to buy. It really is too early anyway right now, but we should see lower airfares starting to appear in September and October. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that Hawaiian Airlines offers some good fares this fall as we’d love to add to our mileage accounts, but we’ll go with whomever offers the best deal. Brett and I have been talking about what we want to see and do there with YaYu when we’re not spending time with our son, daughter-in-law, grandson and new granddaughter!

The path around the Imperial Palace is 3.3 miles - last year our son walked 12 laps!
The path around the Imperial Palace is 3.3 miles – last year our son walked 12 laps!

However . . . a second trip to Japan has been added for 2017! Meiling, WenYu and I, along with some of my friends, are planning a June trip to Tokyo. WenYu has wanted to go back ever since she went last year, and Meiling has always wanted to go but hasn’t had the chance, so I came up with the idea of forming a team to walk with our son in his “Imperial Challenge” next year (walking as many laps as possible around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo to raise funds for charity). Currently I’m waiting to hear from him with the date for next year’s Challenge, but once I have that planning can begin in earnest. I’m shooting for a week’s stay for our group, using AirBNB for lodging. The girls and I will be responsible for setting up breakfast for everyone in the morning, as well as ‘happy hour’ in the evening, and I will be taking our little group out for sightseeing and shopping excursions in the Tokyo area as well as coordinating a couple of celebratory group dinners (and of course getting together with our son and family whenever possible). Some expenses will be paid by participants upfront, but the rest they will be responsible for covering on their own, including airfare, meals other than those provided, and all in-country transportation. WenYu has already almost saved enough from her work this summer to cover her expenses, and Meiling is also on her way to meeting her saving goal. I’ll post more details as they develop.

dreamstime_m_31478558-e1446053993687Finally, I have come up with a fabulous plan for another Mystery Vacation™ in 2017!! Hawai’i public schools take a week-long Fall Break every October, and it’s the perfect time to visit the destination I have in mind. I’ve done a bit of research into costs and it’s very doable and affordable. Brett told me after last spring’s trip to the Grand Canyon that I wasn’t allowed to plan another Mystery Vacation™, but both he and YaYu are once again on board and looking forward to being surprised. I’ll leave you all to start guessing where we might be going!

Rotorua, New Zealand - one of the places we hope to visit in the fall of 2018
Rotorua – we plan to visit New Zealand in the fall of 2018

Although 2017 looks to be a big year for travel, after we’re home from next year’s Mystery Vacation™ we will be taking nearly a year off from going anywhere. In the fall of 2018 it will be time to get YaYu off to college, and then Brett and I hope to visit New Zealand for a couple of weeks. We will not be able to go to Japan at all in 2018 as the first of our annual three-month visits will begin in 2019 (mid-February through mid-May), and Japan only allows visitors to be in country for 90 days in any 365-day period (unless you can get a special long-term visa, which is very difficult to obtain). We’re hoping though that our son and family will be able to make it over here sometime during the year. And of course, in between our travels we will be saving, saving, and saving so we can get up and go again!

Postcard From: Arashiyama

The Togetsukyou Bridge crosses the K River, with Arashiyama in the back.
Togetsukyou Bridge crossing the Hozu/Katsura River (the river changes its name as it passes under the bridge).  There is a hint of the cherry blossoms to come on Arashiyama’s slope in the background.

Located on the western outskirts of Kyoto, the Arashiyama (‘Storm Mountain’) district is both a Japanese National Historic Site and designated Place of Scenic Beauty. Arashiyama is famous for both the explosion of cherry blossoms that cover its slopes in the spring, and the amazing displays of color in the fall when the leaves change. The district is also home to the breathtaking Sagano bamboo forest. I had wanted to see the bamboo forest again on our visit to Kyoto in 2015, so my daughter-in-law arranged a wonderful day’s visit to the district for our family.

The Karatsu River from the train
The Hozu River from the train. The river’s aqua color is gorgeous.

We began our visit to Arashiyama with a ride on the Sagano Scenic Railroad (also known as the Sagano Romantic Train), a private line that runs along the Hozu River as it heads east into the district (reserved seats only). The charming, old-fashioned trains run from Torokko Kameoka station to Arashiyama station, and offer superb views of the river and foliage along the way. We were about a week too early to see the cherry blossoms in full bloom, but it was obvious they would be spectacular. The train ride is especially popular in the fall when the leaves turn, and the views are said to be even more amazing than they are in the spring or summer. Visitors can also take boat trips down the river in the summer and fall, and we saw a few traditional inns and restaurants on the river banks where visitors stop and/or stay to enjoy the scenery.

At Saga-Arashiyama station, our grandson enjoys a traditional Japanese treat, mochi dango. The balls made from pounded sweet rice
At Arashiyama station, our grandson enjoys a traditional Japanese treat, mochi dango. The colored balls are made from pounded sweet rice and served on a stick.

The Sagano bamboo forest walk begins just across the street from where the train ride ends. It’s almost like entering another world as you step on the path, and pictures really can’t do it justice. Even the light seems different. Gigantic bamboo stalks surround the path and whisper overhead as you walk toward town. The forest path ends at the main road through Arashiyama, and takes around 20-30 minutes or so to walk from end to end and absorb the scenery. Visitors are not allowed to leave the path without special permission.

The bamboo path through the Sagano forest. The fence is made from dried bamboo branches.
The path through the Sagano bamboo forest. The fence is made from fallen dried bamboo branches.
The bamboo towers overhead, swaying in the wind.
The bamboo towers over the path, swaying in the wind.
The torii at the entrance to Nonomiya Shrine, located about halfway down the bamboo forest path. The twisted rope on the torii is a shimenawa and is hung with shide (folded paper). The shimenawa indicates that a place has been purified, and is also thought to ward off evil spirits.
You don't see trash on the ground in Japan. Trash receptacles are everywhere, and trash is sorted for recycling.
You don’t see trash on the ground in Japan. Trash receptacles are everywhere (the ones in Sagano are appropriately made of bamboo), and trash typically is sorted for recycling.

Arashiyama is a popular area with visitors, and there are many restaurants and shops lining the main road featuring Japanese specialities and locally produced goods. Before heading down the main road through town, our group stopped at a traditional restaurant and enjoyed a tasty grilled beef and tofu lunch, but other restaurants along the road offered tempura, soba and other dishes. After our lunch we wandered down the street, stopping along the way to admire the goods for sale. I did some shopping at one store that sold items made from local bamboo, and purchased some hand-crafted bamboo spatulas to bring home. There were also several snack shops along the road, some selling traditional treats such as mochi dango, others offering ice cream and other treats. Even though it was very cold the day we were there, I tried a sakura (cherry blossom) ice cream cone – delicious!). The main street also had numerous souvenir shops where we found some of the more exotic flavors of KitKat bars, including roasted tea and wasabi (both were very tasty).

Grilled beef and tofu lunch in Arashiyama
Grilled beef and tofu lunch in Arashiyama
Japanese restaurants often present their menu outside using realistic plastic models of the items. If you don't speak Japanese, you can take your waiter outside and point to what you want.
Japanese restaurants often present their menu outside using realistic plastic models of the items. If you don’t speak Japanese, you can bring your waiter outside and point to what you want.
Young Japanese women visiting Kyoto often rent kimono for the day, to create a more "Japanese" feeling while they visit the sites.
Young Japanese women visiting Kyoto and the surrounding areas often rent kimono for the day to have a more ‘Japanese experience’ while visiting the area.

We strolled the main road until we eventually reached the wooden Togetsukyou (‘Moon Crossing’) Bridge that crosses the Hozu River. Actually, depending on which side of the bridge you’re standing on, you may be looking at the Katsura River – the river changes names as it passes under the bridge from east to west. The Togetsukyou Bridge was first built over 400 years ago, and has been used many times as a location in historical dramas. The bridge is famous as an outstanding spot to view the cherry blossoms (or autumn foliage) that cover the slope of Arashiyama.

Togetsukyou Bridge
The Togetsukyou Bridge carries both foot and light motor traffic.

The weather changed abruptly while we were viewing Togetsukyou, with the already cold weather suddenly turning stormy. We quickly hurried back to Arashiyama station and caught a train back into Kyoto, stopping for one more short visit in the Gion district before heading back to our machiya rental to warm up before dinner.

It was still cold when we got to Gion, but the rain had stopped.
It was still cold when we got to Gion, but the rain had stopped.

Postcard From: Meiji Shrine

The huge torii gate at the entrance to the Meiji Shrine. Torii mark the entrance to sacred spaces.
The huge torii gate at the entrance to the Meiji Shrine. Torii mark the entrance to sacred spaces. The gold chrysanthemums are the emblem of the Japanese royal family.

One of my favorite places to visit in Tokyo on my first visit to Japan as a college student was the Meiji Shrine (Meiji-jingu). Located in the heart of noisy, bustling and busy Tokyo, Meiji-jingu was an oasis of quiet and calm. It seemed almost incredulous to me at the time that such a beautiful, peaceful place could exist inside of Tokyo.

There’s an almost instantaneous hush when you enter the shrine grounds. After passing under the giant torii gate at the entrance, you follow a long, wide, shaded path to reach the main shrine complex, passing a large display of sake casks. Sake is closely associated with the Shinto religion and used in rituals and festivals, and the (empty) casks on display indicate the breweries from around Japan who have made donations of sake to the Meiji Shrine.

Sake breweries from around Japan send a cask to Meiji Shrine each year for blessings and good luck in the coming year.
Casks from the breweries who donated sake for the shrine’s rituals and festivals. The casks are made of aromatic wood with hand-painted rice straw covers showing the breweries’ logos.
Purification fountain. Water is poured into your left hand; the water is sipped and swished around in the mouth and then spit out. Then both hands are splashed with water.
Most visitors stop at Meiji-jingu’s purification fountain before entering the shrine complex. Water is poured from the dipper over your left hand, then your right; some water is then poured into your left hand and sipped, swished around in the mouth and then spit out on the ground. Any remaining water in the dipper is poured on the ground.
Entrance to the main shrine complex
A second, smaller torii marks the entrance to the main shrine complex.
Inside the main shrine complex
The main shrine contains several buildings
One of the inner shrine buildings contains a museum with artifacts from Emperor Meiji and the Empress.
One of the inner shrine buildings contains a museum with artifacts from Emperor Meiji and the Empress.

The shrine is located on 170 acres in the Shibuya District of Tokyo, just a short walk from Harajuku Station on the Yamanote Line. The location for the shrine was a site of an iris garden that Emperor Meiji (1867-1912) and his wife often visited. Emperor Meiji died in 1912, and building of the shrine began in 1915 as a national project, with completion and dedication in 1920 (the Emperor’s and Empress’s graves are not at the shrine; they are buried south of Kyoto). The shrine was completely destroyed during the fire bombings of World War II, but was rebuilt in 1958, again using Japanese cypress and copper.

Meiji-jingu is a popular site for traditional Japanese wedding ceremonies. The day the girls and I visited Meiji-jingu last year just happened to be a national holiday, and we were able to observe six ceremonies in different stages, from the bride being dressed to the wedding procession to the formal photographs at the end.

Finishing touches are applied to a bride's formal kimono for her wedding ceremony. We visited on a Saturday and several weddings were being held at the Shrine.
Finishing touches are applied to a bride’s formal kimono (uchikake) for her wedding ceremony. The white hood (wataboshi) is worn to represent humility and modesty, and hide the “horns of jealousy.”
A wedding procession through the shrine
A Shinto priest and two shrine maidens (mika) lead a wedding procession through the shrine. The bride’s left hand is held by her mother in the procession; her father follows behind the groom. The groom is wearing a formal wedding hakama.
Family and guests follow behind the bride and groom.
Family and guests, many in formal attire,  follow behind the bride and groom. A second priest carries the large red umbrella (wagasa) over the bride and groom.

After visiting Meiji-jingu, we headed back to Harajuku Station and crossed over to Takeshita Dori, the main shopping street in Harajuku. Harajuku has been called the “most fashion conscious place on the planet.” The area around Harajuku station is the place to be on Sunday afternoons if you want to check out the latest looks and fantastic cosplay outfits. Takeshita Dori is also the place to try crepes – there are several shops along the street, and they offer a huge variety of flavors and fillings. The girls and I saw a few fashion plates while we were there, but since it was a holiday the crowd was mostly families and teens out for a day of shopping.

Harajuku Station, with its distinctive cupola and European style
Looking down on Harajuku Station from the Meiji Shrine overpass. A N’EX express train from Narita Airport speeds through the station on its way to its next stop. Harajuku Station is known for its distinctive cupola and European style.
Takeshita Street is always crowded, but it's safe and loads of fun to visit.
Takeshita Street is always busy (the day of this picture it was more crowded than usual because it was a holiday), but it’s safe and loads of fun to visit. At McDonalds you can try a Teriyaki McBurger and a yogurt shake, both unique to Japan (and tasty).
Daiso is Japan's Dollar Store - everything there is just 100 yen, or about 90 cents when we visited. It is "kawaii" (cute) central in Japan.
Daiso is Japan’s ‘dollar store’ – everything there costs just 100 yen. That meant everything was 90 cents the day we visited due to the exchange rate.
Harajuku is famous for its crepes. Pancakes are also very popular, and there is a cat cafe, where you can pet and look at cats while you drink your coffee.
Harajuku is famous for its filled crepes – the photo shows just a few of the choices Angel Heart Crepes offers, from sweet to savory. Pancakes are also very popular, and there is also a cat cafe, where you can enjoy the company of cats while you drink your coffee.

Meiji-jingu still remains the quiet, unhurried place it was when I first visited 45 years ago. It provides a beautiful, peaceful contrast to Tokyo’s (and Harajuku’s) busy pace, and is definitely worth a visit if you’re in Tokyo.

Collections: Tetsubin

Do some things just look better if there are more than one of them?

I collected seven of them in the three and a half years we were in Japan for our last tour

With some items, I seem unable to be satisfied with just one. Like with my jubako (ceramic stacking boxes), or pottery, once I owned one tetsubin (iron teapot) I wanted more. They were addictive.

This tetsubin has a pine tree design and a small pine cone for the knob

One of the highlights of living in the Atsugi area during our second tour in Japan (1989 – 1992) was our proximity to the monthly bazaar held at Camp Zama. It was both a shopping extravaganza and a primo social event. The first Saturday of every month, all sorts of local vendors – antique dealers, art galleries, paper sellers, dish stores, toy merchants, picture framers, nurseries, etc. – would bring their wares to the Camp Zama gymnasium. Savvy shoppers learned to be there before the doors opened at 9:00 am, especially to peruse what the antique dealers had brought along because they were set up out front. It was at one of these bazaars that I discovered my first affordable tetsubin, i.e. less than $10. I had seen the teapots in various antique stores out on the economy, but they were always too high-priced for my budget so I avoided them even though I admired their shapes and the craftsmanship. But once I bought my first one at the bazaar I began to keep my eyes peeled for the $10-or-less little black teapots.

My classic hobnail pot was a gift from a student; it’s beginning to rust in the humid air here

It’s not known when tetsubin started showing up in Japan, but it’s guessed somewhere around the 18th century. The teapots began as objects of status versus functional kitchen items, and initially they were made of plain cast iron. In the 19th century they segued into more elaborately designed masterpieces, and many are signed by the artist that created them (none of mine are). One of the most interesting I’ve seen has a handprint imbedded in the side – it was probably carved by the artist, but it still looks very real. Because of all the variety of size and design, tetsubin became very popular with collectors, and prices have risen accordingly. Some these days are made with a color applied, but I prefer the flat, unglazed black iron.

A unique, but disturbing design (red-hot iron + human hand print)

None of the ones I bought is particularly fancy, or signed, but I love their humbleness and sometimes wonder about the people who owned them. One has a mismatched lid – apparently you were given a teapot if you participated in the 1950 census, and some household eventually combined the census lid with their old teapot. Designs on my other teapots include a classic hobnail, cherry blossoms, pine trees, and a persimmon. I splurged one month at the bazaar and bought the larger teapot in the classic “Mt. Fuji” shape – it was a lucky and affordable find.

My one big pot, in the classic Mt. Fuji shape

New tetsubin are easy to come by these days, and can be found in both traditional and modern design. Many of the old ones have become quite expensive though and most are well out of my price range. In our Portland house the teapots were lined up on the mantle; here they sit in a woven basket in my bedroom. Hawaii’s humid air is getting to them, and I am beginning to find a few rust spots here and there. But, the natural aging process is one of the tetsubin’s charms, so I’m letting it go, and will continue to enjoy them as they transform.

A Postcard From: Ninenzaka

Sakura starting to bloom on Ninenzaka
Sakura starting to bloom on Ninenzaka

If someone pinned me down and told me I had to pick my favorite place in Japan right now, I wouldn’t even need the time to blink my eyes before I replied,  “Ninenzaka (Two-Year Hill)!”

Jin-rikusha heading to the top of the hill
Jinrikisha being pulled by a VERY fit young man to the top of the hill

Located in the Higashiyama ward on the east side of Kyoto, the gently sloping street (and its nearby mate, Sannenzaka (“Three-Year Hill”) offer a view of what Kyoto must have looked like in the past. Both lanes are lined with authentically restored shops, many offering traditional Japanese goods or foods (and samples!), as well as teahouses, restaurants and homes. Unlike the rest of Kyoto (and Japan) there are no overhead electric lines to clog the sight lines making it one of the most beautiful and charming areas in the city. No motor vehicles are allowed on Ninenzaka either; if you don’t want to or can’t walk the only wheeled transportation allowed are jinrikisha (rickshaw).

Ninenzaka skyline
Second story Ninenzaka: Old style with a touch of today.
Lucky gourds (hyoutan) for sale
Lucky gourds (hyoutan) for sale
Old warehouse
Traditional warehouse (kura)
Traditional crafts (mingei) including clay bells representing the animals of the zodiac
Clay bells representing the animals of the zodiac and a set of Kiyomizu pottery chopstick rests (hashioki) with scenes of Mt. Fuji.
Ninenzaka makes a turn to the left and this is what appears!
Part-way down the hill Ninenzaka makes a turn to the left and . . . wow! Up until then, the Yasaka-no-to pagoda is hidden by the rooflines along the way.
Sake for sale in handprinted bottles.
Sake for sale in handpainted bottles.

And, one more thing . . .

Ninenzaka (or Sannenzaka) is a great place to stop and enjoy a Kyoto specialty: a matcha (green tea) parfait. YUM!
Ninenzaka (or Sannenzaka) is also a great place to enjoy a Kyoto specialty: a matcha (green tea) parfait. YUM!

An Old Song, A New Translation

A direct translation from one language to another isn’t necessarily the best translation. The words may make sense in the new language, but really only touch the surface of what’s being said, missing a deeper meaning embedded in the original.

Back in 1963, a Japanese song, “Sukiyaki,” became #1 in the United States, the only Japanese song to ever break into the Billboard 100, let alone make it to #1. The song’s real name is Ue o muite arukou (“I look up when I walk”); it was given the name ‘sukiyaki’ because it was a Japanese word foreigners could easily pronounce. Sukiyaki/Ue o muite arukou remains one of the best-selling singles of all time, with over 13 million copies sold world-wide. The radio couldn’t play it enough back then to satisfy me, and it remains one of my all-time favorite songs. Although I didn’t understand a word of it in 1963, today it’s the only Japanese song I can sing along with and actually understand.

Here’s the original 1963 version by Kyu Sakamoto, with the lyrics translated into English:

I didn’t think there was any way Ue o muite arukou could be improved upon, and was sure I fully understood its meaning and message. However, yesterday an old friend from Japan sent me a new version of the beloved song. Last year Yoko Ono rewrote the lyrics into English and the new song, “Look At the Sky,” was recorded by Olly Murs. Instead of relying on a direct translation, Ono’s new words instead evoke a “truer” version of the Japanese in translation. The video is beautifully done as well. It’s very Japanese, and yet fits perfectly with the new English lyrics. (Apologies for any ads that might show up in the beginning.)

Sometimes when a classic undergoes a re-make or a makeover the newer version can end up something of a disappointment, and something less than the original. But, “Look At the Sky” is anything but a disappointment, and if anything is just as good the original, maybe better. I will always love the Ue o muite arukou I first heard in 1963, but “Look At the Sky” will have a place right next to it. Although it seems a such sad song, hearing “Sukiyaki” has always made me feel happy for some reason. “Look At the Sky” brings tears to my eyes each time I hear it, but in a very happy way.