The philistine’s guide to Japanese culture

I’ve now done some reading up on Japanese culture and history, so I feel slightly less ignorant than I did a few weeks ago, when I went to the National Musuem.

Ooh! It’s Morecambe and Wise, I thought –

I now know that they are, in fact, 6th Century tomb figurines.

And what I initially assumed was a statue of Windy Miller from Camberwick Green –

– is actually a nobleman in formal clothing.  But in my defence, they do look very similar

And a Satsuma glass bowl –

– isn’t meant to hold small oranges; it’s a special type of cut glass dating from the 18th Century, from the former province of Satsuma in southern Japan.

Once I’d got to grips with the rudiments of Japanese history – the different eras, the roles of the Shogun and the Emperor, the finer points of Kabuki theatre –

and the inspired, traditional practice of shutting your children in a small box –

– it was finally time to head out into the country and acquaint myself with rural Japanese culture.

I headed up into the Japan Alps for a weekend of fresh air and culture.

It’s only a couple of hours by train from Nagoya, and there are snow covered peaks and not a pair of lederhosen in sight.

Takayama is a beautiful town dating from the Edo period, which I now know was from 1603 to 1868, and it has some lovely old buildings –

– including six sake breweries – and some beautifully preserved, old merchant houses which are open to the public –

I tried the local speciality –

which is miso paste and onion cooked on a leaf over a charcoal brazier.  It was interesting, but I think once was enough.

There are some famous villages near Takayama, where the houses are known as gassho or prayer-hand houses.  To pray in Japan, the hands are placed together in a steep triangle, with the fingers together and the palms further apart, and the houses in these villages are the same shape –

It’s a practical design if you have to contend with heavy snow every winter.  They’re nestled in a very attractive valley –

– with the snowy peaks forming a backdrop.

I was very glad to be visiting in summer and not winter, after I saw this sign on one of the houses –

The traditional toy from this area is a faceless doll, known as sarubobo or monkey baby.  It has no face because you’re supposed to project your own feelings onto it, and imagine its features and expression –

I imagine this one was rolling its eyes and saying ‘OMG – another bloody tourist …’

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