Matsumoto Day 3

Yayoi Kusama Pumpkin

Matsumoto and Yayoi Kusama

Click here for previous posts: Day 1& Day 2
Two hours before my departure from Matsumoto, I made my way to Matsumoto Art Museum exploring internationally acclaimed artist Yayoi Kusama’s exhibits “All About My Love” and “Eternal Life”.

Matsumoto is the birthplace to many talented artists including Yayoi Kusama. How inspiring it was to see so many of her original artworks on display showing her devotion to art with her signature bright colors and repetitive patterns. You can feel the energy in her art. As I walked through the exhibits, I learned that much of her art is derived from years of her struggle with mental illness. It was heartbreaking to see some of her childhood drawing showing her mental struggle at very young age such as a sketch of her mother covered in black small dots.
Japanese Bakery, Matsumoto

Walking to the train station, I picked up Sakura Manjyu (a bun filled with sweetened red beans and topped with pickled sakura flower) and a Russian Piroshki made with buckwheat and stuffed with mushrooms and reflected on my two day visit to Matsumoto.

There is something that touches your heart here; people and their stories, food, culture, history, nature and art that can not be experienced elsewhere. Deep down I hear my voices telling me to share my experiences with the world but another voice is telling me to keep it a secret. As I left the train station bound for Yamanashi, I made a secret promise with myself to return to this town many more times in the forthcoming years.

Yayoi Kusama Textile Art
Here are my favorite places in Matsumoto and also places where we will visit during our 2019 Spring Art Tour to Japan:

Matsumoto Castle
One of Japan’s historic premiere castles, also known as “Crow Castle” for its color.

Matsumoto Art Museum
Featuring Yayoi Kusama’s artwork as well as local and national artists. Only ten-minute walk from Matsumoto station.

Shioribi Book Store
A small independent bookstore located near Matsumoto Art Museum. A small cafe on the first floor offer drinks and pastries. Upstairs holds rare independent books and gifts. Next to Shioribi is a small art supply shop and Alps Gohan restaurant also recommended.

Nakamachi Dori
Old merchant’s street near Matsumoto Castle lined with art and crafts stores.

Chikiriya Folk Art Store (located on Nakamachi Dori, no website)
Mingei shop started by Taro Maruyama of the Matsumoto Folk Art Museum. Many selections on local and national crafts including Okinawa and Kyushu glassware, baskets, dishware and potteries.

Tabishiro Guest House
Guest houses are not only for budget travelers any more. Tabishiro offers an wonderful atmosphere make you feel like you are staying at your friend’s house. Wood burning fireplace in living area warms you up on chilly nights. Located near Matsumoto Castle and a popular destination among hikers and non-hikers alike.

Matsumoto Folk Craft Museum
https://taiken.co/single/matsumoto-folk-craft-museum-the-legacy-of-the-folk-art-movement
Located in Utsukushigahara neighborhood next to famous hot springs.

Marumo Cafe
Located near Matsumoto Castle on Nakamachi Dori. This “Arts and Crafts” cafe was built in 1956 along with Marumo Ryokan (also highly recommended). The cafe is filled with folk art furnitures makes you feel as if you felt like going back in time

The Japan Folk Crafts Museum

Japan Folk Craft Musuem

Japanese Folk Crafts Museum

After breakfast at my hotel, I set foot out the door on a beautiful early summer day to go visit the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum in Meguro, Tokyo. I transferred trains at the Shibuya Station to the Inogashira Line which took me to the Komada-Todai-Mae station. From the station, it’s a quick 10 minute walk across one of Tokyo’s residential neighborhoods. At ten o’clock, I arrived to The Japan Folk Crafts Museum to see a featured exhibit by Samiro Yunoki, a well known textile artists.

The two story Arts and Crafts building sits along the quiet street of Meguro-ku and was built in 1930’s by Soetsu Yanagi (1889-1961). A well known philosopher and a the founder the folk art movement in Japan known as mingei. At the museum, you’ll be able to see has vast folk arts and craft collection from across Japan and Okinawa.

Exhibit at Japan Folk Crafts Museum

On the second floor is Samiro Yunoki’s textile exhibit. He is an dyeing artist and was greatly influenced by Soets Yanagi and folk art. He is known for his use of bright and lively colors combined with traditional styles and techniques.

With help of the Iwate Folk Textile Museum, the second floor has an extensive collection of breathtaking beauty of fabrics and textiles from the northern part of Japan. Many of Samiro Yunoki’s fabric were dyed with technique called katazome and feature unique geometric patterns.

Japan Folk Crafts Musuem
Their annual “New Works Competition Exhibition” in December is worth checking out as many of hand-made crafts become available to the public for purchase.

Japanese Folk Craft Museum
4-3-33 Komaba, Meguro-ku, Tokyo

A Walk Around the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo

Meiji Jingu

where spirits of emperor and empress sleeps

Torii at Meiji Shrine

I flew into Tokyo later than I expected and did not get to check in to my hotel until almost the next day. As with all my first day in Japan, jet lag woke me up early the next morning. So my morning started early, really early at 5. Knowing nothing else would be open, I started my path to one of the most visited Shrine in Tokyo, Meiji Jingu.

The shrine was built in 1921, after the death of Meiji Emperor followed by Empress to worship their spirits and to provide sanctuary in the community. It consists 170 acres of combination of fortress, shrines and other buildings as well as ponds and cafes and could easily take an hour to walk through.

Light at Meiji Shrine

The moment I stepped my foot in the forest surrounding the Shrine through an giant Torii gate, there was only the silence, peace and tranquility. It felt as if I “time-slipped” back into Meiji era. Aside from few morning joggers, all of the sudden I did not hear any modern “noise”. Instead of chaotic sound of modernize, all I heard was gardeners sweeping gravel path with long bamboo brooms in uniform motion and rhythm.

The visit was such a treat as I struggle with jet lag and try to adjust to the busy week ahead in Tokyo. I now go walk back to hotel to take a short nap before afternoon visits to notable arts and crafts museums.

Meiji Shrine

Meiji Jingu
1-1 Yoyogikamizomecho, Shibuya, Tokyo

Visiting Matsumoto Day 2

Street in Matsumoto, Japan

On my second day in Matsumoto, I woke up early due to jet lag, or perhaps I was too excited about the hotel’s award winning breakfast. Japanese people take breakfast seriously and so do I. A well-dressed Japanese salaryman beat me to the breakfast line this morning but I was only the second person there. This hotel serves mainly western style breakfast along with a few Japanese dishes.  Starting out with a good cup of strong black coffee, I loaded my plate with fresh mizuna salad, local apples, sauteed broccoli with bacon, an omelet, sweet raisin bread and vegetable soup. As I finished my breakfast, a Japanese phrase came to me, “haraga hetteha ikusawa dekinu-One shall  not go into battle on an empty stomach”, and that was exactly how I justified my big breakfast.

My to-do list for was long for the day. Feeling stuffed, I walked along the river viewing sakura blossoms before my visit to Matsumoto castle – one of  Japan’s most scenic castles. It was built in 1504 and is a considered national treasure. Matsumoto castle is a spacious six story black and white castle with an inner and outer moat and  a beautiful view of the Japanese Alps. It attracts many tourist form within Japan and well as across the world.

On the other side of river outside of the castle, I found Marumo, an “arts and crafts” cafe my artist brother in London recommended. Marumo Ryokan and Cafe was built in 1956 by Sanshiro Ikeda, a founder of Matsumoto Mingei Furniture who was highly inspired by Yanagi Muneyoshi, a philosopher and a founder of the Japanese Folk Art movement.  The cafe was filled with local antiques and folk art inspired furnitures and I felt as if I fell back in time.

Traditional Wooden Japanese Shoes

Later, I walked along Nakamise Dori an old merchant and warehouse street filled with local craft shops.  One should not miss Chikiriya, a well known Mingei shop started by Taro Maruyama of the Matsumoto Folk Art Museum.  Beautifully arranged on the store shelves are local ceramics, colorful glassware and toys made with wood and bamboo.  It’s a perfect place to get gifts for friends and family back home.

I enjoyed strolling around this small castle town as it’s filled with nostalgic folk art, culture, crafts, music, hotspring and more.  No wonder why people have been coming here for an artistic inspiration and relaxation, just what we need for our next “Art and Culture Tour of Japan”.  By the mid afternoon, I enjoyed meeting and finalizing plans with our partners in Matsumoto, and they are all very excited to be a part of this upcoming tour.

Visiting Matsumoto

Matsumoto Castle

Journey to Matsumoto for the Art & Culture Tour, Day 1

After watching movie 42 grams with a glass of Prosecco and chicken dinner on my flight from Mpls to Haneda Japan, my attempt to fall asleep failed. It was a full flight but nothing out of ordinary, but you know how it is, the anticipation keeps you awake (and in my case, a gentleman who wrapped himself in toilet paper in his seat during the flight!!) .

On this trip, I was headed to art and craft city of Matsumoto in Nagano prefecture to make arrangements for our upcoming Art & Culture Tour. The town was carefully selected because we were looking for non-traditional tourist towns with an emphasis on the arts, like back home in Mpls. Sometimes tourism becomes focal point for large historical towns and this can make it difficult for creativity, new ideas, and smaller businesses. But here in Matsumoto, slightly off the beaten path, people are hungry for new inspirations, they are friendly people and there is beautiful landscape and natural hot springs. This town is also home to many famous artists.

Nakamachi, Matsumoto, Japan

I will be spending one and half day with 4 appointments, photoshoots, and places to check out. Slightly overwhelmed by number of appointments and places to visit, I was humbled for this opportunity as I have been simmering this project on the back burner for a while.

I arrived in Matsumoto city in the evening after 12 hour flight and three hour train ride. As soon as I settled into a comfortable seat by the window of an express train bound to Matsumoto, I set an alarm so I could dose off for couple of hours. But despite my well calculated plan, my excitement about the trip kept me awake. I have visited Matsumoto before but very briefly and always looked for another opportunity to come back.

Manhole Cover, Matsumoto

My hotel was nestled in between restaurants only five minutes away from the train station. Tired and hungary, I settled for a quick bowl of soba (regional buckwheat noodles) with spring vegetables and headed back to the hotel to (unsuccessfully) catch up on my sleep.

Getting to Know Japanese Whisky

Japanse Whisky Samples

A Brief Guide to Japanese Whisky

Japanese Whisky is hot stuff right now. In fact, I learned first-hand during a recent trip to Japan, how hard it is  to get your hands on certain premium whiskies. As I write, distilleries large and small are ramping up production to meet the surging demand and interest in Japanese Whisky.

All this attention can be traced back to the early part of this century when Japanese whisky began earning international acclaim, In February, 2001, Whisky Magazine organized a blind tasting competition, and the Yoichi 10 year Single Cask won the highest honors. Curiously, about the time Japanese whiskies were winning fans at international tastings, the domestic market was in a slump, and most of the distilleries, big or small, were cutting back on production. And this pretty much explains why it’s darn tough to get your hands on a bottle of the 25 year Single Malt Hakushu unless your prepared to tap the equity in your house.

The Fascinating History of Whisky in Japan

While Americans were the first to bring whisky to Japan during during Commodore Perry’s opening of trade, the style and soul of Japanese whisky is positively scottish.

The latter half of the the 19th century in Japan,  known as the Meiji Era, was a time of profound social and economic change. During this period, imported whisky become available in Japan – for those who had the money. After mock versions of whisky using shochu, a locally distilled liquor usually made from sweet potatoes, started selling well, serious attempts were being made to produce a locally distilled whisky.

The father figure of whisky in Japan is a man named Masataka Taketsuru. His fascinating life served as the inspiration for a widely popular television drama in Japan.  Aftering growing up in the family sake business, he earned a degree in chemistry and fermentation, and infuriated his father by taking a job in the rapid growing industrial alcohol industry instead returning to the family business.. As you can imagine, for this time period,  he was pretty much a rebel.

Taketsuru was eventually dispatch by his employer to learn how to make authentic whisky in Scotland. While in Scotland Taketsuru gained an apprenticeship at a distillery, produced a legendary notebook on making scotch and fell in love with a local girl name Rita. They quickly married and returned to Japan to pursue his dream of making whisky. Taketsuru was soon working with Shinjiro Torii of Suntory Whisky, and was instrumental in establishing the first distillery at Yamazaki. He eventually left Suntory to establish is own whisky company, Nikka, in Hokkaido.

A Traveler’s Guide to Japanese Distilleries

Japanese Whisky Tasting

Suntory Hakushu Distillery

One of the main stops on our culinary tour of Japan, Hakushu is located in the pristine mountain wilderness of Yamanishi and  is surrounded by a large nature and wild bird sanctuary. Shinjiro Torii believed this was essential to preserving the environment and quality of water as this is the most important ingredient for good whisky.

Tours are available almost everyday except for major holidays. The distillery has hiking trails within the bird sanctuary, a restaurant with an outdoor patio, tasting bar, gift shop and is also home to the Suntory Museum of Whisky.

Suntory Yamazaki Distillery

Surrounded by mountains and at the intersection of two rivers, Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery is the birthplace of whisky in Japan. It is located between Osaka h4and Kyoto. In 1984 the single malt Yamazaki was released, and the distillery now produces a 12, 18 and 25 year single malt as well as limited releases.

Tours are available and the distillery is known for its library of 7000 bottles of unblended malt whisky on display.

Nikka Whisky Distillery in Japan

Nikka Yoichi Distillery

Located on the northern island of Hokkaido at a latitude similar to Toronto Canada, the Yoichi distillery has mountains on three sides and the sea of Japan on the other. Taketsuru was well aware of the difficulty starting  getting a distillery off the ground, so he wisely set up an apple juice operation to keep the company afloat until the whisky was ready to sell.. The company still produces apple juice and apple brandy but at a different location. The distillery resembles a little village and each step of the whisky making process takes place in a separate building.

Guided and self-guided tours are available at the Yoichi distillery.

Mars Shinshu ( Hombo Shuzo ) in Nagano

The highest distillery in Japan is located in Nagano prefecture between the southern and central alps of Japan. This location was chosen for its cool temperatures, slow maturation and soft water.  Tax reforms on malt and a slump in demand hit the distillery hard in the early 90’s and production was paused for nearly 19 years. However, the pot stills were dusted off in 2010 and the company is now producing smooth and elegant whiskies. Thirty minute tours are available.

How to Drink & Taste Whisky

Like wine, tasting whisky starts with a look at the color and the aromas of its nose. You can drink whisky straight, but adding some water will open up the whisky and reveal some of the more intricate flavors such as caramel, wood, smoke, dried fruit, and spice. Most whisky in Japan is consumed with just ice, as a combination of whisky and soda water known as a highball or with a little water and ice ( mizuwari).