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Japan Travel: Inuyama, Cormorants, Calligraphy, Candy And A Castle

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When planning our October 2012 trip to Japan, Jackie and I easily settled on Kanazawa as the destination for our first real exploration beyond Tokyo and Kyoto. The hard part was choosing way-stations as we traveled west-by-northwest from Tokyo: every place sounded interesting. With assistance from the New York office of the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) - and from others, including a friend who used to work for JNTO - we finally constructed a diverse itinerary of towns and villages all easily visited by train and/or bus.

We were especially looking forward to our first stop: Inuyama, a castle town some two and a half hours from Tokyo by rail. Our friend got us all excited about its 15th/16th-century castle, claimed by some to be Japan's oldest surviving example, and about the Meiji-Mura outdoor architecture museum. We were also intrigued by the prospect of seeing cormorant fishing on the Kiso River - and by the fact that a Brooklyn native, Anthony Bianchi, is a member of the city council.

From Tokyo Station we caught the bullet train to Nagoya, then took a short ride on a local rail service (you can look up schedules for all of Japan on this English-language website: http://www.hyperdia.com/en/) to Inuyama, arriving in time for an elegant but not costly lunch at Urashima tofu café, including tofu made with burdock root (which was then in high season) and a most amazing version of miso-glazed grilled tofu served on triple-pronged bamboo skewers. What made it amazing was its fragility: It looked as if it had to have been made with slices of firm or even pressed bean curd, but in fact it was soft and creamy under its flavorful coating.

It was then time to meet the guide who would show us around Inuyama Castle and introduce us to the city. A while ago, I wrote about the English- (and other-language-) speaking volunteer guides that many Japanese towns and cities make available free of charge. This system seems particularly effective in Inuyama, whose goodwill guide association has many members, many of whom have worked in or traveled to the United States. Some indeed have stayed with families in Brooklyn as part of B. Bridges, an educational exchange program developed by Mr. Bianchi in conjunction with his old high school - which will be sponsoring interesting-sounding Inuyama Day events at Brooklyn Borough Hall Plaza on May 3 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Details toward the bottom of this page on the Japanese consulate's site.)

Inuyama Castle, one of four in Japan classified as National Treasures, is set on high ground overlooking the Kiso River on one side and the town on the other. The cobbled path up to the castle was dotted with well-behaved school children bearing sketchbooks, pencils and water colors, painting the sights (some of them very nicely). In a Westerner's notion, a castle is a vast structure combining residential and military functions; Inuyama castle was not used as a dwelling, except by the soldiers assigned to it; the lord and his family would have lived nearby but not in the building itself. As with any structure made to serve, in part, as a watchtower, you will want to climb all the steep steps to the topmost level; not only do you see the best views in town, but you also get a far better idea of the complexity of the roof, both its form and the way in which it is tiled. Apart from a short period in government hands, the castle was in the Naruse family from 1617 to 2004, when it was transferred to a foundation set up by Aichi Prefecture. It contains a series of portraits of the successive lords, all in medieval pose and costume - until the moment when Japan opened to the West in the mid-nineteenth century: from one portrait to the next, the image changes from that unchanging, stylized depiction to a studio photograph of a man in a Western-style military uniform. That exemplifies the impact of a key moment in Japanese history.

We descended from the castle and spent some time in the Inuyama Artifacts Museum, which, in addition to an interesting collection of objects, contains a model of Inuyama in feudal times, showing who lived where: samurai, merchants, artisans and so forth. The grid of the old city remains to this day, so it is especially interesting to see how the plots were originally allocated; labels are in Japanese, so the presence of our goodwill guide was of great assistance.

Across the street is an annex: the Karakuri Museum, devoted to articulated figures (automatons, almost) some of which are traditionally used as part of the town festival, which takes place in April each year; some of the tall, elaborate floats that form the festival procession are housed in high, narrow "garages" scattered around town - without our guide we would certainly never have guessed what was inside them.

Our hotel, the Meitetsu Inuyama, was on the river bank a short walk from the castle. I can't think why you would want to stay anywhere else: it is pleasant and perfectly situated, with pretty grounds and a hot spring. We opted to stay in a Japanese-style room, but a Western-type double would have been less expensive and, at least for us, more comfortable. From the hotel it was another short stroll to the embarkation point for our cormorant fishing demonstration. We were lucky: we just caught the tail end of the spring-summer season. You can see dates and prices on this website, but you will need to speak Japanese to book, so I recommend asking your hotel or the goodwill guide association for help.

We boarded in the early evening for dinner on the river (you order a bento supper as part of the package and can bring your own beer or other drinks), cruising past the castle and well beyond. Seeing the castle from the water - as a potential invader might have seen it - explains a lot about why such military structures are built overlooking the river and the flat land beyond, just as they are, say, on the Rhine (to which the Kiso has been compared). As the sun disappeared, we returned to the dock and disembarked while the crew removed our dinner debris; we boarded once again and headed out into the dark. Cormorant fishing is quite a sight. In Chinese or Japanese paintings and woodcuts, it seems quite placid, the light (which evidently attracts the fish as well as making it easier for the birds to see into the water) often provided by paper lanterns. In the Kiso River tradition, the light comes from a wood-log fire contained in a metal basket at the end of a boom. The fire is furious, with sparks afly, and the animation is heightened by the cormorants themselves, which noisily roil the water with their diving, and by the fishers, who are able to keep tabs on eight or more birds without tangling the lines that tether them: When a cormorant catches a fish too large to pass down its throat (which is constricted by a collar that will allow only small fish to be swallowed), the fisher will haul it out of the water and retrieve the fish (ayu, or sweetfish - which also appeared in our bento boxes on the boat) before tossing the bird back for more action.

In the telling, this style of fishing sounds cruel. But no one can have any idea of what is like for the cormorants, so I'll say only that it is an exciting treat to view an age-old practice that has been kept alive, if only for tourists.

The next morning our guide took us on visits to a candy shop and a calligrapher's studio. Genkotsu, a hard candy made from soybean flour boiled with sugars and other ingredients, is not unique to Inuyama, but every town has its own traditions: In Inuyama, gentotsu you buy at Fujisawa Seika (confectionary) is made even more appealing with the addition of ground sesame seeds. The firm has been in the same family for 130 years and is currently run by Chizuko Hayashi. We watched Ms. Hayashi and her assistant blend the ingredients, boil the mixture to the proper temperature, then knead it and shape it by hand into ropes before feeding these through a clanking machine of her father's invention to form the candies. Thanks to our guide, we were able to ask questions and learned quite a lot about the process. The sesame seeds and a subtle hint of spice made Ms. Hayashi's genkotsu more tempting to Jackie and me than a lot of other versions we've had. Packages of them are good to take home as easy-to-carry gifts.

We then dropped in on Oson Ito, a exceptionally fine calligrapher and - like Ms. Hayashi - a delightful person to visit. She works in both traditional and more personal styles that convey both grace and power (a combination that, for me, gives Japanese calligraphy its special edge). Beyond the work that is on display in her studio - the Nishi Getsu gallery - she will look you in the eye, discuss your personality (through the indispensable guide) consult some arcane astrological charts and choose a single character that sums you up. In our chat, Ms. Ito pretty much nailed some of our salient traits, and the characters she drew for us seemed apt; in any event, they were both beautiful pieces of art. Typically she charges around $100 for these original works. (She will be giving demonstrations at the Brooklyn event I mentioned above.)

The next, and last, stop was Meiji-Mura, a lush 250-acre privately owned park to which buildings from all over Japan have been transported, mostly complete and mostly well restored. They are all from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the period when Western design came to dominate public architecture. There are direct buses from town and the rail station; transport details are easily sorted out through the goodwill guide association. I cannot stress too emphatically that there is nothing silly or hokey about this museum. Perhaps the best known of its 60 buildings is the (partial) Imperial Hotel from Tokyo, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1915 to 1923. With its strange, rough stone and concrete sort-of-Mayan decoration, it is rather odd, and well worth seeing. Even more so are buildings such as prisons, theaters, Christian churches, breweries, government offices and large merchants' houses that served day-to-day purposes for a wide range of people. When you see the little tram that runs around the park, you may turn up your nose. Don't: you will certainly want to walk most of the time, but this place is enormous. The restaurant in the park is quite good and offers gorgeous views of the undeveloped parts of the forested grounds: a nice place to stop for a rest - and to treat your guide to something to eat and drink.

Late that afternoon, we were on a train to the next stop: Takayama. There were wonderful things to see (and eat) there and elsewhere on our trip, but somehow Inuyama made a particular impression as a perfect, and diverse, place to spend a couple of days.

Dining and lodging

Tofu Café Urashima. 726-2 Higashi Koken, Inuyama; +81 (0)568 27-5678; lunch around
¥1,575 ($16).

Meitetsu Inuyama Hotel. 107-1 Kitakoken, Inuyama; +81 (0)568 61-2211; http://www.japanican.com/hotels/shisetsudetail.aspx?st=5449005

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