Friday, October 25, 2013

KR&JP 2013 Travelogue Day 15: Kamakura, Noh and improv

Nope, still foggy. But at least now I could get a view of the Imperial Palace moat (left top), on the west bank of which my hotel was located. Just as well that there was a fog around, because my busy schedule on my last day in Japan meant I had no time to enjoy morning views. Grabbing a canned coffee (center bottom) on the my way to the intercity train station (bottom left), I took a south-bound, skipping more touristy Yokohama to disembark at Kamakura Station (bottom).

Kamakura is a relatively quiet and small city today. About 8 centuries ago, however, it was the seat of power for the Minamoto clan's shogunate -- the first time the shoguns took paramount power and reduced the emperor to a figurehead. Their shogunate lasted less than one and a half centuries, and actual Minamoto control of it only lasted two generations, but it sent the precedent for the next 7 centuries of pretty much uninterrupted military rule by the samurai class.

Exiting the station, I walked up the long gravel, sakura-lined path (top right) between the roads of the city's axial avenue, passing through the torii (top left) at each end. On the way, I stopped by a senbei shop (bottom left) to try one of Kamakura's famous senbei i.e. rice crackers (bottom center). It is indeed worthy of fame, with a delicious flavor-laden glazing baked on a crisp cracker base. I also tried a local candied fruit lollipop (bottom right).

At the northern end of the path, I arrived at Tsurugaoka Hachiman-Gu. This shrine is dedicated to the Shinto war patron kami Hachiman, who is a deification of the Japanese emperor Ojin. Hachiman is also the patron kami of the samurai in general, and of the Minamoto clan in particular, so it made sense that the shogunate's founder built the shrine in the kami's honor, to celebrate his clan's triumph. Said emperor's mother, Empress (regnant, to boot) Jingu, is also enshrined here.

Ranked in the second tier under national purview, the shrine complex is centered around a hill. At the foot are a number of satellite buildings, including subordinate shrines and an ablution pool. I also noticed a wedding taking place in one of them. There's a lot of symbolism in the layout of the shrine complex, which is constructed in post-Buddhist architectural style. 

Ascending the hill by stairs takes one to the main shrine, the door to which is flanked by ni-o guardian warriors in glass cases. From here, one can get a good, high view of the surrounding area and the lower part of the complex. A small museum of Minamoto-era artifacts is perched next to it. The complex also contains a special Minamoto shrine (bottom right) and the Kamakura Museum of National Treasures, containing another stash of Kamakura and Ashikaga/Muromachi artifacts.

In recognition of the Minamoto contribution to Kamakura's history, the clan's sasarindo crest has been adopted as the city emblem, and can be found on many public works.

On my way out, I passed by a variety of demo-sized Japanese gardens.

A short eastward walk took me to the site of the tomb of Minamoto no Yoritomo, the founder of the shogunate, and pretty much the main reason for my coming here. Thanks to him and his brother, Yoshitsune, the Minamoto clan was not only brought back from near-extinction, but became the ruling clan of Japan. The Buddhist-style tomb (bottom left) is located at the end of a flight of stairs (top left) leading up a hill. The foot platform is marked with stelae (top right), and includes what appears to be a Shinto shrine (bottom right).

A little further east stands Kamakura-gu, the shrine to Prince Morinaga. This imperial prince (note the Chrysanthemum crest) was appointed shogun by his father, Emperor Go-Daigo, who united the courts and seized power from the Kamakura shoguns in the short-lived Kemmu Restoration. Morinaga was imprisoned and executed here by the Ashikaga, who stamped out the restoration attempt and established themselves as rulers of a new shogunate. After the Meiji Restoration, the Meiji Emperor, in a show of reestablished imperial authority, built the shrine to honor the martyr of his ancestral lineage.

I made lunch of a delicious Japanese beef curry plate at a small local pub, which I found among the quaint and quiet streets near the shrine/tomb area. I also enjoyed a chat with my bartender-server, who could speak English.

Despite being a small-ish city, Kamakura has a decent-sized museum of modern art, at which I spent about an hour checking out the exhibitions of works of Kano Mitsuo and other artists, and enjoying the view over the trees from the balcony cafe.

On my way back to the train station, I passed through one of the city's shopping streets, and sampled another one of Kamakura's specialties: croquettes.

Back in Tokyo, and knowing Japanese punctuality, I had to make good on arrival time for my two evening agenda points in Shibuya. I was literally running around in the light rain -- first to locate the Kanze Nohgakudo theater and buy my ticket, then to locate the Crocodile and tell them to hold my reservation, then to dash back to the theater in time for the Noh show (haha, see what I did there?).

Having watched Theatre Mitu's cross-cultural NYU Abu Dhabi performance of Athur Miller's Death of a Salesman, which included Noh/Kyogen theatre styles, I could not got to Japan and miss a Noh show (haha, see what I ... never mind). The theater was capacious and comfortable, most of the attendees were elderly, and all were Japanese. On a simple but beautiful L-shaped stage setup, hauntingly masked and gloriously costumed Noh actors and singers performed their hypnotic art. It's a very, um, slow performance to watch, but part of the beauty is in how everyone takes their time and is yet exactly on time, and the methodical ritual to every move and every word.

Ironic for me, because as soon as it was over, I thundered downhill through Shibuya, making it to Crocodile minutes before showtime. As I waited for the improv to begin, I ordered their house brew (bottom left) and alligator meat plate (bottom right). As expected, the latter tasted like chicken.

Tokyo's centerpiece of English-language improv, Improvazilla, gave us a show to remember. Apart from the games with which my own improv experience has familiarized me, they also played the blind variation of freeze tag, which was way more exciting than regular freeze tag.

About mid-way through the show, they performed a promotional collaboration with some drama performers, having the latter first act out a scene from their play, and then keeping one of the actors onstage to stick to his scripted lines while two impovvers joined him to improvise a scene around said lines based on an audience shout-out. This turned out to be my suggestion -- a pirate ship. What ensued was belly-hurting hilarity, as the drama actor acted out his rather philosophical script lines, while the improvvers played really confused pirates.

They were also fortunate to have a really good pianist to provide music and cues to complement the troupe's amazing musical improv skills. It was a most brilliant show, and even more so for an improv actor and fan.

For my final meal in Japan, I saved a visit to a proper sushi place: Sushi Daidokoya, also in Shibuya. Apart from a regular sushi sampler (top), I also ordered a couple of more exotic items, like sea urchin and horse meat nigiri (bottom left), to complete my experience of a real Japanese sushi bar.

With the heavy-in-the-gut feeling that typically accompanies the final day of a vacation, I took the express train to Narita airport the next morning, to fly back to Dubai via Seoul. Through the early stages of post-travel depression, I was quite pleased at how much of two countries I was able to squeeze into just two weeks -- covering history, art, and modern life, and even improvising and discovering along the way, without missing too many agenda points. All thanks to good planning, good research, discipline, and a bit of luck.

Aaaaand final notes:

(top left) Parking elevator files cars into high-demand parking blocks
(top right) Well, that's a slightly useless "pass"
(center right) Good way to save paper
(bottom right) I had no idea that 7-Eleven was also into banking
(bottom left) Damn right, if you're carrying a lighter of that size

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