Heaven in Hamamatsu

The life of a bonsai apprentice was a busy one. Although the days were long, the work was fascinating and I had a fabulous time. But I will admit that I relished the few minutes' respite I got after lunch and before dinner. Those precious moments disappeared when Okusan (Mrs. Mitsuya) took a much-deserved holiday to Hawaii.

Okusan, pretty in pink.
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That meant I had to step in and take over her duties. My work day was extended an hour, but it was the loss of break times I felt the most.

My day began at 6 a.m. with kitchen duty, preparing a traditional Japanese breakfast for four. I also walked and fed our five dogs and washed and hung three loads of laundry before serving breakfast at 7:30 a.m.

The household laundry
Just a portion of our daily laundry.
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I was settled into my workshop chair by 8 a.m. and left it only to prepare and serve ocha (green tea) for break time and to cook another traditional meal for lunch. What used to be my post­lunch break was now a shopping spree to gather the necessary items for the next couple of meals. I confess that cooking lunch and dinner had me sweating bullets. Even familiar items such as hoorensoo (spinach) were prepared zenzen chigaimasu (altogether differently) than I'm accustomed to. Okusan happens to be an excellent cook, so I warned the family they might be a few kilos lighter by the time she returned. But I'm proud to report that no one starved or was poisoned while I was in charge.

I left the workshop a half hour earlier than normal to take down and fold the laundry, prepare the dog food, and begin dinner. After walking and feeding the dogs again, cooking and serving dinner, preparing the ofuro (bath), and cleaning the kitchen, it was about 8 p.m. and I could finally call it a day.

Bonsai-loving pooch
Our bonsai-loving pooch also calls it a day.
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This experience gave me a much better understanding of the life of a Japanese woman as well as an appreciation of Okusan's stamina and culinary expertise. I'm sure everyone in this household was thrilled to have her return. I know I certainly was. After one week I was thoroughly exhausted and counting the hours until I saw her cheerful smile again. Even though my body was in constant overdrive that week, my mind occasionally wandered off to relive a wonderful day of complete yasumi (holiday).

It was a rainy Saturday (a regular work day for me) when Hidekosan (Hideko Metaxas) brought a tour through our lovely part of Japan. Before stopping at Mitsuyasan's nursery, Tokai-En, they visited a wonderful suiseki exhibition in the neighboring city of Hamamatsu. Yochan (my sempai – senior colleague) and I were invited to tag along for the day. So we donned our best duds and headed south to meet the group.

I recognized a number of friends on the bus, so I knew I'd be in for a fine day of frolicking. But most of the socializing stopped as soon as the suiseki exhibition was opened. Ishizusan, one of Mitsuyasan's bonsai clients and an avid collector of suiseki, was one of the organizers of this show. He was a terrific host who showed us around and answered our many questions.

The first stones we viewed were traditionally displayed. We removed our shoes to enter a tatami-covered floor. The fifteen or so stones in this room were truly exquisite. But since they were placed on stands that were set on the floor, and therefore only shin high, one had to bend very low to appreciate their beauty. I was busy photographing the stones but did take a minute to admire the sight of some very tall gaijin (foreigners; my American pals) with their bellies to the mat.

Hideko Metaxas and Ishizusan
Hideko Metaxas (center) talks to Ishizusan (far right).
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We spent less time there than I would have liked because the majority of stones in this show were displayed in a large exhibition hall, so off we went to see the rest. But just outside this room I noticed an alcove covered in gold leaf with a small tree-shaped stone. The carved wooden stand that held the stone resembled nebari (surface roots).

Tree-shaped stone
Tree-shaped stone.
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The large half of the exhibition hall had stones on tables, so it took just a slight bend to admire their beauty. About half the stones were formally displayed with scrolls and accents. I'd never seen so many magnificent stones before. There were suiseki from all parts of Japan, with a full range of colors, shapes, and textures. Most of these stones were small enough to be lifted by one hand.

Eagle head stone Pine and stone
Eagle head stone.
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With a pine bonsai in a formal display.
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My favorite stones were very smooth, dark, and dense. They came from the Setagawa River, not far from Kyoto. I'd love to go there and find a masterpiece, but it will probably just be in my dreams; I was told all the good stones were picked out dozens of years ago.

Distant mountain stone
Distant mountain stone.
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Oh, well, there's always the baiten (vendors booth). This show had a small but nice baiten where a number of the tour group spent their spare yen.

Our next stop was Ishizusan's house. Many brave souls with casa (umbrellas) in hand braved the weather to view the spectacular bonsai in his garden. Off came our shoes as we were ushered into the house to view more suiseki. Ishizusan showed us some very old and valuable stones and suiban (display trays for suiseki). He'd set out beautiful stones throughout the room so everywhere you turned, there was a treasure to behold.

Chrysanthemum stone
Chrysanthemum stone.
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Before boarding the bus, most people made their way to his rock house – a shed-sized structure that houses Ishizusan's less valuable stones. I considered each one a masterpiece, but they don't have the history that the ones stored in his home have.

Before we went to Mitsuyasan's house for lunch, we had one last stop in Hamamatsu. We went to a restaurant to view their garden. And what a garden! The proprietor used the surrounding mountains in his landscape design to create one of the prettiest sights I've seen so far.

Restaurant garden
Restaurant garden, Hamamatsu, Japan.
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Unfortunately, the rain was pelting us by then, so most were content with a quick peek at the pristine view before hightailing it back to the bus. I managed to get a few good shots with my camera before it broke down from all the moisture. But no amount of ame (rain) could dampen my spirits on that heavenly spent day in Hamamatsu with friends. Thanks, Hidekosan.

This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared in Golden Statements magazine.
© 2006 Cheryl Manning. All rights reserved.

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