Toji Temple December Market
Today we visited an open market inside the Toji temple, one of a few monthly markets in and around Kyoto. The grounds of the temple were stuffed to the gills in a maze of stands. As we wove our way through the rows, we would spot glimpses of the temple against the grey sky. Some of the vendors seemed to be seasoned market goers, bringing ample racks and shelves and things with which to display their wares. Others, like many of the potters, had a beautiful assemblage of makeshift shelves made out of bits of wood, sometimes stained the same color as the glaze of their pots.
We've been looking for a market like this for some time; where almost everything is made by hand, with care, and out of few elements. Of course, some of the prices are sky high, but many are not. From what we've seen so far, the Japanese are very scrupulous when it comes to deals. They won't be had, and they are quite willing to wait in line. It would be like standing in a twenty minute line at your local farmers' market to buy a famous seasonal, homemade jam at a discount price.
We were particularly impressed by how aggressive some of the most petite of women could be. At one point, I was veering left towards a food stall. A very elegant woman behind me, about a foot shorter than I with a salt-and-pepper bun and a purple coat, hooked me under the arm, and, using me like a snow plow, basically carried me forward about five feet before depositing me and moving on.
When you could actually make your way up to a stand, everything in this handmade market wanted to be tasted or touched. The majority of items could be easily traced to their natural source. The artist seemed to have an uncanny ability to enhance the original material's qualities. Sometimes, like with some of the food products, this meant adding sugar or MSG. And in those cases I feel a little sad. But many times, like with the dried condiments or pottery or textiles or woodworking, you felt as though you were looking at the essence of something, quietly coaxed forth. Everything was meant to be held. The cups begged to be taken by hand and felt. One of the things that strikes me most about Japanese sensibilities is that beauty is seen more as a balance with nature, rather than an ideal.
I noticed this sense of beauty at the Kyo Ryori (Kyoto-style cuisine) convention we visited last week. All the dishes were beautiful and their craftsmanship is unmatched. But the dishes that stood out to me most were those that had an asymmetrical balance and looked delicious to eat. It sounds funny, but many of the dishes did not make you want to reach out and take a bite. They made you want to step back and admire them, or put them on a wall. The ones I liked you could taste just from looking at them. They were visually complex enough I couldn't get my head around why they were pleasing, but they were just the same. The plates that demonstrated perfect symmetry --- like identical rows of sushi --- were exciting upon first glance, but soon I lost interest. It was the plates that looked different at every angle that I came back to again and again. The same was true for browsing the market. The few items we bought were the ones we wanted to touch, smell, drink out of, and get to know more. They felt natural.
We went to the market with our good friends Mark and Emiko. Emiko, Matt and I kept gravitating towards the pottery. (Of course, Matt also gravitated towards anything edible or made of leather. And I, for my part, really liked touching the textiles. Anyways...) No matter how many people might be barring our way, one of us would find a pottery stand first, and edge towards it. And when I mean edge, it wasn't out of timidity but rather the inability to move forward more than an inch or two at a time in a crowd so thick. We had to create our own waves to make it to the other side of a row of stalls. What I loved, though, was spotting a piece of pottery I particularly enjoyed. Instead of saying, "Look how beautiful! I love the lines on this one..." I could just as easily pass it back to Matt or Emiko and have them feel it. Their hands did the rest of the work. We felt around the softer, matte glazes, experienced the more porous pottery in comparison to the refined feeling of porcelain, and generally held the shapes in our hands.
Mark and Emiko were incredibly patient with us overenthusiastic Americans. We were exclaiming about everything and overusing words for "cute" and "beautiful" like we may not live to see tomorrow. We also tested out the waters asking for discounts. Humorously (for both parties, I think) it was so novel to hear us say "a little discount if you please" in the local Kansai dialect that the vendors broke into a smile or looked surprised, though they didn't offer much in return. At that point Emiko would helpfully step in and give some encouragement, which almost always caused them to lower the price.
By the time we had made our way in a circle around the large grounds, we'd admired, touched or tasted dried Japanese persimmons, takoyaki (puffs of wheat and egg filled with tender bits of octopus tentacle), logs of high-quality charcoal with edges like flowers, a whole section of bonsai trees and New Years' plant arrangements, porcelain buttons, rings, bags, baskets, pendants, and earrings, and all sorts of beautiful Japanese textiles.
Take a look...