Tuesday was neatly divided between the frustrating (trying to get money on a non-functioning Visa card and having the coin purse on my wallet pull adrift from the frame, scattering 100 Yen pieces all over the floor of the Daiwa Bank) and the gloriously relaxing. I'll draw a veil over the frustrating part, saying only that we never worked it out, and now I have to call AmEx to ask them what the hell's up with my PIN number. In the meantime, Ellen's footing all the bills, bless her. I feel a little like the Queen of England: "Us? Carry cash? My minion will attend to the matter."
The relaxing part started when Yuko picked up Ellen and Charlotte in the Niigata Art Museum, where they were sitting in the reception room drinking tea and fanning themselves and waiting for us to come back from the bank. Then we set out for the sea shore.
The sun finally came out. The sea was a deep blue-green, almost like a dark teal, shading bluer and greener depending, I suppose, on depth. Across the road were fields of daikon and rice and leeks and vegetables whose leaves I utterly did not recognize, interspersed with pine forests--where North Koreans hid to kidnap people from the beaches to take to Korea to teach Koreans Japanese. After a while, we turned inland and almost immediately hit mountains, forested to their crests, folded and interfolded down their sides, with some startling rock formations right down to the water. We passed rocks with pines clinging horizontally to their slopes and tunneled through little mountain spurs, ending up in the Fermier winery.
To say that the vintner is a cat lover is to understate the case. The road to the winery is not paved, lest stray motorcycles or speeding cars hit a cat. There are wine boxes under every bench for shaded cat naps and a tree hung with variously-sized cat's cradles made of curved twigs and rope. We saw a black and white brindled young cat occupying one, but it immediately jumped down and insisted on being petted, so we don't have a picture of one in use, sadly. We do, however, have pictures of Charlotte making much of the cat. His odd brindle didn't really come out--it's very subtle, rather as if a black cat had gently brushed past a not-too-newly painted white fence. Nor did we taste the wine. Judging from the soil, I'd think it would be acidic, and Yuko said it wasn't really very good.
We did taste the sake at the brewery we visited later in the afternoon, in the town of Iwamuro Hot Spring, They only make the sake in the winter, starting in November, so all we saw was quiescent vats and huge rice steamers and an accordion-like sake press and baskets for washing the rice. But there was a gently pervasive odor of sake nonetheless, and bottles to sample in a lovely tatami room off a tiny, beautiful garden full of rocks, moss, and smallish maples. We each bought a small example of the very sake that the Emperor tasted and gave a medal to a few years ago, done up in a pretty blue glass bottle that doubles (when empty) as a bud vase. And then Yuko drove us to the Yahiko Shinto Shrine, one of the largest and oldest in the district.
By this time, we're pretty tired, and it's pretty hot, but we soldier on under a magnificent tori and past many grateful stone lanterns and a small temple to the spirit of the divine horse, with a very old and magnificent wooden statue of a fully-armed horse in it, more than life-sized. Equine armor doesn't seem to vary that much from country to country, except in details of decoration--less than human armor does, in fact. Forehead and chest must be protected, and there has to be a fairly sturdy saddle and stirrups. Horns on the forehead armor optional, but in this case, fully deployed. A nearby small museum beyond a moss garden (I do love moss gardens) boasted maybe 20 katanas, from the 10th Century to the present, all of them gleaming, beautiful, and deadly looking. Also a metal arrow and a war fan that looks a little like a blunt iron labrys. You hold it up to alert the troops you're about to charge, point it in the direction you'd like them to go,while yelling loudly, and presumably whack your enemy over the head with it once you reach him. The fan a Sumo wrestling judge uses is shaped the same way, and early examples of same are identical to war fans. All of which we wouldn't have known if it hadn't been for Sarah. Thank heaven for knowledgable friends.
Sarah told us all this back at the hotel at dinner time. She had spent the afternoon at the art museum, planning for an exhibition of the MFA's urosige (I may not have that right) prints that's traveling in Japan next year. Yuko and her husband took us out to another feast--yakitori this time: grilled chicken (including hearts, livers, and skin), scallions, tiny green peppers, pickled eggplants, and two kinds of rice mixed with vegetables, both of them delicious. Oh, and sake, of course. We waddled home, observing some local yazuka out with their dolly-mops on the way, and have spent the balance of the evening unpacking and repacking our suitcases so we can send our suitcases to Kyoto while we train from hot spring to hot spring later in the week. Tomorrow: Sado Island. I can hardly wait.