Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Nara no Kikuya

Day fifty-one: Nara no Kikuya

A few years ago I found a slim and beautifully designed book on kashigata (carved wooden confectionery molds). The pictures of the molds themselves were amazing but what really took my breath away was a panoramic shot showing the interior of what I guessed to be an old wagashi shop; taken from close to the floor, the photo showed the walls and ceiling of room literally covered in kashigata of all shapes and sizes, crammed on shelves or stuffed between rafters. The caption identified the shop as Kikuya of Nara, and I immediately added it to my itinerary.

Located a short way from the tourist attractions of central Nara, Kikuya is about a 10-minute walk from Koriyama station. The crumbly wood-and-stucco building anchors a narrow and otherwise unremarkable backstreet. I'm starting to get a little blase about these rifts in the space-time continuum, but luckily I was able to see Kikuya through the fresh eyes of my visiting friend Bernard, who hadn't yet gotten over jet-lag, much less gotten jaded.

It was lovely weather so the whole side of the shop was thrown open to the street and I spotted the kashigata ceiling from a block away. While Bernard and I were still gawking and taking pictures, an older gentleman in a typical craftsman's outfit came up and we started chatting. I belatedly realized that he was the current proprietor of this 450-year-old establishment, but I couldn't have made too much of an ass of myself up to then because he invited Bernard and me to follow him next door.

Next to the crumbling shop was a 4-story cast concrete rowhouse, its modernity tempered by antique furniture and an internal garden. I felt like Alice down the rabbit hole as the proprietor led us past a gazebo and a water feature, to a perfect little teahouse built into the back corner of the bunker. He arranged us on the tatami mats and for the next hour we "conversed" about the history and artistry of wagashi; I translated everything I could catch for Bernard and he obliged me with a few air-nods when I hadn't a clue what to say. One of the shop assistants came in at intervals, bringing bowls of tea and a stacked lacquer box full of the current line of namagashi, of which we ate a couple.

Finally, with a quick look behind the scenes at the mizuya (teahouse kitchen), profuse thanks, and much bowing, Bernard and I were back out on the street. We paused for a moment between the 15th and 21st centuries as I tried to explain what a rare treat we'd just stumbled into. I had no idea what had unlocked those doors to us. Had I used some magic password without knowing it?

"Yeah, that was great, " said Bernard. "Maybe we should actually buy something?"

So we took away some souvenir sweets and two sculpted namagashi: a plump cotton-stuffed chrysanthemum and a knobby little potato of nerikiri smudged with cinnamon. We ate them in Nara park, sitting on a bench touched by the long shadows of a perfect late summer afternoon.

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