November 14, 2012

Lost in Osaka

There are a few unaccounted for days since arriving in Osaka so I will attempt to cover the highlights in this post. Truth be told, much of the time spent with Kurumi at her home has been resting and relaxing. It is exhausting traveling and constantly moving, and while I've certainly not had a shortage of sleep or quiet times, this has been the first time since leaving Los Angeles that I've been in a truly comfortable home. Not that I have not felt welcomed or comfortable in almost every place I've stayed, and not that my hosts for the last month have been anything less than welcoming and hospitable, but there is a great comfort from being in a close friend's home. There's plenty of space, a full kitchen, familiar faces, talk of Canby and Oregon, and an adorable black lab. It's the closest I think I'll get to home while on this trip.

So it's been nice to just lounge on the couch watching shitty crime TV shows and catching up with Kurumi.
Dove and me getting close

But there have been some adventures!

The second night I was here, Kurumi took me out to meet another one of her friends whom she works with at an English school. Vanessa is French but has been living in Japan for a number of years and invited us both to some sort of bar/concert/art exhibit thing, and after an hour of great DJ tracks and interesting conversation, the live band emerged and treated us to some sort of polynesian/afrobeat percussive performance:

Kurumi doing her best Asian impression. Spot on!
A great music and dance performance
That's a rock climbing wall. I'd do it!

Kurumi and her mother took me to this crazy Japanese store. The name is escaping me at the moment, but in order to shop there you first have to become a member! Upon entering, I discovered it was a giant warehouse with very little merchandising but instead a great emphasis on buying in bulk. The Japanese people are small, and their portions and appetites seem to be even tinier, yet this store sold gallons of milk in 3 packs, loaves of bread by the dozen, and also offered incredible deals on digital cameras and other home entertainment goods.

Oh wait, I'm remember the name of the place: Costco.

But still, Japanese Costco was pretty ridiculous because, again, the Japanese are tiny people with chiisai appetites and huge concerns about waste. To see these little people loading up on all sorts of American-sized, XL goods was pretty hilarious. And if you're thinking "maybe the food court options at a Japanese Costco are exotic" then I'm sorry to disappoint: still the same, shitty, Kirkland food.

Didn't think to snap any photos, so you'll have to wait until you go to Costco and then imagine everyone there is Asian.


The other adventure that kept me busy here in Osaka was actually a quick trip back to Kyoto. Whilst there a few weeks ago, I visited
the Shoyeido Incense store. I had first visited last June, but after hearing that Taylor's trip there involved a private tour of the factory, I decided to venture back and try to talk my way into similar fortune. I was told that the woman Taylor had befriended was not there, but if I wanted to schedule a tour of the factory above the shop (not the larger factory) I could do so in the future.

So on Sunday evening I left Osaka and took the train back to Kyoto where I a different hostel awaited me. I spent the better part of the evening curled up on a beanbag, reading Lord of the Flies (I had found an English copy in Kurumi's closet and finished it before I could return to her home). I rose in the morning and left for the shop where I was greeted by a young Japanese employee who proceeded to give me a tour of the upstairs factory, where they produce the high-end incense (yeah, there's high end incense, and it sells for $1100 for a dozen sticks). 

I was not allowed to take photos, but I can tell you a bit about what I saw:

The process is still done almost entirely by hand. The first step in the process is the cutting of the wood (usually sandal wood) into small chips. This is performed by a monk, who had his own little corner of a room and chiseled away on a wood stump and inspected each chunk for quality. He then separated them into four different bags, each corresponding to quality.

These pieces of wood were then combined with other ingredients and thrown into a machine which ground them into a fine powder.

After this powder was sifted, it was transported into a large vat where water and dye were added and the mixture was stirred until it formed a forest green paste.

This paste was then squeezed by a large piston into a cylindrical chunk about the size of a pillow, which was then transported into the top of a machine which pushed the chunk through small holes the size of the desired incense. During the time I was there, they were making the size you'd expect to buy in a shop, but they have the ability to make sticks that are a meter long and as thick as kindling, which are usually used in Buddhist temples.

As the paste squirts through the holes like pasta, a man guides them onto a pallet and then uses a bamboo knife to cut each end. His entire day, 8 hours, is marked by the same four motions: move the pallet to the incense, cut the top, cut the bottom, move the pallet to a different stack. Repeat.

Then another man takes these pallets and inspects the incense to make sure they are uniform in size. He transfers them to cardboard pallets and then into a drying room where, depending on the incense, they can sit for a week.

Once they're dry, they are hand wrapped by two women and then sent off to the main factory for packaging.

It's a small operating, which is part of the reason these high-end sticks are so pricey. Each person in this small operation appeared to only have one task, which they carried out with great care and precision, for 8 hours a day. The gentleman who is pictured above (a picture I got off Google) has been doing this job for 30 years.





No comments: