Not long after our trip to Hiroshima last August, we headed to Kita-Ibaraki City in the far north (kita) of the prefecture. We had been there before during Golden Week in 2006, when we visited the birth home of noted children's poet Ujo Noguchi, and the cliff side home of artist and author Okakura Tenshin. Those men lived a century ago, but this day we were seeking the work of a modern day artist - Ken Kuroi.
Kuroi, born in 1947, is an illustrator who is famous in Japan as his work appears in some 150 children's books, some of which are now being translated to English and are available in America (much to the delight of my granddaughters). He has illustrated some of the works of Nankichi Niimi (1913-1943) (sometimes referred to as the Hans Christrian Anderson of Japan), such as "Buying Mittens", and "Gon the Little Fox". The Tenshin Memorial Museum of Art was putting on an extensive exhibit of Ken Kuroi's work.
K drove us as far as Mito City where we caught a train for Kita-Ibaraki - Otsuko Station to be exact, as it is in Izura-Kaigan, a coastal town, where the museum is located. The train was much faster than driving and far more relaxing. Though it only travels at a top speed of about 80 kph (50 mph), it only makes a handful of stops and there are, of course, no traffic or stop lights. At Otsuko station, we boarded the city's little 20 passenger bus, which, in addition to offering a low fare of only ¥100 (at the time less than a dollar), let us enjoy sharing the ride with some of the local old folks and seeing a bit of the small town before arriving, after only a few minutes, at the museum.
The Tenshin Memorial Museum of Art is set on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, with a stunning view of the Izura coastline with its rugged sandstone cliffs interrupted by coves and sandy beaches.
A small library of children's books was made available just ahead of the exhibit. We stopped to take a look at some of them. The exhibit itself consisted of individual works, each framed separately, depicting the story books. Kuroi's technique looks as if he used some kind of spraying to apply paint - an air brush perhaps - but he does not. A display in a glass case along with a video presentation described his method step by step. He takes colored pencils and rubs them on paper until all that is left is the colored powder. He then mixes the powder with various thinners to make his own paint. He uses several kinds of brushes to apply the colors, and often incorporates paper stencils he makes to create repeated patterns, such as clouds or ocean waves. The effect is soft, glowing, warm, and unique. One does not have to be a child to be spellbound by his paintings. Kuroi also took a canoe trip down the Mississippi and wrote an illustrated book about it.
After viewing the art we bought some books and some other Kuroi items, stopped briefly at the souvenir shop and then thought about lunch.
The museum restaurant menu was a bit of a disappointment, with only Western offerings - sandwiches, pasta, and curries. We decided to try our friend's ryokan instead and got into a taxi to go there. When the driver heard our destination, he laughed and told us to get out of his cab! The ryokan, it turned out, was only a few hundred meters by foot path from the museum. He pointed the way. It was a lovely walk.
The restaurant, Tsubaki (camellia), is part of the building of Itsuura Kanko Hotel. It sits on the edge of a cliff above the ocean with a beautiful view of the same cove shared by the home of Tenshin. We chose a table near the window to enjoy the view. The area is well known for its excellent seafood and our lunch was delicious.
Our friend, who is the ryokan's Okami (general manager), surprised us with a visit at our table wearing her work clothes - a kimono - gave us towel kits and invited us to use the natural hot spring baths which are on the fifth floor and also overlook the sea. Unfortunately, we didn't have time for that. Good excuse to come back and spend a few days there.
After lunch, we walked down to Tenshin's house. Along the way is the grave of Okakura Tenshin. He died of influenza at the age of 51. In a farewell poem he asked that a plover bring him a flower and let the plover's chirping sounds be his epitaph. He wanted to "be buried deep in the fallen leaves under a full moon of 120,000 years and have the pines shade those who mourn him".
The grounds of his home are now preserved as a park run by the Izura Institute of Art and Culture. A century ago, Tenshin had a large school for artists here. What an inspiring location. There is a small museum with some of his works and a wooden boat which he designed and built himself. A path leads from the house down to a red hexagonal gazebo - "Rokkakudo" - right over the water.
We decided to take a taxi back to the train station. Along the way, the driver would wave to his friends, then turn to tell us who they were. Such things engender warm, small town feelings that are endearing about rural Japan.
Unlike our last trip, K did not have to drive in traffic for nearly four hours to get home, but could relax on the train for an hour or so back to Mito and just drive the last hour. Actually, we could have taken a train to within a couple of kilometers of home, but it was just easier for her to drive between home and Mito City and not have to make the extra rail connections each way.
Our faithful Momo, the Wonder Dog, had guarded the homestead well, and gave us a royal tail-wagging welcome in anticipation of her dinner.
Kita-Ibaraki is an out of the way place, but very much worth the trip for its natural beauty (there are inland mountains and forests too, rich cultural and artistic history, home town atmosphere, and excellent spas and hotels. It's one more reason I am happy to have landed in this prefecture. If you have the chance to visit there, do so.
I hope that the many books illustrated by Ken Kuroi continue to be translated into English and other languages. His art is worthy of world attention and most importantly expresses the stories in the way, I think, that the mind's eye of a child sees them.