Our Brush with Hollywood, in Tsuruoka

Thom Stone and Katsumi Hirano

[8th in a series of posts about a recent trip to Japan]

When the van driver came at 9:30 a.m., he actually said it wasn’t possible to go to Yudono-san at all; the road was washed out by the storm.

Our first stop, then, was Gyokusenji Temple. Seeing it in the rain made it particularly beautiful in an unexpected way: every surface glistened, bringing a whole new perspective to the garden, which surrounds the Zen Buddhist temple. The garden was designed in 1640 and became a cultural heritage sight in 1987. The temple itself was established 700 years ago.

We also stopped at a folk museum, thinking that we were going to see a silk worm propagation demonstration. When samurai were outlawed in the 1800s, they had to find new sources of revenue and employment; in the Tsuruoka area, they took up silk production.

Though the old warehouses that once housed hundreds of samurai were there, most of the folk museum was devoted to an exhibition of an artist who does set design for movies. We were stunned when he came up to us, introduced himself in English as Katsumi Hirano, and started talking about the Academy Award “they” (he and the creative team) received for Departures. Thom had been talking about this movie since our arrival, describing it as one of his favorite Japanese language movies. The movie did indeed win Best Foreign Film at the 2009 Oscars.

He explained how he worked – using traditional Japanese calligraphy brushes and ink pens – to develop storyboards for movies. Around him were examples of his drawings; for example, a samurai character was rendered in a few powerful brush strokes, later brought to life on film. When Thom asked if he could sketch him, it created an awkward moment. He had already presented us with an 8×10 print of his drawing of the shrine at Haguro-san, but he could not easily refuse. Thom withdrew his offer, but he wanted to comply. Eventually, he suggested that he could sketch Thom in one minute or less. How would that be? He immediately captured Thom’s eyes and seconds later, his rendering was complete. Before we left, he called for his assistant and asked permission to take our photo for his website, and of course we agreed.

Thom Stone by Katsumi Hirano

Katsumi Hirano's rendering of the Dewa-Senzan shrine

Katsumi Hirano’s rendering of the Dewa-Senzan shrine

We checked our bags at the utilitarian but rather depressing “businessmen’s” hotel, Tokyo Daishi, and went next door to the equally unimpressive S-Mall, where shops were divided by walls in an open design. We ate at Patio, a western-style restaurant. Thom’s eggplant and tomato spaghetti came with mystery meat; Todd’s hamburger tasted like meatloaf. But it was food.

If we’d had more time or interest, we might have stopped at the Tsuruoka’s Chido Museum, a complex of buildings that includes a natural folklore cultural assets museum, the former Shibuya Family Home (built in 1822 and labeled a national important treasure), a display of antique fishing rods in Goiden (the retirement residence of the Sakai lords built in 1863), a folkcraft house featuring traditional Shonai dolls and fishing implements, a display of samurai armor, and a specific type of Japanese garden called a Shoin that utilizes massive garden rocks and colorful stones. Otherwise, Tsuruoka is pretty skippable.

Out on a run later that afternoon with Todd, Thom discovered a lively two-story bar and restaurant across from the Japan Post on the town’s main drag. A group of 20 or so women were evidently playing drinking games in the adjacent private room, separate by a thin screen. The four men behind us seemed to be competing for noise volume. Good food, good beer, and the liveliest, loudest place we dined during our entire trip.

Next: Role Reversal! Relying on Our Son

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