Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Seattle Asian Art Museum: Fleeting Beauty Persists

Don’t you agree that a life full of contrasts is ultimately most satisfying?

In this spirit, I follow my swinging pendulum of interests, which today points to the visual arts instead of my more usual outdoorsy bent. (Occasionally even I forget that I have an art history degree.)

My destination is the Fleeting Beauty: Japanese Woodblock Prints exhibit at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. This show features exquisite examples of prints from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, before the influence of western culture seeped into everyday Japanese life.

Tucked up in historic Volunteer Park on north Capitol Hill, the SAAM (as opposed to SAM on First Avenue in downtown Seattle) is one of Seattle’s architectural and artistic treasures. The clean lines of the original Seattle Art Museum’s Art Deco fa├žade contrast sharply with the voluptuous mature horse chestnut trees and rhododendrons in the park. The overall effect reminds me of an eccentric English countryside manor set in rambling grounds, complete with a glass conservatory full of exotic plants.

And of course there’s that great view as you stand at the museum entrance looking west. The Olympic Mountains loom like an upended serrated knife on the western horizon beyond Puget Sound, the Space Needle, an old reservoir in the park, and the famous Isamu Noguchi Black Sun sculpture (commonly called the black donut).

I pass through the lovely wrought-iron entry doors and pay what I think is a bargain ($7) donation fee compared to many metropolitan museums. Although most of the galleries are small compared to bigger, high-ceiling museums, the scale is intimate and inviting.

Fleeting Beauty encompasses several galleries in the interior of the museum, with rich goldenrod-colored walls setting off the many fine woodblock prints. The exhibit theme is ukiyo-e, which translates to “floating world,” and thus captures images of fleeting beauty such as seasonal landscapes, kabuki theater actors, and famous geishas— things apart from mundane and everyday life.

Among the prints on display are several well-known images of Mount Fuji by master print artist Katsushika Hokusai from his series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (except this series contains over 46 views of the iconic mountain). Two of Hokusai’s “greatest hits”—The Wall of the Wave off Kanagawa and Red Fuji are here in fine form. SAAM is fortunate to have these as part of their permanent collection. (Taking photos are not allowed in the exhibit, so I snapped a reproduction in the art education exhibit.)

As I study the carefully, beautifully rendered prints of times, people, and places long past, I remember a term from the Japanese Art History course I took in college that perfectly captures what I’m feeling: mono no aware. I experience this beauty with an awareness of the transience of all things, and hint of pathos at their passing.

Ultimately mono no aware, and the art and culture of Japan, is rooted in Zen Buddhism and refers to the fleeting nature of beauty, which is all the more sharply sweet because of its impermanence.

Fortunately for us, the beauty of this art is still available and in good care at SAAM.

When You Go
Here is a map of where the SAAM is located. The museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, but is open until 9 pm on Thursdays. Normal hours are 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Parking is free! But then, so is bicycling. The Fleeting Beauty show runs until July 4, 2010.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mount Saint Helens: Remembering a Former Beauty Queen

Surely you’ve heard it’s the  anniversary of the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Saint Helens.  More accurately, the top of the mountain collapsed, releasing a massive slide and pyroclastic cloud of superheated ash. What was it like that day?

It was a fearsome, awesome spectacle. A once in several generations of lifetimes event.

And although I grew up with a peek-a-boo view of Saint Helens’ summit from my childhood home and a passionate love of her conical white beauty, I didn’t witness the eruption. I was in Boston at that period in my life.

When I heard the news, I called my parents in Troutdale, Oregon, who excitedly described watching it spew a huge cloud into the sky. My dad was at church when the initial eruption occurred and heard a loud boom that rattled the windows.

The East Coast media was all confused. Several papers placed Mount Saint Helens in Oregon instead of Washington, probably because it was so visible from Portland. My friends in Seattle didn’t hear it and couldn’t really see what was going on that far south.

Fifty-seven people perished in the blast, including a guy I knew as a kid. My brother knew David Johnston, the geologist who died in the blast and namesake of the observatory, while at the University of Washington Geology Department.

For me, the eruption was like a mutilation. The most beautiful and graceful-looking of the Cascade volcanoes changed in an instant to a blown out, hulking lump of steaming rock and ash.

Before that May morning, Mount Saint Helens served as a backdrop to many memorable moments in my young life.

One sunset just a few years before the eruption stands out. While my high school sweetheart and I sat (yes, just sat) in an alpine meadow on the slopes of Mount Hood (at Elk Cove, to be exact), Saint Helens slowly changed in hue from white to strawberry ice cream-pink to dusky blue on the northern horizon about 50 or 60 miles away. It was a magical display.

Since then I’ve hiked up to the blown off summit rim and peered down into the gaping, open maw of the blown out crater. It’s impossible to conceive of the force of the eruption while you’re standing there.

But I highly recommend making that trip sometime. Outside of Hawaii, there are only a few places on the planet where you can get so up close and personal to an active volcano.

When You Go
Check here for conditions and how to get a permit to climb to the summit of Mount Saint Helens. Photo credit to the U.S. Geological Survey/Robert Kimmel (top photo).

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Seattle’s International District: A Taste of Asia

I can’t think of a much better way to spend a day than getting together with a couple of my best buds to enjoy Seattle’s historic International District. While our Chinatown (a.k.a. the International District) is not as big or flashy as San Francisco’s, it’s still large and diverse enough to offer an enticing day of tasting and exploring.

Since the late nineteenth century this district just south of downtown has been a melting pot of Asian immigrants—first Chinese, then Japanese, Filipinos, and Pacific Islanders settled here. The Japantown portion of the district foundered during Word World II when most of Seattle’s Japanese-American residents were sent away to internment camps east of the mountains. These days the ethnic mix is diverse, with mainland Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Korean, and some remnant Japanese businesses lining the streets.

Today we start with dim sum at Jade Garden, a crowded, noisy, boisterous spot on weekend mornings where the clientele is a mix of scarlet-robed Buddhist monks, Asian-American families, and the rest of us.

Waiting guests usually spill out onto the street, but since it’s chilly out, we’re smashed together in the small lobby against tanks of anxious crustaceans awaiting their demise. I notice a little shrine tucked away in a tiny alcove at the base of a wall near the entrance. It evokes an aura of Asian authenticity and mystery.

As soon as we’re seated the waiters start foisting little plates of food on us.

Steaming shrimp dumplings, glistening baked hum bow, brilliant green baby broccoli, fried rice, noodles…’s hard to say no to any of it.

And it’s mostly quite tasty.

Although we get a big pot of green tea right away, we have to be persistent to get a glass of water. When the check comes, I'm always surprised at how cheap it is. (Today it's $33 for three of us with tax and tip.)

After dim sum we walk down the street past aging brick buildings, herb shops, and more Chinese restaurants to New Century Tea Gallery. This cozy little shop is warm and bright, with shelves stuffed high with teapots, big jars of loose tea, and other tea accoutrements.

Proprietor Grace Chen, who works here with her husband Dafe Chen, invites us to sit down and taste some fine Chinese tea. She notices my friend Mary’s fingers are purple with cold. “You shouldn’t drink green tea, it’s cooling. You need a pu-erh (fermented black tea) that warms you.”

New Century also has a little shrine, which is newer and better-tended than the one at Jade Garden. Grace tells me such a shrine is common at Chinese businesses and it's for the earth or land god.

Next we scoot down a couple blocks to Uwajimaya, the Asian superstore. Years ago this was a smaller Japanese grocery, but now it has morphed into a much larger complex connected to an indoor food court of fast Asian food.

This is the place to go for all your Asian cooking needs like mushroom soy sauce, a zillion different types of noodles, and produce I don't recognize.

A few blocks north on Jackson Street, the main road that bisects the district, we stop in a couple shops in the former Japantown. Momo’s gallery-boutique has a wonderful, eclectic mix of contemporary fashion wear, antique sake jugs, jewelry, and interesting knick knacks. Next door is Kobo, which sells beautiful hand-crafted Japanese artwork and crafts mixed in with historic remnants of its past as Higo's General Store.

We finish the afternoon with tea at the Panama Hotel Teahouse. (Have you figured out yet that I love my tea like Seattle's java junkies love their coffee?) Recently featured in the novel The Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, the Panama is a lovely, quiet spot to sip a pot of fragrant tea. (My favorite is genmaicha.)

Exposed brick walls in the long, narrow space are lined with old black and white photos of the neighborhood before World War II, when it was a thriving Japanese-American community.

At the counter I notice petite little cake-like sweets called manju, a Japanese delicacy made with precision and care by Chika Tokara in her shop on Phinney Ridge. We order one to share. Nibbling the exquisite treat between sips of tea is a transcendent experience—the perfect sendoff for a perfect day.

When You Go
Check to make sure there’s not a Seattle Mariners or Seahawks game in town before heading to the International District. Finding a parking spot on a weekend day can be tricky. Better yet, take the bus or walk from downtown. If you can, try a week day to avoid the crowds. There’s so much more to write about the I.D. – watch for another post here on Pacific Northwest Seasons!