Writers In Kyoto

English-language authors in Japan’s old imperial capital

Writers in focus

Sake Vessels (Robert Yellin)

‘Pride of Place—Sake Vessels’ by Robert Yellin

Drinking sake in Japan is an art when done with the right vessels. The history of sake vessels—collectively called shuki in Japanese—dates back millenniums and the variety of shuki found throughout Japan is as varied as there are clouds in the sky. For me, collecting shuki was my introduction into the Japanese pottery world as a young twenty-something in 1984 who couldn’t afford an expensive imported California Cabernet Sauvignon and so I thought better to go local, and that of course meant sake.

Iga flask by Shiro Tsjujimura

Almost all potters in Japan make shuki and they are avidly collected, often the first items to sell-out at exhibitions. Some of the earliest pieces I bought are shown here and have taught me quite a lot about Japanese history, regional styles, the joy of functional art, and of course the immense pleasure that comes with using fine vessels at the table, something the Japanese call Yo-no-Bi or Beauty through Use.

Iga is one of Japan’s ancient high-fired unglazed stonewares named after the town it was made in, as often is the case for Japanese styles. And shown here is an Iga tokkuri—or flask—by the celebrated potter Shiro Tsujimura. At first I didn’t ‘get it.’ Look, the neck is leaning, there’s grit all over it, the base has a fused bit of clay on it, the glazing is uneven! In most western traditions—and certainly at art schools—this would have been a failure piece, yet here in Japan it’s the epitome of good taste. The reason being we find nature and man working together without one wanting to totally control each other or the process, yet letting intuition, passion, experience, and letting go take over. Meaning the beauty of this Tsujimura tokkuri is of course the clay he dug, processed and formed, yet also his willingness to let the process also have a say in the outcome, in a sense what we might call the ‘Beauty of the Imperfect.’ Kind of like you and I.

In the picture below I‘ve matched the Iga tokkuri with three of my most treasured guinomi or sake cups: a slender Ki-Seto (Yellow Seto) by Shukai Kagami, a robust Bizen by Rokuro Nakamura and a spouted Shigaraki by Michio Furutani. I had the honor and pleasure to have met all three of these now gone potters and each had a heart of gold, for as the 6th B.C. Chinese poet Lao Tsu said, “There is no real beauty without character.”

A robust Bizen by Rokuro Nakamura; a slender Yellow Seto by Shukai Kagami; and a spouted Shigaraki by Michio Furutani.

Kagami devoted his life to Ki-Seto, one of the Mino styles of pottery, the others being Shino, Oribe and Black Seto. There’s richness to Kagami’s Ki-Seto glazing that no other Japanese potters have been able to re-produce. The subtly of the green copper embellishments along with the brown-toasty shades make this delicately carved slender work a masterpiece of his.

Nakamura was known mostly for his shuki, although he did make other forms. He learned from drinking experience, often taking a 1.8 liter bottle of sake and starting the day with 380ml, same at lunch, tea time called for another round and then of course the bottle was emptied at dinner; he lived to be 90. Once he told me the lip of a good guinomi should touch the lips as if you’re kissing your lover. One can see here the undulating and angled lines that make this guinomi do just that. The tones are autumnal with what the Japanese call good ‘clay flavor.’ As with cooking, a Japanese potter often wants to bring out the inherent ‘flavor’ found within the ingredients used. That especially holds true for Japan’s great unglazed stonewares such as Bizen, Iga, Tamba or Shigaraki.

This aspect is also clearly seen on the spouted Shigaraki guinomi by Michio Furutani. The orange-tones are called ‘hi-iro’ or ‘fire-color’ and are one of the most distinctive characteristics of Shigraki, the others being shizen-yu or natural ash-glaze and bidoro, goblets of natural ash glaze that form glass-like beads on pieces. Here the spouted lip is merely for decoration and one would not pour sake into their mouth via it! As with most stonewares over time the piece changes and takes on a richer patina, this piece surely has seen a lot of sake and I often dipped my finger in the cup and rubbed sake on the outside; I once saw a Japanese collector do that as well as rub nose oil on a piece! Furutani was a master kiln builder as well, building more than thirty in his all-too-short life with the aim for each kiln to bring out desired effects. He was most often successful at that and wrote the Japanese potter’s anagama single-chamber kiln building ‘Bible.’

Such deep joy these pieces have given me over the years, simple timeless joy. They have taught me about many of the grand ceramic traditions here in Japan, they allowed me to meet fascinating artists, they have provided me with poetic inspiration and of course functional beauty, and that in a nutshell is why I love Japanese ceramics as much as I do.

Kampai!

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For Robert’s gallery, see the Yakimono Gallery.
For an introduction to Robert’s lifework, see here.
Click here for Robert’s book, Ode to Japanese Pottery.

 

 

 

 

Writers in focus

KJ update (Ken Rodgers)

A Kyoto Journal Update, Summer 2017
From Ken Rodgers, KJ managing editor

Now celebrating its 30th year, Kyoto Journal is about to return to print with KJ 89, after a sojourn of 13 diverse issues in the not-quite-parallel universe of digital format. With this issue we will shift from quarterly to biannual publication, supported by more frequent postings at kyotojournal.org.

Why go so determinedly retro, in today’s ever-accelerating never-sleeping instantly-available 24/7 globalized info-environment?

Exactly! —What we would prefer to offer is an antidote to that kind of frenicity.

The digital experience is seldom memorable, however novel its design; it lacks presence, too easily dissipates into the background blur of electronic media that occupies the user’s ever-decreasing attention span. On the other hand, a physical magazine (or book) prompts you to find relatively undistracted time for it. Opening physical pages, breathing in the distinctive aroma of ink and paper, you refocus, entering a different mental space that’s more conducive to engagement with fresh ideas, to perceiving lateral connections and subtle resonances.

There’s a sense of singularity and authenticity in that process, that goes a long way back. Witness the enthusiasm of third-century Chinese poet Fu Xian, in his Paper Ode, making the first known reference to how new-fangled mulberry-bark paper was replacing bamboo strips:

When the world is simple, embellishment has its uses. The rites and materials change as time goes by. As for making records, carvings replaced rope knots and bamboo was replaced by paper. As a material, paper is fine and worth cherishing, for its shape is square, its colour is pure and its nature is simple. Articles and expressive words are carried on its surface. It unfolds when I want to read it and I can fold it up again when I am finished. If you are living away from your family and relations, you can quickly write a letter and send it with messengers. No matter how distant your hearer, your thoughts can be expressed on a sheet of paper.
[Quoted in The Paper Trail: an Unexpected History of the World’s Greatest Invention, by Alexander Monro]

Of course, publishing in the form of 21st century binary-coded photons offers additional attractive benefits: freedom to expand content without being restricted to multiples of 16 physical pages, for a start; immediacy of direct release via effortless distribution (virtually cost-free); freedom to correct embarrassing typos etc, post-release; potential to incorporate videos, animations, live links… Not to mention the slick out-there cool factor; also, not needing high-maintenance humidity-free storage space for stacks of back issues in a benefactor’s basement during Kyoto summer…

Associate Editor Lucinda Cowing, our marketing strategist, says print is back. “Basically the majority of those currently subscribed or who know us want KJ in print, and many comment that the digital version is less enjoyable to read. Also, independent publications that overlap genres (like KJ does) have grown in number and in circulation over the past few years (Kinfolk can be credited for starting this trend, I think—they often sell a lifestyle/ideal, revolving around living simply, taking time to read and appreciate handmade things, etc). I would go so far as to call this movement a backlash against digital media now, because according to recent statistics even major US newspapers seem to still maintain a larger print readership than digital.”

Books can be versatile too, as demonstrated by this pull-out page from ‘Small Buildings of Kyoto’

 

Another market factor identified by Lucinda: “There is huge interest in Japan—the tourism boom aside, we see this first-hand via our social media pages and what kind of posts attract most engagement.” This appears to be confirmed by the popularity of KJ’s recent publication of Small Buildings of Kyoto, a photobook drawn from our popular Instagram series of the same name [see above]. (Another celebration of our 30th anniversary, in addition to the retrospective photo-show held as part of this year’s Kyotographie event in May).

This project, KJ’s third successful crowdfunding campaign, reached its target, $10,000, in just 8 days, and went on to achieve 171% funding, allowing us to print 750 copies of SBK. In addition, as a tribute to Kyoto poet Edith Shiffert, who passed away this year at the age of 101, we were able to fund 500 copies of a new edition of The Forest Within the Gate, featuring Edith’s poetry together with John Einarsen’s photography, with a new essay by Margaret Chula and an additional poem by Dennis Mahoney, Edith’s literary executor (in addition to writings by Marc P. Keane, Diane Durston, and Takeda Yoshifumi).

 

This Indiegogo campaign was boosted by an exceptional array of perks organized by Lucinda: from postcards to bonus back issues of KJ to a tea bundle, Butohkan tickets, a special print offer, Kyotographie passports, ceramics, saké, exclusive watercolour originals, a two-day Walk Japan tour, a Gion Night Photography tour …and more.

All promised perks, over 300 in total, were delivered, including 40 copies of a special edition of SBK incorporating hand-made linocut prints by our talented designer, Hirisha Mehta, with a cover printed on the Shubisha & Hokuto letterpress in Kyoto and hand-bound by Muramatsu Kana. Crowdfunding demands intensive effort—in setting up, promotion, and follow-up—but done properly, it provides a very effective means of ensuring that a publishing project can be realized.

Next project—at around the time of publication of KJ 89—a KJ exhibition at the Okazaki Tsutaya, October 20th to Nov 10th. Meanwhile, Asia-related submissions to KJ are always welcome, for magazine, website or future website guest blog (a new, more active version of the website is slowly taking shape on the KJ horizon).

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Thinking about the interplay between innovation and convention in the ongoing history of how we read, I am reminded of Jorge Luis Borges’ essay, ‘On the Cult of Books’ (in Other Inquisitions). In it, he references St. Augustine’s unease at seeing his mentor, St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, sitting at a desk and reading “without uttering a word or moving his tongue,” in the late 4th century, as described in Book Six of The Confessions. Borges identifies that unsettling transition to unvoiced reading as integral in the progression of the book towards being not a means to an end, but an end in itself. The remainder of the essay explores further developments in the devotional tradition of literary philosophy, in which the entire natural world came to be visualized as text in progress, to be read as universal truth.

Borges himself is well-known for envisaging the inexhaustible ‘Book of Sand,’ and the infinite ‘Library of Babel,’ the contents of which represents every possible combination of letters and punctuation that has ever been—or will be—written. Both, it may be inferred, are metaphorical representations of the universe, or of writers’ attempts to define it. Who knows what Borges would have made of the Internet, that infinite garden of forking paths seen so fleetingly through the screens we peruse so earnestly today?

The Library of Babel now exists—at least online—at https://libraryofbabel.info/, created by a dedicated Borges fan, Jonathan Basile. At present he says it contains all possible pages of variations on 3,200 characters—for mathematicians that works out at a total of 10 to the power of 4677. Finding coherence in this ultimate data-dump is another thing entirely. “After searching through endless books,” Basile says, “both in the process of testing the site and because I myself cannot shake the compulsion it produces, the longest legible title I have found is ‘Dog’.”

Coincidentally, longterm regular KJ contributor Robert Brady, author of The Big Elsewhere, has a new book ready to self-publish—in print, of course. Its title?
Build Your Own Dog.

Print is Back! Binding for ‘Small Buildings of Kyoto’, a book to be treasured in physical form

Featured writing

A Nishijin Weaver (Isil Bayraktar)

Isil Bayraktar is one of only two paid-up members of WiK who are not native speakers of English. She comes from Turkey and while studying in Kyoto is working freelance for Turkish publications. She has been much taken with Kyoto’s literary heritage, drawing inspiration in her own unique way to write contemporary accounts of the city that are rooted in its traditions. Here she takes as her source a passage from Koto (Old Capital) by the Nobel prize winner Kawabata Yasunari which was first published in 1962 (Eng tr 1987). It concerns Nishijin, Kyoto’s traditional weaving area, which already in Kawabata’s time was in sorry decline. (For a good account of this on film, see Nishijin Shimai (Sisters of Nishijin), made in 1952 and written by Kaneto Shindo, known for his work with Mizoguchi and very much a Kyoto specialist.)

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A Weaver at the Nishijin Textile Center

Işıl Bayraktar

“The streets were also clean in the area around Nishijin, where the small, dispirited kimono shops huddled together. Dust never collected even on the fine latticework of the doors.”

—Kawabata Yasunari, The Old Capital, p. 40

 

I couldn’t have known I would meet him at the Nishijin Textile Center. I had been searching around Nishijin, but the small impoverished shops of Kawabata’s novel had already closed down, so finally I decided to stop by the Textile Center to see whether I could find kimonos similar to the ones mentioned in the book. My Japanese mother took me, but still I didn’t have much hope of meeting him there.

There were two men at work, one of whom was drawing on a textile fabric. A middle-aged man, he concentrated on his design. He smiled at us, and we smiled back. Then, we approached the other, the weaver.

His old and faithful hands were marked with veins, spots spreading all over his arms and face, hair starting to fall out, glasses with thick lenses far from his eyes, a hearing aid that brought voices into his ears, the valley of his chin deepening with his labors and his brown yukata that smelled of vitality. He plumbed the depths of the fabric in front of him, moving closer to then farther from it; he was drawing, with a dance of needle and thread, an ornament.

I watched him in admiration. I tried to guess his age, but in vain. I couldn’t have imagined that he was 85 years old judging by his energy which flowed through him as he concentrated on the ornament. Then we figured it out: he must have dedicated 65 years of his life to kimono. All those years with obi textiles, needle and thread, draw-loom, patterns, ornaments, cherry blossoms, wood lilies and hyacinths! Now the thick lenses spoke of someone who had been looking intently at textile fabrics for 65 years.

“My name is Yukihara. I was born in Muromachi in Kyoto. Muromachi is famous for kimono textiles, and Nishijin for obi textiles. I spent my childhood in the Muromachi area. There were kimono shops there at the time. My father was the owner of one of those shops. He used to get up very early in the morning to go to his factory. The back of his shop was an atelier with looms. He wove obis and kimonos there, and put them in the front of the shop to be sold. He was one of the prominent weavers of that time.

“Customers from Muromachi and other areas always visited my father’s shop first. The patterns and the colors changed every season and were quite different from those of other weavers. Nobody knew how he produced such kimonos with varied patterns and found the best combinations. I was the only person who knew his secret.

“On his days off, my father used to go alone to visit obscure temples and shrines. He came home inspired by what he had seen in those places. After eating, quickly, a meal prepared by my mother, he would head for his atelier. I realized when I was ten that my father weaved his best kimonos after these outings to temples and shrines.

“One Sunday afternoon, he took me to the Zuishin-in Temple near Ono Station. It was February, and we walked in half-cold, half-sunny light under the reddish shadow of plum blossoms. My father walked among them, as if he were engraving traces in his mind, listening to the whispering trees, taking in the warm smell in the air, and watching the swinging plums in the grip of the wind.

“If you ask me, he was not simply looking at everything, but absorbing them into his imagination. When he passed the stone monument at the entrance to the temple where a waka poem by the famous beauty Ono-no-Komachi is inscribed, he started to recite the lines. There, again, I could see that he was not just reading the poem but also moving into another dimension full of images of Zuishin-in and creating patterns in his mind’s eye. I held my breath and watched in admiration.”

The way Yukihara-san, the weaver, told the story, it seemed his father resembled the weaver in Kawabata’s Kyoto, set in earlier times. He also would go to famous places in order to make drafts for his kimonos. Did it mean all the weavers of Kyoto do that? But if that were the case, would his father’s outings have impressed Yukihara-san so much?

***
Yukihara continued. “I was much influenced by the poem on his lips. As the poem and everything in Zuishin-in moved him so deeply, it was impossible for me not to be affected. I was only ten years old, very young, but when I saw his passion and dedication, something in me matured. I began to understand my father’s reason for getting up early and running to his atelier. When we ran out of materials, he used to call me and say, ‘Yukihara-kun, please bring me this or that.’

“Sometimes I hesitated to go and bring what he asked for, but after that outing I stopped hesitating and became a son who would do whatever his father asked him. From that day I saw his work as art.”

There was a pause, and I asked, “What exactly did you see, Yukihara-san?”
He continued.

“I saw the traces of Zuishin-in in that kimono. After we came back from the temple, he ate a little and ran into his atelier as he always did. He told me not to disturb him. Usually when he worked, I used to go into his room from time to time with lame excuses and watch him, but that day he said, ‘Please do not enter the room until I finish my work, Yukihara-kun.’ I hovered near the door, but just as I promised I did not enter. In fact, I fell asleep in front of the door. My father had worked till dawn that day, or so my mother told me when I woke up. Then I went to his room and saw the most beautiful work of art, a kimono. I was a child but I still remember that I was overcome by the wonder of that kimono.

“It was predominantly purple., with scattered pink, black, and green motifs. I was sure the green was that of the Zuishin-in garden, the purple was that of the plum blossom, and the black was that of the monument to Ono-no-Komachi. There was black also on the back of the kimono, which I thought might have a negative meaning but when I looked at the kimono in its entirety, I saw the face of Ono-no-Komachi. My mother thought I was exaggerating, but I was convinced my father had woven her image into the kimono.”

Yukihara-san and I looked at each other, and I thought I understood him. Inspired by his father, he had decided to be a weaver from a young age.

He continued. “After that outing, whenever my father said he would go to a temple, I insisted on going with him. He always wanted to go alone, but as he realized I was not going to disturb him, he didn’t refuse and I was able to join him. Thanks to these outings, I could see how he drew patterns in his mind. It helped develop my own imagination and visual memory.

“Actually, I wasn’t doing well at school, except for painting classes. Then I started to perceive the classes as something more than school work, and I began painting with a passion. When I showed the pictures to my teacher, he was surprised at my creativity and encouraged me to take them to exhibitions, and called me ‘little artist.’ And so I wanted to be a painter, not a weaver. I wanted to paint pictures for kimonos and take my obis from the sky. For me, a kimono that I weave only belongs to one person, but when I paint I believe it can reach out to everybody in the world. For me, woven fabrics symbolize mortality, whereas kimono paintings stand for immortality.”

It seemed to me the 85 year old was himself a symbol of immortality, though I didn’t say anything to him but continued listening.

“Although my father was one of the prominent weavers of the Muromachi area and he always had customers, we were not a rich family. We were five brothers and I was the eldest son. Do you know what it means to be the eldest son in a Japanese family? The meaning has been changing recently; children have started to live separately from their families, and siblings do not take responsibility for the younger ones.

“In my time, almost 60 years ago, we lived all together and I shared the responsibility for covering the expenses of my siblings’ education, weddings and other things. When I grew up, it became a responsibility to be shared with my father. My father knew that I wanted to go to art school, but he did not have enough money for it. I could not spend what I earned on myself, knowing that my younger brothers were in need. We talked about this only once with my father; he got upset, so did I. Having realized that it would not be possible for me to go to art school, I dedicated myself to kimonos, as my father did before me.

“I started to compose paintings that I had always wanted to after that day, for obis, kimonos, and other textiles. That’s why the biggest praise for the kimonos that I weave has always been, ‘It is like a painting.’ I would not exchange the happiness given me by these words for any other thing in the world. For me, the person who says such a thing transforms into an angel who flies up into the sky to spread out the kimono for all to see. I have the feeling the sleeves of the kimono are flung open and the obi unwound so that all the patterns are freed and come alive. While all this happens, I imagine everyone on the ground is watching the spectacle. It is as if another universe is created by the patterns in the sky, which circle the earth like a sphere.

“If I can still do this job at my age, it is because of the hope that people will think that my kimono are like paintings and enable me to spread patterns across the sky.”

On our way back, I looked at my Japanese mother and we tried to imagine a sky full of kimono patterns. It seemed to us that even now the Nishijin spirit of Kawabata Yasunari lives on in the city.

Featured writing

Razor’s Edge (Simon Rowe)

Notes from Himeji: Life on the Razor’s Edge

Simon Rowe

Sometimes good things can be found in the most unlikely places. For the best shave in my city, I go to the hospital. The Himeji Junkanki Centre Hospital, to be exact. This mysterious facility hides in the hills south of the train tracks and is only known to people with heart conditions, poor blood circulation or a poor sense of direction.

Down a hallway, in a warren of hallways, past its blood drawing room, stomach camera room, X-Ray closet, a cafe of philosophical waitresses and a kiosk which sells everything for double-and-a-half, stands a small barber shop. The sign over the door should say ‘Style with a smile’ or ‘Life is short, but our buzzcut is shorter’. Instead it just says “Barber”.

On a busy day the wheelchairs are backed up around the corner. Waiting time is short, however, on account of the thinning to balding pates of its mostly elderly clientele. It’s not the cut they come for anyway; it’s the ‘old school’ shave. I haven’t been around long enough to know what ‘old school’ means, but to recline in a classic Takara-Belmont barber chair with the tang of Tahitian Lime hair tonic in your nostrils, and feel the liquid smoothness of an Iwasaki straight razor rolling across your chin, is to savor one of the greatest intimate pleasures of Japan.

A shave at the Junkanki Centre Hospital Barbershop is also my chance to step out of a lightspeed lifestyle for fifteen minutes, to drift off into a hot-lathered land where the hustle of a hospital sounds like a far-off cocktail party through which white-uniformed stewardesses push trolleys of clinking martinis and…be brought back to earth by the jolt and jerk of the chair being adjusted, a brisk shampoo and a scalp rub which leaves me wondering where I am, what time it is and…

There are two staff; an elderly man with a voice that sounds like a food processor full of thumb tacks and a middle-aged woman with a voice that doesn’t. They share the glass shelves of scalp tonic, tubs of baby powder and hair wax, double-edged razors, clippers, a steam oven filled with hot towels, and a transistor which radio plays Okinawan ballads in the morning and baseball in the afternoon.

For some reason it’s the woman who always cuts my hair and shaves me. She tells me she has two young sons and two jobs. I know she works hard and her shoulder massages make me remember it. I’ve often wondered if her second job is dough rolling in a noodle joint, or maybe she has a black belt in shiatsu? I will ask her next time. We talk about our kids mostly, our neighborhoods, the seasonal festivals and the different viruses currently circulating at the kids’ schools. She knows my local liquor store owner (he’s also her customer) which means our seiken (world) really is semai (small), which is really the essence of a Japanese community. It’s this reassurance and safety ‘by association’ that has gotten me through doors and good service, which of course is a two-way street. I always tip ten percent.

Almost all the old neighborhoods in Himeji have a barbershop. They are considered an ‘essential local service’, and seemed to have outlasted the rice millers, tatami mat weavers, coffee shop owners, butchers and fishmongers. The barbershop also remains a kind of ‘bush telegraph’ where (mostly) men go to chew the fat and shoot the breeze, and some not to get a haircut at all.

​On my street in the Good Hood stands the Funabiki Barber Shop with its red and blue spiralling pole and cheerful snip-snipping sounds emanating from the tiled floor inside. It’s run by a family of barbers who rise with the sun and are still hard at it after dark. In Autumn, their kids practice taiko drumming with mine, and send them to me with bag fulls of fresh wakame seaweed and strings of onions. Once, I went for a haircut with a hangover. I fell asleep in the chair and awoke with a shaven forehead, ears and nostrils smooth, and a coiffure like a professional Japanese baseball player.

There is only one other place I have ventured into in Himeji. It’s called Royal, and I won’t be going back. Royal is what’s known as the ‘shearing sheds’ in the Australian vernacular. It’s Sweeney Todd without the meat pies. A long line of chairs face a continuous mirror and manning these are men who might have once been pet groomers, tree doctors or failed ramen chefs. Golf is a popular sport in Japan, although to play eighteen holes can be cost prohibitive. But if you want your own golf course with eighteen holes, it will only cost 1,800 yen at Royal.

Featured writing

Filling in the Middle of the Map (Edward J Taylor)

The following is one of a nine part Silk Road series of travel by train that will appear on Ted’s blog next month.  A condensed version of the series is expected to be published in the travel section of a major newspaper later in the year.  (All photos by the author; see here for his previous piece on walking the Yagyu Kaido..)

The rain kept up, heavier this time, as we awoke at dawn in a small station in Kamashi, not far from the Uzbek/Afghan border. While the war across that imaginary line hadn’t touched this mountainous region, the roads certainly looked as they had. We bumped and bounced along in a mini-bus, like in the spin cycle of a washing machine, what with the rain drenched windows. We turned off onto a series of smaller and smaller roads, which surprised in getting better the further out we got. It was near smooth sailing into the village of Langar Ata, where a local family was awaiting our visit. The dozens of people there attested more to an extended family, spanning many generations. The paradox of a visit to a local family or tribe is that you are generally visiting with a headman or a home with great wealth, which are by no means the average citizen of a place. As it was, they entertained us with songs of welcome and demonstrations of their traditional ways, though the sight of the older women tying a young child to a wooden plank bed while affixing a sort of catheter to prevent bedwetting was a hair shy of child abuse to many of us. Happier children could be found at a school up the valley, where we broke into small groups to eavesdrop on a few classes, the kids as interested in us as we were in them. I felt a bit sorry for those in PE, running and running in circles around the gym as the cameras flashed.

Lunch was had back on the train, probably so as not to burden the family with feeding 70 plus guests. Outside the windows the sky was beginning to lift. A herd of camels passed by for ten minutes or so, hundreds and hundreds of them. A guy on a donkey talked happily on his mobile. Later, from far off, I saw a pair of pillars stuck into the sand. Upon approach, I realized that they were men walking to who knows where. Their shadows were the tallest things on the landscape.

Late afternoon and the train arrived at Shahrisabz, a name too for us complicated to remember, so LYL and I simply used Shishkabab. Riding though the outskirts of town, I pondered the infinite number of shapes that broken concrete could take. (This game can be played almost anywhere in Asia.)

Shahrisabz is the birthplace and supposed burial site for Timur, who in his day buried up to 17 million others, or 5% of the world population at the time. A massive statue of the man stood on the site of the old city, of a scale quite befitting history’s biggest mass murderer. The body density and epic-hero tough guy posturing seemed modeled on Steve Reeves, circa Hercules. Timur unchained roamed the length and breath of central Asia, from Turkey to north India. But it was his rambling nature that was his demise, and he died during an ill-advised winter campaign against China, bought down by a common cold. He had requested to be buried here in his birthplace, but as bringing his body through the snow-covered mountains proved impossible, his tomb was instead in Samarkand on the opposite side.

The town had once been heavily fortified, and only the walls and the main gate remained. The latter was quite magnificent in scale, despite the broken arch being half of what it had once been. No doubt it would have been an imposing sight when seen on approach from horseback. Known as Ak-Saray, its 65-meter height was now a towering ruin of stone and broken tile, despite the warning written upon it: “If you challenge our power – look at our buildings!”

Outside the town’s walls were follies of a more recent vintage, in the form of comfortable and expensive looking flats. The ground level housed shops of various sorts, but the apartments above looked empty. It all had an admittedly lovely uniform beauty, their rows ringing the walls as if an outer layer to the once great city that had stood here. But these were as equally empty and unpopulated and hollow. A blatant abuse of UNESCO funds, though the organization has since threatened to revoke World Heritage status should the construction continue.

A far better use had been the mosque, and its attendant courtyards. With its pond and small, covered pavilions, it was much as I imagined the gardens of ancient Islam to look. I could picture men walking in conversation, debating the Koran as they strolled the broad walkways beneath the trees. Had they known of the tombs beneath? In later years, a number of houses had once been built upon the crumbling walls themselves, and one day a young girl had gone crashing through. Dazed, but unhurt, she found herself looking at a number of stone sarcophagi. Inscriptions showed that it had originally been intended for Timur, but instead was the slumbering place for two unknown corpses, who sleep on to this day. And in the new homes just beyond, built from foreign plunder befitting the spirit of Timur, no one sleeps at all.

Writers in focus

A medieval mystery

IT HAPPENED SOMEWHAT LIKE THIS

by Akihito, Zen Monk.

The following is written in a document by a little known monk, and housed in a sub-temple of Daitoku-ji.

In 1260 there was a small murder in Minami Katada, Chugoku. Early the next morning, after receiving some advice, Tsutaro left in an easterly direction. Traveling only at dawn and dusk, sleeping in the late spring woods, at temples, or on shrine dancing stages, eating what he found beside the fields, or was given by monks and nuns, he eventually arrived at the capital, Miyako. Immediately Tsutaro disappeared.

Not wanting to remain in the swamp and infested western part of the capital, living among the outcast and criminal, Shintaro, his new self-given name, chose the eastern half, on the southern shore of Lake Biwa. He found a job working for a tatami maker, but left soon to work for a kimono dealer. Not especially wanting to be a salesman, he found the job suited him because he could go into the city center frequently. He liked Rokkaku Street best, the main east-west thoroughfare in the city. Everything could be bought on this street, or nearby. Even just standing and watching the passersby was fascinating.

At night, however, this and every other street was dangerous, being patrolled by gangs of brigands and packs of wild dogs. No one ever went out at night, if at all possible. Screams for help went unanswered. He fortunately always made it back before dark.

Shintaro met and married the daughter of a neighbor to the kimono shop owner. Her family were dyers, and her hands were permanently discolored. Not only that, but she was particularly ugly. Needless to say, the whole neighborhood was happy that she had found a husband. Shintaro was not blind to her looks, but reasoned that no other man would ever think of stealing her from him, for he himself was not handsome and of small stature. Eventually, she produced 11 children, five of whom died at birth or soon thereafter. They were nevertheless a happy family.

One warm afternoon, many years later, on Rokkaku Street Kitaro (his new name as a successful and now independent kimono seller) was waiting for a fan he had ordered to be delivered. Paying no special attention to anyone,, he suddenly heard someone speaking in the dialect of Minami-Katada. Beneath the temple gate stood an elderly man, poorly dressed but in clean clothing,  asking for directions to an iron-maker’s forge. Kitaro knew the forge; it was nearby on Third Street where there were several ironmongers. What shall I do, he asked himself? Someone was trying to give the stranger directions, but was not succeeding.

“I know that shop well; it is famous,” Kitaro called out, and crossed the dusty road. The old man recognized Kitaro’s intonation, but did not know him. Nor did Kitaro know this man.

“Follow me, please. And how do you know the forge’s name?”

“A new family that lives in my neighborhood has a pot of excellent craftsmanship. I live with my brother whose wife wants the same pot. I have no family myself, so was free to come to the capital and buy one. But why do you speak in the same way as I do?”, he asked.

This was a problem for Kitaro. His sudden departure decades ago might still be remembered, and he would be questioned too closely for comfort. “We are almost there, you can smell the iron.”

“Yes. You are from Minami-Katada? When did you leave? What is your family’s name, I wonder?.” he continued.

Kitaro took a chance and replied, “It was the Wada Saburo family. I left as a tiny child to live with my mother’s sister.” he lied.

The old man paused, then said, “The family next to my brother’s. We are still close, even after the killing of Joo, one of the sons. Fortunately, the killer confessed the next day, and was killed.”

Kitaro could not think or speak. In front of the forge, he merely pointed. Then, in a low voice, ‘Who was the killer?”

“One of the Wada boys, Akio.”

Akio had been Kitaro’s closest buddy and friend, a half-brother, through their mother’s third marriage. Akio knew everything concerning Kitaro. They had loved each other deeply, spending hours in the fields talking together.

Kitaro, speechless, looking down, turned and walked back along Third Street towards Rokkaku-do.

And again, the former Tsutaro disappeared and was never found anywhere.

(Submitted to WiK on behalf of Akihito, Zen Monk, by Richard Steiner)

Writers in focus

Reviving an Ancient Buddhist Pilgrimage (Chavez)

Reviving an Ancient Buddhist Pilgrimage

Amy Chavez

A pilgrimage is a magical world brimming with history, beauty and solitude. Shingon Buddhism goes even further by presenting pilgrimage as a mandala, a type of map to the cosmos. These circular routes act as vehicles to enlightenment. There are myriad personal reasons for going on pilgrimage, all of them valid and acceptable, no matter what religious affiliation you may, or may not be. Pilgrimages are there for those who want to tap into their special powers.

The Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage (and its spin-offs) encapsulate the ideals of the mythologist Joseph Campbell. It is a quintessential hero’s journey but infused with the metaphysical aspects of mikkyo 密教. Pilgrimages test both your physical and mental endurance.

Discovery

I knew we had a mini-version of the Shikoku 88 on Shiraishi Island when I moved here in 1997, but there was no map and long stretches of the 10 km route were completely overgrown and impassable.

In 2004, my husband and I decided to try to find all 88 of the shrines. After several weeks of being led down dead-end paths, and battling spiders and other architects of the forest, we managed to locate them all. Equally interesting were the things we found along the way: sacred rocks, bamboo forests, lonely beaches, and the most enchanting views of the Seto Inland Sea. We came across still inhabited houses (with no driveways) that were set so far back off the road you had to walk 15 minutes to get to them. We understood that we had discovered something precious, something akin to the heart and soul of the island.

In 1997 pilgrimaging as a tradition was still being practiced, albeit in an abbreviated form, by pious elderly women who visited particular shrines during the conventional pilgrimaging periods of O-higan.

In Western Japan people still feel a strong urge to go do the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage to pray for parents after they’ve passed away. So pilgrimages like ours have served a dual purpose: to act as a proxy for those who couldn’t make it to Shikoku, and as inspiration for those whose dream was to go to Shikoku.

Indeed, 400 years ago most people couldn’t easily get to Shikoku, so these smaller renditions, scattered throughout Western Japan, popped up to fulfill a demand. Very few, however, have been preserved.

As our island’s population has aged and declined over recent years, it has been a challenge to continue the twice yearly trail clean-ups, the minimum needed to keep the pilgrimage extant. In the winter of 2012 it was finally decided that the island would cease this activity. Fallen trees and disappearing paths are the plagues of the smaller pilgrimages and within six months, ours had degenerated as such. In fact, its defunct status encouraged people to no longer take interest.

Reflection

But there was one pilgrim on the island still diligently walking the route: me.

I contemplated the fact that the 88 sacred sites, with their gods that had been so faithfully looked after for hundreds of years — and who, in turn, looked after us —were being left behind. These deities would no longer receive fresh sakaki branches, flowers or offerings by pilgrims. Among the detritus of the forest would be abandoned Jizos with their knit hats and bibs on. Hidden behind tall weeds and yoshinoki bamboo grass would be Kannon, Goddess of Mercy, who put off her own enlightenment to bring salvation to us all. Soon these stone statues would be the last inhabitants of an abandoned forest, unfindable to even those who dared to search for them.

Surely it is our responsibility to preserve these historical paths, these ancient routes worthy of inspiring wandering poets like Basho. What will happen if we can no longer wonder, nor wander?

I’ve been told that the government can’t provide funds to preserve these ancient Buddhist pilgrimages because people complain when public money is given to support religious activities.

But let’s not confuse religion with spirituality. Nor history. Nature has always been at the heart of Japan’s spirit. Have we given up on becoming one with nature? If nature is man and man is nature, then abandoning nature is the dumbing down of the human spirit.

Action

I started organizing friends from the mainland to come help clean the trails on weekends. I contacted organizations such as Greenbird Okayama and several international schools, all of whom expressed a keen interest in helping me.

After four years of these volunteer activities, we launched our first fund-raiser: The Run with Kobo Daishi 10k Trail Race, of which the proceeds are put back into maintaining the pilgrimage route.

“Our first race was a great success,” I announced at the island’s town meeting. “We had 30 volunteers come help put on the event for 147 registered runners from around Japan. We made enough money to pay for maintenance for the first few kilometers of the pilgrimage route for the next year.”

The lady sitting next to me, a board member on the city council, replied: “I think it’s a little embarrassing that a foreigner is holding this event to help our island. I hope that next year more locals will help Amy with the race.”

While it was true that the islanders hadn’t helped with the event, I was perfectly fine with that. This year, however, strange but wonderful things started happening. Unofficial things, like certain parts of the trail were magically cleaned and a few helpful signs were put up here and there. We still have a long way to go, but changing people’s attitudes is a good start.

Tourism

This Dutch couple came to Shiraishi after completing the Shikoku 88-Temple Pilgrimage. They ended their two-day Shiraishi 88 at the Daishi-do, where they received an official temple stamp朱印 from the Buddhist Priest at Kairyuji Temple. Tourists are given a map, sedge hat and staff to borrow. We also offer accommodation at the Pilgrim’s Lodge.

Tourists have commented that our pilgrimage impresses on a level that the Shikoku Pilgrimage can’t because the Shiraishi Pilgrimage is devoid of Japan’s three C’s: crowds, concrete and commercialism.

The Shiraishi 88 is pilgrimaging in its pure form, the same as it was 400 years ago. There are no groomed or fabricated trails, no fake steps built into the path, no handrails to make it easier. It is a pilgrimage through time and nature, dotted with carpets of moss, tables of rock and lined with Buddhist statuary.

On the Shiraishi Pilgrimage, it’s just you, nature and the gods.

****

The second annual “Run with Kobo Daishi 10k Trail Race” is Sunday, October 29, 2017. This year we’re also adding a family event for children and adults who want to walk a section of the pilgrimage route. Sign ups here: https://www.sportsentry.ne.jp/event/t/70786

For more information on the Shiraishi Pilgrimage, see our Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/shiraishi88/

See you on the island!

**********

For previous pieces by Amy, please see her piece on Serow Island here, or her thoughts on reader comments here.

Writers in focus

Karen Tawarayama’s blog

WiK Competition Organiser Karen Tawarayama runs a blog which investigates the lives of ordinary Kyoto people.  The following interview is extracted from a longer piece which can be found here.  There are now six illustrated pieces altogether on her blog, which looks sure to grow into a rather special resource about the life of people in the ‘real Kyoto’ rather than the tourist one – two cities which overlap but do not coincide. (Her blog site incidentally has recently changed from Squarespace to WordPress, with the new address being kyotofaces.wordpress.com.  For an introduction to Karen, see here and for a previous item about Kyoto Faces click here.)

**********************

“Why did you choose this location to sketch today?”

I chose this location because my friends and I swam in this body of water when we were children. We all joined the local Tousuikai  Swimming Club. There were bars to block off both ends where the water is flowing in a river on either side, and there was even a diving board right in the center. There were long planks of wood that we would stand on and jump off. All of the neighborhood kids belonged to the club, and we all wore red swimming caps. The caps were all marked with our swimming level: 2, 3, etc… There was a boat that went from here, all the way down the river, to Heian Shrine. I swam here a whole lot. Now I’m seventy-seven years old. That was about fifty years ago. I sure made a lot of mischief around here when I was a high school student.

The Kamo River is down the street. When there was a typhoon, some materials, such as planks of wood, would break off from here and there. We would play on top of them and send them floating off down the river when we were done, and we’d get in trouble with the Kyoto City Officials.

I’m the fourth generation of my family to live here in Kyoto. My father worked for the prestigious Shimadzu Coorporation. My grandfather was a candy-maker, craftily using scissors to create shapes like rabbits, etc. His shop was in the Gion area, in a place that Geisha would often frequent.

“What is a big difference between past and present Kyoto?”

The difference between Kyoto then and now is that now, there are so many more rules. You can’t enter there; You can’t swim there. There were so many things we could do in those days. Now it’s a society of prohibitions. Today’s children are inside using computers, playing games. It’s just a different time. Before, we used to run, climb to the top of Mount Daimonji. If the children play outdoors these days, the neighbors get upset and scold them. There are open places to play, but there are still many things you can’t do there. It’s almost just like taking a walk. It’s the same within the wide Imperial Palace Grounds. There are so many prohibited activities… even sparklers aren’t allowed.

In my junior high days, there were big fireworks held along the Kamo River, between Sanjo Street and Oike Street, I think. They were on a huge scale. And once, one of the buildings in the Imperial Palace Grounds caught on fire from a fallen ember, and then that event was prohibited. I feel sorry for today’s children.

“When did you start sketching?”

Three years ago, my wife developed lung cancer and was admitted to Kyoto University Hospital. She was released and then re-admitted over a one-and-a-half year period. During that time, the cancer spread from her lungs into her brain. She was getting weaker and weaker, and we were told by the doctors that the treatment she was undergoing would no longer have any effect. So, it came to that point. I continued to care for her at home, and it was very expensive. It was my first such experience as a human being, and I feel the first time my eyes were really open to my wife. Then, she passed away, and I felt for the first time as if I had the realization of what makes us human.

After her passing, I had been at home doing absolutely nothing for about a week, and my son recommended to me that I should take up a hobby. I thought, even if I’m not good at it, I’ll start sketching pictures here and there which really reflect who I am. These will be for me. For my memories. I’ll draw all of the places I went with my wife. My wife and I took a lot of walks together. To Heian Shrine, for example. She also loved snowy scenes, so I drew a picture of the snow in Ohara.

I’ve been drawing for about two-and-a-half years now, and the process has become really enjoyable for me. I’ve started thinking, “Hey, I’ve done pretty well on this one,” and my daughter compliments me on ones she feels are especially pretty. Or she comments, “Oh, that’s the place you went with Mom.” Most of the drawings are places we went together, so I’ve been connecting this hobby with my happy memories. That was the starting point for it all.

I wanted to take my wife on one last vacation so we drove by small car, all the way to Mount Fuji, and stayed by Lake Kawaguchi. I knew it would be the last time, but she had been dreaming of going there. We went by car because her bones had become so weak by the cancer treatment, and she needed to use a wheelchair. That was my last chance to make memories for her. It took about eight hours to get there, but I’m glad I did it.

 

 

Poetry and improv

WiK was able to showcase its talent at a Poetry and Improv event held Sunday, June 6 at the Gnome Irish Pub. On display were five of our best poets, including Frost scholar Mark Richardson, WiK Competition winner Mayumi Kawaharada, poet-photographer James Woodham, the poems of A.J. Dickinson, and a tribute reading of Edith Shiffert’s poetry by John Einarsen. Plus a bonus ‘Fireflies’ poem by Ken Rodgers at the end.  The poetry was interspersed with improvised musical interludes by Preston Keido Houser on shakuhachi and Gary Tegler on saxophone.  A superlative evening full of magical moments. You could say the poets hit the right note, while the musicians took it to a different level. (iphone pics by John D., poems by Preston Keido Houser)

 

‘Mondo’

Why in the world
is why
in the world?
Why not not?

Just so because no.

 

  

‘Refugees’

The island of smart is out there
visible on the horizon,
Accessible, but one must swim
across a sea of stupid.

Alas, most drown on the way.

Writers in focus

Three pomes by A.J.

A.J. in good spirits, mind fully engaged, legs occasionally AWOL

over time monk

striking

with the stick
for back pay
this sitting life
the bowels clear
brings satisfaction
immovable quiet cheer
over time
must drink & eat again
sate then deflate

then just fall in

sitting is

as sitting does
standing
walking
sleeping
union too
this breath
not separate
forever never
white hair
white clouds
blue sky
flowings
timeless faceless
mountains seas
planets quarks
atoms galaxies
…..over………

waking up deep

in the unseparate dark

under this sky-skin

i breath the fresh crisp air

taste the flex of light

feel the uncoiling stretch of sinews

the growing reaching branches limbs

singing life

budding life

sitting breathing

stretching stillness

this wondrous delight

 

suchness,

yours, ours, embracing, walking
the quarky mountains
resounding valleys streams
of our beings so vast so tiny
this moving flowing heart mind

the freshness inside
snow line flowers
waterfalls of light
the dust of civilizations
stars eons lava ice sparkling life

so briefly joined in space
under ever changing skins, aging agelessness
each particulate every wave temporary
passing through, birthing, together, untogether
dark bright interconnected being

a momentary comet a firefly a spark yet we breathe
such feelings such perceptions such changings
such distance such immediacy such interconnections
so much in each breath, breathing breathing us
such great grace we are this is

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