Michael Lambe is best known as the writer of Deep Kyoto blog, an ongoing online guide to finding fun and sustenance in Japan’s ancient capital. More recently he has been busy working for other websites too; writing for Inside Kyoto and KyotoStation.com, and editing the ZenVita architectural blog. Other articles have appeared in a variety of publications such as CNN Travel, Le Pan Magazine, Japan Today, Kansai Scene, Kyoto Journal and Kyoto Visitor’s Guide. In 2014 he co-edited with Ted Taylor the Deep Kyoto: Walks anthology, which was released initially as an e-book with plans for a hard copy in 2016.
In this interview Ted Taylor delves a little into Michael’s interests and obsessions, and uncovers topics as diverse as myth and haiku, cafes and gardens, Japanese architecture and trainspotting.
You are a man of two worlds. As an Irishman, raised in England, how strong were Irish influences during your upbringing?
I had two very strong Irish influences on my childhood: my mom and my dad. And probably in that order too. Actually, I didn’t fully comprehend that I was Irish until I was about 7 or 8 years old. It was right after the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations in the UK. There was bunting and patriotic fervor all over the place, and we were all singing God Save the Queen at school… and then one day my dad told me that I was Irish. Ultimately, this led me to the realization that nationalism and patriotism are based on accidents of birth and thereby illusory nonsense. At the time though, I was simply confused.
Actually, I still feel confused. Whenever anyone asks me where I am from, I say “England” to keep it simple. But it always feels like a half-truth.
Do you have any favorite Irish books or writers?
I do. When I was about 16 or 17 years old, I discovered in my school library, a copy of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds. This book made a huge impression on me. I thought the playful and experimental structure of the novel brilliant, and I loved the comedic interplay of fantastical myth with mundane modernity. I was overjoyed that such things were possible. It seemed to open up endless worlds.
In recent years, I have discovered the works of the late philosopher-poet, John Moriarty. He wrote a completely mad book called Invoking Ireland which really inspires me. It’s all about ancient Irish myth and history, and a kind of spiritual vision he calls “silver branch perception” (a term he takes from Celtic legend). The phrase haunts me. In Moriarty’s vision, silver branch perception can help us see beyond the shabby materialism of short-term capitalist greed, reconnect us with lost ancestral energies and helps us find our soul’s sustenance in the natural landscape. And that’s just for starters! He was a strange man, maybe a bit mad. But we need strange men like that, to shout at us from the wild places and wake us up again. I often think Japan needs such a poet, to dive deep into its psyche and retell the old stories so that they heal us, and heal our relationship with the land before it is completely covered in concrete. — And to heal our relationship with other lands too, before all those self-styled political “realists” drag us off to war… Unfortunately, native Japanese mythology has a long history of being pressed into the service of political and nationalistic ends… It’s time someone took it back for the common weal.
Do you see any points of contact between Irish and Japanese mythology?
One point of contact is that both in Ireland and Japan there is a literary tradition of conversing with the dead. You see this in Japanese Noh drama, where a traveler encounters the ghost of an unquiet soul and that soul finds some peace in relating their story. In the case of medieval Irish literature, the old saints were forever entering into dialogues with long deceased legendary heroes. It was a way for the Christian people at that time to reevaluate their pagan past. I find it interesting that both in Ireland and Japan, there is this expressed need to communicate with your ancestors. W. B. Yeats seems to have responded to it too, as he used Noh plays as a model for his own ritualistic dramas.
Getting back to your past, when did you first think that you wanted to write?
I must have been about 8. I remember a lesson on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in primary school. We learned how he died before he could finish them. I thought it was such a pity, and it occurred to me then that I would like to finish them for him.
Up until that point I wanted to be a cowboy.
Other than John Wayne… what are your greatest influences as a writer?
I have an abiding love of genre fiction and popular entertainments. Though I don’t read them so much these days, writers like Ray Bradbury, Stephen King and Tolkien were my early heroes. And I’m still a big fan of Raymond Chandler. Ultimately, I would like to write spooky little ghost stories in the style of M. R. James.
So, how did you end up in Japan?
Many threads pulled me here. Studying modern poetry in university, I became intrigued by the influence of traditional Japanese poetic forms, in particular the startling juxtaposition of images in haiku. Later on I discovered the poetry of the Zen monk Ryōkan and was charmed. And then there were art exhibitions, in particular an exhibition of landscapes by Utagawa Hiroshige that made a huge impression on me. I had never seen art that touched me that way before.
What books on Japan really capture the heart of this place?
Hmm. That’s a tough one. I don’t know if I could say it “captures” the place, but Alex Kerr’s Lost Japan helped me to fall in love with Japan once long, long ago…
Did you decide to start Deep Kyoto as a means of capturing this city?
Not at all. I wanted to write a blog that would be of practical use to people. I knew there was plenty of information available on cultural sites in Kyoto, but there seemed at the time to be a dearth of material on good places to eat and drink. I’d see foreign tourists, hovering outside unfamiliar establishments and then losing their nerve and going into familiar places like MacDonald’s instead. Of course even if they ventured into a Japanese restaurant, they wouldn’t know what to order, but this seemed an awful shame. Why travel halfway across the world just to drink coffee in a Starbucks? At the same time a lot of really good, unique, independent businesses were struggling to make ends meet. I thought a blog recommending such places would do everyone a favor: the tourists, the businesses, and me too because my favorite cafes and eateries wouldn’t close down.
DK began mainly as a means of introducing Kyoto cafes and eateries, but has since drifted into announcing events and even into political demonstrations. Where do you see it moving next?
Well, though I started off with food and drink, it’s not a topic that really inspires me. I find it far more interesting to explore the local living culture, tradition and history. So you’ll be seeing more of that. And plenty of flowers too, because I love Kyoto’s gardens.
Recently your writing has begun to be seen more widely. Do you have any large projects in the works?
I have a lot on my plate actually. This year I began writing a monthly article for Chris Rowthorn’s Inside Kyoto site. These are big articles in which I thoroughly explore a given location or a Kyoto related theme. Writing these pieces has given me the chance to get deeper into that culture and history that I mentioned earlier.
Since last summer I have also been writing a lot of content for the Japan Station project, which is a network of websites providing guidance on all aspects of travel and transportation in Japan’s major cities. As a result I spend a lot of time in stations taking pictures of trains. Basically I’m a paid trainspotter.
Another side project that I’m rather excited about, is editing the ZenVita blog. ZenVita is a new Kyoto based startup that acts as a middleman between Japanese architects and potential customers overseas. Their blog covers Japanese architecture and design, whether that be about traditional Japanese aesthetics or about current trends. They have quite an impressive list of local architects on their roll, and the blog will also feature interviews about their current projects. This whole area is one I am instinctively attracted to, but have never had time to fully explore before, so I find it all quite fascinating.
Finally, as you know, there is still the hard copy version of the Deep Kyoto: Walks anthology to produce. Though it has been a year since the e-book was released, I’m still excited about the project as the hard copy will have lots of extras: more writers, more photography and more haiku! I think people will be surprised and impressed with the final results.
What aspects of Kyoto are most attractive to you? What repels you?
I like the palpable sense of history here, the way it permeates and interacts with the present. With its ancient temples and pachinko parlours, its Zen gardens and high rise apartment blocks, Kyoto is a city of queer contrasts. These contrasts can be energizing and fuel your creativity. However, when you regularly see, beautiful old buildings being knocked down for yet another monstrous concrete block – well, that’s depressing to say the least.
To repeat a question you asked me: What do you see as your greatest achievement?
Love and friendship. You would be a part of that.
I concur… So what then would you like written on your tombstone?
Actually rather than a stone, I’d like to have an organic burial with a tree planted on top. A simple plaque on the tree saying “Michael’s Tree” would suffice.
You also write haiku. Before you go, can you write one including the words ‘Kyoto’ and ‘Deep?’
Without regard to syllable count, here’s two:
Kyoto machiya townhouse –
deep in the shadow
of a high-rise block
Take a deep breath –
by Kyoto’s Kamo river
a kite has snatched your lunch
This interview is a follow-up to Michael’s interview with Ted Taylor which you can read here: http://www.writersinkyoto.com/2015/07/featuring-ted-taylor/