Writers In Kyoto

English-language authors in Japan’s old imperial capital

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Writers in focus

Kyoto and food

Kyoto: The City of Hungry Gods (by John F. Ashburne)

October 12, 2016

Kyoto: The City of Hungry Gods

John Ashburne, Food Writer for Louis Vuitton City Guide Kyoto introduces the wonderful food culture of Japan’s ancient Imperial capital


It was born, wrote the old Poets, as the city of celestial spirits, where temples outnumbered even the Gods, and the very water that sprang from the earth was purer than the dew on the lotus leaves of the gardens of Nirvana. Its fame ‘spread to the four known corners of the terrestrial earth’.

Alas somewhere, something got lost in translation. Although Fifty million domestic tourists visit Kyoto annually to marvel at its seventeen World Heritage sites, its temples and shrines, its stone gardens, and its impossibly elegant ryotei restaurants, internationally it has rarely gleaned significant mention.

Budda Statue at Kuridani Temple

Budda Statue at Kuridani Temple

Most heinously, the great star in Kyoto’s cultural crown, its massively sophisticated and alluring food culture, has, until recently, passed beneath the international global tourist radar completely.

The city’s signature cuisine is Kyo-Ryori, a catch-all term that encompasses the sophisticated multi-course kaiseki and chakaiseki feasts associated with the tea-ceremony, and the nuanced vegetarian fare that constitutes the Buddhist, and in particular, Zen culinary arts.

Directly translated Kyo-Ryori simply means ‘Kyoto food’, yet the phrase is synonymous with the ultimate in quality, service, refinement, omotenashi hospitality, and luxuriant style. It emerged from a unique combination of factors historical, artistic and geographic.

An abundance of natural spring water and fertile soil provided the essentials. However the city’s remove from the ocean posed, in the centuries before refrigeration, a serious logistical problem for the non-meat eating Buddhist enclave.

Raw materials were thin on the ground, and the hot humid summers made matters worse. Kyoto chefs had to develop new ways of salting, preserving and pickling fish, and using soy beans and locally-grown vegetables Kyo-yasai to satisfy the dietary demands of the ubiquitous priesthood. Thus from its very outset, Kyo-ryori has been associated with innovation.

Autumn themed Hassun Sushi at Kikunoi honten

Autumn themed Hassun Sushi at Kikunoi honten

When, in 794, the capital moved to Kyoto, the city’s kitchens and markets had to fulfill the needs of an even more important customer, Tenno, the Emperor, and the hugely powerful imperial court. Despite the paucity of raw materials, chefs had to produce new and ever-more entertaining cuisine. As master-chef Toshio Murata of Kikunoi Honten explains, “It was a difficult and dangerous business. If a cook’s dishes displeased the imperial retinue, it was ‘Off with his head!”

The threat of imminent decapitation proved an effective spur to culinary creativity, but it was a gentler, more benign influence that was to move Kyo-ryori to even more exalted heights. The newly emerged aristocratic art of sado the tea ceremony, demanded a culinary accompaniment that incorporated wabi-sabi aesthetics of beauty in impermanence. Thus was born chakaiseki, the beautifully-crafted antecedent of all formal Kyo-Ryori.

Centuries later Kyoto and its cuisine have finally arrived on the international stage. In 2010 the modern sages of the Michelin guides awarded 85 Kyoto restaurants the sum total of 129 stars, with seven receiving the coveted three-star accolade. This year the LV City Guide showcased a hundred and forty eateries that reflect the city’s unique ‘cultural DNA’.

And so it should be. After all, as the Poets remind us, this is the city of the spirits. And the Gods, even in Nirvana, are always hungry.

John’s Top 10 Kyoto Dining Experiences:


  1. High-class Traditional Cuisine at Kikunoi Honten

  2. Home-crafted Artisanal Fare at Ryozanpaku

  3. Contemporary Kaiseki at Ultra-chic Hana Kitcho

  4. Wonderful Fish Dishes at Ranmaru

  5. Exquisite Sushi at Sushidokoro Man

  6. Pike Conger Cuisine at Kappo Nakagawa Shijo

  7. The Art of Tofu at Shoraian

  8. Strolling and Eating at Nishiki-Koji Market Arcade

  9. The Taste of Tradition at Honke Owariya Honten

  10. Gourmet Green Tea at Ippodo


A version of this article originally appeared in the award-winning luxury travel and lifestyle magazine DestinAsian, the prime publication for those who love to travel, and travel in style in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. Sincerest thanks for their permission to reprint it here. Photos © John F. Ashburne.

Please visit The Foodies go Local website by clicking here.

Featured writing

Tokyo and Kyoto differences (Eric Johnston)

The differences between Tokyo and Kyoto have often been commented on, though as far as I’m aware no one has addressed the effect this has on the writing that comes out of the two cities, particularly as regards the expatriate community.  It’s with great pleasure therefore that we are able to offer a ground-breaking article on the subject by Eric Johnston, in which he generously gives mention to Writers in Kyoto, including member John Ashburne, and to Kyoto Journal. The article below first appeared in No. 1 Shimbun is the monthly magazine of the Tokyo-based Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, whose nearly 3,000 members include foreign and Japanese journalists, writers, photographers, filmmakers, government officials, diplomats, business leaders and cultural figures. The vast majority of FCCJ members live or work in Tokyo, but a few can be found in other parts of Japan and abroad. Articles are written and edited by, and for, FCCJ’s membership and focus on journalism in Japan and club issues. Back copies, in PDF form, are publicly available at: <http://www.fccj.or.jp/number-1-shimbun.html

Though few in number, Kansai’s writers and journalists reflect a different perspective than their Tokyo-based counterparts.
by Eric Johnston

Eric at a WiK meeting in 2015 held with the head of Tuttle and his wife (photo Dougill)

For virtually all Japan-based foreign journalists, Tokyo is home base. Naturally, their views of Japanese politics, economics, and society tend to draw heavily on Tokyo-based sources. Thus, unconsciously or not, this “Tokyo view” of Japan, with all of its advantages and limitations, becomes the lens through which they – and their readers – see Japan as a whole.

Kansai is the only region that has a sizable foreign community of writers, photographers, and video documentarians capable of providing the outside world with a moderate amount of non-Tokyo-biased foreign journalism regarding Japan. Compared to the professionals in FCCJ, however, much of the work of Kansai-based journalists is not the kind of hard news that editors and producers overseas want for their daily papers, websites or TV stations.

Kyoto has long been the center for Kansai-based foreigners writing about Japan – and not just the Noh-Kabuki-tea ceremony-geisha aspects of traditional Japan that Kyoto embodies. Those remain key subjects, of course. But writers and photographers in Kyoto also use the discipline needed to practice such traditional arts, and the observations gained from doing so, in their approach to tackling broader themes related to Japan, Asia and the world.

Kyoto has long been the center for Kansai-based writing about Japan – and not just about the Noh-Kabuki-tea ceremony-geisha aspects that Kyoto embodies

While there is no equivalent to the FCCJ in Kyoto, in 2015, a group called “Writers in Kyoto” was formed by author John Dougill, whose book In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians was reportedly read by Martin Scorsese as he prepared to film Shusaku Endo’s Silence. Its members include a wide variety of Kyoto-based writers, bloggers, essayists and journalists, including some with freelance experience with major international media. Guest speakers have included Karl van Wolferen and Robert Whiting, as well as local Kyoto-based writers who talk about covering the city as guidebook writers, but also as amateur social anthropologists – which is one definition of being a journalist.

THE CENTER FOR KYOTO writing and journalistic efforts, though, has long been Kyoto Journal. The all-volunteer publication is now celebrating its 30th anniversary, and while Kyoto Journal is widely admired for its photography and graphic design, it has also long served as a laboratory of sorts for all types of writers, often producing excellent magazine journalism by any standard.


Kyoto Journal is widely admired for its photography and graphic design, but it has also long served as a laboratory of sorts for all types of writers. (photo Johnston)

That approach has resulted in an eclectic history of fascinating themes and articles. A 1991 issue entitled “Kyoto Speaks,” a collection of long interviews with 58 Kyoto residents, ranging from a street vendor to a member of Japan’s old aristocracy, remains one of the finest collections of English-language journalism on the Japanese people – as opposed to Japanese political events, social developments, technological advancements or cultural trends – to ever appear.

A 1995 issue, called “Word,” traced the history and development of words and languages. A 2001 issue, “Media in Asia,” included an interview with Richard Lloyd Parry of the Times. And, in September 2010, Kyoto Journal produced an issue on biodiversity that had several pieces on Japan’s practice of satoyama. The magazine was distributed to delegates at the United Nations Conference on Biodiversity, which met in Nagoya that autumn (disclaimer: I contributed to the issue).

Like so many of its magazine brethren around the world who faced financial crunches in the internet age, Kyoto Journal was forced to go entirely online in an attempt to save money after the Biodiversity issue. However, some print versions are now scheduled to return later this year.

But it remains a place to go to for journalists, writers and aspirants. Founding Editor John Einarsen says that one big difference is that Kyoto Journal is all-volunteer and not “professional” like Tokyo’s media, where a writer’s qualifications and educational background often play a role as to whether an editor considers a submission. “We are a platform where anyone can share their creative work” he says, “but we want to feature those who are genuinely into their subject.”

He sees that approach as offering more opportunity for young writers in particular. “I don’t think we have a bias. We don’t say, for example, ‘Oh, this person graduated from Columbia Journalism School.’ If their work has heart and you can see it, then it doesn’t matter if they’re beginners or professionals,” he says.

KYOTO JOURNAL HAS A reputation for being ultra-liberal, though a careful reading of their articles over the years actually allows one to make an argument that they are “conservative” in the sense that many writers advocate or pay respect to the conservation or preservation of traditional cultures and lifestyles.

Ken Rodgers making a point to one of KJ’s many avid readers (photo Dougill)

But even if one applies the admittedly outdated tag of “liberal,” Associate Editor Susan Pavloska asks what’s wrong with that? “The word ‘liberal’ has become an insult in the U.S.,” she says. “But what’s wrong with being in favor of freedom? We have never felt the need to publish a line along the lines of ‘the views of this piece do not necessarily represent the views of Kyoto Journal.’”

The focus of Kyoto Journal has also expanded far beyond Kyoto, so that many of its articles today are about the larger Asian region. Managing Editor Ken Rodgers describes the ideal submission: “We look for value that goes beyond style or technical skill,” he says. “Genuineness, a commitment to engagement with society and culture. Writing from the heart. And, of course, a connection – preferably first-hand – with Asia.”

Japan’s travel boom over the past few years has benefitted Kyoto, and Associate Editor Lucinda Cowing says the boom has worked in Kyoto Journal’s favor in some ways, but not in others. “People see the name and think that we are a travel magazine dedicated entirely to the city. On occasion, they even send in messages on Facebook asking for restaurant recommendations, or express disappointment on posts shared about China, or another Asian country, on the grounds that they followed us purely because they want content about Kyoto.”

All of the publication’s editors admit that there has been pressure from various quarters to drop the word “Kyoto” from the name. But as an established brand name, they feel no need. Japanese firms who have advertised with Kyoto Journal on various social media platforms have been happy with the results, Cowing says.

John Ashburne, a Kyoto-based freelancer who has written for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes, and is now editor of Foodies Go Local, a website focusing on Japan’s local cuisine and culinary traditions, says being located in Kyoto means different things to different kinds of editors. “Overseas editors tend to fall into two categories, those who know Japan and those who consider all of Asia pretty much one amorphous blob,” Ashburne says. “Naturally, the latter don’t care too much about my location, until I suggest they’ll need to foot up around US$300 to get myself up to Tokyo and back. That’s when they develop an awareness of Japanese geography.”

Ashburne says that Japan-literate editors are also split into two camps. “They either assume I am a journalistic bumpkin, as nothing newsworthy happens west of Hachioji, or I must be a wise and wizened old sage who meditates daily, eats only tofu and can thus only produce stories about Buddhism, food, and anything likely to not offend. Being Kyoto-based channels you towards cultural commentary whether you like it or not.”

He believes Kyoto teaches patience. “In any journalistic context relationships need to be cultivated,” Ashburne says. “But down here such matters are taken to a new level. Ancient connectivity and ancient traditions generate a strong conservatism that is hard to ‘breach’ with an investigative mindset. Getting information is tough. Processing it is harder. Thus, the ability to wait, sit out situations, listen and take time is essential. Share a cup of tea. Again. And again and again.”

SO, IS THERE A “Kyoto School of Foreign Writing and Journalism About Japan?” Yes and no. Career-wise, those in Kyoto who write for publications do so on either a volunteer or a part-time basis, relying – like many FCCJ freelancers – on non-journalism gigs to pay the bills. Nobody in Kyoto, as far as I know, is working full-time for a major overseas media organization covering general Japan news, with the possible exception of a Japanese local hire who once introduced himself as the “Kyoto correspondent” for China’s Xinhua News Agency.

Alex Kerr with Kathy Sokol at the book launch held with WiK for the publication of ‘Another Kyoto’ last autumn

Intellectually, though, one of the most original works of “journalism” about Japan to come out in book form over the past three decades was 2001’s Dogs and Demons, by Kyoto-based Alex Kerr. A long-term resident, Kerr wrote about the political, social and aesthetic corruption of Japan in the late 20th century, and the physical devastation that resulted. He wrote from the viewpoint of someone with a strong aesthetic sense honed in Kyoto, in an informed and deeply passionate way that no Tokyo-based foreign hack has ever managed to match.

Kerr’s works, along with Kyoto Journal’s philosophy, form the basis of a journalistic approach that is arguably a more aesthetic, historical, and intellectual approach to observing modern Japan, especially its people, than one finds in Tokyo. It is not necessarily an “anti-Tokyo” approach. Unlike Osaka, where disdaining Tokyo is a public sport, Kyoto residents, foreign and Japanese, often appreciate the capital city’s charms and energy, though many would prefer to remain in Kyoto if they could. For those seeking an international journalism career who want to get paid on a full-time (or even a more than half-time) basis, Tokyo remains virtually the only real option.

So perhaps “school” is really the most appropriate word to describe Kyoto’s foreign journalism scene. Most if not all Kyoto “students” eventually graduate and move on, but never quite forget the lessons and approach to Japan, and to life, learned in the Kyoto classroom.


Eric Johnston is a staff writer with the Japan Times. The opinions expressed within are his own and not necessarily those of the newspaper.  For his advice to new writers, see here.  For his argument in favour of the vital role of foreign correspondents, see here.


Published in: June 2017

Writers in focus

Japan Times anniversary speech (Eric Johnston)

At the recent party to celebrate the 120th anniversary of The Japan Times (see here), the host and main speaker was Eric Johnston whose speech was dubbed the highlight of a glittering evening.  Here by popular demand is the talk he delivered, and our great thanks to him for supplying this fine piece of rhetoric. (For more about Eric, see here.)


By Eric Johnston, Deputy Editor, The Japan Times.
Osaka Office, May 26th, 2017

Good Evening. My name is Eric Johnston, and I’m deputy editor with The JT’s Osaka office. Thanks for coming out to help us celebrate the 120th anniversary of The Japan Times. I don’t want to bore you with a long speech, but allow me to take a few minutes to talk about the paper’s history.

When The Japan Times was founded in 1897, having an English language newspaper in Japan was not a new idea. In Kobe, the Hiogo News, the Hiogo and Osaka Herald, and the Kobe Chronicle had come and, in some cases, gone. Yokohama had The Japan Herald and the satirical Japan Punch among others. And in Tokyo, American journalist Edward H. House, an acquaintance of Mark Twain, published The Tokio Times in the late 1870s.

The goal of The Japan Times was to explain Japanese politics and diplomacy from a Japanese viewpoint, and to introduce Japanese culture to Western readers. In 1898, we ran adaptations of “Kanjincho’’, “The Revenge of the Soga Brothers’’, and “Terakoya’’ and published them in book form under the title Classical Tales of Old Japan. We believe that there are only about three copies of this book in existence today, including one here in Kyoto, at Kyoto University.

Via the international wire services, we provided coverage of major events abroad. When World War I ended on Nov. 11, 1918, there were celebrations nationwide. Here in Kyoto, legend has it that guests at the Miyako Hotel gave champagne toasts. I like to envision what it must have been like in the hotel’s main dining room and bar that day, full of Taisho Era dandies and ladies with copies of The Japan Times in hand, reading about the end of the war, getting roaring drunk, and dancing to the sounds of Al Jolson, Enrico Caruso, or to a popular song by Shinpei Nakayama.

When The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 hit, it looked as if we might not survive. But we reappeared, in reduced size, four days after the quake struck on September 1st. Our offices destroyed, we relocated temporarily to the Imperial Hotel, one of the few buildings left standing and the center for expat life in Tokyo.

The 1930s and 1940s were a difficult time. Censorship was strong and the government forced other English papers to merge with the by-then quasi-official Japan Times. Unlike the Mainichi Shimbun, which hid a shortwave radio in the women’s restroom to secretly listen to overseas broadcasts, we did not have access to a “benjo wire service’’ and were strictly monitored. We also had to rename ourselves the Nippon Times.

The post-war era saw the Occupation with its own censorship requirements, but also prosperity that continued up to, and through, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and 1970 Osaka Expo. It was in 1970 that The Japan Times opened its Osaka office. Technology was advancing, but reporters continued to use typewriters well into the 1980s. For those under the age of 30 who don’t know what a “typewriter’’ is, feel free to start Googling now!

Japan’s postwar success culminated in the 1980s. It was the era of “Japan As Number One’’, with unprecedented international interest in, and fear of, Japanese business practices. Our readership climbed as people from around the world came to Japan to study and work and Japanese went abroad like never before. It was the era of “internationalization’’, but also of every form of excess that would lead to the “lost decades’’ once the bubble economy crashed.

The 21st century has so far seen unprecedented political and social upheavals and accelerated climate change. In Japan it’s seen the devastating events of March 11, 2011 that we’re still dealing with. It’s also brought a technological revolution, especially in my field. Long gone are the days when, after filing a single story, a reporter headed off to the bar (tonight being an exception for some of us!). A 24-hour news cycle means daily deadlines, not a single deadline, and never really being off-duty. Journalism today is not a profession for those who prefer a routine 9 to 5 existence.

Yet in an era where anyone with an opinion, a conspiracy theory, and a website can call themselves a “journalist’’, real journalism is more vital than ever. Real journalism means reporting and editing by those who are careful, experienced, knowledgeable, fair-minded, and value the truth, even when it contradicts their own opinions. When it comes to the presentation of facts, real reporters and editors follow a simple rule: when in doubt, leave it out.

Somebody very wise once said: “Write when you’re drunk. Edit when you’re sober.’’ Sober journalism is not always as fun to read or as easy to turn out as plausible-sounding lies on a propaganda-site-disguised-as-media-outlet. But it’s critical for a diverse, intelligent, tolerant, and democratic society, a goal I know all of you share.

And that’s really who we at The Japan Times are writing for: you. All of you. We’re incredibly fortunate that you, our readers, are intelligent, curious about the world, and care deeply about a society that is just, fair, protects the weak as well as the strong, and values honest attempts to get at the truth. In these times, when parts of the world are turning away from such values, you are a pleasure to write for.

So I’ll end my presentation by saying, on behalf of all of us at The Japan Times, thank you. Thank you for being our readers and supporters. Thank you for having high standards, and thank you for always pushing us to do our best. If we have helped you understand Japan and the world, even – and especially – when you disagree with us, then we have done our job. Please continue to support us in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead.

Thank you very much.


For Eric’s piece on the need for foreign correspondents, please see here.

At the anniversary party panels were displayed with pages from past editions of The Japan Times, including front pages announcing the Tokyo earthquake and the death of Emperor Hirohito. Capturing the moment is author, Alex Kerr.



Japan Times anniversary

Across a crowded room of celebrants at the 120th anniversary of the Japan Times

The Japan Times celebrated its 120th anniversary in style with a lively gathering at Cafe Maaru last weekend. As well as admin staff from its Tokyo office, in attendance were cultural attaches from the British, American and Australian consulates in Kansai, plus a number of  writers, reporters and columnists. The whole event was put together by WiK member Eric Johnston, deputy editor and head of the Kansai office. It was quite a scoop since so far no such anniversary party is planned for Tokyo.

The newspaper began in late Meiji times, in 1897, with the explicit intent of easing misunderstanding between Japanese and foreign residents based in their enclaves of Tokyo, Yokohama and Kobe.  The Unequal Treaties by which the foreign powers had imposed ‘extraterritoriality’ on Japan meant that foreigners were tried in separate courts and could escape Japanese justice. This was the cause of great friction and came to an end in 1899.

The host for the evening, Eric Johnston

The Japan Times was set up with funding from major organisations, including the Bank of Japan, largely under the aegis of the influential thinker, Yukichi Fukuzawa. His relative, Sueji Yamada, became the first president of the company, and Motosada Zumoto, secretary for prime minister Hirobumi Ito, became the first editor-in-chief.

An earlier publication with the same name, started by an Englishman in 1865 in Yokohama, was incorporated into the new venture, as were The Japan Chronicle (British oriented) and The Japan Advertiser (American oriented).  By the 1930s, all English language newspapers in Japan had been merged into one organ.  It remains the only independent English language newspaper in Japan, with the current rivals being tied to their mother publications (Daily Yomiuri and Asahi).

In a moving speech full of rhetorical flourishes, Eric Johnston gave a memorable ‘Obamaesque’ reminder that in any age a vigilant press is vital to democracy, with the present times in particular need of an independent voice able to speak truth to authority. For writers in Kyoto, as for all expat authors, The Japan Times offers one of the few remaining platforms for informed and insightful articles.  And in these dark days it continues to be a beacon of light in support of such humane ideals as justice, fairness and respect for differences.

Sadly, several other publications have not survived the changing economic conditions, and Kansai Time Out for instance has long since passed on (how good it was to see ex-proprietor David Jack and former editor, Dominic Al-Badri at the party).  It is up to us readers and contributors to make sure that The Japan Times never goes the same way, for that would be a tragedy beyond contemplation.  Let us rather pledge to ensure that by our financial and moral support The Japan Times lives on to enjoy another 120 years as ‘Japan’s window to the world’!  As long as it survives, the spirit of mutual understanding and enrichment will surely live on too.

Guardian correspondent, Justin McCurry

Guardian correspondent Justin McCurry gave a talk at Ryukoku University on Friday which was open to WiK members, and four of us were in attendance, namely Paul Carty, Amy Chavez, Malcolm Benson and John D. Justin’s talk was perfectly pitched for the students attending, while at the same time providing some thought-provoking content. In the photo for instance he holds up one of the many items from a large and heavy bag which he has to lug around on assignments. This is because rather than just using pen and paper, the modern ‘cyber-journalist’ is expected to record interviews, take videos, photographs and provide instant information for a 24 hour deadline. A far cry indeed from the leisurely drunken correspondents I remember from my youth in the Middle East!
Justin has been in Japan for some 20 years, and came into journalism from English-language teaching via copy-editing for the Daily Yomiuri. Since 2003 he’s been working for the Guardian, covering not just Japan, but Korea – South and North! Considering the global importance of the area, it seems an almost impossible job for one person. Yet it’s no different elsewhere, for he gave the figures for South-east Asia as a whole: 2 Guardian correspondents in China; 1 in Bangkok; and 1 in Australia.
Other interesting bits of information concerned the very limited number of English-language correspondents based in Tokyo. Some ten organisations in all, drawing on the same Reuters and AP new sources. It explains why the media all seem to run the same stories, for the resources are so stretched.
And what exactly are the main stories about Japan? Justin gave us a list of the most common topics he’s regularly asked for by head office. Food (washoku is in vogue); prime minister Abe (what exactly is he up to?); Fukushima (toxic or not?); Geisha (a perennial fascination); tourism (hot topic); yakuza (like geisha a symbol of exotic Japan); current trends such as robots and sexless marriage. Finally the controversial matters of Yasukuni/WW2 plus the animal rights issues of whaling and Taiji dolpins.
The latter topics were picked up by Justin as illustrative of the differences between the English-language media and that of Japan. This is particularly evident in the nuance of the wording, which unconsciously shapes people’s minds. English-lang press talks of the ‘slaughtering’ of whales; Japanese press considers they are being ‘harvested’. When English lang media talks of ‘sex slaves’, Japanese talks of ‘those known as comfort women’.
The matter of ‘kisha clubs’ and the control of information through self-censorship was brought up too, with Justin pointing out that the word ‘meltdown’ was used by the Western press about the Fukushima ‘disaster’ after 7-10 days, whereas the Japanese press did not mention the word until several months afterwards in conjunction with the ‘accident’ that had taken place.
One of the dangers of reporting here is the demand for ‘wacky Japan’ stories, and Justin illustrated just how dangerous the issue of ‘fake news’ could be through articles that spread worldwide concerning a Japanese craze for ‘eyeball-licking’. This turned out to be completely false, but nonetheless matched people’s expectations for the kind of weirdness associated with Japan.
And what of the future? Will there continue to be a printed Guardian? Will its fabulously successful website continue to be free? Justin foresaw some kind of paywall being necessary to provide revenue for the news organisation, but at this stage no one can say for sure because things are changing so rapidly. One thing we can say, though, is that with his affable nature and level-headedness, Justin provides assurance for those of us living here that Far Eastern affairs will be covered in a dispassionate and insightful manner.

Justin McCurry is the Japan and Korea correspondent for The Guardian and Observer newspapers in London. As a foreign correspondent with more than 10 years’ experience, he has covered numerous news events, notably the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Earlier this month he travelled to South Korea to write about increasing tensions over North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.


Justin McCurry read economics at the London School of Economics (LSE) and gained an MA in Japanese Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University. He was a copy editor and reporter at the Daily Yomiuri in Osaka before moving to Tokyo to become a full-time foreign correspondent for The Guardian in late 2003. He also contributes to the Lancet medical journal in London and reports and narrates scripts on Asia-Pacific topics for France 24 TV.

Dinner with Norman Waddell

NORMAN WADDELL born in Washington, D.C. in 1940, was attracted to Japan by the works of the legendary D.T. Suzuki and his protégée R. H. Blyth, taught at Otani University for over thirty years, and was editor of the Eastern Buddhist Journal for several decades. He has published more than a dozen books on Japanese Zen Buddhism by at least six different publishers, and according to Counterpoint ‘he is considered one of the finest translators of sacred texts of our time”.  Almost single handedly he has introduced the life and works of Hakuin to the West.

A select group of WiK members were able to enjoy a stimulating evening with Norman, in fine form despite his recent heart tremors. He regaled us with some extraordinary stories about his writings, research and discoveries made over the years. One particular tale concerned R.H. Blyth, who had a most remarkable spell in Japan prior, during and after the war which is little known about.  Norman however has obtained access to some very revealing letters, and if ever there was a great story for a book this seemed a surefire winner. Members of the group eagerly urged him to write it.

There were also some fascinating stories about 18th century Kyoto, particularly the tea seller Baisao who though poor (he could sometimes not even afford to buy tea to sell) was the centre of much attention by prominent figures of the time.  Several portraits of him exist, some by leading artists such as Ito Jakuchu and Ike no Taiga. Norman is not only familiar with the portraits, but had discovered why those of Jakuchu lacked the typical inscription of others.

Norman now spends some of his retirement time looking at Yahoo auctions, where seemingly precious documents or pictures often come up.  But how to tell if they are genuine? Besides his own investigations aided by magnifying glass, Norman has a brother-in-law with the special skills needed in such cases.  He told us too of his friendship with an enormously wealthy American who has a collection of Japanese art, particularly of Ito Jakuchu.

For his very entertaining stories and good humour, WiK is very grateful to Norman for his robust performance when heart flutters had put his presence in doubt. We hope to have a rerun at some point because of the interest in hearing him speak. Meanwhile, we wish him a steady heartbeat throughout the coming years, and we very much look forward to his forthcoming books.  Particularly that one on R.H. Blyth!

The 77 year old Norman Waddell in the foreground was in fine form at WiK’s first dinner talk of this financial year. Amongst the audience was a shakuhachi master,  a tea expert, a researcher on elements in Japan, a garden expert, a Shinto enthusiast, and two Shakespeare scholars, all gathered to hear one of the world’s leading Zen translators. For WiK a typical Kyoto night out!


Featured writing

To-ji (Snyder)

This Sunday is May 21st, which means that the popular flea market known as Kobo-san will be held at To-ji.  It’s a busy bustling and packed affair, quite different from the To-ji which Gary Snyder depicts in his poem below.  In a 2011 visit to Japan, at the age of 82, he recalled the Kyoto of 1957 when he practiced Zen in the city as being dusty and poor, with people dressed shabbily and relaxed in manner. (Pic by John D.)

TOJI (Gary Snyder)

TOJI-Shingon temple,Kyoto
(Gary Snyder)

Men asleep in their underwear
Newspapers under their heads
Under the eaves of Toji,
Kobo Daishi solid iron and ten feet tall
Strides through, a pigeon on his hat.

Peering through chicken wire grates
At dusty gold-leaf statues
A cynical curving round-belly
Cool Bodhisattva-maybe Avalokita-
Bisexual and tried it all,weight on
One leg, haloed in snake-hood gold
Shines through the shadow
An ancient hip smile
Tingling of India and Tibet.

Loose-breasted young mother
With her kids in the shade here
Of old Temple tree,
Nobody bothers you in Toji;
The streetcar clanks by outside.


Another of his poems from the same period concerns the vapour trails that he saw while in Kyoto coming from US military aircraft passing overhead from the large bases in Japan.

Vapor Trails
Gary Snyder

Twin streaks twice higher than cumulus,
Precise plane icetracks in the vertical blue
Cloud-flaked light-shot shadow arcing
Field of all future war, edging off to space.

Young expert U.S.pilots waiting
The day of criss-cross rockets
And white blossoming smoke of bomb,
The air world torn and staggered for these
Specks of brushy land and ant-hill towns—

I stumble on the cobble rockpath,
Passing through temples,
Watching for two-leaf pine
—spotting that design.

Writers in focus

Yagyu Kaido (Edward J. Taylor)

The 17km Yagyu Kaido, one of Kansai’s best hikes, takes travellers through a beautiful landscape and on roads that historical figures traversed

On a warm Kyoto day in 1594, Tokugawa Ieyasu found himself lying on his back, his wooden sword just out of reach. The general’s retainers were in shock and began to move to subdue his opponent.

Ieyasu, aged 51, founder of the Tokugawa dynasty of shoguns, called them off, impressed at the skill of the older man who had knocked him down, despite their 14-year age difference. Yagyu Munetoshi, who was 65 and a general himself, had retired from the neverending warfare of 16th-century Japan to perfect his swordsmanship and eventually create his own system, the Shinkage Ryu.

Now nearly 20 years later, Ieyasu asked Munetoshi to be his teacher but he refused due to age, recommending instead his son, Munenori. This cemented a pact of allegiance between the Yagyu and the Tokugawa families.

It was a relationship that was especially advantageous to Ieyasu, who used Munetoshi’s mercenary and ninja contacts to create a system of espionage that eventually led him to unify Japan and be named Shogun in 1603.

Few countries are as pleasant to walk through as Japan, where every footfall is rich with history. Besides the beautiful landscape, the people whom travellers come across, both past and present, remind a person of his place in the passage of time.

And while the ninja may no longer reside in the hills surrounding the quiet Nara hamlet of Yagyu, the roads they traversed still remain.

Hikers on the Yagyu Kaido trail (left) can rest and recharge at the Toge Chaya tea house (above), which dates from the Edo period and has, on its walls, swords and rifles of samurai who left their weapons behind to pay their bill.
Hikers on the Yagyu Kaido trail (above) can rest and recharge at the Toge Chaya tea house, which dates from the Edo period and has, on its walls, swords and rifles of samurai who left their weapons behind to pay their bill. PHOTO: EDWARD J. TAYLOR

Stretching 17km to Nara’s deer park, the Yagyu Kaido is one of Kansai’s best hikes and takes about 41/2 hours to complete.

Aside from an initial short, but steep, ascent out of the village of Yagyu itself, the trail is relatively flat, making this an enjoyable hike for people of average fitness levels.

The trail is now part of the Tokai Shizen Hodo. Trail markers appear frequently and are quite easy to follow, starting conveniently from the bus stop at Yagyu village.

Yagyu is popular with history buffs, including young women who, inspired by a popular manga comic, like to dress up as famous warlords from the 16th century. I see no one around, however. There are maybe one or two folks out in their fields but the place is completely silent. Even the dogs are lying quietly in the sun.

After treading my way through the village, I enter the forest near a large stone Jizo, the first of many that I will pass throughout the day. Jizo is one of Japan’s most beloved folk figures, whose duty is to look after travellers and the spirits of lost children.

The trail climbs from here at his feet, leading 10 minutes later to the pass. From here, it is mostly downhill all the way to Nara.

Dozens of large rice fields stretch far down along the range of hills, their banks making the perfect pitch for me to take a quick rest after the climb and to watch the clouds follow their shadows across the bare earth. It would be easy to doze here, but I have four more hours of walking ahead of me.

(Clockwise from top) The Kizu River Valley seen from Kasagi mountain along the Tokai Shizen Hodo trail from Yagyu to Kasagi village; the Itto-seki, a mysterious stone; and Yagyu village. Cut into the towering rock faces at Kasagi mountain are various
Cut into the towering rock faces at Kasagi mountain are various Buddhas two- and three-storeys high.

I move into the village now, where shiitake mushrooms and other vegetables are left to dry in the sun, alongside some wild boar skins. This is the home of an apparently successful hunter, who enjoys talking with hikers, though his chatty nature threatens to prevent me from reaching Nara before sundown.

Beyond the village, flags advertising udon begin to line the trail and, before long, I come across a small noodle shop, looking somewhat incongruous beside the rice paddies. Hikers must make up the bulk of its business.

Just beyond the next village is a small burial mound and farther down is a large shrine sitting amid the trees. I have been passing stone-carved Buddhist figures all day but this shrine is far older than their 1,200 years.

Beyond this, a group of old folks are playing a game of gateball, essentially croquet and very popular with pensioners. After wrapping around the court’s far end, I continue straight down towards a small stream, the clack of mallet on ball following me deep into the forest. (This is the only place where the trail is not marked well.)

Above one small bend in the stream are a handful of gravestones, dark and weathered but still retaining the Sanskrit sutra carved into the soft stone. In the stream itself, the rocks are equally high, equally mysterious and ancient. The work of water has cleaved the tallest among them into three.

From there, the trail climbs again, up towards Ninnuku Pass. This is the midway point of the trail and seems a good place to take a break. (The tired hiker can take a bus from here back to either the Nara Kintetsu or JR train stations.)

I sit a while at a small noodle shop that offers views of a pond and the Enjoji temple beyond.

Built in the year 756, this temple now belongs to the faith-based Pure Land Jodo sect of Buddhism, historically popular with farm communities. Besides some fine statues, there are also two small shrines on the grounds, both national treasures. It costs 400 yen (S$5) to enter.

From here, the trail takes on a completely different character. It is now also referred to as the Takisaka-no-Michi.

Whereas the previous couple of hours have been spent passing through farm villages, the remaining 21/2 hours will take me through the forest, walking along a trail now paved with stone. Only a handful of such trails remain in Japan. I follow a ridge for a half hour before dropping between a series of tea plantations.

From the highest point of the tea fields, a trio of stone Jizo look out over the handful of homes here, as if playing hide and seek. Many of these houses have cheap fruit and vegetables for sale on the honour system. (It is recommended to leave some space in your bag for “groceries”.)

Just beyond, I come to the Toge Chaya tea house, which dates from the Edo period (1600-1868). On the walls hang the swords and rifles of hard-up samurai who left their weapons behind to square their bill. Tables have been set up outside beneath the high cedars, allowing hikers to get recharged with hot tea and warabi mochi.

From here, it’s a quick descent into Nara. The trail begins to follow a stream, lined with huge and ancient trees. Stone Buddhas begin to appear with more regularity, some beside the trail and others higher up on the mountainsides.

I have a bit of fun trying to spot them all. Most impressive is the tall Kubikiri Jizo. Legend has it that a disciple of the Yagyu school, Mataemon Araki, tried out a new blade on this deity. The decapitated head has been replaced, yet the tell-tale cut across the neck remains.

Eventually, the forest falls away to suburbia. There is a bus stop further down the hill at the main street but Icontinue to walk the last 20 minutes from here to Nara Deer Park. The deer that I pass out here seem a little more skittish than their domesticated cousins farther down. There are also a few temples between here and the park, including Shin Yakushi-ji with its impressive line-up of Buddhist statues.

I bow my head in thanks for a pleasant afternoon.

• Edward J. Taylor is a freelance writer who divides his time between Kyoto and Singapore.

Roads bearing evidence of past warfare

For those who prefer a shorter 3km hike, there is the option of following the Tokai Shizen Hodo trail in the opposite direction to Kasagi village. This takes less than two hours and allows for ample time to explore Yagyu village proper.

The starting point for both this shorter hike and the longer one (see main story) is the same bus stop in Yagyu. Above the bus stop is a hill upon which rests Hotokuji, the Yagyu family temple. Built in 1638, the temple houses a small museum of displays pertaining to the clan, including handwritten scrolls containing the teachings and many of the secret principles of the Shinkage Ryu school of swordsmanship.

In addition to the woodcarved figures of father-and-son swordsmen Munetoshi and Munenori Yagyu is a statue of Takuan Zenji, family adviser and author of the classic Zen treatise, The Unfettered Mind. He is also accredited with the invention of the yellow daikon pickle that bears his name.

Behind the temple stand the stone graves of multiple generations who carried the school of swordsmanship into the current century.

A short walk through the forest takes one past tea-covered hillsides to a small shrine. Here lies Yagyu’s star attraction, Itto-seki, a mysterious stone.

Apparently, one storm-tossed night, the swordsman Munetoshi got himself into a fight with a Tengu, a mountain goblin. Bringing his sword down in what he assumed to be a fatal strike, he cleaved through the rock instead, his opponent having leapt aside at the last moment. The size of the stone is truly impressive. Whether or not the story is true, there is a timeless quality here.

Back in the village again, there is a family manor standing large and conspicuous on a hill across from Hotokuji temple. Inside are more items related to the family history, including old wooden swords and kenjutsu gear, the ancestors of today’s kendo equipment.

In one room is a series of photos of the village, comparing shots of certain locations taken both recently and over a century ago.

Just below the manor, it is easy to pick up the Tokai Shizen Hodo trail again, which will lead you to Kasagi mountain in under an hour. This walk is truly one of Kansai’s hidden gems. Beyond the main temple hall, a path takes you in a circle around the top of the mountain.

Cut into the towering rock faces are various Buddhas two- and three-storeys high. The amount of work it must have taken to produced them boggles the mind.

The views of the Kizu River Valley below will make you linger.

The descent to Kasagi village is down a long flight of steps. Once below, Wakasagi Onsen tempts as a place to soak weary feet. There is a JR rail station here, with trains heading for Nara and Osaka. Kyoto connections are a little less frequent.

Yagyu is a special place that deserves a couple of days. From a village born in the days of seemingly endless warfare, travellers can walk backwards in time, along roads bearing the stone-carved evidence of man’s attempt to surpass those divisions that lead to war, of seeking a happiness beyond measure.

Some of this bliss is sure to rub off as one moves one’s feet along the well-trod cobblestones.

Writers in focus

Antiquarian Book Fair

Kyoto has three annual book fairs of interest to expatriates, for amongst the Japanese selections are a number of English books going relatively cheap, including art books and ukiyo-e prints.

The spring fair is coming up next week at the Miyako Messe in Okazaki, the summer fair is at Shimogamo in August, the autumn fair at Chion-ji at Hyakumanben.  Please note that the dates given here are from 2016, but you can check the official website here for the latest details.  (For a report of the summer fair, see this Deep Kyoto posting.)

Spring Antiquarian Book Fair (May 1st – 5th)
The first floor of Miyako Messe in Okazaki, near Heian Jingu.
10~16:45 (16:00 on the final day)

Summer Antiquarian Book Fair (August 11 – 16)
Shimogamo Jinja
10:00 – 17:30 (until 16:00 on the last day)

Autumn Antiquarian Book Fair (October 31 – November 4)
Chion-ji Temple, at Hyakumanben next to Kyoto University
10 am to 5 pm

The Antiquarian Booksellers Association of Japan (ABAJ) was established in November 1964 by ten major antiquarian booksellers of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. This was a time when Japan was experiencing an unprecedented economic growth and Japanese collectors, scholars, and curators were avidly selling and purchasing rare material domestically and internationally. The ABAJ was founded with the aim of developing the Japanese antiquarian book trade to meet an increasingly global age. The first “International Antiquarian Book Fair in Kyoto” was held in March 2012.  In 2015 the ABAJ celebrated its 50th anniversary at the Hotel Grand Palace in Kudanshita, Tokyo.  25 of the leading Japanese antiquarian booksellers from Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Hokkaido and Kyushu participated with a further 15 international booksellers from Europe and the United States.

Of Poetry and Pottery (Robert Yellin)

Robert Yellin yesterday launched the third year of WiK with a wonderful talk at The Gael, which was inspired and inspiring in the passion for pottery which infused his every word.

Now recognised as a world expert on the subject, Robert is in demand as a speaker at museums and galleries abroad as well as being asked to write articles for Japanese and foreign publications. In addition, the beautiful and homely gallery he has set up in north Kyoto has become a mecca for pottery lovers of all nationalities.

Remarkably, he had taken no interest in pottery until his twenties after coming to Japan. This had only happened on a whim following a suggestion by his father that he try a homestay there. It was ironic, since his father had been a P51 pilot in WW2 (recently featuring in the news following Scarlett Johannson’s plea for more assistance for war veterans to heal themselves with Transcendental Meditation.)

While teaching English in Shizuoka, Robert found his world turned upside down one day when he was knocked sideways by the beauty of a Japanese pot.  As he put it, it opened his eyes ‘to the beauty and the divine in routine everyday things in life’.

He embarked on learning more about the subject, reading voraciously and visiting exhibitions and pottery sites.  Eventually the self-taught enthusiast approached the Japan Times and was offered a column, which proved a springboard for him to carve out a niche as someone who could communicate the joy of beauty to be found in Japanese ceramics. It led to requests for catalogues, in response to which he opened an internet gallery.

A token of Robert’s ability to involve others in his passion for the subject was his generosity in bringing to the talk a Kamakura-era saké cup, together with a bottle of nihonshu. The 800 year old cup was passed around for everyone to drink from, with the intention of putting a communal seal on proceedings and adding another item to the cup’s long record of human interaction. Pottery is for use as a living object, was the message, not an object to be hid away in an exhibition space and consigned to an obsolete past.

For Robert, pottery is a form of visual poetry, with roots in the present that gives rise to suggestions of the future.  His talk was interspersed with readings from poets who shared his passion, and there were illustrations of some stunning pots, ranging from the Jomon period to the avantgarde productions of today. As a collector he spoke of the difficulty of letting things go, and sadly after responding eloquently to a series of questions from his audience, Robert too had to let go of a subject which clearly means so much to him. ‘I implore you to support your local crafts,’ he urged his audience, underlining how sad it is to see traditional ways dying out in the present generation. With Robert as spokesman, one feels Japanese pottery will surely win a wider audience.


For Robert’s gallery, see the Yakimono Gallery.
Click here for Robert’s book, Ode to Japanese Pottery.
For Robert’s father, Jerry Yellin, see The Resilient Warrior about the role of TM in helping his PTSD, or The Letter about his wartime experience. For his connection with Scarlett Johansson, see this article.


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