Writers In Kyoto

English-language authors in Japan’s old imperial capital

Page 2 of 16

The Life and Death of Chine (Robbins)


Selection, Translations and Commentary by Jeff Robbins

Assisted by Sakata Shoko


Words of Basho, Kyorai, and Chine in bold to stand out

In this article we meet Kyorai, the second son of a doctor of Chinese medicine in Kyoto, born in 1651, and his fascinating yet retiring nine-year younger sister Chine (pronounced “Chee-neh”). When the father died, Kyorai’s older brother continued the medical practice. In the autumn of 1686, Kyorai took Chine on a pilgrimage from their home in Kyoto to the Ise Shrine, central shrine of the Sun Goddess.  The distance round-trip was about 200 miles, and apparently they walked the whole way, staying the nights in ryokan, or Japanese inns. Kyorai’s Ise Journal is an absolutely unnoticed gem, not only of literature but also of anthropology. As far as I can tell, it has never been translated, and even in Japanese is difficult to find. Most of the journal does appear in the biography Mukai Kyorai by Oichi Hatsuo and Wakaki Taiichi (Tokyo, Shinkyosha, 1986, pp. 34 ~ 41).                                                    

The journal consists of prose by Kyorai and haiku by both Kyorai and Chine. For this article, I have selected prose passages in which 35 year old Kyorai observes his 26 year old sister as she learns the world outside her parents’ house. Sensitive to her feelings, supporting her with positive energy, and paying attention to the poetry she writes (far better than his own), Kyorai transcends the patriarchal assumptions of his society to reveal the exuberant and playful heart of this young woman in 17th century Japan.

In Japan at this time young women were trained to stay quiet, smile, and nod to what the man says.  Historian Tokuza Akiko in the The Rise of the Feminist Movement in Japan (Tokyo: Keio University Press, 1999, p. 41) says “Criticism of women’s intelligence, autonomy, and moral worth was essential to the total subordination of women that society demanded.” A pretty grim prognosis, but Kyorai appears to have been an exception (as was Basho). Tokuza continues: “Parents thus protected their daughters’ chastity and morality by isolating them both from men and from rational and critical thought”. Chine’s parents however, allowed her to go on this journey,  and she seems quite capable of rational and critical thought. Anthropologists should take note.

In a prologue to Kyorai’s journal, Basho writes:

The first time I read this journal, my feelings awoke.
The second time, entranced by it, they were forgotten.
The third time, I realized how perfectly it is written.
This person Kyorai has fully traveled the path.

The Ise Journal begins:

The sun hot yet wind cool on our heads,
I take my younger sister on a pilgrimage to Ise.

Until Ise
such good companions,
morning geese

The genius of Chine’s verse is in the double meaning: “Kyorai and I are good companions” along with “wild geese are our good companions.” These birds spend the summer in Siberia then in autumn fly south to winter on the marshes of Japan; south is also the way from Kyoto to Ise. The feeling Chine has watching a flock of geese fly in the direction they are walking, and her feeling for her brother, become one. Chine’s spirit along with her brother’s take flight in the haiku.

Affection between adult brother and sister occasionally appears in old-time literature – Ophelia and Laertes in Hamlet, Sebastian and Viola in Twelfth Night – but the circumstances in these plays are extraordinary beyond belief. The brother-sister bond portrayed in the Ise Journal is unique in literature because it is so ordinary.

Kyorai and Chine stay at an inn, and Kyorai writes:

The innkeeper’s wife is such an uba. She turns her face toward us and shouts  “Fresh from the mortar! Before they cool down!” Chine cannot stop laughing.

Uba, “old woman” suggests a former wet-nurse, a rather earthy sort of woman (think Juliet’s Nurse). I love the sound of uba (rhymes with “tuba”) here. The innkeeper’s wife was making mochi rice cakes: kneading the mass of cooked rice in a mortar where her husband pounded it with a mallet, then molding into a cake with a surface soft and smooth as a baby’s bottom. At this time women used face powder containing white lead to fill in the wrinkles and obtain a mochi-hada, skin as smooth as mochi.

On behalf of the innkeeper Chine writes:

If you will not
remove that face powder,
when oh when
can we see the wrinkles                                                                                                        
in your uba mochi

Kyorai says it is the innkeeper’s job to advertise his wife’s rice cakes, but Chine does that job for him in her tanka. Chine uses the classical poetic form for her hilarious look into women’s concern for their aging skin. Change uba mochi to “old woman’s skin,” and you will see what 26 year old Chine is saying to this uba in her fifties or sixties. Shoko comments that Chine’s verse is onna-rashiku, “womanly, feminine.” I, like Chine, cannot stop laughing.

For the following night, Kyorai writes:

This being Chine’s first time away from the realm of our parents, in sympathy with her upset, I say what I can to divert her.

Kyorai actually pays attention to his sister’s mind and heart. Where else in male literature is there such a record of male consideration for a woman who is not his mother or romantic interest? Basho seems to have had much affection for his seven-year-younger sister Oyoshi – since he often mentions her by name in his letters – so he could easily appreciate Kyorai’s feeling for Chine. If you too have a younger sister, you may also feel as they did.

Another night, another inn:

In a house across the way, young and old women  gather to hull rice while singing until late night, with the door open, we hear them.

 At each lodging
the rice-hulling songs
are different

On her first journey, Chine learns of human diversity— that people only one day apart do the same work, to different songs. Her verse is anthropology in its purest form. A standard anthropologist would record the location and lyrics to each song, but Chine summarizes her conclusions in one concise observation.

Beside a river near Ise where Basho wrote of women washing the tuber taro in the flowing water, Chine wrote                                    

Put in water
hands better be wiped,
the autumn wind

Chine is so fundamental, so sensory, so conscious of her body: where skin is wet, how the wind penetrates! In our time we provide warm water to many people, yet the hundreds of millions of women in the temperate zone who work in unheated water may be able to appreciate Chine’s hands’ awareness of the need to wipe well with a dry cloth, so they can endure the work for decades of the four seasons.

Chine’s haiku about her hands has an ally in an early spring haiku by another Basho woman follower, Chigetsu:

Hands stopped
by the bush warbler
kitchen sink

The bush warbler sings in February when the weather is still very cold, and the well water a woman used to wash dishes is especially chilly. The lovely call of the bird takes her consciousness away from her hands, and without consciousness, they stop moving.

Hands also appear in a haiku another woman follower, Uko, writting about her small daughter Sai:

I shall breathe
on your frostbit hands —
big ball of snow

She breathes warmth on her daughter’s red and inflamed hands. Mom and Sai-chan rolled the ball of snow together.   These three woman poets follow their teacher in his frequent focus on body parts and the sensations and activities of these parts. (See Article F-2 HANDS in Basho4Now.)

Kyorai and Chine arrive in the part of Ise where the Grand Shrine is.

We change our clothes and fix our hair then with deep respect go to visit the Inner Shrine. Our eyes could not be parted from the scene…

It is not appropriate to wear dirty travel clothes or loose hanging hair when visiting the home of the Sun Goddess.

In the evening we buy souvenirs for everyone and so it became night.

Just like their descendants traveling today, Kyorai and Chine buy souvenirs for the folks at home. Here ends our time within Kyorai’s journal.

Chine’s journey with her brother was her final fling before marriage. She had one daughter in 1687, but in the summer of 1688 when Basho was in Kyoto, he learned that Chine was gravely ill, possibly from complications from her second pregnancy. Her brother used all his medical skill, but still she passed away.

Chine’s jisei no ku or “farewell to life” poem was:

Easily glows
and easily goes out
a firefly

Kyorai responded to his sister with:

On my palm                                                                                                                      
sadly goes out
the firefly

Simple words to express Chine’s humility and Kyorai’s grief.

While in Gifu I hear that Chine has passed away so I send these words to the home of Kyorai.

Now the house robe
of the one who is gone —
airing in the heat

Clothing gets musty in the warm moist summer, so one sunny day everything is hung outside to “air in the heat.” Basho cannot be with Kyorai’s family in their grief, but he sends them an image which transcends the distance between Gifu and Kyoto. One of Chine’s kosode, a simple kimono for household wear, is being kept as a memento and is hanging outside with the rest of the family’s clothing. The traces of Chine’s being linger in the fabric she wore, gently dispersing in the warm breeze.

The trio of her death-verse, her brother’s response, and Basho’s ode to her existence form a testament to the warm feelings among these three people. Chine’s laughter resounds through the centuries.  May her light continue to shine in our thoughts.

Jeff will be running a workshop on Oct 28 from 2.00-5.00 at Ryukoku University, Omiya campus, sponsored by WiK and Kansai SWET. For details, please see the top righthand column. Jeff’s previous articles for this website on Basho include Kyoto vs. Home, New Year BashoBasho’s Letters to Uko, Basho in Saga and Basho in Zeze.
For an interview with him about his work, see here.

Jeff writes: “Basho’s several hundred poems about women children, friendship, love, and compassion, are almost unknown in Japan and in the West, yet I believe the most pro-female, child-centered, and life-affirming works in world literature.

Here a few Basho4Now articles [see below] which relate to themes in The Life and Death of Chine:
On a Journey – 10 Basho haiku, 10 renku, 6 haibun, and 3 letters about the nature of traveling
Women at Work – 12 Basho haiku and 13 renku about the labor of Asian women
Anthropology in Basho — 6 Basho haiku, 15 renku, 5 letters about human nature and behavior

I ask for your help in finding a person or group to take over my 3000 pages of Basho translations and commentary, to edit and clarify, to receive all royalties, to spread Basho’s works on humanity worldwide and preserve for future generations.”




Writers in focus

Teddy and Daruma (Weiss)

“Teddy and Daruma” by Allen S. Weiss

Like the shaman from his cave, Teddy (yes, Teddy, my teddy bear!) finally emerged, resurrected after a hibernation of forty years, with what particular wisdom I cannot say. I have no idea if Teddy is an adept of Zen, but I am sure that the roly-poly Daruma who now shares, alongside a bizarre pin-cushion doll, his tiny abode – a knitted ski cap full of embroidered galloons – knows by heart the famed kyōgen Jizō’s Dance, about a wandering monk who asks for shelter for the night, but is refused because of the strict interdictions against lodging travelers. After repeated pleading, the owner agrees to at least take in the monk’s large precious straw hat, and soon afterwards the monk appears, as if by magic, under the hat, arguing that as long as he stays beneath the hat, it is the hat that is sheltering him, and not the house, so no law is broken. The owner, amused, agrees to the arrangement, and in repayment for the kindness the monk does a dance that is the finale of the piece. In the manner of true Zen humor, Teddy’s compatriot Daruma relishes the fact of living not under a hat transformed into a shelter, but inside a hat. Superficially, it might seem easy to interpret a world where there are so few elements: a hat, three occupants, eight galloons. To describe it, one might think of a cheap magic trick, or the stage of a destitute childrens’ theater straight out of Dickens, or an addendum to Through the Looking-Glass, rather than of an entire world. But it is grandiose: heaven and earth transposed, a coincidentia oppositorum, a corpus hermeticum for our times. Teddy’s very eyes are an allegory of this primal conflict, one that sees straightforward and clearly with the acuity of an eagle, the other askew and askance; approbation and disapprobation in the crossing of the eyes, a perpetual double-bind that touches all that his gaze falls upon. Can one possibly attempt the interpretation of a world where everything is already its double, its opposite? The calculus is incomprehensible, and with just the thought of it I am already lost in the labyrinth of infinite semiosis!

I have no idea as to what is happening within the terribly confined quarters that house Teddy, Daruma and the disquieting pin-cushion doll whose identity and origin are a total mystery, just as I have little idea about what is going on inside Teddy’s mind. In fact, I even wonder about the reality of Daruma, he who at one point spent nine years staring at a wall in a cave, and, having briefly fallen asleep during the seventh year, immediately cut off his eyelids so as to prevent such an indiscretion from happening again. Is his presence yet one more incarnation of Bodhidharma, during yet another moment of his endless travels, having alighted here because he somehow sees interaction with Teddy as a path to the salvation of humanity? Or is he an emanation of Teddy’s mind, whether stemming from unconscious guilt at having slept so long, or from religious fervor at finding a compatriot who so complements, by sheer antinomy, his long-lived lethargy? Or perhaps Teddy has chosen, for simply pragmatic reasons, an adherent whose zealously wakened state will guarantee vigilance in case Teddy once again falls asleep for an extended period? Or is Daruma just a drinking buddy? As for the sinister pin-cushion doll, I won’t even begin to speculate, fearing what I may find.

Ultimately, it is impossible for me to tell whether Teddy’s domain – the world in a hat – is cosmos or chaos. But then, who can really distinguish ostensible accumulation from hidden organization, who can know object from allegory, reality from symbol? I even wonder what Teddy is to me, and me to Teddy.

[Excerpted from The Autobiography of Teddy, forthcoming.]

For more by Allen S. Weiss, please see the WiK piece about his 2016 book, The Grain of the Clay, or his Manifesto for the Future of Landscape where you can find an overview of his biodata and multifarious creations.  (His Author Page with amazon can be viewed here.)


Featured writing

Interview with Yoppy (Tawarayama)

Karen Lee Tawaryama has been interviewing Kyoto people on her blog, Kyoto Faces. In her latest piece she writes of the non-verbal long-running performance called GEAR, which in 2015 was voted on TripAdvisor one of the city’s best attractions!  In the interview below, she questions Yoppy, one of the dance performers about the show and his involvement.  [For more about Karen’s blog, please see here.]


I’d like to hear about your story. When did you start breakdancing?

A: I began breakdancing when I was eighteen years old. Until then, I taught hip hop, but I saw someone breakdancing at Kyoto Station and thought it was really cool. At that time, I was with Katsu, another breakdancer in GEAR. I started acting in GEAR about three years ago.

Can you tell your perspective about the GEAR story? What do you feel when you’re acting in the show, and what would you like to convey to the audience?

A: In the show, I’m the yellow robot, who acts as a bit of a fool. In that role, I always try to smile to show my positive attitude and that I’m having fun.

How about the meaning behind the character Doll?

A: Because of the doll’s appearance, each robot discovers his own originality. Over time, the tension builds and everyone starts to have fun together. At the beginning, all of the robots are the same and their routine is rigid, but because of the doll, this all changes. The robots take on their own personalities and talents, and they begin to “feel”. In my opinion, it’s this kind of story.

What’s your favorite part of the play, and also the part your consider the most difficult?

A: I love it when everyone is running around the desk on the revolving stage. There’s a big surge of excitement and there’s a big flurry of activity. That’s really fun for me. As for the difficult part, hmm… There’s a part where, even though I had been moving around, I suddenly have to freeze in place. I always get nervous about that.

What’s your “Kyoto #1”?

A: I live in the neighborhood of Toji Temple, but I often go to the mountain beside Fushimi Inari Taisha, Mount Inari, for training. I climb all the way up the mountain. There’s a place at the very top where the view is really beautiful and you can buy a small juice for 200 yen. I love the satisfying feeling of opening and drinking that juice at the summit.

YOPPY, thank you very much for your time and a wonderful performance!!

GEAR performances take place on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 2pm and 7pm, and Saturdays, Sundays, and Holidays at 12pm and 5pm. Tickets without reservations are on sale one hour before the show at the show venue. If it is your birthday month, you are also eligible to receive a small gift!

For more detailed information about the show, or to reserve tickets, please refer to the GEAR website: (English): http://www.gear.ac/en/



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Writers in focus

Poems & Photos (James Woodham)

A collection of poetic images by James Woodham.  (For an earlier posting of James’s rendering of Lake Biwa in poetry and photography, please see here.)


papers on the desk
blown by the wind that blows leaves
on the hillside now


Plato’s ideas –
discussion suddenly stopped
by windborn blossoms


the baby mantis,
stretching one leg all the way
to the next petal


clouds on the pond
a murmur of voices

ducks float slowly
over trees the wind quivers

a fish rises
ripples the mountains

trees spill birdsong
white egret landing



Crossing my legs in the cafe,
my pocket tilted, coins fell,
jingling the wooden floor.

Salaryman beside me unflinching,
locked with his business finger
into cell phone dream time.



also fact –

for I am


the rocks

in the








Featured writing

Hearn on Higashi Honganji

In Chapter 6 of Kokoro (1896), Lafcadio Hearn writes of some of Kyoto’s sights, an unusual topic for a man who normally looked to folklore and tradition for insight into the culture of his adopted land.  However, his belief that religion reveals the heart of the people comes across in the final part of the description below, where he writes of Hongan-ji (representing Jodo Shinshu) as a true expression of the common folk.  Anyone who has seen the amazing ropes there made of women’s hair will know just how much the faith meant to the people of the 1890s. (Elsewhere in his writing, Hearn waxes lyrical about the grace and elegance of the Japanese female, and how vital a role their hair played in their attractiveness.)

But the gift of the people to Kyoto is still grander. It is represented by the glorious Higashi Hongwanji, – or eastern Hongwan temple (Shinshu). Western readers may form some idea of its character from the simple statement that it cost eight millions of dollars and required seventeen years to build. In mere dimension it is largely exceeded by other Japanese buildings of cheaper construction; but anybody familiar with the Buddhist temple architecture of Japan can readily perceive the difficulty of building a temple one hundred and, twenty-seven feet high, one hundred and ninety-two feet deep, and more than two hundred feet long.

Because of its peculiar form, and especially because of the vast sweeping lines of its roof, the Hongwanji looks even far larger than it is, – looks mountainous. But in any country it would be deemed a wonderful structure. There are beams forty-two feet long and four feet thick; and there are pillars nine feet in circumference. One may guess the character of the interior decoration from the statement that the mere painting of the lotus-flowers on the screens behind the main altar cost ten thousand dollars. Nearly all this wonderful work was done with the money contributed in coppers by hard-working peasants. And yet there are people who think that Buddhism is dying!

More than one hundred thousand peasants came to see the grand inauguration. They seated themselves by myriads on matting laid down by the acre in the great court. I saw them waiting thus at three in the afternoon. The court was a living sea. Yet all that host was to wait till seven o’clock for the beginning of the ceremony, without refreshment, in the hot sun. I saw at one corner of the court a band of about twenty young girls,– all in white, and wearing peculiar white caps,– and I asked who they were. A bystander replied: “As all these people must wait here many hours, it is to be feared that some may become ill. Therefore professional nurses have been stationed here to take care of any who may be sick. There are likewise stretchers in waiting, and carriers. And there are many physicians.” I admired the patience and the faith. But those peasants might well love the magnificent temple, – their own creation in very truth, both directly and indirectly. For no small part of the actual labor of building was done for love only; and the mighty beams for the roof had been hauled to Kyoto from far-away mountain-slopes, with cables made of the hair of Buddhist wives and daughters. One such cable, preserved in the temple, is more than three hundred and sixty feet long, and nearly three inches in diameter.

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.



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).


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.)


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.

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