Writers In Kyoto

English-language authors in Japan’s old imperial capital

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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.


Writers in focus

Hearn on silhouettes

On this day, over a hundred years ago, Lafcadio Hearn wrote a journal entry in Kyoto that found its way into the collection of essays in his book Kokoro (1896).  Here, long before Kawabata wrote his well-known thesis In Praise of Shadows, Hearn describes evocatively the attraction of silhouettes on shoji (paper screens) and the delicacy of the aesthetics built into the architecture of Japanese houses.

“Kyoto, April 16. The wooden shutters before my little room in the hotel are pushed away; and the morning sun immediately paints upon my shoji, across squares of gold light, the perfect sharp shadow of a little peach-tree. No mortal artist – not even a Japanese – could surpass that silhouette! Limned in dark blue against the yellow glow, the marvelous image even shows stronger or fainter tones according to the varying distance of the unseen branches outside. It sets me thinking about the possible influence on Japanese art of the use of paper for house-lighting purposes. By night a Japanese house with only its shoji closed looks like a great paper-sided lantern, – a magic-lantern making moving shadows within, instead of without itself. By day the shadows on the shoji are from outside only; but they may be very wonderful at the first rising of the sun, if his beams are leveled, as in this instance, across a space of quaint garden. There is certainly nothing absurd in that old Greek story which finds the origin of art in the first untaught attempt to trace upon some wall the outline of a lover’s shadow. Very possibly all sense of art, as well as all sense of the supernatural, had its simple beginnings in the study of shadows. But shadows on shoji are so remarkable as to suggest explanation of certain Japanese faculties of drawing by no means primitive, but developed beyond all parallel, and otherwise difficult to account for. Of course, the quality of Japanese paper, which takes shadows better than any frosted glass, must be considered, and also the character of the shadows themselves. Western vegetation, for example, could scarcely furnish silhouettes so gracious as those of Japanese garden-trees, all trained by centuries of caressing care to look as lovely as Nature allows. I wish the paper of my shoji could have been, like a photographic plate, sensitive to that first delicious impression cast by a level sun. I am already regretting distortions: the beautiful silhouette has begun to lengthen.”

Writers in focus

WiK Competition 2017 Winner

The Joys of Silence and Bewilderment
by Jane Kramer, California

Yesterday I went with our Japanese obaachan, aged 87, for a massage. I didn’t know for sure if we were really going because my Japanese is primitive. But at 8:15 she emerged from her machiya [traditional wooden house] carrying a bag with polka dot material. I thought that it was the pajamas that she told me to bring for the massage. We walked past a love hotel and a shamisen maker.

Because we cannot communicate verbally, I realized how often we fill sound-space idly. When someone passed walking a dog I told her that I had one at home, yet all I could say was ‘cat’ (neko) and mispronounced it at that. So I pointed to the dog and said ‘niku‘ (meat). Obaachan looked at me quizzically. The moment passed. I realized that it didn’t matter if I tell her that I have a dog in California.
I live in a constant bewilderment in Kyoto. Having the time to enjoy bewilderment is a great luxury.
We arrived and were ushered into a big room. Obaachan put the bag with the polka dot fabric on her cot. Curled on her side she smiled and I saw her eyes without glasses for the first time.
My massage over, I picked up the bag, which I presumed were the pajamas that obaachan had brought for me. Obaachan and my masseur share a laugh. The masseur translated. “They are your son’s underwear which had blown off from your roof. She is returning them to you.”
Walking home, I take obaachan’s hand. I wonder what she is thinking. I think, rare are the times when silence and space are given the honor they deserve.
And holding hands with a woman at the edge of time, I am grateful.

Featured writing

WiK Competition 2017 Runner-up (Leow)

by Florentyna Leow, Malaysian student in Kyoto

That’s a nice haori you’re wearing. Are you on an errand now? Taking photos? Come in. I’ll make you some matcha. I’m all alone anyway.

Well, come on in. Sit here.

I’m 104 years old, you know. 104. The doctor paid me a visit, right before you passed by. Gave me a clean bill of health. I’m old but my mind’s still working. Not gone senile yet. No one believes it, but I’m 104. Everyone says I look like I’m 80. Next month I turn 105.

Here’s a sweet. You have to eat the sweet before the matcha. But for sencha you eat it after. Sweet before matcha and after sencha.

Hai, dozo.

Mou… Didn’t you learn how to do this in school? Bow first. Pick up the bowl – not like that. One hand. Like this, and the other hand comes below. You turn it twice – no, not like that. You lift it up. Yes. Now drink. You need practice.

I used to teach tea. Omotesenke.

You’re not Japanese? You look Japanese. Your parents? No?

I had a sister. She’s gone now, though.

The haori really suits you. I’m not just saying it. In September you should wear it over a kimono.

Write your name here. What’s this? Katakana? You have a strange name. Ah, you can pass for a Japanese. You came over here, you should just live as a Japanese. Let’s call you Akiko. Ii yo ne? Akiko.

It’s fate that we met.

You go straight home, you hear me?

Make sure you don’t slip. It’s easy to slip and fall.

It’s not safe out there. Back then Kyoto wasn’t so bad, but these days, there’s all kinds of folks out there. It’s getting dark. You take care. And come by again for a cup of tea.



matcha is whipped green tea, and sencha is ordinary green tea.

Hai dozo = Here you are / please begin

Omotosenke is one of the three main schools of tea in Kyoto.

haori = long jacket usually worn over kimono

Katakana = one of the three styles of writing in Japan, usually used for foreign words

Ii yo ne – That’s good, isn’t it?

Featured writing

WiK Competition 2017 Runner-up (Poulton)

Palm-in-the-Hand Story: The Blue General
by Mark Cody Poulton, Victoria, Canada

After my mother-in-law died, my wife and daughter were sorting through her things. When they opened her wallet, a funky smell filled the room. My wife pulled out something papery inside—the skin of a snake. It was good luck, I learned, to keep a bit of snakeskin in your wallet. Just as a snake can slough off its skin and it’ll grow back, so you can peel away your banknotes and they will magically reappear in your pocketbook. My wife unfolded the snakeskin. It was large, about the size of a sheet of foolscap. “I bet this skin is from that aodaishō that lived in the Nishiki house,” my wife said. The aodaishō, or “blue general,” is a rat snake, large but harmless. The Japanese call them guardian spirits.

Until she moved in with us, her mother had run a fruit stall in Nishiki Market. She and Mitsuko lived in back of the store, as did just about everybody in Nishiki. The long, narrow houses were connected one to the other, all down the street. Mitsuko said that as a girl she could climb from one laundry rack to the other without stepping out the front door to drop in on a neighbor. ​

Her mother told her that one night, when she was young, she came down with a high fever. As she lay on her futon, she listened to the pitter-patter of a rat in the rafters. Then, zurizurizuri! the slithering sound of the aodaishō in pursuit, and no more pitter-patter of rat feet. That night, her fever broke. Her mother swore the snake had cured her. ​

Hearing this story, my daughter laughed. “You don’t think grandma was really a snake, do you?”​

Writers in focus

Basho’s blossom kimono

Blessings Unto Kasane:

Basho’s Haibun and Tanka of Hope to a Newborn Girl

Translation and commentary by Jeff Robbins

Assisted by Sakata Shoko

               (Basho’s own words in bold to stand out)

Illustration by Ogura Reiko (Photos by J. Dougill)

In Summer of 1689 Basho and Sora, on their journey to the Deep North, got lost among the fields of Kurobane in Nasu. A kindly farmer loaned them his horse for them to follow as far as it would go, then let it return on its own. The farmer’s two children came running after. Basho spoke to the little girl and was charmed. In his journal account, he writes

Two little ones follow in the footsteps of the horse, one a tiny princess who says her name is Kasane,
an unfamiliar name yet a gentle one.

We see this is a Time of Peace — thanks to the dictatorship of the Tokugawa Shogunate which has eliminated the feuds and wars which plagued the country until the early part of the 17th century– so now in 1689, small children are not afraid of strangers. We also see that Dad was doing childcare while farming.  Kasane is fortunate to have a father like this.

She said her name was Kasane: ka as in ‘cot,’ sa in ‘father’, ne in “nest.” Kasane(ru) is ordinarily not a name, but rather an active verb, “to pile up in layers, one on top of another. Furthermore, in the dimension of time, kasaneru is “to reoccur, again and again, in succession”.

 Nine months later, in the spring of 1690, Basho was in Zeze (Otsu City, just across the mountains east of Kyoto; beside Lake Biwa, the area around the eastern end of the Omi Ohashi bridge, ten minutes by train from Kyoto Station.) Basho formed a profound spiritual relationship with Zeze; this spring of 1690, he wrote about Zeze and the surrounding mountains and adjacent Lake Biwa

The mountains in silence nurture the spirit;
the water with movement calms the emotions

 In a 1692 letter Basho in Edo writes to his follower Kyokusui who lived in Zeze,

Again and again within thy boundaries my heart points,
with humility I know not how, Zeze is like my hometown.                 

 In the spring of 1690, someone in the neighborhood asked a Basho follower to arrange for the Master to choose a name for their newborn daughter. Basho remembers the Kasane in the Deep North, and passes her name on to another. The following haibun ending in a tanka are Basho’s prayer for his goddaughter’s happiness and longevity.   

During my pilgrimage to the Deep North,
in one of the villages there was a little girl
who looked no more than five years old.
She was so small and indescribably charming
that I asked her name and she said Kasane.
What an interesting name!
In Kyoto rarely is it heard
so I wonder how has it passed down
and what is that “layers, again and again”?

 The prose is mostly phonetic hiragana and only a few Chinese characters, and has a natural speech-like rhythm, — and we suppose Basho wrote it that way so it would be easy for little Kasane to read. The farmer and wife wanted a special name for their daughter, not just a name fashionable in the capital city. What were they thinking of when they linked her heritage and destiny to this lovely multi-faceted word?

“If I had a child this name she would receive
I said in jest to my traveling companion
and now, unexpectedly, through an acquaintance
I have been called on to be Name-giving Parent.

Without being biological parent, Basho gets the magical opportunity to give life through a name, and through a poem.                 

       Blessings unto Kasane      

Spring passes by
again and again in layers

of blossom-kimono
may you see wrinkles
come with old age

The double and triple meanings, in both space and in time, overlap in a web of blessing and hope for Kasane and all female children. A silk kimono will, with proper care, last for generations. “Layers of blossom-kimono” has three areas of meaning:

1) the two layers of kimono fabric over an inner robe;

2) the succession of blossom-kimono one woman passes through from bright to sedate as she ages;

3) the kimono passing onto her daughter and grand- daughter, the next layers of herself. Also “wrinkles” are both in the kimono and her skin.

A formal kimono is a two-layer silk robe meticulously folded and tucked around the body in flat, even layers. The colors and pattern are chosen in harmony with the woman’s age. A blossom-kimono for a girl entering womanhood might be a soft pink with bold cherry blossom design on the lower portion. A thick brocade sash of a darker contrasting color encircles her waist. The red inner robe, suitable for a party, shows at the neckline, and where the left side of the skirt covers the right, margins of the kimono lining appear and disappear as she walks.

Speaking to the newborn spirit: ‘Kasane, now your time begins, stretching to infinity before unfocused eyes. Soon you’ll be laughing and playing in the sunshine – that is, if no wars come, and natural disasters, fatal illness, and financial ruin stay away too. One spring in youth, you shall be given your first “blossom-kimono,” an exquisite robe to be worn just once a year to view cherry blossoms, then folded up and stored away until next time to celebrate under cherry blossoms. The springs shall come and go with clouds of pink blossoms filling the treetops to fall in a shower of petals as you blossom into a young lady elegant in your impeccably layered kimono. Each year as you sit with legs folded under you on the straw mat under the cherry trees, creases shall form in the fabric. Carefully, as your mother shows you, restore its silky smoothness for another year.

I pray the day comes for you to pass this youthful kimono onto your daughter, while you wear one more moderate in color and pattern – and this too passes onto her, and you to the dark sedate kimono of an older woman. So, Kasane, may our nation remain at Peace and the happiness in your family pile up layer upon layer until wrinkles in the fabric no longer smooth out and you see wrinkles of old age across your face. Do not despair, my child, for you live again as spring passes by and your granddaughters laugh and chatter in their blossom kimono.’

The tanka SPRING PASSES BY offers Hope to small females —Hope for a childhood without misfortune, hope that she will grow into womanhood and see grandchildren. Basho speaks of what concerns women: the succession of life, the happiness of children — the conditions of Peace, both in society and in family, in which little girls can dress up and party with relatives and friends, and life goes on generation after generation. In less than a single tweet, Basho encapsulates the life of one woman from newborn to wrinkles.

“Civilization will begin the day the well-being of a newborn baby prevails over any consideration.”
– Wilhelm Reich

I know of one poem that compares to Basho’s verse in utter simplicity with profound human depth: it was written by a four-year-old Russian boy in 1928. In the 1960s when nuclear war between America and Russia seemed imminent, the little boy’s poem was set to music and became the refrain to a song. The lyrics never caught on in translation, but the refrain became an internationally known prayer for Peace:

May there always be sunshine
May there always be blue sky
May there always be mama
May there always be me

Both the poems of 46-year-old Basho and 4-year-old Russian boy make a wish from destiny – not the wish for a million dollars or a movie star lover—but rather the wish for something infinitely more precious: that our current Peace will continue. Millions of small children in the world today have reason to doubt these four wishes. The boy speaks only of the environment, mama, and himself, while Basho looks ahead to future layers.

Spring passes by
again and again in layers
of blossom-kimono
may you see wrinkles
come with old age


To access one hundred articles about women, children, friendship, love, and compassion in Basho, please go to my data base Basho4now@yumpu.com. Here are a few of my recent Yumpu posts which relate to Blessings unto Kasane:

Babies in Basho — 6 Basho haiku, a tanka, 11 renku, and 6 Letters all about babies.

Breastfeeding in Basho — 2 Basho haiku and 8 renku about breastfeeding

Child Welfare – 2 haiku, 8 renku, and 4 sections from his letters

I plead for your help in finding a person or group to take over my 3000 pages of Basho material, to cooperate with me to edit and improve the presentations, to receive all royalties from sales, to spread Basho’s humane wisdom throughout the world and preserve for future generations.

Jeff Robbins basho4now@gmail.com

WiK Writing Competition results 2017

Winning entry –  ’The Joys of Silence and Bewilderment’ by Jane Kramer, American living in California
(Posting on 3 websites, inclusion in WiK Anthology, Kyoto craft)

Runner up – ‘Yamaguchi san’ by Florentyna Leow, Malaysian living in Kyoto
(Posting on WiK website, Kyoto craft, and also winner of local prize, free meal at Tadg’s.}

Runner up  – ‘Palm-in-the–Hand Story: The Blue General’ by Mark Cody Poulton, Canadian living in Victoria, Canada
(Posting on WiK website, Kyoto craft)

Student prize – Poem: ‘I don’t want you to go’ by Pwin Tana, Thai student at Kyoto University
(Kyoto craft, craft experience offer, free fish and chips with drink at Gnome)


Offers of craft experience workshops to local entries

– ‘As Ordered’ by Stephanie Juul, American

– ‘Chinese Zodiac Haiku Cycle’ by Marianne Kimura

– ‘Four Seasons at Shoukoku-ji Temple’ by Hisako Kutsuki

– ‘The Almost Invisible City of Kyoto’ by Ken Rodgers

– ‘The end of the eel’ by Kiyoko Ozawa

– ‘Yamaguchi san’ by Florentyna Leow

Featured writing

Poems and Photos by James Woodham

The Beach in Winter

Yaki soba/tako yaki sign spins
outside the closed shop.

Pine tree leans,
dropped needles rusted.

flung from a tree.

Ducks disappear
between waves.

The fishing boat
moves deeper.



A leaf,
red stalk
and veins

and on it
still – gold

now –
the shower


Reds, yellows
on the wet

the air.

The trees


At the wind’s

tumbles air

a moment



To be
at the

of a leaf –
to be

the instant
of touched



lake, mountains
and this


of sky.



of emptiness?


this bone-chilling wind
and the numbing distances
of the heartless stars


tracks of the wagtail
random dashes in the snow
going where they go


still there

(at the desk
after running
the shore)

sky wind lake air

(Photos all taken not far from Omimaiko station near Lake Biwa)


Writers in focus

Edith Shiffert, RIP

(John Dougill writes…)  News comes of the passing away of Edith Shiffert (1916-2017), long time resident poet and a revered figure for those of us who belong to Writers in Kyoto.  Other English-language authors lived in Kyoto before her, but for the postwar generation and those who followed in their footsteps, Edith was a groundbreaking figure who represented the very best of Kyoto’s literary connections.  This was not only because of the widespread reputation she had, both here and in the US, but for her close identification with Kyoto’s historical and spiritual heritage. Along with such poets as Cid Corman, Gary Snyder and Hal Stewart, she established Kyoto as a rich source of inspirational writing exemplified by the Kyoto Journal in which she often featured.

Personally I first came across Edith in connection with her book on Buson, written in collaboration with a graduate student of mine,  Yuki Sawa. The book was influential in raising Buson’s esteem in the outside world. Thereafter I was fortunate to encounter Edith on several occasions, notably through her guest attendances at the interfaith discussion group run by Morris Augustine. I was also able to visit her both at the Residents Home in Ohara and her final Residents Home here in Kyoto.

Perhaps the book that best sums up her attachment to the city is the Tuttle publication, Kyoto-Dwelling: A Year of Brief Poems (1987). Extracted pages are available online through Google Books and can be read at this link here. It’s worth savoring her poetry while dedicating a few quiet moments in her memory.  There is an autobiographical introduction, and as the subtitle indicates it contains a yearly cycle in 12 different sections, with a seasonal illustration for each month.

Edith first came to Kyoto in the heady days of 1963, and she writes fondly of the various dwellings which gave rise to poetry closely related to the spirit of place: a room on Yoshida Hill overlooking the city; a rented room in a Zen subtemple at Myoshin-ji; a lodging in the north between Takaragaike and Midorigaike lakes, before relocation close to Kamigamo Shrine and later Shimogamo Shrine.  From 1981 she lived at the foot of Mt Hiei in the north east, not far from Buson’s grave at Kompoku-ji.  Here she enjoyed a happy second marriage with Minoru Sawano, which formed the basis for a book in Japanese.

Edith studied Taoism and Buddhism in the 1930s, part of a pioneering generation who turned their attention to the Far East. Her love for Kyoto is evident throughout her writings, and she saw it as ‘a Taoist realm, a place of imagined satori…  The sound of rain. The sound of wind. The silence of falling snow. Ridges disappearing into mist. A sudden bursting out of masses of blossoms. Birds in the early morning. Eroding rocks that blow away as sand. Flowing water.’

This love for the earth
is all I need to survive.
My pack sack holds much.

Writers in Kyoto would like to salute the passing of one of our great predecessors.  RIP Edith Shiffert.


For a detailed biography and listing of her works, see this University of California site.

For an article and tribute by Jane Wieman, please see here.

For a Japan Times review of In the Ninth Decade by Edith, please see here.

For a listing of her books in print, see here.

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