Friday, June 16, 2017

Kanjiro Kawai (河井 寛次郎)

A pleasant spring day.  The sun-and-rain-stained wood of the old building bathed in sunlight.  It is quiet.

It feels as though I'm an invited guest.  The house is as Kanjiro Kawai left it.  His chairs, not for admiring, but for sitting, fresh flowers on tables in every room.  The kilns with pottery ready to fire, as if Kawai-san has just stepped out.

His character marks the place.  You know exactly who he is/was.  A poet as much as a potter.  A life dedicated to simple beauty.  Wabi-sabi.

I sit.  I think.  I dream a little.  Time drifts.  I am reluctant to leave.  I'll wait for Kawai-san to return.

What is beauty,
But joy found
In all of life.

- Kanjiro Kawai

Friday, June 2, 2017

Monday, May 29, 2017

Saihoji (西芳寺)

Saihoji (西芳寺), also known as Kokedera (Moss Temple) has been on my list for a while.  This temple in Nishikyo-ku, not far from where I live, requires a reservation.  I'd made one twice before, but circumstances prevented me from going.  With my third reservation I finally made it.

Just like the old days, I got lost on my way.  A young woman selling newspaper subscriptions pointed me in the right direction.  I soon realized I had been to this locale before.  This happens to me more and more these days.

Inside the hondo (main hall) I showed my postcard reservation and paid the exceedingly steep entrance fee of ¥3,000.  Myself and maybe 40 or 50 other visitors were directed to sit at small fumizukue (writing desks) aligned in neat rows on either side of the naijin (altar).

Visitors to Saihoji are required to copy sutra (Buddhist scripture).  Shakyo (sutra copying) is considered a highly virtuous exercise healing the body and mind and bringing blessings.  In my Japanese class three years ago we learned how to write Hiragana and Katakana, so I know the basic strokes and movements of Japanese.  But Kanji is something altogether different and a good deal more complex.  I was nonetheless eager to try my hand.

At each desk was a fude (brush), suzuri (inkstone), sumi (ink stick) and a bunchin (paper weight), Though I've seen these things in various stationery and art shops around Kyoto I had no idea how to use them.  I watched my neighbors.  

My Japanese comrades attacked the sutra with confidence, verve and grace.  I struggled to even see the tiny text.  I was just getting into the rhythm of the shakyo when the attendant priests began the kito (prayer chants) beating a mokugyo (so-called "fish" drum) and striking a kin (a cauldron-shaped percussion instrument made from bronze).  This was engrossing and hypnotic.  I quickly forgot about the sutra writing.

I don't know if we were expressly forbidden from entering the garden before completing our shakyo, but that seemed to be the implication.  I labored on as the hondo emptied out. In the end it took me more than 30 minutes to finish transcribing the 18 lines of Kanji.

The garden was beautiful, of course, but not quite stunning.  Suffering from a lack of recent rainfall, the more than 120 varieties of moss were a less than vibrant green.  However, owing to the limited capacity at the temple and my slow sutra writing I did find a pleasant quietness there.  The afternoon sun partnered with the giant trees and a cool breeze to cast fantastic moving shadows over the lumpy, moss-covered earth.

¥3,000 seems a lot for an afternoon contemplating lightness and darkness, but then a temple is not a theatre; we don't go to be entertained.

Friday, May 19, 2017


The marquee flora in Japan are of course the sakura (cherry) in spring and the momiji (maple) in autumn.  These trees get top billing and their annual shows bring in billions of tourist Yen.  But just as in film, there are supporting actors in a garden, plants that make the stars shine.  These players are not flamboyant and the niwa (garden) paparazzi, so focused on the celebrity trees, will just as likely give them a miss.  

In April, just as the last cherry blossom has been whisked away by a persuasive breeze, there is what is called shinryoku (fresh green of April).  This refers to the incredibly vibrant greens of the new spring leaves on plants and trees.

Murin-an villa in the Sakyo ward of eastern Kyoto was built in 1896 by Aritomo Yamagata, an Elder Statesman and advisor to the emperor during the Meiji (1868 - 1912) and Taisho (1912 - 1926) Eras.  Three structures - a wood sukiya-zukuri-style house, a red brick Western-style house and a Yabunouchi-style tea house - sit on more than 3,000 square meters of land.  It is a gorgeous garden that occupies the vast majority of this large property.

Yamagata's aesthetic differed slightly from most.  His vision for the villa garden was something more natural, something that resembled the countryside with wildflowers and a meandering stream.  He wanted the garden to blend seamlessly into the Higashiyama Mountains in the distance.  The concept of musakui-no-sakui was paramount.  This means the garden should appear as if Mother Nature alone created the landscape, even if it is in reality the meticulous work of many gardeners.

I went to Murin-an for the "Fresh Greenery Illumination" which the villa hosts every year at the end of April/beginning of May.  A recent and unfortunate trend at temple illuminations is projection mapping.  There was none of that here.  The lighting was soft and subtle highlighting the brilliant greens of the garden.  Visitors were invited to sit in the washitsu of the main building and simply gaze into the garden as night fell over it.

As the the sun faded and the natural light changed, so too did the garden.  There was a slow shift in depth.  Some plants and trees emerged and others receded into the darkness.  Silhouettes grew stronger.

Of course there were no electric lights in the garden when Yamagata had it built.  Apparently he was fond of the moonlight playing over the stream and meadow.  That vista must have been even more serene.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Ohara Festival of Spring (春の大原女まつり)

Spring in Ohara - wildflowers color the hills yellow and only incidentally purple, the trees are dressed smartly in shinryoku green, the sky is stretched bright and wide, the narrow Kusao River that cuts through the little farms is a lazy soundtrack.

Painted into the foreground of this pastoral tableau are some 50 or 60 women and girls wearing traditional aizome (indigo-dyed) kimono and white tenugui (kerchief), the same as their peasant ancestors wore in centuries past.  The colors are ultra-vivid - blue, red, orange, white - the layered patterns and textures striking.  These were work clothes of the Kamakura Era (1192 -1333), humble garments, purely functional.  They are a stark contrast to the splendid and rarefied kimonos of the imperial court, or even the geisha of Gion.  Dressed so, the women of Ohara would carry kindling, coal, flowers and various produce into the city on their heads.  

The annual Ohara Festival of Spring (春の大原女まつり) celebrates the season and the women of this rural town in the mountains north of Kyoto.  Women and girls parade along a narrow road from Jakkoin Temple across the Takano River to Sanzenin Temple.  Generations of Ohara residents, grandparents down to toddlers, step out of their houses to watch it go by.  It is a lovely spectacle.

I have seen other gyoretsu (processions) in Kyoto, impressive, but rather sober events, participants and spectators stone-faced, serious.  Oharame Matsuri is light, cheerful, everyone smiling, greeting each other.  Everybody seems to know everybody.  I find myself smiling too.  It is a contagious joy.

Not even halfway to their destination storm clouds gather and a cold rain begins to fall.  The entire group scurry into a cafe along the route.  Light cotton tenugui and  waraji (straw rope sandals) are no match for a spring thunder shower.

I take shelter under the eaves of a nearby building and wait with a few others for the storm to pass.  The matsuri paparazzi, moments earlier climbing over each other to get photos of the beautiful Oharame (Ohara women), abandon the project completely and race for their cars with their big, expensive cameras.  I wait and I wait, listening to the rhythm of the rain, watching the sky, looking for some blue through the gray.  45-minutes later the rain stops and the sun returns, but the parade does not resume.  I suppose the momentum is lost, the continuity broken.  A cruel joke by Mother Nature, the proverbial rain on the parade.

I am disappointed, but at the same time grateful to have witnessed the marvelous start of this Oharame Matsuri.  Next year...there's always next year.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Core Kyoto

When I returned to Kyoto in the autumn of 2014 after a 6-month sojourn in Los Angeles it was my friend Taka who helped me secure an apartment.  His aunt, Kazuyo Kawamoto, owned an apartment building.  He mentioned her vocation was something to do with a singular, traditional Japanese craft.

Shortly after settling in I scheduled an informal rendez-vous with Kawamoto-san in her atelier, two floors below my apartment.  I wanted to see what she does.  She pulled out some fabric with incredibly detailed beading on it.  On closer inspection I realized it wasn't beading at all.  It was hundreds and hundreds of tiny knots.  Then she demonstrated the technique, an extraordinarily precise, rhythmic manipulation of thread and fabric.  The concentration and patience required for this work was mind-blowing.

Kawamoto-san doesn't speak any English and at the time I spoke very little Japanese.  I could appreciate the beauty of her work, and the tremendous dedication, but I didn't quite understand how this gorgeous fabric was used.  What was the end product?

NHK (Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai, Japan's national public broadcasting network) hosts a weekly program called "Core Kyoto".  It is a consistently engaging show highlighting the people and culture of contemporary Kyoto with deep roots in the city's history.

Last month there was an episode about Kyo-kanoko shibori - Japanese tie-dye.  This is not your crude, rainbow whorl seen on countless Grateful Dead T-shirts.  This is a painstaking, time-consuming art form dating back to the 7th Century.  A bolt of fabric (36 X 1300cm) for a single kimono requires the labor of half a dozen specialized artisans and can take more than a year to complete.

This is what my landlord does for a living.  She is one of only a handful of people in Japan that still plies this craft.  She has been recognized by the Emperor for her skill.  I've seen the medal of honor.

It's funny.  I see Kawamoto-san almost everyday, walking her Shiba-inu, watering her plants.  We chit-chat about the weather.  I’ve had dinner with her and the family.  She always makes me smile.  She is "core Kyoto" and I'm lucky to know her.