Friday, June 4, 2010



To understand this blog you must get past my dirty prose: The typos, misspellings, dropped words, prolix and poor taste. I aim to fix all these errors when I get the time, if ever. Double-click the photos to enlarge them and they won't seem so out of focus. To keep reading the whole blog, click on Older Posts at bottom right at the end of the queue.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Kyoto People & Places


Nanzenji (above)  is the temple that anchors Kyoto's Philosopher's Path (Tetsugaku no Michi), where people take a peaceful strolls along a string of Buddhist temples flanking the eastern hills. The path gets clogged with tourists too often, but on this morning it belonged to locals and their dogs. You can walk all the way to Ginkakuji and pretend you're in the 18th Century.

Ichihara Mamoru is a woodblock print maker in the Gion entertainment district who reproduces ukiyoe masterpieces. I regret walking away without buying a print of a red Bodhidharma.

Shinshindo, a European-style coffee house and bakery, was founded 80 years ago across the street from Kyoto University. I used to go there for breakfast to get their chewy little croissants, which I was disappointed to find are now flakey and buttery like croissant you could get anywhere.. Kyodai students still hang out at Shinshindo studying on the massive oak tables.
Young people have become bicycle crazy since I was living in Kyoto. They jam the sidewalks, where it can be dangerous to pedestrians. I had to dodge these guys zipping past Shinshindo's storefront. The problem isn't kamikaze cyclists like we have in San Francisco. The bike lanes here are on the sidewalk, not the roads. If authorities let them on the streets they'd have the chaos bicycle swarms holding up buses, like Chinese cities did until the 1990s when cars invaded the streets.

The Kamo River courses in grandeur through the heart of the city, where it is flanked by tea houses and restaurants in the Pontocho area famed for its maiko (geisha apprentices). The river was cascading with little white caps the day after heavy rains when I stopped by to squat and drink a grande sutahbakasu (yes, Starbucks has invaded the Ancient Capital).
There I met Hilda Inonara, a dancer, model and musician who came to the Kamogawa this day from the suburbs to sketch the scene by the Sanjo Bridge. Her father was a Japanese journalist who met her mother in Nigeria. She speaks four languages but she's n0t very proud of her drawings. "They'e lousy but I don't care," she said. "I just like to sketch."

Along with ramen carts and back-alley yaki tori tents, the tachi-kui (stand-up eat) soba shop is a mainstay of Japanese fast-food cuisine for the working class. They're still abundant on train platforms, but Fujiwara-san says his soba counter has survived, against the odds,  for 40 years on Shijo Street in the heart of Kyoto's commercial downtown, an area of ritzy department stores and tourist traps swarmed by a young generation looking for the next McDonald's.

Kyoto is a town of readers, students and scholars, hosting 22 universities, and it keeps its used booksellers busy. I visited the one in my old Asukai-cho neighborhood where I used to browse. I purchased from Mr. Kobayashi a reproduction of an old panoramic map of the city and a book of illustrations by a Taisho-era artist who lovingly depicted moga (modern gals) from the roaring 20s, in and out of kimono. 

My friend Charlie Fox, a professor at Kyoto's Ritsumeikan University, is a regular at an authentic British Pub in this Takagamine neighborhood, as authentic as Western things get in Japan. I ordered a basket of fusion fish and chips fried in tempura batter and drank Bushmills. The proprietor, Matsumiya-san,  told Charlie that the first English words he learned in middle school were Mr. Brown, a character in a textbook dialogue, so he named his pub Browns.

High Culture, Low Culture, Counter Culture


On my last night in town I dined on delicate Kyoto cuisine with my old girlfriend Naomi, visited a master shiatsu massage therapist for work my bruised (cracked?) ribs, and ended the evening drinking beer at Hachimonjiya, a retro-70's counter-culture bar in the Kiyamachi nightlife district.

The bruised (cracked?)  ribs I sustained in an incident at an enchanted garden, one that is so exalted it is rarely open to the public. I was minding my own business when I tripped on a stepping stone and rammed face forward into a tree then spun around and crashed sideways into a priceless stone basin called a tsukubai. Luckily, the polycarbonite lenses on my glasses saved my right eye and the bamboo implements atop the tsukubai were not damaged by my fall, otherwise I'd have to sell my house. 

Regrettably, the snapshots I took of the garden in question are strictly prohibited from being posted on the internet. At right is the tsukubai at the famous Zen garden at Ryoanji Temple, to give you an idea of what I almost wrecked.

Hachimonjiya is a smoke-filled hole-in-the-wall joint on the 3rd floor of an unassuming building off the splenid Kiyamachi canal. It's a fire trap jammed with stacks of old books and magazines and patronized by scraggly chain-smoling bohemians. I met a jazz saxophonist and an unemployed movie sound engineer. The owner is a Kyoto photographer named Kai Fusayoshi who was absent that night because he was in Paris for an exhibition of his work.

Kai is also one of the founders (in 1972) of Honyarado, the iconic coffee house and woodsy hotbed of folk music, poets and political activists.  Honyarado was empty when I dropped by for coffee. Activist posters and handbills were plastered on the walls  and a soundtrack of early Bob Dillon filled the air - reassuringly frozen in time.

For a feel of what folk-rock music was like in Japan during early 1970s, well before  J-Pop rock schlock,  click on the following link. Originally I had a link to a  great video featuring  middle aged Haruomi Hosono and his Happy End (はっぴえんど) band mates performing live the iconic Natsu Nandesu, but it disappeared from YouTube. This click sends you t an audio file dressed up with photos  of the album cover. Best I can do. The song is a nostalgic portrait of  a neighborhood in Tokyo, not Kyoto,  but it gives you the feeling of the lost era.

Natsu Nandesu 

(hit the left arrow to return to the blog)

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Namikawa Neighborhood


I've been very lucky to have been able to stay in a great neighborhood in the Kitayama Sanjo district. It's part of the old estate of Namikawa Yasuyuki, a master cloisonné craftsman who prospered in the late 19th century.  An old friend and dai-sempai (great older student) has kindly put me up in one of the classic Machiya row houses he rents on the block that dates back to 1870. 

The house where I'm staying has a very small entrance I have to crawl through to get inside and the thresholds between the tatami mat rooms are so low I am contently banging my head. I frequently quote the philosopher Homer Simpson: Doh!  

Here's the narrow street behind the Namikawa Cloisonne Museum.

This is the impossibly small front door

The main rooms

The front room facing the street

The boardwalk out back that leads to the garden and latrine

A back alley leading to a secret inn where I stayed a few nights (Hush!)

Bank Fraud

Never try to cash traveler's checks at a Japanese bank.

I knew this already but I must have forgotten how wretched it is to do business at Japanese banks. Maybe I hoped in my heart that things might have improved by now. So it was that I made two trips to different banks this week to change travelers checks from dollars into yen and was treated like a money-laundering terrorist.

The problem in both cases was caused by minor discrepancies between my top line signatures and the counter-signatures I made before pretty and young tellers wearing bank uniforms.  At the first bank I watched employees scurry from desk to desk getting chops for the paperwork, making phone calls, consulting with supervisors, checking out my passport and working themselves into a frenzy over red tape. After a half hour of this I resolved the situation by standing up and taking photos of the action. In Japan that's called nuisance power.

I wasn't so lucky at the second bank. The drama repeated itself but this time it took and hour and a half before I finally got American Express on the phone to explain that the two signatures on the check didn't need to be exactly the same. Apparently they believed I had stolen the checks from another person whose passport picture didn't have my whiskers at the time it was taken -- Uh oh, a foreigner with a beard -- and that I had forged the checks in order to defraud the Kyoto Shinyo Ginko (Kyoto  "Trust" Bank0 out of $300.

Only reluctantly and with and with deep suspicion did the assistant manager allow my teller to cash the checks. I didn't yell at him until I got the cash in my hand. It felt good to yell. You're not supposed to lose your tempter in Japan so as not to cause others to lose face, but this guy was lucky I didn't punch him in the nose. Actually, he didn't entirely deserve that -- he probably believed he was adhering to a strict interpretation of the rules. as mandated by idiot buraucrats in the Ministry of Finance.  When you don't want to take responsibility for something in Japan, the saying is shikata ga nai: " Meaning: "it can't be helped" or "it's beyond my control" or "tough luck, buddy."

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Yes, it's still here -- the little read mail box I made 33 years ago at the entryway to the tiny apartment I lived in next to the rice shop in Asukai-cho, just north of Kyoto University. It's not in great shape but still serviceable. 

You can see it's been banged up over the decades

Shimizu Rice Shop, formerly run by my landlord. Mr. Shimizu's nephew, who now runs the business, is so ugly he refused to pose

My apartment had no shower so I went to this public bath house across Higashi-Oji Street to get clean

Kitano Tenjin

Kitano Tenjin is a Shinto shrine that hosts one of the city's three major flee markets. On the 25th of every month throngs of local bargain hunters and tourists descend upon the shrine. The flea mareet has expanded exponentially since I first knew it and now includes the trappings of a traditional summer festival, with food and games for little kids

Antique traders now circle the shrine selling a lot of old junk. The vintage silk kimonos have been replaced by suspiciously new garments selling fort as low as around $6.   "They're not all made in China," said Kaori, one of the vendors.

Mr. Tamaka describes himself as a bonsai master and has been working Kyoto's flea markets for the last 27 years

This guy is selling tako yaki (octopus balls), an indispensable feature in neighborhood festivals

Yasu Suzuka

My friend Yasu Suzuka is a well-known Kyoto artist who made a name for himself as a printmaker early in his career and now focuses almost exclusively on pin-hole camera photography. The theme of his recent work is images of Buddhism -- hands clasped in the gassho mudra and variations on the Heart Sutra. He's also an accomplisned maker of soba noodles and an aspiring tea master.  I  know Yasu from the time my friend Robin Bullard served as his apprentice in the early 1970s. Yasu was constantly invoking his motto back then (and maybe still is): Ja, hard working!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Time Stands Still

El Cerrito -- Two years later I'm preparing to return to Kyoto, this time for an extended stay. I got my ticket, arranged lodgings, and made a lot of lists. That's the easy part. When you've been completely out of touch with a place for so long you need to plan seriously what you're going to do to catch up so you don't land blind. Research and reading to learn current affairs on the ground; emailing Japanese friends ahead of time to seek advice on what's hot; brush up on Japanese to avoid bouts of aphasia when you can't call up words and phrases that once spilled out of your mouth effortlessly.

I was very fortunate to have a visitor this weekend who gave me a jump-start on the work ahead, His name is Tetsuya Matsuda, one of my oldest and closest friends in Japan. We were drinking buddies when I was studying t at Kyoto University in the late 1970s and he was a Kyodai medical student. I mined his considerable brain m for intelligence on such things as recent popular movies and changes in the Kyoto environment. There's a suspicious looking Japanese video rental store down the street from where I live that have't checked out yet; I'm hoping it has more than porn in stock.

Probably the most important thing to think about now is mind-set. I don't want this visit to be a trip down memory lane like my last time, as documented below. I tried to explain to Tetsuya that I wanted to focus on the present, with the then-and-now as a secondary narrative. Hopefully I can eliminate the maudlin nostalgia that turned the the earlier phase of this  blog into a sappy diary. Nevertheless, probably one of the first things I'll do after arrival this this time wil be to see if my little red mailbox is still hanging at the foyer of the shabby apartment above the rice shop where I lived for a few of the happiest years of my life, If it's still there, as it was two years ago, it will be a symbol of how Kyoto is frozen in time and changing at rapid pace. Then the journey begins.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


June 4, 2010

The aim of my Kyoto trip, among other things, was to catch up with some old friends. The big surprise was reconnecting with Rob Singer, a dai sempai (great older student) and onjin (benefactor) from way back when. Rob is an amazing character. He's curator of Japanese art at the LA County Museum of Art, and splits his time living in Los Angeles and Kyoto. I called him out of the blue to see if he'd be around in Kyoto when I visited, and he blew my mind by offering me a chance to freeload at one of his old machiya.

 Naomi Togashi, my old girlfriend from the late 1970s, with whom I've been in contact all these years, was also  very hospitable  She put me up at her house in the northern hills and treated me to a lot on Kyoto Kuisine. Her father, a prominent Kyoto sculptor I used to enjoy getting drunk with, was stricken acutely ill with a monster headache and vomiting a few days before I left and I insisted they take him directly to the emergency room. Apparently that advice saved his life. He had a hematoma on his brain. I didn't get to drink beer with him on this trip. 
At right is Minoru Togashi's sculpture in the Sanjo Keihin Station Plaza, with his thematic wavy design he calls Ku ni Kakeru Kaidan (Stairway to the Void).
I  got to see Jun Tomita, a very mellow textile artist friend who works with giant looms in his studio in a remote village in the western hills. I didn't see anyone from the eastern hills. There are no southern hills.  

My old drinking buddy from Kyoto University Tetsuya Matsuda MD and his wife Yuriko humored me when exhaustion and drink sabotaged my capacity to speak the Japanese language during an extraordinary dinner in Gion. He reminded me how to say aphasia in Japanese but I quickly forgot. (Is it beginning to sound like people drink too much in Japan? The government toughened up on the DUI law: The fine is $5,000. Seriously. People are scared sober. The law evidently is a subsidy for the taxi industry and helped launch a new service industry that drives intoxicated clients home in their own cars.)

Yasu Suzuka, featured in one of the posts above, lived up to his reputation as a hard-working mad artist. He took me to a local hot spring and fed me the best soba I've ever tasted. The bonus encounter was with Andrew Horvat, dai sempai from the Tokyo press corps who's in Kyoto directing a study-abroad program for Stanford. I saw Dallas Pyle all over the place, despite the fact the he was home in Maine, safe from all the ghosts of Kyoto past.  

June 9, 2010

The ribs were bruised, not cracked. No collapsed lungs due to deep pranayama breathing. The  welts on the top of my head have healed. Minoru Togashi is home from hospital and mending well.  I'm planning a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia this winter. .

Exhausted transit passengers waiting for a plane at Narita, one of the he world's worst international airports

Kyoto, the Town I Love

I'm returning to Japan after a long hiatus -- nearly five years. That's the longest absence since I first visited as student in 1973. This is a journal of my May 2010 very short trip to Kyoto, where I studied for a combination of three-and-a -half years during the 1970s. (At right, that's what I looked like when I first landed in Kyoto.)

I made every effort to revisit Kyoto when I was a journalist living in Tokyo in the 1980's and roving around Asia in the 1990's and early 2000's. I've seen Buddhist temples disappear and rice paddies drained, and rural hamlets demolished to make room for ferro-concrete homes. I grieved for the lovely shiden trolley system when it was torn up and replaced by shiny subway lines.

Some areas in the center of Kyoto are unrecognizable now as the old wooden buildings -- seasoned to a beautifully mottled dark-brown by decades and centuries of weather -- have been raised so that  architects could desecrate the city with contemporary eyesores.
Kyoto was spared fire bombing by the Americans during the Pacific War and removed from the short list of atomic bomb targets because right-minded people  recognized the crucial importance of its ancient cultural legacy to the Japanese and to the civilized world.

What does the city look like today? What's unchanged, such as the little red mailbox I constructed at the entry of of my apartment 33 years ago when I was foreign  student at Kyoto University. I'm told it's still there. (Thats me on the left when I last visited in 2006.) 

Is there something extraodinary and deep about Kyoto that you can't necessarily see but will endure for another thousand years?