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.