Writing about Philip Whalen this week stirred memories of the time I spent in Kyoto, Japan in 1985. My wife had secured a foreign assignment as a computer software support person at the U.S.-Japan joint AFB in Misawa (Aomori Prefecture) up near the northwest corner of the main island. I had originally intended to work for the local Defense Contractor as a grounds planner, but this fell through and I ended up with unlimited time on my hands. After spending two weeks together in Kyoto, I went back for another month intending to photograph the gardens with my new view camera, using 4x5 Ektachrome sheet film.
Friday, July 17, 2009
My Summer in Kyoto
At loose ends in Misawa, I'd begun to explore the countryside in Aomori. Japan is a crowded country, and the Japanese have no compunctions about ripping it up whenever the spirit moves them, but Northern Japan has much unspoiled (mostly) agricultural acreage, and it's farmed in much the same way it has been for hundreds of years, and much of the architecture and rural infrastructure appears much as it would have a hundred years ago, save for the paved roads and automobiles. I spent many days, in good weather and bad, wandering the countryside photographing rice racks, weathered barns, and elegantly shaped trees there.
I hadn't photographed seriously before this, but the opportunities were inspiring, and I quickly stepped up from 35 millimeter, to medium (square) format, to large format (4x5 with an accordion bellows etc, which required a sturdy tripod, and a big camera bag to hold the film holders, several lenses, light meter, etc.). As tourist attractions, Kyoto, Tokyo and Nara present almost limitless examples of preserved architecture and gardens. I decided I'd focus my energies on Kyoto, rather than try to take in the other sites nearby.
In Kyoto, I stayed in a 500 year old Ryokan (a traditional kind of hotel). Unlike Western lodgings, Ryokans are constructed in the Japanese manner, their room dimensions and amenities laid out according to the tatami mat dimensions; you sleep on the floor with a rice pillow, and you share the bathing facilities; no shoes are worn indoors (all the shoes are lined up outside near the door), and traditional meals are provided. This Ryokan was owned and operated by a family which had lived there through many generations. The structure was original--dark wooden beams and planks which creaked when you walked on them. There wasn't much privacy--you could hear other boarders between the paper-thin walls--there were televisions, but nothing in English! Usually I bathed in the mornings, frequently having to spend an extra 10 minutes filling the huge square tub with cold water, lest I be boiled alive by the steaming hot water the maid had drawn for me!
Kyoto is a large modern city, but, like San Francisco (bounded by water on three sides), its growth is limited, by steep encircling mountains, where many of the temples are situated. My day would begin with an odd fish-y breakfast (their version of scrambled eggs involved a neat rolling of the egg mass into a rectangular layer cake leavened with pickle peppers).
I often went out to eat in the evening. Since I had no Japanese, this could be awkward at times. I remember once, strolling around the middle of town, I came upon a big coffee house with dozens of outdoor tables. As I approached the cafe, hundreds of high school and college students in groups or with their dates suddenly turned to look at me in horror! A gaijin! I had accidentally walked into a forbidden zone! I felt as if I were striding onto the stage at the academy awards! Murmurs like a thousand bees! Consternation at my long brown trenchcoat, a giant (I'm 6'4")!
In all, I visited over 40 gardens, often seeing two in the same day. My primary mode of transport was taxis. The Japanese taxi system is without doubt the most efficient and impressive as any in the world. It's a closely regulated service, the cars are immaculate and new (they're all a pale, polished green color), the drivers are competent and anxious to please, but of course all this doesn't come cheap. And they're ubiquitous--never any fear, unless you're way, way out of town, of finding one.
Kyoto is a tourist center, but unlike many such precincts, it's not been allowed to be cheapened and trashed. The gardens--both royal (secular) and holy (religious)--are visually stunning examples of the management of, and integration with, natural landscape forms. Many of the temples have been, and still are, in continuous use for hundreds of years. One of my best color shots was taken while a group of seated monks chanted morning prayers on the other side of an open porch facing the lush garden view. Many of the temples have become wary of tourist exploitation, and won't allow you to set up tripods on the premises. Many also charge entrance fees, and restrict access to certain designated areas. Some, like Katsura or Saiho-ji, have organized tours and you have to stay with your group.
Among the most popular is the Golden Temple (Kinkaku-ji), a shimmering gold (real gold leaf!) three-story pavilion set at the edge of a small landscaped lake. The subject of countless tourist pictures, the temple was burned down by a deranged monk in 1950, and was rebuilt. This episode forms the basis of Mishima's novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. One overwhelming problem immediately becomes evident when attempting to photograph it, from across the water, which presents the best views. The pathway which encircles the lake normally is crowded with visitors, and as they pass beside the pavilion, they get in the way of the composition. As anyone who has visited Japan knows, Japanese school children are routinely taken on field trips to these sights; these kids, about age 5 or 6, come in class groups, dressed uniformly in shorts, cotton shirts, and little bright pastel colored hats (almost like teams). As one group passes, followed by a few stubborn stragglers, the next group comes, and the process starts all over again.
I would set up the composition for the pavilion, and wait patiently as the little yellow-hatted group would slowly pass, then I'd have, say, a second or less, to take the shot, hoping the sun hadn't slipped behind a cloud, before the next little red-hatted group began to pass, until the orange-hatted group took its turn, etc. This went on for hours! I went back twice, but only got a fair shot of the Golden Pavilion.
Another great attraction is the Saiho-ji, or Moss Garden (Koke-dera). In order to visit this, visitors are required to attend a kind of short seminar on Japanese brush calligraphy. Following a brief lecture, you have to sit on the floor and copy out a page full of Kanji characters with your black paintbrush. Everyone tries to hurry through the task, in order to spend as much time in the garden as possible!
It should be noted--with respect to the moss--that Japan is a humid country! After a while, you don't mind it too much, but it's important to be aware of the consequences. Typically, in Japan, you'll find a light bulb fixture sticking out near the floor in closets--this is intended to mitigate the growth of mold inside your shoes--which I was astounded to discover one morning when I reached for my dress bucks--filled with hazy grey-green mold!
Nevertheless, this humidity provides the basis for the growth of moss, and the Japanese have learned to exploit its intensely green carpeting aspect to enhance the look and tactile sensation of their garden compositions. The Moss Garden--pictured above and at the top of this piece--is probably the best example of its use. Its primary drawback is the difficulty of maintenance. Dry leaves and detritus are continually falling upon it, which must be groomed meticulously on a daily or twice-daily basis by moccasined monk gardeners using crude (but soft) grass brooms, in order not to damage the delicate moss covering.
The best way to visit the gardens is to allow yourself adequate time to appreciate their meditative calmness and atmosphere. Many of the smaller, less popular ones, allow guests to sit and meditate, and will even offer you free tea. Small donations are appreciated but not demanded. I spent many happy moments basking in the peace and relative solitude of a perfectly sited and constructed garden. It was late Summer, early Fall, and the maples were orange and yellow--like tomatoes--and they would oscillate and bend gently in the stirring breezes.
I have a big cache of hundreds of 4x5 chromes of Kyoto, which I need someday to get printed, probably by the silver-chrome emulsion process (Zibachrome). I went to considerable difficulty to make them, but under the most wonderful of circumstances. I will never forget my month in Kyoto in the late Summer of 1985. In another post soon, I'll discuss the Ryoan-ji or sand garden.