Friday, July 17, 2009

My Summer in Kyoto

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. 

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.      


Ed Baker said...

you visit Cid and Shizumi's

ice-cream shoppe?

take pictures of?

Curtis Faville said...

I wouldn't have known where to find Corman.

Steven Fama said...


The photos here are superb -- all yours?

(Two get big with a click-through, the others remain small.)

Kirby Olson said...

I find the Buddhist thing very compelling. Why don't you tell us about some of the annoyances, though? This verges on Orientalism the way you go ga-ga. Weren't there any drawbacks?

Like I liked Paris, but didn't like the dog shit everywhere.

I liked Paris, but the toilets were quite rudimentary.

It doesn't seem like you have any perspective on the place, even 25 years later, as if you waltzed into hog heaven.

Come on! Carp a bit! It's only human!

Curtis Faville said...

Japanese have a different view of toilets. Usually, it's a hole in the floor, maybe with a kind of shaped flange around the edge. You just have to squat all the way down to the floor, and let'er fly. Being a very tall man (6'4"), this put a big strain on my knees. Plus, it's unfamiliar to a Westerner used to resting when doing one's business.*

But these kinds of things are culturally determined. It's just different. If you grow up using another form, it's what seems natural.

One day I'll talk about the Japanese, a fascinating people--both good and bad. They are profoundly different from us--something that hardly anyone ever talks about. In our current environment of accommodation and political correctness, it's impermissible to talk about it, but it's a crucial thing.


I'm not sure if it's a racial thing, but I think Europeans have a harder time folding their legs than Asians do generally.

Kirby Olson said...

their legs are shorter, perhaps, so -- easier to fold?

we would have to affirm that on a statistical basis, but again, it's probably not a PC thing to go around gathering statistics about.

I once heard from a guy who was doing research in Japan that he held on to a rope and had to poop out over a hole dug centuries back. Once a week he'd go to a McDonald's (this was in the 60s) and sit there with the newspaper for two hours.

Such a relief!

Tell us everything you think about the Japanese at some point and be as critical as you can!

Ed will flip!

but i think the rest of us just want to know the truth.

Curtis Faville said...


I guess the point of my Japan post is that I rather liked Kyoto (as well as Northern Japan).

It didn't occur to me to put Japan (and the Japanese) down. Or to try to find shortcomings and failures in oriental culture.

Buddhism never appealed to me much. But from an aesthetic point of view--especially for Westerners--it's an interesting opposite.

jh said...

in private home design the japanese did take into consideration the aesthetics of shitting and pissing
they took pains to create space
quiet space adn the practice of old was to place aromatic pine branches where the waste would be overwhlemd with pine scent
this was forsaken when they took to american style plumbing which never fit into their social design but they sort of forced it i guess they bought into the shiny efficiency of th ewest
now they excel at it
without much thought it seems

we have a monastery in fujimi
designed by a japanese architect
ken takagaki
set into a very small space
but made spacious nonetheless
i don't know about the toilets
but i've heard nothing shitty from the monks

i too think the photos are superb
and i don't like photos all that much

what i detest about the chinese is the cameras
i was performing in a coffe shop a few nights ago
a bunch of japanes tourists came in lokked around
took some pictures adn left
it seems they have no need any longer to sit and listen adn contemplate
why bother
take a picture and go
too many damn cameras around


Kirby Olson said...

I didn't think you should "put it down," [Nippon]. But to have some perspective! You went gaga.

You tend to go gaga over a few things: first it was Larry Eigner, and now, Japan.

Try to get a hold of yourself, or pretty soon there's going to be nothing to hold you back.

On the one side there's this Grammar Nazi. You make fun of the inadequacy of American speech and writing.

Then, on the other side, there's this notion that Japan and Larry Eigner are perfect, or at least as close to perfect as anything in this world can be.

Just because they appear in a poem by Philip Whalen doesn't mean that dragonflies are special.

Remember what the Japanese did in Nanking in WWII. Remember the terrible suffering they inflicted on the Dutch and on our soldiers at Pearl Harbor.

I don't know what if anything Larry Eigner did that could be considered unethical or immoral or even anaesthetic or unaesthetic, but still, didn't he ever write anything in your mind that wasn't good?

He did seem to mix up Kenya with less well-nourished African countries of the period. Can't you even fault him on the knowledge scorecard?

Curtis Faville said...

Perhaps we can have a debate about the virtues of oriental culture, someday.

For the moment, I have to indulge in less complicated projects.

It does no good to tackle problems for which one is unprepared, or insufficiently informed.

Attacking from a position of ignorance does no one any good.

Blogging is about raising ephemeral concerns and issues, and suggesting tangents of sentiment. Nothing more.

Someday, it would be interesting to collect all these brief essays. I think Douglas Messerli has done that very thing.