A Painter's Journal 1999

Exit here for the 1998 & 1997 journals of travels in the west.

A Week in Japan is all we had and we felt lucky at that.

My sister Anne and I left San Francisco on Saturday morning for the wedding of our brother Mike in Nagoya, Japan. Of eight siblings we were the only two that had the time to spare. Anne is self-employed in video and special effects and my freedom as an artist with part-time telecom work provides some flexibility. If we were to consider the costs we are the two that might least be able go but in this case time proves more valuable than money. This is what charge cards are for.

We arrived at Narita airport, picked up our rail passes and waited for our local flight in a long line that turned out to be for international flights but we had two hours to spare anyway. Lugging too much baggage including a tux for Mike and gifts for Shizuka's family, we took the Boeing 747 with about forty other passengers to Osaka, then a shuttle bus and finally a local train to Kyoto where by then it was ten-thirty Sunday night. We had only been traveling for eighteen hours but for how we felt it might just as well have been the thirty-six that the clocks indicated. We were close to drifting off to sleep as the train made six or seven stops before Kyoto, each of us watching the other's eyelids and the single signs naming the stops. The Japanese seem to fall sound asleep on the nighttime trains and miraculously awaken right at their stops. We were more asleep while awake than they were while asleep.

As the train slowed into the station we saw the New Miyako hotel that a guidebook listed as the only hotel near the station with the rare $$ rating. The others were all rated $$$ or blocks away so not wanting to lug our stuff any further we stayed there. I woke at 4:20 as if it was a fishing trip and soaked in the bath without soap as they do. Back in bed I watched the Shinkansen and slower local trains' periodic comings and goings like a metronone behind the visual music of bicycles and pedestrians, miniature delivery trucks, scooters and small motorbikes and seemingly smaller cars and vans.

At eight Anne stirred and agreed there was no point in hanging around the hotel room but she had another three hours difference having flown from Boston, not to mention that she doesn't fish. I was glad to have her as a companion and was patient. In addition to her video and graphics career, Anne is a lifelong equestrian. Even in our family of eight kids and limited resources she always had a horse, given for free after the charm and picture of it on some newcomers rolling meadow disolved into the hard work. Neighbors with a picturesque white-fenced field let her keep it there for the enhancement of their property value. As the youngest and only one left as she finished high school, Anne took over the running of the house when illness took our mother. Her strength and spirit of adventure is as innate as it is learned. She wasn't the first woman to work a lobster boat on the Maine coast, as probably every wife of every lobsterman must have had to step in at some point but she did this for summer work and on into the school year instead of the typical restaurant, retail, trade or warehouse work. She has sailed to the Carribean through a hurricane and traveled a few times to Europe, and was in Korea for the Olympics. Having taken the risk to be an independent consultant, she was the only sibling that could afford the time to go. She was just as eager as I was to get out and start seeing things.

We couldn't really relax until after the wedding and didn't want to risk getting lost on the wrong bus or train so we explored on foot. We didn't see a way around or through the train station so with our rail passes we passed onto and over the paid platforms to the other side and out, picked a wide street Karasuma-dori towards the center of town and walked. Our pictures make clear that we were overwhelmed and anything looked worth a snapshot, even Chester's Fried Chicken and McDonalds. We walked past the moated city block of Higashi-Honganji temple and then some tiny walk-up temples that seemed as old or older, into a placid district of glass paneled office buildings on the main street fronting an old neighborhood of narrow alleys with small shops and restaurants mixed among small apartments and houses. Just east we found the Nishiki-Koji market. This outdoor market of small stalls and kiosks was interesting for its action and color, though I think we were too late for the early morning's fresh produce and too early for some of the small shops. We bought some paint brushes and quiet postcards of simple prints of Kyoto temple scenes, and watched the woman wrap them carefully and present them to us with a bow. Arigato was the first and most important word to learn, as the care that the Japanese take to please presents a constant opportunity for thanks. We hustled back for our eleven o'clock checkout time, getting lost trying to cut through the train station then unable to find a way around it and finally finding our way through.

As we checked out we decided to reserve the hotel for the Friday before we departed, as it was convenient to the Osaka airport shuttle bus for our Saturday morning flight home and we had read of the upcoming Coming of Age holiday and its effect on the hotels. Our original intention was to avoid any reservations and instead decide on a whim where we'd go, but now we felt it prudent to have the Friday night reservation.

The courteous hotel staff overlooked our late checkout and we carried our baggage across the street for our first ride on the Shinkansen trains. In addition to wedding attire we were carrying fine scotch, bourbon from our father's home state Kentucky, gifts for the family of the bride, three cameras, sketchpads for both of us and winter clothing for comfort outdoors in whatever weather we might find. The amount of baggage was a hinderance but in retrospect we needed everything but the tux. 

On the train to Nagoya we soon were in rural land populated by small clusters of houses interspersed by individually tilled plots of an acre or less, with an occasional solitary figure scratching the ground with a hoe. The only indication of the current epoch were the pickup trucks, more like a large cart by our American standards, and the crisscross of electrical wires. I have painted from American and Canadian cross-country trains by mixing the local colors in a series of bottlecaps on the windowsill, sketching quickly with pencil then filling in the color, but these trains were far too fast for anything but the simplest of pencil sketches. Later on back at home it was enough for a small watercolor with no foreground detail. Even in photographs anything close to the train is a blur.

Each little piece of land was bordered and tilled, and even small corners were planted, making the most of the flat bottom land. We recognized only cabbage and oranges among many crop rows and orchard groves. In the distance to the north rose a solid wall of snowy mountains, looking cold and inpenetrable behind an independent cluster of dark and sharp smaller peaks much closer.

We turned north and passed through a series of tunnels into the hills and to Mairabi, where there was a foot of snow on the ground and more coming. The hills and mountains were largely unbuild save for a few isolated temples amongst the forests of fir trees and bamboo just as tall.

Within an hour we arrived at Nagoya. Anne was able to figure out the phones and call Mike, and soon he and Shizuka arrived with her father. We stopped to pick up their rings and browsed on other diamonds all the way up to 20,000,000 yen doorknockers. At their home there was a feast waiting with fried rice balls, rare lean beef, sushi, pickled lotus root and baby corn. I think our etiquette was lacking in presenting our gifts too soon, but we lacked anything to say so I dug out my crudely-wrapped vise-grip pliers and lock blade Old Timer pocket knives for the father, and small Swiss Army knives for the mother and sisters. Their custom is not to open presents immediately upon receiving so I made a point of presenting the bourbon to Mike. I'd prepared and practiced for the expected level of drinking and now it was time to start.

We drank sake, beer and bourbon around the heated low table with the blankets draping over our legs, our feet touching under the table in what they call "Japanese Communication". Onthe television a Sumo tournament was in its early rounds. I was surprised to see that almost every bout was won by finnesse and quickery. After ten minutes of ritual preparations, in five to ten seconds of a deadlock struggle of opposing force the loser's own mistimed effort against a slipaway of opposition throws himself out of the ring.

Shizuka's family call her the Japanese Lucy. She laughs a lot and entertained us by carrying Mike around the room. She and Mike speak together mostly in Chinese and often chuckled at private jokes. They were usually touching. It was touching. Also touching was the level of alcohol consumption. Her dad kept his own large size bottle of beer while they poured our glasses from another, he also had a bottle of sake which he often topped his glass from and occasionally filled ours, and he and I both tippled small cups from the bourbon. I had to show them how to use the Vise Grips while Anne showed the two sisters the different tools on their mini Swiss Army knives. They were not familiar with the Simpson's or Curious George salt and pepper shakers but it all made sense when they lined up the two smilng Curious George's, waving and bumping together in their ceramic cars and laughed, "Mike and Shizuka!"

On the Tuesday morning of the wedding Mike and Shiz were gone at eight oclock and we met Shusuka's Uncle, Aunt and Grandmother. Grandfather was enclosed under the heated table with just his sleeping head visible, rested on a pillow. After breakfast they gathered us closely and referred to their dictionary and pointed out words: concern, anxiety, fear, and they were very serious to communicate - your family must take care of Shizuka. We did our solemn best to make clear that we really take care of each other, but they were the most reassured when we mentioned that our brother Paul was a doctor.

The wedding ceremony was very small; there were three close friends of Shizuka, one of which had traveled from Germany, and the immediate family that we had already met. Mike in a black and Shizuka in a white kimono walked together unaccompanied through a small garden to meet the assembled gathering in a sparse but formal room for family picture taking, then we were led into a temple. The wedding was initiated by a robed priest who shook a staff of paper, rang bells, and spoke ceremoniously with three girls punctuating with recitations and bells. Since I could not understand any of it I enjoyed it as music. Mike and Shizuka together read their vows in Japanese from a scroll, Shizuka adeptly pausing to time her responses with Mike's careful pace, then exchanged rings. There were no tears and no rice. We exited in formation behind the nwelyweds into an amazingly well equipped photo studio with lights and multiple large format Nikons on robotic arms with central hydraulic controls, for a formal group photo.


We carpooled to to a Japanese version of an Italian restaurant for the wedding feast. Three foot long sausage, smoked beef salad, seafood salad, oysters, sausage pizza, seafood pizza, saffron rice balls, angel hair pasta with smoked salmon, linguine with tomato sauce, and fettucini with meat sauce that Mike gestured to take a whole plate of so Shizuka's girlfriends called it the Mike Special (and it was exactly what our mother used to make). Onion soup followed without pause, rare roast beef and a desert of eclairs. I think I am missing one course because that nght Anne and I counted them at fourteen. The reason it is hard to remember is that after that feast we went back to their house and within an hour had another feast of sushi delivered. It came in lacquered serving bowls and when you're done you put them on your front porch to be picked up. The pieces were bigger and the fish firm and fresh. It was all too much and Anne and I were in bed by about eight o'clock. I exchanged a sable brush with Shizuka's sister Kouri for one of her well-worn calligraphy brushes, which was unique to me in that it had stiff brown inner hairs and soft white shorter outer hairs. This makes sense as the inner hairs form a supple point while the outer fibers hold and deliver ink.

The next day Mike and Shiz had to go to the American Consulate to get an English language marriage license so we rode the subway together and parted at the downtown station. It was very fun meeting Shizuka and her family and an enjoyable stay at their home. We promised to return for Nagoya's world's fair in 2005, and I hope they can travel to visit us sometime. It was essential to uphold the honor and dignity of our family, especially in light of their concern for their daughter. Perhaps they have heard that American families are not strongly bound; without our presence their anxiety would have found no reassurance. That was done and now Anne and I were tourists on a three-day holiday.

We decided to take the train almost but not quite to Tokyo, to see some country and hopefully Mt. Fuj yet avoid the confusion of the enormous city. I hear it is good luck and not at all normal to see Mt. Fuji, and though shrouded lightly by a mist of cloud we could see Fuji's perfect cone profile. Inspired by Hiroshige, I later painted it without the cloud.

In an afternoon you can take the Shinkansen two or three hundred miles and back. If we had trains like that in California you could live in Tahoe or Carmel while you worked in LA or SF and not need to drive.

Now Anne and I could go anywhere. The short glimpse we had had left us eager to return to Kyoto, one of very few cities where ages-old neighborhoods and temples had not been obliterated. We arrived as the sun dropped and booked the same convenient hotel for the remaining three nights to ensure that we need not carry baggage anymore except the one block to the airport shuttle. On a future trip in warmer season, with more skill in the language and time on our hands we will visit an onsen for a hot soak and stay in a traditional ryoken, but the lack of communication and complete unfamiliarity are more daunting in the winter. That evening we walked more but only ended up in an office district where the food was higher priced and geared for lunch; interesting but mostly closed, and we ended up eating Ramen at the Kintetsu mall in the train station. I was not surprised to learn that Anne can walk as far as I can, endlessly, and it was I who set the limits as my nearly new boots chafed on my toes.

A Pilgrimage for Peace

During the festivities at the house Mike mentioned that he'd visited Hiroshima on his way from Taiwan because Shizuka said if he was going to teach history in the USA, he must go to Hiroshima. He also mentioned that he was sure that the large fish he'd seen rolling and porpoising there at the confluence of rivers were salmon, so this sparked my interest. Thursday we took the train two hours to Hiroshima. Along the way the country was more mountainous with occasional valleys opening to the coast, then at once a link of white suspension bridges stretched to the distance and out of the window. We entered a tunnel and I never saw it again. We accidently boarded a platform that we thought said Peace Park and were soon on a train out of town. Within four stops we stopped seeing Romanji signage and it was mostly in hand gestures that we understood to take the train back to Hiroshima station and start over. We found the bus - the 22 or 25 bus from the B platform - but after about two minutes the bus took a left off of the Aioi-dori main street so we got off and walked through on the enclosed shopping mall street that ran parallel. We wondered why neither of our guidebooks mentioned that it is only a ten minute walk. The compass and map showed that we were just a block from the Peace park. The end of the mall opened onto a narrow bridge, and in the river above the bridge a man in a boat steadily dipped a net for a perfect posed picture in front of the reminder of the standing ruin. We did not see any fish rolling there so maybe they really were salmon that Mike had seen; they would have moved upstream by now.

Thoughts were silent and emotions took over at the shrine to Sadako, a girl victim who attempted to heal her leukemia by folding a thousand origami cranes but died before she could; where schoolchildren ever since drape strings of colored paper cranes by the thousands. Beyond the crumbled masonry and twisted metal of the shattered dome was a shrine that marked the center of the fission blast. A recording mentioned that ten thousand children were drawn into the wartime labor force and so on their way to work at 8:15 on that summer day, incinerated, making up a quarter of those killed instantly. The Japanese have a realistic view of this and accept their part of the shame and blame. All they wish is that the world learn from their tragedy.

There is a flame in the center of the Peace Park that is explicitly not eternal; the sign states that it will burn until all atomic weapons are eliminated from the earth. The view of this is framed by the Centaph, a stone arc above a stone block container that holds inside the names of all those who died from the bomb and its effects. Weapons of even Hiroshima's miniscule magnitude are far too indiscriminate to ever be used with any pretense of moral justification. Even the precisely targeted missles that we hurl from the security of padded jet seats as if in a video game, kill mostly innocent people who no more support their leaders' foolishness than we do.

There at Hiroshima I knew that our President was bombing people a world away in what most people understood as a vain attempt to remove attention from his foolish and tawdry personal affairs. I wept uncontrallably and could not even stand. The real misery was that I could think of no effective action I could take for peace. Finally a thought arose of a simple gesture that might be singularly effective to sway one or two people. I folded an origami paper container and filled it with barren sand that was crisscrossed with pigeon footprints, near where a sign said,

"If you touch the doves you may catch their diseases."

I'll carry it with me for the rest of my life, and sprinkle a few grains down the shirt or pants of the next few people I hear utter the all too common "we should go in there and bomb the shit out of them". I couldn't enter the museum in the condition I was in so I stayed outside and painted. Anne toured the museum. Among the burnt artifacts and dioramas of destruction were telegrams from the Mayor of Horishima to leaders of nations still developing and maintaining nuclear bombs, including a recent one to President Clinton.

If money and distance were no obstacle we should require field trips to Hiroshima and true-to-life video games with the smell of burning flesh, games that would incinerate the loser or indiscriminately lop a leg off the winner. We cannot feel any national pride about our cowardly wars, throwing million dollar killing machines from billion dollar flying armchairs in vain attempts to safeguard a style of living that will clearly bury us and the rest of the world in our own filth and rubble.

On the train ride back to Kyoto we met an American married to a Japanese and their two engaging and curious young children. She told us the story of a woman she knows, a survivor from Hiroshima but that is not the right word at all; I'll spare you the details in appreciation of your having read this far. That night I slept as if I'd been in a car accident, soundly but shaken.

Holiday in Kyoto

Friday was the Coming of Age holiday, our day for sightseeing around Kyoto. We had read of the centuries-old traditional Kyudo archery tournament at Sanjusangendo temple and followed among the many archers and tourists walking in that direction from Kyoto station. The light rain was cause for concern for the beautifully crafted bows, laminated from strips of bamboo and finely lacquered. The Japanese are not yet known for the finest bamboo fly rods but after seeing their longbows I think they could be.

We removed our boots and filed through past the thousand statues of Kannan the hundred-armed warrior and were blessed with a splash by a priest, and milled around the temple grounds in the energy of the archers in their holiday kimono and cheer. Outside were booths with their versions of country fair food. We split an omelette with squid and pickled vegetables served with hoisin sauce. Anne didn't like the smoked fish flakes they sprinkled on it but I enjoyed her portion as well as mine.

We continued our walk in the drizzle, vaguely lost if we looked at the map but relying on the compass to head east and up hill to the large complex of temples called Kiyomizdera. The drizzle let up as we passed through a mausoleum and cemetary and up a set of stairs to emerge in surprise at the sacred spring. Uphill further were the temples, the main hall under construction and then the upper temple built in massive beamwork clinging to the hillside. I filled my water bottle with spring water, hesitant to drink from the ladle as the locals do lest I violate a sacredness. The water was delicious, no doubt as healing as they say. Close by we found the Nishi Shrine to love, with two rocks that you walk between with your eyes closed. If you can walk straight twelve meters to bump into the rock at the other end your love will be fulfilled. Anne and I are the only two in our family not currently in relationships so along with the giggling girls we took two tries and aided each other slightly by a whispered hint. It isn't cheating to try again or take a hint, it just means fullfillment may take a few tries and an ally.

We walked back down on the tourist route of shops, stopped for souvenirs and at a curious burger shop to try rice burgers. The filling was chilled pickled vegetables between buns of hot grilled pressed rice, another delicious variation on a familiar theme. We continued on through the Gion nightlife and shopping district, where girls were everywhere celebrating their coming of age in formal kimono embellished with furs. We spent the rest of the afternoon and most of our yen at craft stores for small presents and art supplies, knowing that it was pointless to try to see any more sights. Once away from Gion the festival atmosphere subsided and we walked the twenty blocks back to the hotel with tired feet and overwhelmed minds.

I felt very much at home in Japan, after all it is comforting to be in a place with almost no crime. I wonder about their mountains that look so impenetrable in the winter snow, yet no more formidable than the eastern Sierra or Tetons which can easily be entered in season. I hope to return with time and perhaps money to spare and some knowledge of the language. I had never traveled, never had a passport, never felt any desire to see other worlds because there is all the beauty I can ever want to paint right in California and the west. Seeing this small bit of Japan as a glimpse into our future as we begin to fill up our land, I am newly inspired in my hope that we can learn to cherish beauty and revere nature, to keep it. Before I had seen it I would mention Japanese culture as reverent and protective toward nature and beauty, and I see that this is true, but in North America we have the tremenduos advantage that comparatively our spaces are still wide open, our nature still wild and more nearly pristine. We can do even better than the Japanese have.