Family “photo”: Steve, Ritsuko, Ron, Mami (the cartoonist) and Casper (age 21)
2010: The year in review: The year in Kyoto began with one snow storm and ended with another one. Here is the river behind our house as seen from my office window .
Early in January, I visited Koyasan, a village that is home to a large tantric Buddhist monastery in the distant mountains of Wakayama. There are over 100 architecturally interesting sub-temples in the 1200-year old complex.
A little later that month, I went to Eiheiji, an 800-year old Soto-Zen monastery located on the other side of Honshu Island, built on the side of a mountain in Fukui. We rose at 4:30am and climbed seemingly endless flights of polished wooden stairs to the main hall, to witness the daily morning service with 200 precisely choreographed monks, whose chanting sounded like a Japanese version of a Gregorian choir.
In our neighborhood in Kyoto, a pack of about 2 dozen monkeys came down from the mountains on several occasions throughout the year, and jumped from roof to roof. One monkey actually opened our front door and came into the house.
Though winters in Japan are cold, temperatures rarely drop much below freezing at night. Daytime temperatures are moderate, and low winter humidity makes winter a surprisingly comfortable season here. Also, massive cityscape plantings of red camellias in bloom all winter long brighten the landscape. I visited Kyoto’s imperial villas in several seasons. These large sukiya-style estates, created in the early 1600’s, include Katsura Rikyu, Shugaku-in Rikyu and Sento Gosho, and present some of the world’s most rarified and delicate living spaces.
Though I have lived and traveled in Japan for more than half my life, there are still remain many places that I have not yet seen. This year, I finally went to Kyoto’s famous old Sumiya, a house of entertainment during the Edo period (1603-1868) with finely crafted and decorated reception rooms.
I traveled last spring with my colleague Nancy Craft to southern Japan. Among many highlights, we met with mud mordant dyers and masters of intricate kassuri (ikat) weaving on the tropical southern island of Amami Oshima (a blog posting will follow shortly.) In Kagoshima, we toured the amazingly successful Shobo Gaku-en, a school for developmentally challenged adults that bases its teaching program on a profound love and respect for each individual student.
I have continued my study of the Way of Tea, an aesthetic and meditative path of personal cultivation. I belong to two tea groups, including a men’s tea club. Members include ceramic artists, various craft-artisans, kimono makers, master chefs, architects and art gallery owners.
Japan is a world leader in cutting-edge contemporary architecture, which is one of my passions. I made regular excursions to see new buildings. Below are a few of my favorites, all in Tokyo, beginning with the De Beers showroom,
the huge and dramatic lobby of the National Art Center,
the monumental International Forum at dusk
and ito Toyo’s Mikimoto pearl showroom.
My colleague Kiyo Woodruff introduced me this year to Noguchi Yasushi, a 5th generation gold leaf artisan whose designs in gold are transformed into kimono obi (seen below) through a complex process involving the coordinated, painstaking precision of 15 different master craftsmen. I occasionally visit him in his well preserved merchant house, in the heart of the Nishijin weaving district.
I made two separate visits last year to Ise, to visit Ise Grand Shinto Shrine. Set in a primordial grove of 1000-year old cedars, Ise is the holiest Shinto site in Japan. The main sanctuary has been rebuilt every 20 years since it was established in the late 600’s, and is said to be one of the finest crafted structures in the world.
It is easy to be a foodie in Japan. The number of fine, innovative restaurants is staggering. There are more Michelin star restaurants in Japan than any country in the world, as well as first rate boutique bakeries that are found everywhere. One of my favorite restaurants is the legendary Honmura-an restaurant in Roppongi, specializing in very innovative Japanese contemporary cuisine as well as traditional, handmade buckwheat noodles. Owner Kobari Jun started their enormously popular and trendy Soho branch in N.Y.C. about 18 years ago, and has just relocated to Tokyo to re-open their Roppongi branch.
Another favorite is Roku Roku, also in Roppongi. Designed by Sugimoto Takashi of the world renowned Super Potato design firm, it features the stone work of Izumi Masatoshi, 25-year collaborator of Isamu Noguchi. Oh yes–in addition to the interior design, the food there is also great!
Of the 70,000 Shinto festivals held in Japan each year, Kyoto’s ancient Gion Festival in July is one of the most spectacular, featuring live, traditional music and floats that are hundreds of years old. Numerous festivities last for about a week.
I had the opportunity to put together some hands-on workshops with renowned Santa Fe artist and educator, Gail Rieke, including natural dyeing and paper making. The latter took place in Imadate, where they have been making natural washi paper from mulberry bark for 800 years.
After the work shop, we all visited the Shinto shrine of the god of paper making. The building is a fine example of Shrine craftsmanship.
Japan’s huge number of museums as well as galleries, temples and fine department stores present a never-ending schedule of art-related exhibitions, providing a rich cultural foundation for life, here. Below, museum-quality folk textile specialist Gallery Kei in Kyoto recently ran a show featuring banana leaf fiber clothes from Okinawa.
Shigeki and Shihoko Fukumoto recently exhibited their shibori (tye dye) collection at their country home (an old restored farmhouse,) located just outside of the Kyoto city limits.
Late on many afternoons, I rode my bike up the road to Kurama-dera, a 1200-year old Buddhist complex built in stages, on the side of a tall, forested hill, screeching loud with frogs and cicadas in summer and absolutely still in winter. I climbed hundreds of steps to the top. The best part of the two hour round trip course was descending at dusk when the path is lit up by soft, dim, amber-colored lantern. (Description repeated from my earlier blog posting.)
My wife Ritsuko (wearing the hat), poses with a Sogetsu ikebana master at an exhibition held in an old Japanese townhouse house built with a strong art nouveau influence.
The roots of what is referred to as “art nouveau” can actually be traced back to the Rinpa Movement of late 17th century Japan.
I made my annual trip to visit a friend who collects fine, one-of-a-kind bamboo flower baskets. He did much of the restoration himself on his old farm house, north of Tokyo.
I spent the night at the world renowned House of Light, a sleep-in art installation by James Turrell, located in the northern prefecture of Niigata. The image below is the ceiling of the room, naturally illuminated by the light of setting sun seeping in obliquely from openings to the roof.
Autumn was very long last year, with at least 5 weeks of fall color, as seen in the view from my office window.
The new year has begun. Ritsuko and I wish you a healthy, happy and productive year in 2011!
- Hiroshi Saito at Santa Fe Weaving Gallery
- Horiki Eriko: Pioneer on the Washi Frontier