Japanese Version

My Life in Kyoto, 2008

Steve's logo12:00am, January 1st, 2009. Bronze temple bells rang throughout the ancient capital. This is our 4th such celebration since moving here. The year 2008 saw meetings with remarkable people, innovative food and architecture, and further exploration by bicycle and on foot of a city that continually reveals itself. Again, here is my annual update of “Life in Kyoto.”

One year ago, January was a very snowy month in our neighborhood in the foothills. Snow fell almost every day but usually melted by noon. Here is the view from my 2nd floor study, with the river below.

Ichihara snow

I began the month of January at hatsugama, the first Tea of the year. Dozens of my fellow tea students gathered in kimono for contemplation and discussion and a chance to hold in their hands treasures of ceramics, lacquer, bamboo, wood and paper, usually only seen in glass museum cases. Our group includes potters, master chefs, garden masters, authors, tea sweet makers, yuzen kimono artists, a violist, monks, gallery owners, a kimono dealer, architects, a master carpenter and a former woman pro-wrestler.

As each delicate kaiseki lunch course was presented before us, various participants took turns moving from member to member, filling our sake cups, making warm-hearted conversation and adding camaraderie to the New Year.
red cup kneeling

I often attended abbreviated Tea events, where each month a different host from somewhere in Japan brought his/her treasured collection of bowls, iron kettle, scrolls, vases and tea caddy for us to enjoy. All of the lids from the wooden boxes that house each of these Tea implements were laid out so the artists’ signatures written in calligraphy could be inspected by guests, beforehand.

On three sides of the city, Kyoto neighborhoods extend right up to the foot of wooded mountains. We live on the northern edge. Monkeys frequently visit our street from the woods. One day early last spring, I sat at my desk and actually watched a monkey climb up the side of our neighbor’s house, open a second story window and go in. I tried contacting the neighbor, but they were not home. I later heard that monkey caused little damage, but heartily filled up in the kitchen.

Just as the cherry blossoms were falling in April, I co-led a textiles study tour of Kyoto. We visited weavers, indigo dyers, silk dyers, natural plant dyers, yuzen artists, galleries, kimono shops, a monthly-held temple flea market and the small design studio of two people who create contemporary clothes by reinterpreting traditional Japanese designs and using silk, wool, cashmere, cotton and hemp.

During green and misty June, I traveled to Oomori-cho, a small town in western Japan, with my old friends David Allen (best-selling author and creator of GTD, Getting Things Done) and his wife/colleague Kathryn. It was there that David gave a seminar for the Gungendo clothing company, who are also dear friends. The Gungendo people restored a dilapidated, eyesore of a town into what David aptly referred to as “the finest combination of esthetics and consciousness I have ever seen.” By supporting local farmers, mom & pop spinners, dyers and weavers, Gungendo has almost single-handedly saved them from bankruptcy due to the influx of cheap mass produced foreign textiles, and have created a line of clothing of extraordinary quality and design.
Gungendo Night

After the seminar, we chatted in the 200 year old community house.

In June, I finally visited my friend Saito Masamitsu-san for the first time since he restored an Edo-era farmhouse in his birthplace, Tochigi Prefecture. The wood, thatch, paper and mud house, surrounded by vegetable fields, is the perfect setting to showcase Saito-san’s obsession: one-of-a-kind Japanese bamboo flower baskets.

Late on most summer 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. I then climbed hundreds of steps to the top. The best part of the two hour roundtrip course was descending at dusk when the path was lit up by soft, dim, amber-colored lanterns.

In July, for the first time, I led a bicycle tour of Kyoto for a family of avid bikers. By avoiding main streets, we snaked back and forth across the city by way of narrow roads, alleyways and quiet neighborhoods, never seen by people in buses or cars.

On two consecutive steamy summer evenings, I rode out on a small river boat to watch fishermen with flaming torches hanging over the sides of their boats to attract fish for cormorant fishing in the cool air of the Katsura River in eastern Kyoto.

I was very inspired by the energy and enthusiasm of clients whom I guided up Mt. Fuji in August. Two of them were in their 70’s and a third, who just turned 80, stays in shape by always exercising three hours, every day. They have bicycled, kayaked and climbed mountains all over the world, including two weeks camping and climbing in the snow and ice of Antarctica. After Mt. Fuji, we hiked on the old Edo-era Nakasendo post road, into forests, past creeks and through wooden villages that have hardly changed in 150 years. We then hiked the Northern Alps, along a white water river, up a canyon beneath tall rocky peaks. We stayed at the Kamikochi Imperial Hotel, built in the 1930’s and looking like the Ahwahnee in Yosemite. On two occasions, we came into contact with groups of monkeys, sitting by the path, relaxing, nursing their babies and ignoring us.
China 08 040 Photo courtesy of Sally Gries

One day in September, I joined our local neighborhood’s cleaning day. Each year, everyone gathers to weed and trim the park up the block, as well as to clean the river bed that flows by our houses.

One of several trips to Tokyo this year took me to see contemporary architecture. The building called the Iceberg houses the Audi Showroom in Harajuku, and was designed by Creative Designers International. Audi Showroom

The new De Beers Building in the Ginza, was designed by Matsui Jun.
Japan 2008-5 048

In October I spent a couple of days at Koya-san, a 1200-year old Shingon (esoteric sect) Buddhist monastery town in the mountains of Wakayama. The high altitude had turned the town’s trees red and gold, about one month earlier than Kyoto. I wandered in the afternoon through a museum and centuries’ old halls and gates. That night, I stayed in a highly polished wooden temple-lodge, dined on a feast of vegetarian temple fare and slept well. The next day, I rose early to join in vigorous early morning sutra chanting services. We then huddled in a small, soot charred room for a goma fire ceremony, set to a pounding taiko drum. With perfect posture and composure, the tenor, baritone and bass monks chant for a full hour every morning.

Of my many museum visits in 2008, I most recall two exhibitions. The first was of Japanese, Chinese and Korean masterpiece ceramics at the Museum of Oriental Ceramics in Osaka. The second was of raku tea bowls by Raku Kichizaemon, the 15th generation pottery master of the Raku family. It was held at the Sagawa Art Museum, a contemporary site designed with strong historic references and appearing to float in a large pond.

Of many food experiences, my restaurant of the year was IIjaren. Run by a young couple in their restored merchant house, their frequently changing, highly innovative menu included such dishes as sashimi salads, tiny, deep-fried pumpkin croquettes doused with thick tamari, homemade sesame tofu and a highly addictive potato salad.

I ended 2008 in Kyoto with my last Tea lesson of the year at 700-year old Daitoku-ji Zen monastery. During the lesson I heard heavy rain falling on the wooden veranda of the tearoom. After class, I crossed the semi-formal entry garden. The long foot path was brightly lit by the full moon shining through quickly moving clouds. I continued walking past mud walls, the dark, wooden, tile-roofed Buddha Hall, the massive two-story, vermillion San-Mon gate to the area where my bicycle was parked. The year-end air was icy fresh and delicious. It brought with it much anticipation for life in the ancient capital, in 2009.

12 thoughts on “My Life in Kyoto, 2008

  1. elaine bookbinder

    thank u so much for sharing your highly descriptive commentary; i felt as if i were there ( i only wish). a healthy and happy 2009 to u and your family.

  2. Marjorie Eaton

    Oh My Steve, this was breath-takingly beautiful to read!
    Please keep blogging, you are creating an awesome ministry on line for all of us not able to go to Japan. I have forwarded your blog website to my twin Sister Dorothy Alling, who has already been to Japan almost a year ago, after learning to speak conversational Japanese in adult college education for senior citizens. It’s her favorite country too.

    My Best to Ron, we all miss him as well – you have a wonderful family dear one!
    God bless you dearly, Marjorie
    ps: Yesterday was Leigh Taylor-Young’s birthday so I spent the evening with her and John Morton at their home, with many of our beloved friends … and soon … came J-R, Jsu and Nat too. a warm, lovely, blessed evening

  3. Carol Ferris

    Steve — Happy New Year to you, too. This wonderful greeting brings back happy memories of the April 2008 Kyoto visit. Your passion for Japan and the knowledge and enrichment it has brought you gave meaning to each studio and temple, and I look forward to hearing more from you. Best regards to you and your family and your city, Carol Ferris

  4. Phyllis Pollack

    Dear Steve,
    You are so generous to share your beautiful reflections (and photos) with us all. Your description of your last tea ceremony at Daitoku-ji Zen monastery brought back wonderful memories of our visit there together. You have inspired me/us to want to return to Japan to climb Mt. Fuji. Peter and I hiked the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu this past year – a challenging and beautiful trek.
    Much Love from the Pollack Clan
    PS. Are folks in Japan as pleased with Obama as we are?

  5. Silvia Gosnell

    Steve — What a great account… and how it makes me yearn to go back! I’ve forwarded the link to my son, Philip. Incidentally, we starting taking Japanese this past summer after spending those intoxicatingly wonderful days with you in Kyoto. I may be a hopeless case, but Philip (now age 16) seems much more adept at picking it up. Watching all that animé probably helps!

    How is Keiko in Tokyo? Please send her a hug from us as well. She was so patient with the requests of a 15-year-old boy!

    Warmest wishes to you and your family for a healthy & productive new year, and I look forward to seeing you in 2010–


  6. Bob Janis

    You are living the life that trully sings in your heart. I am so proud of you.
    I want to share the Gardens of Kyoto with Lonnie.
    Thanks for sharing
    Gambatte( goodbye in Japanese-translated means “give it all you got!” )

  7. Tom Burton

    Hi Steve,

    You have truly found your place and I’m so happy for you. And, your willingness to share it with those of us who vicariously enjoy your adventures and travels is so appreciated. We look forward to a continuing chronicle.

    All the best.


  8. Olga Schmal

    Steve, I just love what you have done with this blog. The view from your study is exquisite. I love any news, arts and nature of Japan. Keep it coming. I’ll be checking it often.

    Much loving to you in the New Year.

  9. JUDEA

    All right that is it I am coming to Japan in Winter to see the snow hahah
    I love this thank to you
    Loving you

  10. Barbara Levinson

    Hello Steve-such a lovely account of your wonderful adventures in Paradise. It does inspire in me a very unBuddhist envy for your beautiful life in Kyoto. The visits to the ceramicists kilns and the museums and galleries showing their work especially made my mouth water-as did the descriptions of the restaurants.

    Keep blogging-I love it.

    All the best for the new year-my mantra is hope, change and peace.


  11. Toni Doilney

    Thank you Steve for the blog. I love the ceramic photos. I wish I could return with my children and grandchildren. They would love Japan and the wonders of the artists and architects, the food, the beauty, the unique mix of innovation and tradition. So beautiful! I’ll try to alert them to your blog and we can travel vicariously.