Springtime Arrives along with the Popepool

Arriving here at the end of winter has the great advantage of being able to get ecstatic about the first glimpse of spring while being knocked senseless for only few weeks by the bitter cold. It was so warm today, that I just had to go out for a nice bicycle ride and a hike up to the large park along the western ridges. The trees in blossom now are plums. The cherry blossoms are spectacular but not even budding. The plum blossoms announce the coming of warm weather and have special place in my heart.

Oh, about the popepool. The other day, I was outside moving gracefully through my tai chi form when I suddenly began coughing and gasping for air. It was The Smoke from the incinerating of the mechanics oily rags across the street. Sure enough, when I checked the news, they had elected a new pope. I was later to find out that my poor nephew had lost his entire life saving (I may be exaggerating a little) in the office pool to guess which name the new pope would change to. All of the news media have had to make a big thing about the selection of a new pope. Really doesn’t make a difference. It’s still the same old game. What’s important to me is that he didn’t choose to call himself Pope Kundan. Now, that would have been a worry. Would have had to change my name again.

RedPlum

WeepPLum

BeautyWins

Camellias

Farmer

Did I Mention It Snowed?

The last few times I arrived in Japan, I have felt a thrill at being back in this country. This time it was as the tires touched the tarmac. The earliest yet. I’m not sure what this thrill is about. I suspect it’s a mixture of being in an exotic place, which Japan will always be for me, and, returning to a place that I am so familiar with.

This trip, I arrived at Haneda Airport. It became a domestic only airport when Narita was built but in the last few years has begun taking international flights. I wish all my flights in and out of Tokyo were through Haneda. The immigration seemed to take a little longer but once through the gates, I was only 25 minutes from Ikebukuro Station by Airport Limousine Bus for only 1200 yen. This is so much much much much faster and cheaper than from Narita.

As usual, I dropped off my bigger bag at a delivery service. For less than $20.00 it would be delivered to my doorstep in Chichibu. The man told me that it would arrive in two days because it was going to snow the next day. He did not say that they “expected it to snow”, he said that “it was going to snow”. I liked his certainty in an uncertain world. On the bus going into the city, there was no sign of snow but I trusted him. As things would have it, I arrived too late at night to catch my train out to Chichibu, so, I had arranged to stay at Kimi Ryokan near Ikebukuro Station where I catch the train to Chichibu. It was nice budget accommodation. A 4 ½ mat room. (A tatami mat is approximately 1 x 2 mtres or yards. It was after midnight by the time I checked in, so, no bath only a shower. This was a great disappointment as the O-furo is one of my favourite Japanese experiences. My american made trailer does not have an O-furo. Ah, what so many people are missing.

41:2 Mat

So, as I was saying, the next morning, I was up and on my way to the train station. People had their umbrellas up to ward of the snow flakes but I just went without feeling my mustache freeze in the briskness of the air. The Red Arrow Limited Express to Chichibu. I’ve written of this train before. Reserved seats, coach class style with a conductor who bows and greets everyone when he enters the car. On outskirts of Tokyo, we began passing fields covered in snow and trees with branches with ribbons of white resting on them. I was really enjoying my nice warm seat on the inside of the window. I often read during the first part of the ride and start sightseeing once we start up the valley. This time, I just watched the whole way. Shortly after starting up the valley, we went through a long tunnel. As we came out, I was surprised by a landscape that was pure white. I felt a smile spread at the knowledge that this beauty was waiting for me.

SnowTrailer

So, that’s the snow. That was three weeks ago and it has only snowed once since then. That was a week after my arrival. Instead, it was bitterly cold. Nights got down to minus 8 C, 17 F. I was wearing my down jacket as one of five layers. The heater was getting a good workout. My sleeping bag hood came in handy to act as a warm cave to keep my head from freezing. Some days were better than others. The overcast days brought joy to my heart because it meant it would be warmer. Somehow, I survived.

Yes, friends, I have paid my dues and today, I began collecting them. It has been a warm sunny no wind day. 15 C, 59 F. Oh, the smile on my face as I walked around my neighbourhood. I was in only three layers. I went out shopping on my bike when I didn’t really need to buy anything. I took the long way to the market. An hour later, I just went out and rode around aimlessly until I remembered the antique shop that is way on the other side of town that I don’t usually go to because it’s so far.

Yes, life is beautiful!!!

Shojin Ryori

When in Japan, one could be forgiven for thinking that there is no tradition if vegetarian cooking. Even some Japanese think that vegetarians don’t exist I Japan. Being a vegetarian myself, I have learned to expect a very limited choice when eating out in Japan. However, Shojin Ryori is a long tradition of Buddhist vegan cooking in Japan.

You can find a few places that prepare Shujin Ryori in the guide books, however, the cost of a meal is far beyond my curiosity budget. One day, I will find my way to one of these establishments because of the traditional setting with the tatami mat floor, shoji screens, garden view, etc that is included. I’m sure that it will an event worthy relating to one and all. In the meantime, I’m happy to be able to tell you of my little Shojin Ryu adventure during my recent sojourn in Kyoto.

Mikoan Dinner Set

First off, I have to give credit to the Digital Nomads, http://www.neverendingvoyage.com/. They are an English couple who sold up two years ago to travel the world. When I was preparing for my trip to Kyoto, I did a search for vegetarian restaurants that I could visit and came across their blog entries. These two fellow vegetarians maintain an informative good looking blog as part of their journey. I had landed in the right part of cyberspace.

There are a few places that they recommend in Kyoto. Shigetsu, within Tenryuji temple serves the traditional Shojin Ryori all of the ambience and high price that puts it in my ‘sometime in the future’ list. Then, there is Mikoan.

Mikoan was the Digital Nomads’ favorite place to eat in Kyoto. I followed the link to the japanese only webpage that contained directions and saved as a PDF. My guest house hosts printed it out for me and told me the nearest subway station. I figured that I had time before the beginning of the Shakuhachi camp at mid- day to have a quick meal. Well… it was a hot and sweating Kundan who gave up in uncertainty and grabbed an egg salad sandwich and ume onegiri at a 7/11.

Being of good samuria stock (well maybe in a past life), after the camp on my way to the opening of the World Shakuhachi Festival, I stopped in at the Kyoto Tourist Information office at the main train station. A very nice woman gave me a tourist map and marked the spot. She also told me which bus to catch and showed me the route. I love the ladies in the tourist offices in Japan. With map in had, I caught the bus and got off at the closest stop. Walking back, I found my way to what I believed was the correct street. An enquiry of a shop owner sent me six shop fronts up looking for a lane way. I got to what I thought was the lane and turned left. It didn’t feel right. Backtracked and discovered that I had walked right past the sandwich board and the lane way. This lane was slightly wider than shoulder width between two shops. In the back, I came upon a house that looked like it was out of the 70’s. I walked through the front door and entered another world!

Mikoan is the kind of place where I feel comfortable. Perhaps it’s because it is so un-Japanese and, at the same time, so Japanese. The right side of the ground floor has been turned into a bar/restaurant. From where you step into the room to with in a couple feet of the back wall runs a beautiful thick wooden slab of a counter.

Looking towards the front door.

The left side is this tiny kitchen/serving area and the right side is lined with stools. There is just enough space between the stools and a bookcase covered wall to slip by. When you arrive, the proprietress motions for you to move down to the far end where there is a bend in the counter to accommodate a couple more people. The whole length has maybe a dozen stools. Besides the fact that it would be difficult to maneuver past and occupied stool, the end of the counter closest to the door appears to be the mama-san’s office where she stands and studies papers when she isn’t cooking or serving. If the place fills up, she lifts a pile of papers off for the final customers. Unlike the usual Japanese establishment, the entire room has no bare space except where your food or drink may sit in

front of you. Along the serving side of the counter and on every other available surface there is what might be called clutter. I would say that it is merely an abundance whose order is fully known by one person.

I ordered a lunch set. One of the few things in English on the menu. It was just what I wanted. Brown rice and various types of veggies prepared in traditional Japanese ways.

The next day, I brought a few curious fellow shakuhachi players with me. They were thrilled.

The final night of the festival, I brought even more.

The Dinner Crowd

It was so gratifying to hear people enjoying themselves and thank me for finding this place. So, you don’t have to just take my word. Try it out yourselves next time you’re in Tokyo. It is one of those uniquely Japanese experiences.

The 15th Rocky Shakuhachi Camp, Kyoto

What do you get when you put 80 players of the shakuhachi together in two floors of one building for four days?

Serious Shakuhachi Practice

A hell of a lot of fun, learning and playing.

The Rockies Shakuhachi Summer Camp is usually held near Boulder, Colorado with about 30 attendees. To more than double the size and transplant it to Kyoto was a miracle that David, Cory, Christopher and the rest of the crew pulled off beautifully. It was a time to explore the many styles and schools of shakuhachi. To refine technique and discover new ways to approach the instrument. To hear some inspiring performances and, perhaps, best of all, it was a place to catch up with old friends and make new ones. In fact, when I think of those few days, what first comes to me is a collection of faces of new close friends passing before my eyes. Their smiles and easy closeness.  The happiness of being together.

Kyoto Shakuhachi Camp Members

Of course, there were some difficulties. Like Kundan attempting to sit on the floor for the whole camp. “Hey, I sit for an hour at a time occasionally, I can do this.” He went home the first night, thinking, “I wonder why I’m so tired. Maybe it’s my biorhythm. A good night’s sleep will do me.” Half way through the next day, in a small workshop, the sensei asked if he was ok. “Oh, sure,” he said to the fuzzy image before him. The sensei was no fool. He soon called a break and had the translator bring Kundan a chair. Superman quickly returned to life and was able to gather the strength to play his shak again.

The first evening was devoted to introductions. There was supposed to be other stuff but with 80 individuals…  Here are a couple of the many good stories from that evening:

One man wanted to marry the daughter of a shakuhachi teacher. The father told him, “If you want to marry my daughter, you’ll have to learn to play the shakuhachi.”  He knew how to test a suitor’s intentions! Twenty-five years later, the son-in-law is still happily married and is teaching the shakuhachi.

Another Japanese man wasn’t interested in traditional Japanese music. He loved jazz. Then, one night he heard a British musician playing jazz on a shakuhachi (there were some eye brows raised at this suggestion) and loved it. The next day, he was walking his dog and saw that his neighbour, who had the same type of dog, was carrying something shaped like a shakuhachi. Not only was it a shakuhachi but the neighbour is a shakuhachi teacher. And, now his teacher.

The vastness of the camp allowed me to make some great ‘mistakes’ . One was when I wandered into the “wrong” workshop and learned a bit of a beautiful piece “Haru no Umi” that is accompanied by koto. Having only learned solo pieces, this was a fun new experience. At another workshop we all learned some folk tunes. During the camp we got to hear improvisation with tabla, as well as, pieces accompanied by koto, shamisen and singer. (The woman who played the koto, shamisen and sang was the amazing Sawako Fukuhara.) There were absolute beginners who got their own classes and gave heart the rest of us to know that we are a living growing tradition. There were people from all over the world including a group from China who included some very good players. The shakuhachi was originally brought from China to Japan and, then, kinda faded away there. Over the last decade, the shakuhachi returned to China. Chinese players have multiplied and there are over one thousand people studying shakuhachi in China. The last evening, was a student/faculty concert that I joined in amongst a large number of my colleagues for one number. One of the highlights was an arrangement by Elliot Kallen of James Brown’s “I Feel Good”.

Then, there was the field trip-

We were all given the opportunity to dress as a Komuso and play in the garden of a Zen Temple. The Komuso were the Zen priest who used the shakuhachi as a meditation tool. When outside the temple, they would wear these basket hats and wander freely all over Japan.

Our one authentically dressed Komuso before the basket.

Many of them were masterless samurai. Eventually, enough rumours of their possibly being spies reached the Shogun that he disbanded them. It is from them that many of the great pieces have been passed down.

To play Komuso in a garden!!!! I jumped at the chance. I was surprised that there were only a dozen of us up for it. We only had six of the basket hats and only one of us had the authentic costume. So, we improvised. Aikido gi, kimono, whatever looked Japanesee.

The “Gate” at the Zen temple.

We, then, filled a van and two taxis for a drive across town to a large Zen temple complex. David had picked a splendid location, the ‘Gate’ of the temple.

As the first group of six got fitted with their baskets, tourists (mostly Japanese) started to gather. There were lots of smiles and pictures.

Group One “Komuso”

Everyone was having a great time. One British couple were getting a discourse on the shakuhachi and told of the upcoming festival.

Then… a young woman came tearing down the hill toward the gate in a very official mode. We let her attempt to find out who was in charge for a little while before directing her to the right person. It transpired that we weren’t allowed to have a “photo session” in the temple grounds without applying for permission and paying a fee. Well, we didn’t think of this as a “photo session”, just a bit of fun. So, we packed up and walked over to a small public roadway within the temple complex and continued our adventure. 86ed from a Zen temple. That was a new one.

We left the tourists behind but there were still some passersby.

Even with the basket hat, they found me.

K & The Geisha

A Model Komuso

Meanwhile, back at the ranch:

There were so many great sessions. I’ll just write a little about two of them.

One of the special guests was Junsuke Kawase III. Among other things he told us that twenty- five years ago he gave up smoking. Besides gaining a little weight, he developed asthma. It got so bad that he couldn’t play his shakuhachi. He was inhaling steroids up to six times a day. He asked his doctor if the treatments would cure his asthma and was told, “No, we’re only dealing with the symptoms.” Then, a friend told him of having a successful treatment in Beijing. So, off to Bejing where he started treatment with a Qi Gung doctor. In a very short time, he felt much better and was able to start playing his flute. The Qi Gung doctor said to him, “I didn’t know that they had such a Qi Gung instrument in Japan.” Junsuke went on to tell us some of what he learned about Qi Gung and it’s relation to playing the shakuhachi.

On the last day, the Super Session was with Ichizan Hoshida-sensei. He started by asking us if, when we warmed up in the morning, did we start off blowing the best note we could or just blowing. I was one of the majority who raised their hands to the latter. It was an eye opener to me. Among other things, he talked about starting off with just blowing at 40% strength for four seconds at a time and making each blow the best note that we could blow. I remembered this.

The camp ended at noon and the World Shakuhachi Festival Competition Final Performances began at one o’clock in the same building. There were 24 contestants. It was open to anyone of any age with any level of experience. Most of the contestants were in and around their 20s. What surprised me was the entry of Riley Lee in the competition. If you don’t know, Riley Lee has been playing the shakuhachi since the early seventies. He has performed publicly for many of those years and has produced a large number of excellent cds. To say that I was puzzled is an understatement. My answer was to arrive:

This is how I experienced it. The competitions finalists included some of the finest young up coming players. It was, of course, a highly charged event for them and they would have been listening very carefully to the other players. They each played two pieces. The first was a choice of two pieces that the organisers provided. One with two koto accompanying. It was very melodious. The second with koto  and shamisen contained some very intense sections with the solo being a slower interlude. The second piece played was a choice of the player and only limited by time. Riley was number 22 in order of playing the first piece. Watching the other performers, they would stand or sit beside the accompanists and, facing the audience, would nod when ready and set off into the piece. When Riley came on stage, he adjusted his chair to the side of the accompanists so that he was facing both them and the audience. As he played, he and the koto and shamisen were playing as a unit. Then, when he came to the solo part, it was Riley sitting there alone surrounded by a silent stillness out of which came the exquisite sound of the shakuhachi. When Riley played his other solo piece, that same intense experience occurred. To be present when a shakuhachi master plays at such heights is a rare opportunity.

The morning after the camp, I woke at 5 am. (Not on purpose!) By 5:30, I was in the garden of a small shrine moving through a beautiful slow Yang Chen Fu form. Then, I unpacked my shakuhachi. I stood feeling the energy move up from the earth to mix with the breath in my belly, then, to rise up at 45% strength to emerge as the best note that I could blow. I continued this way maintaining the 45% strength for a length of time until I felt the energy of my breath increase of its own accord and while I stayed relaxed it moved up to emerge as a loud best note I could blow. I had often wondered about the term “Suizen” (blowing zen). That morning, I felt that I had tasted it.

Ten Thousand Words

A Cut Above the Rest

So, there I am, wandering through Kyoto business streets when I come upon a knifemaker’s shop. If you know anything of Japanese knives you would be as excited as I was. The Japanese knives that are made by such a maker are made with the care and technique of the samurai swords. Three layers of metal and so sharp that they slice rather than just cut. Although I have enough kitchen knives, I was drawn in by my love of such art. On the wall were displayed the different steps from the chunk of metal to the final product. (I was so awestruck that I forgot to take any photos.) Some of the knives had swirls on the blades like you see on some of the swords.

Looking around, having to remember to stop the saliva from dripping from my mouth, I came across …

Yes, these are a pair of haircutting scissors. I use them for trimming my beard. From tip to toe, they are about sixteen centimetres (six and a half inches) long.  Look at the beautiful curves of the handle.

Take a closer look….

The thumb hole is shaped for a right hander. I didn’t notice at the time, so, I don’t know if they had a southpaw version in stock. You see the tensioner for the blades. The blades are slightly hollowed for an even sharper edge. The edge is meant to last ten years between sharpenings. With my twice a week beard trim…

 

The other side… The Maker’s Mark!

 

 

 

I said above that I trim my beard twice a week. Since these new scissors found a new home beside the 95 year old double edged razor, I have found myself being a bit more scrupulous about the stray hairs on my face.

A gentleman’s treasure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beginning Kyoto

Hello Friends,
I hope this finds you in fine fettle.

Sitting in my spacious six tatami room* at the Tomato Guest House. Less than a ten minute walk from Kyoto Station.

Took the overnight bus from Tokyo. Here’s the lovely Willer Express check-in lady at work.

This is a shot with my flash of my ‘cocoon’ on the bus. The actually lighting on the bus was provided by red lights on the ceiling. Very nice as long as you were looking for something big like your seat rather than trying to figure out the controls on the entertainment centre.

The seat reclined way back. That entertainment centre at the front of the space I used to watch a crap Hollywood movie before falling asleep. The ride was very smooth as we were travelling on a main highway the whole time. The main comfort problem was that the length was really for six foot or shorter. I’m six foot two. (Strangely enough, the Indian overnight buses are better arranged. They have enclosed bunks stacked end to end two high that give you a very spacious private place. Very nice for sleeping. Or reading or just looking out the window.)

We arrived at six in the morning at Kyoto Station. As happens so often in this life when one has arrived at an early hour, the guest house reception opens at nine. I hung around a temple for a while,  found the guest house location and happened onto this beautiful mosque.

 

 

The ever faithful body was indicating it’s need for sustenance when I chanced upon this nice ‘Morning Set’ brekkie at a small hotel. Such a lovely presentation for a simple toast, tea and a hard boiled egg. (And, a salad.) Tasted good as well. (Very rare to find bread other than this white air bread in Japan 😦

 

At nine, I dropped off my luggage and headed to a sento (public bath) that is open from seven in the morning. After twenty-six hours on the rode, I was ready. Soap and rinse outside the shallow pool. Then, slip into the water so hot that it melts your bones. Did three rounds of hot, cold. Brushed the trusty teeth. Dragged a comb through my hare and once in my togs, stuck one hundred yen in the slot for ten minutes in the massage chair. I could do this on a regular basis with ease.

The guest house has a 4pm check-in. Six hours and counting.

Midday, I lashed out in a top floor restaurant of Isetan Department Store with a wonderful cold soba set. Yummm.

 

I looked at the tourist map and headed to an indicated garden only a few blocks from Kyoto Station. This turned out to be a successful move.

This beautiful wall greeted me

and was followed by a couple tea houses beside a lilly covered lake.

As well as this stream.

I found myself a secluded spot and pulled out the old bamboo for a pleasant little blow. Had to cut it short as I was being attacked by the local mozzies. These secluded spots have their drawbacks.

Following on from the garden, I continued to pass my time eating green tea ice cream and wandering from one sitting spot to the next waiting for four of the clock to appear. Wandering from here to there wishing that I were in my soon-to-be-bed rather than seeing the sights.

However, I knew that I owed it to my reader to make that extra effort and not be collected by the police for curling up in the middle of the sidewalk as I felt to do a few times. (As much as that might make a colourful episode.)

Four o’clock did arrive. Check in was a success. Sorted a few things and descended into that delicious snooze land. Am now sitting with a belly digesting  homemade muesli ( smuggled into Japan) for dinner. Feeling invigorated and looking forward to tomorrow. Will be seeing some sights and locating one or two of the vegetarian restaurants the I have a list of somewhere. On Monday, we begin the Summer Shakuhachi Camp of the Rockies (transplanted to Kyoto) in a lead up to the World Shakuhachi Festival. Yeah, Team Kundan.

Cheers

* A tatami mat is approximately 0.88 metre by 1.76 metres.

Morning Salutation

Hi Friends,

Each morning here finds me at some point out in front of the trailer doing my morning workout. I used to do this in the small street that passes by. Residential streets in Japan really are small. In order for two small cars to pass, one has to pull over and come to a complete stop. My little street is used by some people as a short cut and therefore receives more traffic than would be normally generated by the neighbourhood.

The result of the above was that my tai chi and bagua forms would be interrupted at various times by an approaching car. I would notice the impending occurrence and maintaining my state as best I could step to the side of the street. Then, as the cars would pass, I would make a small bow to the drivers. Some would be surprised the first time this happened, however, almost all would bow back. If it was a repeat performance, their bow would be a genuine greeting. This would also occur with people out for a stroll with their dogs or kids going to school.

There is a lot of bowing in Japan. In the supermarket, the cashier will make a formal bow after giving you your change. There is the temptation by foreigners to write off such bows as just form and no substance. What I have found in such situations is that when I return the bow with sincerity, then, the substance of the bow is in existence and we both feel it. A bow can be a very beautiful gesture.

There is a child and mother who wait at the t-junction just close by each weekday morning for a brightly coloured kindergarten school bus. The bus has a woman driving and another woman who attends to the children. The attendant gets off the bus and approaching the mother and child, greets them and escorts the child back onto the bus. As they drive by me the driver gives a little bow and the attendant waves while encouraging the children to wave as well. What a big smile stretches my face as I wave back.

A few weeks ago, I cleared a section of the area that my trailer shares. It’s is full of large gravel set down to hold car parking. I began to practice my forms without the interruptions. It is such a pleasure to be able to move smoothly through my forms. Yet, I do miss the morning ritual of making way. I still get to wave to the kindergarten crew and say hello to the occasional person and dog who pass by. As a part of my exercise, I take a walk up the nearby street past houses where I encounter other walkers and sometimes someone out in his or her garden. I have even had short conversations at times. (Very short due to my limited vocabulary.)

Then, there have been a few mornings when I am walking along and see a person approaching slowly. The person’s head is down, there is a slight hunch of the shoulders and almost a shuffle in the walk. When I get close, I say my ‘good morning’ and suddenly a face pops up surprised and a shining smile appears immediately followed by an enthusiastic ‘good morning’. Yeh, what a good morning.

Ohayo Gozaimusu, Kundan