Japan Summer Blog 2012
One of my assignments for our Japan trip was to arrange a visit and conversation with Kanjuro Shibata XXI, the Imperial Bowmaker. My reasons for wanting to meet and converse with this exceptional man were varied and some were personal: I have studied kyudo, the art of the bow for over 15 years and this gentleman represents not only the style of archery that I practice and sometimes teach at Zen Mountain Monastery but as bow maker to the Emperor of Japan he is responsible for making important ceremonial bows that enhance very important religious events in Japan's cultural landscape. Further, he stands in a line of bow makers whose family profession has been maintained intact since the first Shibita in 1574! As an artist who often thinks in terms of lineage of artistic styles and concepts, there is no one comparable to this man in my own Western art training.
So what makes me think that I can ever get the chance to chat with such an exalted person? Well…I know people. About twenty five years or so ago, Master Shibata took on an American kyudo practitioner from Colorado to be his apprentice in Kyoto; as a favor and task from his father-in-law, the twentieth Shibata who wanted an American to learn the art in order to serve his American kyudo students. That apprentice in yumi (bow) making was Don Symanski, who happens to be my senior, teacher and friend of many years. I asked Don to contact his old master to see if he would be willing to meet with me at least briefly while I was traveling in Japan. He did and the word was good. Not only that, Master Shibata welcomed me into his home for the visit, something very special for a stranger.
The big challenge for me was to properly navigate Kyoto and find his house and shop without doing something stupid. Professor Munson had cleverly mastered the nuances of some special version of Google Maps to give me a street view of his residence but that was still an abstraction for me and I had the clerk at our inn double check my map to see if I was at least going in the right direction. I knew the correct characters for his name and hopefully that would be something that I could recognize readily while stumbling through the small streets of his neighborhood. I had called Master Shibata on our meeting day to see what an appropriate time would be best, he was very friendly on the phone and he would see me in the afternoon after he had run a few errands and it "stopped raining like cats and dogs"! I thought that was an interesting phrase coming from one of the Emperor's own.
Off I go to see Master Shibata! I was walking down a very old Kyoto street (which at one time was where all the bow makers worked) and was looking everywhere for the signs of a yumi maker. Discarded wood, an open shop door with racks of beautiful bows and other things associated with kyudo; nothing at all…I was way past where my map said I should have seen those Shibata characters on the doorway. I got to a very fast paced and trendy cross street and knew that I was long past his home. Well, stupid…get out your Zen iPhone and call him up!
Master Shibata asked me what street I was on. I could tell him one, but not the cross street, there was no English translation in sight. "Ask someone" he said, "Anybody". Fortunately I knew how to act stupid (and I knew the Japanese for street) and quickly got an answer, which I relayed, immediately to Master Shibata. "I'm coming to get you" the voice on the other end of my iPhone replied. Nice job, Ray. Really, very professorial.
Now I was standing on the corner of the streets in question wondering what kind of car does the bow maker to the Emperor drive? Something practical like a van...or maybe one of the very cute little Nissans I'd been admiring? Yes, that's what I was thinking about…nothing intelligent, that had all gone out the window with my lousy sense of Japanese house hunting. About four minutes passed and some guy on a bike whizzed up beside me and said, "Hey, Ray! I think I know you!"
There was my master bow maker, riding a bike and pointing out where I needed to go and then "whoosh", he was off, riding very fast up his street; he looked like a kid enjoying his ride while I quickly followed behind. Soon I was at his shop door and then through the back and into his kitchen where his wife and daughter and two grandchildren were enjoying themselves: introductions all around and hot tea and a sweet red bean treat to allow for conversation. I was rescued.
We talked about a lot of things, but it's not important to say what those things were really. It was the kind of conversation that mattered to me...it was so natural and warm and full of good humor and comfort with each other. I felt I was in a friends' home, a pretty noisy one sometimes with his two grandsons running around. His daughter lives in Brooklyn now and was visiting with her boys for a few weeks while their school was out...fortunately, I had my arty business cards, each with a different painting on the back that were happily distributed to everyone (Shibata sensei picked a snow painting) and the boys put them in their school writing books. We spoke of injuries. It seems that all martial artists reveal what hurts to one another. He said he really doesn't complain much because it doesn't do any good (he has a herniated disk among other things) and as soon as he starts working it all seems to go away. Good attitude! He was the first Japanese I spoke to (outside the Japan Foundation people that were so kind to us) that knew who Taylor Anderson was! He remembered her from the news and made a "round" shape for her face with his hands. He was very much interested in her story and it really pleased me that I had found someone outside the Randolph-Macon connection that knew her name.
At one point I mentioned the concept of his immense family history and how as a painter I could manufacture a kind of lineage through the study of landscape painting but it wasn't anything like his astounding heritage as a yumi maker. All he did was smile and say, "I have a lot of ancestors."
There it was: here was someone who could have been so inflated with his importance and his place in Japanese culture that his ego would have disallowed my ever being in his home, but instead was down-to-earth and warm and compassionate with whomever he was with. It was tangible. I was genuinely enjoying this man and his wonderful family. His daughter was going out with an old school friend later and Shibata and his wife were baby-sitting. Master Shibata let it out that he and his wife loved to spoil the kids and couldn't wait for her to go. The daughter rolled her eyes and smiled. It was nice sharing a personal moment with a family so far from mine.
The time came time for me to make my exit. You have to understand that saying goodbye in Japan can get a little complicated. They don't just go to the door and send you on your way. Everybody rolls out into the street and a little celebration happens…for me the best part was when Shibata sensei came over and shook my hand and said he hoped that he would see me again in the states sometime. Trust me on this, to have your hand shaken by a yumi maker is a pretty wonderful feeling...their hands are powerful and subtle and warm...and they mean it. It was very moving for me and made my journey to Japan complete in a very personal way.
As I made my way down the street and away from the Shibata household I looked back to make a final wave to the family. I noticed that his work van was parked directly in front of the door and the address calligraphy that I had been looking for much earlier. My view from the street had been blocked. I was so lucky that day...
Kamakura is only about 45 minutes south of Tokyo, but its quiet temples, verdant hills, and cool ocean breeze make it feel a world apart. I spent my last day in this idyllic seaside town, and in many ways it captured the essence of my travel experience. Starting at the lush Jochiji Zen temple, I followed the 3km Daibutsu hiking course along forested ridges overlooking the ocean. Around the halfway mark one arrives at a torii gate standing in front of a tall rock wall--a strange sight, until you look head-on and see the long tunnel leading back to the Zeniarai Benzaiten shrine, where locals seeking financial success come to wash their money in the waters of a sacred spring. The hike ends at a 750-year-old great Buddha (Daibutsu), bronze and over 13 meters tall.
During the trip, I was constantly struck by the way cultural aspects are mixed in Japan: music and theatre, Shinto and Buddhism, modern and traditional. Walking along the Daibutsu trail gave me a sense of how the beauty of nature, the landscape woodcuts of the ukiyo-e style , and the quiet sanctuaries of remote temples and shrines flow seamlessly from one to another. Nearly all of these spiritual sites contained wooden frames on which visitors could hang small votive tablets (typically for sale nearby); in sites frequented by tourists, one can view prayers and offerings written in dozens of languages. Of course, these are the modern, popular manifestation of ema, the traditional votive tablets of which sangaku are such a fascinating example. The story of sangaku is not an isolated excerpt from math history; in a way, it seems to run parallel, and intertwined, with the story of what it means to be Japanese. It was such an honor to witness a small part of that story during these past two weeks.
I don't know if it's proper travelogue/blog etiquette to reflect on something while it's still going on, but since it's my last night in Japan, I thought I'd provide another update and some reflections on the last two weeks.
First, the update: I wasn't sure anything could top the high I was on from my trip to the Diet on Wednesday, but then I visited the Supreme Court of Japan on Thursday, and had a personalized tour with Judge Masakazu Kamakura, who in addition to being a judge is also Chief of the Liaison Office, Secretary Division, at the General Secretariat--the Court's main administrative support agency. Judge Kamakura gave me a tour of the Court, and even invited me to sit in the Chief Justice's seat in the main courtroom. Yes, I'm a law and courts geek, so I have no trouble admitting it was a real highlight of my professional life. I can say with certainty that that would NEVER happen in the U.S. On Friday, all of us traveled to the seaside city of Kamakura to visit some important temples, as well as to pay our respects to the great Buddha. It was an amazing day--Kamakura had a totally different vibe to it than any other place we'd visited. Saturday was spent in Yokohama and at the Edo-Tokyo Museum (which Dr. Doering has written about) and it culminated with all of us watching the Sumida River fireworks--this is a fireworks display that has taken place annually for several hundred years. Tens of thousands of people crowded Tokyo's riverfront to catch a glimpse.
Today was our last day in Tokyo--and in Japan--and we all went our own ways. Professor Berry visited the Museum of Modern Art, Dr. Brown and Dr. Clark went back to Kamakura, and Dr. Doering and I checked out the "Musical Instrument Area" of Tokyo (several city blocks where musicians can purchase everything from electric guitars to kazoos in the shops that line the streets) as well as the Imperial Palace Grounds. This evening, Professors Berry, Clark, Doering and I took to the skyscrapers, having dinner on the 29th floor of the Shibuya NS building before visiting the North Observatory of the Tokyo City Government Building. The North Observatory is on the 45th floor of the building and offers spectacular views of the city of Tokyo. Although we're all a bit sad that this extraordinary visit has come to an end, as we gazed down at the sea of lights beneath us we all agreed that this was the perfect way to close out our time in Japan.
I am sure that each of us has formed our own impressions, and that they all are slightly different. For me, this trip has been an amazing series of moments--small ones, like the purification rituals that begin a temple visit, and big ones like the moment when Dr. Clark first saw a Sangaku tablet or Dr. Doering realized that the obscure 1914 film he studies is a central part of an exhibit at a major museum or when Professor Berry sat down at the kitchen table in the Emperor's bowmaker's home or the moment that I sat down in the Chief Justice's seat and *almost* wished I had gone to law school! This trip has taught me amazing things about the institutions of government in Japan, and I got to have experiences that most Japanese people have never had. I also met some of the kindest, smartest, hardest working people i have ever had the privilege to know theough the visits I made to several scholars and practitioners.
I can't wait to come back.
Yesterday a group of us ventured to Yokohama in the morning, and then came back to Tokyo in the late afternoon to spend some time at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. In Yokohama, Dr. Munson gave us a guided tour of the city and the Yokohama Archives of History. He lived in Yokohama when he was working on his dissertation, and he spent many hours combing through the materials in the archives. His forthcoming book, The Periodical Press in Treaty-Port Japan, is about Yokohama's establishment and subsequent development as viewed through the popular press of the time. Yokohama was a planned city, established by Westerns in the mid 1800s as a seaport for the newly opened Japan. As Dr. Munson noted, it is "ground zero" for understanding the history of Japan's relationship with the West.
Continuing on the theme of history, we visited later that day the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which is an enormous facility in Tokyo. The museum is focused on history of how Edo-Tokyo was founded and developed. It has many interesting exhibits, including scale models of many parts of the city, which depict what daily life would have been for the average person. For me the highlight came in the room which dealt with the early 1900s and particularly the thriving theater culture of Asakusa. One of the exhibits was a large, detailed model of a popular movie theater in Asakusa in 1914. The description of the display noted that it was based on a photograph from 1914. As I looked more closely, I suddenly realized that the film being shown on that particular day was Antony and Cleopatra! For me this was a starling discovery, because this is the film that I have done extensive work about its original music. Although it was popular in 1914, the film quickly fell into obscurity and few people know it today. I had done extensive digging in American archives to learn about the film, but this exhibit tells me that there are sources about the film in Japan. Even this exhibit alone was a find because it included numerous still images and posters from the film, and several I had never seen before. It was an exciting moment. I have yet another reason to return to Japan.
Today was a special day. I visited the Min-On Concert Association, which is an organization dedicated to broadening the appreciation of music around the world. Min-On literally means "people`s music," and the organization`s mission is focused on finding ways to unite people through music. They carry out that mission in Japan by organizing concerts by some of the world`s best musicians, maintaining an extensive lending library of scores and recordings, and running a public museum that includes an amazing instrument collection. The instrument collection has a particular emphasis on pianos, dating back to the the early 18th century.
When I visited the museum today, the curator gave me a wonderful personal tour of the entire museum. We spent the bulk of the time in the piano room, where I was treated to a demonstration of each of the instruments, including a Strohm, a Walter, a Graf, a Stein, and an Erard. All the greats. Each was in remarkable condition, and I even had the chance to play the Graf! I was also shown Min-On`s remarkable collection of mechanical instruments, some of which are over 100 years old and still operational. Again I was drawn to the pianos. They had many different kinds of reproducing pianos from the early part of the twentieth century. I often talk about these instruments in my classes, but this was the first time I had had the opportunity to see and hear them in operation.
Throughout the entire visit, my hosts at the Min-On Museum were incredibly gracious and generous. They gave me unprecedented access to the instruments, answered my many questions, and showed that they take their mission seriously. Tokyo is lucky to have such an organization in its midst.
It's been several days since I last posted, and my head is spinning with all the things I've seen, people I've met, and experiences I've had. I'll try to make sense of it and catch you all up on the last few days.
We spent the entire day on Saturday with Kenzo, our guide in Kyoto. Initially, we were only planning on a half day with him, but he was so knowledgeable and helpful that we all agreed to extend the day. We knew this was the right choice when we found out that after Kenzo learned that Dr. Clark was interested in Sangaku tablets on Friday night, he went home and researched where we might find one--and, indeed, he was right--we spent part of our time with him on Saturday at a small temple in Kyoto, and Dr. Clark (the rest of us, too!) had his first chance to see a Sangaku! While we were studying the tablet, Professor Berry had to leave, because he had an appointment across town with the Emperor's bow maker (bow as in archery, not something one ties). The bow maker, Shibata XXI, is the 21st generation in a family line of bow makers that has served the Emperor for centuries. According to Professor Berry, Shibata XXI is a lovely man, and they talked for hours in his kitchen. In Japan, it is unusual to be invited to someone's home, so this was an extraordinary meeting by all standards.
By the end of our time with Kenzo, we had seen several of the main sites in Kyoto, including Kinkaku-Ji (the Golden Pavilion), Kiyomizu temple, Daitoku-Ji, Koto-In, and Yasaka Jinja. Over the next few days, many of us set out on our own to explore as well; our destinations included Furoshimi Inari shrine and its thousands of red torii gates, Higashi Hongan-Ji, Sanjusangendo-Ji and its 1,001 Buddhas, Eikan-Do, Nanzen-Ji, Nanzen-In, Ginkaku-Ji, Honen-In...the list is nearly endless.
In addition to visiting these important religious and cultural places, we also had the opportunity to visit Kansai Gaidai University, one of R-MC's important study abroad partners. While there, Dr. Doering, Dr. Munson, and I met up with Amy Knoblauch ('12), who spent several months at Kansai Gaidai in her senior year, and who returned to Japan to teach English after her graduation last May. We met with the program director and discussed ways to deepen our partnership with the university, which has a terrific set of facilities--I think our students would love it! Another highlight of the Kyoto trip for me personally was the chance to have a traitional Japanese meal with Professor Tsukasa Mihira, a faculty member at Kyoto University. While we ate, we compared notes about the U.S. and Japanese judicial systems. It was an absolutely fantastic meal that had more courses than I can count, and an even better conversation!
We returned to Tokyo yesterday (Tuesday) and since then, I've had a chance to meet with Dr. Gregory Noble, a political scientist at Tokyo University. In addition, I had the opportunity today to visit the Diet (Japan's national legislature) and tour the House of Representatives. My conversation with Dr. Noble, which was focused on key public policy challenges and conflicts in Japan, really helped me to be prepared for today's visit to the Diet and meeting with one of the policy secretaries in the House of Representatives, Ms. Tomomi Hioki. A real highlight was getting to have my photo taken in and around the Diet complex, including inside the House chamber!
I could go on and on--the experiences we're having are challenging and exciting, and all of us are learning a lot from one another. Over dinner each night we compare notes, and it has been a great benefit of the experience to get to learn from my colleagues about their meetings and site visits. I think we are all mindful that we're on the downhill side of our itinerary, and though we all miss home, we continue to try to do and see and learn as much as we can.
Today we left Kyoto and returned to Tokyo. Kyoto is a fascinating place and so full of important historical sites that I think we all tried our best to see as much as we could before we had to board the train back to Tokyo. Dr. Clark, Dr. Bell, and I decided to go to one of Kyoto's most famous temples: Ginkaku-ji, also known as the "Silver Pavilion." We got up early , stashed our stuff in the lockers at the train station, and grabbed a cab to the temple. Everything seemed to be working like clockwork until we arrived at the site and realized that our cab driver had taken us to Kinkaku-ji, NOT Ginkaku-ji. Kinkaku-ji is actually on the opposite site of the city--a difference of one consonant and about five miles! Not exactly the way we wanted to start out tightly scheduled morning...
But in the end it worked out fine. We quickly found a cab headed in the right direction. The driver gave us an entertaining ride, pointing out several places of interest along the way, and we arrived at Ginkaku-ji with plenty of time to view its stunning moss gardens. We were once again reminded about how easy it is to get around in Kyoto and how friendly the city is to visitors. But in the future we will make sure to enunciate a bit more carefully...
Our time in the Kyoto area has yielded many wonderful discoveries, including those of the mathematical variety. Yesterday, our hip tour guide Kenzo took us to the Yasui Konpiragu Shrine in Kyoto, in which resides a museum of ema -- votive wooden tablets that have been offered to such shrines for hundreds of years. Among these pieces of fine art was a sangaku (literally "mathematical tablet") that had been hung from the shrine's roof in 1841. We could make out four geometry problems, written right-to-left across the plank, as well as the list of students and teachers from the juku (private academy) that devoted the tablet, though age and weather had darkened the wood and faded the ink substantially. Still, I was thrilled to personally witness (see, smell, touch) my first sangaku, which I had previously only read about in the abstract.
Today I was granted an even greater gift. Fukugawa Hidetoshi, one of Japan's (indeed, the world's) leading experts on traditional Japanese mathematics and sangaku, met Professor Munson and me in Ogaki City for a special trek. We rode a taxi up steep, narrow streets to a lush hill overlooking the large town, on top of which stood the Myojorinji Temple. Ancient moss covered stone Buddhas and lanterns around every turn, with not a tourist in sight. Such natural and unspoiled beauty would be reason enough to visit this magical place, but one of the temple buildings contained an even sweeter prize: a large sangaku from 1865, nearly perfectly preserved. Devoted to the temple by the Asano school, the tablet boasted eleven geometry problems with answers (but, of course, no solutions), each with a meticulously crafted colored diagram. Over tea with the temple's priest and a few locals, Dr Fukagawa expounded upon the culture of aesthetics and enjoyment of mathematics in which the tradition of sangaku thrived. His enthusiasm and generosity were as humbling as the beauty of the tablet itself.
I've just awakened on Saturday morning--in Kyoto. Only 18 hours or so ago, we were sitting in the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs discussing the merits of using popular cultural references to engage our students in more serious inquiry with their Cultural Affairs bureau staff, and this morning we are preparing to see centuries old temples and shrines nestled in the mountainsides that surround Kyoto. We've all been saying what an amazing place Japan is.
In addition to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we were briefly back in the U.S. yesterday during our visit to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. As we approached the Embassy, we were struck immediately by the contrasts between the American way of doing things and the Japanese way. The signs on the giant fence surrounding the embassy complex were as clear as can be: NO photos, NO loitering, NO entry without a search, NO electronic equipment inside. It was the first time since arriving that we had encountered such stringent rules. In Japan, there is a different way of ensuring that policies and procedures are followed. Like so many other things in Japan, there is nuance and subtlety and even a certain beauty I'm the way social order is ensured.
Our meetings at both the embassy and Ministry of Foreign Affairs focused on the role of education in building bridges between the U.S. and Japan. There is concern that the number of Japanese students traveling to the U.S. has declined over the years, and concern from the Japanese that too many American students are interested in Japan only because of its popular cultural and not its "real" history or cultural. That's why we were talking about pedagogy and popular cultural yesterday afternoon.
After our appointments in Tokyo were concluded, we walked back through the labyrinthine metro system to find the right train line (Tokyo has 26 of them!) to take us to Tokyo Station, where we caught our bullet train (the Shinkansen train) to Kyoto. The train moves fast, but it's a very smooth ride. Upon arrival in Kyoto and check in T our hotel (another Japanese-style inn), we met up with our guide, Kenzo, for a tour of the Gion District of Kyoto. Gion is the geisha district and we did see two practicing geisha arriving for a party at a tea house. Despite what many people think, geisha are not prostitutes or escorts, they are party hostesses and entertainers who train for a minimum of five years (the Maiko stage) to learn traditional dances, music, and ways of dress. Our walk through the Gion District culminated at a large Shinto shrine, Yasaka-Jinja, which was built in 1654. The shrine is a large complex of buildings with many small alters and hundreds of beautiful Japanese lanterns. Kenzo showed us all how to properly purify ourselves to enter the shrine using the water and ladles at the main gate, and then demonstrated the worship ritual.
By this time, it was getting late, so we headed back by taxi to the main part of the city, where Kenzo took us to an "omen" restaurant. Omen are a type of noodles, and the meal-like all of the ones we've had in Japan-was wonderful. We'll spend today with Kenzo again, visiting many of the major shrines, temples, and other sights in Kyoto.
Today was a day of exploration. I decided to check out two sections of the city: Asakusa and Roppongi. The lure for Asakusa was a visit to the Taiko Museum, which is a museum dedicated to both the instruments used in taiko drumming and the performance traditions. I also chose the museum because it was in a part of the city that we had not yet seen, so it was my chance to see if I could negotiate the subway system on my own.
I made it to Asakusa with no problems, and after getting some advice from a helpful construction worker, I found the Taiko Museum. It is a three story building, and the first floor has a shop with all of the various drums for sale. But unfortunately I was unable to see the museum upstairs because it was under repair due to a fire last March. This was an obvious disappointment, but the morning was not a loss because I decided to wander around the Asakusa district. About five blocks away, I stumbled upon the amazing Senso-ji. This temple holds a golden statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. The approach to Senso-ji is incredible because one has to go through a series of huge gates. Each one is adorned with an enormous red lantern. The grounds have several smaller shrines in addition to the enormous main hall, including a five-story pagoda. The area around the Senso-ji is also full of interesting vendors, selling all kinds of fun objects from pottery to candy to little toys.
After Senso-ji, I decided to head to an entirely different part of the city, Roppongi, which has experienced a tremendous amount of new construction in recent years. It is home to some of the city's newest art museums (Mori Art Museum, the Suntory Museum of Art, and the National Art Center), and each of the buildings has an interesting design. The National Art Center was designed by Kurokawa Kisho, and it is a beautifully geometric (and massive) steel and glass structure. The contrast to the ancient shrines I had just seen in Asakusa was striking. Roppongi is also home to a new upscale mall called Tokyo Midtown, which is also an interesting architectural structure. It too features lots of glass and steel.
It was a fruitful excursion to these different districts, and a chance to see the remarkable combination of cutting edge innovation and deep historical tradition that live side by side in Tokyo.
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