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...
Powered by BlogEngine.NET
Theme by Mads Kristensen