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Doi-san's book published!

I received a package from friend and collector Mr. Toshikazu Doi this afternoon - a very heavy package. It was a copy of the new book that he has just published, introducing the work of the shin-hanga designer Tsuchiya Koitsu.

It's a staggering achievement ... 400 plus pages, a bajillion full-colour images of Koitsu's entire output, and a wealth of information on his life and the publishers who issued all these prints, back in the first half of the 20th century.

Doi-san worked together with Ross Walker (website) for many years to put this together, and their efforts have finally turned into reality.

If you would like to know more about the book, or to order a copy, please write to Doi-san here. (He can understand English with no problem ...)

Congratulations to them on their new 'baby' - I hope they still have enough energy left for their next project!

Posted by Dave Bull at 5:17 PM | Comments (1)

[Seacoast in Winter - 4] : Sky planning

Continued from [Seacoast in Winter - 3] | Starting point of the thread is [Seacoast in Winter]

Carving has been continuing steadily over the past few weeks. I've been doing it by 'zone' - first working on the six blocks that will do the water in the pool, then the four that will delineate the rocks (plenty of overlap between these of course, as part of the rocks under the surface will still be visible ...).

I've kept the blocks for the sky area completely separate. That wasn't completely necessary, as it is going to be a cloudy grey day, and many of those tones could overlap the rock areas, but I wanted to make a mental break as much as a physical one.

As a reminder, here's that photo we saw before, of a summer day (remember, this is not 'the print' - it's just the same general area ...):

Clear blue sky - nothing could be easier. But how to depict a 'stormy' sky? It's not that easy ... Looking through my books of shin-hanga prints I see a few standardized ways of depicting clouds:
- white fluffies against a blue sky. This is the most common, and is dead easy; because white in this type of print is simply raw paper, all you have to do is cut out the areas of cloud.
- varied white/grey clouds in clear sky. This is done the same way, with the addition of some greyish tone blocks carved to suit.
- dull grey rainy sky. This is also fairly common, and is also straightforward. Grey replaces the blue ...

I find no good examples of the kind of sky that I want in this print - grey of course, a bit lighter here, a bit darker there, with energetic scudding clouds being driven across the sky by the wind. Either the shin-hanga artists (and their carvers/printers) couldn't come up with a good formula for this kind of scene, or it was just not to their taste.

So what I've been doing while working on the other parts of the image is thinking about clouds. There has been no point studying the sky outside my workshop window, because as luck would have it, the past few weeks have been a period of almost unbroken perfect weather - beautiful blue skies without a cloud in sight! (I think we sent all our clouds over to visit our North American friends this winter!)

It's no problem these days though, to find images of clouds to study ... Google turns up hundreds of them with the click of a mouse. But everything seems so static! I don't want thunder and lightning, I don't want a gloomy and 'heavy' cloud cover. I want some motion here!

So, I think the answer is to think back to the print I made of the River in Winter. I was faced with pretty much the same problem - how to make something 'move' - and I think I'll approach it in a similar fashion.

I've created a kind of 'sort of looks like clouds' pattern in the sky, and have broken this down into five tone levels, from lightest background, to the darkest part of the clouds. This rough pattern has been pasted onto the blocks as a guide, and from tomorrow morning, I'll start carving.

I'm going to do the same thing I did with the water - take off my glasses, put away my delicate carving knife, and use a v-cutter. I want these clouds to be ripped by the wind, and I guess the only way to do that is to start ripping into some wood!

The thread continues in [Seacoast in Winter - 5] ...

Posted by Dave Bull at 9:15 PM | Comments (0)

Fun and Games with the paper ...

Carving work on the 'Seacoast in Winter' print is steadily progressing, interrupted as usual by any number of other jobs competing for attention. Today saw a pretty big one of those ...

A couple of months back, I did an inventory of my paper stock for this series, to work out how many more sheets I needed in order to complete the rest of the series, and placed an order with Iwano-san for them - 150 sheets of Echizen Hosho washi, in the 'takenaga' dimension. They arrived a few days ago, along with the bill, for 236,000 yen ... (around $2600 US at today's exchange rate ...)

The paper in this 'raw' state cannot be used; it must be sized. This is a special skill all its own, and I will send this package straight off to Misawa-san, the last craftsman here in Tokyo who still does this work.

At least that's what I should be doing; unfortunately the process is no longer quite so simple. Here is a sample of a sheet from the previous batch of this same type of paper, which he sized for me just over a year ago:

Incredible. The sizing was hard, brittle and uneven. The sheets were dried too quickly and became severely buckled and distorted. I called him right away to find out what had happened, but he had no excuse. It seems though, that the problem lay in the large width of these sheets. Sizing must be done in one continuous brush stroke across each sheet, and he has a collection of very large brushes for just this purpose.

But a brush this wide - full of hot size - is very heavy, and he is not so young ... It is also possible (this is just a guess) that his large brushes are getting worn out, and as he is nearing retirement, and a brush of this width would cost a great deal of money to have made to order, he is using them beyond the point where they can do the job properly.

Whatever the reason, the batch of paper had been effectively destroyed. Ordering more was out of the question; to throw away that much money was just not possible. I had to try and use it. I cut the paper into the smaller dimension required for the prints, and tried to salvage what I could. I used a shallow pan with warm water, soaked each sheet to try and wash out some of the size, and then dried each one on boards.

I got most of the worst of it out, but all through the rest of the printing work on the next few prints, kept getting results like this when I dried out the finished print:

So, what to do this time? I called him to discuss it, outlining clearly to him that there could be no repetition of the previous disaster. He suggested that cutting the sheets in half would make things go easier, as he could use a much smaller brush (working in single strokes along the narrow dimension of the half-sheets). This seemed like a reasonable option, until I asked him how this would affect the price for the job. (He is paid by the sheet, and the previous job had been priced at 150 yen per sheet.) He replied that the price wouldn't change; it would stay at 150 yen per sheet. My cost would thus double, as instead of 150 sheets at 150 yen each, I would now have 300 sheets at 150 yen each. When I protested that this was only happening because of his ... (I avoided using the word 'incompetence') ... he offered a 'discount'. He would do it for 130 yen per 'sheet', adding another 39,000 yen to my bill ... ($400+)

So, that's my job this afternoon and evening - cutting this paper in half ready for him to work on. Why such a long time just to cut 150 sheets of paper in half?

More fun and games ...

This paper is made in the traditional way, with the fibre mix dipped from the vat, and rocked on a bamboo screen. The structure of the screen is visible in the finished paper, in the form of 'laid lines' at approximately 3 cm intervals:

You can also see the faint lines in the image of the print above.

Back in the 'old days' (say, when I first came to Japan nearly 30 years ago) these lines were always perfectly ordered and parallel with the edges of the raw sheet. But more recently, this is not so. The equipment used by many of the papermakers, even famous ones like Iwano-san, is getting very old and rundown. It seems that the frame that this paper was rocked on is apparently no longer 'tight', and the lines left by the bamboo screen vary from one sheet to the next, sometimes perfectly vertical, sometimes leaning to one side or the other.

So if I stack the paper up and cut them a few dozen at a time, those lines in the paper will not be vertical on most of the finished prints. There is no way around it; I have to take the sheets one by one from the pile, place them on a dark surface so that I can see the faint lines, and then slice them at the correct angle to make the lines vertical in my finished prints ... 150 sheets, around a minute for each one ... a nice waste of nearly three hours ...

And how is the paper itself this time? Mixed.

It's useable, but there is plenty of bark still left in there - something that would have been inconceivable in paper from a 'Living National Treasure' not so very long ago ...

But enough complaining. It's not so bad, and it's still 'hosho washi'. The finished prints will still last hundreds of years, gradually developing a beautiful patina as they age ... (If I ever get them finished!)

Posted by Dave Bull at 7:57 PM | Comments (15)

Imperial Poetry Ceremony : (Part Four)

In 1999 Dave was honoured with an invitation to attend
the Utakai Hajime - the 'First Poetry Reading of the Year' -
a ceremony held at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo every January.
This is part four of his story of the event ... (start is here)


As we rose to listen to the presentation of the Emperor's poem, the room was momentarily filled with the sound of the rustle of our clothing. This was disturbed by a more dramatic sound, that of attendants rushing to the side of the elderly gentleman who was falling forward - fainting from the effect of standing up suddenly after the long time spent sitting motionless.

I had a clear view of what happened, and it was an astonishing display of professional preparedness on the part of the attendants. Whether or not they had been keeping an eye on this man out of concern for his condition I can't say. It would seem so though, because as he fell straight forward, two attendants sprang to his side and caught him before he reached the ground. They lowered him gently back into his chair, and then stood supporting him, one on each side. It was all over in an instant. Those of us who had noticed this episode turned our attention back to the poetry readers, as the room became silent. Many of the people in the room were probably completely unaware of what had happened.

The ceremony then proceeded to its culmination, with the reading and singing of the Emperor's poem, which proceeded along the same lines as had the previous readings. We then sat down, and watched as the readers and their attendants restored all the poetry papers to the trays, which were then removed and taken back behind the screen.

We then rose for the final time, and stood silently as the Imperial Family left the room by the same doors through which they had entered. Once those were closed, the main doors of the room slid open, and I was a bit surprised to find that we were now 'free'. Instead of a replay in reverse of our formal entry into the ceremony room, we left randomly. People walked slowly through the long hallway back to the reception room, some singly, some gathered in small groups talking quietly with each other.

Long white-covered tables had been set out for us, containing a selection of small ceremonial foods, sweets, and flasks of o-sake. There were no chairs, and this was not to be a formal reception. I wasn't sure what to do, but just followed the example set by those who had arrived before me. Everybody first took a tiny sip of sake, and a token morsel of food. What happened next was extremely un-ceremonious. Small plastic bags were on the table next to the trays, and each person took a few of these, and using the chopsticks provided, proceeded to shovel food from the trays into the bags, piling it up randomly. Some people didn't use the chopsticks, but simply picked up the small plates and dumped the food into the bags.

One by one, on our own time, we left the room, swinging our little clear plastic bags with the jumble of food. As we came out, an attendant asked our names. We replied, and were then directed to proceed down the hallway. I had no idea what this was about, but it was another example of their efficient organization. They had a radio system set up, and were communicating with the drivers in the auto pool, letting them know the order and timing of the departing guests. And indeed, as we descended the long stairway leading down and out of the building, our car pulled up exactly as we reached the bottom. The door was opened for us, and away we went.

But this was not the end of our adventure. It is customary for guests to the poetry ceremony to pause their car at a point just outside the palace moat, for a quick souvenir photo session with the walls as a backdrop. As our car pulled over, and we stepped out into the open air, we were astonished at the sound that washed over us.

It was actually a quiet Sunday morning in Tokyo, but what an incredible noise we heard! I suppose the traffic streaming by on the nearby major road made up the main part of it, but it seemed to encompass much more than that; the entire city seemed to be roaring at us - there is no other word to describe it.

Over the past hour or so while inside the palace grounds, we had unconsciously been 'wound down' to a completely different scale and pace of living. Everything had moved very slowly; everything had been very quiet. Our body clocks had been reset. And now suddenly, at the moment we opened the car door we were thrown back out into the modern world. It was a vivid demonstration of just how vastly different our contemporary world must be from that of the 'old days'.

Once back in the car, we pulled out into the stream of traffic, and in a mere couple of minutes, during the trip back to our hotel, we were dragged back to the present, and the world of the palace and the ceremony began to fade in mind and memory.

But imagine! What must it be like to live inside that palace, to have lived there all one's life, and then to come out onto the streets of Tokyo?



David Bull, January 1999

Posted by Dave Bull at 11:24 PM | Comments (4)

Imperial Poetry Ceremony : (Part Three)

In 1999 Dave was honoured with an invitation to attend
the Utakai Hajime - the 'First Poetry Reading of the Year' -
a ceremony held at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo every January.
This is part three of his story of the event ... (start is here)


... the reading of the poems by the ten honorary guests was continuing. One after the other each person stood up while his/her 'song' was 'sung'. Just how much of this did I understand?

The poetry that I have been dealing with for the past ten years, while working on my Hyakunin Isshu project, is sometimes fiercely complicated - full of convoluted and twisted double meanings and word play. Scholars write entire books of explication on them, and as the centuries go by, different ways of interpreting them are 'uncovered'. So what chance do I - whose native language is most certainly not Japanese - have of understanding these brand new poems on first hearing?

Well as I said, from my point of view, this wasn't so much a poetry reading, as it was a concert. I just sat back and enjoyed the sound.

And there, I ran into a bit of trouble. We were all (with the exception of the emperor and empress) sitting in black lacquered chairs. These were of simple wooden construction, with no upholstery; the smooth black surface was broken here and there by embossments in the shape of a golden chrysanthemum - the mon of the royal family. One of these flowers was positioned in the middle of the back of the chair, right in the 'worst' possible place in one's back ...

Whether or not this furniture was designed specifically with such a thing in mind or not, I can't say, but it was impossible to 'sit back and relax'. As soon as one leaned against the backrest, that golden chrysanthemum started to dig in ... and you were forced to lean forward again. At one point I started to shift in my chair to try and get a bit more comfortable, but then checked myself.

Nobody, nobody in that room was shifting around or wiggling on their chair. Nobody. I could see that the 'sub-royals' up at the front, who were in the same chairs as the rest of us, were all sitting in an interesting way. Their upper body was tilted slightly forward; none of them were leaning back against their chairs. And not one of them moved as much as a muscle.

I see. These people have trained and trained ... how to sit 'properly' in public. No fidgeting, no fuss, just sit still. Very well - if they can do it, then so can I! I leaned slightly forward, away from that flower which was apparently growing in size by the minute, and returned my concentration to the music.

I have no idea if the other guests were conscious of similar thoughts. As time went by, the men who sat on either side of me both began to have problems. The man on my left had either skipped breakfast (or perhaps ate too much), and his stomach started to add a 'counterpoint' to the poetry. After a couple of particularly loud interjections, he bowed his head ever so slightly, and we neighbours understood this gesture - a silent apology. The man on my right was having a worse time - he obviously had back trouble, and would perhaps have been uncomfortable on even a well-padded chair. Here, he was in torment. He tried manfully to keep still, but it was obvious to those of us nearby that his would be a losing battle.

Should I perhaps not write of these things? Should I instead just leave you with the impression of this ceremony as something ethereal and magical? Well, please don't be disappointed - it was indeed a wonderful ceremony to be part of; it's just that I think it is difficult for people to so suddenly shake off the 'outside' world, and reach the proper frame of mind for a ceremony like this. We had gone through a lengthy 'slowing down' process before starting, but we of course still were only temporary visitors here ...

But back to the poetry. After the ten special poems had been read, we then heard three or four more by some invited guests, I believe an Imperial poetry teacher, a special guest of the emperor, and some relatives of the emperor. And then, we moved on to the highlight of the event, the reading of the poems written by the imperial couple.

The pair of attendants again stepped forward, this time to carry the imperial poems from the trays where they had been resting over to the reader's table. This took quite a while, with much bowing and slow measured walking, but everything was finally ready.

Again a minute of silence, and then (how happy the man next to me must have been!) we all rose in our places to hear the poem by the empress. This was first spoken through, so we could readily understand the syllables, and then sung twice. We sat down again, and waited while the emperor's poem was prepared. When the readers were ready again we rose.

And here, I must again 'spoil' the mood for you. Just at this moment, at the very highlight of the entire ceremony, disaster struck. Many of the guests were quite elderly people, and after sitting for so long in such a rigorous way, to suddenly stand up straight, and then try and stay motionless ... One elderly gentleman, over on the opposite side of the room from me, didn't make it. He fainted, and began to fall straight forward ...


(concluded in Part Four)

Posted by Dave Bull at 2:20 PM | Comments (0)

Imperial Poetry Ceremony : (Part Two)

In 1999 Dave was honoured with an invitation to attend
the Utakai Hajime - the 'First Poetry Reading of the Year' -
a ceremony held at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo every January.
This is part two of his story of the event ... (start is here)


The double doors opened out away from us, pulled back by unseen hands, and we rose to our feet. No trumpets sounded, no fanfare ... All was completely silent, as the emperor walked forward into the room, the empress immediately behind him.

Although this was a court ceremony, there was no feeling of pompousness. There were no purple robes, no crowns, simply a slightly elderly couple walking into the room. He wore a suit (unlike the rest of us in morning coats), and she a simple quiet dress. Behind them came the rest of the royal family, and the silence was then quite broken by the clatter of their shoes on the hard polished wooden floor. I must say that I did feel the mood to be a bit spoiled by the entrance of this 'crowd'. There were more than a dozen of them, all the women in different coloured dresses, with little funny hats, etc. I felt they were quite a contrast to the quiet and reserved couple who had preceded them.

Once they were all seated, the doors closed behind them, the rest of us also sat, and the silent mood was restored. A pair of attendants stepped forward and slowly paced in step to a location behind a large screen that stood behind the royal couple. We could hear their footsteps as they moved out of sight. They reappeared a minute later, each bearing a tray containing a large piece of folded paper. These, we would learn later, were the two royal poems. The trays were ceremonially placed on small tables in front of the royal couple, and the attendants returned to their places. Again, all was still.

Everything moved at a glacially slow pace, and if I tell you this, you may get the impression that it was boring. But there was no such feeling. Later, when I was back home thinking over what I had seen, I realized that from the very moment that our car had entered the palace grounds, 'time' had moved in a different way. You may scoff at this idea, but it really was different. The walk through the palace hallways, the silent wait in the large anteroom, the very slow walk to the Pine Room ... These had all been part of the 'programming' to prepare us for the ceremony. A gradual slowing down of one's pace of life ... of breathing ... of existence itself.

Here in the Pine Room, everything moved at this incredibly slow tempo, with enormous 'blank' gaps between. It seems that one cannot approach a thousand year old poetry ceremony in a 'Tokyo' frame of mind. One has to have one's clock adjusted first. Perhaps only after actually having the experience of participating in a court ceremony like this can one understand just how natural it was to be moving at that pace ...

The group of readers made their way to a table in the centre of the room, on which was a large lacquered tray containing some folded papers. The eldest man in the group (there were no women), removed the papers from this tray, turned it upside down, then placed it back on the table. He removed a sheet from the bundle of paper, opened it out and passed it to his neighbour. I was positioned behind him and could see that it contained a poem, brushed in large flowing characters. The sheet was quite large, and I could actually read the beginning of the poem from where I sat. Each year's poetry follows a certain theme, and that for this time - 'blue' - had been announced a year ago; all the poems we were to hear this morning would have some connection with this topic.

One of the ten main guests then rose in his place, to face the emperor and empress, and was introduced with his home town and name. Interestingly enough, no honorific was used after his name, something that quite shocked my ear. (It is absolutely impossible to hear someone's name in Japan without also hearing 'san', or one of the other common honorifics. But it seems that in this place, the rules are different.)

The reading of his poem then began. I use the verb 'read', but of course 'sing' would be more appropriate. In fact, in Japanese, the same word 'uta' is used for both song and poem - there is no distinction made between the two. One of the reciters started off, turning the poem into something between a chant and an actual melody. He went through the poem twice, alone for the first pass, but joined by the other reciters for the second time through.

The deep and resonant male voices (is that why no women were reciters?) completely filled the room with sound. They stretched out the lines, their voices rising and falling, hanging on some notes for a long time. When they came to the end of the poem they dropped their pitch to the point where the human voice could no longer produce sound; the song ended in silence ...

The poet sat down and the room fell silent once more. The chief reciter then reached for another sheet of paper, and the cycle began again.

There was no applause, no reaction at all to the 'performance'. We sat completely still, the emperor and empress even more so - absolute statues. The only movement was the rustle of the large sheets of poetry, and the standing of the poets.

These ten people had been selected from some tens of thousands of applicants. They were not 'poets' in a professional sense, but simply citizens with an interest in traditional poetry. The youngest, the first one in line, was a middle school student, and the eldest seemed about eighty. It was an incredible honour for them to have their poem read this way, and for some of them, it was perhaps the highlight of their lives ...


(continued in Part Three)

Posted by Dave Bull at 6:32 PM | Comments (2)

Imperial Poetry Ceremony : (Part One)

In 1999 Dave was honoured with an invitation to attend
the Utakai Hajime - the 'First Poetry Reading of the Year' -
a ceremony held at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo every January.
This is his story of the event ...


The Imperial Palace is in Tokyo, but not of Tokyo. A vast chunk of land in the centre of the city is walled and moated off, and I'm sure it's no easier to get in there now than it would have been back in the days of old. The car that took the three of us into the grounds (myself, a scholar from Korea, and our Japanese escort) had to stop at two steel barricades, and at each one we had to show our invitations to one guard, while others ran checks on the car itself.

Once through these two barriers, we passed through a huge wooden gate, and the car rolled along a smooth path through a forest. The city disappeared. We could hear no roar of traffic, could see no tall buildings, hear no trains ...

We were on our way to the palace to take part in the annual 'Utakai Hajime' ('Imperial New Year's Poetry Reading'), a ceremony dating from the 13th century. Each year, a number of people are selected to be special guests to observe the ceremony, and just the previous year, foreigners had been included in this group for the first time. Myself and the Korean scholar were the two who had been selected this year.

After a minute or so on the forested lane, we came round a curve in the road, up a small slope, and entered a wide open space, across which we could see one wing of the palace in front of us - a wide low-slung building with a dominating roof, which although it is relatively new, seems to my untutored eye to owe quite a lot to Frank L. Wright. As we pulled up to the entrance, the car doors were whisked open for us, and we were directed up a vast wide carpeted stairway towards the main level of the building.

Once inside, our route was silently indicated by attendants standing at every corner, and we found ourselves walking along a wide corridor towards the assembly point. Two-story high glass on one side, with the sun streaming in, and on the other, soft wooden walls interrupted here and there by paper screened doors. No ornamentation, just beautiful smooth wooden surfaces, and soft deep carpet. And all very high and wide, extremely spacious, and extremely quiet.

A tiny table with a lady standing by it came into view, and we found that this was the reception. She took our invitation cards, and gestured us into the waiting room - about the size of a big school gymnasium. Wood wood everywhere, and again, a very light and airy feeling. Chairs were arranged around the perimeter of the wide space, and I picked an empty one and sat down to wait.

One by one the guests came in, and as the time for the ceremony approached, another attendant spoke and gave us some instructions. Our names would be called in order of age beginning with the eldest guest; we were to rise, make our way to the doorway he indicated, and from there proceed to the 'Matsu no Ma' (Pine Room), where the ceremony would be held.

The reading out of the names began, and as each person was called, he rose, walked softly across the wide room, and then turned and left at the exit. It was quite a roster: government ministers, corporate executives, university chancellors, etc. etc. I assumed that at 47 years of age, I would perhaps be last, but was a bit surprised to hear my name called when there were still about a dozen people remaining. "Woodblock printmaker David Bull" ...

When I passed through the doorway, I had quite a shock. This wide and spacious building that we had been waiting in was not the palace itself ... but merely a sort of ante-building. Through the tall glass windows and across a wide courtyard (around the size of a football field) I was now able to see the main building itself. A covered veranda ran around this courtyard on all sides, and I could see, making their way along it, spaced out one by one, the people who had been called before me.

I joined the line, walking softly along the hall, trying to take in all the 'sights'. The courtyard itself was landscaped with stones, with a huge pine tree positioned in one corner, but out the windows on the other side of the hallway I could see a green Japanese garden. You may laugh when I say this, but walking down that long hallway in the palace, surrounded by the beautiful wood and glass, in my formal attire ... I really felt quite a bit 'special'.

It seems that I walked a bit too slowly, rubbernecking as I was, because as I came near the end of the long stretch of hallway I heard a soft cough from behind me, and turned to see that the people who had been called after me were stacked up in a line right on my heels. I put on a bit of speed, turned the corner, and came to the Pine Room.

As before, attendants directed our every movement, and a minute later I was seated in my chair waiting to see what would come next. After our entire group of 80 invited 'viewers' were ready, the ten guests of honour (whose poems would be read) came in, followed by a group of people who would turn out to be the poetry readers. When everybody was finally seated, the large shoji doors through which we had entered were slid silently shut from the outside.

At the front of the room, two armchairs for the Emperor and Empress stood empty, as did the chairs ranged near them, for the rest of the Imperial family.

Silence. Nobody coughed, nobody moved, nobody did anything. At least a full minute passed.

An attendant then rose from his seat, moved slowly to a large closed double door at one side of the room, and knocked ... once ... twice. He then returned to his seat. The signal had been sent. We were ready ...


(continued in Part Two)

Posted by Dave Bull at 1:08 PM | Comments (0)