My Shodo (calligraphy) class was held by two gracious ladies in Kimono. It is great fun even if you have never picked up a brush before. I made some progress during the class, and, encouraged by this, was determined to find my own Sumi-e ink stone and brushes. A visit was organised to a most wonderful small art supply shop, Saiundo, “Painted cloud”, a family run Business since 1863. This tiny shop is a mecca for artists from all over the world. They sell hand-made watercolours, powdered pigments, brushes of all descriptions, Hanko seals and a variety of red pastes to stamp your art with. I absolutely loved this little shop.
Another favourite shop is Morita Wagami, specialising in Washi, Japanese hand-made paper.
The great thing about the classes, is that you meet local people, learn something, and create something to take home.
It is the same with the gold-leafing class. After learning the basics of how it is done you are given a choice of objects to decorate and are then guided through the whole process. The next day I met a true master of this art, Noguchi-san, a fifth-generation gold leaf artist. I visited him in his home, an old Meiji-era town house. I was given tea by him and his wife, surrounded by stunning works by him and his son, whilst looking onto their beautiful stone and water garden. I was then very privileged to go upstairs into his studio and be shown his own techniques. A genial man, he is quite the alchemist. As a gold-leaf specialist he was flown to New York to speak at the Gustav Klimt exhibition.
I made a day trip out of town with my guide and driver to visit Himeji Castle (white heron castle-called this because of its colour). It is Japan’s finest feudal castle and a Unesco site. It is impressive in its imposing size on a hilltop, its engineering and its elegant white appearance with its multiple curved roof layers. From there to the Arima Onsen hot spring spa town, which has been attracting the Japanese for over 1000 years to the healing “gold” and “silver” waters.
Nights in Kyoto were spent around the Pontocho river area. The tiny narrow lanes are packed with bars and eateries, there is a great energy there and it makes for a fun night out. Close by is Gion, where Geisha and Maiko privately entertain their clients. They only appear between appointments as they quickly rush from one restaurant to another. They do not stop for photos and it is in these moments when the entertainment begins for the public.
Surrounded by other tourists, brazenly, without consent, I pursue the little scuttling white-faced apparitions in beautiful silk kimono. Pangs of guilt are pushed aside as a fever of shutter clicks capture these living exhibits. You are compelled by a paparazzi-like fascination until sanity prevails and the camera is put away. As you leave the tourist area, normal courtesies resume and just as if to find yourself tested, another Geisha waits to cross with you at the intersection. You do not reach for the camera, a part of you is human after all.
I loved my visit to Japan. It was totally artistically inspiring for me. I felt very safe and the people are very friendly and polite. Everywhere is incredibly clean. And thanks to my wonderful guides: my very fit marathon-running Maru-san and stylish Saori I was able see all and be navigated through the nuances of etiquette of this ancient and modern culture.
The iconic feature to see in Japan is Mount Fuji- and I missed it! But, you must always have a reason to return, and along with the cherry blossoms, the autumn colours, the Kyoto ancient costume pageant “Festival of the Ages” and many more places to see, this is it.
I used many guidebooks, but particularly liked books on Kyoto by Diana Durston. I recommend “ Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden and “The Printmaker’s Daughter” by Katherine Govier. ( a novel about the mystical daughter of Hokusai named Oei, who may have done some of his work).