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'Hyakunin Issho'
Newsletter for fans of David Bull's printmaking activities
Issue #81 - Autumn 2010
Contents of this Issue:

The previous issue of this newsletter marked 20 full years of publication, and this issue too we have a major milestone to observe, although this one is a bit more substantial!

I have prepared this newsletter so that it can be mailed in time to arrive in mailboxes (within Japan at least) by November 1st. What is so special about that particular day? The image on the right should be a good hint but read the 'Milestone' story to find out!

But before that, to kick off this issue we have a 'Visit to a Craftsman' story. I used to include this kind of feature a couple of times a year, but in recent years have carelessly let the series lapse. I can't promise that we'll have one every time, but anyway, let's reboot it and see what happens.

In a way, our third story overlaps that same theme. We aren't going to visit a living craftsman, but in the 'Around the Block' story we'll hear about a craftsman's 'legacy', as it were.

We'll wrap things up as usual with a little piece from Sadako. I hope you enjoy this issue!

Visit to a Craftsman

If you were to ask any woodblock printer what he considers to be the most important thing in his working life, his answer will always be the same, "My barens!" In exactly the same way that a violin is the tool with which a musician can transform ideas into sound, the baren is the medium through which a printer's conceptions are made reality. And just as the music produced by a cheap violin will differ from that produced by a Stradivarius, so will the print created with a professional baren be far more pleasing than one made by a lesser grade of tool.

Although we in the print-making world have no 'Stradivarius' among our ranks - because our craftsmen have always worked anonymously - we do of course recognize quality in our tools. A printer will have his baren in hand for the entire working day, and any defects or inconsistencies soon become unbearable. The baren is one thing on which we will not - can not - compromise.

Now when writing about a basically old-fashioned craft like ours, it is very common for the story to be one of complaint about how 'things were better in the good old days'. But I have the great pleasure to report that when it comes to obtaining a good baren, this is not the case. The technique of making a true hon baren is being kept alive and well by Hidehiko Goto, working in a tiny workshop in his home in Oiso, Kanagawa, absolutely jammed with tools and supplies. I went to see him last week ...

Now this story isn't the place for a tutorial on how to make a baren, but a little two-paragraph 'recipe' should serve to give you some idea of what his work entails:

Start with a round disc of wood a few centimeters thick to act as a base, and lightly glue a very thin disc of Japanese paper - very thin - over it. A day later glue another sheet on top, wrapping over the edge. A day later, another one. Stack them up, using sheets of varying diameter to form the required shape, one a day, for about 50 days. Over this (still very thin) stack glue a delicate silk cover, and top this with multiple coats of pure Japanese lacquer. Cut it from the wooden form and give it a final shaping, and your ategawa - the backing disc of the baren - is ready.

But it is the building of the 'working' part of the tool that takes most of the effort. Small sections of specially selected bamboo sheaths are moistened, and split into fine strands on the order of a millimeter in width. Thousands of these are woven and twisted into long strands, which are then carefully braided together to form a long 'rope'. This is sewn into a tight coil, which fits inside the previously prepared backing disc. The entire assembly is wrapped in another bamboo sheath, and is then ready for printing!

I certainly hope Goto-san isn't upset that I encapsulated his 'life' into two short paragraphs! Of course I think you can understand that the process involves a huge amount of study and practice, and it has taken many years to reach the level he has attained. He first learned about barens while training as a printer and being told to make one for his own use, as was the traditional custom. It seems that one thing led to another, and the production of the tool captured his attention, something for which I - and many other printers - are very grateful!

Now if I were a real 'reporter' writing this story about Goto-san, I would have to keep my own feelings and attitudes out of this, but I'm not, so I am free to report that it was a real pleasure to be sitting in his workshop and looking around in admiration of how well things are organized, and of how carefully he approaches each and every step of the long and complex process of making a baren. It was all I could do to keep my hands to myself; I wanted to get started on making one, using all those wonderful tools and supplies that surrounded me! I like this place!

I am very pleased to report that Goto-san shares with me a desire to document and spread around as many of the ins-and-outs of his craft as he can. This summer he published a book on the baren and its construction, which contains an incredibly detailed description of the process. This is something for which he has received some criticism from other craftsmen in the field, who would prefer that the details be kept secret. That sort of attitude may have made sense back in the days when many craftsmen were in competition with each other, but now that the world is in danger of losing these techniques completely, it is foolish.

And even during the course of my visit, we were taught the benefit of 'openness' yet once more. I showed Goto-san a photo on my website (scanned from a book published in the US in 1894) which showed a Meiji-era baren that had been sent as a gift to a museum overseas. When we looked closely, we found that the photo included an inscription that provided important information about the maker of the old tool and data on its weight. This is of huge importance to Goto-san's research, as such information has not been preserved here in Japan, and there are simply no photos of Meiji era tools extant. No doubt about it - openness and sharing is best!

Stacked in every corner of his workshop are bundles of bamboo sheaths waiting to be used in his work - for both the construction of the inner coil of the baren and for its outer covering. Obtaining a good supply of high-quality bamboo is Goto-san's biggest headache by far. The weather during the bamboo growing season is a major factor affecting the supply in any given year, but over and above that is the fact that because so few people use bamboo skins these days (whether for baren making, or the old ways of wrapping food), nobody bothers to collect them anymore, and they simply rot on the ground where they fall.

The only possible 'solution' for this dilemma is for more people to start enjoying woodblock prints. More people would them begin to make them, which would of course lead to more demand for tools, for good tools! In recent years, Goto-san has received orders for his barens from people in other countries, and there are now printmakers in such places as Germany, England, and the US happily working on prints using his beautiful tools. (He also supplies such things as extra bamboo skins for re-covering these barens, and other printing supplies.)

So his old tradition is now going global, bit by bit, something that of course should please us all. And perhaps one day when he and I can get the time for it, we'll produce an English version of his comprehensive book. It won't ever be a best-seller, but with its gold-mine of irreplaceable information, it will almost certainly be a long seller!

Goto-san, thank you for your dedication to this craft, and forward to the future!


On the front page of this newsletter, I mentioned that November 1st is a special day for me, and it's time to explain!

Sometime around 9:00 that morning, my bank is taking an automatic transfer of funds from my account - the final transfer in a series that began exactly ten years ago. Yes, I have come to the end of my mortgage, and this Ome house has now become completely paid for. Free at last!

Now to those of you who have always lived in inherited family property, this is perhaps nothing special, but in my case, coming up with the 'rent money' (later the 'mortgage money') has been something that has faced me each and every month since leaving my parents' home around forty years ago, with no respite.

As you may well guess, it is a wonderful feeling both to be free of the monthly financial burden, and to feel that I am now 'king of the castle' here.

I am under no illusions that I now have a free ride - of course this place needs plenty of maintenance, something I have very much neglected during my time here. The outer staircases are very rusty and in need of an extensive paint job, the gutters have been damaged by the wisteria that I have allowed to climb onto the roof, and the seams in the outer siding all need recaulking and painting. But now that the large monthly expense is behind me, I will take a portion of that monthly amount and use it for jobs like this. (The local house painter is going to be happy soon!)

Now I am sure that the first reaction of most of my readers will be to offer congratulations. (Thank you!) But because this newsletter goes to collectors both here in Japan and overseas, I should offer a little bit more background on just what it means to be the owner of this place.

Let me start by comparing it with my parents' home - a nice one-bedroom apartment in a relatively modern building in Vancouver Canada. (Japanese readers may have visited Vancouver and been to Stanley Park? Their apartment is a short walk from there.) Now I have no idea what that apartment is 'worth' right now, as that figure goes up and down as the market changes, but what is not in doubt is that they own a very 'liquid' asset. If they should choose to sell it and go live on a boat (umm, that's a family 'in' joke ...), they would have absolutely no trouble in doing so. Many people would like to live in that apartment, and it would sell easily, for a price commensurate with its current market value.

But as my overseas readers may be somewhat surprised to hear, things in Japan don't work that way. My home was built in 1995 and went on the market - along with other homes in the same group - at 36 million yen. Just a few months ago, a house just down the street from me was sold (when the elderly owner passed away) for 3 million yen. Now as it happens, property values across Japan have indeed been on a downward slide for the past couple of decades, but that's not the main reason for this dramatic difference.

The westerner is very familiar with what happens when you buy a new car - the very minute you drive it off the dealer's lot it plummets in value, and from that point on continues to depreciate day by day. This is how typical housing works here in Japan. Houses depreciate; they never appreciate. A house of the type that I own has an expected lifespan of 30 years, and given that mine is now 15 years old, nobody would consider buying it, unless at a fire sale price. This is what happened with the building down the street. It was purchased by a real estate broker, who had the lot bulldozed down to the dirt, on which he then erected a new home, which he sold for about 24 million (about the going rate around here nowadays), to somebody who would be starting the cycle all over again, with a long mortgage.

So given this background, my western friends must be asking, "Why on earth would you have bought that place, knowing that it would become nearly worthless?"

Well, there are a number of reasons. First is that because I myself bought it at a heavy discount (18 million yen - 1/2 the original price), the monthly payments weren't much more than my rent had been. Second is that the amount of space was vastly increased over my previous rented apartment. And then of course, to have room for a workshop, to have the greenery around, the river nearby ... all these things made the place very attractive, over and above any question of financial values.

But where do things go from here? There are a few 'possible futures':

1) If something were to happen to me, and my daughters wanted to sell up quickly, they would walk away with nothing more than a few million yen (the same situation we saw in the example I just gave).

2) If I myself decided to move on, selling this place, I could perhaps get back a pretty good chunk of what I paid, but only if I sold soon (remember, that 30 year 'clock' is ticking!), and also managed to find somebody 'crazy' (like me), who could be seduced by the idea of living by the river in this 'interesting' building. But I would have to work hard - promote it with photographs of the kingfisher and the morning fox, find somebody who liked hiking in the nearby forest, etc. etc. And of course it would only be possible if I were to be making the sale during the clement spring or autumn months, before the big 'freeze' arrived in November ...

3) Don't worry about the 'value'. Just continue to live here, and use the place for living and working. As time goes by, and the structure really does begin to fall apart around me, the cost of using it will inevitably rise, but I'm fairly handy, so I expect to be able to keep it basically liveable, at least for the next decade or so. Past that, I can't predict ...

Well of course, option #3 is the only one on the table at present. I'm content here, happy with my work, and now that the financial pressures are reduced quite a bit (mortgage payments ate up around 1/4 of my gross income last year!), I hope to be able to start setting money aside for those pending maintenance jobs. Believe me, the 'value' of this asset is of far less interest to me at the moment than the fact that I no longer have to check my bank account every morning during the last few days of the month, hoping to see that enough payments have come in from collectors to cover the approaching loan payment! Finally, I hope to be able to get ahead of the bills ...

So yes, I hear your congratulations, and of course I must give my thanks to all the people who have purchased prints from me over this past decade. I feel a great deal of satisfaction to have been able to have bought my own home through the power of my baren, something that I feel very few people have ever been able to do. But when I think about the work that has been involved ... every colour of every sheet ... one by one by one ... it seems incredible that those pieces of paper have been transformed into ... my home! That's quite a feat of origami!

Thank you!

Around the Block

Although I moved to Japan in 1986 - around 24 years ago - that was not the first time I had been here. On two previous occasions I had come over for a visit, for a couple of months each time. I was working for a music company in Canada in those days, but was gradually developing an interest in Japan, and in Japanese printmaking. Those two early trips had been mostly for getting introduced to Japan, so my then-wife and I travelled around quite a bit, and of course spent a lot of time down in the countryside where her family lived.

But I did manage to squeeze in a bit of 'research' on printmaking. I haunted used book shops for anything on the topic, and during the first visit, picked up some student grade tools from an art supply shop. I was also the recipient of a couple of interesting gifts; we visited two print publishers to purchase some of their work, and both of them - after hearing of my plans to work on traditional printmaking - let me have a couple of small woodblocks (blank blocks) from their stock. Once back in Canada I used these for practice and training, thus discovering for myself just how important it was to have the proper wood. So when I came on the second visit, a major item on my 'to do' list was to order some blank blocks to send back to Canada.

One of those publishers had given me the contact information for Ita Kane, the last remaining block supplier in Tokyo, run by the Shimano family, and I visited them one day to talk about wood.

Now when you are buying wood for traditional printmaking, you usually have a specific project in mind, and order blocks to suit. Some will need to be hard and dense - for the key lines in the image, or such things as fine hair carving - and others should be softer and without pronounced grain - these are to print smooth and flat colour. Back in those days, I was certainly not very good at this craft, but I wasn't just hacking around at random. When I look at the prints that I made before coming to Japan, I see experiments of different types: prints in black and white, prints in colour; prints with outlines, prints with none; reproductions of old ukiyo-e, and (clumsy) originals. I had no idea where this was all going, but bit by bit I was building my skills, in a kind of scattershot fashion.

By the time of this visit to the woodshop, I was trying to look forward and think about the possibility of producing a series of prints that could be sold. I knew my skills weren't at that level yet, but if you don't look ahead to where you want to be at some point, you'll never get there, so I planned a project. It occurred to me to create a project to reproduce some of the early-day ukiyo-e, and I settled on a famous series of 12 designs by Hishikawa Moronobu, entitled Yoshiwara no Tei, which depicted scenes from the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter. (I should perhaps mention that these are 'genre' scenes, nothing erotic or possibly embarrassing at all.)

So one day during that second visit to Japan (this was in January 1984) I placed an order with the Shimano family for a set of six blank cherry blocks of the appropriate size, asking them to supply their 'best' wood. I ordered a few other blocks too, and arranged for them all to be shipped by sea parcel back to Canada. My Japanese was in those days rudimentary at best, so I have no real memory of our 'conversations', nor do I have any understanding of what they thought of all these plans. But they did the job, and the wood was eventually received in Canada.

I didn't touch it.

The blocks were magnificent. The wood, planed by the older master of the shop, had such a mirror finish that - and yes, I tried this! - two pieces placed face to face could not be separated again, and had to be slid apart sideways. I could not bring myself to cut them. I knew that my skills were still rudimentary, and felt that it would be a crime to spoil these blocks. I kept them carefully wrapped up, to wait for the day when I would be 'ready'.

A couple of years later, I quit the job in the music shop, and brought my young family to Japan, where we found an apartment in Hamura, on the west outskirts of Tokyo. We came with only such clothes as we could carry in a backpack (and one favourite toy each for the girls!), and left all our other possessions in storage in Vancouver, including those blocks.

I began teaching English to feed us, while slowly working on the printmaking skills on the side. I ordered new blocks as they were required, and after I managed to get the printmaking career up and running, with the start of the long poetry series, I became a regular customer of the Shimano family, getting fresh blocks from them every month.

The years went by. I became divorced from the children's mother, and then a few years after that, the two girls returned to Canada for their schooling. The printmaking work continued, month after month, year after year. One summer, I was back in Canada visiting my daughters, and while there, cleaned out the old storage locker and arranged for the contents to be shipped over to Japan. Fifteen years after their original journey overseas, the set of six beautiful blocks returned 'home'.

I still didn't touch them.

Now and again, I would open the box and take out the topmost piece of wood. I would turn it over in my hands, marvelling yet again at its beautiful smoothness, and thinking about using it ... But each time, I came to the same conclusion. Not yet. I'm not ready yet.

When I purchased my new home in Ome, the blocks of course came here with me, and I made sure they were stored in a room with good air circulation, where they would remain safe from mold and damp. In 2004, when I was planning the 'Beauties of Four Seasons' series, which was going to need very high quality wood, I again looked at them, but again came to the same conclusion. Not yet. I ordered fresh blocks for that project, even though by this time, the quality of wood available was far lower than it had been when I first began buying blocks. This fact of course made the 'value' of these blocks even higher. They were now not just 'very good' blocks, they had become literally irreplaceable.

I think by now you can guess where this story is going.

Yes, 26 years after they were prepared for me, the blocks are still here. Still untouched. And now, I am terrified of them.

I can safely say without it being braggadocio, that I have reached a level where I am one of the finest traditional wood-cutters working. Nobody knows who is 'the best', and that is a bit meaningless anyway. But my point is that if there is anybody on this planet who has earned the right to cut these blocks, and who has the skills to do so without spoiling them, it is I.

But I can't bring myself to do it. As good as I am at this work, when I sit quietly and study the best carving of the old days, I can't help but hear one of those old craftsmen saying to me, "You're a promising talent! Keep at it, and maybe one day you'll be ready for wood like this ..."

But next year I'll be 60. Sixty! What does it mean to say 'keep at it' or 'one day' to a sixty-year-old woodcutter, especially one whose eyesight is - let's be polite - not what it used to be?

I'm having a good run through life, and at many stages along the way, I have not been afraid to 'seize the moment' and make decisions that have had far-reaching consequences. I'm not an indecisive person. But on this one I am paralyzed.

What the hell should I do with these things?

Sadako's Corner

Suppose you come across a fly or (um, hypothetically) a cockroach in your room! What do you do? My solution to this problem is a "deadly blow" technique that I acquired a few years ago.

It came about when I visited a couple living in New Zealand. There were many flies in their dining room, and although as a guest I felt I shouldn't say anything, I eventually became annoyed enough to mention it to my host. She looked at the wide open door to the balcony and sighed, "Yes, they just keep coming in from outdoors." A very pleasant early summer breeze drifted through the door.

I thought "Well, if she isn't going to do anything about this ..." and grabbed an old newspaper, rolled it into a cylindrical shape, and went after a fly on the window. It fell stunned to the sill, where I picked it up with some tissue and threw it into the garbage. After this taste of success I kept after them, one after the other. Even though they were sometimes not killed outright, it was still easy to get rid of them. Just how hard to hit is a knack – not too strong but not too weak – in order to cause enough damage so that they are unable to fly.

This same 'technique' works with cockroaches. It is almost impossible to be perfectly free from roaches in Japan in summer, so I put small balls made of boric acid here and there around the house. Roaches that have nibbled these are weakened, and have lost their normal speedy reflexes. Mumbling "Not too strong, not too weak, just enough to stun it," I put my full concentration into my newspaper attack. My success rate is certainly higher than 90 percent!

Although I can write about this now, I certainly wasn't such a brave person before. I would simply scream loudly for help when I happened to encounter an unwelcome insect, and if it was a cockroach I would have goose bumps all over and my hands would shake. What changed was my situation – I had nobody to help me. I gave up trying to escape from the situations and coped with the enemy myself, chasing it madly as though I had my back to the wall.

I am enthusiastic about instructing my daughters in these skills but it seems that people just aren't willing to become aggressive enough until they are forced to. My younger daughter stayed here with me for a while after having her first child. During this time, when she encountered a crawling roach, she screamed a couple of times looking for my help. I – the Riot Squad Unit – executed my task and showed her how to deal with it. In spite of my enthusiasm though my daughter showed no inclination to learn from me. I then asked her what she is doing at her home. Well, it sounds like not much ...

Traditions can be passed on only when there are people ready to receive them; I wonder what will happen to the skills that David has developed?