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'Hyakunin Issho'
Newsletter for fans of David Bull's printmaking activities
Issue #23 - Spring 1996
Contents of this Issue:


Perhaps those of you living in places like the Tohoku area or Hokkaido will find this a bit hard to believe, but as I sit here in the middle of February writing this issue of the newsletter, the first snow of this winter is starting to fall outside. In each of the nearly ten winters that I have been living here in Hamura, we have always had some snow; certainly not much compared to the 'yuki guni' sections of Japan, but enough to make it feel like a real winter. This winter though, there has been absolutely nothing, not a single flake. Until today, that is ...

David's workbench ...And if you have been a careful reader of this newsletter during the past few years, you know what I think of when I see snow falling outside! Yes, it's time to get out my woodblock prints ... not for carving or printing, but for looking! Because I too am a collector of this Hyaku-nin Isshu series. I don't have to pay much for my prints (or am I actually paying a lot?), but I still enjoy looking at them as much as anybody. How I sometimes envy Yamaguchi-san the papermaker, living in the mountains of Fukui-ken; he can enjoy seeing prints in beautiful soft 'snowy' light every day during these months!

But I suppose I shouldn't be telling you about snow ... By the time this newsletter gets to you, you'll be enjoying the plum blossoms (or if I'm really slow with the writing and preparation ... it'll be cherries!) Well, whatever it is that you see out your window these days, I hope you're able to take some time now and then to enjoy your prints ...

Are you bored with all this yet? Not me!

From Halifax to Hamura

As the end of my final year of high school approached, it became time to think about what was to come next. Although I have no clear memory now of my thinking at the time, it seems to me that there really was no decision to be made - simply I would move on to university. Unlike the university entrance procedures familiar to most Japanese readers of this newsletter, getting into a Canadian university (in my time, anyway) was very simple - one presented a high school transcript, filled in the application form, and paid the very reasonable fees. There were no entrance exams of any kind. Even very mediocre high school students such as myself were welcomed.

There is a common comparison made between Japanese universities and most North American ones: in Japan it is very difficult to get in, but easy to graduate. In North America it is very easy to get in, but much more difficult to graduate. And so it was to prove with me. Easy in ... Easy out ...

The local state-run university had quite an elaborate classical music program, and I found myself enrolled in a long list of classes: Music Theory, Music History, Ensemble, Flute Study, Piano Study, and a pair of required 'non-music' classes, English and History of Art. That doesn't seem like such a bad program, does it? I'm sure it was designed to give budding musicians a well-rounded background ... but unfortunately I wasn't mature enough to see it that way. I wanted to play flute! I didn't want to study theory, or history; didn't want to play piano; and certainly couldn't see 'wasting' any time on English or art. English? Art? Good grief, I wanted to play flute!

MusicAnd play flute I did, every minute that I wasn't sitting in a classroom listening to all that 'boring' stuff. The university wasn't really very far from our home, but as there was no public transportation available, I lived on campus in a student residence. Playing flute in my room obviously wasn't possible, but I explored in the basement, found an unused storage space, and used that as a practice room. Day and night ...

The professional symphony orchestra in Vancouver had a program at that time that made tickets available to students for next to nothing, and a friend and I obtained season tickets. Before each concert, we raided the university library for the conductor scores to the pieces that were to be performed, and took these with us to the concert hall. We avidly scanned the score as each piece was played, straining to see the tiny notes in the light from a tiny pocket flashlight. Having a season ticket meant of course that we were in the same seat for every concert, and I wish I could now apologize to the man whose seat was just in front of ours ... How many times during every concert he had to turn around and 'shhhhhh' us! But we certainly learned a lot of music ...

Unfortunately, I can't say the same for the standard curriculum. My personal study time was organized quite sensibly (in my eyes!): time spent on flute practice - 100%. Time on everything else - 0%. And when the final exams came around in the spring, the results were quite predictable ...

My worst results came of course in those two 'extra' subjects, English and art, and twenty seven years later I have to laugh and laugh. Here I am now, making a living by producing a woodblock print every month, and accompanying it with essays, newsletters, and newspaper columns! English ... and Art! What do you think I'd be doing now if I had actually studied back then?!?

Exhibition Wrap-up

Every year at this time, whenever I bump into friends, they inevitably ask me the same question, "How did it go?", referring of course to the recently finished exhibitions. Usually, I have no trouble responding; three years ago I simply shook my head silently ... then for the next two years I beamed broadly, and said "Fantastic!". This year though, I'm not sure how to answer. Media attention was fairly 'quiet', as I had been expecting; from their point of view, my exhibitions are the 'same news' repeated every year. But even though there were no large scale newspaper stories, there was a scattering of nice notifications and reviews, and attendance was good both in Tokyo and Osaka.

It was the 'business' side that was quite puzzling to me this year. In this aspect, every one of my previous exhibitions has been identical; out of each hundred people who visit, three of them have been interested enough to place an order for the coming year's print set. There were only about ninety visitors to my first exhibition, seven years ago, and three of them asked me to send prints. This pattern persisted over the years - when attendance was low, orders were low, when attendance was high, orders were high. Last year, out of an attendance of about 800, just about two dozen new collectors placed orders. A very steady three percent. This time though, the pattern has suddenly changed - with an attendance only slightly lower than last year, five new collectors placed orders.

Now please notice that I didn't say 'only' five new collectors. I don't want to leave the impression that I sit there in the gallery eagerly eying each person who walks in the door ... "Will this person place an order ...?" Although it is of course very gratifying when someone does decide to collect my prints and support my project, I am quite content to simply show my work there in the gallery, and hear the reactions of the viewers. I am not making this set of one hundred prints for business reasons. I am making it because I am crazy ... I am not the slightest bit interested in being a 'salesman', and on those occasions that other galleries or shops have asked me to supply them with prints for them to sell, I have turned them down each time. There would be no pleasure for me in such work, sending my prints out to be sold like wallpaper ...

I think that there are two possible explanations for this lower number of new collectors; perhaps the generally weak condition of the economy is to 'blame', or perhaps I have pretty much 'filled my niche', and have now found nearly all the people who are as crazy as myself ... crazy enough to pay money for these little coloured pieces of paper ... If that is the case, then my rough estimate made seven years ago that I would indeed be able to seek out enough such people, enough to support myself and my family while this work was being completed, may have been not far off the mark. With three more exhibitions left, it looks like by the time the last one rolls around, there may finally be 'Hyaku-nin Issho' ... a hundred people together ... A hundred crazy people together.

So I'm not complaining at all. To those people who simply came and enjoyed the exhibition ... thank you very much. I had a very enjoyable time showing Shunsho's interesting series to you, and your kind comments go a long way to help me 'gambare' through this project. And to those of you who left an order form ... thank you very much. (And my landlord thanks you ... The local supermarket thanks you ... My supporting craftsmen thank you ... Many, many people thank you!) I will try and make the best possible prints that I can for you this year. I hope you won't be disappointed.

Essay Corner

'Exotic' Shinjuku

A while ago, I took a trip to downtown Tokyo for some reason or other, and on the way home I happened to come through Shinjuku Station, which, for those of you who don't know much about this city, is one of Tokyo's largest 'hub' stations, serving the western suburbs of the metropolis. Literally millions of people pass through it every day.

The train I boarded was carrying the usual mix of passengers, with salarymen, shoppers, and students making up the bulk of the 'cargo', and as usual for a Tokyo train, it was a fairly cheerless scene. You don't generally see many smiles on Tokyo trains, even when it isn't very crowded. Although students on board might be chatting together gaily, nearly everybody else just sits there staring at nothing in particular, probably thinking about nothing in particular, just trying to pass the time until the train arrives at their destination. I don't exclude myself from this description. Sometimes I might remember to take a book along when I go downtown, but if I haven't been so thoughtful, I too just sit there with a blank stare on my face.

This time though, I was neither reading nor 'dozing', but instead was looking around me and remembering ... remembering back to the time ten years ago when I still lived in Canada, but was busy preparing for my trip to Japan. For use in my planning, I had obtained from somewhere an English map of Tokyo, just a simple cheap tourist map that didn't show much more than the basic outlines of the city. I spent uncountable hours poring over that map trying to fathom the 'reality' that lay behind the names I read on it ... Ueno ... Ochanomizu ... Roppongi ... Shibuya ... What were these places like? Where would I end up living? (I had no way of knowing it at the time, but the place in which I would eventually settle, Hamura City, even though it is legally part of Tokyo, is so far from the centre of town that it would not have shown up even if my map had covered an area three times as wide as it did ...)

To try and 'fill in the blanks' in my knowledge of Tokyo, I read many books about Japan, and eagerly absorbed what they had to say, referring constantly to the map, and gradually building up a picture in my mind of what these exotic places were like. Akihabara ... Kanda ... Aoyama ... and yes, of course Shinjuku!

Some of the books I read were quite old-fashioned, but I tried to take this into account while creating my mental images of Tokyo. I certainly didn't expect to see things like rickshaws in the Ginza, or elegant 'ladies of the night' parading through the Yoshiwara. I knew those images from the books were gone forever ... But just what would I see? To a dreamer from thousands of miles away, the real city that must be 'hidden' behind the names on that map seemed like an exotic place indeed.

And now here I was, actually riding my train through Shinjuku itself, a trip I have made probably hundreds of times in that ten years since those days in that far-off country, studying that worn map. Perhaps you are thinking you can guess what I am going to say next ... that I am going to 'confess' that Shinjuku turned out to be not exotic at all, but just another urban jumble of concrete, crowds, and noise. That rather than being mysterious, Japan was 'just another place', full of Macdonald's restaurants and modern office buildings, pretty much just the same as the place from which I had come. That the reality of living in a foreign country could not approach the magic of the dream ... Are you expecting me to say these things?

Well if so, then I must apologize, for I have to disappoint you. Because the overwhelming feeling I had as I was passing through Shinjuku station for the umpteenth time the other day, was not how mundane it was, but how ... how exotic it was!

You see, even after nearly ten years of living here in Japan, after passing through Shinjuku more times than I could possibly count, even after so many days spent here, now nearly a quarter of my life, I still haven't been able to get over the feeling that I am living somewhere 'special', somewhere very, very special. My friend Terry can't understand what I see here in Japan. His overwhelming impression of this country, after three years of living here, is that urban jumble of concrete, crowds, and noise that I mentioned. He has had enough of it, and very soon now, he will be heading back to Canada, where I hope he will find the peaceful and restful living environment he is seeking.

Westerners who come to stay here in Japan for any kind of extended period do seem to fall into one of two types: those who hate it, and those who love it. Terry can only see the concrete Japan ... I can't see the concrete Japan.

What do I see, then? What on earth can somebody find 'special' about a place like Shinjuku? Well, I guess I can start to make a list, but will you understand what I am saying ...?

Hearing the bells that signify that the train doors are about to close, I run up the last few steps toward the platform. Too late. The doors close, and the 'pea-green' train pulls away. But it's no problem, because two minutes later, the next one pulls in to pick me up. It's comfortable, clean, and on time.

Strolling around the food floor in the basement of a large department store, I stop to look at a booth selling 'gyoza', small oriental-style dumplings. It's no larger than 3 meters on a side, and in that space are stoves, refrigerators, display counters, etc., and seven men, working elbow to elbow, moving as fast as I have ever seen people move, snatching up small rounds of pastry, stuffing them with the filling, and pinching them into shape. The impression is that of seeing the inside of some kind of wonderfully crafted watch ... all the parts of this 'machine' fit together so well ... One of them, who obviously thinks he's pretty hot stuff (he is!), looks up and grins at me watching in awe ...

Browsing through the stacks in a cart outside a bookshop, I find a treasure - a book I read decades ago as a teenager about a canoeing trip through Canada's northland ... Here it is again, on a sidewalk in Tokyo, bringing back a flood of memories ...

A friend visiting from overseas has a somewhat unusual request ... he needs information about bassoons ... No problem. One phone call to a local friend for advice, and then, off to Shinjuku, where we drop in at a ... bassoon shop.

Spending the day in Tokyo, Sadako and I find ourselves in this area at lunch time. We window-shop among the restaurants. What shall we eat? Sushi? Tonkatsu? French? Udon? Ramen? Italian? Sandwiches? We eat at 'Healthmagic', where I have a bun filled with 'okara', which she tells me is something left over after making tofu ...

Is there a pattern to this? I don't think so. All these examples are irrelevant one-by-one, but taken together into a large whole ... I guess it's just that Shinjuku (or rather, Tokyo) (no, rather Japan) is just the kind of place where anything and everything can be seen or found. But of course, by 'anything and everything', I simply mean things that I didn't see and couldn't find back in my Canadian home. When you come down to it, 'exotic' simply means 'different'. For me, living in Japan is an endless exotic adventure. Even after all these years, I still get that feeling almost every time I step out of my door. I'm living in Wonderland.

But there is another important part to this ...

The lady walks along a back street behind one of Shinjuku's largest department stores. A small poster catches her eye. She stops to inspect it and then enters the building, taking the elevator up to the third floor. An exhibition of woodblock prints in a 200-year old style, depicting 1200-year old poets. Carved and printed by the man she sees standing there in the gallery, a scraggly-bearded Englishman ... She had heard about this guy somewhere on TV or in the papers, and always wanted to see what his stuff looked like ...

You see, I'm not just an observer of all these things, I too am part of it. Terry, who was unable to find a way to participate in life here on terms that he could live with, will soon be living in Canada again. But David, either through dumb luck, good planning, or some combination of those, has found a way to join in.

In some ways, it has been easy for him. He is a bit selfish, taking what he wants from this society (the grin of the gyoza maker), and ignoring what he does not wish to see (I can't think of any examples just at the moment ...). But he thinks that he is making a worthwhile contribution here, and that on balance, he gives as much to this society as he takes from it ... And what a treat, to be living in Wonderland ...

I didn't see it while passing through Shinjuku the other day, but have seen it any number of times before - a young Japanese girl or boy sitting on the train, oblivious to everything around them, head bent over a pamphlet filled with coloured photographs. A pamphlet published by some travel company ... 'Visit exotic Canada!'

I smile at them, and wish them a very very pleasant journey. I truly hope they can find what they are looking for ...


When last I sat down at this Mac computer to do a newsletter, back in December, I was just coming to the end of the year's work, and was very much looking forward to the 'change of pace' provided by the upcoming 'exhibition' season. It's not that I wasn't enjoying my solitary carving and printing work, but after ten or eleven months of it, I was ready for something different. And of course now, in the middle of February, I've had enough of that, and am ready to get back to some peaceful carving and printing!

I'm still of two minds as to whether or not my decision to wear so many hats has been a good one. If I were only a carver, I think I could possibly be a very good carver ... If only a printer, a very good printer ... If only a writer ... if only a publisher/businessman ... if only a housemaker ...

But it's no good worrying about that sort of thing at this point. I'll just press on with all these activities, doing the best I can with each. And of course, being involved with so many things keeps any of them from getting 'stale'. If I really were only a 'such-and-such' ... wouldn't life be boring? I'll never know!