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'Hyakunin Issho'
Newsletter for fans of David Bull's printmaking activities
Issue #37 - Autumn 1999
Contents of this Issue:


Even though about 18 years have passed since I first came to Japan, I'm still surprised by one aspect of my life and work here - the way that Japanese people find it unusual that a foreigner is working in a traditional Japanese craft. To my mind, there is nothing unusual or 'special' about my work at all; if a young Japanese student went to Paris to study French art, nobody there would think anything of it. The French feel they have a wonderful artistic tradition, so of course other people come to study it. Why people in this country don't feel the same way is a bit of a mystery to me. The years of isolation for Japan ended such a long time ago, and so many foreigners have come to study here. Surely by now it should be commonplace ...

But the fascination is still there. One of my friends, the photographer Mr. Kazuhiro Inoue, even specializes in taking pictures and writing stories for Japanese newspapers and magazines about foreigners he knows who live here working in traditional fields. Last year he published a book profiling 21 of us - woodblock printmakers, blacksmiths, musicians, dancers, cooks ... It's called 'The Foreigners Who Inherit Japan' and is published by Chuo Koron Sha.

What do you think about us foreigners who are 'taking' this inheritance from the Japanese? If you're one of the people who finds our activities interesting, you might find Inoue-san's book worthwhile ...

From Halifax to Hamura

As I have described in these pages a number of times, whenever I start to learn something new, I approached it in quite an analytical fashion - trying to understand 'how does this thing work?'. Looking back now, I can see that this approach, suitable as it may have been for some of the things I undertook, was doomed to failure for others. And my attempts to play saxophone were certainly in this latter group!

I bought books containing analyses of famous players' solos; I bought 'Jazz Improvisation Made Easy' records; I bought everything I could lay my hands on ... And when it was 'practice time', I got out my music stand, opened up one of the books, and played along with the music written there. When my father reads these words, I'm not sure whether he will simply shake his head in disgust, or laugh out loud at this foolishness ... the idea that one can learn to play jazz saxophone with one's eyes! The way to learn to play jazz is to listen to good players - copy their playing - listen some more - copy some more - listen some more ... and gradually develop your own style of playing. But my main tools were pencil and paper ...

Some of the things I did though, were useful ... I was an admirer of a very fine local sax player, Mr. Fraser McPherson, and as part of my self-education I transcribed in great detail all the solos from one of his record albums. When this longish book was finished, many local sax players wanted to use it, and with Fraser's permission I reproduced and sold quite a few copies. This kind of activity was good training of course, but all in all I just spent too much time analyzing, and not enough time playing.


During these couple of years that I didn't have a regular job, I was always trying to 'hunt up' the next month's rent. I was still conducting the childrens' bands, and one summer the parents' committee that ran them decided to organize a summer 'camp'. This camp (held at a local school building) offered a chance for the kids to practice during the school holidays, evening classes for their parents, and in addition, a special 'jazz group' for the older kids. And now my father is laughing - the blind leading the blind!

But actually it went pretty well, and we all had a lot of fun. The jazz group especially was a success, and we even got good enough to play some concerts in local parks. When the end of the summer came, the kids didn't want to stop, so we transformed the 'camp' band into a real jazz-rock group, continued to practice a couple of nights a week, and started looking for places to play.

A jazz-rock group certainly doesn't need a conductor though, so when the group reorganized at the end of the summer, and we found ourselves without anybody to play the bass guitar, I picked one up and 'joined' the group as a player. Being the oldest in the group, I was the nominal leader, and created most of the musical arrangements - mostly of 'Top 40' songs of the day.

I shouldn't leave the impression that we were any good! We were all pretty inexperienced at playing, most of the members were still only high school students, and the leader and bass player wasn't exactly the best type of person to lead a rock band. The noise we made must have been pretty bad - but we had a lot of fun. We never got as far as playing in nightclubs, but did do some school dances and other local jobs.

So my 'transformation' from classical flute player seemed quite complete - here I was, playing the electric bass in a rock band! How I wish I had some photographs from those days!

Essay Corner

Woodblock Dreams (part 2) ...

Did you enjoy the story about the woodblock in the last issue of this newsletter? At the end of it I said "... how it could have happened." So was it a dream? No, it was true. The events took place just as I described them in the previous issue.

* * *

When I had first visited him nearly twenty years ago, the present owner of that publishing company had been particularly friendly to me. At that time, I knew almost nothing about woodblock printmaking; I had seen a few prints and had made a couple of crude experiments of my own, but knew nothing at all of the real craft. That visit had been made with the intention of purchasing a set of prints that he had published, but it ended up being more than that. When he heard of my interest in becoming a traditional woodblock print craftsman, he neither scoffed at such an idea, nor discouraged me in any way. On the contrary, he gave me advice on where I could obtain tools and supplies, and even allowed me to take some blank woodblocks from his stock. In recent years, since my own woodblock publishing venture has been under way, he has always been ready to offer advice or information whenever I ask. It was on one such visit last year to get some advice on the preparation of the hanshita (the tracing that guides the carver), that I first learned about 'the block'.

On this visit, as always, he was open and willing to talk about his methods. He explained to me the different techniques of hanshita preparation that his company used, and pulled out many blocks and prints to illustrate his points. The conversation moved on from simple hanshita preparation to carving in general, and then at one point, in response to something I had asked, he went to a nearby shelf and returned carrying an old woodblock in his hands. It was quite a large block, and when he passed it across for my inspection I recognized the picture instantly - the well known 'Kessho no Onna' by Hashiguchi Goyo. (This company is known for the quality of their reproductions of Goyo's print designs).

And then, as my eyes focused properly and I looked closely at the block, I realized just what I was seeing - not only was this a beautifully carved block for a beautiful design, not only was this block obviously carved in a very special way, with every square inch of the exposed wood surface beautifully shaved off to a smooth surface, but this block was almost completely unused! A faint film of sumi ink was on the surface, showing that a few proof sheets had been printed from it, but each and every one of the delicate lines still had the crisp and razor sharp edges that show that it had never been used for production printing.

He explained something about the history of the block, but I heard almost nothing of what he said; I was simply too stunned by what I was seeing. Never, never could I have ever imagined that I would be able to see something like this. We all know that time machines are impossible - and what other possible way could there be to visit a carver's workshop of the past and see this kind of freshly carved block? No, what I was seeing was absolutely impossible.

And yet here it was, in my own hands. I tried desperately to drink in as much as I could - what angle he had held the knife at when carving those eyelashes, how deeply he had cut when carving that bold kimono line ... there was so much to learn from this block, and so little time!

Of course after a minute or two I had to put it back down on the table, and our discussion moved on ... When our conversation was over, a couple of hours later, and we started to clean up all the prints and blocks from the table, I asked if I could hold this block for a few more minutes. Again I tried to force into my memory as much as I could of what I was seeing. But a few minutes later, he had finished clearing away all the other materials and I reluctantly, but with many 'thank yous', returned the block to his hands and watched him slide it back into place on a high shelf. We then left for lunch together ... and with some resolution, I did not look back as we left the room ...

That evening back at home I couldn't shake away the memory of what I had seen. I toyed with the idea of asking him to let me try making a set of colour blocks to accompany this key block, so that an edition of the prints could be brought to life, but the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that this block should never be used in such a way. The world has many such prints, and many such 'used' blocks, but very few, if any, unused blocks like this one. No, it was better that it remain in its present condition, and that is perhaps what the original publisher had in mind when he stored it away on a shelf all those years ago ... a gift to the future, a unique chance for future woodblock carvers to see ... to study ... and to learn.

The next morning I sent a letter, thanking him for his friendship and the time he had spent with us, and including the following paragraphs:

"Seeing that astonishing woodblock for 'Kessho no Onna' leaves me with very mixed feelings. On the one hand it is of course a great incentive to encourage me to work hard and try to become that good, but it is also a bit depressing to see such incredible work ... and to realize that I will probably never be able to match it.

"Although it may seem impolite to ask this so soon after taking up so much of your time, I would like to make another request. I want to try to pass on to other people some of the things I felt when I saw that block, so I wish to write a story about it for an upcoming issue of my newsletter. May I visit again sometime this summer and take some close-up photographs of the block?

"Of course you can guess that I am also being selfish ... I can never own such a wonderful object myself, but if I keep some large photographs of those carved lines near to my workbench I will find them a major source of inspiration ..."

I then sat down at my word processor and wrote the small 'story' you have just read on the page previous to this one. I wanted to catch as much as I could of my feelings while they were still so vivid. And of course, I dreamed about what I had seen ...

His phone call came two days later, as I sat at the carving bench working on my current print, and what he had to say was so incredible that I couldn't believe my ears. As he spoke I strained desperately to make sure that I wasn't misunderstanding his Japanese ... for surely there must be some mistake in what I was hearing. He suggested that instead of my visiting their office to take some photographs of the block ... he would send it to me so that I could study it, inspect it, and photograph it at my leisure. He wasn't giving it to me outright, but it is a measure of this man's generous character that he was willing to let it 'live' in my room for an extended period - the one place on the face of this earth where it would find the most appreciative audience, and the one place where its 'message' would be most avidly read.

* * *

The package arrived this afternoon, about three hours ago. There were some other people here when it arrived, but since they left I have been alone with the block, and it has become very quiet. Very quiet indeed ... The block is sitting on a low table where diffused light from the windows can fall across it, and all the artificial illumination is turned off. This is the way that prints should be viewed, and it is also the best way to look at a woodblock. Now there is no rush ... no panic that I will have to let go of it in a few minutes ...

Where shall I start ...? It doesn't matter. Every line of this woodblock has much to teach me. Down here in the lower left corner the designer called for the kimono lines to be carved with quite a different feeling on the omote and the ura, the front and back of each line. I can see how Nakagawa san's wrist must have turned this way and that as his blade moved along the line. Over there in that floral pattern I can see how shallowly he left the wood when he cleared away the unneeded portion; I have obviously been trying to carve too deeply in similar situations. And of course, my eyes are inexorably drawn towards the top of the block, to the hair. And for this, there are no words available to describe to you what I see. Delicate? Thin? Hair-like? All these words are totally inadequate. I can do nothing but sit with my mouth agape ... I can learn nothing from this ...

At least not yet. But now, thanks to this block, I am no longer a mountaineer plodding blindly forward, with the slopes in front shrouded in mist. Those clouds have now been torn away, and I can see clearly where I need to go, and in which direction to climb.

On my mountain, there is no summit. Unlike a real mountaineer, I will have no single moment of success to crown my long labours. But also unlike a real mountaineer, I will not have to turn around and head back down. My journey will be forever onward ... and upward.

* * *

There isn't much more to the story. My carving skills are only very slowly developing, and when I showed my recent prints to my publisher friend at his office that day he did not praise my work, and it is right that he should not have. But although he did not say so in words, the very fact that he is allowing me to share this treasure with him, does perhaps give me a hint that he feels there is some hope for me yet. This block is indeed an inspiration for me. I hope that one day it can come to rest in a safe home in a major institution where it will be protected from the ever-present threat that someone will try to print an edition from it, for this block truly is an irreplaceable treasure. If I had any say in the matter, it would be nominated as a National Treasure, for that is surely what it is. That I am allowed to be custodian of this incredible object is the source of deep feelings of wonder and satisfaction. To this man I can only say "I have no words available to express my gratitude for your trust and friendship. Perhaps one day I can produce some prints that will make you feel that your gesture was worthwhile."

* * *

Messages from Canada ...

From Fumi - now 14 years old ... and doing Grade 9 ...

It's been three years since I moved to Canada. Lots of things have happened since I wrote the last story in this newsletter!

When I became a Grade 7 student I changed from the 'English Second Language' school to a normal Canadian school. I could have stayed at the ESL school but because my English improved, I had a choice of going to a regular school with normal kids. Although I was a bit nervous of this decision, it turned out to be a really good choice. It was really hard to make friends at first, but I had a friend from the ESL school who also came so I was okay. Luckily, I had this really wonderful teacher, Mr. Brown. Wonderful, because he did special things with us all the time. He took us on a skiing trip for three days while the other teacher took her students to a swimming pool. Mr. Brown also took us sailing. He taught us a lot about sailing before we went, so I know a lot about it now. He also took us to a baseball game. I thought that was going to be very boring because I knew nothing about it, but like the sailing trip, he taught us all about baseball before we went. So it ended up being a very enjoyable trip. Not only field trips were fun that year, we also learned lots from playing games or doing puzzles, such as Scrabble and crossword puzzles.

One more great thing happened during that year. My best friend from Japan came to Canada to live with us for a year. Can you imagine how lucky I was? It was like a sleep-over everyday! It was a dream come true! It was her idea, and also her mother thought she should have the experience of living outside of Japan. As I imagined, it was a great year; we did many things. We made a tree house in our yard, which we used a lot then, but now only my cat, Mimi uses it. We really liked gymnastics and we usually practiced on the grass in summer when it didn't rain that much, but in winter, it rained and rained so we turned the garage into a gym. That was no problem because we had no car back then, and there were only bicycles in it. We painted the whole garage pink inside, and painted our names on the door. Every evening, we went into the gym for our gymnastics practice.

After getting a video camera from Dad for Christmas, the three of us (Akina, Himi and I) made a movie. We made up the whole plot and characters. It turned out really well but it's a bit embarrassing to see it now. We were planning to make another movie but the time went so quickly that we couldn't do it. Akina is now back in Japan but that year will always be one of my favourite memories.

Finishing grade 7 and starting grade 8 was a big change. I was leaving the elementary school, and was now in a much bigger school with lots of older students. All of a sudden, I had many things to remember: my schedule, where each class was, who the teachers were, and so on. It was really hard to make friends because each class had a different group of students. In some classes, I saw somebody I knew from elementary school, but in most classes, I didn't know anyone, so I had to make new friends.

There were lots of good things too: everybody had their own locker in the hallway, I could choose my own time table, I could buy lunch at school if I wanted to and because I was in the same school as my sister Himi, I could walk to school with her.

You know from the previous newsletter story that my sister Himi is doing figure skating. Well, now I'm doing it too. I was first doing gymnastics once a week on a regular basis, but I also skated just for fun. As I got better, I started taking lessons once a week. Skating just once a week became not enough practice, so I started going three times per week. Then the money and also my schedule became a problem. I had to pick either gymnastics or skating. I wanted to do both but I knew I couldn't, so I picked skating. There were many reasons for this. Himi was doing it as well so we could go to the rink together, and we could share stories and skating experiences. Also I had learned lots of basics of gymnastics so I could practice at home in the backyard, but of course it's very hard to skate at home!

Himi and I have been entering many competitions and shows at our home rink, and so far, I have won two silver and one bronze medals. I'm looking forward to more skating fun next year!

I'm really enjoying my life in Canada. I hope you enjoyed reading about it!


From Himi - now 16 years old ... and doing Grade 11

Lots of things have changed since I wrote the little story in this newsletter just around two years ago - mostly about school and skating.

In that previous story I told you about being in the ESL section of the school (the place for people whose English wasn't so good) when I was in grade 8. When I started grade 9 I was mostly out of that section because my English was getting pretty good, so I only had two special classes, and the rest were with the normal Canadian kids. I found it easier to make friends because there were lots of foreign kids like me, who didn't fit in so well at first. My best friend was a boy who came from Denmark.

When grade 10 rolled around it was totally different. I had no special classes at all, and it was a lot of hard work. One good thing was that Fumi joined the same school (she was in grade 8), so we could go to school together every day. But just a couple of months after starting school that fall I had some trouble with my eyes. After a bunch of doctors examined me they said that I had 'Harada's Syndrome', a disease which affects your eyes. I had to start taking very high doses of a steroid medication and this had really bad side effects. Lots of fluid which I couldn't burn up started to build up on my body, around my stomach and thighs, and worst of all, around my chin and on my face.

At the beginning it was fine but as I went on taking the pills I got fatter and fatter. By the time I visited Japan last January to go to Dad's tenth exhibition I looked terrible. All the water in my body made it look as though I was overeating, but I wasn't. Back at school it was really frustrating since I was one of the cute girls in the school but now just became a fat girl who was overeating. After a few months the stress caught up with me, and I stopped going to school and switched to correspondence education. I was so happy and excited about this. I felt a bit lonely by myself at first, but knowing that I could go at my own pace made me feel good, and our two cats usually sit next to me.

I study the usual school subjects, like Math, Social Studies, Art and English, using workbooks and textbooks sent out by the school board. I can choose my own schedule, and when I finish each part I send it in to the people who mark it. Then when I finish each section I visit the school to take a test. When I first started I felt lonely, but mostly I was too busy trying to finished everything before the year ended. I am really happy and excited because I can finally do what I always wanted - skate!

My daily schedule is interesting - I go skating in the morning, then study in the afternoon, and then go back to the ice rink in the evening, around six. I told you before in the other story that I was skating, but since then I've really become interested in it. In the beginning I started lessons with about ten other kids, but I improved so quickly that the teacher recommended that I start private lessons. My first coach was Giovanni, and I learned all the single jumps with him. Later I changed to a woman coach and learned the double jumps. I started entering competitions at nearby ice rinks, and won two gold medals.

I have another coach now, and have changed to a different ice rink. Once I improve a bit I will be able to compete at the provincial competitions.

My next year in Canada will be very different from the first two, and I am looking forward to it much more!


What a year of work this is turning out to be! At the beginning of this year, I knew that I would be busy with the exhibition and getting the new Surimono Album series started up, but I thought that things would settle down a bit after few months. It hasn't turned out that way though; my 'busy season' now seems to last for the entire year!

What's keeping me so busy? Well of course the new 'surimono' type prints take a lot more of my time than the previous prints I made - I carefully redraw every line of each image before starting the carving; the number of colours is greatly increased, with most of them being between 15~20 impressions; and I print 200 copies of each one, double the number for the previous series. This all takes a lot of time ...

In addition to this, every month I have to get out some of the blocks from the 'Hyakunin Isshu' series and print more copies. That January exhibition introduced many new collectors to that series, and it's impossible to say 'no' to people who want to get the prints ...

Another activity that takes up a lot of time is public appearances - speeches and demonstrations; although I'm certainly not a very good public speaker (in Japanese that is!), these are fun to do, and I think they are important to help people understand my work. But there are just too many invitations, and I've had to make myself a 'rule' not to accept more than one each month ...

And of course the mailbox and computer email 'inbox' are full every day ...

There's an old proverb that says "When it rains, it pours" and I guess that certainly seems to be true. Now if only I could find an umbrella ...