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'Hyakunin Issho'
Newsletter for fans of David Bull's printmaking activities
Issue #40 - Summer 2000
Contents of this Issue:


Summer is nearly over ... this 'summer' issue of my newsletter is perhaps just going to squeak through in the correct season. But there is a reason for being a bit late - I have had a very activity-filled summer this year, with three major events coming along to disrupt my working schedule. You can read a little bit about them inside ...

Cover picture

But work is getting done, and new prints are coming off my workbench one by one. The Surimono Album this year is coming along very well, and I've got some wonderful prints planned for the next few months. Zeshin, Gakutei, Eisen ... names you may not know, but prints I think you will enjoy very much.

And I'd better get busy with the autumn issue of the newsletter too, or it won't reach you before Xmas!

From Halifax to Hamura

That first taste of Japanese food - okonomi-yaki - piqued my interest, and I started to look around for other Japanese restaurants in town. There was in those days in Toronto (and perhaps still is) quite a 'boom' in Japanese food, and when I consulted the telephone directory found that there were about three dozen restaurants listed in the Japanese category, ranging from hole-in-the-wall noodle shops right up to elegant hotel dining rooms. During the next few months I visited every one of them! I learned quickly about the many types and flavours of Japanese food, and after the initial burst of experimentation, settled on a few favourite places and returned to them on an almost daily basis.

This type of food suited me very well; I'm not a very heavy eater, and the relatively small portions didn't leave me hungry as they do many westerners. And my upbringing in an English household, with a non-spicy type of food, meant that the generally bland flavours of Japanese food also felt familiar.

And it wasn't just the food that I found attractive - most of these restaurants hired young Japanese women as waitresses, no doubt trying to attract customers such as myself - and that strategy certainly worked with me! One waitress in particular caught my eye, and that restaurant became my favourite. A sort time later, when she changed jobs and switched to another restaurant, I too, switched my 'allegiance'. I learned which tables were in 'her' zone, and always made sure that I sat there. It had been some years since splitting up with my previous girlfriend, and I was certainly ready for some companionship. But what came of this? I feel a bit embarrassed to tell you about it ...

I had the idea to ask her out to a show, so I picked up a pair of tickets, put them in my pocket, and went out for dinner at her restaurant, going quite late so that I would be finished just around the time she would be leaving. I didn't want to interfere with her work, so rather than speak to her about this from my table, I waited outside the restaurant - repeatedly practicing what I would say - until she came out. A short time later the door opened and there she was ... but walking together with one of the other waitresses!

I wasn't ready for this at all, panicked a bit, and walked quickly in the other direction. What an idiot I was! Twenty-seven years old, the 'manager' of a business, and still so shy that I couldn't ask a girl for a date ... The tickets went unused, and I never tried again. Some time later, she moved yet again to another restaurant, but I didn't follow, telling myself "I don't really like the yaki-niku type of food that they serve there ..." Yeah, right!

But although I was an abject failure at that part of life, the other activities moved along well. I buried myself in my work - both the normal daytime job at the office and the after-hours work with the computer. There was plenty of scope in both to keep me well occupied.

And I guess it's finally time in this (overly?) long story of 'Halifax to Hamura' to arrive at that point where we can finally see the road to Hamura becoming visible: it's time for David to meet his first Japanese print ...

More than twenty years has gone by since the day I walked along a Toronto street and decided, on a whim, to step into a gallery that was showing Japanese woodblock prints, but it is not an event that I will ever forget. It was in the trendy Yorkville section of Toronto - a very small place known as the 'Stuart Jackson Gallery'. I knew absolutely nothing about prints, and had no interest in 'art' whatsoever; I must have been on my way to one of the restaurants for dinner, and was simply attracted by the word 'Japanese' on the signboard.

I do not now remember just what prints were on exhibition; the images in the prints themselves didn't make as much of an impact on me as the objects that I saw on the wall. Mr. Jackson knew how these prints should be displayed - in a gentle raking light - and they looked absolutely spectacular. I looked at them very closely indeed - at the soft colours and rich embossings ..."How did they do that?" Now I'm not much of a 'love at first sight' person (or am I?), and it would be an exaggeration if I told you that I came out of the gallery that day determined to become a woodblock printmaker, but there is no question at all that it was in this short gallery visit that the seed was planted.

And of course, as readers of this story well know by now, for David to be interested in something meant that David simply had to try it for himself. As it turned out, that wasn't to happen for another year or so ... but you do know what the first step was - yep, over to the bookstore to see what they had to offer ...

Travel Report

As I mentioned in the previous issue of 'Hyakunin Issho' I spent some time over in Canada earlier this summer. The trip was a 'three-in-one' affair - a very short vacation (only four days) spent sightseeing in the southern part of Vancouver Island - a three day family reunion for my parents' 50th wedding anniversary - and an eight day printmaking workshop at which I was a 'printer-in-residence'. I'm not sure if stuffing so many different activities into one trip was really a good idea, but I really didn't have much choice; there was no way I could afford the time to make three separate trips for these events ...

The 'vacation' part can be summed up in one word - gardens! Sadako was with me for this part of the trip, and we used this opportunity to visit some of the beautiful gardens for which that part of Canada is famous. Visitors to my workshop here in Tokyo who catch a glimpse of my balcony learn right away that I'm not much of a gardener myself, but I was quite happy to make the rounds of the Canadian gardens with her, and enjoyed what I saw - very different from similar places that we have visited here in Japan. (See the last section of this newsletter for a short report by Sadako on some things we saw ...)

Then at the weekend, planes, ferries and cars carrying Bull family members arrived from points around the globe ... and the family reunion was underway! What did we do? Not much actually - just sat around drinking tea and getting reacquainted, swapping stories and memories, the way that families do at these times. The three 'kids' - my sister, my brother and myself - all seem to be happy and healthy and basically 'on course' with our activities, as does the next generation - my two girls - so Grandma and Grandpa seem pretty pleased with themselves.

It wouldn't have been much of an anniversary party without some kind of gift for the 'old folks', and we had one ready for them: we had all chipped in together to send the two of them on a deluxe cruise to Alaska for a week. (I saw them when they came back ... sporting golden tans and full of stories about the whales and glaciers they had seen ...) All in all, our family get-together was a pleasant few days, and we've got a 'date' to do it again for the 60th anniversary ...

After everybody dispersed, I had a couple of free days with my daughters, and then the next group of planes, ferries and cars rolled in, and the printmaking workshop was under way! (All of these activities were based in the same location - a large Bed & Breakfast place in the countryside about 5 miles from the nearest town; I simply stayed put for three weeks while the various groups and people came and left around me ...)

The students at the workshop were mostly Americans, and were a mixed bunch - some were beginners learning to make their first print, some had experience in other forms of printmaking and wanted to learn about woodblock methods, and some had attended previous workshops and were returning for more experience. Each person was assigned a bench in the large workroom, and I had a spot on the floor in one corner, so that everybody could easily watch what I was doing as I worked on one of my surimono prints.

There were no formal 'classes' during the week, and everybody simply worked at their own pace on their own projects. Some were early starters, and put in a couple of hours work before breakfast, while others were night owls, working away long after the rest had gone to bed. Some of us were both! Each evening we all piled into a couple of cars and headed into town to raise a glass and find some dinner. And all day long, questions and answers flew back and forth around the room as each of us contributed whatever we could whenever a problem arose for somebody.

I too took part in all this, eagerly watching the prints take shape, and offering advice where I could. One very important 'lesson' for them was seeing my tools. In the case of barens for example, they brought with them a motley collection of 'barens' that they had either made themselves or picked up here and there. As each of them tried my 'hon' barens their eyes opened wide - "Now I see the difference!" Not many of them will be able to afford to purchase a real baren made here in Japan, but having had this taste of using a professional tool, their own tool-making experiments will be much more productive ...

But I think that far and away the most valuable thing I brought to the workshop was not any particular advice I gave, but the example I set. During the week I did the printing work on a run of 220 copies of my latest 'surimono', and to see this happen right as they watched was quite an eye-opening experience for them. They are accustomed to making their prints in very small quantities, anywhere from just three or four copies up to a maximum of a few dozen. And in producing even these small quantities, they sometimes struggle a great deal. To do 220 sheets of a colour, and when that was done simply to flip the stack over and start again with another colour - and to do this again and again and again - was the best teaching I could possibly do.

And on the last day, as I riffled my stack of finished prints to show how similar they all were - just as though they had come from a printing press - they began to understand something of the possibilities of this woodblock printing craft. I don't think any of them will decide to become a 'suri-shi', nor will they start to make hundreds of copies of their prints, but I do think that their work will become more consistent, and less of a struggle ...

All in all, it was a most enjoyable week for me, and it certainly makes me think of a future time when I might have the facilities available to run such workshops myself. That's certainly inconceivable here in my present Hamura apartment, but who knows what the future holds ...

Essay Corner
Booking a Trip

It has been four years now since my daughters moved over to Canada, and I've grown used to making the trip to Narita at the beginning of every summer to welcome them back for a few months' stay. This year was a bit different though, as instead of welcoming them to Japan, I was with them on the plane. I had attended a printmaking workshop in Canada in late June, and my return from that event coincided perfectly with their own travel plans, so we arranged our tickets so that we were on the same flight.

I had a couple of days free after the workshop was finished, so we were able to spend some time together in Vancouver. They showed me their home and around their neighbourhood, and I was even re-introduced to the family cat 'Mimi', who had helped keep me warm during long printing sessions in Tokyo years ago ... Did she remember me? I have read that cats cannot remember much beyond a span of three years and it seems that this is perhaps correct - she showed not the slightest glimmer of recognition ...

But once these duties had been discharged, the three of us were free to get down to more important business - browsing through the local used book shops! In recent years, it has become easier for me to find good books, as the Internet has made book shops all over the world accessible from my computer, but long-distance shipping costs make books purchased that way very expensive, and I have to ration myself carefully. So I wanted to make good use of this chance to 'stock up'; I had lots of room in my bags ...

What did the girls think of this plan? "Let's go!" was their immediate response. They like reading too, and the shelves in their bedrooms are filled to overflowing ... But there is always room for more books, so away we went, off to their favourite used book shop. Why is it their favourite? Because when they go shopping there the books are always free! But I think I had better explain ...

When they had lived with me here in Japan, I had of course encouraged them to read as much as possible; we frequently visited book shops, and rarely came home empty-handed. But when they left for Canada, I had been afraid that they might stop reading books - they were not so comfortable reading English at that time, and it would have been easy for them to fall out of the reading 'habit'. So I contacted a good used book shop near their new home in Vancouver, made an advance payment to the owner, and arranged for him to send an anonymous 'gift certificate' to each of the girls. They were not to know who had paid for their book shopping, nor were they to be told how much was available on their account. They were very pleased about this (of course!) and during the intervening years treated their book privileges wisely, buying a reasonable quantity of books. I made additional payments to the shop after seeing that the experiment was working well, and as time went by, the girls came to know how their reading was being financed. It was to this same shop that we now headed together ...

When we went in and talked to the lady at the counter, we got a bit of sad news - the elderly owner had passed away shortly before, and she (his daughter) was now running the place. But after I introduced myself, she said that she knew about our family 'deal' there, and the three of us were soon deep in the dusty stacks. I was delighted with the selection they had, and my pile started to build up with no trouble at all. We then started to look for some books for the girls and I had the interesting experience of taking them around the shelves looking for books that I myself had enjoyed when I was about their age. Their interests of course don't exactly match my own, but there does seem to be enough overlap that I was able to find a number of books that I was sure they would enjoy.

They also chose plenty without any help from me, and after a couple of hours, we 'checked out' and staggered back to their home to drop off our heavy bags. That wasn't the end of our book shopping though, as there are many other good book shops in their area, and when we arrived at the airline counter at the airport a couple of days later, we were in big trouble when the lady there saw me trying to lift one of our bags onto the weighscale! But we had calculated everything pretty well, and after we did a bit of juggling from one bag to another to even things out a bit, she let everything go through. Things weren't so lucky at the Tokyo end of the flight though, as I dropped one of the heavy bags on my toe in the terminal at Narita, and a few days later the damaged toenail fell off. But that was a small sacrifice to make for the nice pile of books that now sits in my workroom waiting for me to start digging my way through it!

The girls also brought some summer reading material over to Japan with them, and I had to smile when I saw one of their choices - a big fat novel around 800 pages long. Maybe you know it - the new sequel to the famous old novel 'Gone with the Wind'. I no longer read novels, but have fond memories of reading similar multi-volume, multi-generation stories when I was a teenager (my choice was R.F. Delderfield ...). It has been interesting watching the two of them during the past few weeks as they make their way through this large volume, two bookmarks marking their progress (they take turns with the book). I doubt that they understand everything that they are reading, as their knowledge of American post-Civil War social structure is pretty weak, but I'm not too worried about that - their knowledge will build up piece by piece; to be engrossed in reading is the main point. And engrossed they are ... for all 800+ pages it seems ...

Before we came away from the bookshop back in Vancouver I renewed the 'deposit' with the owner, and this coming year too, once they are back home, they will be able to read as much as they like. Do you think this is extravagant of me? I don't see it that way. When a child needs food, the parent provides it without question; when a child needs shoes and socks, the parent provides these too ... School supplies, sports equipment ... we provide all these things for our children. Is not ready access to books at least as important as these?

This autumn, as I sit here in Tokyo working my way through the new pile of books, I will think of them over in Vancouver doing the same with their own books. Maybe I am 'spoiling' them ... and when they get to be adults and I no longer sponsor their activities, they will be shocked to find that when they go into a bookshop they have to pay to take books home! But that is a risk that I'm willing to take - for now, I'm just happy to see where they like to keep their noses - in a book ... and the fatter the better!

Sadako's Corner

If you are a little interested in plants and see these two words, 'Canada' and 'garden' - the Butchart Gardens should be the first place that comes to mind. Somebody had the wonderful idea to turn an abandoned limestone quarry into a huge garden. How many tons of soil must have been used in this vast area? Standing at one of the viewpoints looking out into the open spaces of the garden, one is very impressed with the planning skill of the garden designers. The trees determining the basic structure of the area were selected very well, with the height, color, growth, and texture of each one clearly visible, and yet all harmonized perfectly. As my home is in a template monsoon climate zone I was very interested in observing how trees that were familiar to me were growing in this different climate. One thing I did find somewhat disappointing though, was the way that any flowers slightly past their peak were immediately replaced with something else! Perhaps this is a middle-aged woman's jaundiced view, but I couldn't help thinking "They are still showing a faint bloom!"

Another highlight was the Horticultural Center of the Pacific. In one word, this garden was 'wonderful'! The main feature of this center is that it has strong ties with local people and schools, and is operated mostly by volunteers. Its main purpose is not simply to show blooming flowers but to teach and share the pleasure of growing plants. The plant beds were divided into zones such as: winter, dry, alkaloid, heather, Japanese, etc., and all the plants looked very healthy. Rich collections of perennials which had taken 20 years to form were settled very well and created areas of solid beauty. There are many benches spotted through the gardens, and it was such a pleasure to sit down on these and view the area. I could never get tired sitting there!

One basic principle of our trip was to see no more than one place each day. Now I remember such wonderful long days spent in those beautiful gardens with David.