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'Hyakunin Issho'
Newsletter for fans of David Bull's printmaking activities
Issue #46 - Winter 2001
Contents of this Issue:


In just a few more weeks I will arrive at the first anniversary of being in my new home here in Ome. I find that hard to believe, but as I get older I am learning just how much faster the time goes by each year. I've been warned about this by my 'seniors' of course, and am certainly coming to believe it myself ...

I arrived here a year ago at the coldest part of the year. During the summer months I tried to keep in memory just how cold it was, to try and avoid a shock in January and February; that didn't seem to work though, because now I remember just how cold this place gets!

There is one special way though, that a traditional carver can keep at least part of his body warm while working, and this picture shows how. Now Japanese people can learn what the word hori-gotatsu really means!

From Halifax to Hamura

With the large computer programming job out of the way, the next 'big event' on the schedule was one that I had been looking forward to for some time - it was time to make my first visit to Japan!

Between the two of us we had many reasons to make such a trip. On my side, the goals were simple: try and get some proper printmaking tools and materials, visit some printmakers to see what I could learn, and of course just enjoy travelling around the country and seeing what there was to see. In her case, she could visit her family, but more importantly she wanted to apply to become an immigrant to Canada. She already held a student visa, but that could not be converted to landed immigrant status - it was necessary for her to leave the country and make a fresh application from overseas. We were told by the immigration authorities that this process should take about three months, so we planned our trip for that length of time.

We landed at the then-new Narita airport on a November evening. We had arranged to stay for the first few days at her sister's home near Omiya in Saitama, and thus began the first part of my 'adventure' - I had to figure out how to get there from the airport. Didn't she show me the way? I didn't want her to show me the way - I wanted to do it myself. I had been practicing with kana cards back in Canada, and now tried to read the train station signs and work out where to go. We got off the first train at Ueno Station, and I made my first purchase in Japan - a copy of the thick railway guide with maps and schedules covering the whole country. Three months later this book would be a tattered wreck; it was my constant companion during the entire trip ...

As Japanese readers of this newsletter know, getting from Narita to Omiya isn't that much of a challenge, so of course we arrived safely at our destination that evening. Once we got settled in and had chance to overcome a bit of jet lag, the first important piece of business was for her to make the application at the Canadian Embassy. Back in those days we weren't married, so I wasn't acting as a sponsor; she made an independent application based on her language ability, education, and professional qualifications. Once the paperwork was initiated, we could do nothing more to advance the process, and simply had to wait the three months for the answer to come ...

So there I was; I wanted to go everywhere, see everything ... but where to start? We decided to head north - up into the Tohoku region. She had lived in Sendai some years ago and knew many people there, so it seemed like as good a reason as any to head off in that direction. We spent a few days in Nikko first, then bought 10-day train passes that covered the Tohoku region, and set out. These were the days before any bullet trains covered that region, but it wouldn't have mattered anyway - we took the 'donko' wherever possible. That must have driven her crazy I suppose, but I just wanted to take things slowly and see as much as possible. We walked a lot every day, and found very cheap places to stay, usually country youth hostels. It was 'off-season' (very!) so we never had any trouble finding accomodations. A few things I remember from that trip: climbing up into Yamadera on a beautiful clear morning after snow ... standing on the top of the hill at the very tip of Cape Shirazaki in winds so strong we couldn't walk upright ... being surprised by 'Wanko-soba' in Morioka (my 'score' was 75 bowls, if you must know) ... a tasty 'fresh from the cow' breakfast at a youth hostel located on a farm somewhere in Aomori ...

That first part of our trip was a pretty good introduction to Japan I think, but for me, it was just a 'practice' run. She was happy to stay and spend time with her sister, but I couldn't sit still ... the very next morning after we arrived back at her sister's place, I was off again - this time by myself - for a 'solo flight', a walking trip around the Izu Peninsula.

Collector Profile

Recent issues of this 'Collector Profile' corner have tended to focus on collectors who have some special connection with woodblock printmaking, either as 'professional' collectors, or as printmakers. But if I emphasized that type of person too much, I would be giving a misleading impression ...

When I made a phone call to the Obas, a couple living in Kawasaki who have been collecting my work for a long time, to ask them if they would mind 'appearing' in this column, Mr. Oba responded "But we're just simple collectors of your prints, we're not specialists ..." After I assured him that this wasn't a problem, they assented to my proposal, and we arranged a visit. (I didn't tell him that this was exactly what I wanted to hear!)

When Sadako and I arrived at their home on a sunny Saturday afternoon, we actually weren't able to get inside for some time. Their home has a wide front yard, and it was obvious instantly that the people who lived here were quite the gardeners. Now a garden actually tells quite a lot about a person's character; a garden (especially here in Japan) might clearly be a 'look but don't touch' type; another one might be an overgrown 'natural' type. (Remember, I don't have a garden, so I'm quite safe in making some generalizations here!) Standing in their front garden, I could look around me and learn quite a bit about the gardeners ...

This was mid-December, and the garden had been well 'put to bed' for the winter; so our two gardeners must be methodical people, with a good sense of 'order'. There were some quite large trees in the garden, and these had been trimmed back at a considerable height - not an easy job at all for a non-professional; our gardeners are obviously willing to take on big jobs, and see them through. Over here was a bush of a kind one would expect to see in a formal garden; perhaps we can detect a love of traditional values here? The bush had a pleasing round shape, but a closer inspection revealed that this was formed naturally, not forced or clipped into shape. Perhaps the children of this couple were growing up in a well-ordered home that honoured traditions, but in which they had freedom to form their own ideas and values. In one spot was something you don't see in everybody's garden - a chin-up bar that had obviously been well-used when the children were younger. Many clues here! A pragmatic view of life - a garden is to be used, not to sit as an object of intellectual appreciation. And the bar is planted right next to the front gate, not hidden in a back corner; our gardeners must be quietly confident people, who order their lives by their own values, not by what others may think of them.

I hope Mr. and Mrs. Oba are laughing when they read this! I apologize to them for playing this little 'game'; the purpose of my visit was not to 'analyze' them of course, but simply to get to know them a little better ...

And this visit is so late! They have been collecting my prints since 1989, and this is the first time we have ever had a chance to sit for a while and talk together. They remembered well how they had first found my work - in a magazine story that had appeared while I was still working on the third print in the Hyakunin Isshu series. To me now, it seems somewhat incredible that somebody would read such a story, would accept that this guy would actually do what he was proposing (make 100 prints), and would be willing to order the entire series sight-unseen. But they told me that the face in the photograph accompanying the story told them all they needed to know ... So it seems that gardens aren't the only way to judge a person's character!

Mr. Oba works in a position of some responsibility in a large city bank; reading the newspapers and seeing the constant reiteration of gloomy news involving such institutions, I can well imagine that his job these days is far from easy and stress-free. But sitting on a side table in their living room is a group of small Albums, and at least once each month, I hope he is able to put aside concerns of his job and can enjoy the pleasure of opening the package and spending a few minutes with my latest print.

These days, governments at all levels offer programs of support and sponsorship to various traditional activities. Many of the printers and carvers I know are involved in projects supported by such subsidies. I feel however, that this is inherently wrong - that if any activity is not capable of finding support 'naturally' among the community, then it should fold its tent and fade away. Most of us do not want to be kept alive artificially when our natural life comes to an end, and I believe the same should hold true for an art or a craft.

So you can understand why I had been so happy to hear Mr. Oba's comment '... we are just simple collectors ...' Yes, just 'simple' collectors on the face of it, but for me the existence of such people as Mr. and Mrs. Oba is the thing that gives my work relevance and meaning. Without such support as people like them have given me over the years, I too would have to fade away ... There are no words strong enough to express the thanks I feel to have such people collecting my prints ...

But Mr. and Mrs. Oba - close this newsletter and get outside! Although most of your garden is now sleeping for the winter, I'm sure there is still plenty to do in the vegetable patch!

I Hear Voices

Back in the 'old days', younger men who were learning the crafts of woodblock printmaking always did so 'under the wing' of older more experienced men. The master/apprentice system served as a good method for passing on techniques and for providing younger workers with a basic living while they were yet too inexperienced to be able to make a living independently. In the days before the introduction of printing presses turned everything upside-down, there was always plenty of work that even inexperienced workers could do - printing food wrappers or other such simple jobs.

It seems that the apprentices weren't specifically taught very much; they were expected to just pick things up as they went along (the Japanese call this 'stealing' from the master). But although there were no actual 'lessons' given to the young apprentices, I can imagine that there was plenty of advice thrown their way - particularly when they made mistakes that cost the master money in spoiled materials or lost time!

I was reminded about this a few months ago when I myself made a rather large mistake that cost nearly two weeks of lost time. There is nobody here to yell at me of course, but I couldn't help but wonder what 'he' would have said ... 'he' being one of the (very strict!) masters who are always here in this room ...

* * *

"I hope you learned a lesson from that little escapade. You think you're pretty hot, doing all these jobs yourself: carving, printing, and now trying to prepare the block too. Perhaps you might understand now that if you try to do too many things, you'll never be able to do any of them properly ... Back off a bit, and leave some of the work to the proper professionals!"

* * *

But it's not just when I make a mistake that I hear this sort of voice. Luckily for me, I hear them when I am just about to go wrong ...

* * *

"I was looking at your block while you were off on that errand just now ... I noticed you left out a little patch of leaves while you were carving this tree branch over here. What's going on! Do you have the idea that 'nobody will ever notice' that sort of thing? Look - your job is to carve! If the designer puts a clump of leaves there, it's your job to carve it - not to take it out.

"And anyway, what's the point of doing that ... you trying to save time? For what? You know that when this block is finished, you're just gonna start the next one right away, so why cut corners? Now prepare a plug for that space and re-carve the whole section, and do it before knocking off tonight!"

* * *

"About that batch of prints you 'finished' this morning ... didn't you notice that the registration was off on the far right hand side of the yellow block? Yeah, I know - that block shrunk a bit, obviously. Colour blocks always shrink more than key blocks, they are made from lighter wood. Shrinking is the name of the game for old blocks like this. You want to call yourself a suri-shi you better learn how to deal with this sort of thing! You could have printed that colour twice, once from the left, once from the right, with a gradation in the middle to blend them together. Yeah, it takes twice as long, but so what? If you think we're putting our workshop stamp on this batch of prints, you better think again.

"Start over. And the cost of this wasted batch of paper is coming out of your pay this week ..."

* * *

"Look, I shouldn't have to say this, but I can't help noticing that it's been around a half-hour now since you last touched up that blade on the sharpening stone. You found a new magic way to keep it sharp? Let us all in on the secret!"

* * *

"No, you can't have a day off this week. Look at the schedule! What are you doing asking me such a ridiculous question!"

* * *

"Mr. X from the publisher will be coming over in a while, I want you to pack up your tools and make yourself scarce - go run an errand or something. Last time he was here I saw him looking at your baren, and he saw the ridiculous way that it was tied. You should have seen the expression on his face! I don't want him to think we are running a pre-school here, so this time, keep out of sight.

"Just how long is it going to take you to work out how to tie that thing properly? The very first week you were here I showed you how to do it; you think I should have to repeat the demonstration? Think again ..."

* * *

"Not bad work you turned in this time ... although I have to say that I'm getting a bit tired of the same colour tones you keep using again and again. It's time you started to 'stretch out' and get a bit more creative. Where did you get the idea that these things are set in stone? Look, didn't you see that copy of the sheet that came from the designer, with his instructions on what colours to use on this print? Here it is ... look at what it says: 'Blue here' 'Purple here' ...

"Blue ... Purple ... what on earth does that mean? Almost nothing! Within that simple word 'blue' you've got an infinite range of tones to play with! You've seen plenty of this guy's work before; his style is well established; you should easily be able to use your imagination and start to create prints that are true to his intentions, yet which will stretch your printing abilities as far as they will go.

"We are printers. We are the people who create these works. The clients who buy them will see only the designer's name on the finished print, but it's not our place to complain about that.

"You've been working here for years now ... it's time you shifted up a level and turned in some real prints. Show me you can do better with the next one ..."

* * *

Perhaps that's enough ... I think you get the idea ... I should mention that even though I am trying to imagine that I am working in a fairly strict environment, I don't feel particularly browbeaten or stressed. I work in this quiet room at my own pace, sometimes listening to music as I carve or print, and generally feel quite relaxed about what I am doing.

But there is no question that because I work alone, and have never had the opportunity to work in an environment where I have continuous opportunity to learn from experienced men - either by observing their work or from their criticism - it is essential for me to create such an environment in this way.

Yes, I hear voices ... I constantly hear voices ... Do you think we should send for the men in the white coats?

Sadako's Corner
Hot Water Bottle

"It's time that children were in bed !"

I climbed up the stairs and crawled into bed. The grownups' voices easily carried to my bedroom and I could hear their hearty laughter sometimes. "Why are they laughing? What is so funny?", I would wonder.

While I was listening to the sounds coming from downstairs my attention wandered to the knots in the ceiling. As I stared at them they formed shapes: a man's funny face, a witch, a monkey ... When I turned my eyes to the wall paper patterns I saw a long-nosed goblin, a butterfly ... If I squeezed my eyes and unfocussed them I could see many different images.

I don't remember when I grew out of this game. I suppose my sleeping patterns gradually changed and I became used to turning off the bedroom light. In the darkness I just closed my eyes and fell asleep without playing the picture-seeking game. These days, I always go to bed with something to read. However tired I may be, I still need to read a few lines. Then when I feel my arm holding the book becoming tired I turn off the light. That is the moment I fall asleep.

Dreams ... I dreamed a lot when I was a small child. In one dream I was running and running but couldn't move ahead at all or tried to scream but couldn't make any sound. In another dream I was sitting in front of a big dinner but woke up before I was able to eat anything. I had a lot of adventures in dreams and sometimes felt as if I had lived a double life.

But recently I don't dream! I feel as though I have no sooner fallen asleep than my alarm clock rings and a new day starts. I miss dreaming through, and one day I told David about this story; I was curious about what kind of dreams he dreamed. He said, "Once I put my head on the pillow I'm asleep in a few seconds." I pressed him further, "Don't you have times when you can't fall asleep?" "I'm sorry Sadako, I have no such experience; and I never have memories of any dreams."

I guess this means he is a pretty 'healthy guy'. As I see him spending his day he seems to use up all his energy during his waking hours. Then once he 'turns off the switch' he stops moving all at once.

But, even this healthy guy can't fight Father Time and the other day he asked me, "What's the Japanese word for that thing ... you know, the thing you fill with hot water then put into your bed ..."

Well, I understand why he asked this; his house is exposed to the icy air coming up from the river. He is now in the second winter in his new house ... I have it! I have the perfect new year present for him!

Studio Diary

The previous owner of this building wanted to make use of the river room on the lower level, so he hired a contractor to put in a floor and lighting. Unfortunately though, they built with no thought of using any insulation, so the space was so bitterly cold that the room was unliveable. My first step was to tear out all their work and start afresh.

As this 'Studio Diary' progresses, you will notice that word 'insulation' coming back again and again. I am still - even after twenty years here - completely mystified why this society just doesn't 'get the idea' about how comfortable a living space can be if it is properly constructed.

Yes, I too like living with four clear seasons, but I don't want to have to huddle up and shiver in my rooms for three or four months of the year! So all my plans for this space involve the extensive use of high-quality insulation - and lots of it - in all components of the renovation - floor, walls, and ceiling.

But I'm getting ahead of myself ... before I can put in insulation I need to build the walls ... before I can build the walls I need to prepare the foundations ... These are photos of some of the work I've managed to find time to do so far ...


A few years ago I introduced readers of this newsletter to my internet website. It's time to mention the 'net again, because recently I have started using the power of the internet to make my work even more accessible to people around the world. Of course people who browse the internet can easily see images of the prints I make, but now they have a chance to see them actually being made. I have installed a video camera in my workroom, and it is turned on for a certain period most days, 'broadcasting' a view of my workbench.

This 'webcam' gives people anywhere in the world a chance to see something of the process of making traditional Japanese prints. I change the camera angle frequently, and they can sometimes see an overview of the room, or sometimes a close-up of the block, exactly as I see it while carving or printing.

I would have dearly loved to be able to see such a view decades ago when I lived in Canada and was trying to find information about printmaking, so I am especially pleased to be able to provide this chance for others to share in the printmaking experience.

Do I have any sensation that people are 'watching' me as I sit and work? No, actually I have no such feeling, and usually forget about the camera sitting there. I'm looking forward to the day when the internet is faster and more sophisticated, and I will be able to use it to communicate directly in real-time with people who want to learn about my work. This webcam can be a good 'first step' in that direction ...