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'Hyakunin Issho'
Newsletter for fans of David Bull's printmaking activities
Issue #47 - Spring 2002
Contents of this Issue:


A bit of a slim issue this time, but still basically on schedule - 'Hyakunin Issho' comes back to you four times a year ... keeping you in touch with activities in this little corner of the world of woodblock printmaking.

This being the spring issue, we of course have the report on the annual exhibition. There won't be a 'Studio Diary' this time; it's not because it was too cold down there in the river room to do construction work, but that the printmaking work kept chasing me away from the workshop stairs! 'Sadako's Corner' is here though, looking at David from another direction ... this time from the back!

We have more in the seemingly never-ending 'Halifax to Hamura' story; I've always felt that the best way to get a good understanding of a place is to spend as much time as possible walking around it, and I certainly tried to put that into practice during my first visit to Japan, as you will read in this episode ...

Work is well under way on the 4th Surimono Album, and I'm trying to put together another interesting set of designs for you. I hope you enjoy this year's adventure!

From Halifax to Hamura

I'm not quite sure now just why I picked Izu as the location for my first 'solo' trip in Japan. I guess perhaps I had read Kawabata's 'Izu Dancer', and was looking forward to visiting some of the places mentioned in the book. It was late November, the perfect time of year for such a walking trip - cool fresh days, with never a cloud in sight ... It took me six days to get around the peninsula, from my 'drop-off' point at Ito Station, all the way round clockwise until I got to Shuzenji Onsen. I stayed at small youth hostels or local inns, almost always being the only guest. My Japanese was still extremely rudimentary, but I don't remember any particular problems.

I ate whatever the inn owners put in front of me, whether or not I understood what it was, and took every meeting and turn in the road as a new adventure. I have a bit of regret now that I didn't keep some kind of journal of my feelings during the trip, because of course there is no way now that I can recapture the 'freshness' of those early days in Japan. But I have the collection of station and hostel stamps in my notebook to remind me of those times!

Once I was back, we relaxed for a few days, and then hit the road again. We had a timetable - we had to get to her family's place in time for the New Year season. That was a few weeks away still, so we 'used up' the time with more travelling: up to the Hokuriku region, where the two of us walked around the Noto Peninsula (I just couldn't get enough!), then gradually down through the center of the country through Nagoya, where we spent Xmas day in a massive and very uncomfortable city youth hostel, and finally down the Kii Peninsula to our destination, the tiny village of Ozato, in the southernmost corner of Mie Prefecture.

Back in Canada, when we had been planning the trip, she had emphasized to me "Please understand, my family is very poor; we have nothing ..." I had just nodded, I wasn't concerned at all about the 'status' of her family; I too come from a completely normal 'nothing special' family. But on the morning after we arrived at the village, and we headed up to 'Okunono', the family farm, to help in some of the year-end cleanup work, I began to realize exactly what she had meant.

I have a topographic map here that shows me exactly where Okunono is located - and it is impossible to find a more isolated spot on the entire map. A small dot shows the location of the house - more than an hour's hike from the nearest road. Access by vehicle? Of course not; you walk. Gas? Electricity? Of course not. In an earlier issue of this newsletter I painted a small picture of Okunono for you - a place that 'once upon a time' was a valley filled with people and activity, but which now is silent and deserted. Our visit at that time was just a few years before the final abandonment, and the family was still struggling with a rear-guard action against the wild boars - we spent the next few days helping to string wire fencing to try and keep them out.

As the holiday grew closer, other family members arrived from various parts of the country, and the house floor became a sea of bedding each evening. Back in Canada I had read a lot of books about Japan and Japanese customs, and the books always dwelled lovingly on descriptions of the New Year: wonderful special foods, young girls in elegant kimono, I'm sure you all know what I mean. I had quite been looking forward to this visit ...

In subsequent years we laughed and laughed every time this story was retold ... David's first new year in Japan ... Did he see elegant kimono, or stacks of special food? Well, breakfast on New Year morning was soup and some samma sushi prepared during the previous few days. Lunch was samma sushi ... Dinner was samma sushi ... And the pattern continued the next day and the next ... I don't want her to be upset because I am telling you about this; she knows as well as I do that although the family was not the most 'elegant' or well-off family in Japan, there were plenty of large helpings served of the most important 'new year custom' - cheerful family get-togetherness. My fears that I would feel strange and unaccepted, especially by the older generation with war-time memories, were of course groundless. The old parents were just too happy that their daughter was happy with this guy; they didn't care at all about the colour of his hair, or the shape of his nose (well anyway, at least not about the hair ...). All in all, an experience that I will never forget ...

And then of course, after a couple of weeks of fence-building and helping with chores up on the farm, it was time to get back to 'work' - time to start walking again!

Exhibition Wrap-up

I don't remember ever hearing about Japanese superstitions related to the number 13, but in western culture there is of course a very large one - thirteen is supposed to be an unlucky number! I was giving an interview to a reporter from an English-language newspaper in the period leading up to the exhibition, and when she heard that this was to be my 13th annual exhibition she asked if I was 'worried' about it being unlucky. I had to laugh at her suggestion, as I hadn't even considered the possibility, after all, Boots the neighbour's black cat practically lives here these days, and I certainly don't have any superstitious feelings about her!

But if that reporter had happened to come back and talk to me again after the exhibition, I would perhaps have had to answer her differently, for this year's exhibition was indeed not such a 'lucky' one. Attention from the media was mixed again this time, there was absolutely no TV and radio, and not many newspaper stories. I was very grateful to the Yomiuri Shimbun for the full-page story on me that they included in their special New Year edition going to the entire country, and it turned out that this story was the 'saviour' of the show; many people who came mentioned reading about the exhibition in the Yomiuri ...

So attendance at the gallery wasn't too bad, and I was kept busy most of the time explaining my work and doing quick printing demonstrations on the workbench at the back of the gallery. The exhibition week is always kind of a 'holiday' for me; getting out of the workshop and feeling no pressure to keep carving carving carving every spare minute is a wonderful change of pace.

But attendance was one thing ... it was another story on the orders for prints. In that respect this was the slowest exhibition since I started holding them in Shinjuku, exactly ten years previous to this, in 1992. There were nowhere near enough orders to even cover the cost of the exhibition (rental for the Takano Gallery is 100,000 per day), let alone to keep me going during the coming year. What saves the situation of course, are those collectors who continue their subscriptions from the previous year. In February I sent out the postcards asking who would like to continue for another year, and enough people responded with 'yes' that it seems I will be able to manage for the foreseeable future. 2002 is not going to be a very affluent year, but I am in no immediate danger of 'going under', and will be able to maintain the schedule as planned (although these newsletters might be a bit 'slimmer' than usual). And indeed, I was even able to take a short vacation in February before returning to start work on the Surimono Album #4 ...

I'm not trying to 'cry the blues' by letting you know about these results; it's the old 'half full/half empty' story. Was the exhibition a bit disappointing? Well yes, but then I remember to look at the other side of this - here I am, living in my new house, busy every day with this challenging and interesting work, enjoying the support of people all over this country and around the world, and sending out hundreds upon hundreds of beautiful prints each year. Good grief - I can't find anything wrong with that picture at all! During this incredible recession we in Japan have been sliding deeper into year by year for over a decade now, here I am still making a living completely as a woodblock printmaker ... Don't pinch me, I don't want to wake up!

Sadako's Corner
On Rota ...

After the annual exhibition, wanting to escape from the cold winter for a while, we made a short 5-day vacation to Rota, a tropical Pacific Island. Without actually flying away like this, it is impossible for David to get free from his work; and however much he might love his work, it's natural that even he wants to get away once in a while from his daily routine - going through dozens of emails while munching his simple breakfast and instantly starting work after brushing his teeth! He was so chased by work day after day that I finally heard him say "enough is enough!"

From Narita it takes three and a half hours in all to reach the island, which offers just one thing - a 'deserted' natural environment; the beautiful beaches are all completely empty! The white sand is made from ground corals, the water is transparent, and the deep blue sky sweeps 180 degrees. Cycling along the seashore road on our borrowed bicycles we discovered a small inlet of the sea, hemmed in and protected by surrounding rocks. The water was so clear we could see the sandy bottom and many fish swimming. Finding such a nice place, 'young' David couldn't sit still! He hung all his clothes on a nearby branch and jumped into the water! "It feels great! Come on Sadako, no one else is here! Come on in!"

Although I logically understood what he said and knew there was no reason not to join him, I couldn't move from the shady place under the rocks. It became obvious that we couldn't quite find a 'common ground' though, so David became absorbed in swimming and I sat charmed by his innocent youthful-looking motion. The afternoon sunshine reflected off his wet skin, white splashes covered his arms and shoulders and this 'boy' melted into the scene so naturally. When he he took a break from swimming and came out of the water, his hair tangled around his beard, he looked like Robinson Crusoe!

Well, with my partner enjoying his swimming in the sea I had to find something interesting on the land! I looked around to find something I would be able to show David. Just then I saw a lizard with a long tail, difficult to see because it was exactly the same colour as the rock underneath! While I watched, the lizard moved up toward some greenery, forcing me to stand on tiptoes. Its abdomen began turning green and in a few minutes the whole body had changed to match the leaves! I had taken a picture when it was standing on the rock but now this short lady's arms were not long enough to get a good shot of its new colour!

Can you imagine how frantically I waved my arms to make that Robinson Crusoe come back to shore!


Well, my business activity in January didn't turn out to be a roaring success, but that wasn't the case with another member of the Bull family! When my second daughter Fumi was visiting here last summer she was with me one day when I was looking in some print shops downtown. I picked up a number of inexpensive (but beautiful!) old prints for myself, and then she and I decided to try an experiment. Together we went through many prints in the shops, and selected a number that were attractive and well made, yet reasonably priced. I taught her something about their background and what they represented, and she began a small 'business', putting these prints into an internet auction website. Because we had chosen good material at quite reasonable prices, she was able to sell them and turn a small profit for herself.

Before she returned to Canada in the autumn we went shopping again, and bought enough good prints to continue her business. When she was over here during the winter holiday, of course she wanted to 'stock up' again. We did pick up more good prints, but she also spent a lot of time with me in front of our Macintosh learning how to build internet web pages, and just before she went back to Canada, she opened her own little 'shop' on the internet.

Hangaclub.com has now been open for a few months, and is starting to get a good reputation as a place where people can find attractive and reasonably priced old prints. Fumi is not a print 'expert' yet, and still relies quite a bit on her father's knowledge to select the material, but she is learning quickly. And what a learning experience she is having, running this kind of business - she handles correspondence with customers from all over the world, calculates the prices, manages the finances with spreadsheets, and deals with print shops directly. And of course, she is still a Grade Eleven student, busy with her daily figure skating practice, and also active with swimming, ballet, and weight training ... When I look back to what I was doing when I was sixteen, I can only shake my head ...

Anyway, if you are interested in seeing a selection of nice old prints, head over to http://hangaclub.com and take a look at her current offerings. But if she doesn't respond right away to any letter you send, please be a bit patient - she might be doing homework!