I'd better be careful here ... it would be all to easy to let this story just become some kind of travel diary - because we sure covered a lot of miles during the three months we were in Japan! After leaving her parents' place we made a loop through Shikoku, then went back over to the mainland, down as far as Himeji, and then started hopping from here to there on the way back up toward Tokyo. On the day we were in Okayama the weather turned bad, something quite unusual during that trip, and we took shelter inside a department store for a couple of hours. Why would I consider that worthwhile telling you? Because I saw something in there that really gave an impetus to my progress toward becoming a printmaker.
I guess it must have been on the temporary exhibit floors upstairs that we ran into a display of woodblock prints set up by a travelling salesman from a Tokyo publisher. Of course most of them were the usual ukiyo-e reproductions: Utamaro, Hiroshige, etc., but at one side of the display were four prints of a very different kind, and these stopped me dead in my tracks.
They were modern prints, but made the old way - with separate designer, carver and printer working together under the organization of a publisher. They depicted scenes from the Genji Monogatari, and were designed by Okada Yoshio. The publisher had obviously pulled out all the stops in their production; the prints were gorgeous, with a very large number of impressions being used. I had had absolutely no idea that such beautiful prints were still being produced, and I had to have them. We weren't carrying enough money for the purchase, so we arranged with the salesman that we would visit their company when we returned to Tokyo.
And what a visit that was! Although I was probably just another 'bothersome' visitor from the point of view of the publisher - Mr. Saeki of the Yuyudo Company - from my side the visit was a wonderful eye-opener and stimulus. He was very open and friendly to us, and I think not just because we were buying a set of his new prints. He chatted with us about the state of the printmaking business in Japan, gave me information on where I could pick up the supplies I intended to take back to Canada, and even provided me with some blank woodblocks from his own stock. What he actually thought about my plan of becoming a woodblock printmaker I cannot say, but outwardly anyway, he was supportive.
With the help of the information he gave me, I then started to gather together some of the supplies. I certainly wasn't ready to get 'special order' tools such as hand-made barens, etc., but I bought a small selection of intermediate grade knives, some brushes, and a plastic baren. (It turned out that I actually chose the tools quite well, because some of those knives are still in my tool box, in daily use more than twenty years later ...)
Another important stop was at the workshop of the Shimano family, the last surviving block planers in Tokyo. I wasn't sure that they would be willing to take an order from me, as I had the impression that they wouldn't want their carefully seasoned and prepared cherry wood to be 'wasted' on a beginner like me, but such fears were unfounded, and they too were friendly and cooperative. I ordered and paid for some beautiful smooth blocks to be shipped back over to my home in Canada.
It was then nearly time to wrap things up and think about returning to Canada ourselves; I knew that the computer system I had installed at the music store would need some attention by now, and of course I still had no job, and would need to find some way to make a living.
But before getting ready to head to Narita, there was yet one more important thing to do; I still had not had a chance to meet any carvers or printers. Come to Japan for three months and not see any craftsmen at work? Crazy! I had asked Shimano-san about this, and he had suggested that I try contacting yet another one of the reproduction publishers - one who had a 'stable' of carvers and printers working on the premises.
So one morning during our final few days in Japan, I headed over to the address in Mejiro, and stood ready to knock on the door, knowing that upstairs in the building I was about to enter, busily hunched over their workbenches, were the men whom I had come to Japan to meet ...