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'Hyakunin Issho'
Newsletter for fans of David Bull's printmaking activities
Issue #57 - Autumn 2004
Contents of this Issue:


A bit of a milestone issue of Hyakunin Issho this time - we've finally come to the end of the Halifax to Hamura story! I'm sure many of you thought that I would never get to Japan! I still haven't decided what will replace it from next time, but I'll think of something ...

We also have the Studio Diary, with an update on the workroom construction here at the Seseragi Studio - another project that is taking many years to complete. The walls are finally insulated, and maybe this winter I'll be able to make prints without seeing my breath over the woodblocks!

Sadako's Corner and a short F.A.Q. round out the issue, but while I've got your attention, I'd like to remind you of the upcoming Beauties of Four Seasons exhibition: January 23 ~ 29. This date is the same as every year, but please remember - don't head over to Takano in Shinjuku! This show will be at a new location in Yurakucho. Details are in the closing section of this issue ...

From Halifax to Hamura

The last couple of months before leaving for Japan were of course a very busy time. This wasn't really a 'move', with possessions being shipped around the world, it was more like an adventure trip; we rented a locker and put most of our things into storage.

A glitch to our plans came along during our preparation; I received notification from the Japanese consulate in Vancouver that my application for a visa had been rejected. This was a major problem, as without a visa that permitted an extended stay, we would have no chance to get established in Japan. I knew that upon arrival at Narita I would be given the standard three-month tourist term which could probably be extended for another three, but after that time, I would have to leave the country.

But I wasn't about to let this 'bureaucratic obfuscation' get in the way. The four of us said our 'goodbyes' to our friends, and flew anyway; it was July 1st, 1986.

Himi and Fumi were at this time just turned three and one; Fumi wasn't even clearly walking yet, but rode on my back in a carrier, the way her sister had done on our trip around the world a couple of years earlier. Her mother's backpack carried clothing for the four of us, and a small plush toy for each of the girls rounded off our 'necessities'.

Could I speak Japanese? Nothing but the most rudimentary greetings. Where would we live? I had no idea. How would we make a living? That was a bit easier ... I carried with me a notebook containing a carefully thought-out proposal for an in-home English conversation school: a four evening per week schedule of classes at levels from elementary students up to adults, with the rates worked out at a level that would allow us to survive while we ... while we did whatever it was that we were going to do!

But without a visa, all this planning would be for nothing; tourists in Japan are not allowed to work. So in the airplane, as we approached the airport, I tried to think of something to tell the immigration agents. There really wasn't much choice - I just had to introduce the four of us, tell them of my desire to study woodblock printmaking, and throw ourselves on their 'mercy', hoping against hope that they would permit me to stay ... and work.

We approached the immigration counter, and I started to tell my story. The agent listened for a bit, and then interrupted, "Is this your wife? Are these your children? What's the problem? Why don't you just apply for a spouse visa?"

I was floored. During all the run-around with the Japanese Consulate in Vancouver, never once had they mentioned that such a thing was possible, even though the four of us had sat together in their offices discussing exactly these matters! Of course, I immediately asked for this, but it wasn't quite so easy, as our Canadian 'common-law' marriage status was not acknowledged by the Japanese government. Even though we were clearly a 'real' couple, with two children in tow, the rules were strict: no marriage certificate - no visa.

Well, that was easy to fix. I entered the country that day on a tourist visa, and then after a few days orientation while staying at her sister's home in north Saitama, the two of us registered a marriage at the local town office. They wanted a photograph of the four of us, so we had a local shop take the one you see here. After putting in the papers it was lunchtime, so we went out to a local noodle shop for the wedding feast! I then went back to the immigration offices to process the required paperwork. The application was accepted, and I was home free! The new visa was still only for three months, but it was much more extendible than a tourist visa, and more importantly, I was permitted to work.

The next order of business was a place to live, so my search campaign got underway. Each day she and the children stayed with her sister while I got on the train and headed down to the Big Mikan to look for a place. The first day was quite a shock, and quite disappointing. I had headed first to Asakusa, the district where most of the old craftsmen seemed to be living, but one visit to a local realtor there showed me that my plans would need some adjustment. For the four of us, plus a workroom and place to teach English, I considered that we would need what is known as a 3DK apartment, but in the downtown Tokyo area, the monthly rent for such a place was three to four times the amount I had budgeted. I had to look further afield.

Each day I targeted a particular area, visiting realtors and looking for something suitable, and each day I moved further and further away from central Tokyo. After a few days, I had worked my way out to Kokubunji, in Western Tokyo, and finding nothing there, asked them to suggest something. They looked in their files and pulled out a few rental advertising flyers. I selected one which had a reasonable price, and set off to see it, heading even further away from Tokyo, up the Ome line. It was in a place called Hamura, which looked pleasant enough, but when I located the apartment found that it was situated on an industrial boulevard with huge trucks rolling by in a non-stop stream. No go. Nothing for it but to go back to the station and head home ...

I made my way randomly back toward the station. It was a wonderful sunny day, and the town really looked quite attractive. Once away from that industrial area the streets were quiet and peaceful, and there seemed to be many parks and treed areas. I happened to pass by another realtor's office, and seeing the displays of apartments for rent in the window, went in to see if they had anything available. It was the smartest move I ever made - not only did they have some brand new buildings just coming available for rent, but they were open and friendly to me, even though my Japanese was extremely rudimentary. They got me into their car, and drove me around Hamura, pointing out parks, day care centers, the sports centre, and a host of other amenities. When we stopped to inspect the apartment I saw that it was wonderfully open and bright, of course spanking brand new, and was at a rent that, although a bit tight, was manageable.

The next morning, I was back there bright and early along with the kids' mother, and after she added her approval, we paid the required deposit, guarantee money, and advance rent, and signed the lease. The next day we carried the girls and our single backpack, and moved in.

I was to live in that apartment for the next fourteen years, longer than any other place I have ever resided. The girls quickly became acclimated to the culture, and the community was wonderfully 'open'; within a few days of moving in we had dozens of friends, and it seemed as though our entranceway was never without a pile of shoes jumbled in it. The idea of teaching English while I got started with printmaking worked wonderfully, and for five very full years hundreds of our neighbours, of all ages, paraded through our rooms each week to enjoy the classes. Life in Hamura far exceeded my expectations of what our life in Japan would be like.

And of course, one day in the library there, Egami-san the librarian showed me a book containing an image from Katsukawa Shunsho's 100 Poets. What that led to has been well described in early editions of this newsletter, so this is where we will leave this story. As they say, "This is where I came in ..."

* * *

So there we have it - finally the From Halifax to Hamura story is done. As I mentioned back when it started, most Western readers are probably thinking, "So what's the big deal; this guy moved around a bit, did a bit of this and that before settling on something; we all do that!" But many of the Japanese readers have grown up in a society where young people did not have very much freedom to experiment and 'find themselves' the way I was able to, and now that Japan is moving toward such a freer way of doing things, quite a number of people are worried that today's youngsters lack 'direction'.

I think you can guess that I have no real concern about them. Yes, social patterns in Japan are very much in upheaval at the moment, and I certainly would not claim that 'everything is going to be OK', but overall, I welcome the current move away from a rigid lifetime employment system that forced a very early and unchangeable decision on a career, to one that allows people more flexibility to change and adapt as they pass through different stages of life.

If I had not had such flexibility, where would I be now ... I cannot imagine. During the years we have been reading about in this series, I needed freedom to be able to try whatever I wanted to turn my hand to. I needed a surrounding society that accepted my skills and abilities at face value without worrying about 'certification' or 'education'. And most importantly of all, I needed freedom to be able to fail without censure or condemnation.

My parents may sometimes have wondered whether or not I would ever 'amount to something', and perhaps I caused them a measure of grief and worry along the way, but they were smart enough to support me when I needed it, and to keep out of the way when appropriate. Given the rather narrow-minded attitudes prevalent in the society in which they grew up, I have no idea where they learned to be such good parents, but I hope that I have been able to do as good a job with my own two children. Only time will tell!

Thank you for reading along ...

Studio Diary

Recent updates to this Studio Diary section have been so few and far between that you would be excused if you thought that I had abandoned the project! Not so though, and here are photos to prove it!

As I mentioned in the first installment of this series, insulation was going to be the 'keyword' for this construction job. By my Canadian standards, Japanese homes are drastically under-insulated, a consequence of tradition over-riding practicality and efficiency. But I shouldn't blather on about that any more - it's time for action!

In earlier photos, you saw the bare framing for the interior walls of this room - standard 2x4 construction. The next step was to run the wiring for the plugs and the wall-mounted lights:

Some of this work made me dig deep back into my memories; back in high school we learned how to wire such things as two-way switches - to control a light from either of two entrances to a room - but that was a long time ago! I had been a bit concerned that it might be difficult to purchase these components - that they would only be available to professionals - but found that a nearby 'home centre' had a good selection of electrical parts. It seems that DIY is spreading rapidly in Japan.

I also ran cabling to the locations where speakers for the music system will be mounted. This room is very isolated from the 'outside world', so I will be able to enjoy listening to music while I work without bothering the neighbours at all.

Once all the wires were in place, it was time to position the insulation. I ordered some bales of fiberglass insulation of a type designed for use in Hokkaido, the northernmost prefecture of the country. This is very dense, and once stapled in place, 'fluffs out' to fill the wall cavity and provide excellent insulation value.

Sadako and I worked together to insulate the back three walls of the room, and found that even as we worked, the room started to take on a new feel, much quieter and more 'secluded'. The job is far from finished, as the ceiling still remains to be done, and of course the walls need to be panelled, but even this partial job worked wonders - once the insulation was all in place, I noticed over the next few days that the room temperature had become much more stable, not dropping down steeply at night, nor climbing in the hot afternoon.

This coming winter should be much more comfortable for me; finally, after living in Tokyo for 18 years, I will have at least one room where I can sit without shivering!


Picking up on a theme I started in this newsletter last year, here are a couple more Frequently Asked Questions ...

Q. Why won't you show us what prints are coming next?

A. There are two main answers to this one. Of course, each time I start a new set of prints, I have already worked out what designs will be included, so I myself know what is coming next. But I learned during the years that I have been making the Surimono Albums that it frequently happens that I change my mind part way through the set. I might come across a better design to replace one of those that I have been planning, or perhaps I become dissatisfied with one of them, and seek a replacement. But if I had already announced the full set of designs, it would be difficult to tell the collectors, "I'm sorry, but the such-and-such print you were waiting for won't be coming; it will be replaced by something else."

The other reason is to try and keep things more interesting for collectors. Of course you know what general type of prints to expect in any particular series, so there should be no dramatic surprises, but I think that most of you have some sense of anticipation when the packages arrive at your home and you sit down to open them. But if you knew exactly what was coming, this would be spoiled. There is some possibility of disappointment of course, because not everybody will agree with all of my choices, but overall, I hope you are pleasantly surprised!

Q. On the most recent print you sent me, the label said: Blocks: Cherry (7) Impressions: (15). What does this mean?

A. Although each colour in the finished print is printed from a separate plate, it is not a one-to-one ratio between the two. When I said '7 blocks' in that example, I mean seven different faces of wood. There are four pieces of wood involved, and three of them are carved on both sides, making a total of seven 'blocks'. This would normally mean seven impressions, but some of these will be done more than once, either to deepen a tone, or to create a 'bokashi' - a gradation of colour.

Then, to further complicate the issue, any particular block may contain areas carved for different colours. This is possible if the areas are relatively small and spaced far enough apart to not interfere with each other. Such areas are usually inked and printed separately, although it is sometimes possible to use two brushes, ink the two places at the same time, and then print them together.

The important factor, from my point of view as a printer, is the total number of impressions - how many times the paper has to be laid down onto a piece of wood. This determines how long the whole process will take, and whether or not I need to be concerned with such things as mold formation in the paper.

The largest number of impressions in my prints to date is around 35, but this is far from a 'record'. Many of the shin-hanga prints of the last century have 50 or more as routine, and some particularly complex designs approached 100 impressions. You won't see too many such prints in my own albums, as they would simply take far too long to produce, but I am toying with the idea of making a very 'special' print of this type one day. Would you still subscribe to a print set of mine if it contained only one print per year?

Sadako's Corner
'Lucky Lady'

In the previous issue of this newsletter David included a story on his income and expenses. When I was shown the story for translation I wondered why he wrote about such a private matter. When I asked him, he responded that those numbers show that he had been able to become successful in this way of living that he himself had chosen.

Looking at the numbers, I couldn't tell if he actually meant to show success, or to show that he was just barely surviving, but I left such considerations to him, and concentrated simply on rendering the story into Japanese.

One evening shortly after we had sent out that issue of Hyakunin Issho he and I were chatting on the phone, and he said, "You know Ms. ** and Mr. **? They called me; they are worried about my financial situation. Why? I thought they would feel relieved by that story ..." I couldn't help bursting into laughter even though it was a bit rude. It was so interesting to see these two exactly opposing views. So I would like to clarify: David's intention in writing that story was to show that he was doing alright.

One day back when we were still getting to know each other, money came up in our conversation. I don't remember the particular context (although I certainly hadn't asked him!), but he happened to mention in Japanese, "My income is around 10 million yen ..." This puzzled me quite a bit; surely he must be either a terrible Scrooge, or else didn't understand money at all. The bicycle he was riding was a ladies' model constructed out of a jumble of parts - the pedals didn't match each other, and there were probably none of the original components still there. He was proud of it, "I made this bike entirely from scrounged parts!" Very Scrooge-like ... but no, he actually isn't stingy at all. After our morning swim, he always waited for me in the lounge with a package of juice bought for me.

So it must be a lack of understanding of money then. I asked him one time if he was taking proper deductions for his expenses and found that I had put my foot into it; he knew more than I about such things, and in general, he did seem like quite an intelligent guy.

Well, if he was not stingy or incompetent, what was the reason for him to make that statement about his income? It took some years until I was able to come to an understanding of this question. This is a man who quit a stable job with a company, moved to a foreign country with his family, and had reached the point where he was proud to display for me his ability to earn a living by making that country's traditional woodblock prints.

It's not often that I have a chance to see him at work on the prints, as I usually let him know when I will visit and he puts the work away, but it occasionally happens that I slip into the workroom and see him at the bench. He is always so immersed in his work that I feel my relaxed spine stiffen up! His attitude toward the work never changes whether it is hot and sticky summer or icy cold winter. He never deviates from his progress along the path he has chosen.

In our contemporary society, money is a major yardstick not only of the value of goods, but of the meaning of life itself. For someone like myself, who basically absorbed the common thinking, his attitude is completely novel. While assisting him with translations and various other jobs, I can feel his spirit, something impossible to define in monetary terms. I am so lucky!

16th Annual Exhibition

The important 'point' to tell you about the upcoming exhibition is of course the switch of locations, from the gallery in Shinjuku where I have been exhibiting for nearly 15 years, to a new location in the Tokyo Kotsu Kaikan Building in Yurakucho, in central Tokyo. It's actually going to be quite a formidable and expensive move for me, because all my exhibition panels and display materials were designed to fit the previous space, evolving as the years went by, and this time everything is going to have to be rebuilt from the ground up.

But the space is wide and bright, so I'm sure that Sadako and I will be able to design and create an interesting display environment where the prints can be enjoyed properly. The new prints won't be numerous of course - just the four designs from the Beauties of Four Seasons series - but they will be accompanied by another selection of David's Choice prints, and of course plenty of my previous work, so the overall interest level should be high.

Important note: During the years that the exhibition was in Shinjuku, it always started on Thursday and ran until the following Tuesday. The pattern at the new gallery is different: all exhibitions there start on Sunday and run through the following Saturday. This gives us an extra day, which is appreciated, but brings a major problem: there is no 'empty' day in which to set up the exhibition displays. Sadako and I must now do this job - which previously took us the entire day before the show opened - in a couple of hours on the Sunday morning. And to make things worse, Sunday is of course the only practical day to hold the Gallery Talk. It's going to be quite a day! It may be more than the two of us can handle by ourselves, so if there are any of you collectors who may be able to help us out with the set-up job, please let us know!

  • Exhibition: January 23~29, 2005
  • 11:00~7:00 (last day until 6:00)
  • Gold Salon, Tokyo Kotsu Kaikan, B1
  • Yurakucho 2-10-1, Tokyo
  • (From JR Yurakucho Station, the building is just in front of the East Central exit.
    From the Yurakucho Subway Station, Exit A8 will lead you directly into the building)
  • Gallery Talk: Sunday January 23, 2:00 p.m.
  • (All free admission; David will be present to meet visitors at all times.)