The artist residency in Kyoto turned out to be one of the great adventures of my life so far. After months of preparation (booking flights, arranging insurance, trying to figure out what equipment to take, brief sudden panics about whether I’d forgotten anything important, etc.) I couldn’t believe that I was actually in Kyoto visiting shrines and temples, taking pictures, enjoying the most amazing food, and drinking sake with the wonderfully welcoming people of the JARFO Gallery (Ishida-san, Yuki-san and Yomoko-san) and my extremely gifted fellow residents Johannes von Stumm, Lisa Cirenza and Claudia De Grandi.
I must say it was only when I arrived in Kyoto that I began to realise what an immense privilege it was to be selected for the residency: to be handed such a great opportunity and challenge to create works of art that would do the place justice in some small way, and to be able to share that opportunity with three amazing peers is just fantastic! Living together and working together with other artists offers opportunities to share ideas and to be exposed to new ways of thinking, being introduced to new artistic materials, etc., that one just can’t achieve when working on one’s own. EWAAC does a great job – together with the Gallery – to arrange visits for us to artistic people and places of interest (including artists’ studios, a bamboo forest, a Kimono factory), and creative experiences (Jizo wooden figurine carving, calligraphy).
There is nothing that can quite prepare one beforehand for the assault on the senses that Kyoto is (in a very good way); the slight strangeness of Japanese culture (again in a good way – I do appreciate the heated toilet seats!); the warmth, friendliness and hospitality of the people here; the overall generosity of spirit; the elegance (and occasional garishness) of the aesthetic … Simply mind-blowing (in a very, very good way)!
Talking about elegance: my grandmother visited Japan in the 1970s and it left an enduring mark on her character and sense of style. She had always been an elegant lady but Japan enhanced this aspect of her personality. Henceforth she would often be seen in Japanese patterns and conduct herself in an understated way. Having now observed how people move and carry themselves in Japan I can see resonances of that in my grandmother’s poise and some of her mannerisms. Being able to experience something of what had obviously left such a strong imprint on my grandmother is a powerful feeling and makes me understand her a little better. So, a wonderful personal connection in addition to all the artistic activities!
Below is a detailed diary of each day’s activities. You can also view my daily updates on my Twitter feed using the hashtag “avhkyoto”.
Day 1 (March 28th)
After a reasonably uneventful journey I arrived at the Gallery at almost exactly the same time as Lisa. We were welcomed by Ishida-san, Yuki-san and Tomoko-san with tea and snacks before heading over to the residency nearby. Johannes had arrived a few days before and had gone to collect Claudia from the station. The rest of the day was spent settling in, going for an initial explore with Lisa around the Okazaki Park area (we found the Heian Shrine Torii Gate and walked up to the Shrine itself) before heading back to the residence for a welcoming party and evening meal with Ishida-san, Yuki-san and Tomoko-san. We were joined in due course by Johannes and Claudia. It was fantastic being all together and enjoying the exquisite Japanese food (washed down with some Australian Cabernet!) We toasted Morita-san of EWAAC who had worked so hard to make this programme a reality and who would have loved to have joined us from London.
Day 2 (March 29th)
I woke up early and headed out straight away for a day of exploring. People had warned me that Kyoto was crazily busy but there was hardly a soul about at 4.30 am … I started with photographing the Heian Shrine Torii Gate and then walked over to the Nanzen-ji complex. I made some photographs of the temples before heading over to the woodland beyond, walking all the way up the hill to the cemetery at the top. By 9.30 am I was back at the residence having already walked for 5 hours! I slept a couple of hours before heading out again in the afternoon to the Chion-in Temple complex and Maruzama Park. There were great celebrations underway and a general festive spirit at the Park as the cherry blossoms had arrived! According to the Health app on my new iPhone I had walked 20,700 steps (about 15 km) over the course of 11 hours — consider the day seized.
In the evening we had another fantastic meal (Johannes had bought us all sushi and Tomoko-san had brought a large bottle of sake — enough said!). Ishida-san invited Okada-san (an esteemed lacquer artist) to join us for sake after dinner, and it was entirely delightful spending an evening in his company (although slightly sobering hearing it takes him a year to complete one piece of art as each one requires about 55 layers of lacquer!).
Day 3 (March 30th)
Today Claudia and I explored the Heian Shrine and its wonderful gardens. There were several significant sightings: a Geisha, a little egret fishing and two beautiful lakes surrounded by cherry blossoms. In the late afternoon we went shopping for provisions and dinner comprised of an amazing salad by Claudia and omelettes cooked by me! I’m all set for another early start and action-packed day tomorrow.
Day 4 (April 1st)
Today we had two amazing experiences: an introduction to calligraphy class with Yomiko-san and a visit to the lacquer studio of Okada-san. In our calligraphy class we attempted the Kanji symbol for cherry blossom. (Kanji are the adopted logographic Chinese characters (hànzì) that are used in the modern Japanese writing system along with hiragana and katakana.) Although my attempt wasn’t very successful it was fun to try the calligraphy brush and the effect of the ink on different papers.
After the class we went with Ishida-san to the lacquer studio of Okada-san. We were warmly welcomed with coffee while Okada-san explained the lacquer process to us. There were several finished items on display in the studio and in each case the quality and beauty were simply stunning. Johannes was in seventh heaven and declared that he wanted to be reincarnated as a lacquer artist!
In the late afternoon I had my first reconnaissance trip to the Philosopher’s Path (near the Nanzen-ji temple complex) before heading home to an amazing dinner cooked by Lisa.
Day 5 (April 2nd)
Another 5 am start for me, first back to Nanzen-ji and then the Philosopher’s Path where the cherry blossoms are in full flow. I also popped in to see the charming Honen-in Temple along the way. At 11.30 am we all met at the JARFO Gallery for a day trip to the brilliant artist Nakamura-san and his family in Muco-city on the outskirts of Kyoto. We visited Nakamura-san’s bamboo forest with Ishida-san and Tomoko-san where Nakamura-san showed us how to dig out bamboo roots. We each had a go and I also had an opportunity to take some pictures of the bamboo. Afterwards we had lunch in Nakamura-san’s studio with him and his wife and youngest son. They laid on a veritable feast, including bamboo root! Nakamura-san presented each of us with a catalogue of his work and he was able to give Johannes lots of valuable information about different kinds of paper and he also gave him some very strong paper, which Johannes might be using in his sculpture for the exhibition. Nakamura-san will be coming to London in August as part of the artist exchange programme and we hope to see him then. When we got back to Kyoto Ishida-san took us to Takashimaya department store to see some of the artwork for sale there, and then in the evening we had our first visit to the nearby public baths. I was so tired I didn’t manage dinner (although I’d definitely had enough calories at lunchtime!) and was in bed by 9 pm … Overall I had walked 21,400 steps during the day — a new record for this trip!
Day 6 (April 3rd)
Today I had a bit of a lie-in, getting up at 5 am. I had a wonderful time exploring the river banks heading up towards the mountains. There were many significant sightings including egrets and black kites, and the cherry blossoms along the riverside were simply wonderful. In total I walked 16,500 steps during the day, so it was wonderful to have dinner cooked for us by Claudia and Johannes and to have an early night.
Day 7 (April 4th)
Today was another 4.30 am start and I headed straight to an area of the river I had scouted yesterday. I set up my tripod on the bridge ready for sunrise and then I noticed two river rats (coypu) mating just below me on the riverbank. So I headed down and managed to capture some pictures of this exciting animal behaviour before heading back up the bridge for some landscape shots. After sunrise I walked over to the Imperial Palace where several photographers had already gathered to photograph the last of the cherry blossoms in the Imperial Palace Garden. I spent a fair while walking around the Palace grounds and then I went to find Nishiki Market, which was a wonderful experience. I indulged in a proper chef’s knife from Aritsugu (one of the best knife makers in the world) and had my name engraved on one side! Fantastic. After that I went to the Jarfo Gallery to install my preliminary exhibition. In the evening we had a wonderful feast of Italian food prepared for us by Stefano Vallebona and his wife Naoko-san. Stefano and Naoko-san had joined us with their two boys all the way from New Malden in London. Naoko-san mentioned that she had seen my feature article in Time & Leisure Magazine in Surrey, which was quite a surprise! Overall I had walked 15,700 steps during the day — I’m definitely losing weight!
Day 8 (April 5th)
I spent most of today walking around Kyoto with Lisa trying to find a good printer to produce our artwork for the exhibition. We visited several art shops and printers and 10,100 steps later we could report some success. It was great to learn from Lisa about the potential options for printing my work: she has a wonderful knowledge of different papers, scrolls and mounting boards. We ended up back in the Gallery where we saw that Claudia had made some fantastic pictures during the day. We also met Hans Jorg Bachmann, a Swiss photographer who is visiting for two months and will be exhibiting at Jarfo in September. He has been making black and white pictures of Japanese shrines in woodland areas, which sounds amazing. We had dinner together at Bamboo Restaurant (at Ishida-san’s recommendation) where we tried the house specialty sake, and the beef there was simply sublime!
Day 9 (April 6th)
Today was mainly spent on preparations for the exhibition but I did venture out in the afternoon to explore the garden at Konchi-in Temple. I spent a few hours there before heading once more to the Philosopher’s Path, trying to capture some of the last cherry blossoms. I also visited Honen-in Temple and Nanzen-ji Temple again. A moderate walking day at 11,500 steps, and I managed to make it back to the residence just as Johannes was serving up dinner of chicken schnitzel! Over dinner talk turned to Paul McCartney’s forthcoming concert in Osaka and Johannes divulged that Ringo Starr owns one of his sculptures, so we were all suitably impressed …
Day 10 (April 7th)
Another day and 9,700 steps preparing for the exhibition. I got my first 30 x 20 inch picture printed and framed. In the evening I went back to Nanzen-ji Temple to get the picture that was made impossible by rain yesterday. So I’m now all set to get my other two pictures printed and framed tomorrow. While I was at Nanzen-ji Lisa, Claudia and Johannes had attended a Jizo class (carving small wooden figurines) and Johannes had also managed to finish his sculpture before leaving for Tokyo. Johannes’ sculpture is looking fantastic! Lisa, Claudia, Tomoko-san and I joined Ishida-san and Hans Jorg Bachmann (the Swiss photographer) for another feast at Bamboo Restaurant: courses included wild boar hotpot, Kobe beef and chargrilled chicken. Absolutely delicious!
Day 11 (April 8th)
Most of today was again taken up with preparations for the exhibition. I got my last two big prints done in central Kyoto but I had to wait three hours for them to be printed, so I took the opportunity to explore the Nijo-jo area. I walked to Nijo-jo Castle and all around the Castle complex and I made a note to return here in a couple of days. After that I walked back to town, collected my prints and took them over to the Gallery. A reasonably active day of around 16,800 steps, but quite productive as I’m now pretty much set for the exhibition.
Day 12 (April 9th)
Today I explored the Kiyomizu-dera temple complex and I can safely say it’s the busiest place I’ve visited so far. However, it’s easy to see the reason for its popularity: its history (being one of the oldest temples in the city); position (with a view of the whole city of Kyoto); beautiful pagodas, shrines and Hondo (Main Hall); not to mention the possibilities it offers for a charmed love life (by doing the blind-folded walk at Jishu-jinja), and one can readily understand why tourists flock here in their thousands every day. After making my way around the Temple I also climbed the mountain behind it (about 50 flights of stairs’ worth!) trying (and failing) to find a good viewpoint for a landscape picture showing a clear view of the city. It was still a successful reconnaissance trip, though, as I had identified a spot for an early morning picture. I then made my way back to the Gallery where I saw that Lisa and Claudia had made great progress with their artwork. Everyone is very focused now on getting things finished for the curation tomorrow and the first exhibition party on Saturday. In the late afternoon I returned to the Keage area for sunset pictures. When I got back to the Gallery afterwards Lisa was still very busy painting so Claudia and I headed to a nearby restaurant for dinner. Unfortunately Bamboo was full so we went to the restaurant next door, which made us appreciate what good value Bamboo is (Ishida-san definitely has an eye for these things)! Tomorrow is a pre-dawn start so I’m off to bed early.
Day 13 (April 10th)
This morning was another 4 am start as I walked over to Kiyomizu-dera for sunrise. I arrived at the Temple at 5 am but was then informed by an army of security staff that the Temple doesn’t open until 6 am and so I had to wait for an hour until I could enter (note to self for future visits!). Once I got set up I managed to get a few shots before it started to rain … It wasn’t quite the sunrise picture I had in mind but there was still an interesting cloud formation, so I was pleased nonetheless. After my sunrise excursion I headed back to the residence to sort the printing of my fourth large piece, as I had been given a bit more space in the Gallery than I was expecting. I had taken a picture of cherry blossoms reflected in a pond at Kiyomizu-deza yesterday that I was very pleased with, so I was keen to get that one printed and framed. I caught up on a bit of sleep in the afternoon (I am mortal, after all) before collecting the finished print at 7 pm and then we all met Yuki-san at the Gallery for the curation of the exhibition. Lisa is still painting her final pieces and Ishida-san helped Claudia to find a good framer for her work, so it’s all coming together. Johannes arrived back from Tokyo after a very fruitful visit there and it is great to have him back. He spent a long time looking at my pictures and made favourable comments, so that made me really happy! All my pieces are now ready and have homes on one large wall of the Gallery; I just need to finish my photo slideshow to be displayed on my laptop during the exhibition and I’m all set. For anyone interested in my walking stats: 12,700 steps and 26 floors’ worth (it’s quite a climb up the hill to the Temple …); yesterday when I climbed the mountain behind the Temple I totalled 9,900 steps and 50 floors!
Day 14 (April 11th)
Today was the big day in terms of getting everything ready for the opening party of the exhibition. In the morning I put the finishing touches on my photo slideshow before heading over to the Gallery to hang my four large pieces and set up my laptop for the slideshow. At the Gallery Lisa was finishing her large painting of a bamboo forest while Claudia was preparing some scrolls with poems to hang alongside her artworks. Tomoko-san, Yuki-san and Fidan […] (a very talented art student who is currently staying with us at the residence) were a fantastic help with the practicalities of helping us to position our pieces on the walls, preparing captions for the artworks, getting the food and drinks ready, making sure the exhibition space was used well, etc. In addition to works by Johannes, Lisa, Claudia and myself there were also works by four other UK artists: […] Ishida-san brought us all copies of a local newspaper which had run an article on the exhibition and us artists in residence!
At 5 pm we were all set for the opening party and I was very pleased that Johannes and Fidan were already enjoying my slideshow! Gradually the VIP guests started to arrive and it was great to see some familiar faces (Nakamura-san, Okada-san, Ueda-san, Yumiko-san) and lots of new ones. It was lovely to meet Kohdono-san, Yuri-san, Nishida-san, as well as Lisa’s husband Peter and youngest son Tim who are visiting Kyoto at the moment. Professionally I was very pleased to meet Hisao-san, a great Japanese photographer who has a “Portraits of Yemen” exhibition starting on the 21st April — unfortunately just a few days after we’ve left!
There was a great atmosphere in the Gallery throughout the evening and I had lots of good comments on my work, including from fellow photographers Hans Jorg and Hisao-san. It was a joy to discuss the merits of colour vs. black and white photography with them and to learn more about the Japanese approach to photography. After a couple of hours Ishida-san formally welcomed everyone to the exhibition and we four artists in residence all had to make a short speech each. We all said how much we had enjoyed the experience of coming to Japan and thanked everyone for their kindness and hospitality. At 9 pm the party drew to a close and we made our way to different restaurants to get some dinner. All in all it had been a fantastic day and it was really gratifying to see all our works displayed and appreciated.
Day 15 (April 12th)
After all the excitement of yesterday I decided to head to the Fushimi Inari Shrine which had seemed amazing from my guidebooks and which Tomoko-san had said was her favourite site in the city. Inari is the Shinto goddess of cereals and the Shrine — a clear indication of the historical importance of rice and sake in Japanese life — marks her descent to a mountain top where she is honoured with thousands of vermillion torii gates that crisscross the mountainside around several shrine buildings. Of course the guidebooks cannot prepare one for the overwhelming effect of experiencing the Shrine in real life, and so it proved! The challenge for a photographer, of course, is to come up with new ideas in a place that is so extensively photographed every day (indeed there seemed to be two endless lines of human ants going up and down the paths all day long). I cannot say that I succeeded but it was still fun to try! I also climbed to the top of Mount Inari where I found a lovely view of the whole of Kyoto and made some sunset pictures. I was late back to the residence and had my dinner while Fidan was introducing Johannes and myself to the wonders of Azerbaijani music. In total I had walked 10,370 steps and climbed 40 floors during the day, but I could have walked a lot more exploring the wonders of Fushimi Inari and not got tired.
Day 16 (April 13th)
Today it was raining heavily most of the day so I took the opportunity to visit Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion) as I wanted to photograph the moss in wet weather conditions (this enhances the colour saturation). I did manage to make a few pictures there but the crowds were so overwhelming that I made an early escape and headed to the Hakusason-so Villa and Gardens where — I am pleased to say — I was one of only a few visitors. Hakusason-so was the home and studio of the painter Kansetsu Hashimoto, who had the rare privilege of being appreciated and rewarded for his art in his own lifetime! I started with traditional afternoon tea: slightly frothed, powdered green tea (matcha), brown tea and a tea cake in one of the tearooms overlooking the main pond. It was a real delight to relax for a while and just watch the rain falling on the pond. After an hour or so I wandered around the gardens and visited the museum before taking the bus back to the residence. (A relatively quiet walking day at 6,400 steps.) In the evening we had a great party with Ishida-san, Tomoko-san, Claudia, Johannes, Fidan and Hans Jorg. Ishida-san was giving us a brief overview of Japanese art history while Johannes shared a catalogue from one of the exhibitions he visited in Tokyo and showed us some of his favourite pieces. It was wonderful to discuss such enchanting subjects with like-minded people; this has definitely been one of the great benefits of the residency.
Day 17 (April 14th)
Today was another very wet day and even even though I went prepared with my umbrella, rain jacket, etc. I still managed to get soaked through to my underwear making pictures around the mountain temple complex of Kurama-dera. Kumera-dera is set in a wonderful cedar forest (some of the trees here seem to be as large as giant redwoods) and it is one of the few temples in modern Japan that still manages to retain an air of real spirituality — perhaps because it requires a 30 minute train ride from central Kyoto means that it is slightly off the main tourist track, and because the surrounding mountains and forest make one feel a lot closer to nature. In any case I was glad to escape the endless conveyor belt of amateur photographers at the tourist hotspots to spend several wet-but-happy hours photographing the temple, shrines, stones and forest at Kurama-dera. Making pictures in the rain is quite a laborious process and one has to take care not to damage one’s equipment, but it is certainly worth the effort as colours become more vibrant and the mistiness can add atmosphere to the scenery. In the evening I did some night photography in the Gion District which is quite near the residence. Gion is the main pleasure quarter of the city with several bars, clubs and restaurants. In all a relatively active day at 12,100 steps and 50 flights of stairs climbed during the day.
Day 18 (April 15th)
Today I had a wonderful and action-packed day exploring the Arashiyama part of Kyoto. Indeed I broke my own walking and climbing records: 23,136 steps walked and 55 floors climbed! I started the day at the Arashiyama Monkey Park (Iwatayama) where I spent a couple of hours photographing Japanese macaques. It’s quite a climb to the top of the mountain where the monkeys are but it’s definitely worth the effort to see them playing, resting and interacting. An added bonus of the climb is that one gets a wonderful vista of Kyoto from the top. After the Monkey Park I went to the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. By this time it was raining again so I was able to take some atmospheric pictures. A break in the clouds enabled me to take pictures in the adjoining Tenrui-ji Garden — one of the most beautiful Zen strolling gardens in the city — before it starting raining heavily again and I decided to retire to a nearby scenic viewpoint for sunset. Fortunately the rain stopped at that point so I was able to take some pictures of the mist coming down the mountain at sunset, which I was very pleased about.
Day 19 (April 16th)
Today was another full day! I got up early to get to Nara (the ancient capital of Japan) as soon as I possibly could to try to capture some atmospheric images of the deer that live in Nara Park. I got to the Park at around 8.20 am and had a wonderful time photographing the deer in the Kasuga Taisha Shrine area and strolling through the primeval forest that surrounds the Shrine. I felt refreshed after a bit of relaxing and contemplation at the Wakamiya Jinja Shrine and so walked to Shin-Yakushiji which has a Main Hall with a large Yakushi Nyorai statue (about 2 metres high) surrounded by 12 statues of gods. The 12 statues were created in the 8th century and are truly marvelous, quite samurai-like in appearance. After Shin-Yakushiji I visited the Irie Taikichi Memorial Museum of Photography (where I found the pictures of Mori Kiyoshi to be a complete revelation) and the old residence of the Japanese author Shiga Naoya (which contains several stunning architectural features). Then it was back to Nara Park and the Todaiji Temple complex. I spent the rest of the afternoon taking pictures around the Temple area before walking up the Wakakusayama Hill. There is a fantastic view of the whole city from the top of the Hill and there was also plenty of deer around, so I spent a couple of very pleasant hours there before heading back to the train station and home. I managed to break my own activity record again: 25,900 steps, 17 km and 61 floors climbed!
Day 20 (April 17th)
Today I decided to make the most of my last day in Kyoto by going to Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion) as soon as it opened. Kinkaku-ji is one of the world’s most astonishing religious monuments and I was glad to be able to photograph the reflection of the Pavilion before the crowds descended in their masses. I completed my visit with traditional tea at the tea house and then headed back home to start my packing and to make preparations for leaving. So today was a quiet day on the walking front (a mere 8,100 steps) but in total I managed to clock up 237,000 steps and 407 flights of stairs during my three weeks here! Walking has been a great way to get to know my way around Kyoto a bit, although there is still much to learn. At 6.30 pm we went to the Gallery to take down the exhibition and then it was back to the residence where Ishida-san’s wife had prepared a wonderful leaving dinner for us. We had a truly wonderful time chatting and sampling a few new Japanese dishes including sukiyaki. It was really sad to say goodbye to Ishida-san, Tomoko-san, Fidan and our other friends we made here. We all hope to be coming back at some point and we will certainly treasure all the people we’ve met and all the new experiences we’ve had. A very big thank you again to Morita-san in London and Ishida-san, Tomoko-san and Yuki-san in Kyoto for making this incredible opportunity available to us!