Mitate and Hiroshi Sugimoto

I went to the Chiba City Museum of Art to see Hiroshi Sugimoto’s two part exhibition entitled “Past and Present in Three parts” and “Art and Leisure.”  It was a compact but extraordinarily gorgeous exhibition, which takes in his works including his three great photographic masterpieces and the “toko-no-shiturae,” or artistic settings for a tea ceremony room alcove.    

As a photographer, Sugimoto’s works are very conceptual.  Generally speaking, photos reflect a moment, but he endeavors to show history or the flow of time.  One of his masterpieces “seascape,” consisting of simply sea and sky, was created based on his idea, “Is it possible for us to see the same scenery that ancient people saw?” 

His “theatre series,” consisting of the white screen and the inside of a movie theater shows the passage of time using time-lapse exposure.  The white screens in his photos seem to show nothing but they are the accumulation of the light of 2-hour-movies.  In a sense, we can see a 2-hour-movie in a moment.  For Sugimoto, taking photos doesn’t mean just reflecting the real world.  He shows us the time we’ve never seen before.
Before he started his career as a photographer, he was an antique art dealer in NYC.  Still now, he is an art collector and with his expert eyes on Japanese art he carefully chose the combinations of hanging scrolls and artistic objects for a tea ceremony room alcove.  The 27 combinations displayed in the “Art and Leisure” section are innovative because he matched, for example, an old Japanese hanging scroll and a portrait bust statue of Christ harmoniously.

Whenever I see his masterpieces, they remind me of the word “mitate.”  It’s difficult to find an exact word in English, but it might be similar to “metaphor” or “replacing something in a different image.”  Mitate is a very basic way of thinking in traditional Japanese arts, such as landscape design, noh play and pottery.  Sugimoto’s mitate is always beyond my imagination and that’s why I’m strongly fascinated with his works.

photos: Chiba City Museum of Art

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My first Choju-Giga, scrolls of frolicking animals and humans.

One year has passed since I started leaning Japanese style painting.  During the first nine months, I was not allowed to even grip a brush to draw.  Instead, I was told to practice drawing lines, glasses, boxes and sketching flowers to acquire the very basic skills, which is useful for both Japanese and Western painting.

At last, the time has come!  After going through the long boring period of training, I reached the starting point to begin Japanese style painting.  My first lesson was replicating some of the scenes from Choju-Giga, or scrolls of frolicking animals and humans.  OMG!  It’s one of my favorite art pieces.  It was too good to be true.

Choju-giga were drawn in the Heian period by Toba Sojo and other painters.  It depicts the life of wild animals such as frogs, rabbits and monkeys as if they were human beings.  A frog and a rabbit are playing sumo wrestling.  Some rabbits are playing archery.  The livery description of animals evokes some feelings like how wonderful our lives are.

Choju-Giga is considered to be an origin of Japanese manga, or comics.  Although they don't have any speech balloons on the screen, I can imagine the sounds of laughing, singing and shouting coming out of the picture. 

Replicating pictures is a good way to come very close to the painters.  When I trace the lines, I feel the breath of the artist.  “Maybe, he must have stopped his brush here” or “he might have been confident with this strong stroke.”  As I copied his lines, I could understand more about this picture than when I was just looking at them. 

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Raf Simons's days in Christian Dior.

I was very surprised to know that Raf Simons, the artistic director of Christian Dior, left the most prestigious fashion house after his three and a half years contribution.

 “Dior and I,” is a fashion documentary film that depicts Raf’s eight weeks, from day one when he started working for Dior till his debut haute couture collection of fall-winter 2012.  Initially, I thought it’s just a behind the scene fashion movie, but it was much more than I expected.  On the contrary, it became one of my favorite movies of the year 2015.

Raf had been a director of Jil Snder, a Milan fashion brand, which is characterized as sharp with modern line and form.  As for Dior, it’s the most elegant and feminine brand.  People were very curious how Raf, a minimalist, would meet the high demands and create his own Dior style when he took the position as a director of Dior.

A haute couture collection usually takes six to eight months to prepare, but Raf was given only eight weeks.  What is worse, he had never designed haute couture before.  The movie reveals all the process of making the collection including some conflict with staff members and Raf’s nervousness as well.

What impressed me most is Raf’s attitude.  He is calm, shy and restricted rather than arrogant and self-indulgent, which people in the fashion industry are likely to be.  He is intensely focused and never loses control until the end.  He knows exactly what is required, that is, a mixture of Raf’s modern minimalism and Dior’s legacy.  It’s easy to say, but when I saw his final output, I knew he did it in a perfect way. 

Nowadays, almost everything seems to be determined by marketing.  People are likely to rely on the analyzed data and figures because they don’t want take any risks.  As for Christian Dior, Raf’s inspiration and creativity itself was the marketing that showed the big brand the way to go. 

Under the incredible pressure of high expectations, he must have carried a heavy load on his shoulder.  Raf explained the reason why he left Dior as “personal” only.  Anyway, I’m looking forward to seeing his next challenge after leaving Dior.

The trailer of "Dior and I"

You can see the details of Raf Simons's first show 
that was introduced in the "Dior and I."  
Christian Dior Paris Fashion Week Haute Couture 
2012/13 AW held on July 2nd  25 min

Raf Simons’s last collection for Jil Sander 2012/13 AW.  
It was held just before he moved to Christian Dior.  
It’s mesmerizing.  

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Taken on a visionary trip. Yubiwa Hotel’s performance at Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale.

photo: Tsunan Shinbun
This autumn, I went to Niigata to see a Yubiwa Hotel’s performance, titled “But I was so in love ---Tsunan-machi Okura snow shed version,” or あんなに愛しあったのに〜津南町大倉雪覆工篇held at the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale.  Yubiwa Hotel is one of my favorite performance units and I had longed to see this performance since I saw it last timeat Ichihara Art×Mix in 2014.  

Shirotama Hitsujiya, the director of Yubiwa Hotel has a unique way of making dramas.  She trys to find “treasures” of the local area by doing ethnological research and creating stories based on them. This time, the drama is set in Tsunam-machi, a remote area in Niigata pref., which has heavy snow in winter.

We got to the Tsunan-machi Okura snow shed, which Hitsujiya selected as the stage for this performance.  The Okura snow shed, located just along the Shinano River, used to be a snow shelter to protect the local road and people from heavy snow.  We, the audiences were asked to walk back and forth through the snow shed with the actors as the story went on.  Basically, the shed became the tunnel that connects the real world with fantasy. 

Having heavy snow, sometimes over 4 meters a day in winter, and a decreasing population, Tsunan-machi has a lot of difficulties.  The drama starts when the schoolgirls who belong to “social study club” introduce the history and some legends of the region.  The play seems to raise several important matters; how can we cope with this situation and how can we figure out any solutions.  However, it’s not a social scientific drama, on the contrary, soon before we know it, we are drawn into a beautiful fantasy.

One schoolgirl says;
“Teacher, can we also become snow?  If so, we would be able to come back here again.” 
I think these words are a great invention of this drama because it is a fantastic solution to the problem that this remote area has. 

And then, winter comes and snow starts falling on the ground of Tsunan-machi with a snow fairy, or yukimushi.  The aerial dance that expresses the snow fairy was breathtaking and we saw the image of people coming back to their hometown by transforming themselves into flakes of snow.

Although there aren’t so many words in this drama or possibly because there aren’t so many words, the performance appeals to our senses and we feel at one with the fantasy that Hitsujiya created. 

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Knowing when to say “when” ---visiting the Kishu binchotan charcoal kilns ---

In the process of making binchotan charcoal at Mr. Kotani’s kiln.
I visited the Kishu binchotan charcoal kilns in Wakayama pref. last month.  Binchotan is very good fuel.  Many Japanese chefs prefer it for grilled foods such as yakitori (grilled chicken on bamboo skewers), unagi (eel) and robatayaki (traditional Japanese indoor grill).  Chefs appreciate that binchotan hold heat and last longer, giving dished savory smell.  However it’s so much more than just that.

Kishu binchotan can be used to purify tap water, capture moisture and odors from the air and fertilize soil in the garden.  They say the process of making charcoal leaves countless microscopic holes, which trap unwanted chemicals.

Kishu binchotan is made with ubamegashi, or oak trees.  The trees grow slowly and it takes about 30 years to become solid enough for charcoal making.  Binchotan is produced primarily in Wakayama Prefecture (Kishu).  It’s reputation for being the highest quality charcoal combined with its long history has put binchotan in the spotlight not only in Japan but on an international scale.

I visited Mr.Hara’s and Mr.Kotani’s kilns with a friend of mine along with Ms.Kakimoto, who is a staff member of Kishu Binchotan Shinkoukan (The Association for Promotion of Kishu Binchotan) in Minabe-cho, Wakayama pref.  On our way to the kilns, Ms.Kakimoto explained that the binchotan business was facing serious difficulties.  They have plenty of new orders, but they can’t fill them on account of a shortage of raw materials.    

Mr.Hara is putting ubamegashi branches into the kiln with the traditional way.
Driving curves and narrow winding mountain roads, we managed to reach Mr. Hara’s kiln, a binchotan master.  Although it was early in the morning, he had just completed pulling out a load of finished charcoals from the kiln and had begun preparing the next load.  Observing him, I realized that his job is much tougher than I imagined.  He usually goes into mountains to cut trees, trims branches into preferable size and shapes, puts branches in the kiln (totally 3 tons at a time), burns branches for a few days while returning to the mountains in order to do it all again.  Mr. Hara said he works more than 356 days per year.  Yes, I quite agree.

Even though he has to work very hard, Mr. Hara himself, and other passionate artisans as well, is considering about the shortage of ubamegashi trees.  The shortage was caused by excessive cutting without planning.  Inexperienced charcoal artisans who have just come into the industry only for money are likely to cut as much as they want.  So, the forest of ubamegashi trees is diminishing year by year.  Mr. Hara said that the same things happened in Edo period.  He knows how people in Edo period coped with the problem and he has started taking an action on the issue, that is, “takubatsu,” or selective logging.  Generally, ubamegashi trees have many branches.  What Mr. Hara is doing is taking some of them for this year and leave rest of them for next year and after the following years.  Moreover, he has started planting baby trees in mountains and educating children on how we preserve the forest for the future. 

What a fool we are.  Once we get to know that it’s a very effective way to earn much money, we crowd around it and take it out until it would dry up.  We have repeated this kind of things over and over again. 

Tsukubai stone at Ryoanji temple in Kyoto. Photo: wikipedia
“Give me more.”  “We have to grow and earn money more than last year.”  I’m sick and tired of hearing that kind of things.  Do we really need to continue to expand?  There is a Japanese saying, “ware tada taru wo shiru吾唯足るを知る”, or I simply know what is enough.  It is curved on the tsukubai stone at Ryoanji temple in Kyoto.  I remembered this words when I got to know Mr. Hara and other charcoal artisans who engage in preserving resources. 
I’ve learned a lot from this trip thanks to them.

Detail information about Kishu binchotan charcoal (Japanese)
Minabegawa forest association

Mr. Hara’s interview

Mr. Kotani’s website
Kimajimeya’s HomePage

Mr.Matsumoto’s interview, the representative of Minabegawa forest assosiation

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An alumna association in Normandy.

I had very beautiful holidays in Normandy this summer.  To my delight, my French friends planned the special trip for me when they knew I was coming to France.  The destination they carefully chose was Trouville-sur-Mer, a superb beach resort a three-hour drive from Paris.

Trouville used to be a small fishermen’s village facing the Atlantic Ocean.  Since the middle of the 19th century when people started enjoying sea bathing, Trouville had attracted many rich people living in Paris.  There are still a lot of classical Normandy style houses along the beach, which preserve the most appearance of the past prosperity. 

As soon as we got to Trouville, we dropped everything and rushed to the beach.  The water is shallow to a considerable distance from the shore and we were able to walk so far.  We sat on the sand and chatted and laughed a lot until the sunset horizon turned into a flaming red.  (I always wonder why French people are so talkative.  My friend says it’s “because we are French.”  Oh, That’s another story though. ww)

The specialty products of this area are seafood, dairy products such as milk, butter, Camembert cheese, apples, Cider, Calvados, salt and what not.  I love all of these, but if I had to choose the best one, it would be the combination of fresh seafood and Normandy cream.  Creamed white fish and creamed mussels (moules de bouchot à la crème) are especially incredible.  They are just the way I like it, rich and creamy.  I can’t get enough of them.

A few days of traveling together with my friends was exceptional.  We all met after a long time, but we were able to jump the distance of time and soon it was as if no time had passed at all.  It’s like an alumna association, indeed. 

                                    An addition

Small towns along the coastal road are all incredibly beautiful.One of these towns, Honfleur was drawn by many impressionist painters.

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A lovely hideaway floating on the Seine

A friend of mine invited me to her weekend house, which is located just outside of Paris. 

On a Friday night, after work, we headed for a tiny island that floats on the Seine.  You may know that Ile Saint-Louis and Ile Cite are also on the Seine, but our destination was a bit farther from the center of Paris. 

About an hour’s drive brought us to the island.  To my surprise, it was a gated community and the way we traveled to the island was beyond my imagination.    Can you guess how?  We landed on the island by rowing a small boat similar to the one we can see at parks.  I was on cloud nine, this was already an exciting start to our weekend. 

The site is, according to my friend’s explanation, a cooperative society and the residents enjoy their holidays in conformity with the rules so that they can preserve its beautiful nature.  There are some sporting facilities like tennis courts and a swimming pool, but except for that, there is nothing artificial and even their houses are made of wood.  That’s quite unusual in France, where stone buildings are most common.

My friend’s house is by the river.  It’s very comfortable just feeling the winds breezing from the river or lying on a sofa in the garden.  These simple things are enough.  There is nothing here, but there is everything to relax and rewind.

During the night, I got out of my bed and watched some cargo boats passing by from the living room.  It was a full moon and as a boat crossed the river, the reflection of the moonlight simmered on the water.  It was so romantic.  I felt that the house was like a boat itself flouting gently on the Seine.  It reminded me of Kenji Miyazawa’s story ‘The night on the milky way train’ or 銀河鉄道の夜.  The boat seemed like it was being lifted up into the night sky.

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I love Paris because of its inconvenience.

I went to Paris for the first time in about 10 years.  I have to admit that I needed some courage to go there because I thought flying more than 10 hours would have been tiring for my age.  However, the excitement of seeing my old friends overrode my anxiety and consequently, my trip was wonderful.

Almost everyday I hung around town with some of my friends, visiting museums and enjoying window shopping.  It was very interesting just to take a stroll in Paris.  As I walked around and gained a recollection of locality, I noticed that there were very few convenience stores in town as there were ten years ago.

In Tokyo, I’m sometimes disappointed to find out that my favorite shops have been taking over by convenience stores.  Even in Aoyama, convenience stores are invading main streets, needless to say the back streets.  I’m afraid so many convenience stores will diminish the character of areas and make them all the same. 

Small original retailers seem to still be very active in Paris.  Bakeries, spice and grocery shops, delicatessens, cake shops, boutiques and cafes make Paris exactly what it is.  They shouldn’t be replaced by convenience stores even if it is bit inconvenient.  

Having said that, I’m not an inconveniest.  One thing I’m sick and tired of in Paris is the subway stations.  They still haven’t installed escalators yet.  Moreover, passengers are always waiting in line in front of the ticket machines because there are so few of them.  Even if they improve these things, I don’t think that Paris would lose its splendor.

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Sakura Pilgrimage to Mt Yoshino

The sakura season is almost over in Tokyo, but I’m still in that mood.  Maybe, a sort of sakura DNA that had been hidden in my mind is now awake.  Last weekend, I went all the way to Yoshino in Nara prefecture to see “the best sakura” in Japan. 

There is an expression to describe the mesmerizing scenery in Yoshino; “Hitome senbon,” means that you can see a thousand trees at a glance.  At first, I thought it was just an exaggeration, but soon it turned out to be literally true.

There are thirty thousand cherry trees, of around 200 different kinds.  In colors subtly graded from white to pink, cherry blossoms cover path after path, valley after valley, veiling all the mountains.

Mt Yoshino has been a site for religious training for monks for over a thousand years.  Mountains are deep and the paths are steep.  It’s not easy to climb up and I had to take rests again and again.  However, whenever I stopped, different vistas of sakura opened out.  It was breathtaking and filled me with joy.  

 Saigyo, the twelfth century Buddhist priest, lived  in Mt Yoshino for three years.  He wrote the following poem.

Hopefully, may I die
Under cherry blossoms in spring,
In the month of "Kisaragi"
Around the time of the full moon.

*Translation http://dharmaechoes.blogspot.jp/2010/04/heart-in-spring.html?view=flipcard


I adore Saigyo, but I don’t have the same thought because it’s a bit too early for me to imagine my last day in this world.  Instead, I thought of coming back to Yoshino next year.  Hopefully, even the year after next, as well.

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