Among many, my most lasting memory of Japan are the gardens. The breathtaking palaces and temples and the most humble country dwellings all share beautiful
manicured gardens, some larger, some smaller, but always perfect. These winsome gems, like so much of the traditional Japanese culture stems from a conviction to “respect” and “honor.” It is evident in the way they revere the land, their high regard for guests or hosts and in their meticulous approach to traditional Japanese arts as the basis of their heart and culture. Our Japan experience was not about visiting Tokyo and other major tourists sites, it evolved from a rare opportunity to attend a two-week seminar in traditional Japanese arts at the Oomoto Foundation and School in the town of Kameoka, outside of Kyoto.
Friend and Sonoma County artist Mario Uribe has studied Japanese culture along with his wife, Liz, for the past twenty years. Both were participants in past Oomoto seminars. After years of excluding visitors from the program, Oomoto granted Mario permission to work with the school in developing an arts study seminar for 15 people themed “Sei” or “Purity.” Weeks later, we found our impulsive selves flying over the Pacific with no real idea of what lie ahead.
Oomoto is a sect, originating from the Shinto religion, that was founded in 1892 when Deguchi Nao, an impoverished, illiterate woman had a “spirit dream” and began writing and reciting the words of the spirit Ushitora no Conjoin that formed their doctrine
. Nao’s son-in-law, Onisaburo Deguchi is recognized as the original seishi (spiritual teacher) of Oomoto and was responsible for the core belief that the practice of Japanese traditional arts together could create a deep spiritual wisdom for all. Abandoning the traditional focus of mastering a single art, Onisaburo advocated practicing all the art forms, taking advantage of commonalities to create something holistically greater. Today, under the 5th spiritual leader, Kurenai Deguchi, students and other followers attend the Oomoto School and Ayabe retreat center to enhance their spiritual development through traditional arts.
Afternoon arrival at the island Kansai International Airport and the ensuing bus ride to Kameoka left us with only time to check-in, have dinner, unpack and place futons on tatami floor mats, our bed for the next two weeks. The first day was fairly relaxing at an on-site Kan’O Chakai Festival where we attended a noh drama performance and tea ceremony, foreshadowing the work ahead.
The next two weeks would be as exhausting as they were rewarding, exemplifying the phases, “Out of one’s comfort zone”
and “Information overload.” Understanding is the key to studying a new culture and, only when I began to discover the values they reveal and their importance to the Japanese way of life did I begin to immerse myself into the various traditional arts, understanding my limitations.
Each day began at 5am with chanting, broadcast into our rooms, a reminder that we had an hour before our morning Shinto prayer service at Banshoden Hall. The service, of course, is optional but we felt it enhanced the experience to attend each morning.
Entering the grounds to the prayer hall began with a bow from the waste, followed by a short walk to the temizuya, a decorative water fountain with bamboo ladles used to cleanse hands and mouth. Shoes came off and another bow was required entering the prayer hall, women to the left, men to the right. The prayer service is the same each day, participatory readings, chanting and rhythmic hand clapping designed to gain the attention of the gods.
After prayer came breakfast and later lunch, consisting of a small amount each of protein and vegetable with all the rice
and miso soup you can eat. The Japanese diet is seafood based with much smaller portions than we are used to. At times, I was happy for more rice and miso soup. In case you are wondering, we had many gourmet meals that, although different and new to the palate, were outstanding.
The morning session generally began with dressing in kimono which was a fairly complex procedure that often required assistance. It is disrespectful to even practice the sacred arts of noh drama, tea ceremony or waraku budo without men and women both wearing kimono. Mostly, practice times coincided but when they didn’t, it was a long day in the wardrobe room. Once the practice session were over, the kimono and undergarments must be folded in a very specific, traditional method. Admittingly, as someone who is used to throwing on jeans and a t-shirt, this process required some patience and skill.
Traditional Japanese Arts
A 16th Century poet, Yoshida Kenko wrote that, “The moon is most beautiful when seen through clouds.” Noh Drama, said to be “the world’s oldest continuously performed tradition of theater,” is an art form that uses illusion and subtle, yet precise movements and song to tell a story. Common to other traditional Japanese art forms, its simplicity takes a lifetime to master. We were privileged to study, over six sessions, with Tatsumi Manjiro Sensei, Lead Character Actor of the
Hosho School of Noh Drama, one of the traditional schools dating back to the 16th Century. At over six-feet tall with the voice of James Earl Jones, Manjiro Sensei was quite intimidating as we watched him effortlessly glide, not walk, across the stage. His humor and patience with us was humbly appreciated.
Group I, Michael, Miles, Daniel and me, after extensive practice, performed the first act (3 minutes) of the story of a poor, street sake vendor who, through living a good life and caring for others, was divinely blessed with a continuously full barrel of saké. Learning to glide, not walk, in a kimono with precise, expressive movements and with a fan acting as a saké ladle requires more practice and muscle memory that time permitted, but we got through it.
Perceived simply as a traditional way to entertain guests, my discovery that Tea Ceremony is, in fact “moving meditation” woven into the Japanese culture, from the Zen temples of Kyoto to current day, was a major takeaway from the seminar. As a 40-year “steep and sip” guy, it took some time to begin to understand the formality of it all. I have a friend who has studied Tea Ceremony twice per month for 20 years. I recently met her instructor, asking the question, “How long does it take.” “A lifetime” was her answer.
Tea Ceremony has always been associated with the Zen philosophy and is truly an art form that allows a host to create a
“microcosm of paradise” for their guests. Simple, but elegant tea rooms are designed to create a pure, quiet, harmonious space. We were invited to several very special tea rooms and each space, while unique, seemed always to relax us.
A teahouse is entered without shoes and on one’s knees. After bowing, the guest spends time respecting and admiring a scroll, some of them valuable antiques, others quite simple, but always present. After admiring the scroll, each guest gives a brief glance to the chabana, a small, minimalistic, somewhat insignificance flower arrangement that is essential to any tea room.
We studied otemae, the art of preparing the tea, learned the intricate process of hosting or receiving the tea as a guest including the precise folding of the silk fukusa cloth, used to purify the utensils and the practice of admiring (respecting) the tea bowl before it is returned. Local women, adorned in beautiful kimono, assisted our training with unparalleled patience and purpose. Friends, upon our return, requested that we host a tea ceremony for fun. We declined, incapable, at this time, of honoring it properly.
In its meticulous complexity, the sacrament of tea ceremony is inclusive of tea bowls, the essential visual jewel to the entire art form. Raku tea bowls are cherished, collector’s covet them, museums display them and their designs spanning the 16th Century to present day, are simple, yet stunning works of art. Unisaburo Deguchi committed the last thirty years of his creative life to making tea bowls. While attending a ceremony in the intimate tea room of a wealthy restauranteur, our host explained that Unisaburo created the bowl I was drinking from, leaving me honored and a bit stressed, holding it carefully.
Our sessions at Shoraku-gama studio to throw and trim our own tea bowls were very therapeutic and relaxing, but pride was lifted when Michiko sensei asked permission to use my bowl to present tea to the gods to begin the final ceremony. I proudly consented, directing a quick smile in the direction of my wife, a potter for 35 years. She whispered back, “They needed one to sacrifice.” Celebrating this new art form, upon our return to the States, we traveled to LACMA in Los Angeles to view the most extensive raku tea bowl exhibit ever assembled, an astonishing visual exhibit spanning five centuries.
Moriya Michiko, Tea Master, Calligraphy Master and Flower Master of the Usugumo Gosho-Ryu, co-host and lead instructor for all three arts, became known to all of us simply as “Michiko,” always smiling and helpful. As a Master, with the tea name, “Sochi,” she had tremendous patience and virtue to observe and teach beginning students with limited understanding of the culture.
Tea ceremony is truly the “queen of the arts,” involving landscape and architectural design, ceramics, chabana, poetry and calligraphy, or “painting of the heart,” that, as most Japanese art forms, is meant to express the inner spirit of the creator. Unlike our fountain pens, calligraphy is done with Asian brushes that come in many sizes, held vertically to give the writer more flexibility and richness of expression. Compared to our 26-letter alphabet, about 2,000-3,000 characters are regularly used in Japan, with total characters exceeding 13,000.
Eager to express myself, the more mundane initial task was grinding the ink stick, sumi on the ink stone, suzuri to create ink the ancient way, and a meditative state before writing. We began by writing the eight strokes of Eternity (Ei), a character than has all the basic brush strokes and soon expanded our repertoire to a dozen or more characters including my attempt at the kanji symbol for “love” as a gift for my granddaughter.
We also attended workshops in regional sushi-making, taiko drums, washi(paper-making) making tea sweets, another essential component of tea ceremony, with Master Aoyama Yoko and Waraku Bodu with founder Hiramasa Maeda Sensei. Waraku Budo, a martial art aligned with the Shinto religion, uses a wooden staff and involves spiral body movements, breathing and chanting intended to bring energy and harmony to the body. It required full kimono and as much focus as we could generate.
The Oomoto seminar ended with a full noh drama performance before a live audience and a student hosted tea ceremony for invited local residents. We were ready to decompress during a brief stay in Kurishiki, but the memories of “Sei” still linger, like a good film, months after being home and I am beginning to understand it more each day.
Kurishiki in the Okayama Prefecture is a city of nearly half million people that is best known for the quaint Bikan District, with its canals, shops and restaurants. Aside from a memorable evening with friends in a very congenial sake bar, the
Ohara Museum of Art, with works by Modigliani, El Greco, Gauguin and various modern artists was the highlight of our two-day visit. Our final stop was Naoshima, the “art island,” described as a nontraditional Japanese experience,
presenting contemporary art in a fashion, unique to the world.
Naoshima Island lies in the Inland Sea, an old fishing village, now home to a hotel with extensive modern art works, two museums and the Art House Project all funded by billionaire Soichiro Futuake, president of the publishing company, Bennesse. The Naoshima Art House Project invites leading artists from around the world to create installations in small, wooden houses within the old port village area. One needs to purchase a “treasure” map to find the “art houses” because they blend with the adjacent humble dwellings and there is no signage. We found a James Turrell installation that uses darkness and light, Kadoya, where the floors are filled with water and floating, illuminated numbers and, my favorite, a house filled with sensual mist and waterfall paintings by Senju Hiroshi. The project is dynamic and will expand as Fututake’s curators procure
additional artists and houses.
Built into an island mountain, the subterranean Chichu Museum features four artists in four unique, inspiring spaces that weep serenity and our relationship with nature. Each of the underground galleries are illuminated by natural light
including five “Water Lily” paintings by Claude Monet, three James Turrell pieces and an amazing installation by artist Walter De Maria that places the viewer in the center of a surreal art piece. Anyone who appreciates modern, contemporary art must put Naoshima and the Chichu Museum, on their bucket list including the
special evening James Turrell exhibit that requires advanced reservations.
Another extraordinary place, located in the remote Shiga Mountains, southeast of Kyoto, the Miho Museum and grounds are an art piece in themselves. The vision of Mihoko Koyama, heiress to the Toyobo textile empire, the steel and glass structures were designed by architect I.M. Pei, who carved the location out of a mountain top that was totally restored and re-forested. The Miho houses an
extensive collection of Asian art and antiques including ceremonial tea art. While the collection is impressive, the Miho, itself, is breathtaking.
Serene, manicured gardens were everywhere, at small homes or large palaces, injecting beauty and aesthetic into daily lives of the people. Kyoto, recently
named one of the world’s great cities by Travel and Leisure magazine, has the seemingly endless Imperial Palace gardens, but my favorites were in the city’s Arashiyama district.
Rather than the 15 minutes subway ride, we opted to travel from Kameoka to Arashiyama via a 10 passenger boat, maneuvered by three young men through
moderate rapids on the Hozugawa River. Dozens of natural cherry trees, numerous cranes, two monkeys and one hour later, we arrived, a bit wet, to a magnificent setting of classic Japanese landscape. The first stop was the Kogenji Temple whose gardens were visually overwhelming and the adjacent Bamboo Forest, with trees rising 30-40 feet into the afternoon light, was a photographer’s dream.
Described as a “forest,” but looking more like miniature Cristo installation, Arashiyama’s Kimono Forest consists of hundreds of illuminated glass tubes, each lined with real kimono fabric. Entering at dusk, its impact was enhanced as darkness fell.
The lasting memory of serene landscapes came from an early morning walk through the grounds of Oomoto’s retreat center in Ayabe, where it all started. It was crisp and I was alone with my thoughts amid indescribable beauty, feeling the tranquillity they were
meant to bestow.
I leave Japan with lasting memories and a copy of the 1st English transition of Hidemaru Deguchi’s book “In Search of Meaning.” Deguchi(1897-1992) became part of Oomoto teachings in 1919 and the book is a compilation of his writings. I have not
yet found true meaning, but know that when I do, it will be serene, respectful, steeped in traditional, inspiring new thoughts and perceptions like the fabric of the Japanese culture that we experienced.