Saturday, May 7, 2016

Fast Forward then Back

I see it has been a while since I updated the blog. The happy news is that I have been drawing like crazy, taking a couple of online courses and feeling blessed by lots of travel. It really is true that new environments are extremely visually stimulating. I always love to draw when I travel.

So since the last posts from Japan, I've been to Korea and China. Today, I attended a Jane Walk, hosted by Emma Fitzgerald. She is an architect and artist who has just published a book of her sketches detailing her discovery of Halifax as her home. She is originally from West Vancouver. Her comments about really understanding a place through sketching and painting plus the discussion with other Urban Sketchers today refreshed my desire to rediscover my own city. Today's entry is from Ambleside, West Vancouver.

I've also resolved to post some of the work from the past several months. It is never too late to get a little bit caught up.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Henro Walking Staff - Kongozue

One of the important pieces of the henro kit is the kongozue, or walking staff. Kobo Daishi (774-835) is credited with founding the Shikoku henro pilgrimage. People walking the route believe they are following in his footsteps and even that, as they walk, so he walks along with them in spirit. The kongozue staff is said to be the embodiment of Kobo Daishi.

The top of the stick is covered with a colourful cloth and there is a bell attached. The bell is to remind pilgrims to stay in the moment, listening to the sound of the bell as they walk. At the end of the day, the bottom of the kongozue is carefully washed, dried and put in the tokonoma of the pilgrim's room.

As pilgrims cross bridges, they are meant to carry the stick without it making any noise on the bridge surface. Stories relate that Kobo Daishi sometimes slept under bridges during his travels in Shikoku. Pilgrims walk quietly over the bridges without tapping their sticks so as not to wake the sleeping  O-Daishi-San.

Jizoji - Ginko Tree and Kyushu Henro

We stopped in the temple grounds of number 5, Jizoji, to do some sketching and rest our legs. The henro route is mostly on pavement, which is surprisingly hard on the feet. In this lovely courtyard there was a huge and gorgeous ginkgo tree (not the one I painted). The women in the temple office, who stamped and painted our book, told us the tree was 800 years old. It made me think that the scrawny specimen in my yard at home had a long way to go! 

Our first day on the walk was marked by bright blue fall skies over small farm holdings and houses. The route was lined with clipped pines, orange and persimmon trees, eggplant and rice fields and swaths of cosmos flowers. One of the highlights of the day was walking along with a group of henro from Kyushu. I chatted with an older lady who explained that they took the Friday overnight ferry from Kyushu to Shikoku, were met by their guide on Saturday morning, walked from temple 1 to 5, had dinner, then got back on the overnight ferry and were back in Kyushu by Sunday morning. And all this for 10,000 yen. (about $100 CAD). It is fascinating to see the variations on how the pilgrimage is done. We even saw a guy on a motorbike in the white henro coat, going from temple to temple. 

Japanese temple buildings, especially the roofs are a real visual puzzle and a challenge for artists at any level. In this painting, I was aiming for just an impression of what I was seeing. We had about an hour to look around and get sketching before we had to get to our accommodation at Kotobuki Shokudo. The idea is to arrive at your minshuku or ryokan by about 5 pm so you can have a bath before dinner at 6 pm. I have to say, things in Japan are very well organized. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Shikoku Henro - Getting Started

Bell and Sake Casks at Temple 1, Ryozenji

We took the bus from Kyoto Station to Tokushima on the island of Shikoku. Shikoku is one of the four main islands of Japan but is relatively less touristy and more "inaka" or rural than Honshu. We planned to spend about six days walking the first part of the Henro, a buddhist pilgrimage that includes 88 main temples and covers some 1300 km. We managed to visit the first 17 temples and walk about 100 km. Pilgrims mostly go by car or by bus but some still choose to do the route on foot. Apparently it can be done by helicopter, but I have to say, we did not see a single helicopter. The walk takes between 40 and 50 days in total.

We decided to wear the white pilgrim jacket, carry the white bag with incense, name papers and stamp book, as well as carry the signature henro staff with a bell on it. In this way, we identified ourselves as members of the henro trail. I must say, it certainly made the local people recognize us and we had numerous friendly encounters with local farmers, kindly pointing and shouting us in the right direction as well as boisterous conversations with school kids in uniforms. We did our best to respectfully observe the traditions and were often coached by other pilgrims as we walked together.

There is a series of tasks or rituals that pilgrims do as they enter each temple precinct. The lovely thing that we discovered was that people can do as many or as few of these practices as they choose. It really is a personal journey. We felt very welcomed and yet were left to our own devices to experience the henro trail.

There is a gate at the front of every temple. Pilgrims bow as they enter. Most people find a place to leave their pack and staff somewhere near the front gate. Then we go to the fountain, use a dipper to get some water and wash our hands and mouths. One of the cutest things I saw was the children of the local priest floating their toys in the fountain. They were so uninhibited and clearly enjoying themselves. Next, pilgrims ring the bell, go up to the main temple buildings, light some incense and/or a candle,  put their name paper in the box, put a donation in the money box and say a prayer. After that, people usually move down the steps to ground level to recite the Heart Sutra. We used the romaji version of the sutra in our guide book to quietly recite and follow. At one temple, a friendly pilgrim from Chiba who had done the route by car more than 20 times, came up behind us and chanted with us. Suddenly it felt like we had wind in our sails. It was quite a moving experience. Finally, people take their stamp books to the temple office to have it stamped in bright orange ink and the temple name painted in sumi with a brush. That was always my favourite part of the visit. I just marvel at the beauty and individuality of each person's calligraphy. Oh and finally, finally, step outside the gate and bow again before looking for the trail markers to the next temple.

Monday, November 2, 2015


The most famous temples in Kyoto, including Ginkakuji, are packed with visitors. Ginkakuji is best known for its raised sand garden, carefully tended by a crew of maintenance gardeners every three days. We were lucky on the day we visited to see this group of men and one woman at work raking, scooping and patting the sand to perfection.

It would be lovely to have these gardens to yourself to draw and paint but I settled for a miniature shrine down a slightly quieter path, away from the main attractions. As I stood and very quickly sketched and painted this little scene, taxi drivers with groups of 4 school kids each, moved through the garden. It must have been nice for those kids and the taxi drivers as well, to be in small groups rather than the typical group of 40 following a flag and a guide. These small groups of kids were having lively conversations and the local taxi drivers were enjoying sharing their knowledge and insights too. The driver near me encouraged his young charges to practice their English with me. Turns out one of the little boys was fluent in English. He'd spent several years living in North Carolina with his family. He and I enjoyed a fleeting shared experience of having been the kid who'd lived in a foreign country.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Now, Back to Japan - Restaurant Things

We were staying near Kiyomizudera, in southern Higashiyama, Kyoto. It is an old neighbourhood full of tiny streets, on the side of the hill. We discovered a cool coffee shop/restaurant and decided to make a breakfast stop there. I love Japanese "coffee" shops because they are great places for an inexpensive breakfast set and nearly always include a Japanese option; think grilled salmon, pickles, rice, miso soup, green tea for about CAD $8.

This place was newly renovated and was a cool mix of traditional Japanese lines with smooth, exposed concrete and stainless steel.  The owner/server was a slim, artsy looking guy with a pony tail. He had a lovely, unflapped manner and was managing all aspects of order taking, cooking and serving, himself.  I could tell as soon as we sat down that the service would be slooooow, which gave me lots of time to capture his groovy concrete countertop, complete with multiple rice cookers, stacked plates and bowls, chopsticks and cutlery.

The best of Japan is surrounded by beauty, down to the last culinary details.  This tiny, gourd shaped thing holds the chill pepper to sprinkle on soba and ramen. The ball at the top comes out as a peg and the pepper is shaken out the top. We stopped for a zaru soba snack in the late afternoon sunlight at a tiny restaurant, served by a charming middle aged woman and her sweet faced, elderly mother.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Interlude - Wet and Dry

Dry Blue Pear

Wet Blue Pear

Dry Green Pear
Wet Green Pear
I was experimenting with Chris' paint box last night. (the one I made up for him for our trip to Japan) It was really fun to dip into some colours that I don't have in my box. The colours were so gorgeous when they were wet, and also nice dry too. That is the thing about watercolour. I am always trying to chase that beautiful intensity and shine after the colour dries. Oh, like rocks and shells at the beach, why do things have to dry?

Tomorrow, back to work from Japan…..