The glass teahouse glistens in the hot midday sun. But the glass benches in front of it feel cool despite the heat. This modern art installation stands on the wooden observation deck of a little-known Buddhist temple in the mountains east of Kyoto. The deck provides an ideal vantage point from which to observe the checkerboard layout of the city, famed above all for its countless shrines and temples. Of course, the deck is also a great place to spot passersby clad in traditional kimonos. Twelve hundred years ago, the emperor at the time decided to relocate his palace to the plateau here – surrounded on three sides by mountains – for protection. But Kyoto’s location in a mountain basin is notorious: It makes the summers hotter and the winters colder. The Kamogawa River bisects the city from north to south, and in spring when the cherry trees blossom, it turns into one long pink ribbon.
The natives love their city’s beauty. But they are even prouder of Kyoto’s status as the cultural capital of Japan. Despite all the modernization going on, traditions are upheld here more than anywhere else in Japan. “Made in Kyoto” implies much more than just a geographical location. That sense of elevated esteem inspires artists and creative spirits to ensure that in Kyoto, “old” never means “old-fashioned.” A few of them have kindly provided an insight into their lives and work.
I used to think of Kyoto as being provincial. Then I discovered the city for myself, step by step.” Fumie Okumura, entrepreneur
In the expansive park of the Imperial Palace, home to the emperor for 1,000 years before the imperial residence was moved to Tokyo 150 years ago, it’s joggers who do their rounds these days. Just a few steps away, Fumie Okumura resides in a gorgeous Machiya townhouse. Sunlight passing through carvings paints flowery patterns on the walls. Wooden sliding doors covered in paper divide the rooms from the main hallway. “Before I moved to Kyoto two years ago, I always thought of it as being very provincial,” remarks the 45-year-old, formerly a resident of central Tokyo, about this city of 1.5 million inhabitants. “But then I began to understand that what’s visible is only a tiny part of this city. Step by step I began to uncover its hidden parts – the real Kyoto.”
In search of an identity
A former stage actress, Okumura reinvented herself as a food director. Constantly on the lookout for Japan’s future tastes, she develops new food concepts and marketing strategies, encouraging farmers to produce lucrative apple wine rather than apples, or to grow organic vegetables. Distances are shorter in Kyoto, between places as well as people, making it easier for her to implement more of her ideas now than she could in Tokyo.
The impulse for change came in 2012 when she married a German gallery owner who had commuted between Kyoto and Tokyo for 30 years. Tired of the back-and-forth, the couple chose Kyoto after much debate. They now run Nichinichi art gallery, specializing in applied arts and featuring eating utensils. Professional chefs are frequent visitors.
What Okumura loves most about Kyoto is its close connection to nature, reflected in its cuisine, which varies according to the season. And at the heart of that cuisine are Kyo-yasai vegetables – ancient heirloom varieties cultivated by farmers in the surrounding countryside. Local eggplants, for example, are not elongated, but round and extremely juicy. “Kyoto vegetables define the identity of the local cuisine,” says Okumura. Her own personal identity, a place where she truly belongs, is something she’s been searching for her whole life, explains Okumura. Judging from the twinkle in her eye, she may have finally found it.
The gentle passage of time
The artist who goes by the name of Shoshu never really left town. Born in Kyoto, the internationally recognized calligrapher cannot imagine living somewhere else. “In Kyoto, time passes tick-tock, tick-tock – very slowly and gently.” In Tokyo, where he often travels on business, everyone is in a hurry. Bald and small in stature, the 58-year-old bears a passing resemblance to a Zen monk. He sits on tatami flooring in a small, inconspicuous house in one of Kyoto’s many narrow side streets. Spatters of black cover the walls. “Kyoto essentially consists of one big historic Old Town. At the same time, new things are constantly being born here. So it just makes sense for me to work here,” says the artist, known for his unorthodox style. What calligraphy character would he use to describe Kyoto? “Shinkyu: new and old.” In Kyoto, he asserts, everything comes together.
The same is true of his art. While others base their work on that of the old masters, Shoshu prefers, for instance, to channel the guitar riffs of his idol Eric Clapton into energetic brushstrokes, using ink that he makes himself. With a brush nearly as wide as a broom, he applies the ink to soft washi paper, after which it dries into organic patterns. His unique approach has attracted 200 students from across the country and many prestigious commissions, including Mercedes-Benz advertisements.
What used to be considered avant-garde is now tradition. If you just copy the old stuff, time stands still.” Shoshu, calligrapher
“I love tradition,” emphasizes Shoshu, “but we live in the Japan of 2017. So we experience certain events, in politics and life. I want to create artworks that reflect this. That’s the only way tradition can be carried on.” If you merely copy the old stuff, he argues, time stands still. “What used to be considered avant-garde is now tradition,” he muses. His aim is to completely revolutionize calligraphy.
The Japanese have a saying: Innovation comes from three groups of people – outsiders, young people and idiots. Eriko Horiki smiles and nods in response to this. The 54-year-old paper and lighting artist, who today works with Japan’s best-known architects, no longer belongs to the second category. But in her early twenties she resolved to save the art of washi – the hand manufacture of paper from the bark of the paper mulberry tree. There was only one small hitch: The former bank customer service representative knew nothing at all about the 1,500-year-old handicraft. Born in Kyoto, Horiki grew up in neighbouring Osaka, a city of business people. Her rapid speaking style testifies to her roots. A chance meeting led her back to Kyoto and her destiny, washi paper. For years, local craftsmen refused to acknowledge the young entrepreneur. They all said, “You didn’t go to university, you never studied design or management – it’s impossible.” Undaunted, Horiki tried out new methods and began thinking in larger, more practical terms. And she succeeded by creating innovative, large-scale sheets of paper over 10 metres long, some of which she places behind non-reflective glass for protection. Fashioned into wall coverings or folding screens, her paper is used today by museums, luxury stores, hotels and company offices to supply that unmistakable Japanese touch.
Nature is Keisuke Kanto’s teacher. He loves the mountains around Kyoto. He stands tall and proud on natural stones beside a maple in Okumura’s courtyard garden. Designed only nine months ago, it appears to have grown organically. Kanto creates gardens so that nature can take care of itself – and look beautiful without any human interference. He, too, values the close ties that exist among Kyoto’s creatives – “not just for work, but also over sake in the evenings,” the 40-year-old adds with a smile. Kanto, who studied in Tokyo for several years, also appreciates the unhurried lifestyle: “Kyoto’s inhabitants are in no rush, not even the staff at McDonald’s.” And the chain’s logo is brown in Kyoto, since red is reserved for the gods.