Savage Sensai in the land of the warm toilet seat

Japan was an amazing experience. I landed in Tokyo and had half a day to recover before a half day press conference for Kodansha, my hosts. This was a serious event with over 90 Japanese journalists and three TV crews present. I did my work successfully, and the book was duly launched to the world. I now had 6 more days to enjoy Japan. Kodansha were not only my hosts, but provided me with two guides, Tazaki san who spoke very good English and Sharai san who did not. Both had been involved with the publishing of the book and were being let off their leashes for a bit of a holiday. Accompanying them was Toszawa san, the nearest thing the Japanese have to a living national treasure in woodworking. These three men, all in their late 50’s and early 60’s guided me round the treasures of their country and I think enjoyed themselves in the process.



The first Buddist temple we visited was what was described as the largest wooden building in the world. It’s a place called Ise Jingu. What was overwhelming about this building, apart from the size which was truly enormous, was the nature of the overhanging pitch of the roofs, they built beam on beam each one a little further out and they used a structure of glueless joints. All the joinery was dry jointed so the building could sway and move very slightly in the event of earthquakes. Which I suppose is why it is still with us.



We then moved on to Nara which is a very large and ancient town and they took me to a complex of temples including what was described to me as the oldest wooden structure in the world built about 730AD by the first Shogun of Japan.

This is a five storey high Buddhist temple, built around a single wooden central column. This had been set in the ground with stones all around it so that dampness and moisture drained away from the end of the pole. This column, which must have been a mighty tree, was the core of the building, everything else was hung off that core and allowed the building to wriggle and twist in high winds and earthquakes. This, along with the interlocking joinery, accounted for it’s longevity, after all we don’t have any buildings built in 730, or do we? What also impressed me about Nara were the compounds around the temples.

These were covered archways also made in wood with bellied columns having the same “Entacise” as a column on a Greek temple. The cross members were also slightly curved. One of the buildings was described as the ‘avenue of rainbows’. The sophistication of this joinery combined with the simplicity if the design was really very appealing.  I was also constantly being told how lucky I was that the cherry trees were out.


Next port of call was Kyoto were I was taken to Ryoan-ji.This is one of the most famous of the Zen Gardens. These are spaces enclosed usually by a low wall, maybe with a small roof on that wall. The surface of the garden is very largely covered with raked white gravel and in the centre of the space are several rocks and mounds of moss and this the sum total of the garden.

Very few elements. I had especially wanted to see Ryoan-ji because I’m rather interested in Zen Buddhism, not as a practising Buddhist but as someone who gets close to meditating when drawing and sometimes when working. I think Ryoan-ji was one of the highlights of my visit. There are very few things to look at, but if one settles down and begins looking one can begin to experience the complexity within that simple arrangement. The colours and shapes upon the backing wall, the variance of the surfaces on the stone, the patterns of the gravel, the arrangement of the stones, all have a detail and a complexity and variance within the surfaces. I think this was an extremely beautiful and spiritual place.


The next stop was at Sanjusangen-do. This was described to me as the temple of a thousand Buddha, and indeed it was a collection of what seemed like thousands and thousands of statues of the Buddha doing various things. I was much less interested in the statues and more excited in the architecture of the building which was an extremely long and rather beautiful building, and in it’s history as a centre for archery and swordsmanship. There was a gallery on the outside of the building where archery competitions took place where the archer would sit, or stand . The target was at the end of the building. The archer would  extend his left arm holding the bow vertically above his head with the bow horizontal. He, or she, for there were female samurai would observe the target draw down and with one smooth sweeping action bring the arrow to horizontal and loose it at a target. That target would be at a distance of what to me looks about 200 yards away. Zen archers have the reputation of drawing the bow and loosing the arrows without consciously observing the target. They did it without even looking at the target, while they were drawing the bow and loosing the arrows. Without in any way doubting that I find it quite extra ordinary having seen this building.



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