Bound in

Nakamura's house above Kamikatsu

Nakamura’s house above Kamikatsu

[Wednesday in Kamikatsu]

The weather is off and on rain today, as a typhoon blows itself out south of us.  There isn’t much wind and the rain is more of a nuisance, increasing the humidity, rather than a difficulty.  We drove back up to Nakamura’s this morning, the bundles of rice left to dry in the paddies looking forlorn in the damp, the persimmons virtually aglow on the trees.  Our covers need to be cut and sewn onto our carefully folded signatures (the folded sheafs of paper that make up the pages of the book).  The templates are cut for either a Japanese style book (opening left to right) or Western styles – we need to decide before we select the front cover.

Students bind books

Students bind books

The rhythm of measuring, marking, cutting and folding requires a focussed attention to detail, the making of art for many artists is a mindful, if not fully meditative, activity.  I find that the mix of physicality and math (geometry) gathers up the strands of my attention and holds them loosely enough to not feel constrained, but tightly enough to keep my attention from wandering.

Kayla stitches the binding of her book

Kayla stitches the binding of her book

The act of making an everyday object, something that I have so many of in particular, makes me aware of how much I depend on the work of others to sustain my life.  Would I still stack books on the floor with abandon if I had bound each by hand?  if I knew they’d been bound by hand?

Nakamura-san talks with students about his art work

Nakamura-san talks with students about his art work

The students had time this damp afternoon to talk to Nakamura about his life, how does he sustain himself, why did he choose this quiet and simple life.  Nakamura told them he finds joy in the creating, it is the process he cherishes, more so than the product.  Hence, while he freely shares his art, he doesn’t sell it.  Before he retired, he worked a few months a year to pay for his necessities, now, at 67, he is receives the Japanese equivalent of social security.  He points out that while he lives alone, he is bound into his community in many ways (health care and social security, the radio broadcasts that alert him to bad weather, the bus he takes to Tokushima, the care of his neighbors).

They wondered if he had regrets about his choices and he said that there are always regrets in life, but he would rather regret the things he had done, then the things he hadn’t done.  (Which Prof. Schulz pointed out is in line with psychological research on regret!)  Students wondered how much contact he had with other people and he told them about his occasional (once or twice a year) trips to the small port city down the river, his letters to and from family, a weekly walk to the onsen (the hot spring baths about a 40 minute walk down the hill).

360 students with Nakamura-san

360 students with Nakamura-san

We finished off the day with a wonderful hot pot dinner, vegetables, noodles, and thin slices of meat to cook in soy milk.  A challenge to some of our skills with chopsticks (I will admit to having lost control of a pile of noodles between the pot and my dish), but fun and delicious to eat.

Fish sticks

Katia, Mercedes and Marissa grill fish sticks.

Katia, Mercedes and Marissa grill fish sticks.

[The events of Tuesday in Kamikatsu]

After a pretty traditional Japanese breakfast of pan grilled salmon, rice, tea and pickled vegetables, we boarded the bus for the ride up to Nakamura-san’s.  To say the road is narrow is an understatement, and the bus threaded its way up the mountain with care.  At one point, the driver and our escort hopped out to cut off a small tree branch so we could pass.

nakamura katia

Making the fabric bound to mulberry paper covers

Nakamura’s house is a restored barn, with a mud hearth in the kitchen- cast iron tea kettle at the ready, beautifully organized spices on the shelves, a downstairs workshop and an upstairs tatami room where you open the shoji onto a view over mountain and valley that captures heart and soul.  His garden and small citrus grove provide much of his food.  There is no phone, no internet, no car.  Communication is through the postal mail and a small radio, which he said he got after a bad storm caught him unaware many years ago.


Nakamura’s tea pot (photo Marc Schulz)


Nakamura-san’s shelves (photo Marc Schulz)

nakamura books

Binding books with Nepalese fabric

He is an artisan, who over the next two days would teach us how to bind a traditional Japanese book, as well as talk to our students about the ins and outs of living an intentionally simple life in a first-world country.

For lunch, we took a side trip to a traditional charcoal maker, who turns bamboo (and other organic plant matter, such as lotus roots and chestnuts) into artful charcoal for use in tea ceremonies. The charcoal makes a characteristic hissing noise when burned, reminiscent of the sound of wind whistling through pines.

We ate pizza (!) cooked in a wood burning oven and small river fish skewered on sticks, sprinkled liberally with salt and grilled upright over a charcoal fire.  You eat them right off the stick, like corn on the cob.

We returned to Nakamura’s to continue our work on the books, heading back to Yamo no Gakko where we were staying in time for dinner and a short discussion of the trip to date.

We slept to the sound of the river and the rain falling, delightful to listen to , even if it meant our clothes would be slow in drying!


Bounty from Nakamura’s garden (photo Marc Schulz)

Bridges between worlds

We drove back to Osaka from Kamikatsu, with a stop in Tokushima for lunch and to run a couple of last minute errands. After the quiet of Kamikatsu, particularly of Nakamura’s hermitage, many of us found even Tokushima to be wildly overwhelming. In the spring, I remember finding Tokyo to be tough going after Koya and Kamikatsu, and how grateful I was for lunch in a pocket park on top of a department store.

We saw the famous whirlpool in the Naruta straits, it sits almost directly under the bridge. The last part of the drive was on an elevated highway along the edge of the water, though the ports. We swooped up and over more than a dozen elegant bridges. Each different than the rest, some bright red, like the gates into the temples, others looking like they had been beamed in from Gene Roddenberry’s future, spare, ultramodern spans of a grey so pale they were nearly white. It felt like we were flying in from one world, to land in another.

We tucked the last few things into our bags, then gathered in the lobby for the shuttle to Kansai airport. As I write this we are at 37000 feet, above Canada, three hours from landing and maybe 7 hours from home. Swooping back to our world…

Gleaning wisdom

I am writing this overlooking the gorge at Nakamura-san’s, the drop just below my feet is about 40 feet down to a small terrace, once planted with rice, but now fallow. We spent the morning picking small limes (sudachi) at two farms above Kamikatsu. They grow three kinds of citrus at Bondo, which is a certified organic farm, along with the tea that we have been drinking at dinner, awabancha. The citrus has thorns, huge spiders live in the grove, and finding the green limes amid the green leaves requires some focus. The second grove we picked at belonged to a neighbor, who has just moved back here from the city to help his elderly parents.

We gleaned the trees in the first grove, checking for what had been missed in the first picking. I thought of the number of times I had asked students what they had gleaned from a reading, without any real concept of how painstaking that is, or how much you might have to search to find a bit of fruit.

So many of the rules of life for contemplatives, drawing on Benedict’s early model, specify a time for physical work in addition to the work of contemplation, and many orders do agricultural work, or make bread or jam. The rhythm and pace of the work, and the discomfort of it — the sun is hot, the lime oils are rough on the skin, the thorns prick and the small scissors are sharp enough to cut unwary fingers — are an interesting comparison to the work of meditation. Which can have its own discomforts, as well as rhythm and pace.

Lunch was at a small organic shop, which has local produce, including rice. The rice harvest is in progress here, we can see the sheaves of rice tied up in the fields to dry. We left with some rice (though not the 5 kg bag I was really eyeing), and lots and lots of the awabancha.

After lunch the bus dropped us at the first bridge on the way to Nakamura’s and everyone who did not have a broken foot walked the remaining distance up the mountain (a short half hours walk, but all uphill). Now we are doing the next bit of our work on binding the journals, cutting out the covers and getting ready to stitch up the spines.