Delving into Japanese culture

Different strokes for different folks

A GIRL participates in a calligraphy contest in Tokyo in 2016 (photo credit: THOMAS PETER/REUTERS)
A GIRL participates in a calligraphy contest in Tokyo in 2016
(photo credit: THOMAS PETER/REUTERS)
Nan-in, a famous Zen master, loved nothing more than an arrogant disciple who came boasting of his great potential for success. To one who felt he knew it all, Nan-in posed a simple test – the teapot test. The master offered his visitor a cup of tea, pouring until the tea spilled over the sides while a look of shock spread over his visitor’s face. “If you are a cup full of ideas, a teacher can’t put anything into you,” the master offered as his first lesson.
This test continues to be the gold standard for acceptance into the rarefied world of Japanese art and culture. At first glance, one might think that the Israeli mind-set would be to stay away from the world of Japanese sensei (teachers, in Japanese), and learn to pour the tea for themselves.
But in the six months since I arrived in Israel and made aliya, I’ve sipped green tea serendipitously with enough Israelis who have actually risen to high levels of mastery of the Japanese arts, and have developed a strong sense that they want to share what they have learned by being bridges between Japanese and Israeli cultures.
TIRZA PAYTAN, who arrived in Japan in the 1980s straight after art school, walked around galleries and museums in Tokyo’s famous Ueno Park until she stumbled upon the Nitten exhibition, an annual show of calligraphy.
“To see the freedom of the brush strokes, the flow of the brush, I could feel the passion of the artists even though I couldn’t understand what was written. I felt it was what I wanted to be doing,” she said.
Paytan hesitates to make it sound as simple as that. To stumble upon a creative path in Japan is easy, but whatever artistic skills she had brought with her from Israel could actually be obstacles.
“We’re not speaking about the same aesthetic rules of composition or materials, or approach to study. My teacher never corrected me in the beginning. She let me get into endless repetition, copying calligraphy from the masters. It looked like she was ignoring me, but later I found out she didn’t want to disturb me until I was ready.”
Paytan now takes groups of Israelis to Japan two or three times a year to learn with her sensei.
“You’re going to be confronted with a different paradigm of what life means, so try to come open-minded,” explained Paytan.
After spending years in Kyoto learning calligraphy while balancing a day job teaching English, she met Hungarian- born carpenter Mordechai Sela (Mo) at a calligraphy exhibition in Jerusalem. He shared his dream of living in Japan to learn the classic wood joinery techniques used by Buddhist temple builders, and Paytan, who had established deep relations with her teachers over her six years of living in Japan, helped make connections.
For two years, Paytan trailed Sela while he lived, worked and breathed classic Buddhist temple joinery techniques in southern Kyushu. They became resident caretakers of a small temple, where Sela spent each day working alongside a team of master carpenters who had arrived from Mount Koya, the fabled temple high in the mountain forests, to add a new building to this temple compound.
For an aspiring traditional Japanese-style carpenter like Sela, working with carpenters from Koya-zan, where Buddhism was first introduced in the ninth century, was like hitting the joinery jackpot. But for Paytan, her role was confined to routine work that needed to be done in the temple kitchen. She found herself not only learning flower arranging, tea ceremony, heart sutra and temple cuisine; she needed to clean the public toilets, too.
“There’s an expression, ‘shuhari,’ the process of mastering a craft. Mo loved what he was doing. But for me, it was hard work to adjust to that, and I felt it was kind of useless; and it did bring my ego down, with no clear purpose for being there myself. From this I learned a lot about putting my ego aside.”
In Japan Sela not only learned the saying “If you want to study carpentry, go study forestry,” but he became an artist by putting his ego aside and learning from trees. Today he occupies a rare niche in Israel, and his woodwork is even in demand in Japan, as he is an authentic builder of traditional architectural components, from floor to ceiling and shoji screens in between.
Before meeting Sela, Paytan had done intensive study of calligraphy in both Tokyo and Kyoto, starting with her first teacher, Koyo Endo, who barely glanced in her direction when she first began learning.
“Calligraphy is a one-off thing – you can’t repeat the strokes. It’s so full of power,” she said.
This passion toward both self-discovery and artistic mastery is still difficult and a rare objective of foreigners, let alone Israelis, coming to Japan for the first time. Most come to tour and discover the land of beautiful gardens and futuristic urban sprawl. And while their numbers are small, artists like Paytan and Sela have an astonishing impact by continuing their relations with the teachers who trained them.
“You’re put in touch with the privilege of receiving what the teachers had to give,” Paytan explained, as she passed on classic shodo, Japanese calligraphy, at her school in Tel Aviv.
On January 19, Paytan is set to perform the writing of the kakizome, the first calligraphy of the year, at the Embassy of Japan in Tel Aviv.
IN 2016, according to the Japan National Tourist Association, 22,000 Israelis visited Japan. While most come for short stays, touring, business and academic study, an unknown number of them forge lasting relationships over the decades that defy easy categories.
Ofra Maezawa, a graduate of Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and the founding director of the Japan Color Pencil Association, had been a successful costume and set designer in Israel when she arrived in Tokyo in 1990, and to her shock: “I felt like a person who had been stripped of her identity. I went from a designer to a nobody.”
“I saw how Asakura Sensei’s inner circle treated her,” said Maezawa. “These assistants who surrounded her were her loyal vassals, never doubting her decisions. They never asked a question unless it was for work instructions. To me, it was strange. I wanted to learn about Japanese theater through working in her studio but could not join in an atmosphere that was a mixture of fear and respect.
“On the other hand, I noticed how Asakura Sensei’s inner circle negotiated with each other. She had about five helpers, none of them were young at all. The studio atmosphere was very peaceful and harmonious, and even if stressful, they were able to control it. As far as working in a group, it was a very good experience. I can understand it now, looking back, because in Japanese society the group is more important than the individual.”
Maezawa established the Japan Color Pencil Association while trying to find a cleaner painting method for a book she was commissioned to illustrate in Japan. Maezawa uses color pencils to achieve three-dimensional effects that look like a realistic oil painting. She teaches her original method throughout Israel.
WORKS BY Israeli artist Tirza Paytan (Courtesy)WORKS BY Israeli artist Tirza Paytan (Courtesy)
Studying under a sensei in world-class cities like Tokyo or Kyoto comes with its challenges: high rents and the practicality of working to make ends meet. For Avi Bera-cha, who for more than 37 years has called the Japanese countryside his home, the challenge required a sense of humor as well.
“I share my home with my four wives and a couple of concubines,” Beracha joked as he and I were continued our conversation that began in 1988, when I was walking in my furry boots through thick piles of fresh snow at the Sapporo Snow Festival and Beracha happened to be a member of the Israeli team at the international Ice Sculpture Contest, which they unexpectedly won. I’d been assigned to cover the Snow Festival as a novice writer for The Japan Times.
We recently we caught up over a Skype call, and Beracha refreshed me on the details of his life. Born to parents from Salonica, Greece, he was raised in Ramat Gan from the age of eight. He met his Japanese wife-to-be in London and chose to cross into her world. He began his life in Japan by practicing aikido.
“Eventually I ended up in a small temple in Okayama Prefecture,” Beracha said. “I was attracted to a philosophical occupation. But since I had no intention of becoming a monk, I had to do something else after a few years there. It just happened that someone I knew had a brother doing Bizen-yaki, an unglazed style of pottery making. I visited the potter’s studio, saw his wood-burning stove, the earthy colors that arose naturally from being fired in a kiln for a week. When a firing is done, so are your eyebrows – singed to nothing. Yet I thought this was what I wanted to do.”
Beracha lives in an ancient farmhouse tucked away in Hyogo Prefecture. His pottery studio contains the wood-burning kiln he built himself. He sees herds of deer, the occasional boar, foxes, some monkeys.
“You work alone. Pottery is physical work. You do something with your hands. It gives you space to think. You really have to do something with your body, if you want to think properly.
“With hindsight, I could say it’s not just Bizen, its unglazed pottery I’m attracted to. If they are really good pots, they have a presence, a naturalness to them, especially when they are made without too much attention to symmetry or insistence on perfection.
“Years later, many years later, I was listening to Bob Dylan. He had a period when he was giving talks on his record collection. He put on some old rockabilly records nobody heard of and said that this was the time when people weren’t interested in being perfect. They wanted to be great. That’s how I felt about those pots at the time.”
When it comes to making pottery, Beracha calls himself a fundamentalist.
“I like to dig the clay myself from a riverbed,” he said. “When I make glazes, I make them myself. Most are based on ash; wood, straw or volcanic ash that I have to collect myself.”
Beracha studied with several teachers over short periods of time, but, by his own admission, he was not cut out to be a disciple.
“I don’t function well in vertical relationships. I would accept their authority in their particular field, but I didn’t accept their advice in other areas of my life,” he said. What Beracha did pick up, though, was “some kind of consideration for the surroundings, sensitivity to the nuances of language and to body language itself.
“Certainly, I learned even from my mistakes, even when relationships dissipated because of disagreements. There are things I did then that I wouldn’t do now.”
SO DOES this lead to the conclusion that a passion for Japanese culture in one or many of its forms requires paying the dues of a long residency in Japan? Absolutely not! Israeli origami pioneer Miri Golan and her husband, world-renowned paper-folding author and artist Paul Jackson, choose to visit Japan regularly, without uprooting from their home in Herzliya and the nearby Origami Center in Givatayim, which Golan established 25 years ago.
Golan created a unique program that puts in teachers’ hands a curriculum to teach geometry from kindergarten through age 12 using origami models. She calls her approach “Origametria.” In 1992 Golan wrote her first book on this topic. The Origami Center conducts active exchanges with origami artists the world over at its annual conference. The next will be held at the Ye’arim Hotel in Ma’aleh Hahamisha February 8-10.
“I think we both derived great initial inspiration from Japan as the spiritual home of origami, but yes, like many Westerners, we went on to give it our own spin,” said Jackson, a popular teacher who introduces a multitude of paper-folding applications at Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art, based on the 40 books he has authored on the subject of folding paper.
“Interestingly, many Japanese origami people now learn from the West. We have an openness that is difficult for them to acquire, perhaps because we have less tradition of paper folding here. Inspiration used to be one way, but now goes two ways.”
The Internet may have turned the world into a village, but for the younger generation of origami enthusiasts weaned on YouTube, Instagram and the like, as Jackson pointed out, “The names of some of the original masters from Japan, people like Akira Yoshizawa and Kunihiko Kasahara, are beginning to slide out of sight, as a new generation who never heard of them ask where are their Facebook pages and YouTube channels.”
Golan and Jackson were in Japan four years ago for an origami convention and have good reason to trust serendipity to lead them to their destinations. They were invited to visit a Buddhist monk who once lived in Jerusalem and now runs a temple in Mishima. In a small space, the monk had curated an exhibition by one of Japan’s origami greats, Yoshizawa, without realizing Jackson had not only met Yoshizawa in London but had been inspired by Yoshizawa’s example.
“I realized you could give your life to this art form,” Jackson said.
“Yoshizawa had started in the 1930s when origami was almost dead. It wasn’t a big, thriving art like today. Yoshizawa began to put water on paper so the paper became more like clay. He put expression into animals to express character. He saw in origami the potential for creativity. With so many firsts, he was half a century ahead of his time,” Jackson continued.
“In terms of hierarchy in Japan, flower arranging (ikebana) is at the top. Calligraphy and tea ceremony follow. They’re all known. And origami is in the gutter,” said Jackson wryly.
While his paper-folding art is now collected worldwide by galleries and museums. Jackson, originally from Leeds, exhibits a Japanese-like modesty about his fame.
Ultimately, the litmus test for any foreign student of the Japanese arts might be measured in the question: Just how much humility do you possess at the end of the day?