Thursday, August 16, 2012

Watercolor painting in Kamakura

This week I began my week-long private watercolor lessons with a famous Japanese teacher living in the old town of Kamakura, which is about an hour's drive down the highway from Tokyo.

I decided to make time for this truly enjoyable experience because it's been on my list of things to do for this year, along with climbing Sigiriya in Sri Lanka, traipsing through the width and breadth of the Czech Republic, finally visiting Petra, and experiencing the very best of South Africa -- among many other things.

Kenya, Peru, Tanzania and the Panama Canal will have to wait for next year.


I used to visit Kamakura every weekend when I was in college in Tokyo, as I had a homestay family who lived in a beautiful ancestral home here. There wasn't really a proper homestay program to match me with this Kamakura family; but, if I remember right, I had asked someone at my school to introduce me to a Japanese family so I could learn more about Japanese customs and the way of life.

Just my luck, but the family I was "given" was an old Kamakura family who lived in the kind of home you see in a Kurosawa film.

They had one young son and one young daughter, and every weekend I happily took the train from Mitaka in Tokyo to Kamakura, to visit temples, explore alleys off the beaten track and do lots of "family" things like pick-up the son from his swimming lessons, learn koto with the mother, and help prepare a traditional Japanese dinner.

Unfortunately they moved away from Kamakura and now live somewhere in the northern part of Japan.


One of my most vivid memories of Kamakura was from around this time. One day I was walking along another unnamed alley in my never-ending quest -- yes, even then, I was already living a never-ending Travelife -- for the beautiful, the extraordinary, and the ordinary but beautiful in Japan.

It was late afternoon and Kamakura was already very quiet as the tourists had all gone home. But from an old home similar to the one my homestay family lived in, I heard the most beautiful music from someone practicing on a koto.

When I peered through the lattice windows, a serenely lovely young woman dressed in a kimono was playing on a koto in an equally serene tatami room. I think this was when I fell in love with Japan, and this image has stayed on with me ever since.

These days, I'm not as enamoured with Japan anymore, having grown used to it and also having seen all its faults and weaknesses. But it's a fascinating country nevertheless, and this week in Kamakura has helped me remember what I have always liked about it.


To complete the Kamakura experience, I decided to book a Japanese inn for the week. It's not the usual luxury type of place I like, but in a way it suits this week of painting and reflection wonderfully, sleeping in a tatami room and living the kind of Japanese life I don't even live at all in Tokyo.

There is nothing traditional about my life in Tokyo, and perhaps that's why I decided to relive traditional Kamakura for a change.

Everyday is an early start here because the bustlings in a nearby temple wake me up way before any time I'd consider decent in Manila. Then the inn mistress and her assistants serve a very traditional breakfast of grilled fish, miso soup, pickles, and rice. If the mistress has seen some nice, fresh vegetables at the market, there may even be an extra vegetable dish.


At 8 AM sharp, I walk out before it's too hot, to the home of my watercolor teacher, via a series of narrow and very picturesque lanes. She's already waiting in her studio overlooking a lovely garden and a carp pond when I arrive. As soon as I take my watercolor supplies out, we begin.

It's a private lesson -- she doesn't really teach students so it's more of a favor to me -- and it's just the teacher and I painting in her studio all day. While painting, we discuss life and philosophy, stopping only to have green tea and a delivery soba from a very good local restaurant at lunch.

It's so nice and peaceful to focus on something like art and painting. I find that I forget everything and everyone else.

I told my teacher: "Painting really allows you to focus on something almost outside yourself, doesn't it? Almost nothing else matters when I'm working on a watercolor." At that moment I was painting the willow tree and the pond outside.


My sensei smiled and said: "Don't lose that feeling of detachment -- or rather that lack of attachment. The ability to detach one's self from other people and things will give you a unique power. You will then be able to appreciate and enjoy the people in your life in the moment, in the present, and not mourn them too much if and when they aren't there anymore."

Words of wisdom, I thought. And I toyed with the idea of framing the watercolor I was making and hanging it on my wall at home in Manila to remind me of the importance of knowing how to detach.

I really like to hear about her life and experiences, but she is equally interested in mine, so in a way I'm forced to tell her stories of my never-ending Travelife. She was especially intrigued by my stories of ghosts in the Czech Republic. Then I thought about asking her to just read about it in this blog so I could listen to more words of wisdom from her; but I forgot that she doesn't speak or read English.


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