The Taste of Water

I have been in Japan for a while now, continuing my studies into single-stone porcelain making.
I have made my way from Kyoto, where they make amazing porcelain, and am now heading down south to Kyushu. Another place that is known for its porcelain. This is the home of the Izumiyama mountain and its rotten, read kaolinised, porcelain stone. They have been making porcelain from this local stone here for 400 years. In fact their 400th year birthday celebrations will be held next year. The local mine is all but worked out now, with all the high quality white material all quarried out and safely stored away in reserve for the family that makes the Royal dinner-ware for the Emperor and his family.
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There is still plenty of yellowish, iron stained material left here. If I lived here, I’d be using that low grade stuff and firing it to a bright crimson flash in the wood kiln, but they don’t seem to value that look, or they just don’t know about it. I suspect that they do know all about it, but perhaps it just isn’t thought to be a good look here? But I love it!
I love the way that the red flash develops on my supposedly white porcelain clay. It contrasts so well with the perlucent blue proto-celadon. Especially when it is off-set by some jet black carbon inclusion from the intense reduction in the wood fired kiln. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, because I don’t have my kiln here to make this kind of pot. That is for me to do back in Australia. Here I’m a cultural tourist, taking it as it comes and learning what I can as I go.
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The quarry site is now a Preserved National Monument and protected from further extraction. It’s all a part of the local and national history now, and like all National Parks, it will be worth more in the future as it is, than the clay value of the low grade material that remains.
The current supply of single stone porcelain now comes from a couple of hours south of here, from near Kumamoto, and is called Amakusa stone. There are three grades in use here in the potteries. A low grade yellow, ground stone body, that is quite short and a little difficult to work with. It requires some patience and understanding to coax it into shape. This body is almost just like my own milled rock, native porcelain stone body, that I collect and mill at home in Australia. This being the case, I have no real problem working with it. It is just so very familiar to me. An ocean away and another island, but so, so, similar. This body is used by all the commercial potteries for their standard production. It isn’t really translucent and fires greyish white.
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The second grade, which is used by all the better workshops for their production and some artists work, is a creamy off-white and fires almost white. It has reasonable plasticity as porcelains go, I found it easy to throw to a fine finish. It shows reasonable translucency when thrown and turned thin.
The highest grade is very white and quite plastic as translucent porcelains go. It is very translucent and fires ultra-white. It is a very good blend of plastic kaolinised material and flux materials. I can tell that there isn’t too much stone in this blend. I really like it. I wish my clay was this white and plastic. It’s hard to come to terms with, I can’t imagine it, after all these years of working with my own iron-stained, plasticity-challenged, hard, milled, native stone porcelain body. Short, tearing and crumbly. This stuff here is really great.
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I’ve been visiting a few potteries and looking at what they make and how they do it. Of course nearly all the production here is pressure cast. But it’s the hand worked studios that I’m more interested in. The production outlets here sell their product for next to nothing. I don’t know how they can stay in business? They sell small cups, dishes and plates for $1 or $2 each. Unbelievably cheap. Insane prices. Today I saw 500mm. dia platters, in decorated white porcelain, on sale in huge piles, for just $42 each.
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This couldn’t possibly pay the gas bill, never mind pay for porcelain clay, rent, or wages! One explanation is that they get their gas very cheap from some far away place that is stupid enough to sell their exports too cheap – Australia!
I’ve watched some of these potters work with this high-grade, ultra-white, stuff. Their workshops are very clean and neat, as you’d expect. The pace is measured. They throw quite thick, but then spend a lot of time turning. They trim both inside and out. It results in a very fine finish and absolute accuracy. They use profiles in both throwing and turning to gauge the form precisely. In one workshop, they even weighed the individual pieces as a final check of accuracy. I’m enthralled, I’m amazed, I’m incredulous. I’m just a little bit appalled. Why waste your life competing with a computerised machine. The machine always wins, John Henry!
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I just don’t want to work like this. Not to this level of perfection. I’m quite imperfect as an individual. I feel that my pots should reflect this imperfection, this quality of humanity. I’m sure that there are machines that can do all this better, quicker and cheaper. However, what I have already come to terms with after working here for only such a short time, is that I’m a complete amateur. I know so little. What I have discovered for myself after 40 years of intensive practice at home in Australia, isn’t even a pimple on the arse of the knowledge base here.
I look at what I am making, the finish that I’m getting, the slight finger marks and wobbles in my forms. Suddenly it has ceased to appear as ‘character’, a gently imperfect, human creation, but rather, just plain naive and childish, and not in a good way, almost crass in its incompetence. I can see that I’ll have to get stuck in and remake all these pots, if I want anything at all to take home and feel justified in showing anyone this work from my trip.
I use to feel that my work had it’s own particular flavour, but now I realise that it is the flavour of water.
That’s it for now, from Steve in Japan

Stalking the wild Kanna

I came to Japan with a few projects in mind and as my stay here develops some of my plans have fallen into place, while it has become apparent that others will not be achievable on this trip. But there will always be the possibility of another time?

One of the little side projects that I had in mind was to buy some ‘kanna’. Kanna is the Japanese word for sharp edged tool, so it can be applied to razors, knives, wood working planes as well as potters turning tools. In particular, I’m here to find the source of the very special and quite rare, tungsten carbide tipped turning tools that the porcelain potters here use.

I have tracked down and visited 4 potters supply shops now, I find something of interest in each one. Today I followed a lead up into the hills to find a small workshop where I’m told that there is a man who actually makes the tools from scratch. I’ve been lucky enough to meet someone, who knows someone who can take me there

My guides took me to visit this special tool maker in his workshop right up in the hills, into the next provence. In a small shed in the bush, down a little lane, in a gully, under the huge concrete pylons of the freeway, that passes straight over the valley. Finally I have found the unremarkable workshop of the humble tungsten carbide turning tool maker. It’s a small unprepossessing shed. You wouldn’t look at it twice, and it’s ever so small to boot. No signage, no identification. You just have to know!
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We go in and straight away I can see that this is a real metal workers workshop. It has the taste and flavour of metal all about it. The types of machines, the black metal dust on the floor. The smell of burnt resin binder on the carbide cutting disks. It all seems, looks and smells  so familiar. Parts of it could be my metal working shed. So I finally get to track the shy and elusive, wild Kanna to its source. So this is it’s natural and unspoilt habitat. Don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. Something corporate, larger and more commercial/industrial. It all seems so humble and small scale and it is!
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This is Japanese artisanal work. The sort of thing that is slowly dying out here. At least it has lasted this long. I am a very lucky man to get here now. In this place and this time. I am grateful. This lovely man is quietly spoken and very humble, as far as I can tell with no language to communicate with at a deep level. But you can sense a person’s character from their demeanour, even without words. I only have greetings and platitudes. I’m so glad that I have my friends and guides here to translate for me. Because I want to know more about the process and how he works.
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Apparently this workshop is only open in the mornings. After that he has other things to do?? Maybe a second job? or out on the road selling his wares, because not too many people will find him here in the this unmarked shed on an unsign-posted lane, out of the way from a small town. Although people in the know do find him here. While we are there a young girl drove up with two tools she bought a while ago. She wants them re-sharpened.
I looked through his boxes of stock and find two tools that will be of use to me. it’s a bit difficult for me, because firstly, I’m left handed and secondly I work in the reverse rotation to the Japanese style. So not all tools will be suitable for me. I can commission some to be custom-made, but this won’t be necessary. I can find everything that I need in symmetrically shaped Kanna. I buy two of his tools from him. That just about completes my set.
Then to my surprise, I’m told that he also makes wooden tools as well. A real renaissance man! So I can’t resist buying a hand carved ‘nobebera’, or ‘nijiki’ throwing profile from him as well. He has boxes of these in stock too. Different shapes for different pots. Funnily enough I want one for throwing small bowls! I don’t know which one to choose from his stock, as I am so inexperienced and naive the these matters, so I buy the one recommended by my friend. I get a quick lesson along the way about what to look for in an ideal nobebera.
I had no idea that this guy we were going visit was a complete all-rounder.  He also makes these special wooden throwing tools himself. It’s a very long process, 12 months in the making. Sometimes longer, it all depends on the cross-section of the wood, that has to be seasoned properly. Some of the thicker sections need  to be seasoned for up to three years in water, before starting the process. He uses ancient, thick cross-section, Azalea wood, called ‘nijiki’ here. 125mm in dia. that is up to 50 years old. He roughs out the shape and then soaks the wooden proto-form in water for several months, then slowly dries it for another few more, before shaping it to almost-right. It has to be cut from the branch in such a way that the eye of the grain is centrally located in the tip of the curve. He then lets it warp as it dries completely. As it finishes its drying and settles into shape it needs a bit more re-shaping. Finally, a few months later, when it has stabilised, comes his final shaping and it’s now ready to sell. 12 to 24 months to the day after it was cut.
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My friend is at pains to point out that this is only the beginning of my mutual contract with the maker and this tool. It will warp to suit my methods and the humidity in Australia, when I get it home, so don’t expect that this is it. You have to use it and then re-shape it a little yourself, to get it just right for your purpose. It will probably need a little thinning out as well when you get tit home, to get it just thin enough to be flexible, but not so thin that it breaks under pressure. It is starting to sound like the making of a good cello, all the intricacies of the living wood and how it is never really stable, constantly responding to its circumstances and environment.
I buy the one that my friend has selected for me out of a box of about 50. He knows what to look for, He has some of these tools that are 40 years old in use in his studio.
Its a beautiful thing. I am proud to own it, and consider myself especially fortunate, to have met the maker in his native environment and seen where it is made. In-situ as it were.  It is such a privilege!

Best wishes from Steve at home in the natural habitat of the hand made Kanna and nobebera.

Being a Tourist in Kyoto

Kyoto is a marvellous city for someone like me who loves Japanese culture. It has so much to offer. I just love to spend some time detouring around the back streets and lanes on my way to what-ever project I have on for that day. It’s easy to navigate, as it is all set out on a grid system, it’s flat for the most part and very safe, even at night.

Wandering around in Kyoto is a very interesting way to spend time. One place that I always have to visit on my way to the antique sellers district is the Terramachi covered market and the cross street Nishiki market where all the traditional foods were sold.

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Nishiki still has a lot of tradition there, but the tourist shops are keeping in, specifically because of people like me visiting. I try not to buy plastic crap, but others do apparently, so the foods sellers are being slowly squeezed out in favour of tourist junk, and as a tourist, I’m responsible in part. Isn’t it amazing how we kill that what we most cherish!

Still, although I don’t buy much food here, only finger food to eat on the go. I just don’t have a kitchen here, so there isn’t much point. I still can’t resist the stroll up and back along the Nishki street, taking in all the exotic sights and smells.

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I love the smell of the pickle stand and the grilled fish stall, but one of my favourite shops is the knife makers shop, Aritsugu. They have been in Kyoto forever. Since the 1500’s I believe, this is currently the 18th generation. I wonder if his son will carry on? No pressure! The family used to be samurai sword makers, but when peace broke out, they changed to making domestic kitchen knives instead. I have bought a few knives here over the years, and one of the lovely things about it is that the knives on display are only samples. Each one represents a tray-ful of others. All waiting in their series ranks to be chosen and finished off. Each knife is almost ready tho sell, but needs that final honing and polish on the wet stone to get the edge ,extra fine and ready for work. Then you can also get your name engraved in the blade to personalise it. At no extra cost. I have bought a few knives here, mostly for my chef son and other friends, but not today. I’m on a tight budget and I’m only here for the entertainment.

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When I emerge from the markets, Karate. Empty handed. I have to wait to cross the street, because there is an anti-war demonstration going on. It is about a kilometre long all the way down the street. Very orderly, with precise breaks, so that we can cross the road. I can’t read any of the verbiage, but I gather that they are protesting against the new changes proposed to go before the Diet – parliament. That will allow the Japanese military to change their role from a strictly defense force to something else, somewhat more ‘off-shore’ and possibly aggressive?

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No trip to Kyoto would be complete for a potter without a visit to Kanjiro Kawai’s House and Museum. Secluded away in a back lane just off the main road. It is a quiet, tranquil respite from the traffic and a chance to go back 50 years or so to its heyday. It doesn’t seem to be as impressive this time around as it was the first time I went there 30 years ago. But is still good. I’m amazed that they could fire the 7 chamber climbing kiln smack in the middle of the city like this, right up until 1979. It must have been filthy!

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I stumble across a giggling twitter of girls who have just emerged from having a Maiko-makeover and are out to enjoy the Gion district in a mufti-reversal.

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After a long days walk, I reward myself with a cup of tea at the temple in the afternoon. It’s a great caffeine hit to keep me going for the rest of the afternoon.

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Fond regards from Steve in Kyoto

Kitano Markets

It’s the 25th of the month here in Kyoto, so that means it the day for the Kitano markets.

The markets are held in the outer grounds and parking area of the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine in north-west Kyoto, it’s about 40 mins on the bus. The bus leaves the Kyoto station bus terminal pretty regularly, from stand B2. cast Y230.

As I set off to walk to the station bus terminal, a ginkgo leaf is blown from a tree in the nearby Higashi-honganji temple and lands at my feet. Surely a good sign for the day to come.

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The Kitano Tenmangu Shrine is a lovely complex of old buildings and the gates and gate house are very nice.

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It’s been raining all night and now sporadically in the morning. When I get there, the market is a small, sad, version of what it is usually. In better weather, there can be upwards of 800 stall-holders, but just now you’d be lucky to count 200. It’s a wet affair today. This market has a bit of a focus on old wares and ‘antiques’, as well as all the other paraphernalia that turns up at markets. There is quite a bit of pottery here today, possibly because, pottery doesn’t matter if it gets wet. All the fabric stalls are pretty well shrouded in plastic tarps.

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There isn’t anything really special here for me today. However, I do buy a small porcelain soba noodle cup, from the Edo period. A nice little object. and I bought it stone, cold, soba.

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Stairway to Heathen

Today I took the short train ride to Inari, to visit the shinto shrine there. I’m not religious, but I find temples and shrines interesting, They can be built in the most extraordinary places. Totally awe-inspiring on occasion. Today I chose Inari, because it is so close to Kyoto where I am based. I haven’t managed to get there on my previous 4 visits, so today was my chance. There a lot of people getting off the train and the temple platform, and even more already there. The entrance is very crowded, especially for a Monday, weekday.

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I’m informed by the very helpful staff of the temple, who have set up a table marked ‘English Information’, that has my attention straight away. They tell me that nearly all the signage is in Japanese, so I should take this piece of paper, written in English to help me navigate the site. I am grateful for this small courtesy, It helps to have some sort of directional guide. They also tell me that it takes about 2 hours to do the full climb up to the top of the hill. Hopefully climbing down is faster. This is some sort of test for the devout, so that counts me out already, but I’m up for it, just for the experience.

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I set off along with the multitudes. We have to thin out a little to allow us all to pass through the first gate. We are all shoulder to shoulder as we pass the various early stages of the walk. Soon the path divides into two, one up on the left and the other for returning pilgrims on the right. These paths are noticeably narrower, so we thin out a little more. We emerge. into a cleared space and then start the climb. Don’t know how many steps there are, as I can’t read the signage. At the Moro Temple near Nara, not that far from here, they told us that there were 700 steps, more or less straight up the mountain. I could believe it.

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Here, it’s a little different we wind and wander around the hill for a couple of kilometres. It’s only a gentle climb at first, but soon gets serious, then steeper. Luckily there are small places to stop and spend money on iced tea, ice cream and even meals. There is no charge to visit this shrine, but there is a lot of money changing hands at each of the half-dozen way stations. I have brought my own bottle of water, but it is soon gone. It’s a hot day, 30oC and swelteringly humid with it. I’m soon dripping in sweat. Even if I’m not religious, a walk like this is probably good for me. Not so for a lady ahead, who takes a fall and has to be carried out on a stretcher by the rescue squad. They passed us running up the stairs half an hour ago. I’m full of admiration for these guys. They are so fit.

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It crosses my mind that if the walk is 4 km and with all the twists and turns and wriggles in the path, it is probably more than that, then there is the fact that we are also undulating and always climbing, then the 4 ks on the 2D map might be 5 k on the ground? it then strikes me that each step would be 50 cm. normally, but since we are climbing stairs for a lot of the time, perhaps my steps are only 200 mm to 300mm. for some of the time. Maybe I will take as many as 12 to 15,000 steps to do the full circuit? Maybe not, but it’s this sort of thing that goes through a person’s mind as he walks/climbs for and hour or two.

I eventually reach the top. Inari is the patron of manufacturing, so I can claim that I’ve made it!

The crown of the hill is a series of graveyards or cemeteries. It’s a long way to go to die and there have been times during the ascent when that possibility has crossed my mind. So what did I find there?

Nothing!

A good view, a slight breeze. Some marketing. Is nowhere sacred?

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I find going down instead of being easy, is almost as hard, It creates a lot of pressure on the toes as I descend one step at a time. It really worked my calf muscles going up, now my toes coming down. I eventually reach the bottom again. It’s past midday and really heating up now. I reach the level ground and a place to stop and rest, but instead of rest I get accosted by a friendly Japanese man who wants to discuss the subtleties of the English language with me. I’m not the right person to ask. I failed English at school. Still, I do my best to answer his questions. He wants me to explain to him why English is such a complex language, with so many words that can be used to say the same thing, like broken and shattered. I apologise for my lack of knowledge, but do my best to explain the difference, it;’s all about degrees of difference. I go on to explain that English isn’t just one language. It’s a conglomerate, with roots in Greek, Latin, French, German and Danish. England was invaded many times. Everybody left something behind. He goes on to ask if I’m a Christian, all westerners are Christians, aren’t they? I tell him No. Not everyone. He asks if I’m Catholic? No. Am I Anglican? No. what religion am I then? I’m not. I don’t have a religion. Then I’m a heathen in Christ’s eyes! Possibly, but I’m not really interested, thank you!

I take my leave, I can see where this is going. When I arrived at the bottom. My legs were like jelly, I had to keep moving my weight from leg to leg to get comfortable, so the time being harassed by the stranger was a useful time to get my legs back. I feel better now, knowing that I’m a heathen. I somehow feel a bit pious about it. Can you be a pious Heathen?

Taking Time to Take Tea

I have an interest in tea, only minor in the scheme of things, but it’s been consistent in my life. I love the old tea houses, especially when the thatch gets that mossy look of age, that special wabi, sabi  look. There are some especially intuitive, gifted and sensitive people out there to be sure. I’m not one of them, but in my better moments, I can see and appreciate the profoundly beautiful things that they have left behind for me to experience. It’s a joy that highlights my day.

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One one of my walks I come across a temple where you can take tea. So I do. I take the time. I sit and I ponder. It isn’t in my vague plan for today, but it is very much welcome and appreciated. This is time unplanned and well spent. The caffeine really enlivens my step afterwards too.

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I did my washing today. What more could you want?

Much ado about Nothing

I’m finding on this visit to Kyoto that so many of the temples are being re-constructed, but not in a Post Modern way. Rather it’s in a Post Ancient, or using ancient posts kind of way. Most of the work seems to involve renewing the roofs. I was here more or less this time last year and we were able to walk through some of the Higashi-Honganji temple, even though the tradesmen were in doing the work. It was amazing to see them build such a big scaffolding structure over the end of the temple, all set up on tracks, so that as the work progresses, they can winch the covering building along over the next bit, until it’s finished. It will apparently take some years to complete.

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The Largest-Cast-Bronze-Buddha-in-the-world-Temple, Todai-Ji, at Nara is now the Largest-Cast-Bronze-Buddha-Under-a-Temporary-Tin-Roof-Buddha-Temple-in-the-world. Everybody has to have something that defines us as special, even buddhists. It’s all about nothingness, but the biggest building in which to find nothingness seems to be important. Even the Kiyomizu-dera Temple is under reconstructive surgey at the moment.

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I’ve been visiting quite a few temples while I’m here. There are temples featuring wood, moss, stone, raked gavel, water, gold and silver(not), Apparently it’s important to be about something while your contemplating nothing. If zen is a sense of cohesion and tranquility found in emptiness, then I’m on the right track. I have come to terms with some sort of concept of emptiness while I’ve been visiting the temples here. Firstly, my wallet is a lot emptier, that’s for sure, I’m pretty certain about that. But one can never tell. Maybe it’s only an illusion?

My tummy is a lot emptier, as I’m on the 2nd day of fasting now and as I search for emptiness and nothingness. Emptiness sure feels like something to me right now. I’m finding it hard to tell, when or if I’ve found it. Nothing is a hard concept to achieve and inhabit while still being able to tell the difference. So I can safely claim that I have successfully found nothing so far. However, I’ll keep looking, just in case I don’t find more of it.

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I start the day very early to beat the heat. The sun is casting oblique shadows across the land. The Golden Temple is beautiful. It too was under reconstruction on one of my previous visits. Now it’s all out of its wrappers and showing off in its splendid, glittering, blingy sort of way. So quiet, peaceful and unassuming. Hard to notice that it is even there sort of attitude, while screaming, “Look at me”!

Money, wealth and worldly achievements don’t matter apparently. I suppose that this includes gold? Just the sort of place to look for nothing. The guy who built it was really ripped off. When the builders covered it with gold at the end, they covered all the windows too. So he couldn’t even see out to look on the quiet lake at its foot or feet, I’m not too sure if temples have one or many? I think that he could have saved a lot of money and put in double glazing instead of gold leaf. The insulation value would be heaps better than gold and the view improved out of sight, well, actually into sight.

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Still, he did better that the guy who built the Silver Pavilion Temple. He didn’t even get any silver on it. The builders shot through before the silver was applied and all that they left was a big pile of white builders sand on the site. I did eventually find some silver there. It was all dropped into the wishing well pond. I wonder if it works – wishing I mean. As I’m looking for nothing, I didn’t bother throwing anything in, I don’t want my wish to come true. I might get something, while what I’m really after is nothing.

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The weather changes while I am here and there is a storm, it’s been coming for a while now. I can sense it in the air and in me. I’m out on the path around the garden and it’s teeming down.

I stand and watch the not-quite Silver Temple melt away in the rain.

The storm has resulted in every one leaving. They scurry for the security of the visitors centre.

I’m here alone.

The path is empty.

The world disolves.

There is only the rain.

I walk across town to Ryoan-ji. Here the path is straight and true, but also strangely empty. It’s mid day now and the sun is almost directly overhead. The storm clouds are gone and the sun is beating down. It’s hot, muggy and humid.

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Finally at Ryoan-ji I start to come to grips with the the paradox inherent in Zen. At Ryoan-ji, you don’t have to pay to walk around the lake and grounds like you do at all the other temples. Here you only pay to go in and see the raked gravel and the 15 stones. Here’s the paradox. When you go in, you can’t see the 15 stones, You pay for 15, but only ever see 14. If you walk to the other side you can now see the missing stone, but one of the original stones is now obscured. There are only ever 14 stones. Even though there are 15! Deep stuff! I paid money for this.

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It’s hard to take it all in. Even for my little camera. I sit and think about this for quite a while. But nothing comes.

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Janine and I were recently reminded of the Zen concept of non-aquisitiveness when she spent a bit of time with the Tibetan Buddhist Monks. As a fund raiser, they sold her a Tibetan, hand-woven, woollen, mobile phone cover. There’s an example of encouraging non-acquisitiveness for you.

Best wishes from Steve in Kyoto, on the empty path, and not doing much about nothing,