Exploring a city on foot carries us to new destinations, but it also carries us to new people. Often, after I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to come into contact with a highly memorable individual, I somehow wonder if I had been drawn in that direction that day just for the purpose of meeting them. This was one such occasion.
Yesterday, on a day off from work, I strolled down a back street near my old neighborhood in Sakyo Ward. There is a square body of water which lies along Reisen-dori street to the north. The street itself is lined on the north side with a narrow path and cherry trees (glorious in April for their blossoms and soothing afterwards for their shade) and a canal on either side of the water. To its west side is a main street, Kawabata-dori , with the Kamo River on its other side. Traveling east on Reisen-dori, one will eventually reach the Okazaki area, and the famed Heian Shrine. We often walked to the “pond”, about five minutes from my previous residence, to feed the ducks and also the eager turtles who swam over to us, poking their heads above the water in hopes of getting a bite.
I just happened to take a back road along the side of the pond to reach Marutamachi-dori to the north. This small, residential road is less frequented by cars, as it takes some corner turns around the perimeter of the pond. As I turned one corner, I saw my new friend sitting on a small stool and sketching with a ballpoint pen. I meant to just pass behind him, but he looked up at me with kind eyes and greeted me. I took the opportunity to step over and compliment him on his beautiful drawings, which I was surprised to see he confidently created by first using a regular ballpoint pen, followed by colored pencils. The small wooden box he held on his lap to use as an easel contained several other sketches from famous places around the city: Heian Shrine, Toji Temple, the thatched roof houses in snowy Ohara (a small village in the northern outskirts of Kyoto City), one drawing of Mount Fuji, and another of what appeared to be a person in traditional court attire or theatrical clothing. I was touched by his warm energy, but as I didn’t wish to disturb him, I thanked him for sharing his beautiful work with me and carried on my way.
My destination was the Tousuikai (an indoor sports center on the other side of the pond where adults and children can take classes in swimming, dance, etc.) to get some general information. While I could have continued in the opposite direction after receiving what I needed, however, I was drawn to go back to speak with my friend again, resulting in the conversation below.
“Why did you choose this location to sketch today?”
I chose this location because my friends and I swam in this body of water when we were children. We all joined the local Tousuikai Swimming Club. There were bars to block off both ends where the water is flowing in a river on either side, and there was even a diving board right in the center. There were long planks of wood that we would stand on and jump off. All of the neighborhood kids belonged to the club, and we all wore red swimming caps. The caps were all marked with our swimming level: 2, 3, etc… There was a boat that went from here, all the way down the river, to Heian Shrine. I swam here a whole lot. Now I’m seventy-seven years old. That was about fifty years ago. I sure made a lot of mischief around here when I was a high school student.
The Kamo River is down the street. When there was a typhoon, some materials, such as planks of wood, would break off from here and there. We would play on top of them and send them floating off down the river when we were done, and we’d get in trouble with the Kyoto City Officials.
I’m the fourth generation of my family to live here in Kyoto. My father worked for the prestigious Shimadzu Coorporation. My grandfather was a candy-maker, craftily using scissors to create shapes like rabbits, etc. His shop was in the Gion area, in a place that Geisha would often frequent.
“What is a big difference between past and present Kyoto?”
The difference between Kyoto then and now is that now, there are so many more rules. You can’t enter there; You can’t swim there. There were so many things we could do in those days. Now it’s a society of prohibitions. Today’s children are inside using computers, playing games. It’s just a different time. Before, we used to run, climb to the top of Mount Daimonji. If the children play outdoors these days, the neighbors get upset and scold them. There are open places to play, but there are still many things you can’t do there. It’s almost just like taking a walk. It’s the same within the wide Imperial Palace Grounds. There are so many prohibited activities… even sparklers aren’t allowed.
In my junior high days, there were big fireworks held along the Kamo River, between Sanjo Street and Oike Street, I think. They were on a huge scale. And once, one of the buildings in the Imperial Palace Grounds caught on fire from a fallen ember, and then that event was prohibited. I feel sorry for today’s children.
“When did you start sketching?”
Three years ago, my wife developed lung cancer and was admitted to Kyoto University Hospital. She was released and then re-admitted over a one-and-a-half year period. During that time, the cancer spread from her lungs into her brain. She was getting weaker and weaker, and we were told by the doctors that the treatment she was undergoing would no longer have any effect. So, it came to that point. I continued to care for her at home, and it was very expensive. It was my first such experience as a human being, and I feel the first time my eyes were really open to my wife. Then, she passed away, and I felt for the first time as if I had the realization of what makes us human.
After her passing, I had been at home doing absolutely nothing for about a week, and my son recommended to me that I should take up a hobby. I thought, even if I’m not good at it, I’ll start sketching pictures here and there which really reflect who I am. These will be for me. For my memories. I’ll draw all of the places I went with my wife. My wife and I took a lot of walks together. To Heian Shrine, for example. She also loved snowy scenes, so I drew a picture of the snow in Ohara.
I’ve been drawing for about two-and-a-half years now, and the process has become really enjoyable for me. I’ve started thinking, “Hey, I’ve done pretty well on this one,” and my daughter compliments me on ones she feels are especially pretty. Or she comments, “Oh, that’s the place you went with Mom.” Most of the drawings are places we went together, so I’ve been connecting this hobby with my happy memories. That was the starting point for it all.
I wanted to take my wife on one last vacation so we drove by small car, all the way to Mount Fuji, and stayed by Lake Kawaguchi. I knew it would be the last time, but she had been dreaming of going there. We went by car because her bones had become so weak by the cancer treatment, and she needed to use a wheelchair. That was my last chance to make memories for her. It took about eight hours to get there, but I’m glad I did it.