Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Henro Walking Staff - Kongozue

One of the important pieces of the henro kit is the kongozue, or walking staff. Kobo Daishi (774-835) is credited with founding the Shikoku henro pilgrimage. People walking the route believe they are following in his footsteps and even that, as they walk, so he walks along with them in spirit. The kongozue staff is said to be the embodiment of Kobo Daishi.

The top of the stick is covered with a colourful cloth and there is a bell attached. The bell is to remind pilgrims to stay in the moment, listening to the sound of the bell as they walk. At the end of the day, the bottom of the kongozue is carefully washed, dried and put in the tokonoma of the pilgrim's room.

As pilgrims cross bridges, they are meant to carry the stick without it making any noise on the bridge surface. Stories relate that Kobo Daishi sometimes slept under bridges during his travels in Shikoku. Pilgrims walk quietly over the bridges without tapping their sticks so as not to wake the sleeping  O-Daishi-San.

Jizoji - Ginko Tree and Kyushu Henro

We stopped in the temple grounds of number 5, Jizoji, to do some sketching and rest our legs. The henro route is mostly on pavement, which is surprisingly hard on the feet. In this lovely courtyard there was a huge and gorgeous ginkgo tree (not the one I painted). The women in the temple office, who stamped and painted our book, told us the tree was 800 years old. It made me think that the scrawny specimen in my yard at home had a long way to go! 

Our first day on the walk was marked by bright blue fall skies over small farm holdings and houses. The route was lined with clipped pines, orange and persimmon trees, eggplant and rice fields and swaths of cosmos flowers. One of the highlights of the day was walking along with a group of henro from Kyushu. I chatted with an older lady who explained that they took the Friday overnight ferry from Kyushu to Shikoku, were met by their guide on Saturday morning, walked from temple 1 to 5, had dinner, then got back on the overnight ferry and were back in Kyushu by Sunday morning. And all this for 10,000 yen. (about $100 CAD). It is fascinating to see the variations on how the pilgrimage is done. We even saw a guy on a motorbike in the white henro coat, going from temple to temple. 

Japanese temple buildings, especially the roofs are a real visual puzzle and a challenge for artists at any level. In this painting, I was aiming for just an impression of what I was seeing. We had about an hour to look around and get sketching before we had to get to our accommodation at Kotobuki Shokudo. The idea is to arrive at your minshuku or ryokan by about 5 pm so you can have a bath before dinner at 6 pm. I have to say, things in Japan are very well organized. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Shikoku Henro - Getting Started

Bell and Sake Casks at Temple 1, Ryozenji

We took the bus from Kyoto Station to Tokushima on the island of Shikoku. Shikoku is one of the four main islands of Japan but is relatively less touristy and more "inaka" or rural than Honshu. We planned to spend about six days walking the first part of the Henro, a buddhist pilgrimage that includes 88 main temples and covers some 1300 km. We managed to visit the first 17 temples and walk about 100 km. Pilgrims mostly go by car or by bus but some still choose to do the route on foot. Apparently it can be done by helicopter, but I have to say, we did not see a single helicopter. The walk takes between 40 and 50 days in total.

We decided to wear the white pilgrim jacket, carry the white bag with incense, name papers and stamp book, as well as carry the signature henro staff with a bell on it. In this way, we identified ourselves as members of the henro trail. I must say, it certainly made the local people recognize us and we had numerous friendly encounters with local farmers, kindly pointing and shouting us in the right direction as well as boisterous conversations with school kids in uniforms. We did our best to respectfully observe the traditions and were often coached by other pilgrims as we walked together.

There is a series of tasks or rituals that pilgrims do as they enter each temple precinct. The lovely thing that we discovered was that people can do as many or as few of these practices as they choose. It really is a personal journey. We felt very welcomed and yet were left to our own devices to experience the henro trail.

There is a gate at the front of every temple. Pilgrims bow as they enter. Most people find a place to leave their pack and staff somewhere near the front gate. Then we go to the fountain, use a dipper to get some water and wash our hands and mouths. One of the cutest things I saw was the children of the local priest floating their toys in the fountain. They were so uninhibited and clearly enjoying themselves. Next, pilgrims ring the bell, go up to the main temple buildings, light some incense and/or a candle,  put their name paper in the box, put a donation in the money box and say a prayer. After that, people usually move down the steps to ground level to recite the Heart Sutra. We used the romaji version of the sutra in our guide book to quietly recite and follow. At one temple, a friendly pilgrim from Chiba who had done the route by car more than 20 times, came up behind us and chanted with us. Suddenly it felt like we had wind in our sails. It was quite a moving experience. Finally, people take their stamp books to the temple office to have it stamped in bright orange ink and the temple name painted in sumi with a brush. That was always my favourite part of the visit. I just marvel at the beauty and individuality of each person's calligraphy. Oh and finally, finally, step outside the gate and bow again before looking for the trail markers to the next temple.

Monday, November 2, 2015


The most famous temples in Kyoto, including Ginkakuji, are packed with visitors. Ginkakuji is best known for its raised sand garden, carefully tended by a crew of maintenance gardeners every three days. We were lucky on the day we visited to see this group of men and one woman at work raking, scooping and patting the sand to perfection.

It would be lovely to have these gardens to yourself to draw and paint but I settled for a miniature shrine down a slightly quieter path, away from the main attractions. As I stood and very quickly sketched and painted this little scene, taxi drivers with groups of 4 school kids each, moved through the garden. It must have been nice for those kids and the taxi drivers as well, to be in small groups rather than the typical group of 40 following a flag and a guide. These small groups of kids were having lively conversations and the local taxi drivers were enjoying sharing their knowledge and insights too. The driver near me encouraged his young charges to practice their English with me. Turns out one of the little boys was fluent in English. He'd spent several years living in North Carolina with his family. He and I enjoyed a fleeting shared experience of having been the kid who'd lived in a foreign country.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Now, Back to Japan - Restaurant Things

We were staying near Kiyomizudera, in southern Higashiyama, Kyoto. It is an old neighbourhood full of tiny streets, on the side of the hill. We discovered a cool coffee shop/restaurant and decided to make a breakfast stop there. I love Japanese "coffee" shops because they are great places for an inexpensive breakfast set and nearly always include a Japanese option; think grilled salmon, pickles, rice, miso soup, green tea for about CAD $8.

This place was newly renovated and was a cool mix of traditional Japanese lines with smooth, exposed concrete and stainless steel.  The owner/server was a slim, artsy looking guy with a pony tail. He had a lovely, unflapped manner and was managing all aspects of order taking, cooking and serving, himself.  I could tell as soon as we sat down that the service would be slooooow, which gave me lots of time to capture his groovy concrete countertop, complete with multiple rice cookers, stacked plates and bowls, chopsticks and cutlery.

The best of Japan is surrounded by beauty, down to the last culinary details.  This tiny, gourd shaped thing holds the chill pepper to sprinkle on soba and ramen. The ball at the top comes out as a peg and the pepper is shaken out the top. We stopped for a zaru soba snack in the late afternoon sunlight at a tiny restaurant, served by a charming middle aged woman and her sweet faced, elderly mother.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Interlude - Wet and Dry

Dry Blue Pear

Wet Blue Pear

Dry Green Pear
Wet Green Pear
I was experimenting with Chris' paint box last night. (the one I made up for him for our trip to Japan) It was really fun to dip into some colours that I don't have in my box. The colours were so gorgeous when they were wet, and also nice dry too. That is the thing about watercolour. I am always trying to chase that beautiful intensity and shine after the colour dries. Oh, like rocks and shells at the beach, why do things have to dry?

Tomorrow, back to work from Japan…..

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Daruma - Here's One for my Dad

I remember when we lived in Japan when I was a kid, my dad loved daruma. The idea is that you buy one of these round, red figures, make a wish and paint in one of the eyes with a black pen or paintbrush. Then when your wish or prayer comes true, you paint in the other eye. I had fun sketching a few daruma in a small restaurant in Ueno while I waited for my lunch to arrive. Then on my last day in Japan, in the surprisingly lovely town of Narita, near the airport, I saw a huge display of daruma on sale. Here's to you, dad. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

City of Gems

Wash your hands. Cleanse your mouth. 
Kyoto really is one of my favourite cities in the world. When you first arrive there, it looks like other Japanese cities. It is relatively low rise, with tight streets and fairly nondescript buildings. But Kyoto is a fabulous place to discover with a bugs eye view. It is best seen close up and intimately. The details of doorways, the tiny temples and shrines, the winding streets and waterways. And mostly it is fun to explore the ring of amazing temples and shrines that are on the edge of the hills, encircling the city. I feel like you could discover new precincts on every visit. There are some really famous and stunning destination shrines and temples; Ginkakuji, Kiyomizudera, Saihoji, Tenruji. But to be honest, my favourites have always been the lesser know and almost unvisited places that you stumble upon. Kyoto is full of these stunning and yet largely overlooked gems.

This time we did make the effort to pre-book the famous Kokedera or Saihoji, The Moss Garden. The last time Chris and I tried to see it, the place was closed for something like 20 years so the moss could recover. So this time, prompted by our co-travellers, we decided to try again. In order to make the booking, you need to send a self addressed post card with a Japanese return address to the monks, requesting permission to visit. In order to ensure that our letter had been received and booking secured, I phoned Saihoji from Canada, twice. I think they may have granted us permission so that I would stop calling and harassing them in my less than perfect Japanese. So the four of us, and about 50 others arrived at 10 am, chanted sutras, wrote our prayers and then were allowed to walk in the garden. It was lovely, the moss seemed to have recovered. I captured a quick drawing in the rest area near the exit.

Kyoto Photo - A Confession

I really love Kyoto; temples, doorways, canals, glimpses of geisha. Your eyes just bug out at every turn. The details astound. Okay, so here is the confession. 99% of the time, I draw from what is in front of me, from real life. And very occasionally,  I use a photo. This painting of the Japanese woman wearing a kimono in front of the Kyoto doorway is from a photograph. And you may also be astute enough to see that it is from the cover photo of the Lonely Planet Kyoto book by Chris Rowthorn. The book is just excellent. Chris also has a wonderful blog called Inside Kyoto. (

So there it is, out in the open. And the reason I wanted to include this little fraud is because of a lovely, new trend we saw in Kyoto during this visit. The cobbled streets and temple precincts were full of young (mostly) Japanese men and women, dressed in lovely traditional kimono and zori (footwear). There seems to be a new pride in things traditional and it was so lovely seeing these youngsters so beautifully turned out, strolling   through old Kyoto. I am fully aware that this is just another tourist service - rent a kimono for the day - but there was nothing tacky tourist about it at all. These young people looked elegant and resplendent. They were delighted and delightful.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Of Street Corners,Trains and Coffee Nation: Drawing on Marginal Time

Water soluble pen
I took a really wonderful online art course with Roz Stendahl this summer call Drawing Live Subjects in Public. Roz is a wonderful artist and also a fabulous teacher. She is passionate (I don't use that term lightly) about daily and intentional practice. I got as much out of her practice philosophy as I did from her expert technical instruction. I have never encountered a teacher who is as rigorous with her feedback and as devoted to individual students. Generous, creative, disciplined, hilarious, quirky and hardworking, always leading by example. Did I mention prolific?  Check her out.

All this to say, I have (with intention and efforts at daily practice) been trying to add lively, moving people and animals to my sketchbook. There is no shortage of subject matter, just the challenging reality that people and animals move, constantly. And yet, the urban sketching I admire most is animated with sentient beings. So during the recent trip to Japan, I made efforts to include live subjects. As an aside, cell phones have become my unexpected ally in that people sit very still when they are looking at their phones, a gift to the sneaky transit sketcher.

The other factor about urban sketching is that there are opportunities to draw in every circumstance. Marginal time; that is to say time at the edges of the "star attraction" travel experiences, is often the best time for fresh and spontaneous drawing. Drawing people on trains, or on street corners or even in temples, capture slices of everyday life that, for me, are full of meaning and conjure up memories of the trip. These are not always the "best" drawing or paintings to look at. But there is a rough sincerity in the quick, incomplete and often ill composed pages.

Grabbing street corner time while others wait for coffee

Let me say, my travel companions were quite attached to their coffee habit. Coffee is definitely available in Japan but coffee purists have to got to quite an effort to find the "real" espresso machines. Further, coffee is not a morning ritual in Japan so  Coffee Nation usually has to wait until at least 10 am (sometimes noon) to find a cup of java brewed to their standards and specifications.  Instant and drip do not meet the gold standard. On one particular day, after google searches and a destination trip, I had a full 15 minutes to sketch on a street corner  while the barista opened the kiosk and the Percent Arabia machine got fired up. The resulting fragmented sketches zoom me back to that day, people watching and capturing fragments.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Getting Stuff Done in Tokyo

In the couple of days before I met up with the other three adventurers, I had some business to get done in Tokyo. The plan was to spend a week in Shikoku, walking part of the Henro pilgrimage. There is one good guide book in English, the most recent edition of which was published 3 weeks before I arrived in Japan. Perfect. All I had to do was find the specialist map bookstore and buy it. I had not anticipated the Fall Equinox National Holiday so my first attempt to get the book was thwarted. I did find it but it was closed for the day. So I returned early the next day, too early in fact for the 10 am opening. (think jet lag) But as an urban sketcher, there is never an issue with waiting around. It is just a fab opportunity to get one more sketch in, which I did.

And then the rest of the day was free for cycling my rental bike all over Tokyo. That was superb. In Japan, everyone rides on the sidewalks so no worries about dodging cars and trucks. It was the first time, in all of the years that I spent in Japan, that I had a feel for how the districts of Tokyo link together. It is a mammoth city and yet relatively flat, so very doable on a bike. Whee!

Meiji Shrine

Rows of lanterns at Meiji Shrine, Tokyo. 

Chris and I still remember our visit 20 years ago to the huge and famous Meiji Shrine, near Harajuku and Omotesando in Tokyo. We settled onto a bench to do a bid of sketching and with seconds, a guard in a grey uniform came over, hand up and said: "No drawing long time." Needless to say, this time around, I expected a similar fate as I quietly pullout out my sketchbook. To buy delight, I sat for about an hour and to my double delight, the shrine was filled with traditional wedding activity. It was so colourful, serene and stately. And of course, I had to capture a couple of views of those official guys in grey. That day they were too busy trying to keep tourists out of the wedding processions to be worried about drawing infractions.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Getting Started

Getting the sketching started in a new location can take a bit of gumption. Before a trip, I have rosy fantasies of drawing my way through foreign cities but sometimes making the paint hit the paper is astonishingly intimidating.

I had a couple of days in Tokyo on my own, before I connected with Chris and our friends. Jet lag was working in my favour so I was up early and the days were warm and bright. As I wandered around Inaricho, near Ueno, I happened onto one of of the numerous shrines in the neighbourhood. There was a place to sit, where (ironically) local business men and women came to smoke so I got started. As an aside, it is remarkably hard to find benches in public places in Japan. There seems to be a general discouragement of lingering. And also, garbage cans are non-existent. The streets are impeccably clean but it is not that easy to find garbage cans and recycling bins. Hmm.

 So, I sketched, listening to the local salarymen gossiping. The sun came around and pushed me off my bench. And so the day and the sketching began.

Subway Sketching

Inevitably when you visit Tokyo, you spend a lot of time on subways and trains, moving around the mammoth city. I occasionally sketched commuters but with the seats set up as long benches, facing each other, it is hard to hide the fact that you are sketching someone if you are looking straight at them. Shoes are always a good option because it alleviates the stare factor. 

In this case, I surreptitiously glanced at this woman wearing her mask on the train. She was absorbed in her cell phone so was unaware of me studying her. This drawing has a very sketchy quality because, for obvious reasons, I was going fast. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A Thirty Year Cycle

Text conversation between me and my daughter, B.
This after she drove and dropped me at the Seabus station, heading to the airport.

B: "Feels kinda weird to be sending my mother off alone on a backpacking trip."

Me: "Ha! Just like the old days when my mom sent me off to Japan in 1986.
Gosh that's 30 years ago. One big, cosmic circle."

And I could just not stop smiling…..

You see, my youngest  graduated from high school and is firmly launched at university. My eldest has finished her course and found a great job on the Island. So I have been given my parenting pink slip. I say that in the best possible way.

I and we, as a family, have had many fine adventures since my mom sent me off into the blue yonder all of those years ago. But this trip to Japan, with my backpack, somehow felt symbolic and frankly, great. There is something exhilarating about heading off solo with the prospects of unknown adventures. The other thing is that my kids are capable and independent. That makes leaving them behind really easy. And let's be honest. I was going for 2 and a half weeks. And, I was heading to Japan, my home away from home, to meet up with my husband and our two friends. It was a holiday... with a backpack. There were youthful resonances but also an itinerary, friends and kin,   accommodation  booked and way more Japanese language at my disposal this time around. In 1986, I arrived in Tokyo at 7 pm on a Friday night, with some money in my pocket, accommodation that had fallen through, the phone number of the cousin of an acquaintance, negligible Japanese language ability, no job and only a half baked plan. It all worked out then. And it was a splendid experience. I figured this time around would be also be splendid. And so it was.

What follows will be a few sketches and stories about a trip to Japan.
It all started with a sketch of Bill Reid's Haida Gwaii at YVR.

Yikes! Time for a Catch Up!

What happened?! Oh ya. Summer.

What is it about beautiful weather and blogging? They just don't seem to go together. And it sure was a beautiful summer, and fall for that matter, including an amazing trip to Japan. And now, the leaves are changing, the air feels cool and the light is at a completely different angle. Soon we will lose daylight savings and the evenings will be dark even earlier.

What is it about dark evening and blogging? They go together perfectly:)

Stay tuned for updates from my amazing summer course with Roz Stendhal and, of course, that trip to Japan.

Monday, June 15, 2015


Think of the classical Chinese paintings you have seen of steep, mist shrouded mountains with perfect wind pruned pines clinging to rocky outcroppings. This is the beauty of Huangshan, The Yellow Mountains in Anhui Province. The ever-changing scenes are an inspiration to artists……and also a life's work. It would take a lifetime of daily study to do them justice. The mist rose and evaporated, hiding and revealing stunning views at every point along the beautifully laid stone paths criss crossing the mountains. 

The other thing about visiting Huangshan that must be mentioned is that there are legions of tourists  enjoying the sights. In fact, this was part of the charm for me. In this quick sketch, I tried to capture the sense of the group tours, complete with matching hats, guide flags and leaders with megaphones keeping their charges together. We saw orange ball caps, more stylish yellow hats, pink, Louis Vuitton-esque brown plaids and everything in between.  

Huangshan - Yellow Mountains

Huangshan - Yellow Mountains

Huangshan - Yellow Mountains

The hotels at the top of the mountain allow people to camp in the basketball court for 150 yuan per night. 

Saturday, June 13, 2015


One morning in Hongcun, Chris was having a coffee in a cool little shop. I got drawing and was having fun with the juxtaposition of old and new snacks. M&Ms are my guilty pleasure. We also discovered these yummy black sesame filled cookies, sold by the village grannies from a big basket. I assume these cookies have been a local favourite for some time.


Apparently May is the season for this delicious little fruit called pipa. I think the English translation is loquat. It is a small, easy to peel fruit that is like a juicy apricot and has dark, round shiny seeds a bit like in a persimmon. We saw this fruit everywhere for sale along the highways and in the towns but did not try it until we got to Hongcun village. And then we were hooked.

Pipa seller in Hongcun

This is the sketch I was working on when the pipa lady offered me her fruit. Eggplant was growing in the small plot beside me. Mops and laundry were drying in the sun.

Street sales in Suzhou

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Fabulous Bridge in Hongcun

This is the fantastic stone bridge that brings everyone across the small lake and into the village of Hongcun: tour groups in matching hats, grad classes in black gowns, women with striking red scarves brought especially for photo ops, young men taking shots of the backs of their girlfriends as they walked away from the bridge and school girls with selfie sticks. And of course, many of the art students tackled the complexity of the structure and the reflections in the water. This was the bridge and path that led past the front of the small hotel where we stayed and in to the maze of canal lined paths through the middle of the village. We could sit on our balcony and watch the comings and goings throughout the day. The tour guides led their tours past our window starting at 7:15 am.

Our hotel on the far side of the bridge.

Dinner on  the waterway, in front of the hotel.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

China 2015 - Exhilarating

We are just back from three weeks in China, and I have to say, the trip was nothing short of exhilarating. Happily, I did lots of sketching, mostly in situ.  I will spend the next few days or even weeks posting from the trip. 

One of the real highlights from the trip was our time spent in Hongcun, Anhui Province. It is a Unesco World Heritage Site. (read more here Apparently about 1000 people still live in the village, a rabbit warren of tiny, water channel lined stone footpaths between ancient two storey buildings and tiny yet productive vegetable plots. There are infinite possibilities for sketching and the cool thing is that the village is a magnet for art students from all over China. We met university students from Xian, Sichuan and Guangdong provinces, as well as from some local cities like Hefei. Literally hundreds of these students emerge in the mornings with sketchbooks, paints, easels and tiny stools to capture the beauty of the place until late in the afternoons. We had a great time sketching along side these students, sharing our work, looking at images on their cell phones and becoming Wechat buddies (a bit like a Chinese version of Facebook). 

Art students painting  Hongcun.

Old fellow drawing in my book.
The old fellow's 10 minute pencil sketch. 
At one point, an old fellow from the village came over to look at my sketchbook. He seemed really interested, took my book in his hands and flipped through the pages. I was a little nervous, wondering if he might walk away with it. I have had people ask me for pages from my book or even if they could have the whole thing. Instead, he picked up a pencil and started drawing the scene. Turns out, he is a bit of a local celebrity and can certainly draw!

Painting set up on my tiny borrowed folding stool. 

The inspiration 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Out and About on Location

If you are going to urban sketch, you have to get out of your own house. So I went into the backyard, and then on Vancouver Urban Sketchers meet up down at the Vancouver Museum. I chose to wander down to the Maritime Museum instead, to check out the St Roch.

In both of these sketches, I worked very slowly, using the grid and I had to force myself to keep going, keep looking and then suddenly, whoosh. The sketch revealed itself to me. Thrilling in a nerdy way.

Teapots, Paints and Boots

Turns out the grid works pretty well with close up subjects too. It is great for figuring out weird perspectives. Here are my beloved teapots and Erica's beloved boots with the purple yarn for laces.
Oh and my watercolour paint and ink set up.