Japan Blog

The Miyasako Magaibutsu of Bungo Ono

Japanese History in Stone Relief


Not far from lovely Harajiri Falls, in the Bungo Ono district of Oita, Japan, are the infrequently visited Miyasako Magaibutsu (Miyasako Stone reliefs), which are more often referred to by the people nearby as the Ogata sekibutsu (the latter being the common word for ‘stone buddha,’ while ‘Ogata’ is the historical place name.)  There are actually two sites, the West and East reliefs, both with carvings in hollowed-out volcanic rock outcroppings. The East relief is in somewhat better condition. (And is the only site shown in these photos.)

From the parking turnout (where there are men’s and women’s restrooms) a paved walk of several hundred meters leads past terraced rice paddies up to the East reliefs.  (In fact, there are two paths, with no sign indicating which to take. Use the one on the right as you face the hillside; it goes directly to the site.  The left will also get you there, so long as you follow the faded “Miyasako East Sekibutsu” sign pointing right a few hundred meters up the trail.)

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There is no temple or shrine at these reliefs, and no indication there ever was any.  The carvings are estimated to be over 800 years old, and were purportedly commissioned by Ogata Koreyoshi, a local samurai who won fame in the Gempei War, the final conflict of the Heian Period (794-1185.)  The central statue of the East relief is of the seated Dainichi Nyorai.  Though the overall condition is quite deteriorated, the expression of this figure is very distinctive, not at all typical of the style of the period, but clearly one of wonderment and human-like imperfection.

The Nyorai is guarded on his left by the sword-carrying Immovable One (Fudou Myou-oo), and on his right by the God of Wealth and Warriors (Bishamonten), as well as a Nio-oo warrior (depicted, as always, with hand on hip) on the far right.  With this entirely martial retinue, it seems possible that the face of the central Nyorai might actually have been modeled on the heroic samurai himself, Lord Oogata.


I should add that these reliefs are a five minute drive from the ruins of Oka-jou Castle.  Work on the castle started in 1185, at about the same time as the Miyasako carvings.  Nothing remains of the castle’s keep, or any other buildings, but it was a very large fortress with extensive battlements.  It offers commanding views of the lush hills and valleys of Bungo Ono.


The Kumano Magaibutsu

Japanese History in Stone


I don’t recall when I first became enamored with the shape and beauty of stone, but it hasn’t been too many years since my love of things lithic morphed into a fascination with images carved upon natural rock surfaces. I’m referring specifically to Japan’s stone reliefs, images of Buddhist deities etched into cliffs or hollowed out rock outcroppings. These immoveable renderings are referred to as magaibutsu, in contradistinction to free-standing stone statues of Buddhas, commonly called sekibutsu.


While natural rock reliefs are found throughout Japan, the most famous magaibutsu are at Usuki, in southern Oita prefecture, and it is in this region of the country that one finds many of the finest old reliefs. When I say “old” I am referring to works of the late Heian (794–1185) or early Kamakura (1185­­–1333) times, the beginning of long centuries of feudalism, when common Japanese folk began to seek refuge from war, calamity and uncertainty in the Buddhist faith.


While there is much speculation about the reasons for the preponderance of reliefs in Oita prefecture, here I’d like to draw your attention to just one impressive work, one of the largest and oldest in Japan, which is located in the northern part of this scenic prefecture. It is the famous Kumano magaibutsu, on the rural Kunizaki peninsula. For anyone smitten with an interest in such relics, this one is a “must see.”


The Kumano site is actually two large faces carved into a high rock precipice, accessible only after ascending several hundred stone steps from the parking lot of Taizou-ji Temple. Though very little is known about who or why most of the old reliefs were commissioned, about this one the temple history clearly states: “A monk went up to Kishu to receive the authorization of Kumano (to carve the image), and upon returning completed the work in four or five years.” The work referred to is the eight-meter tall, sword-brandishing Immovable One (Fudou Myo-ou); the other image, the face of the Dainichi Buddha, was carved an estimated one to two hundred years later.

Perhaps at this point you are asking “so what?” Well, not only is this relic designated a Significant Cultural Asset of Japan, with a distinct connection to the ancient Kumano tradition; it is located in a serene glade, high up in an old-growth forest, offering a lovely spot for mediation. Moreover, it is historically associated with nearby Usa Hachiman-gu Shrine (which was burned down in the last years of the Gempei War, just around the time the carving was initiated), and is located at Taizouji Temple, where Japan’s native Shugendo faith, which combines the spiritualism of Shinto with the core tenets of Buddhism, is still practiced today.


That’s a lot to think about, I know, and then there’s this: While viewed straight on, the expression on the Immoveable One’s face is a seemingly impossible curl of the lips, and clearly a smirk of resignation, or even disdain. Yet when viewed sidelong, from the final stone steps leading up to the shrine above, it is something quite different.  From this vantage the expression becomes a gentle smile of patience and understanding.


What a fine labor of love that monk left for future generations to ponder and enjoy!

The Booksellers of Jimbocho

Tokyo’s Bookworm Wonderland

Many years ago, when I took my first job in Tokyo, at the publishing house of Graphic-sha, in Kudan-kita, I discovered a place that I would wander through during my lunch hours, on free weekends, and at any opportunity I’ve had in the ensuing thirty-five years of my life. That place is Jimbocho, along nearby Yasukuni Boulevard, and it is home to one of the world’s great agglutinations of second-hand bookstores.

In case you weren’t aware, the Japanese love the printed word. Gutenberg may have invented the moveable type, but the Japanese invented the phonebook-thick manga comic book, and that’s just a peculiar example of their capacity to devise, produce and consume any and all types of printed matter. Equally important, they are one of the great collector cultures of the world. Their monomania includes an obsession with books, in both Japanese and the better-known Western languages.

Where the printed word has taken refuge

While we can surely bewail the iPhone and its ilk for destroying humanity’s ability to turn and read pages of bound text, there’s still some hope for the venerable book. Like a refugee camp from the war on literacy, Jimbocho is a haven where the printed word has taken shelter. From art collections and historical tomes to old glossy magazines, specialized dictionaries, children’s books and those classic novels you crave to reread, they’re all likely to be found somewhere in this haphazard paradise of printed matter.

The Jimbocho tagline claims that it is the world’s biggest shopping town for books. I’ve never been to Timbuktu, but I’m inclined to accept this claim as fact. Since there are literally hundreds of small and large booksellers here, the neighborhood even offers its own information center. This is located on Suzuran-dori, the street parallel to the boulevard, just behind Kitaguchi Bookstore. Seek it out with your questions about where to go for what. You’ll be handed a map of all the local bookstores, and the clerk will circle the places to begin your search.



This district also offers a plethora of shops where one can buy genuine Ukiyoe prints and Japanese art, and a few used record stores, too, including Fuji Records (located on the ninth floor of the Kanda Kosho Center, a few doors up from Kitazawa Bookstore) which is equipped with turntables that spin any speed of vinyl, even their old 78s. For those with a thirst for modern bookstore amenities, there is Tokyodo (also on Suzuran-dori) which offers a coffee bar and tables where you can sit and read.

Then again, if someone just doesn’t believe in owning anything as unwieldy as a book (perhaps because he imagines that the entirety of human knowledge has already been uploaded to the internet) he can haul his dead Japanese grandpa’s boxed-up library here to sell. The book dealers will give him fair value.   (So please don’t leave those books piled up in the garage; the termites always eat the best ones first.)

For the bibliophile prospecting for something rare a few trips to Jimbocho might be required. Even with the map – which as far as I know is only printed in Japanese – there’s no way of knowing exactly where that gem you seek is hidden. The careworn fellow at the back of any store can usually point you in the right direction, so try asking. Otherwise, explore the stacks, climb the narrow stairwells, and ride the rickety elevators up and down until you chance upon it, and Archimedes whispers in your ear – Eureka!



Beware Your Japanese Tea Kettle

It may not be what you think

One of Japan’s leading cast iron cookware companies, Oigen Foundry, a member of the Nambu Tekki Cooperatives Federation of Iwate, Japan, recently announced that the group had lost its eight-year battle in Chinese courts to retain its “Nambu Tekki” trademark. (‘Nambu’ is a Japanese name, ‘tekki’ the Japanese word for ironware.) In China, the right to use this venerable Japanese brand now belongs to a “third party.”

Why this is significant to Japanese manufacturers, and to those wishing to purchase high-quality, Japanese-made ironware goods, is multifold. Before discussing these ramifications, let’s briefly review the history of Japan’s Nambu Tekki industry.


A Long and Illustrious Tradition

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A ‘Japanese nambu tekki’ tea kettle in an American home. But is this treasured product authentic or fake?

Cast iron kettles and cookware are a traditional industry of Iwate Prefecture, in Northern Japan, where iron casting has been practiced since Fujiwara clansmen built the northern capital of Hiraizumi, in the year 1090. Many of Japan’s oldest foundries, and the finest of its artisanal producers – including families in continuous production of these goods for over 400 years – are clustered in this region, where iron-bearing sand, carbon for coking, and good clay (for casting molds) are found in abundance.

Nambu was the name of the lord and clan that controlled this area during the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), when the fluorescence of Japanese arts, including the Tea Ceremony, created new demand for chagama (ceremonial tea kettles) and other refined cast iron merchandise. It was at this time that the Nambu brand gained prominence throughout Japan.

The first association of local producers using the Nambu Tekki name was established in 1948. In 1972, this group was renamed the Nambu Tekki Cooperatives Federation of Iwate.

Along with their exceptional durability and artistic craftsmanship, Nambu Tekki kettles are said to soften the flavor of water, and infuse it with traces of iron, an essential mineral often lacking in the modern diet.

The Current Situation

The appropriation of the Nambu Tekki trademark by a third party in China is a potentially damaging turn for Japan’s cast ironware producers, who have already been hit hard by a deluge of cheap, mass-produced replicas of questionable quality and material purity. Now, ironically, genuine Japanese goods can no longer be exported to China under the original brand name.

One can safely say that, outside Japan, the Nambu Tekki name – which once represented a heritage of uncompromising quality – has come to symbolize the immoral and rapacious character of modern global business.

Perhaps more importantly, the sanctioned theft of this trademark has allowed these low-quality knock-offs to be deceptively marketed as “Japanese Nambu Tekki.” How serious is this deception? A search of “Nambu Tekki” or “Japanese cast iron teapot” on Amazon.com will produce dozens of results, all labeled as “Japanese Nambu Tekki teapot” in the product description, yet nearly all fakes – low-priced knock-offs using original Japanese patterns and designs.

To the eye of an ironware expert these copies might be laughably obvious, but what about to the father in Minnesota, looking to buy his daughter a graduation present to take to college, or the frugal tea-lover in London or Singapore, seeking the health benefits of a pure cast iron kettle of the highest quality?

Think about it.

And for collectors considering the purchase of an heirloom or antique Japanese teapot – perhaps in a rare, square-shouldered mozuya form, or a classic turtle shell shape, possibly with the traditional hailstone surface pattern, or a lovely stallion and cherry blossom motif – be advised that online auctions like Ebay, and all the rest, are infested with forgeries and counterfeits.  Don’t be fooled. Even on the streets of Tokyo, great care must be taken when shopping for genuine Nambu Tekki.



The Solace of Unnojuku

Before I pitch a visit to this gem of architectural history, a word of caution; if you like throngs of sightseers, busy souvenir traps and long, clamorous lines outside noodle and ice cream shops, Unnojuku is not the day trip for you. This old post town in Nagano Prefecture is a portal to the past, and can look rather like a ghost town on a chilly, mid-winter’s day. The food here is for thought, and what you take away for memory and the imagination.

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The Old North Road

Ninety minutes or so from Tokyo on the Hokuriku Shinkansen, and a short taxi ride from Ueda Station (or a twenty-five minute walk along the free-flowing Chikuma River) Unnojuku was a wayfarers’ stop and sericulture (silkworm raising) center in Edo and Meiji times. Today this old streetscape, with dozens of well-preserved structures hundreds of years old, is designated as one of Japan’s National Conservation Areas.

In fact, the history of this location dates to the Heian and Kamakura periods, when the surrounding lands were controlled by the Unno clan. Centuries later, when Japan was united under the Tokugawa government (1600-1868), Unnojuku was born (“juku” meaning a place to stay, or lodge.) Ideally situated on the North Road, which was used for the transport of gold from Sado Island to Edo, and by pilgrims traveling to and from ancient Zenko-ji Temple, its prominence and wealth quickly grew.

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Decorative and Functional Design

Some of the architectural styles preserved here, such as the ornamental projecting shoulders (sode udatsu) on the large inns, are as striking as any to be found in Japan, and a sign of the prosperity the town enjoyed. Along either side of the stone brook one sees intricate, Unno-style latticework, decorative tile facades, basic projecting shoulders (hon udatsu, which served to hinder the spread of fire), heavy beam construction and the fine finishing work so typical of this period of Japanese town architecture.

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Adapting to Change

Because the area turned to sericulture in the Meiji era (when traffic on the highway fell off due to the construction of railroads) numerous structures were modified with secondary, ventilated (kinuki) roofs, and other features unique to the keeping of silkworms. It is this variety of architectural specimens from the middle Edo period to the early Meiji era, and the combination of functional and decorative elements, that make Unnojuku such an invaluable cultural asset. No wonder it is included in Japan’s “One Hundred Best Roads” collection.


What to Expect

On a quiet weekday you may find that just about everything along the street is closed. If you prefer music and dancing, come for the “Fureai” festival in late November, when characters in period garb fill the streets. In warm months, when the willows are green and the flowers are blossoming, the soba and coffee shops will be open, allowing you to relax inside, sip tea and nibble sweet manju, while observing passers bye like a wealthy Japanese traveler of long ago.

Shiratori Shrine, a vestige of the days when the legendary warrior Minamoto Yoshinaka (1154 – 1184) came here to muster forces against the Taira, stands at the south end of the street. Here a massive Zulkova tree, over seven hundred years old, shades a small fountain and the surrounding grounds. If old Japanese architecture isn’t your thing, you might want to have a look at this tree, and ponder all that it has witnessed over the centuries.


A Primer to the Seafood Delights of Beppu

Beppu 4When making your pilgrimage to Beppu, the unrivaled hot spring mecca of Japan, keep in mind that this sprawling old town in Oita Prefecture is almost as famous for its seafood cuisine as for its healing waters. The following is advice to the lucky traveler who makes it to this beautiful corner of Kyushu, but first a disclaimer; I discovered and fell in love with Beppu a very long time ago, not with the food, nor the hot springs, nor the incredible culture and scenery, but with the amazing and warm-hearted people.

How it is different

Situated at the westernmost reaches of Japan’s inland sea, Beppu is at the end of a deep bay just above the Bungo straits, where the nutrient rich waters of Japan’s inland sea (seto naikai) meet and mingle with the Pacific Ocean, producing some of the richest fisheries in the country.  This is a region of picturesque coastlines, rugged islets, azure seas and jutting peninsulas; on clear days one can see the promontory of Shikoku shimmering in the distance across the deep blue, plankton rich waters.

Local catch, including the very delicious, and extremely difficult to prepare Devil stinger (inimicus japonicus.)

What to look for

Just a few of the specialties of Beppu’s seafood cuisine include shiroshita karei (local “white belly” flounder), seki saba and seki aji (blue and jack mackerel; seki referring to the “barrier” at the narrowest part of the straits), okoze (devil stinger), tachiuo (scabbardfish), and last but not least torafugu (tiger globefish.) The mackerel of these waters are especially noteworthy, appearing to live year round in the fast flowing waters, in spite of being a migratory species. The jacks are celebrated for their iridescent, golden skin color, as well as their firm, savory flesh.


The preparation is just as novel

Some of the above are prepared as you might find them in Tokyo or (more likely) Osaka, others in a ways typical of Oita prefecture alone.  For instance, while the dangerous but delectable devil stinger might be simmered in a lightly sweetened sake and soy broth, your mackerels could be presented as straight sashimi, or Ryuku style, lightly marinated in ginger, soy sauce, sake and green onions, a recipe made popular in this very part of Japan.

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Ryuku style sashimi.

My mouth is watering.  How are you doing?


Among Japan’s connoisseurs

Most of the above fish are rated five stars – extremely delicious – on the authoritative Japanese website www.zukan-bouz.com. But that’s a nationwide rating. Imagine how these fish will taste in Beppu, or anywhere in Oita prefecture, freshly harvested from the nutrient-rich, fast flowing waters of the Bungo waterway. [Note: the above named website also rates the level of knowledge involved in fish appreciation; knowing about such delicacies as shiroshita karei or seki saba will put you smack dab at the five-star “Expert” level.  Not bad, grasshopper!]


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This delightful invention, called tachimaki, is barbecued scabbardfish wrapped around bamboo, and is found only in Beppu.

How to find the best of the best

Needless to say, every fish – everything – has its season, so you are not going to eat all of this over a honeymoon weekend in May.  Rather, I suggest that you find a place specializing in the local catch, and inquire what is in season (utter words jiki or shun, both meaning ‘in season’.) This will do several things: it will tell your Japanese chef that you are seeking the best, whatever that may be, and that his efforts to provide it will not be akin to throwing pearls to swine.

Fish salad


If you’re really on a mission

But just in case you want to compare a favorite from elsewhere in Japan with the best of Beppu, here’s what to look for at particular times of year:

  • Spring – jack mackerel
  • Spring to summer – devil stinger
  • Summer – scabbardfish
  • Summer to winter – flounder
  • Fall to winter – blue mackerel
  • Winter – globefish

However, the truth is that this fishery is so unique that even the normal seasonal variations aren’t the same, with many species at the top of their game for many months of the year.

Now for the hard part

OK, about where to eat in Beppu?  That is the tough part.  But here is my personal favorite:  Enya Sengoku.  You need a reservations, so call:

The Creations of Yamakatsu

A seminar on Kuromontsuki dyeing

Nagoya and the surrounding environs, which lay rightful claim to the birthplace of modern Japanese culture, offer the visitor to Japan unlimited potential for historical and cultural exploration. If one is fascinated by traditional Japanese apparel, for instance, there is no better place to study the art of silk kimono dyeing than Nagoya’s Yamakatsu (Nakamura Shoten); as for the very unique practice of kuromontsuki (black and white crested dyes), it might be the only place.

The people at Yamakatsu specialize in hand-crafted dyeing of kimono and other traditional Japanese apparel. All of the methods used at Yamakatsu are labor intensive, involving a great amount of specialized knowledge, materials and equipment. The beautiful patterns of bokashi-zome (seen below) found on an authentic, hand-made kimono are a pure form of art, a labor of love in the truest sense. Sadly, with the exception of a few dedicated artisans, very few places in Japan still create genuine hand-dyed kimono fabrics.



Yamakatsu also prides itself on its lovely kuromonstuki creations. These stylish patterns are traditional, yet boldly eye-catching and seriously modern. Achieving an evenly-graded blend of black and white is the challenge in this method, and much more difficult than one might expect. By using any of the lovely, multitudinous Japanese crests – which is only possible with the use of original patterns and materials – one has the opportunity to create a design that is fashionable, striking and personal all at once.



Yamakatsu offers the occasional workshop in traditional dyeing techniques. On March 17 a kuromonstsuki class will be held at the Nagoya Castle Hotel. Here’s an opportunity to visit beautiful Nagoya, take in the castle as the first cherry blossoms are emerging, and even create your own kuromonstuki design.  Lunch is included.

For more information, or to make a reservation, go to:


For the Japanese Hot Spring Enthusiast

Jalan.net (www.jalan.net) a Japanese publication promoting domestic travel to the Japanese traveler, has published its members’ “Top Hot Springs of Japan” selections for 2018.  I’m always complaining about the silly and inaccurate travel writing on Japan by English-language writers, so if you’re a traveler or newcomer to Japan, and interested in soaking in the country’s amazing hot springs, this might be helpful information.

Nyuto Onsen Village, December 2017. Photo by Tetsuro Akagi

The survey covered 327 hot springs, meaning the top picks are just a drop in the proverbial bucket.   A few of my own (rather biased) opinions follow the lists (after the photo!)

A beautiful (and free) public onsen in Nozawa, Japan.

Most-visited (by those voting) in the past year:

Hakone – (Kanagawa) 1466

Beppu – (Oita) 963

Kusatsu Onsen – (Gumma) 923

Atami – (Shizuoka) 921

Kinugawa – (Ibaragi) 722

Most Anticipated (for a future, first-time visit)

Yufuin Onsen – (Oita) 2696

Nyuto Onsen Village – (Akita) 1933

Kusatsu Onsen – (Gumma) 1767

Beppu – (Oita) 1708

Ibusuki Onsen – (Kagoshima) 1574

Highest Satisfaction rating:

Takayu Onsen – (Fukushima) 97.1%

Nyuto Onsen Village – (Akita) 95.6%

Shirahone Onsen – (Nagano) 95.5%

Utoro Onsen – (Hokkaido) 94.8%

Manza Onsen – (Gumma) & Kinosaki Onsen (Hyogo) 94.2% (tied)

The Jalanet article notes that Beppu’s position climbed the most in this year’s rankings, apparently due to a strong positive response from twenty-something voters to its “Hot Spring Gardens” campaign of last year.

Beppu is both the largest conglomeration of hot springs in Japan, and an old coastal resort city (in some ways like Atami) in Kyushu, so it is a place to explore for all types of bathing opportunities, from guerilla (rock baths up in the hills) to plush inn-style (search out Myoban Onsen) to public mixed-bathing (Beppu Hoyo Land) to old-fashioned bath houses (Takegawara Onsen.)

If you make it all the way down to Beppu (a one-hour flight from Tokyo, or seven hour train ride), you should visit nearby Yufuin Onsen, at the top of the Anticipation list.  Set in a spectacular basin beneath a ruggedly beautiful volcano (Mt. Yufu), it offers a number of lovely (and pricey) inns with beautiful baths. There are also plenty of cultural amenities for those interested in Japanese arts and crafts.

Also worth noting, at second-place on the satisfaction rating, is Nyuto Village Onsen. (This is on my hot spring bucket list, for sure.) Tucked away in the mountains of northern Japan, it boasts a seriously deep winter. Just imagine the outdoor baths, the snow, and the quiet. I’ve included a photo taken by a friend who visited there just this December.

Wow. Where else in the world, right?

A few of the above winners offer English websites:







I’m sorry I couldn’t write about all 327 hot springs covered in the Jalan.net survey.  Someday, right?


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Maria B. demonstrating proper mixed bathing etiquette at Goto Onsen, Beppu, Japan

Kodo – the Way of Incense

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In a Kodo workshop, there are more challenges than simply identifying different scents. You must grind your own india ink, take notes with a calligraphy brush, and listen very carefully.  On the other hand,  you will not be asked to sit seiza – though you may do so if you wish.

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Ask your Japanese passerbye on the street about the practice of Kodo, and you’re likely to get a blank stare, or a slow shake of the head.  Kodo, which can be translated as the Way of Incense, or the Way of Fragrance, is not nearly so well-known as some of the other Japanese arts.  Yet it is akin to the Tea Ceremony (Sado), and utilizes the accouterments of Japanese calligraphy (Shodo), having emerged along with these more popular disciplines from the same historical milieu, the artistic and spiritual renaissance of the Azuchi-Momoyama period, over four hundred years ago.

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While the enjoyment of incense, in particular the rare “sinking woods” of Southeast Asia, was first recorded in Japan more than a thousand years ago, Kodo in its modern form is a meditative practice that focuses on the individual’s connection with the natural world. Perhaps more than any other Japanese art, it adheres to its Zen roots, offering an antidote to that “blank stare” sense of isolation that pervades our preoccupied, over-stimulated lives



Performed in a group, in a quiet tatami room, a Kodo workshop often begins with the sensei’s comments on the natural world, followed by a “game” of kumikoh, in which practitioners attempt to identify several subtlety different scents.  In this test of olfactory acuity the student is advised to listen (rather than smell) the fragrance of tiny chips of heated wood.  Whether due to the focus of the discussion, or to the intense concentration required to differentiate the scents during the contest, the practitioner will achieve a clarity of consciousness – a mindfulness, if you will – that can continue for hours after.

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For centuries known only to the families of samurai lords and Edo merchants, Kodo is today gaining a greater following in Japan and abroad.  But there are only two schools, the Shino and the Oie, and unless you speak Japanese fluently, you will need to find a workshop with a good interpreter to fully enjoy the experience.   [The Shino school offers bilingual workshops periodically.  See  www.shinoryu.jp]

It would be worth your time to take a listen.





To Imagine without Limits

I recently joined Eijiro Ozaki in a coffee shop in Beverly Hills to talk about his career as a screen and theater actor in Japan and the U.S.  He had just finished a high-energy, forty-minute seminar with a group of visiting Japanese college students, an event he kindly invited me to observe.   He has been doing these creative workshops every fall for eight years, with the only caveat being that the program must make allowances for his acting schedule.

I’ve met Eijiro a few times over the years, and of course I’ve seen him in Clint Eastwood’s ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’, and most recently in the 2015 film ‘Little Boy’. Watching him inspire a group of college students to understand and achieve their goals has reminded me what an incisive, authentic and refreshingly Japanese guy he is.  I’ve just admitted to him I wish I’d heard his message when I was in my twenties!


We order our coffee, and I begin with some questions that now seem all too predictable:

Was there a moment in your life when you knew you would become an actor?

In my childhood I always loved painting, drawing, singing; doing short plays in the classroom, that kind of thing.  I loved to do show and tell.  I would write and direct my own plays, even using other kids as supporting cast while I performed the main role.  I did it because I loved pleasing people, I think.  I loved seeing people’s reactions to my creativity.

Why did you end up moving your career to Hollywood?

In the eighties I spent a year as an exchange student in Nebraska.  That was a big eye opener.  I lived in an international house with students from all over the world.  Later, I saw them doing different things – some were marrying Americans, others were taking jobs overseas, working in cities around the world.


Though I wanted to become an actor, in the eighties – and maybe today, as well – Japan wasn’t making films for foreign markets.  American films were all over the world; they had the global marketing reach.  I wanted my international friends to see my performances.  If I had stayed in Japanese film and TV, that wouldn’t have happened.

I also noticed that the American blockbusters often portrayed Japanese characters as stereotypes that weren’t quite authentic.  Sometimes they lacked the right modesty or dignity, the correct intonation, or mannerisms that should have been depicted in a certain way.  I think there just weren’t enough creators, producers or writers who could talk about Japan profoundly.  So I could see ways to present a more convincing Japanese character.

And then there was ‘Black Rain’. That came out in 1989, the same year I was in Nebraska.  Seeing Ken Takakura, Yusaku Matsuda and Tomisaburo Wakayama in the movie’s central roles had a great impact on me.  They were vivid and convincing, and stole the show in many scenes.

You acted in the Japanese play ‘The Winds of God,’ which U.S. theater critics liked.  Can you tell me about that experience?

(When I was) in Japan in the 90s, and ‘The Winds of God’ was playing, I knew the director – she was my first acting teacher, Yoko Narahashi.  I spent four years trying to get a part in the play, but it had already had a full, original cast with fabulous, quality actors…

Let me interrupt – can you tell us a bit about the story?

Yes.  It’s a play about two modern-day, light-hearted fellows who die together in an accident, only to have their souls reborn into the bodies of kamikaze pilots near the end of WWII.  It’s a comic-tragic story that follows their attempts to stop the other pilots from flying their futile missions.

OK. Please go on!

Well, Masayuki Imai, the writer of the play, decided to form and direct his own troupe, and to take the play to the U.S.  When he began looking for other Japanese supporting leads who could handle all the translated English lines and acting, I finally got my chance.  The timing was right – it was luck.  In 1998 and 1999 we performed for one month off-off Broadway, and two months off-Broadway, respectively.

I want to ask you about acting the part of Lieutenant Okubo in ‘Letters from Iwo Jima,’ which was directed by Clint Eastwood. Did you find it an intimidating experience?

Yes – but not because of him.  I had read about his directing style in Japan, and so I knew what to expect.  He’s famous for not rehearsing much, and for using the first takes, and I was wondering if all that was true – and I found out that it is true.  He doesn’t do much rehearsing, unless the scene is a technically complicated one.  He likes to let his actors go. Instead, he spends a lot of time on the casting process; I think that part took months. But once he’s chosen his actors, he totally trusts them, and lets them do their work.

The intimidating part was this; the film was almost entirely in Japanese.  And the director and crew didn’t speak Japanese, and wouldn’t catch it if we stumbled, or got stuck, or used an incorrect expression – and it’s a period piece, where this mattered. So we had to be focused on delivering our lines perfectly on the first and second takes.  We couldn’t make any mistakes; that part of it was intimidating, and highly challenging.

But Clint Eastwood is not like his image – Dirty Harry pointing a gun.  He’s a gentle guy – and fun! – always joking to relax his actors’ hearts.  Once an actor has worked with him, he or she will love him.

Tell me another an actor, writer or director who has been a big influence on you.  

From the U.S., Stephen Spielberg.   As I mentioned in the lecture, when I was a kid my parents would take us out to dinner, and it always included a movie.  When I was six years old I saw ‘Jaws’ on the big screen.  I was so fascinated – and scared – I really fell in love with Spielberg (though not yet as an actor, of course.)  I also remember ‘Shadow Warrior’ (Kagemusha) by Akira Kurosawa, that I was lucky enough to see in the theater as a child.  I also love the actor Toshiro Mifune.   I studied him in many Akira Kurosawa films after I started my acting career.  Those are two giants of film making, and their influence on me has been deep. And of course there is Clint Eastwood, who is like a father of film – or a god.  Let me add that I would love to meet and work with Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios.

You are using your experience to help educate Japanese students who are studying all kinds of different things. What is your most important message to these students?

Version 2

Don’t limit your possibilities. Never limit yourself. I moved my base from Japan to Hollywood in 2007, at the age of 38. People said: “What? You’re not even famous in Japan yet!” They take no responsibility for their words; they say things like that so easily. Yet who knows what will happen in five years, or ten years? I was lucky to have many backers, people who supported me, and kept me motivated, but most students don’t have that. People will tell them: “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” This includes friends, lovers, teachers – I don’t want to speak badly of people – but they’ll say you can’t make a living as a singer, or a dancer, or an actor. They’ll tell you it’s just a hobby, not a business. Coming from Japan, I’ve always wanted to be someone who throws light on hope and possibility. To be convincing, I need to show results, and triumphs, but also failures. So I talk about both failing and succeeding.