Raised in the tumult of Japan’s industrial powerhouse, the 11 men and women profiled in A Different Kind of Luxury have all made the transition to sustainable, fulfilling lives. Based on Andy Couturier's popular articles in The Japan Times, this lushly designed volume has a wealth of stories about real people who have created an abundance of time for contemplation, connecting with the natural world, and contributing to their communities. In their success is a lesson for us all: live a life that matters. Read an excerpt of the book here or here. Read a review of the book here, here, or here.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Beautiful Images from A Different Kind of Luxury

I have always loved the beauty of these people's lives. 
This is often reflected in the external beauty of their artwork
or the places they live. But it all derives, I think
from the cultivation of self and the values they embrace.
Which you can get by reading their words.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Year Since the Death of Gufu Watanabe

This has been hard to write, so I am finally able to tell you all that Gufu is gone.  He was a fine human being and he deeply affected my life.  I will post some memories over the next few months.  My partner Cynthia Kingsbury just offered this one to me as we looked at photos sent to us from Japan of his "o-wakere-kai" : a gathering of people to (honor) the separation.  "Farewell gathering might be a less literal translation.

Cynthia said, "I remember sitting upstairs with him and his sculpture of Jonah and the Whale.  He was explaining it to us."  Andy: "Do you remember what he said?" Cynthia: "Not exactly, but it was weird."   We both laughed.  Gufu's love for the odd was tremendous.

Black clay sculpture of Jonah and the whale.  

Both the top and the little statuette of Jonah are removable.

Gufu passed away last year around April 15 of lymphatic cancer.  I had known of it for several years before he passed, and was able to visit him in October of 2013.  He was still gardening, and I brought home some seeds.  This spring I am launching a large garden, and in it I will plant some odd, strange and peculiar plants, in memory of Gufu.  

Cynthia also said, "I loved being in the room with you Andy when you were interviewing him.  You brought out so much of what he thought."

Atsuko, his wife, said to me after he died, "You were a rikaishi for him." I asked her what that meant.  She said, "You were one of the few people who really understood him."  

If you would like, please read the chapter about him, Chapter 8, in the next few weeks.  Even better if you want to read parts aloud to a friend.  

Those of you who got to meet him, please send me any memories, and I will put them on this blog.  If you did not meet him, but were moved by anything in the chapter, feel free to email me with those at andy@theopening.org.

And then, be sure to live your own "different kind of luxury" and pass it along to the next generation.  

More soon.  


Thursday, September 11, 2014

"It's all Buddha" Zen Abbot Takaoka on Death

A short talk with Abbot Shucho Takaoka on his work during funerals.  I had just seen the movie Departures, which I recommend very strongly, and it deals with this topic.  I asked him about it.  

(Takaoka was mentioned in many chapter of A Different Kind of Luxury.  He inspired many of the people in the book. Please read about him in the book to find out more.) 

Shucho Takaoka, Abbot of Tokurinji Zen Temple

"Everyone thinks of the dead body as dirty, a disgusting thing.  They don’t want to touch it.  But in the case of a loved one, the dead body is also the body of the person they were very close to.  So that creates a psychological distance or imbalance.  And people have the need to “circulate” those feelings.  In Japan, we have a word, hotoke for the people who have died, and it means that they have become a Buddha.

As Buddhist priests conducting a funeral, it’s our job to bring the people from one place to another.  There’s a business of decorating the body, making it pretty, and that may be part of the same impulse, to bridge the distance, and to help people move from the feeling of “dirty” to “clean”.

But we know that every single person dies—there is no one who doesn't die. You will absolutely and without fail die.   But usually it’s not from fully alive to utterly dead in an instant though.  Things in the body break down bit by bit, in small steps.

From my point of view,  I want to show people that it is all hotoke.  Living, dying, and dead.  It’s all Buddha. 
This drawing is by Hideo Ito of Akira Ito,
who passed away some years ago.


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Film screening of Masanori Oe's movies in Santa Cruz, Sat Mar 8, 7PM

I will be offering a free film screening of a few short experimental movies made in 1967 and 1968 by Masanori Oe, who I profiled in Chapter 11 of  A Different Kind of Luxury.  The screening will be at 7 PM at my writing studio in Santa Cruz CA, at 147 SOUTH River Street, above Mobo Sushi, by the Trader Joe's parking lot.  It's upstairs in room 203, and the entry code to the outside door is 0497* (that's STAR at the end), you may have to try it twice. 

The studio is relatively small so most people may have to sit on the floor, although we do have some chairs. PLEASE RSVP so I know you are coming. andy@theopening.org  Please bring your own popcorn or snacks if you want them, or just come as you are. 
Screen Shot from The Great Society

Screen Shot from Head Games

I describe these films in the book but have never shown them in public before.  You can read a description of the movies below, but they are intense, beautiful, powerful and in the original sense of the term "psyche-delic", "to open the soul".  This is a rare opportunity, and I'm not sure if I will do it more than once.  

The films are "Head Games" about the Great Be In in Central Park in the spring of 1967, "No Game" about the protest at the Pentagon in 1968, and "Great Society" a true masterpiece looking back at the entire sixties, DURING the sixties--no after filter-- projected on six simultaneous screens, with a wrenching musical score.  These are intense movies of intense times.  After the movies, we can talk, and if time permits, I will show some slides about Mr. Oe's life today in the mountains of Japan. 

Here are some quotes from the book, the first by Marvin Fishman, who was Masanori's filmmaking partner.

(Do you have a copy of the book yet?  Please buy it so that it remains in print)

“We filmed the Great Be In in Central Park in the spring of that 1967. We titled the film Head Games to indicate that even though the event had the idea of protest of the Vietnam war to it, this kind of thing, a Be In, was not the answer to the war. Everyone was in costume.

"By the time we went on to film the protest at the Pentagon in October of 1968, things had changed a lot. You could see how much the focus changed in the difference between the films. We called that No Game, to say that this was not a game anymore: this was violent. It went on to became a major film. The demonstration was a mind-shattering experience for all of us.

“The film shows how a nonviolent demonstration became violent. The question was how do you take care of each other, and how do you film violence and not get hurt.

There had been a change in the mood of the country. I don’t know what we expected, but the police became less tolerant; there was a lot of talk of ‘lawlessness’ and here we were invading the Pentagon, the center of U.S. military might. They brought in a lot of U.S. Marshals: you’ve seen those images—redneck thugs with pot bellies, crew cuts, and truncheons.

“That movie we made was a real shocker. We were trying to make a statement that this government was becoming repressive of free speech, and we were trying to make it in as stark and shocking a manner as possible. The black and white gave us a grainy look, and then we made it more high contrast. We wanted to say, “Here is your government.”

Marvin Fishman and Masanori Oe filmakers in the 1960s

Masanori now sets up the screen and projector, turns down the lights, and then all of a sudden I’m plunged back into another world. Even though I’m in this mud-walled house in the mountains of Japan, I am able to witness the immediate and vibrant, chaotic ’60s counterculture world in full blossom, “as is.”
People parade with signs and painted faces, dispersed on the streets of a late-winter New York, some perhaps high, or angry, or just playing guitar on the grass. It’s a slow-motion movement of carnivalesque faces with soap bubbles floating in the air in the war-torn fever dream of the Us-versus-Them, red-scare, Gulf-of-Tonkin, daily-body-count sixties. These are more than documentaries, though. They are art. It’s a controlled kind of wild: the hand-held camera shots at cockamamie angles and the syntax of rebellion inherent in the cuts between police batons and street protest, the voices shouting each other down. Yet neither are they gratuitously shocking, or easy, or pat.

The camera movements don’t startle, but neither do they settle. What’s next? What’s next? Who knows? Flashing lights, throbbing and dreamlike, and absolutely unresolved, like dreams are.  

The lights come up just slightly as Masanori prepares another film, this one entitled “Great Society.” He says that his studio was asked by the national CBS people to 
do a major project, an overview of the entire decade, for the annual CBS network convention in New York, with permission to use footage from the CBS archive. He explains that it was made with six different screens going simultaneously in order to show the many-sided nature of the times.

Now we’re into the fast-cut, jump-at-you images, one after the other. The screen splits into six, strobe lights flashing, soldiers marching, JFK shot, Oswald shot, miniskirts, Vietnamese POWs, space walks, napalm-burnt children, fighter jets dropping bombs, the American flag, LBJ driving home a point forcefully at a lectern. Too much is happening at once for the mind to perceive. The soundtrack is riveting and disturbing: heart beats, guitar distortion, gurus chanting, a woman screaming as someone is shot, a koto twanging as a mushroom cloud fills the sky.

The images jumping from race riots to liquid light shows to atomic blasts are all in present tense here, not an artifact, or shorthand for “the sixties” digested by some future generation. The images are contemporary, and are rendered as such by the hallucinatory film grammar, prompting again the dilation of the psyche.

When the lights come back on, I am transformed. Only sixteen minutes. The film is a masterpiece, and everyone in the room knows it. None of us can speak. He’s captured the overlapping movements: a new spiritual consciousness not separate from the very political, antiwar immediacy of the moment.

Masanori says that CBS refused to show it again, and there were threats from affiliates to drop out of the network if this was the kind of thing that CBS wanted to spend their money on. He explains the idea of having six different screens was to show how everything was happening all at the same time. “The overwhelm and disorientation break down barriers and open people to the possibility of a change, a change in consciousness.”

Talking afterwards together, drinking tea, Masanori says, “Today people think the word ‘psychedelic’ means just taking drugs, but the main meaning is from the Latin roots of the words, psyche-delos ‘to open the soul.’ So if the method for doing this was drugs, that was OK, but it also included yoga, meditation, and the exploration of thought itself.”

Sunday, December 8, 2013

"Ordinariness in how they live, but complexity in how they view their lives." Guest Blog Post

Ted Taylor 
Many readers of A Different Kind of Luxury may not know that there live a tough and inquiring cadre of expatriates who have made their home in Japan and spend the days of their lives exploring the riches of rural culture there.  (I myself have returned to California to teach my writing classes and to write new books, and also because I feel more at home here--I haven't lived in Japan since 2000.)  Many of these expats have shared experiences with each other by blogs and via a Countryside Living forum (which I believe is no longer online).  Of the blogs, Ken Elwood's is a great example.

Another one is by the steadfast Ted Taylor called "Notes from the Nog." Ted and I have been in contact for several years and I invited him to submit a guest blog post.  It's great. You can read it below. Ted is a contributing editor at Kyoto Journal.  He is currently at work on a series of books about walking Japan's ancient highways. 

It was alternative culture that led me to Japan.  In my final couple years as a university student, I found myself ducking classes more and more in order to read the works of those whose viewpoints didn't necessarily align themselves with the conservative mainstream 1980's microcosm that was my school.  Despite this, their words were available on the shelves of the campus library, and it is from this berth that my imagination began to sail in directions at odds with what I was learning in the classroom.

The "radical" ideals of many of these writers had been honed in the temples of Asia, so it was only natural that I would gravitate there.  When I arrived in the Japanese countryside in the very-much-analogue year of 1994, I found myself in an environment similar to the University I'd left a few years before, an environment of materialism and conformity.  I learned quite early that even the people on the street who looked to be counterculture were most often merely dressing the part, and that eventually they too would be absorbed back into the greater society at large.  I did eventually find a few artist-types or those who "aspired to" a simpler way of life (and there were also rumors of interesting happenings down in Kyoto), but for the most part I settled into this cultural outback of the countryside.

Little did I know that this was exactly where where the kindred spirits dwell.  In the late '90's, an article began appearing in The Japan Times, an article called "Alternative Luxuries."  I would read Andy Couturier's pieces with great relish.  I had found over the years that in Japan, people are allowed to have dreams, but it is only the brave few who actually act on them.  Yet here in print were people who had not only followed their dreams, but had let those dreams shape their very way of existing.

A handful of years later, I once again came across Andy's articles in this very blog.  Not only had the articles been fleshed out further, but so had my own relation to them and to Japan itself.  Some of the inspiration had rubbed off to the extent that I too had crafted my own semi-alternative life here (Not being Japanese in the first place, this isn't terribly difficult.).  Like Andy, I had built my own friendships with people to whom a simple life is simply common sense.  Though a few are based in cities, most live deep in the countryside, and share with the men and women in Andy's book not only the ordinariness in how they live, but the complexity in how they view their lives and their interconnectedness.

I had a glimpse of the latter one autumn night, a few weeks before I was leaving Japan, a departure that had I assumed at the time was to be final.  The night that my wife and I finished the Shikoku 88 Temple pilgrimage, we were put up by a few young people living in a valley in deep Tokushima.   As the evening went on, my hosts and I found that we had many friends in common, and I began to sink into a certain melancholy, saddened to be leaving this country in which I had built strong friendships over 15 years.  But then it dawned on me that I wasn't stepping away from the circle.  In moving back to the States, I was helping that circle to expand.

And there, upon arrival, I found Andy's book, a book I'd been waiting all of those 15 years to see published.  And in rereading those familiar voices, and in reading the comments of those who praise this book, the circle continues to expand.  

Based in Kyoto, Ted's work has appeared in The Japan Times, Kyoto Journal, Kansai Time Out, Skyward:JAL's Inflight Magazine, Outdoor Japan and Elephant Journal, as well as in various print and online publications.  A Contributing Editor at Kyoto Journal, he won the top prize in the Kyoto International Cultural Association Essay Contest.   He is currently at work on a series of books about walking Japan's ancient highways.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Want to live off the grid? Look to traditional cultures.

Woodcutting chisel with illustration of
how to make a forge for iron (I saw many of these in India just 3 years ago)
drawing by Osamu Nakamura (chapter 2) 
One of the things I admire so much about the people I profiled in the book is how they looked to Nepal and India and traditional Japan to learn, to re-learn, to reskill themselves, about ways to accomplish basic necessities.  If we won't have petroleum forever, or if it is killing the other animals, which it is, and if reducing all actions to the action of one finger pushing a button diminishes our humanity, we don't have to reinvent the wheel.  We can go to traditional cultures and learn from their ways.  The people in the book did this by drawing what they saw.  It's not the same as taking a photo.  Forcing yourself to draw shows you where you are not paying attention.  It teaches you how to make it yourself.
Left side, a water-powered wheat grinding wheel, drawing
by Osamu Nakamura (chapter 2)

Butter churns sketches by Gufu Watanabe (chapter 8)

Carrying bundles of handmade paper woodcut by Akira Ito (chapter 6) 

Akira Ito working a wooden tea press that he had built.

Nepali rocket stove from Kathmandu, by Gufu Watanabe

Paper making tools.  Drawing by Akira Ito.