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.

Friday, July 11, 2008

A Different Kind of Cultural Preservation

This is from page 2 of a chapter about a remarkable man named Ito who not only is a children's book illustrator and an archivist, but who also has developed a theory of the workings of energy in the universe based on the Chinese I Ching, theoretical astrophysics and yoga philosophy.

But of all the quite different works at Akira Ito's exhibition, the most moving for me was the smallest: a hand-sewn volume that fit into a box about the size of two packs of cards. The book, a loving documentation of traditional Nepali paper making processes, not only displays Ito's affection for the ways of life of traditional rural peoples, but, as he explained, the project of making it was a way to keep those ways alive in the onrush of industrially-produced products into Nepal from the urbanized world.

It grew out of his research in the late 1970s when he traveled throughout the Himalayan region. Skilled as both an illustrator, a writer and a book designer, and being the son of a traditional paper hanger in Japan, Ito made this book to introduce Nepali methods to Japanese craftspeople and artists. Using funds collected from "subscribers" in Japan, he hired artisans to carve the woodblocks (often Tibetan monks), make the paper, produce the prints page by page, and sew the pages together to produce a boxed edition of several hundred copies.

The paper itself is baby soft, and so pleasing to touch that I could feel myself relaxing just holding it in my hands. The tactile qualities of art are something I hadn't really noticed before.

In the gentle images on each page, I find women walking mountain pathways with straw baskets on their backs with the trees and yaks and clouds, and even the rocks of the mountain themselves vibrating with energy. Nepali men in conical hats harvest branches from saplings which, on another page, are soaked in a rushing river, and beaten against rocks. The river, the trees and even the humans in these high Himalayan valleys all shiver and pulse with Ito's energetic line. Like the meshed fibers of the supple paper itself, the people seem completely woven into the vibrating energy of the landscape. One page I remember particularly shows three men in a small shop, folding and stacking the large sheets of paper, sitting on the floor, relaxing against a wall, as a friendly and cute rat looks on from the side.

In this book I can feel what Ito-san loves and the way that he loves it. The entire process of boiling and pounding the fibers, sieving the pulp in screens under a thatched roof, drying the individual sheets in the sun or by the fire are rendered in such an intimate and inviting style, yet the book has enough information such that paper makers in Japan could use it to replicate all of the techniques, and perhaps even feel a connection with others doing similar work far away.

And although the pictures treat the peasant life of the Nepal, the influence of Japanese folk art on Ito's drawings is evident as well. The book itself "says" (without saying) that culture and artisinal craftswork and daily life and the entire life world are intricately woven. And you know this without even thinking it by holding this beautiful book in your hands.

It's such a creative and nourishing way to do cultural preservation, to save traditions from extinction, I think: introducing a Japanese audience to an Asian handicraft while simultaneously financially supporting the craftspeople themselves so that they might continue to be able to do their work. It revitalizes both parties. [And it feels so much more authentically organic, as well as artful of course, than any random mountain of position papers, non profits devoted to indigenous revival or all the earnest philanthropy in the world.

I remember something he told me about his focus in life. "It's the good things of the past, that's what we must preserve. They have passed through the hardships of history to become a tradition, and we who are alive today must treasure them, and take care of them for the future."

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