March 23rd, 2016 – Japan Part Four – The Japanese Alps

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From Kyoto To The Japanese Alps

hakuba japan

So I’m on the train heading up to the Japanese Alps. It feels like a good decision. My backs fixed up remarkably quickly, which kinda put a dampener on my time in Kyoto but happily, I’m back in the game, just. It’s a long journey, rolling through this Japanese landscape we slowly begin to climb into the hills.

As the houses get sparse and the hills close in around the train tracks I feel we are getting closer to the snow. The train goes into tunnels and when we emerge the landscape has changed again. Stopping at one station there is a wee hint of snow on the platform. I’m already way hyped…

A little tradition I have back home is listening to Neil Young when I’m going up the A9, about an hour out of Perth when you start getting into the mountains is my favorite bit. I guess it all started when I first lived in Glasgow when I was 17 and had my first CD player and had just got the Decade Dbl cd and all I listened to was Neil Young, period. That CD would go on when the bus left and I did that so many times the sequence of the songs became bonded to the same points in the journey each time. In later years I only really make that journey at Christmas time, so it’s extra fitting when there is snow on the ground.  Anyways I’ve got this bit I always play ‘Down By The River’.

Sat on this train rolling through the hills that song got a new setting.

Then one big tunnel, bang, we come out into a frozen paradise. I abandoned my seat to go between carriages to take photos. I really enjoy taking photographs from moving vehicles, it’s kinda more miss than hit but every few photos you catch a good scene. Everything is covered in ice and snow. It’s like we just stepped into a deep freeze.

A change of trains and we are on the last stage, single track line to a town called Hakuba. I’ve no idea where I’m going, no idea about who I’m going to work for, what the bars like, what towns like. This is a rogue dice roll. But I’m looking out the back window of this train trundling through the snow and it’s a good choice.


I like everything about this so far. So its kinda late in the day when we get into Hakuba. I step off the train and it’s fresh, cold, it’s snowy. I give the bar a phone and my lift is on its way…

So over the next few weeks, my life became increasingly like the pages of a Jack Kerouac novel.

Late weekend shifts in the bar, playing pool, and walking down to the store on my day off for bread, eggs & a half bottle of wine. Sitting out on the balcony playing bits of songs on the guitar until my hand was too cold to make the chords. Going out in the afternoon to take photographs of the snow falling. Morning walks, afternoon walks.

The work was easy enough, most nights we were essentially dead. At the weekends a band would play and the place was heavin’. Nearly every drink in the bar was 500yen. That’s easy enough. Working out what the Japanese person just asked for, is not so easy. I worked in a bar nearly 10yrs ago in Scotland and swore I’d never do it again, turns out I totally enjoyed working this bar and I’m pretty good at it to.  I think it’s a bit of a stereotype that Japanese people can’t hold their drink. News Flash, they can. I mean we ain’t talking Scottish Irish levels here, but by no means light weights!

Nearly every conversation featured this play of dialogue –

Customer – So you snowboard?

Me – Na

Customer -Ski?

Me – Na

Customer – (pause) sooo why you here?

I guess it is kinda strange to be spending time at a ski resort when you have zero interest in skiing. Not strange in my mind, I’m in my actual paradise visually. So Id explain about the art, what I’m doing. I was pretty happy to just be in this one place for an extended time period, I don’t think I have ever seen snow like that in my life. There were a few times it snowed really heavy, but one time, I think it was week two there was an almighty dump of snow. That day was phenomenal.

It had been snowing all night and I got up had a massive breakfast and put on the waterproofs, grabbed an umbrella, and ventured out into the forest area near the bar. This was such an exciting day I’m not sure I can describe it all. The sound was dead. The air is kinda thick and dense. Air completely freezing, but a dry cold not wet. The snow, knee deep and fluffy like a powder you just waded about in.  When I got into the forest the trees were laden with snow.

Every now & again the snow would slide off the branches and I’d spin around to try to take a photo of the impact dust cloud amongst the trees. The problem being this all happens in a matter of 3 seconds tops. You hear the slide sound of the branches which gives you an indication of the direction it’s happening, the silent drop then the impact which is just a bit of a dry thud but the snow impact creates a cloud of powder then a snow wind whooshes out. So I spent a good few hours trying to take photos of this happening, good job I brought the umbrella as it often happened above where I was, and I used the umbrella as a shield against the impact wind. All made operating the camera a bit of a challenge, plus frozen fingers.

When I got back inside at the end of the day I was reviewing my photos and it seemed kind of odd how similar this photo was to a drawing I had made 3yrs ago.  Not the first time this had happened, when I was on the Kumano Kodo hike I often found myself looking at one of my own paintings. It was really odd.

Top Photograph in the woods / Bottom Drawing 3yrs ago


I’d really love to share more of these shots but it’s part of the journey that will feature in the exhibition I’m planning. Whether it’s using these photos as references for paintings or using the actual photos I have not decided yet. But here is a wee taster of the 16Gb I took…

snow tree forest japan
snow forest japan

This was probably the most fun day of the whole month. It was also the only time it really dumped snow during the day and I could get out into it. Apparently, this year was pretty bad for the snow and the season was not as long as usual. I wasn’t complaining! Better than anything I’d ever seen.

I did take a ride up the gondola to the top of the mountain which was pretty cool. I took a wee wander up a trail into what would be ‘backcountry’ heading up to peaks unseen, but the snow started coming in hard and I figured it probably wasn’t a good idea to be wandering up here.  It was hard to take in the scale of the mountains, it was just so impossibly huge. And if you got lost or stuck you’d be impossibly screwed! The view across to the other side of the valley was brilliant.

hakuba japan
hakuba japanese alps

hakuba japan

So I could go on about the snow all day but in an effort to keep this in some way readable, I’ll cut to the next bit, the final Kaii Higashiyama Gallery Quest……

This was the third and final on my list, Kaii lived in the Nagano area for a time towards the end of his life so when the snow was at a brief low point I took a day trip over to Nagano (1hr away by bus).

It was a beautiful day, I arrived in Nagano and started to head up to the gallery, I had to cut through a temple area and there were teams of men out everywhere up ladders pruning the pine trees. They were also dusting off the limbs with little brushes. Such care over the trees.

長野県信濃美術館 東山魁夷館 Nagano Prefectural Shinano Art Museum Higashiyama Kaii held what I think was the largest collection on display out of the 3 galleries I visited.

higashiyama kaii 長野県信濃美術館 東山魁夷館

I treated myself to a wee beer as it was Kaii’s favorite.


I didn’t make it out of the gallery without a book. I have quite a few already and although Higashiyama has a massive body of work it’s difficult to find a book without too many duplicate images. I was not to be stopped tho, let us hope the box I posted back here from Japan with everything in it makes it to the UK…

During my walk around the gallery, I was confronted by a painting. I can’t even remember how many years ago but one time I had this dream and it’s been stuck in my head ever since. There is this old town with an arched bridge and behind the bridge a castle. I walk around a corner and come down some steep street, I think it’s cobbled, and round a corner where I go into this building that’s a library inside. A totally beautiful library. And that’s all I really remember, but here I am walking round the gallery enjoying each picture when I get to this…..

higashiyama heidelberg

So I’m sure there is no shortage of arched bridges and castles across Europe but this fits the vision in every way. I guess I should be making a trip to Heidelberg and see if I can find that beautiful library then… follow the clues…

This isn’t the first time Higashiyama’s work has connected with me in an unusual way. When I first saw one of his pictures included in an art book I bought, I was intrigued enough to do a wee internet search and subsequently ordered a complete works book. Turned out to be number 7 of the complete works, of how many I don’t know but anyway in that book I came across a painting that looked really familiar.


As it was all in Japanese I couldn’t tell the name of the painting, and at that time I didn’t realise he had traveled and painted in Europe.  I was mulling it over, convincing myself it was the castle in Salzburg Austria. I went there when I was 25 and took this amazing walk up a hill and one of the photos I took had the castle peeking out from the trees in the background. I pulled up a picture of the castle on the internet and it matched the one in the painting, well I thought close enough.

Peter Gillies in Salzburg Austria – 2005

Later research proved it was indeed the Salzburg Castle. So I had been to pretty much the same place as he painted the picture from, I thought that was odd.

Anyway, the gallery was amazing. I was really glad to have made it to all 3 on my list. I don’t think there are others, I certainly couldn’t find anything on the internet. As much time as I did spend it wasn’t enough. I took in as much visual info as I could looking at how he built up the pictures.

I like analyzing art and working out the layers and stages. That’s all it really is layers and stages, dusted with accidental magic. I particularly like the dimensions of the paintings. I wonder if, or how much, the Japanese household/gallery / commercial architectural dimensions have a bearing over artwork dimensions. We live in this western world and everything is designed to fit into our spaces, they have different spaces. Am I explaining that well?  Anyway, some of the paintings were really nice sizes. I get quite frustrated by the standard options of canvases in our art shops, I’ve never been entirely happy with the options. When I look at Japanese spaces in general it just feels more comfortable. (apart from door heights they really need to stick 10 inches extra on there) And that all translates to the artwork, the canvases fit with the spaces.

It’s different and it’s better.


I spent so long in the Higashiyama gallery I didn’t have enough time to visit the gallery of another artist who lived in this area. Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was an ukiyo-e artist, whose works are known to have influenced, among others, Vincent van Gogh and other French impressionists. Ukiyo-e is a genre of Japanese woodblock prints (or woodcuts) and paintings abundantly produced during the Edo Period (1603-1867).

I’m a bit of a fan and it was a shame to miss this one, but I guess that’s on the list for next time, alongside another gallery that was even further into the mountains, artist Tomioka Souichiro & The White Museum. A whole gallery of 500 snow paintings !!!

This museum, a collection of over epic 500 points of the oil painting “white of the world series” of Niigata Prefecture Takada born of Tomioka Souichiro (1922-94), are on display permanently.
Tomioka Souichiro is, change was itself developed yellow, cracking, and flaking with no white oil paint “Tomioka White”, in the long painting knife that was custom-made to swordsmith, covering the world of snowy country at home and abroad around consistently, until the last year of death He went on to draw a masterpiece.
Smooth you do not think the oil painting, fining, the distinctive black and white picture with hidden attractive shine, especially Americans, “Oriental white” or, sympathize with, such as “Haiku itself”, “Tomioka White was familiarity is called. ”
Work that was born in the snow country is, Kayes in snow country, makes a long-standing desire of the painter that, early winter of 1990, was opened to the land of the foot Hakkaisan”. –

Not translated very well but you get the picture.

So I’ve got a few on the list for next time, to be honest, you could travel for a thousand weeks and not see all the things you want to see. So I did pretty well in my 12.

About 2 days after visiting the last Higashiyama gallery I had a very odd ‘dream’. I woke up in the morning and outside on the tree, it’s snowing too mind, is this bright blue parrot.

Now I presume you don’t actually get parrots in the Japanese Alps so I can only conclude I was not in fact awake and this was a dream. Or was it something of a vision…  I did some internet reading later and it seems ‘if Parrot has swooped across your path He is asking you to stay alert. New ideas which can bring about new growth or a new direction is imminent for you. Pay attention to the signs and omens around you. Perhaps it’s the perfect time to go after the dreams you once thought were out of reach.  Alternatively, Parrot may be asking you to learn new language skills. Perhaps your self-talk has been more negative than positive of late. Take the time to become aware of what you are saying to yourself.
Well, thanks parrot I shall heed your message. Either way, I think one of my next paintings will be of a blue parrot in the snow.

Back in Hakuba my days passed and I took various excursions. One day I went out to a lake called ‘Lake Aoki’ which was only 15 minutes away from where I was staying.  It was snowing really heavily. There was a train stop right on the lake so my plan was simply to walk around the lake. I had passed the lake on the train ride into the area a few weeks ago and wanted to get some shots of reflections. It wasn’t 100% calm so the water was no good for reflections but the snow was bringing its own visual opportunities.

When I got off the train I nearly fell right over it was so icey. The snow was deep too, and it was really windy, ice cold wind and snow in my face. I started to think this maybe was a bad idea, but it was 3hrs until the return train so I bucked up and headed out to find my way around the lake.

It didn’t take long until I was out of the wind and the road became increasingly untouched. By the time I got about halfway on the far side of the lake the road stopped altogether, well the road continued but It had been plowed clear at some point and was just piled up blocking the road, I guess no one lives beyond this point. I ventured over the pile of snow and into the unknown…

lake aoki japan

This walk did a full turnaround from being highly questionable and perhaps risky, into being a brilliant choice…. and still a little risky. There were sporadic cabins by the lake, all deserted. This is exactly the time of year I’d want to be here if I had a cabin on this lake! The fools!  So I continued round and found a nice spot where I could actually get lakeside. It was so silent. That walk was really good.

lake aoki japan

I’ll include this odd statue I found on a walk. I was trying to work out what it was all about. You have a mother and 2 children, and sat opposite them is a man with an outstretched hand.   One of the children is pointing at the man. I wonder what the story is or what this symbolizes. Maybe there was more to it under the snow… maybe I’ll never know. I thought it was kind of a sad statue.


So eventually it was getting around to my flight home. Originally I had planned on staying 6 months. Uk passports get the standard 90 days (3 months), but I had read you can extend that a further 90 days in Japan. Although I couldn’t find any more information on this online anywhere. So just as a point of interest, I did meet someone that had been for an extension meeting and it was not a problem in the slightest, which kinda surprised me.

Anyway, I had decided earlier on in my journey that I would rather enjoy 3 months over trying to do a heavily restricted budget for 6 months. So here I was at the end, pretty much every box ticked!

It seemed to be the end of the snow also, the last 2 weeks there had been less and less. I did my last shift at the bar, packed up the rucksack, and headed down for a bus to Tokyo. Well, the snow wasn’t quite finished yet and no sooner I was on the bus the snow came back with a vengeance and added an extra 2hrs onto the slow slow drive.

Three days in Tokyo. What to do? I had 2 things left, the Metropolitan Art Museum and an art shop called Pigment, both had also been closed when I was here before. So that was it, 2 days 2 missions.

The Met Gallery was great. I think my favorite picture was this mighty 1958 tree painting by Rieko Hidaka.


But overall in this gallery, I enjoyed the sculpture the most. Which isn’t normally my thing at all. Two pieces really stood out for me. First off this piece dominated the entire room.


So the walls were lined with these lead panels with sealed seeds, which I liked even before Id read what it was. And on the floor were the sets of pipes. It was so far away from what I normally like!


A funny thing actually I’ll note here is the fact I took photos at all in the museum! Normally in any other museum, I’ve ever been in you are not allowed to take photos. In the very first room I walked into I heard the snap camera noise. The room attendant didn’t seem to flinch, so I figured it was fair game and took photos myself, which was great because I couldn’t possibly remember everything about all the works I liked.

The second piece was Toshikatsu Endo. 22 wooden columns tarred black and bowled out at the top, filled with water. The overall feeling of the whole piece was just really strong. Plus, and this is another dream story, I had this dream years ago where I’m climbing up a forested mountain and when I clambered up to the top the summit was a flat circular pool of water, just as I was looking at it the rocks at the edges began to crumble away and the water starts pouring out and I fell back off the mountain.   It was very surreal and stayed with me, I’ve been trying to visualize how to paint it ever since. This sculpture gave me some ideas..


And the final mission was the art shop Pigment. My word!! I had seen one of these viral buzzfeed type articles before I left about this place, and it is in every way as cool as it looks. I was there waiting for it to open on a beautiful morning, 11 am couldn’t come quickly enough.

I blew everything left in my account on everything I could get, a selection of brushes, a selection of pigments, some papers, boards, inks, and a book. It just blew my mind. The staff were awesome and one spoke some English so could advise me on what all the things did. The whole pigments and glues of Japanese painting are totally new to me so I’m really looking forward to experimenting with it, and sitting translating this book which will be a task!  I’m not sure my photos can rival those featured in that article, or indeed the shop’s own incredibly swish web page. But check my wee face clearly not enjoying this shop in the slightest…..

pigment tokyo

It was soooooo amazing like words don’t really explain.

So that was that, the weather was lovely with hints of spring coming through. I was only maybe 2 weeks away from the blossom kicking off which was a real shame to miss. But next time I’ll be sure to time it so as not to miss the season. The problem with that is you miss Autumn. So I need a 6-month window that includes autumn and catches the blossom in late April. That would be ideal. I’ve no interest in summer.

I wasn’t completely without the blossom, as I took my last walk around Tokyo I found a few trees that were looking nice. Well, one.

sakura blossom tokyo

So that was Japan. 90 days. Even over the last few days putting these blog posts together and reviewing my photographs and going over the journey in my mind, it’s hard to reach some kind of conclusion.

It wasn’t a journey I was expecting to reach any kind of conclusion from. It did have a few definite purposes.

First I’ve been trying to take some time out since my early 20s but I’ve always put any money I had into my art practice which kept me from traveling, and the longer that went on I started to suspect I was actually scared of going away. It was doing it before I was 25, then it was before I was 30… Time only rolls on faster and it just gets harder to break the wheel of jobs, holding onto a flat, or storing paintings and belongings, there is always something to make it not the right time. There never is the right time.

I’m glad I saw in the 2015/16 new year sat by a fire in a Japanese Temple. I turned 35 in Osaka dancing in a drum & bass club night. I broke my wheel and it took over 10yrs to do it. Helped greatly by my good friend Maeve and her unbreakable spirit, and my own country of Scotland for rejecting its own Independence.

oh yeah, snow monkeys happened!
oh yeah, snow monkeys happened!

The journey also was to visit and see in real life the art of Kaii Higashiyama whose work I took an unusual interest in over the last 2 years. I’ve never felt any connection to any other art before, but when I got my first book of his work I ‘understood’ it in a way. The compositions and feeling are exactly what I aim to put into my work, it’s not just nice scenes. I see what he’s doing. Being in Japan and being in the places he actually lived added an even better understanding of his paintings. It also added a better understanding of my own art. I think it’s totally fair to say my art has a Japanese aesthetic, and I’m not sure where that comes from. It’s not from any kind of previous study in Japanese arts. It’s not even intentional. But there is a way I think things look right, and when I look at the work of many Japanese artists I feel we are on the same path. I’m trying to put into words something I can’t fully explain.

I completed a major leg of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage. I’ve never walked 70km in my life!  I hadn’t even heard of the walk when I booked the ticket! But by chance, I watched a short video about it one night and decided that it was exactly what I wanted to do.

Will my art change after this? Well, I might find a new joy in painting with these new materials, but when I look at the paintings I’ve made over the last 10yrs and the things I saw in Japan I was already there, given I kept finding myself in my own paintings and the ridiculous levels of repeated Deja vu.

I could take 15 of my last paintings and exhibit them as produce of this trip and it would work.

I’m not thinking too much about what the next 15 paintings will look like now I’ve been there. I’m just keen to carry on. 

It’s been just over 10yrs that art has been my main focus. It’s far from easy, aside from finance and maintaining a ‘normal’ lifestyle the mental pressures are wild. You begin to question everything and the very thing you love becomes in danger of being ruined, does that ever change? I suspect not it’s just being an artist! I don’t want to lose the art. So I’m taking the action to restructure my life where it’s a bit more protected. Well, should I say ‘I’m’ more protected? That’s an interesting mind slip there. The art is this separate thing above me, yet I’m the one doing it. Okay okay, I’m clearly going full ramble here. But hey sometimes that’s what you need to do to get down to the root.

There is a way to do this all. I think The Eagles put it best. ‘Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy’.

Also ‘you can’t hide your lyin eyes’… Truth. You can’t hide your eyes at all in fact, and enough people commented on it on the ol’ Facebook but when I look at this photo, it’s this guy I’ve not seen in a while.


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