In January, I went to Kyoto in preparation for a festival in May which has now unfortunately been cancelled due to Covid-19. I wrote a blog and forgot to upload it (!) so thought I would now. Though circumstances have changed, my thoughts and feeling remain valid, and were interesting to return to some months on...
This week I had the pleasure of travelling to Japan’s old capital, Kyoto, for meetings in preparation for the Kyoto International Music Students Festival. The festival, now in its 28th year, was founded to forge a path of international collaboration, unity and teamwork in music. Whilst there are many classical music festivals and courses across the world, to have one driven by values that unite - rather than competition which often divides, is compelling. I am in admiration of Rohm Music Foundational for providing such consistent and positive support to the initiative.
My role will be to conduct the orchestra in the festival finale. This concert will bring together all the participants from the chamber music concerts of the first four days, as well as students from Japanese music schools across the country, to form an inspiring and unique vessel. An orchestra that unites music students around the world. Such a display of companionship is a rarity in today’s world and I am eager to witness the manifestation of this when I return in May. No doubt it will be a powerful and moving occasion... as well as a great big party!
I was only in Kyoto for three days (it will be two weeks for the festival) and much of this time was spent in meetings and visits to venues. I treasured the free time to explore this historic city. In the West of the city, where I was based, the architecture juxtaposes the old and the new as I have never seen so starkly; a shiny glass building containing a Starbucks, and a block of offices, sandwiching a traditional Japanese house in-between. To the East is the ancient quarter, where one can find a historic shrine or temple on nearly every street. These come in a variety of sizes - some the size of a small garden, and others like majestic palaces.
On my final day I was able to visit the Heian Shrine which demonstrated this larger majesty, robed in a bold fire orange with bright green roof, as though a dragon claiming its territory in the city. Hidden behind this shrine, however, lay a treasure trove of further delights. An enormous garden made of copious smaller gardens, each containing all varieties of trees, streams, lakes, traditional Japanese huts and tea houses, and stepping stones I was not courageous enough to cross. So much care and precision taken to curate a space that spoke of neat simplicity and grand design in equal measure. I am told that in the cherry blossom season (last week of March and first week of April) and summer season, these gardens are most beautiful with vast arrangements of flowers
and bright colours. I, however, found an immense amount of simple beauty in seeing the trees stripped back of their ornaments, allowed to stand bare and honest.
Between meetings, the management team for the festival opened my eyes to the other wonder in Japan and Kyoto: the food. I had mentioned briefly in previous emails to the coordinator that I love sushi, and this was taken with full enthusiasm and vigour. A highlight was the final meal. Sat at a traditional Japanese sushi bar, we watched the chef prepare the fresh fish sushi before being presented a meal that looked almost too beautiful to eat.
I was struck by the thought put into the aesthetics of food, and also the culture surrounding eating which demonstrates a similar respect and thoughtfulness.
In London, food is often consumed in a way that it feels almost like an inconvenience; lunches grabbed and consumed instantaneously in any place, with meals-out given in vast quantities and still consumed at impressive rapidity. The coffee shop lunch food, ‘eat when you can’ culture suits the lives of metropolitan Londoners, but in seeing the alternative I realise we are losing the soul behind mealtimes.
Each time our team went out it was a special occasion. Many restaurants ask that you take your shoes off before entering the eating area, and hand-towels are offered before you eat. Each dish is small and presented immaculately - sometimes being brought out course-by-course, and other times all at once on an ornate wooden tray. The food and the process of eating is valued and respected at all times.
In particular, I think the use of chopsticks helps this culture; directly, it forces you to slow down and take time over the food; indirectly, this time allows for conversations to interweave the meal. Enamoured by the culture, I have bought myself a set of chopsticks which I hope to use more regularly with a larger variety of meals in the UK (other than just sushi): to continuing taking time and being grateful for the meals I eat. I also hope to improve my chopstick technique before the next visit! My lack of training and heavy handedness became quickly evident when eating in the company of seasoned professionals. It’s time to up my game...
A few helpful Japanese phrases:
Arigatou-gozaimus (Thank you)
Totemo Oishii (Very Yummy!)
Sumimasen (Sorry/Excuse Me - which, as a classic ignorant Brit, I found myself using more than I
care to admit)