A month in Japan 2023 (part 01)

I have recently come back from nearly a month in Japan, my first time in the country since February 2020. For the first time in a long while I left my schedule nearly completely free ahead of the trip. It was hard to resist the temptation of making plans and cluttering the schedule, but this was meant to be a “reward” trip – to celebrate the completion of “Autumn in Japan“, meeting friends, as much as finding new energy and ideas for the year ahead.

Paint, paint, paint

“Autumn in Japan” has only barely left the “gate”, but I found myself without much energy to start new work towards the end of 2022. I landed in Tokyo with a sketchbook, a new color palette in mind and little else. There was a hint of the development about to come in the studies shown here, but no real decision.

My mind was so crowded still with the “making of” the book, that my first objective was to empty it fully. For me, this is usually a “walk it out” exercise. Randomly (or not so randomly) pick a destination for the day during breakfast, and spend the day walking around that particular neighbourhood or place. I never pick more than one place. It might happen that I make it to several interesting places, or just end up whiling an afternoon sketching in a park or cafe found during that walk. The eye and hand lead the decision-making, not a previously determined structure.

I almost always avoid main avenues or loud, cluttered retail streets. Lately, the more I paint and write, the harder I find it to spend time in such spaces. The more attuned and sensitive the senses have become in the past six years towards fixing colors, sound and movement – from searching for the tiniest songbird in a large forest or recalling details of a particular travel scene of years ago in front of a mute screen – the harder I get hit by the overabundance of the urban avenue. In a few minutes, my head and eyes physically start hurting from the constant supply of new input and I find myself taking the nearest turn towards a backstreet. In Tokyo or Zurich, it feels like we continue to purposefully design our urban retail lanes as one giant Pachinko parlour, where little human balls drop and swerve down fast-blinking, ear-wrecking loud shoots surrounded by giant concrete, plastic and metal cases. Do all creatives feel this way, or have I become an oddball?

I find the backstreets of Tokyo and most cities far more exciting. Underneath the power cable line grid connecting the concrete blocks you find traditional artisans and niche shops, a variety of street-level potted plants, as well as the remnants of older architectural styles. Signs are fewer, and less bright. Shop and studio glass doors are closed. You can see and feel the activity, but you can hardly hear it. It is mostly peaceful and quiet outdoors, as if the whole place is carrying on its activity in steady concentration, and in respect of the activity unfolding one or two doors down. When the cyclist comes down the lane you can hear her long before she reaches you. And there almost always is a cyclist coming down these slower lanes too.

Originally I thought I might find inspiration in the most common birds or gardens in Tokyo, but it turns out that during my first week what I really felt intrigued by were… well, how should I put it – humans. The first scene I painted was this foreign couple in a small cafe in Nishiasakusa below. I started by noticing how the cafe decor matched my palette, but then the longer I sat there with my coffee cup the more urgent the “itch” to attempt to sketch the couple at the high table. It was a slightly frightening moment, to be honest. I hardly paint this species, and although it poses more easily than many a songbird, it has the habit of moving its head and stance far too frequently for my liking. I had only a few minutes to capture it all before they up and left. “Where did this come from, where will it lead?” I thought to myself.

Originally this was going to be one post only, but I thought you would enjoy reading more on how my travels through Japan relate to my creative process, so it will become a series instead. At this pace, it might be March before we are done with January in Japan. Oh well, at least I hope you will still be here by then.

On the Tōhaku trail (part 02)

On the “Snow Country” train (part 03)

Meeting friends, old and new (part 04)

On 2023 goals (part 05)


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