Academic Beers with Ted Taylor
When you describe Kyoto, you couldn’t skip them; pure water, old wooden house in a row, and food culture. This is beer whose mother is the honorable tradition in Kyoto, and whose father is beer boasted of by Germany. A new historical chapter is recorded in our culture.
From the KANBAIKAN craft beer label.
A few months ago there was a big conference in England where all kinds of impressive people got together, and talked about impressive and inspiring things. If you go to the website TED TALKS you can take a look at some videos from the conference. They really are very impressive, but oddly there doesn’t seem to be anyone there whose name is actually Ted. Here on Deep Kyoto we can go one better, with our very own (and impressive) Ted Taylor. As I knew he was leaving at the end of summer (today actually), I decided to interview him before he left. So, one afternoon in July we took the JR line from Karasuma/Shijo up to Imadegawa, got out at exit 2 and there we were at Doshisha University’s Kanbaikan building.We’d been talking about coming here for some time because on the 7th floor of the Kanbaikan, there is a French restaurant called Second House Will that serves Doshisha’s very own craft beer; also called Kanbaikan. The Kanbaikan (寒梅館 which means Cold Plum Inn I guess) is an impressive red brick building with gorgeous views over the city and we enjoyed its namesake beer, also reddish brown in color, along with some crunchy French bread and a plate of tasty hors d’oeuvres. It was a very pleasant way to spend a summer afternoon and you can find a map here if you want to try it for yourself. However, as I knew Ted was leaving at the end of summer, I figured this was a good opportunity to chat with him about not just beer, but about zen, and hiking and writing and about his life in Japan and so on. You know; all things Ted.
Ted: I don’t know if you’ve read Alan Booth’s Roads to Sata but I was reading his books again. It’s funny when I read it two or three months after coming to Japan, I read it and I thought this guy is just a grumpy old dude who is just an alcoholic. But now I read it with hindsight and I’m like: this guy has Japan nailed. [laughs] At the time, you know, you’re new here and you don’t want to look at the bad stuff. But he nails it. He gets right to the heart of what’s wrong, or not what’s wrong, but what is somewhat… annoying.
T: Yeah, irksome. But I read it now and I was so inspired, because I’ve been saying for a decade “I don’t drink yellow beer. I don’t drink yellow beer.” I like heavier beers. I like more of a rich taste. I like malts…The best time, the only time I would choose to drink yellow beer is for sushi because for some reason the temperature of beer in sushi shops is absolutely perfect. It’s like the right amount of cold. From an American point of view. I know you guys drink it warmer but… But I always prefer these kind of things. [taps his glass]
M: Yeah… but I like a nama, a cold nama.
T: But this is the thing. Reading Roads to Sata; every day he’s walking and every night he’s drinking somewhere local with the local folk. And this is 1976, so foreigners in the middle of nowhere were really rare, but it got me switching back to Japanese beers again. Now I love to have… like tonight when I go home, I’ll have Asahi with dinner. And it’s great because it’s so light and it’s summer.
M: Yeah… I suppose I should interview you now.
T: OK. If you’ve got any good questions I’d be happy to answer them or avoid them.
M: What do you think of this beer?
T: I’m kind of happy with it. It’s got a nice color to it… It is the perfect example of a Japanese attempt to make a dark beer; where it’s dark in color but not in taste. But it’s still very palatable. It washes down the crab quite nicely I must say.
M: Now summarize your life in ten easy words.
T: Summarize my life?
M: In ten easy words!
T: I don’t know. “Follow your bliss” man. I mean, I’m stealing that from Joseph Campbell. “Follow your bliss” is an academic way of saying follow the path of least resistance…
M: What brought you to Japan in the first place?
T: I wanted to do zen and aikido.
M: Had you been doing that before?
T: Yeah. And the beautiful irony of the whole story is that all those years I lived in Tottori, I was doing zazen, going to the temple twice a week for years, coming to Kyoto every other month, sitting, going for a few days in a temple… I’ve been in Kyoto for almost three years now. I’ve been to zen sittings maybe three times in three years. I think that’s completely crazy.
M: Why did that happen?
T: It’s my sort of protest in a way. All those years I was coming down to do meditation here I could sit anywhere for free and suddenly in the last three or four years when you want to sit somewhere: 500 yen, a 1000 yen. I feel like it’s become a touristy thing, it’s become a museum piece, there’s no reality, although I could introduce you to someone that’s on Horikawa that’s amazing. Basically every day there’s a zazen session. No money. Totally pure.
M: Where is that?
T: It’s on Horikawa, one or two lights below Kuramaguchi. A little bit hidden behind trees but there is a temple there. And I went and sat there once and he’s amazing, because he’s super nice and super friendly but when you’re actually in the meditation, he’s quite strict…
M: Does he whack you with a stick?
T: Well, if you want him to. It depends on your proclivities.
M: Yeah, I said “easy words”! Never mind your proclivities!
T: When I lived on the west side. I lived literally next door to Kinkakuji and then just up the road at Daitokuji there was a temple that I’d been interested in for years because Gary Snyder who was a catalyst for me coming to Japan, he trained there and lived there for a long time.
M: Who’s Gary Snyder?
T: He’s a famous poet from sort of the beat period so like the 50’s into the 60’s. But he lived in Kyoto, if I’m not mistaken, I think he was here 9 years…?
M: And he was one of your formative influences in getting into zen?
T: Yeah, I think it was reading about him and getting to know a little bit more about his life that got me interested in coming to Japan.
M: But how long were you in Tottori?
T: 12 years.
M: 12 years in Tottori. You liked it?
T: Tottori? Yeah. Tottori was a good time. I mean I’m not a city person, so as much as I love Kyoto for many reasons, when I go back to Tottori I realize that what I had there was really special and unique. I mean you were one of twenty foreigners there and I was one of the few people in town, (and this isn’t pride in saying this it’s a lot more longevity than my own effort), but I spoke Japanese pretty well up there, so I was able to open a lot of doors and do a lot of things up there that I obviously could not have if I hadn’t spoken Japanese. And you know the fact that I could bike to the beach in ten minutes, and I could drive up to the ski slopes in twenty minutes. It was a good place to be. But the thing is ironically the whole time I was up there I was longing to be in Kyoto and I was coming down here every couple of months!
M: What finally made you move?
T: I got a chance to study a quite rare style of jujitsu that’s based here. My teacher is up on a mountain north of Kyoto. And I was invited to start training and so for a year I commuted once a week down to Kyoto to train and then it was just a place I wanted to be. I felt I graduated from inaka. I felt I graduated and it was time to go up to the city.
M: When you were in Tottori you were teaching English originally?
T: For a while, I’d say the first eight years or so I did that and then I started doing more translation work but there wasn’t a lot of work up there and that’s when I started doing yoga.
M: How did you study that in Tottori?
T: There was one teacher I found later around ’98 but originally I started about ’95. In the States, there’s an incredible amount of stretching before practice in martial arts study and I was doing martial arts then and you know teachers don’t want to get sued if someone gets hurt. You know the liability culture that we have. But when I was in Japan, there was almost no stretching at all. So I wanted to take better care of myself and a friend of mine, he introduced me to a book; a yoga book. And I was using that for while to study from and then I ended up finding a teacher later. Again, the language allows you to find things so I found this person…
M: And now you have some kind of qualification to teach, right? How did you get that?
T: I went to the States and I trained over three subsequent trips. But I have three licenses. One is from my teacher in New Mexico, And another one, I spent a month in India at a different system and I got a license there. And I spent about a month in Vermont at yet another different system. I got a license there as well.
M: Twelve years in Tottori and three years in Kyoto so…
T: There was about a year when I was actually living in both cities. I was in Kyoto about two or three days of the week and I was in Tottori the rest of the time. I’d come down for training one night a week. I’d have some yoga classes the following day. And I’d go back to Tottori. I was also for a while playing drums for a few different bands up in Tokyo so there was actually a three month period where I was actually living in three cities. But that got a little too crazy. I mean it was just too much.
M: But Kyoto has been something of a disappointment for you?
T: At the time I moved to Kyoto I was ready to move to the States. I was ready to go back to Western civilization really, and western culture. And I came back from a long trip to the States so that was like planting seeds. I had some offers to teach yoga over there. But I thought Kyoto made good sense because from the countryside, Kyoto is a step in a western direction. I mean look where we are now; in a French restaurant drinking microbrews. So we have this, we have all the student culture, we have the interesting music, but also we have Shoukokuji just right over there [points out the window]. So it was a step in the right direction and I thought I’d do more of my zen studies here as well but that didn’t…
M: …didn’t pan out?
M: How come?
T: Um. Kyoto has a lot of good riches but at the same time it’s just not for me. It doesn’t fit me if you know what I mean. I found a lot of the time I’ve been in Kyoto I was in the countryside, doing these walks. That’s more me. The country is more for me. Ideally, my wife and I are talking about coming back but living close to Kyoto – living in the countryside but being within a commute from the town and being able to come in and continue our respective studies and see our friends but also having more of a countryside farm life. That’s what she wants as well. So Kyoto is fine but …
M: … you’re just country people.
T: Yeah. But I find a lot of the Japanese stuff that’s here is almost like museum pieces. I don’t see that Kyoto has a whole lot of life. And I’m shocked by that because I thought there’s all these universities, all this amazing, amazing creative energy here, but I just don’t see it. There’s some great music going on but I don’t see a lot of those bands having a creative spark. They’re sort of emulating what other people are doing. I mean what I’m going to miss about Japan when I leave is that on any given night I can see music from almost any continent in the world; Indian stuff, African stuff, European stuff… And I won’t be able to get that back home. But at the same time how much of that is really fresh? That’s the thing. So as much as I love Kyoto, and it’s a wonderful place to live, I love having all the mountains around and all the water and everything but…I just feel there’s not a lot of creative energy here. There’s not a lot of stuff that inspires me here. And that’s why I’m in the country all the time because I find a lot of inspiration in the country…
M: What about Kyoto Journal? You’ve been involved in that. Is it a museum piece or is it fresh?
T: I would think it’s fresh but, I know people who would disagree. Kyoto Journal is writing about elements and aspects of Japanese culture that I’m interested in, so for me it’s interesting. It’s fresh for me because I’m getting new insights and new ideas from it but there are other people who feel that it’s somewhat limited in scope at times and it’s dealing with older almost stereotypical Japanese issues. You know traditional Japanese culture. There are other people who are trying to deal with the more contemporary side of Japan; you know things like media in Asia, or gender in Asia. And it seems like there are some people involved in the magazine who felt that that was more interesting and more compelling to talk about versus like yet another article on tea ceremony, or yet another article on zen. But for me I’m interested in zen. I’m interested in tea ceremony. So I appreciate those articles. I like it. I appreciate the magazine a lot actually.
M: What does the future hold for Ted Taylor?
T: Well, a lot of these walks that we have been doing have inspired a lot of interest in the old roads of Japan so when we leave here in September we are going to walk for a while. For about six weeks. And then after that start slowly moving back towards the States, through Asia. Wrong direction but we’ll get there eventually.
M: And then you’ve got this long study plan…
T: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I want to study more the shamanistic roots of Shinto and esoteric Buddhism…
M: Related to music?
T: Parts of it yeah. The original idea was that, but then walking the old roads I’m getting more interested in what’s actually on the ground. And that’s why I think that when I say Kyoto is like a museum, it’s because I see much more life out there. Kyoto is more contained, it’s top-heavy. The Emperor lived here forever. The Shoguns controlled this place so strongly because they wanted to keep the Emperor from getting too much power, and they wanted to keep the Buddhists from getting too much power, so there’s just so much top heavy control here. It’s a bonsai approach to culture really, it’s just trimmed and pruned to the way it’s supposed to be rather than the way it naturally becomes. But the country’s not like that. In the countryside that stuff is still around. That stuff still lives. For me the most beautiful temples I see are on mountain tops and out in the country because they’re beyond that kind of top-heavy control, that civilized control. I want to get to the roots of that stuff. Where did some of these matsuri come from? About how some farmer coming home from the fields one night sees something really bizarre, and they don’t know how to explain it by their more limited ideas of science 500 years ago so they create a kami, some sort of icon, some sort of deity. And then they base an entire shrine around that, and there’s a matsuri around that, and there’s a type of dance around that. So that’s where the music comes in. The original idea was: where did this spiritual music come from? I realized that a lot of that was created by the supernatural beliefs of the local people and these folk beliefs and I think that’s really interesting. And I was lucky. You know living in the countryside in Tottori, I was near Izumo, that’s where the source of all this was coming in.
T: Izumo Taisha is technically the oldest shrine and back in the day, had one of the more shamanistic and wilder versions of Shinto. So I was around that for twelve years and now I’m down in Kansai but half the time I’m out in the countryside. I’m walking round all these old Shinto shrines that are also wild.
M: So why is a nice Catholic boy like you attracted to all these pagan heathenisms?
T: I don’t know. It’s just interesting. But again what is Catholicism all about but in seeing God is everywhere and in everything? In the more shamanistic elements of Shinto, there is God in everywhere and everything. So I don’t think it’s that dissimilar really.
M: Basically the plan is to come back here when you are old?
T: Yeah, but not that long you know..
M: And the whole writing the blog thing is that because you are … well you just enjoy it I guess, but you said something once about “I want to practice my writing” so you intend to write a book at some point or…?
T: I don’t know. We’ll see. I’d like to. About a year ago I started getting inspired by people that were writing hiking blogs and walking blogs. Mine little by little became that and I didn’t intend that to happen. But to be honest that’s what I was doing, that’s what I was doing with my weekends. The things that were most inspiring to me were those blogs and that’s what started me. I still only read blogs about Japan, but I find I’m not interested at all in the typical Tokyo experiences anymore. Where these guys talk about oh I went out, I went to this party and…
M: …it was wacky!
T: Yeah. And this is so weird and look how quirky this is. I found myself really bored with that. And I found that I was getting more interested in these foreigners who were going back to the country, either hiking or… there’s a whole handful of blogs of people who are married to a Japanese woman and they’ve bought a farmhouse and they are basically trying to create a life out there in the country. And for me that’s the most interesting thing.
M: What you want to do yourself.
M: So if you ever wrote that book: The Book of Ted. What would it be?
T: The Book of Ted?
M: Yeah. Would it be fiction or just a collection of rambling thoughts on your rambles?
T: Probably like that yeah. I kind of fancy myself as a travel writer because I think travel is where we meet the world but it’s where we also meet ourselves. Because when you’re travelling, especially when you’re on your own, you’re out there. You’re away from your comfort zone so basically, you are allowing yourself to be in a place where anything can happen to you. And it makes life a lot more raw. When things become raw you really can get a clearer view of who you actually are and what is really going on. And I notice for me, in my last year, especially the month that Miki was gone, and I was doing all these mountain walks on my own, I found that there’s a lot of fear that’s come up in me that hasn’t been there before. A lot of it is being in a very safe contained community here. And I feel that life has gotten really safe and easy here and therefore when I’m in the mountains and I’m in areas of a certain unpredictability, there’s a certain amount of fear that’s there.
M: Fear of…?
T: The unknown.
M: Having an accident?
T: Yeah, or having an animal encounter or something like that. And I realize that’s because my life here has gotten so safe and so easy and so secure. And I’m out of that security. And I told Miki that’s why I want to walk for six weeks. That’s why I want to spend all this time going to India and all these dirty dangerous countries because I want to get outside my comfort zone again. Because I’ve gotten too spoiled here. And I don’t like it. I don’t like having this fear. I don’t like this sense of oh this is too hard…
M: Life should be an adventure.
T: Life should be an adventure. Absolutely. And it’s also perfectly ok to sit down and relax, and kick your feet up and have a nice comfy afternoon. I have no problem with that.
M: And a nice beer. What’s it called again?
Inspiring! Ted called me as he was leaving the Kyo today and he sounded very happy and excited to be finally back on the road. I wish him well! However, his contribution to Deep Kyoto is not over yet. He sent me one last article which I shall be posting soon and still to come are two follow up talks we had over microbrews in Kyoto University and at the Fushimi Kizakura brewery. You can of course keep up with his wanderings on his own superb blog Notes from the ‘Nog.
Updated 11/09/09: Ted’s last post is now up here: Cafe Millet.