November 6, 2008
Kyoto Geisha Get Competition From Tokyo Galleries, Hip Hotels
Review by Lucy Birmingham
Nov. 6 (Bloomberg) — Kyoto's geisha, the reigning artisans in Japan's ancient capital, face competition as new art galleries, restored boutique lodgings and courses in traditional culture attract overseas visitors.
“It's a renaissance in Kyoto now for foreign tourists,'' said Bodhi Fishman, who with author Alex Kerr runs the Origin Arts Program, offering courses by local masters in traditional arts such as the tea ceremony and Noh theater. Half-day programs, taught by Japanese masters with English translation, start at 100,000 yen ($1,016).
Such ceremonies are a link to the traditional image of Kyoto, the capital from 794 to 1868. In Gion district, Geisha still entertain customers and businessmen with dance, music, dining and conversation.
The newly formed Japan Tourism Agency has rolled out a nationwide campaign to boost foreign tourist numbers to 10 million by 2010, from 8.3 million last year, even as the yen rose last month to its strongest against the U.S. dollar in 13 years. About 1 million foreign visitors came to Kyoto last year.
The real draw for collectors and galleries now, though, is Kyoto's contemporary art.
In the past, Kyoto has been dominated by spaces that are rented on a weekly basis to mount an exhibition, with no sales guarantee. The city's six art universities are attracting the Tokyo-based galleries to set up branches in Kyoto to back some of the young talent produced, taking advantage of the cheaper rents and rising tourist base.
“The Kyoto art university students are our art treasure,'' said Yuichi Mori, a Kyoto-native who opened Mori Yu Gallery on Oct. 11 with a group show of emerging and established artists. Mori opened his Tokyo space last February.
“There's more freedom for artists here, a mixture of good technique and creative imagination that you don't find among Tokyo artists,'' Mori said. “The Tokyo and Kyoto art universities have very different teaching styles.''
The group show features work by tattoo artist and painter Takaho Inoue, whose “Momotaro'' costs 1.05 million yen. Locally based duo Paramodel show three of their distinctive playful paintings from 336,000 yen to 603,200 yen. Mori Yu Gallery is beside a canal, 10-minutes walk from the national and municipal art museums near Heian Shrine.
A 15-minute walk north of the shrine is Imura Art Gallery, owned by Yuzo Imura, which specializes in contemporary nihonga (Japanese style) paintings, mostly for foreign collectors. Nihonga painting began in Kyoto during the Edo period (1603-1868) with artists like Ogata Korin and Ito Jakuchu.
“Kyoto is by far the best place for us to be because here our foreign collectors are relaxing on vacation,'' said Imura. “It's the best time to enjoy art.''
One of Imura's neo-nihonga hopefuls is 23-year-old Kyoto university student Kaori Watanabe. Her first solo show in October featured finely crafted paintings of girls at play with origami paper shapes, ranging in price from $8,000 to $10,000. From Nov. 15, the gallery will show photo-realistic painter Etsuko Kawamura's lotus diptychs from about 200,000 yen.
In the center of the geisha district of Gion, tucked among a quaint row of old-style restaurants inside Maruyama Park, is the year-old EnArts gallery, run by Tokyo-based Naomi Rowe. Rowe plans about four contemporary exhibitions a year with a show by popular Kyoto-based oil painter Yasuko Iba until Nov. 30.
The converted 70-year-old house draws mostly overseas visitors, intrigued by the traditional wooden facade and sleek white cube interior.
“Kyoto people will spend a fortune on antiques like tea ceremony bowls, but few seem interested in collecting contemporary art,'' Rowe said. “Those big-gallery names coming here from Tokyo could change this. It's really exciting.''
The Tokyo newcomers include Kodama Gallery, owned by Kyoto- native Kimiyoshi Kodama, who opened his first art space in the neighboring business city of Osaka in 1998, followed by Tokyo in 2004. Kodama closed his Osaka shop this year after finding a 500- square-meter former factory in Kyoto's southern industrial district.
The gallery opened on Oct. 25 with video installations and large pencil drawings by Kyoto-based Tomoki Kakitani, starting at about 500,000 yen.
“We'll promote emerging artists from Kyoto's art universities,'' said assistant Ken Kobayashi. “It's an exciting opportunity for collectors because there are so many good artists here.''
On Nov. 20 a collaboration of galleries from Tokyo, including Tomio Koyama, Taka Ishii and G/P, will open in a two- floor 400-square-meter renovated building about five minutes by car from Kyoto station.
On the second floor, Taka Ishii Gallery will present works by Kyoto-based painter Nobuya Hoki. Tomio Koyama Gallery will have paintings by Masahiko Kuwahara and an art shop on the first floor. G/P's Portfolio Center will display catalogs of about 150 Kyoto art university students and recent graduates.
For those looking to come and browse the galleries, Kyoto is also beginning to offer accommodation other than the big chains, business hotels and traditional ryokan inns.
The hip Hotel Screen from Design Hotels opened this year near the Imperial Palace with 13 rooms decked out by different designers. Alternatively, Kerr also runs Iori Co., which manages nine restored machiya townhouses in central Kyoto that guests can rent for as little as 25,000 yen a night.
(Lucy Birmingham writes on art for Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are her own.)
To contact the writer on the story: Lucy Birmingham in Tokyo at email@example.com.
Last Updated: November 5, 2008 12:00 EST