A Trip to Japan - Meetings with Remarkable Men # 3 -
Dinner with the great bakushi Yukimura Haruki
by Master "K"
When I was a student in Japan I, like most students, lived a hand to mouth existence. I've never forgotten that so when circumstance allowed this June's visit I decided to treat myself to the pleasures of staying once again at one of Tokyo's finest and most interesting hotels, the Okura.
The Okura was built on a hill overlooking Tokyo near Izumi Garden and was for years the home of famed entrepreneur Baron Okura. Interestingly enough, his mansion still stands on the grounds and has been turned into a lovely museum. During my stay it featured an exhibit of exquisite and ancient samurai swords.
As you might surmise from this, the Okura is a special place. Unlike the cliche of the impersonal high rise Tokyo hotel as depicted in the overrated movie "Lost in Translation," the Okura is warm elegance itself. The wood tones of the beautiful lobby draw you in just as the tree covered grounds promise security and quiet. The service is impeccable and includes kimono clad "elevator girls" who guarantee the guest always finds his or her way, superb dining and brilliant touches of Japanese art or ikebana (flower arranging) on every floor.
And on top of this, the hotel even holds a fascinating secret. On the top of a hill looking down onto the hotel's elegant dining patio and nestled in a grove of trees sits two small, hidden shrines guarded by fox sculptures where newlyweds (many of Tokyo's elite have their wedding receptions at the hotel) go to worship before or after the big event. The shrines are protected by bamboo railings, each elegantly tied with cord. It only goes to show that, if one keeps one's eyes open, Japan's fascination with rope and tying can be glimpsed everywhere.
I mention this wonderful hotel because it seemed so perfect a location for my first meeting with the legendary Yukimura Haruki, after Nureki Chimuo the second greatest bakushi (rope master) in Japan.
How this meeting came to be.
As I explained in my first installment of this series, my original impetus for going to Tokyo was to meet Nureki sensei after he had kindly invited me to observe a photo shoot he was commissioned to do for Mania Club magazine. However, with this date committed, I began to explore the possibilities of meeting with other notable kinbaku figures while I was there. Naturally, Yukimura sensei was on the top of my list but could I reach him and ... would he be interested?
I first reached out to my good friend Osada Steve who has been a student of Yukimura sensei's for several years asking if some brief meeting could be arranged. While Steve has always been most gracious and has consistently done every favor I've ever asked of him (and visa versa) he quickly responded by saying he'd do what he could but Yukimura's scheduled was generally jammed.
Naturally, I was disappointed but, of course, I understood. As a successful bakushi and video producer, Yukimura sensei is probably one of the busiest rope men in Japan. In addition to releasing many artful videos each year, he also teaches, performs occasionally, advises feature films on kinbaku rigging and releases sumptuous kinbaku books through various publishers. Of the latter, his remarkable 1990's publications "Trans Body Bondage," "Shibari - 1, 2, 3" and "Shibaku I and II" are considered classics. More recently the 2008 photo book by Watanabe Yasuji, "Akai Hana - Haruki Yukimura sessions" published in France by Le Lezard Noir has become highly regarded.
Just as I was about to give up trying to arrange a meeting I received the astonishing news that Yukimura sensei was trying to reach me! Contact was quickly established and, luckily, time was found to arrange a dinner meeting BUT, because of sensei's busy schedule, it could only be done on my first day in Japan! Great! A meeting with a legend ... but through the fog of jet lag! What to do?
The dinner plan.
And this is where the Okura hotel comes in. Not only is it a favorite, distinguished and convenient Tokyo meeting spot (suitable for a legend) but it also boasts five (count 'em, 5!) top quality restaurants and this was important to me since I was going to be tired from the trip (so meeting at the hotel was very convenient) and I was going to host ... and "hosting" in Japan is no easy thing.
Fortunately, here I caught another break because one of the Okura's lovely restaurants offers a Kyoto style menu and elegant private rooms ... but the Kyoto food was the bonus because Yukimura sensei is from Western Japan, Osaka to be exact, and food in Western Japan (most notably Osaka and Kyoto) is less highly seasoned than in Tokyo (less soy, more subtle - Kansai taste vs Kanto taste, etc., etc.) and so I hoped it would better please his palate. At least, that was the theory. Maybe this would work out after all?
As you might imagine, I was in a high state of anticipation, pacing back and forth in the Okura's elegant lobby, waiting for our 6 PM meeting. As previously reported, the great Nureki sensei was a most formidable and unpredictable presence. Would Yukimura sensei be the same? Would he even come?
I needn't have worried. Precisely at 6 PM, not a second earlier or later, in strides a smiling Yukimura, accompanied by his beautiful associate Sayaka, a former model but now the person who helps him run his company. He is resplendent in a white shirt that compliments his salt and pepper hair and she wears an attractive blouse highlighted by colorful jewelry. He is all affability and friendship and has a true, unforced charisma.
To my complete surprise he has also brought me a gift in a lovely little box but asks that I not open it until we get into our private dining room. Curious! Friendly introductions made, we proceed to the Yamazato Okura restaurant for dinner.
It is a truly memorable evening of many Japanese delicacies, fabulous steak and wine (though Yukimura sensei doesn't drink) and wonderful conversation. I've always referred to Yukimura's distinctive voice, which he uses to great effect murmuring soft, sweet nothings to the beautifully bound ladies in his videos, as the sound of tires rolling over gravel, a true smokers voice, but tonight he laughs loudly and with abandon and shows a lovely sense of humor.
The hours seem to fly by but along the way we discuss the following:
The cinematic style of his videos. Of all the Japanese kinbaku productions, Yukimura's are some of the most artful and the most beautifully photographed because he takes great care with the lighting. He says he admires the classical Hollywood movie lighting of old and always tries to emulate that style in his own video work and then uses long takes of his bound models to add tension. It's clear to me that he's a serious visual artist.
Speaking of his models, he tells me that they're all amateurs and he casts them very carefully. Interestingly enough, he casts most of them just from pictures they send to his office and when I ask how does he know which ones will respond best to his kinbaku he smiles and says, "Instinct." He and Sayaka then share a knowing laugh.
I compliment him on his fine work in doing the kinbaku for the marvelous mainstream film "I Am an SM Writer" (available in the West on DVD) and based on the short story by Oniroku Dan. He thanks me but says he prefers not to do movie rigging any more. "It takes too much time," he says. He chuckles and adds, "Now I just spend an afternoon teaching the Assistant Director the basics of what to do and let him handle it!"
I also compliment him on his marvelous tribute video (done for Cinemagic in the 1990's) on the great kinbaku artist Minomura Kou. He tells me that it was a labor of love and that he was most influenced in his own work by Minomura who personally helped him accept and "come to terms" with his SM side, something for which he will be forever grateful.
He then compliments me on my latest book ("The Beauty of Kinbaku") and says, "No one in Japan could have written it." It's clear he likes the work and I'm deeply flattered and touched.
I admire Sayaka's lovely jewelry and am surprised to learn she bought it in San Jose, California when she and Yukimura sensei visited the US several years ago in order to do one of his "Bond" series of photo books. Speaking of his books, he himself prefers "Trans Body Bondage" to all the others and I agree. It's a classic.
As the evening winds down I risk asking if there are any other currant bakushi working in Japan today that he really admires? This produces one of the more amusing moments of this memorable evening. Yukimura leans back, gets a faraway look in his eyes and lets out a long, low "Hmmm." No comment. I try to ask the question again and the "Hmmmm" gets even longer! It appears no one fits the bill! Yukimura then gets serious and says that young bakushi today don't get enough practice to really become good because, due to the poor economy, the video, magazine and club markets, so vital to training younger bakushi, are no longer as active as they once were. So I ask where are the next great bakushi coming from? And he points to me! As I said, Yukimura sensei is nothing if not polite and charming, a generous flatterer with a fine sense of humor.
While I wait for the bill, he indicates it's time for me to open the gift he brought and I hurry to do so. It's a stunner. My little box contains 5 beautiful, miniature photos of Yukimura sensei's lovely kinbaku set in attractive magnetic silver frames clinging to a long, sparkling, silver chain. An elegant kinbaku mobile! The photography is by Yukimura's son and it's clear he's very proud of his offspring's work.
He should be. The photos are exquisite and once again I'm struck by how Yukimura's kinbaku always seems both subtly different and more beautiful than that of most other major bakushi. How does he do it?
I'm feeling so comfortable with this charming artist that I ask that question and am stunned when Yukimura tells me to find out for myself and asks me to join him for a lesson with my good friends Osada Steve and Nuit de Tokyo at his dojo in a few days time. Before I can stutter out my thanks the legendary bakushi and his lovely companion are off with only his charming laughter echoing back to me from the Tokyo night.
Did he say what I think he said?
Join me next time for Part 2 of my remarkable encounter with the great Yukimura Haruki sensei as I take a lesson in Newaza kinbaku from the master himself.