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Saturday, May 5, 2007

Initial terror turns into picture-book fascination

The color, excitement and vibrancy of Japanese matsuri festivals leap off the pages of Betty Reynolds' latest book, a welcome commission by Tuttle to fill a niche in children's publishing.

Author Betty Reynolds
Author Betty Reynolds found her niche in publishing.

"It moves chronologically from New Year's o-shogatsu to Buddha's birthday and the flower festivals of April to o-bon, Japan's festival of the dead in mid-August, and so back into autumn and winter," she explains on a recent visit to Tokyo from the U.S. "It ends with songs and games and origami."

It was on the basis of two earlier books about Japan published by Weatherhill (now Shambala), and two other books by Tuttle, that Rey-nolds was asked to conceptualize and realize the drawings, captions and text for "Cherry Blossom, Lanterns and Stars!" published at the end of last year.

Such ongoing success hinges on a pile of sketchbooks filled during seven years in Japan from early 1993.

Laying the first completed one on the table, Reynolds opens at random onto a spread of bamboo. To reflect their awesome beauty and height, the pages are turned sideways to that they work their magic from right to left rather than horizontally. Just turn the book around, she advises, gently.

Another two-page spread details in paint and humorously hand-scribed captions the cultural intricacies that she and her husband had to contend with on their first visit to a Japanese ryokan (traditional inn).

There, for example, are the slippers (trying to get a handle on their impossibly large feet); also the futon and yukata (same problem, she and her husband Frank are very tall). As for tenugui, again she employs a spread to depict the plain white cotton towel but with a narrow blue border — four confident strokes of the brush.

In advertising most of her professional life, Reynolds did not pick up a paintbrush for pleasure until she came to Japan. "Even when I was drawing every day as art director for a major agency, I never thought of myself as an artist. Looking back I see it differently, but at the time drawing and sketching ideas were simply work."

No longer, she says. "To see my work in print, to know that that adults find my illustrated books amusing and helpful and that even quite small children respond so positively is a joy."

First published in 1997, "Clueless in Tokyo: Sketchbook of Weird and Wonderful Things in Japan" is still going strong. With headings like Toire: Terrifying Toilets, and Venerable Vending Machines, it's hard not to laugh as she records the most obvious differences between East and West.

"Some readers have found the books act as a cultural buffer, preparing them mentally for what they will see and experience. Those who have visited or lived in Japan find them nostalgic."

"Still Clueless in Tokyo" etc, followed in 2003. But in between (in 2000) she squeezed in "Squeamish About Sushi — And Other Food Adventures in Japan."

Watercolors by Reynolds
Watercolors from one of her many books depict her and her husband's experiences in Japan.

Reynolds' first experience of Asia began in 1988 — a one-year sabbatical in Singapore from her job as an associate creative director for a subsidiary of FBC. "I had the time of my life. Not only was everything new but 100 percent stress-free." Advertising is very demanding, she explains, "but I've always loved it."

Starting a new career as a creative consultant on her return to Philadelphia in 1989, she resented having to follow her relocated husband as a trailing spouse back to Singapore. "I was very unhappy to be uprooted at such a critical time. Specializing in fashion and travel, I'd worked my up to the point where I felt I could go freelance."

She was just readjusting to Singapore, when Frank's job brought him to Tokyo. " Fortunately, it proved to be the best thing that ever happened to us."

What began as an initial terror of the rush-hour trains turned into a fascination with the city and country at large. She gave up any attempt at networking and instead began sketching. "Wandering the streets of Meguro, Aobadai and Daikanyama, looking at things — old houses, temples, trees — and chatting with people, it was as if I had to record everything I saw."

Over the seven-year period, she filled some 30 sketchbooks, and more. "I have so many stories." Like the time she asked the o-kami (manager of an inn) what time the o-furo (bath) opened and, not understanding the reply, kept asking the same question. Eventually she found herself being pushed in: It was open.

Reynolds has been back in Japan since January, with yet more stories to tell — and the time to tell them. She knows that her stories are not unique. "But they are unique to me."

Both she and her husband officially retired a few years ago, so now she has more freedom than ever. "Planning to go to Kamakura yesterday we had a late start, so didn't get to visit all the temples in Kita-Kamakura. But we did get to Kakuen-ji and were pleased to understand more than we thought we did."

They also visited Hokkaido with the Japanese Wild Bird Society. Recognizing other members of the group under the big clock at Haneda was easy: They were all wearing those nerdy hats, waistcoats and carrying binoculars. "We had a wonderful time. Everyone was so kind and tolerant, especially when we had to cram our long bodies into the tour bus."

Fitting in reminded Rey-nolds of the time she and Frank wanted to go to a country inn, and learned that the owners were not happy because of past experiences with foreigners. The only reason they were finally accepted was because Frank's Japanese secretary promised to stay by the phone all weekend.

Her current visit has made the couple consider returning for a year, to rent maybe in Kamakura. Reynolds would love to do another book, and would happily sketch and travel her way around the whole of Japan if the right commission came along. "Let's just say I'm working on some ideas to present to publishers."

Back home she divides her time between Philadelphia (where she was born and made her name in advertising) and the San Juan Islands off Washington state.

"When I was working full-time, we had a beach house in New Jersey. But we sold that to move to Orchis, which is a completely different environment. At night in winter there's not another light to be seen, which I find hard. It's Frank who's the outdoors type; I'm more a city girl. That's why we have a small condo in Philly, so I can periodically get my fill of concerts and theater."

Described by a friend as a "wonderful person who as an artist and writer and a creative and sensitive soul is always pushing the envelope of life," she has various events booked — presentations and talks about her books — ahead of moving on to Singapore to visit friends. Then it's off to Bali, where a new sketchbook and box of watercolors will undoubtedly come into their own.

From here on, if Reynolds has any slogan at all, it's simple: Have paintbrush, will travel.

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