N E X T .

Commentary on Canal Walks

At Your Service

By Deborah Mantle

Published in ASPECT Chronicle of New Media, Vol. 10 “Rural”, Chicago, August, 2007 (ISBN 0-9749657-0).

The last time that I saw Markus, which was when we went on the Canal Tour together, I joked that our collaborative projects were always mini-adventures. When I’d gotten up at 4 am so that we could go to the wholesale market, or interviewing people along the Kamo River in Kyoto—work that was done for a local magazine, Kansai Time Out. And Canal Walking is another such experience. It’s in the everyday, yet out of the ordinary.

But walking through a canal rather than along the pavement is only one of Markus’ ‘services’ for and with the people of Kyoto. In the last autumn he did one hour services for 56 consecutive days in and around the city. Each service begins with putting on a yellow vest, on the back it reads “irrashaimase” which means ‘welcome’ or ‘at your service’. It’s something that shopkeepers say to customers when they enter their shop. Opening people's eyes and minds to the possibilities in a seemingly ordered life and in ordered public spaces – especially in Japan – is another part of Markus’ role as an artist in service. Markus invites others, friends, anyone he meets along the way to join in. Or at least engage in conversation. To act, react and interact. And become part of the creative service.

And some of the passers-by react in indifference, some participate, and some ran away... But it was surprising to find out how many people already took an interest in the canals. Who enjoyed walking by them or sitting next to them and who knew where to find wildlife. While we were in the canal, looking at the fish a woman pointed out where there were more fish further up the canal. So she knew the canal very well and its wildlife.

For me the hour was an adventure, an adventure out of my usual life. One day I was on the way to work on the crowded bus breathing air-conditioned air and the next morning I am sloshing through cool water. I am psychologically miles away and yet this is still near the center of the city. Only in the Northeast area called Ichijoji area of Kyoto. And just entering the canal is a form of escape. A change from the day-to-day routine.

Even though it’s a public space few people would ever think of walking through it. Except perhaps like the people we met; to clean up the garbage. It’s unfamiliar, slightly unsettling to use public space in an unusual way. So why do it? Why did I slither down concrete bank, scraping my hand on the gravel, to wade through water, and do something other people think is strange? But when you move down from the street level you see things differently. Simply taking the time to look, really look to sense the surroundings is a change, a relaxing change. And it’s fun!

Japanese culture traditional or modern is full of images of nature. If you look on Kimono, in poetry, in art, nature is everywhere. But it’s a contained, confined nature to be kept at a safe distance. Most people in Japan, the vast majority of the 120 million people, live in cities. And if you don’t have the time or money or energy to venture beyond the urban areas it’s easy to think of Japan as an endless conurbation of concrete. A country, where grey outweighs green. But nature doesn’t begin where the city ends and there isn’t this simple rule urban/rural divide. In the spaces between concrete slabs, or under concrete bridges within a concrete canal, life lives. You can see the pigeons nesting under the bridges next to the spiders and their webs. Nearby flowers are growing leaning down to the water as if they want to get in. There are birds in the fruit trees...

Leaving the canal after the hours walk, it’s like returning to the world again. And I feel like I’ve been on a long journey. And things seem different.

Deborah Mantle is a British writer, educator and nature observer based in Tokyo.