Hamish Downie’s Five Questions With Rebecca Otowa and Karen Lee Tawarayama, Co-editors of Structures of Kyoto

Editor Note: Hamish has another in his series of Five Questions With…

Hamish came up with this idea because he was accumulating too much material for his Famous News Sushi column and asked if he could do these mini-interviews. Why would we say no?

Thank you Hamish for being such a trooper for us. We really appreciate all for your hard work.

Let us know what you think of these interviews in the comments below.


TGG: I’m so glad to be able to interview two people today, Rebecca Otowa and Karen Lee Tawarayama, Co-editors of Structures of Kyoto.
Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?

RO: I was born in 1955 in California, USA and migrated with my family to Brisbane Australia in 1968. There I was naturalized and spent most
of my time playing in an orchestra; however, when it came time to go to University I chose to study Japanese. I took a BA in Japanese Language & Culture at Queensland University in 1978, in the same year traveling to Japan on a Monbusho scholarship. I enrolled in Otani University in Kyoto and also in the foreign students’ group of Urasenke tea school. While studying in Kyoto I met Toshiro Otowa, the 19th-generation heir of a centuries-old house in neighboring Shiga prefecture, and married him the same year I graduated with MA in Japanese Buddhist Studies in 1981. I have been living in that house since, raising two boys and also pursuing my many hobbies: reading, writing, drawing, handwork, gardening, keeping cats, and musical and amateur drama theatre performances.

I have written and illustrated three books, all published by Tuttle and available on Amazon: At Home in Japan (2010), an autobiographical
essay collection; My Awesome Japan Adventure (2013), a children’s book; and The Mad Kyoto Shoe Swapper (2019), a short story collection.
I have also painted over 50 paintings and had two local shows.

Books available here: https://www.amazon.com/Rebecca-Otowa/e/B002T90866

KLT: I’m originally from Doylestown, PA (USA) — the town of composer Oscar Hammerstein II and authors Pearl S. Buck and James Michener.I
miss the rolling farmland of Bucks County but am smitten with Japan, my “home away from home”. I arrived as a JET participant in 1999 and, after living in both rural Shiga Prefecture and the sprawling city of Yokohama, came to Kyoto in 2006. In addition to co-editing Structures of Kyoto (WiK Anthology 4), my involvement with Writers in Kyoto has included volunteering as Organizer for the Annual Kyoto Writing competition for the past six years. Both roles have afforded me the opportunity to interact with very talented wordsmiths located both in Japan and around the world. My professional work at Ryukoku University involves advising inbound international students, translation and interpretation, the coordination of intercultural events, ESL instruction, and the negotiation of new global agreements for research and educational exchange. I’ve been involved in narration work since a child and have continued doing that on a freelance basis. I’ve always desired to be a catalyst for connecting people and cultures, and I have luckily discovered numerous ways to do this in Kyoto.

TGG: Could you tell us about the latest Writers in Kyoto anthology?

RO and KLT: The fourth Anthology of Writers in Kyoto which we co-edited is called Structures of Kyoto. It explores the physical, spiritual, cultural, and artistic elements of the city in many different genres from poetry and short story to academic and historical writing and showcases the work of over 20 people who have intimate connections with the city. Such “structures” include calligraphy, Japanese gardens, tea ceremony, Zen training, the Gion Festival, literary cafes, shrines and temples, spirits, and a plethora of other topics. This time we are fortunate to have the illustrations of Stuart Ayre, a professional illustrator who has come to live in Kyoto in the past few years. We have branched into color for the cover, and the contributions are divided into sections by poems of the famous One Hundred Poets translated by Mike Freiling. The order of the contributions is also a departure, tracing a route through a map of Kyoto. We have been fortunate to have the help of previous Anthology Editors, particularly John Dougill, the founder and head of the group, and Jann Williams, editor of Anthology 3. Structures of Kyoto is a treasure trove and woven tapestry of valuable insights which we hope everyone with an interest in this very special city will have the opportunity to delve into.

TGG: What inspired this year’s theme?

RO: It was my honor to choose a theme for Anthology 4, and what came to me was “Structures of Kyoto”. I felt it was potentially a rich theme, because Kyoto is very much a city of structures, the physical (including rivers, mountains, street grid, and human structures such as temples and shrines), cultural (such as the structures which gave birth to and maintain the vast organisms of pottery, tea, gardens, festivals, calligraphy, fabric art, and so on), and even psychological (the personality of Kyoto which permeates all these). The contributors took this theme and ran with it very admirably.

TGG: What is something you learned by making this anthology?

RO: Previous anthology editors have wrestled with the problems of uploading to Amazon and the production of an e-book, but I sidestepped this steep learning curve and insisted from the outset that such digital work would be better done by someone else. I stand by my decision, since I am emphatically of the pre-digital generation. I was, however, ably assisted in these matters by Karen and also by the Webmaster of Writers in Kyoto, Patrick Elizaga. Otherwise, I would have to say that by editing various drafts, I have learned a lot about spacing, centering, fonts, and the very sharp eye required of an editor. I also learned, by reading the contributions, many new things about Kyoto, not least how well-known and well-loved a city it is by many different people and in many different ways.

KLT: While I had previously done a lot of proofreading work in my professional life, this was my first time to get involved in the editing of a full anthology. I have always had deep respect for the value of experiential learning – throwing myself right in, and my intention in taking on the role of co-editor was to gain first-hand experience in seeing the whole editing process through. I also viewed it as perfect timing because the pandemic was keeping me at home, giving me ample time to focus. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges throughout the process was editing in such a way that each writer’s original voice could be maintained. It was often necessary to put my linguistic conditioning aside when working with the text of an author hailing from a culture other than my own.

Through this very intensive undertaking, I’ve developed an even greater admiration and appreciation for our predecessors, the editors of former WiK Anthologies. Their kind, careful guidance along the way proved invaluable to our ability to bring Structures of Kyoto to fruition. I am also deeply grateful to have had the chance to work alongside and learn from Rebecca, an experienced author and editor who created an atmosphere in which we could share our ideas and opinions freely, allowing for a free-flowing and ever-expanding creative process.

TGG: What’s next for you?

RO: I’m in the process of deciding what my next book will be. I’m fluctuating between an anecdotal treatment of my experience of the Japanese psyche, and a slightly more autobiographical and detailed version of what it means to be an inheritor of a vanishing culture (I don’t mean Japanese culture as a whole, but rather the countryside culture, which is changing rapidly.) I doubt if these changes will ever be fully documented, except anecdotally, which I am figuring out how to attempt.

KLT: While the completion of the Anthology took a bit longer than expected, sometimes inducing feelings of great trepidation, I do love the process of editing and the deep gratification that results from bringing vision into reality. If the chance arises, and after some time, I hope to have the opportunity to take on a similar role in another project. I’m also working on a memoir involving connections between character development and cross-cultural deepening through international sojourns, using the example of my experiences as a childhood actress and subsequent experiences abroad which ultimately led to my professional work as a bridge between various cultures.

TGG: Where can we buy the book, and follow you on social media?

Structures of Kyoto is available from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.jp, and other Amazon marketplaces in print and Kindle formats.

Rebecca has a website and blog at www.rebeccaotowa.com and a personal Facebook account.

Karen’s blog, Kyoto Faces:


provides human stories from the heart of Japan and often serves as inspiration for her other writings. She can also be found on
Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/this.kyoto.life/

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