Rob Singer

"I'm the longest serving gaijin (foreigner) in this neighbourhood," affirms Robert Singer.

Rob is the curator of Japanese art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In many ways Rob has an idyllic life. He comes to Kyoto every spring and autumn, ("the best seasons", he says) where he spends a few weeks catching up with friends and other art scholars as well as looking for art or organising the restoration of museum pieces.

Although he specialises in Muromachi ink paintings, 2 years ago Rob put together the highly successful Edo Art exhibition which was shown at the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Credentials aside, Rob is a wealth of history, information and gossip about the 27 years he has been connected to this little part of Kyoto.

A couple of months after we first arrived in the neighbourhood we bumped into Rob one day and received a hearty welcome and interrogation from him as to who we were and where, exactly, we were living. "Ah, yes, " he said. "There is a long history of foreigners having lived in your house." And he promptly reeled off the list - including a French architectural historian, a British musician and many other colourful foreigners who have passed through the neighbourhood.

When Rob is in Kyoto he lives in an old machiya (Kyoto town house) which is in exquisite condition. Like any foreigner in Kyoto living in an old house, we were glad for an opportunity to ask him - "How did you find your house?" In Rob's case it was a laborious and complex process of introductions which finally led him to reside, initially, in the tea house of the Namikawa Estate. The story of Rob's long association with the Namikawa family is a book in itself and as well as being proud of his long time in the neighbourhood, he is equally proud of his relationship with such an old and established Kyoto family. "The great-grandfather was a very famous cloisonne artist. Rudyard Kipling visited Kyoto in the late 19th century, visited him and wrote about it."

The other question which always begs to be asked is "Why did you become interested in Japan?" For Rob, "it was a moment. I was supposed to go to France to study French art and somebody just back from Japan showed me a piece of Kiyomizu pottery, a tea bowl I think, and I knew then that I had to come to Japan." After that Rob became one of the longest ever visiting scholars at Kyoto University. "I was there for 14 years."

Surprisingly for a scholar of his stature and prestige, Rob is remarkably honest about his initial level of Japanese language proficiency. "It wasn't easy for me and I had to work hard for a couple of years," he says. "My kanji (Chinese characters) were always good but I had to be drilled over and over again to become a fluent speaker, like I am now."

As an art historian we were eager to hear Rob's opinion on the "destruction of Kyoto." "People are trying more now and I think we are over the worst part," he says. "How to preserve and re-use is now the problem."

"Japanese people speak of houses as living things and they say - 'If you leave them they will die.' Look how many rooves fall in when a house is uninhabited! It really is true. If you close up an old house for a long time it will collapse."

As for this neighbourhood, Rob says, "Kyoto people and historians say that this area is rather well preserved. There used to be more temples, of course, but there was a building boom in the 1960s that created things like love hotels and car parks. Overall it's quiet here and kind of tucked in, away from noise of Sanjo."

"It's remarkable really how tolerant the owners of these houses have been," he says, as he tells us intrigueing stories of foreigners who exhibited bizarre and totally non-Japanese behaviour.

"Really, I'd like to do a book someday about all the foreigners that have lived here. There has been such an eclectic mix and yet somehow a kind of balance or harmony exists which has allowed us all to live together quite well."