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  • Writer's pictureNelson Sigelman

Kyoto, and a World Now Far Away

Nelson Sigelman (left) and Keir Davidson on the set of "Message From Space."

Many years ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I served on an intergalactic police force on the planet of Jillucia, in the Andromeda galaxy. Honest. I have a photo.

It shows me in an ill-fitting uniform, wearing a white helmet with insignia that resembles a kangaroo, with my friend and fellow officer, Englishman Keir Davidson, at the Toei film studio on the outskirts of Kyoto, Japan.

We’re standing next to a sign for the “Space Travel Bureau” on the set of “Message from Space” (1978).

The movie starred American film actor Vic Morrow. His name may be familiar to the aged as the tough sergeant in the 1960s television series, “Combat,” and to film trivia buffs who know the answer to the question: Who played the student punk in “Blackboard Jungle (1955).”

In the old days, before gee-whiz computer-generated special effects, Japanese filmmakers enamored of the United States hired B-list American actors for short money to add some Hollywood celebrity wasabi to their sci-fi monster mayhem.

“Message from Space” was a big-budget gamble by Toei's movie-making standards. Reportedly, they were trying to capitalize on the popularity of “Star Wars,” which opened the year before.

My police force enlistment lasted two days. I had no delusions of stardom. I got bored standing around and figured I’d likely end up as a space Godzilla snack.

Keir and I, along with many of our friends in Kyoto’s small expatriate community, had answered a call for foreign extras. It was a lark to make extra money in addition to what we earned teaching English to students, housewives, and businessmen — the usual profession of ronin native English speakers — and have some fun alongside the more serious cultural pursuits that had attracted us to Japan.

We were part of a community of international wanderers, students, and transplants living in Japan’s former imperial capital. Kyoto is a lovely city where one alley might lead to a neon-lit department store where clerks in uniform yelled “Irasshaimase!” (welcome) to anyone who walked through the door, and another path might end as a walkway to a Buddhist temple wrapped in the stillness of a millennium.

I regularly crossed Gojo bridge, where in 1185, according to legend, the fearsome warrior monk Benkei, who was one sword short of his goal to collect 1,000, fought a duel with the young Minamoto Yoshitsune. After losing to the smaller warrior, Benkei became his retainer and served Yoshitsune, who was pursued by a rival powerful clan and died protecting him.

I shared a tatami mat three-room house with Bill Stevens, my best friend and former college roommate, and Bruce Harding, a gangly, congenial Australian — think Big Bird with an Aussie accent — a former oil rig worker, opal digger, etc. It was a fun and raucous household.

Bill was studying Judo, a sport he’d begun at a young age growing up in Watertown, outside of Boston. I’d practiced judo with Bill at the University of Massachusetts and briefly considered continuing when I arrived in Hamamatsu City, Japan.

A kendo dojo was opposite the Judo dojo. Mr. Nishiyama, the 83-year-old head Kendo instructor, told me through my translator that I had a good body for Kendo, not judo. I needed no convincing since all the Japanese judokas were the size and shape of refrigerators.

I later moved to Niigata on the Japan Sea, where introductions from Nishiyama Sensei opened doors to advanced practice opportunities. And then I moved to Kyoto.

Keir was studying Zen garden design. I met him at a party in a small apartment. He was sitting on the floor playing the guitar in an offhand way, more as a backdrop to the conversation than an effort to take center stage. Although he didn’t mention his background, Keir’s mannerisms bespoke a cultured English gentleman — Masterpiece Theater, not soccer yob.

He had a wry sense of humor and was constantly amused by the antics of his boisterous pals. When we were really outlandish, he’d look at us and smile with the detachment of an anthropologist.

But he was one of our gang, a part of the moveable feast that centered on Jitoku, a former sake warehouse converted into a no-frills bar that featured music and attracted a young international crowd that put work and study aside on the weekend.

One day, four years after I’d arrived in Japan and after two years of living in Kyoto, I said goodbye to my many friends and teachers and boarded a Norwegian tanker in the port city of Kobe. The captain had agreed to let me work in exchange for passage to San Francisco. I returned to the United States under the Golden Gate Bridge.

My path led me to Boston, and later, Martha’s Vineyard, and a newspaper career. Bill returned to Massachusetts. He and I remain good friends. He earned a law degree, started a Judo club in Boston, married, had two children, and went to work for the state. He retired from the Office of the Attorney General last year, leaving him time to come fishing with me on Martha's Vineyard.

Over the years, Japan faded into the background of my life. Bill stayed in touch with Bruce, who’d remained in Japan and with his characteristic flair created “Dreamtime," a jewelry and fabric design company rooted in the color of the opals found in the sands of his home country.

In late January, I received an email from Bill with a link to Keir’s obituary as it appeared in The Guardian newspaper on November 25, 2022. Bruce had sent it along. After all these years, it was an opportunity to get reacquainted with Keir.

I learned that Keir, who died at 74, was “the son of the distinguished African historian and radical journalist Basil Davidson and his wife, Marion (nee Young), a Jungian psychotherapist.” Before moving to Japan, he taught civics to high school students in Zambia and helped a friend restore an abandoned 14th-century building in the Welsh Marches “while in the evenings playing guitar with his band in local pubs.”

Soon after leaving Japan, in 1982, Keir’s book, “Zen Gardening” was published, followed a year later by “The Art of Zen Gardens.” His long quest to research the life of the 14th-century Japanese monk Musō Soseki led to the publication of “A Zen Life in Nature: Musō Soseki in His Gardens.” According to his obituary, he regarded it as his most profound work. He’d married Linda Crockett, a nutritionist and a potter who later became an alternative health practitioner whom he’d met in New York City in 1988.

Most intriguing is that in 1983, Keir received a letter from a wealthy American who’d read “The Art of Zen Gardens” and hired him to transform “1,300 bare acres in upstate New York into a manmade landscape of streams, ponds, waterfalls, and trees.” The massive undertaking lasted 18 years.

I used to think that old people talked a lot about the past. Now that I’ve joined that fraternity, my thoughts sometimes wander back to those days in Kyoto. I remember strenuous practice sessions in the Butokuden, a fencing hall built in 1895 that had the atmosphere of a community gym in the quiet days before tourists overran Kyoto. I remember joyous parties and many bottles of Kirin beer on the table. And I wonder what became of some of my friends and think that one day, it would be nice to walk the property Keir designed in New York.

1 Comment

Feb 20, 2023

That is a wonderful story of your youth and experiences . It helps me

understand a little more about how you became you. Missing you pal.

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