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Walking along the shaded avenues, looking across the expanses and views of Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden on a crisp afternoon, I suddenly longed to paint rooms.
I imagined a serene home designed in the varied and wondrous winter tones spread before me. I wanted to create names for the colours, but try it sometime. How challenging it is.
Paint companies have it down to an art reminiscent of haiku. Listen to the poetry in these samples from Benjamin Moore: Balboa Mist, Cathedral Gray, Buckhorn.
So I tried.
Getting back into ikebana after a 20-day hiatus wasn’t easy. Like any skill-development abandoned for a significant period of time—exercise, music practice, that golf swing, whatever—there’s a certain muscle tone and mindset which deteriorates in the interval.
Plus, I sensed that with the flip of the calendar the bar of expectation had been raised. Though I still feel a raw beginner with a less-than-perfect skill set or knowledge of the materials, I got the sense that the teachers no longer saw it that way.
In that slack time I’d also lost some dexterity that I’d achieved in that delicate dance we Westerners often must do around Japanese pedagogy. That’s not helped by the fact that different teachers rotate through the schedule once a month.
The marvel of the rotating schedule is that students are exposed to numerous master teachers, as well as a variety of styles and approaches to the design elements rather than studying many years with only one.
On the other hand, after two previous meetings in a class of 35 to 40 others, the teachers don’t know me. They may not remember that I have yet to complete Level Two. Even so, it’s more than obvious that I am not Japanese and do not understand the language.
However, the first day back it seemed as if no one quite understood how green and unskilled I am. How did you imagine that I knew this? I wondered more than once.
The two or three teacher assistants who translate for the Tuesday and Thursday Iemoto classes are there more frequently and know my capabilities a little better. However, at times they can offer contradictory advice. One will say, do this; another will come by and advise, do that.
In addition, I’m pushing myself hard as I wish to complete Level Two before leaving. Therefore, on Tuesdays and Thursdays I am taking three two-hour classes. I finished the last week of 2017’s term quite energized doing that, but starting 2018 that way proved more problematic than I’d expected.
When we returned on Thursday the first and second lessons went well. However, on the day’s final lesson I forgot the fundamental rule of all instruction: Read the directions. All of them. Somehow I’d overlooked the second column above the photograph. My bad.
In addition, I forgot about the Japanese yes. I had asked if a certain flower would be suitable for the next variation on my schedule. The teacher assistant said yes. It’s probably true. Any experienced teacher would have known how to handle that flower.
But what I forgot in the excitement of returning to class was the cultural inclination of Japanese people not to say no. What I ought to have asked is this: If I choose this flower for this arrangement, are there any problems I could encounter or any tricks I should know? The answer to that was yes and oh yes.
And finally, seconds before our working time was up, I was offered last-minute advice from a teacher assistant concerning the significant flaw in my work. On receiving the advice, it seemed to me that she wanted to rapidly pull the arrangement apart and perfect it before the master teacher offered a final evaluation. A sort of “let me rescue you and make it right” pedagogy.
Though I had to be insistent, I respectfully declined. I refuse to work that way. Short of a disaster requiring an immediate response to save my life or a quick lunge to catch a glass about to spill the wine, I never do a mad scramble for anything.
It’s a flower arrangement. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. I’ll note the flaws. I’ll repeat it before progressing to the next lesson if need be. I’ll be more aware and do better on the next one. That’s the inescapable essence of the learning process. Moreover, if someone else fixes it for me, it’s not my work. Any evaluation of it counts for nothing. Give me a B or even C minus on something that’s mine over an A plus on something which is not.
Besides, the master teacher for the day was one who routinely pulls everyone’s work apart. She’s magnificent. She offers bang-on feedback, and her adjustments always improve the design. However, no one is spared from snipped, flipped or extracted bits. In that instance, all logic dictated that any mad attempt to perfect something at the last minute was pointless.
I was quite right. That’s exactly what she did–ripped things out, cut them off and arranged them into greater harmony. Alas, even she couldn’t make anything worth photographing out of it.
Live and learn. Oh yeah, and repeat after me: Read the directions. All of them.
How serendipity strikes: After a party of three left the restaurant where I was waiting at the counter to place my order, one of them turned around and dashed back in to give me his card. “In case you might need someone to do your hair,” he said. “This is my shop. We specialize in foreign hair.”
That’s how I met Howard Lee Regner owner of Gold Salon Tokyo. A stylist who took his training in London and Paris before spending time in Tokyo during the 1980s, Regner eventually returned to his native Australia and built a successful business. There he worked with clients from “fashion and design magazine editors to politicians, society ladies, models,” a few film and rock stars, as well as ordinary folks who like a great haircut.
Twenty-five years later Regner sold his Australian business and moved back to Tokyo where in 2008, he established Gold Salon Tokyo. The top-tier, English-language salon is skilled in achieving striking results with whatever hair your DNA may devised. Gold Tokyo’s internationally trained and experienced stylists also specialize in the latest technological advances in hair coloring and treatment techniques.
I tucked his card into my wallet, thinking I could probably make it until I got back to Victoria. Changing a hairdresser requires an extra-ordinarily high level of trust. Plus just the thought of it sort of feels as if you’re thinking of having an affair. However, when my baby-fine, spider-web locks were driving me nuts, I showed up at his door–the Omotesando location which is a short walk from my apartment.
As one of those ordinary people who like a haircut that makes me feel great, I didn’t want anything too different from my usual bob. However, I told him I was open to something asymmetrical. He thought that was a fine idea, a subtle but distinct difference.
I like it. Together with my day-to-day life and ikebana studies here in Tokyo, the result is distinctive enough to feel changed. However, its essence (and my heart) remains essentially the same. Win-win.
Beige, the Alain Ducasse restaurant in the top floor of the Chanel building in Ginza is where I spent most of yesterday afternoon. I’ve never enjoyed a Michelin star restaurant before and prefer to supply a link the Beige website for professional photographs. Those showcase the room, menu options and philosophy behind the food better than anything I can do with a phone.
Vivian (a freelancer and blogger I connected with online many years ago who during my Tokyo stay has become a dear friend) suggested it and made the reservations. We are kindred spirits who both relish boozy lunches as well as high-end luxuries.
Elegant service and surroundings make some people uncomfortable and anxious as to how they should behave; whereas, when we sink into the plush upholstered seats of a sumptuous room we immediately relax. We floated through the glorious hours eating, drinking, chatting and allowing ourselves to be pampered as if we were to the manor born.
Since it was also her birthday celebration, Beige made it special from the first bonjour. A Canadian from Montreal who has made Tokyo her home, Vivian happily chatted in rapid-fire French with front of house staff who treated us like royalty. We enjoyed an extra glass of champagne and numerous other little delicacies throughout the three-course meal we had chosen and topped off with a bottle of Chardonnay.
In addition, throughout January Beige serves a Galette des Rois in celebration of Epiphany (arrival of the Magi). According to tradition, the person who gets the fève (bean or ornament) gets to choose a king. Though Vivian who found the fève in her slice was assured she could have all three. Sans doute her charm has everything to do with that option.
After the galette and cheese, our dessert course arrived with Happy Birthday inscribed on the rim of Vivian’s plate along with an extra box of chocolates for her to enjoy at home.
Mine was the Baba au rhum ou à l’Armagnac. I chose the Armagnac—one of the finest ways to enjoy prunes–which was mine to add as freely as I liked; however, I chose to trust the waiter’s pour as the best balance of flavours.
And yes, if you’re wondering, together with the galette, we had two desserts. Every mouthful—of everything—was a little bit of bliss.
This level of posh pleasure wasn’t planned for on this trip, which meant I did not have a handbag quite up to a Chanel establishment. However, I was quite unwilling to invite a supercilious side-eye from a security guard at the door. So I did the “handbag hack.” I have pulled this trick before when I’ve dined somewhere stylish, but lacked a handbag on which I have dropped the equivalent of a mortgage payment or property taxes.
While checking out the January sales in Omotesando, last weekend I had acquired a chic shopping bag from a high-end boutique. So chic it was embossed, not printed and had woven cloth handles. I put my pedestrian purse (covered with the gauze wrapping they’d put around my purchases) into the paper bag, threw my leather gloves on top and waltzed in as if I did this every week. Great cheek. Great fun.
Though it wasn’t on the trip “To Do List” I was open to being tempted by Tokyo fashion. I’ve bought beloved and timeless clothing in Japan that is still going strong more than a decade later. However, on some previous trips I didn’t have room in a single carry-on suitcase for purchases. This time I do.
I looked forward to temptation, especially the kind of temptation that doesn’t come back to bite me. However, I am bitterly disappointed by the new direction current fashion trends have taken.
Coats are over-sized wrap around garments often with slouched shoulders and wide belt ties in all manner of fabrics and textures which include felt, fleece, corduroy, chenille, fake fur and shag carpet. I can only describe it as bathrobe dressing. Not only bathrobe dressing but also bathmat dressing.
Under these, women wear wide, boxy sweater dresses or oversized sweaters with baggy elasticized trousers or slouchy skirts. I acknowledge that it must be comfortable and hides all manner of lumps and bumps of an imperfect human body.
I have to admit, as styled by the window dressers the photos look fine, but the look fails to flatter anyone who is not an inhumanly tall, plastic window mannequin. In addition, I haven’t done people the unkindness of candid photos without their permission on the street. There it looks as if the wearers have rolled out of bed and stumbled into the pavement.
Worn with the ubiquitous UGG® boots, (or worse, thick stockings or ankle socks in high heels which are so popular here even in warm weather), the impression is that the wearer was forced into ill-fitting clothes out of post-refugee need and desperation. The only accessory missing is a purloined shopping cart.
If the trend has a redeeming feature, perhaps it’s that fashion has a short shelf life. It already says, “So 2017.”Alas, I’ll have to look for temptation elsewhere.
Today I picked up my order of Osechi-ryori, boxes of celebratory New Year’s foods. These are freighted with auspicious symbolism and beautifully packaged inside boxes called jūbako. (Haruka Masumizu describes the individual meanings of each item in Savvy Tokyo, December 26, 2016).
Even though I won’t be lining up outdoors with any crowds for shrine or temple visits—it’s a chilly night and they’re not my deities—I figured that I might as well enjoy the traditional feast along with everyone else. I certainly had no desire to be in a restaurant or resort to pizza tonight.
It made no sense to pass up on such distinctive, traditional pleasure just because I am a family of one and this food is usually shared. A friend had given me a bottle of Yamagata Nihonshu which was a lovely complement to the food. Afterwards I opened the bubbly.
Stores will be closed for two days. I’m not sure whether that means the convenience stores which are normally open 24/7 as well. However, I have put up a supply of water, milk, cream, wine, coffee, granola and the like to see me through. Together with the Osechi-ryori, I certainly run no risk of starvation. Boredom, perhaps. Well see how it goes.
I find myself somewhat in limbo. This is a highly connected culture and during this period especially, everyone goes home to their family seat. There is an orderly traffic jam on trains, in airports and highways as everyone leaves en masse. In two days that congestion will repeat itself as everyone returns.
The shut-down began on the 29th as some of the smaller shops closed their doors. About half were shuttered by yesterday afternoon. Very few were open when I enjoyed a brief walk mid-afternoon today. Streets were almost empty of cars or people.
I’m rather sorry to see this year end. It has been one of the blessed ones. Solidly grounded in gratitude and grace. Filled with more sunshine than usual. Plus good health, good fortune, the pleasure of family and friends, creative pursuits and grand adventures abroad. Wow.
I don’t make resolutions. Decided not to set myself up for inevitable defeat years ago. But I rather love the resolutions Meghan Markle shared at the end of 2016 on her blog The Tig (which, alas, she closed earlier this year). Then look what happened.
With or without a prince and a palace, I can get into her spirit.
For this new year, the only thing I aim to do is to approach life playfully. To laugh and enjoy, to keep my standards high but my level of self-acceptance higher.
My New Year’s resolution is to leave room for magic. To make my plans, and be okay if they sometimes break. To set my goals, but to be open to change.
To let the magic know that there is an open door policy … and that it is always welcome to join the party.
I’ll toast to that!
Christmas, in my view, is more intimate than other occasions on the calendar. At least it is in the Pacific Northwest where I have experienced the majority of my Christmas celebrations. Inside the home trees, lights, fires and candles glow. Rich aromas permeate the air. Whether it rains or snows, the blackened windows reflect the backs of those seated and envelope the space. Everything feels closer.
More so at Christmas than at any other festive time, in my mind food is linked to love as beloved ones sit, eat and laugh in the circle of friends and family with grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins who otherwise might not attend gathered around. Geographies contract for those few hours we gather to pass plates laden with savory delights, dish up heaping helpings twice and loosen belts to sing, play games or try to walk it off afterwards.
Of course, being alone in Tokyo during my favourite time of year, not knowing a soul in the city, I had no idea how Christmas might pan out for me psychologically. Unwilling to risk sinking into a black abyss while Ikebana school remained in recess until mid-January, I needed a self-preserving plan.
Naturally, any plan of that kind needed a great dose of food-love. My Yokohama friends stepped up for Christmas Eve. Earlier, after researching and test-driving a few options, I chose to reserve and enjoy Christmas Day lunch at Two Rooms in Omotesando. They offer a main dining room with white table cloth service and an adjacent bar and patio with city night view from the fifth floor of the AO building.
Not only is the restaurant within walking distance of my apartment, it’s a chic, but warm and lively establishment without being noisy in that irritating way. The cordial front of house staff not only gives meticulous attention to the food, wine and service, but also to me.
They expertly navigate the sometimes challenging borderlines of providing service the way Japanese clients expect it (demanding greater distance and reserve) and the way non-Japanese appreciate it (polished and professional while being personal and engaged).
The open kitchen with an eclectic international staff hums with quiet teamwork—controlled activity that is a pleasure to watch.
For those reasons, I chose Two Rooms for the first Christmas lunch meal that I didn’t cook myself in about 20 years. I started with a glass of champagne while I read the extensive regular menu and the special Christmas menu. The special menu’s main option offered a roasted chicken (the Japanese choice Christmas bird) with Brussels sprouts and other trimmings.
However, my waiter assured me it was easy to substitute any other main menu item for the special menu bird should I wish. I wished. Having a splendid, accommodating restaurant nearby is better than having a fairy godmother.
Two and a half hours later I said warm goodbyes to all with the same feeling I have enjoyed at any number of tables where I gathered with friends and family to enjoy a splendid feast. I strolled home along Aoyama-dori for the requisite post-Christmas-lunch nap.
Recovered, after dark I hopped a train (packed like a sardine in a tin) to enjoy the Megurogawa Minna no Illuminations. There sakura cherry trees along the river bank are lit in petal pink for the season. A few locals were about, going to and fro; otherwise, I had the winding river path to myself.
As I walked, from time to time I talked. It doesn’t require A Child’s Christmas in Wales to “say some words to the close and holy darkness.”
Last weekend I hopped the train to Yokohama—about an hour out of Tokyo—to join friends for the Christmas Market in a former warehouse district now converted to event and boutique space. On Christmas Eve Sunday I’d been invited back for Christmas lunch Japanese style in their home.
That featured a selection of fish pates on crackers, scrumptious pumpkin salad (because I’m allergic to potato), green salad with prosciutto and balsamic vinegar, fresh bread (home baked by M the man of the house), a teriyaki roasted chicken and a chocolate cake log. In addition, K prepared home made black sesame seed ice cream simply because it’s my favourite. (How sweet is that?) I brought the bubbly.
Of course, I forgot to photograph anything as we were busy having a good time not clutching our phones. I remembered just before we cut into the cake.
As is typical when friends gather to eat, I got back to Tokyo in the early evening too full to look at food. However, when there’s a ½ bottle of Veuve Clicquot in the house for the occasion there’s nothing to do for it but indulge.
In case I got hungry (I did) I put out the Japanese oranges—not wrapped for shipping in bright cardboard boxes—but in piled in plastic bags with twist ties at the local grocery store. Then I put out a bit of sliced beef, vegetables, pumpernickel bread, and cheese.
The Sweet Thea’s Christmas cake (made in Langley, BC) traveled with me from Canada as I wasn’t going to go a year without a proper fruit cake. To make it look more festive I added a couple of sugar cookie Christmas trees bought in a local bakery to the plate.
As it was the Fourth Advent Sunday I put on the carols, darkened the room and lit the candles. After a bit I turned on the YouTube fireplace and the tree lights. I poured a glass and marveled at the stillness and beauty that a slight of hand with tinsel, music and light can create out of the darkness as Christmas enveloped the room.
Here in Tokyo I thought about Christmases past. The little church in Black Creek where after a Christmas Eve of gloriously singing our merry-bright childhood hearts out, at the end of the program we received, in a paper bag of nuts and candy, a Japanese orange. How far apart those worlds seem and how close.
Twenty-two minutes before the Solstice sunset I was seated on the 41st floor of the Park Hyatt Tokyo in Shinjuku with a glass of champagne. Looking west through semi-sheer blinds diffusing the view, a large orange ball hung over the Japan Alps. Suffused by haze the orb seemed to expand as it sank toward the peaks gilding everything with shades of orange, turning the blue skies to dust and dun.
At ten minutes before, the curtains rose to reveal a clear coin of white-gold light. That burned through the haze and glowed in deepening tones of red which lit the city below, the room and even my black clothing before it extinguished like a dying wick beyond the mountains.
And out of the dusty line in the distance Fuji-san stood silhouetted against the sky. To the southwest a crescent moon, and lights hanging from the skyscrapers like Christmas tinsel.
From now on the darkness lessens by about two minutes each day. But even the darkness (if you examine it closely) is luminous.
This evening I took the subway trains to Roppongi Hills where Keyakizaka Illuminations has the trees along the avenue lit up in white and blue (with brief shifts to romantic red), framing Tokyo Tower which glows orange.
The streets were a crush of families, couples on dates, entertainment in the plaza, groups of Santas cruising by on high-performance motorcycles and wandering the streets.
Two adorable Santa-toddlers enjoyed the Christmas trees in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt Tokyo.
And, I had to laugh. Even in a high-end store, a [blank] Christmas sweater is still a [blank] Christmas sweater. Choose your own adjective. That said, I wouldn’t kick the black one out of the closet if my Santa’s pockets were that deep. (But I would secretly wish that Santa–who knows naughty from nice, for goodness’ sake–knew me better than that.)
Now that an intense push through classes before the winter recess is over (more on that later), I can focus on the joy that is Christmas: favourite carols playing from the USB drive, the “fireplace” cracking on screen, things to nibble on in the fridge, the tree lit and bubbles rising from a glass. Lunch with friends scheduled for tomorrow, more illuminations and a reservation for brunch set for Christmas Day.
As always, much too soon (like the ikebana arrangement I must pull apart one brief hour after I’ve made it) the season will have passed. Mono no aware. The evanescence of things.