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I’ve been adrift since returning from Tokyo. Hence, no posts. My mind has refused to settle on anything to say. Many times I thought to get back to the untold stories from my time away, but there was never a spark.
After the “Welcome Home” balloons and while getting through the jet lag I got a work station set up in the garage for ikebana supplies.
The various groups to which I belong cycled through their regular monthly meetings, and slowly I picked up the threads of my social and cultural life. In addition, I found places where I can legally cut branches for arrangements and source driftwood which I will find useful as I advance. Sometimes, local thrift stores offer low-cost containers capable of standing in for the real deal, but very little truly steps up to approximate Japanese pottery and artisan glassware. I miss the readiness of all the supplies I need in one place.
In February I started level three with a local Sogetsu teacher and her group of students; however, meeting twice a month is very slow compared to the minimum three lessons a week in Tokyo. I’m chomping at the bit. I deeply miss the constant challenge to create.
To make up for it I make arrangements outside of class, practicing either the previous or coming lesson or repeating something from levels one and two. Alas, the textbook is of limited help. Along with a few flat photographs it offers a paragraph or two of guidance.
Simply copying the photos is not on. I need to create my own vision. I’m in territory now where there are no set diagrams with correct angles to achieve; however, harmony of the earlier principles learned is part of the arrangement. That’s way more woo-woo and subject to all sorts of interpretation—and rules not in the textbook I often find out about only after a teacher points out that I’ve broken them.
Without a teacher’s input I have no reliable idea what I am doing brilliantly or incorrectly except for a feeling that something is amazing or a little bit off. However, I have been both right and wrong about such feelings before. This week I was given gorgeous chrysanthemums which I combined with salal (Gaultheria shallon). This was my second attempt at the freestyle arrangement of two separate main stems in a single container theme for Thursday’s class.
Though photos never do a living, three-dimensional arrangement credit, I’m not unhappy with it at this stage. No doubt a teacher would have some ideas of her own, but at the moment there’s no master here. In the process of creation my soul sings. That is enough. That is more than enough.
I noticed that not all the photos included in yesterday’s post may have been properly displayed. However, this glitch only affects subscribers and may vary between devices on which the post is viewed.
For anyone who missed them and would like to see all the photos of the Sogetsu classrooms and the various designs created, please click here to view the original post.
Three weeks after my return to Canada the question is tucked into the middle of an email. Anything you find yourself particularly missing about Japan?
Oh yes, yes and yes. I choose a bullet format and fire back a list. Eventually I stop with a final bullet which reads: And more….
Much of the list is about school. Oh how I miss Sogetsu School. Even when the branches wouldn’t stay fixed and design problems left me vexed, school was (is) always joy. I don’t have words to match the great constriction in my heart when I stop to think about it (which is likely why I don’t let myself do it).
For that reason, today I’ll let the pictures talk. Here are a few of the particulars:
So much more.
More that is now less.
One afternoon as I worked in Tokyo, I was increasingly exasperated. First, there was a limited choice of branches, none of which I particularly liked. Then once I got started with the branches recommended to me by a teaching assistant, they were obstinate, twitchy things that wouldn’t hold their position. I’d set one in place and the second I let go it flipped on me.
The container was lovely, the colours of the leaves rich and the roses gorgeous; however, the proper angle of the shin refused to hold. Everything constantly shifted as I worked. Then after deciding I had done all I could with this obdurate thing, while photographing it the teaching assistant holding the whiteboard bumped it. After she put the whiteboard down she announced that the hikae was wrong. Well yeah. Now everything was even more wrong than before. Sigh.
Any attempt to fix it before the master teacher began his demonstration would shift every other branch like a game of pick-up-sticks. Plus, at this point I was in no mood to try again. I thought it better to leave it and, if necessary, make a fresh start. I was more than willing to redo the lesson another day.
When my turn for evaluation came around, through the interpreter I confessed that I knew it was not correct. However—and here’s an insight into how the Japanese aesthetic works—the teacher pointed out that the technical errors serendipitously created a particularly beautiful space between the primary branches. Therefore he judged the flaws as acceptable in this case. In addition, the harmony of the colours and the choice of container were excellent. Well done.
Really? I didn’t get it. Could I trust this evaluation? Was he merely being kind? I had been so focused on the flawed elements that I hadn’t realized there was a space worth consideration, much less a beautiful one.
I admit that when I look at the rather poor photo I still don’t understand exactly where the exceptional beauty is. Even after all this time and my return to Canada, the afternoon’s frustrations taint my perception.
Since then my thoughts have returned to this lesson repeatedly. How many times have I been so wrapped up in the flaws of a thing—anything, not only ikebana—that I have discounted some inadvertent magnificence I might have celebrated and enjoyed?
After landing in Vancouver I picked up an email from Vivian saying that she was in Gaienmae shortly after I left and experiencing pangs of sadness in my neighbourhood.
Ah, Gaienmae. Why did that seem part of a distant past? I had closed my apartment door and left the keys in the mailbox that same morning, walked north on Gaienmae-nishi dori past Citron to catch a cab in front of Francfranc. The sun was bright and the air crisp.
On arrival in rain-soaked Vancouver my second Saturday morning began. I returned to the Airport Fairmont where I’d started my journey with a glass of Veuve Clicquot, and ended it the same way. When rain pelts down there is such comfort in the bubbles rising up. The Veuve, as always, was true to sparkling form.
And what do you know? Four hours later as we cruised toward the Island the sun came out—that beautiful West Coast light piercing the water-logged clouds in that way you see light through tears—a poignant welcome.
After a sumptuous steak dinner prepared by my brother and his wife, I returned to my toasty suite downstairs. Numerous times, especially as I unpacked my suitcases and rediscovered mementos and gifts tucked away mere days ago, I ached–still do–with that weird cocktail of delight laced with melancholy. Love is a complicated matter.
Rumi put it this way: If love did not live in matter / how would any place have / any hold on anyone?
The journey is by no means over. In the next few weeks I’ll relive moments here through the many stories I’ve had no time to tell.
Already the experience takes on the character of a dream one barely remembers on waking. All that’s left is a feeling that it was a magnificent dream (come true). A dream full of symbolism and significance. Even so, it slips farther and farther away with the hours as I madly scribble to cage it in words
According to Japan Today, the Monday, January 22nd snowfall in Tokyo was the heaviest since 2014. Because I walk and the snow started sticking after International Class, I escaped rather unscathed. Unfortunately, I had to cancel an evening with a friend as it wasn’t worth venturing out with the crush of millions trying to get home on delayed trains.
I caught an early bit of it in the grove outside my apartment, but by the time several centimeters had come down it was too dark for photographs. I cranked up the air conditioner, turned on some tunes and called it a night.
The next morning the sun was out again. Roadways and sidewalks were slushy. People in Tokyo cope with snow about as admirably as we do in Victoria and Vancouver. Some shoveled, some did not. Then when temperatures dipped, those who hoped for Mother Nature to do the work are now chipping hard ice from the sidewalks.
On the way to school I paused at the Canadian Embassy which was not yet open. I asked the guards whether there might be snow on the rock garden and whether I might have permission to take a few photos.
Sure. Go on up. They looked over my passport, I signed my name at the top of the day’s list and took the escalator to the fourth floor.
For a week now the whirl of leaving has been in full swing—the last four classes this week, good-byes to teachers and classmates, dinners with friends, arranging to ship luggage and beginning to pack my suitcases. Special moments and floral designs will eventually will find mention here. Right now there’s little time. Yamato transport will be picking up my large suitcases for transport to Narita this afternoon. I’ll pick them up before flying out on Saturday.
Suddenly in a shattering dissonance that sometimes happens without warning, I stood with a view of the Canadian flag ahead of me. Tokyo Tower stood sandwiched between two high rises in the hazy distance. Behind me lay Shunmyo Masuno’s marvel of art and engineering representative of the Canadian Shield covered in snow.
In that moment I was both home and about to fly away; away and about to fly home.
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 have 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.