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Across from Francfranc on the corner of Aoyama-dori and Gaien-nishi-dori is a two-storey salad bar in Parisian style called CITRON. Situated a few meters from my apartment in Gaienmae, Tokyo, I discovered it almost immediately on arrival in the neighbourhood.
As is often the case with my keen restaurant-radar, before I could see it I nosed it as I turned the corner—air redolent with cheese, rosemary, onions and garlic. The heady aroma and sign reading “Paris” in the open take-out window drew me inside like a magnetic force.
Behind the service counter stood Jonathan Berguig the founder and owner. An open-hearted and charming man who shifted easily between French, English and Japanese (sometimes in the same sentence), he welcomed me into his establishment.
In front of him stretched a salad bar, various quiches, gratins and—be still my beating heart—the most glorious of great, round lemon tarts. Eight centimeters in height and 30 centimeters in diameter, these were cut into wedges of sublime puckering sweetness.
In addition to the numerous vegetarian soups, salad combinations and savory offerings on the menu, these lemon tart slices were—bar none–the best I have ever enjoyed in my lifetime. The flavour of the thick and flaky crust was almost identical to my Mennonite grandmother’s Schnetje, a simple pastry which can be used any number of ways.
Three or four times a week I would drop by to enjoy breakfast, lunch, a coffee break or dinner. Any time was a perfect time to indulge such irresistible pleasure. All of CITRON’s various offerings savoured in the warmth of the upstairs dining room became a mainstay of my self-care and solace while rattling about the vast city in which I was an alien who did not know a single soul.
As has been the case with each trip to Japan, I had no idea when (if ever) I might return to Tokyo after my 90-day visa expired. For that reason I was determined not to regret a slice uneaten.
We agreed on it and I meant to get Jon’s recipe before leaving. Alas, it was one of those details overlooked in the final week’s rush to finish ikebana classes, pack my suitcases, clean my apartment and say my boozy good-byes to some of the dear people I met during my stay.
Now back in Victoria, I am on the prowl for but have yet to find something that might match those bites of golden goodness. I feel the lack so deeply that every time TripAdvisor sends an update on airfare to Tokyo I’m sorely tempted. So much so that once again I’m working on it. I can taste it.
Now mid-May the forest is flush with green. As the weather has warmed I have resumed my walks up Mt. Douglas and the practice of shinrin-yoku or forest bathing.
One of the most uplifting aspects of returning to Vancouver Island after many years living away from the place I was born is the eternal green. Whatever the season the Island is always a splendid array of green in all its luscious hues.
The Sogetsu Kaikan classrooms overlook the Akasaka Imperial Property, Tokyo’s distant towers and the skies beyond. In addition to mind-expanding vistas, the rooms provide all material resources required for any kind of ikebana design.
The school offers an International Class in English on Mondays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays the three Iemoto Classes offered at different times during the day are taught in Japanese, but fully qualified teachers are available to interpret as well as instruct. In these two classes I joined as many as 30 to 40 like-minded individuals who were there to learn—expats and nationals—all with amazing back stories as well as brilliant creativity. In such company I was exposed to an astonishing range of designs at all levels of the curriculum.
Unlike traditional ikebana studies where a student works with a single teacher over an extended period of time, at Sogetsu Kaikan several teachers rotate through a monthly schedule. Under such a system, none would get to know me intimately during my three-month stay. The atmosphere and routines are quite different from the semi-private studies I had begun in Vancouver in 2015. However, this format of instruction suits me as well. It provides a valuable perspective on the instructors’ personalities and how that affects their proclivities pertaining to matters of design, flexibility with the rules, style and personal taste. Several years of study with a single teacher could never match that. I owe them so much and I salute them.
At the end of each lesson’s work period, the master teachers demonstrate two designs and offer technical instruction regarding various elements of the designs. Afterwards they provide individual critiques of students’ work. These assessments of multiple arrangements in rapid succession meant that I enjoyed a unique and multi-leveled overview of the many principles and nuances of the art.
Ordinarily, a beginner is not privy to that much information in such a compressed period of time. However, in my case the increased discernment coupled with multiple classes a week (rather than month-long intervals in between) better developed my skills, honed my sensitivity and boosted my motivation to work harder. I could better imagine what I might yet do.
Interestingly, this is consistent with current brain neuroplasticity research. Constant practice improves the short-term skills being acquired. However, my teachers always emphasized that the art of ikebana takes time. That is also true, for as soon as the learner pauses, the new connections in the brain begin to wither and are lost.
One of my friends from class who has recently qualified as a teacher advises in an email: At your level it´s all about the mechanics, to get the hang of various techniques, learn spacing, asymmetry, material, and so on. Make something every or every other day. It doesn’t have to be perfect but will keep your technique fresh.
Brain research also indicates that increased struggle creates more significant changes in the brain while learning; however, there is little fun in those moments that I have fumed and fretted toward elusive success. Sometimes I have wrestled with an obstinate branch or a floppy flower; other times I have learned that I’ve broken a rule that no one has told me about before I starting or while I had the time to fix it. Annoying as that is, at least I can be comforted that it has had additional, long-term benefit in the brain.
Perhaps that explains why nothing can touch the bliss of arranging the simplest elements: a container, flowers and branches. For that, I offer my tribute and gratitude to all my Tokyo teachers.
Some of the content in this post was previously published in “The Art of Ikebana: Insights from Tokyo” in Happenings, the newsletter of the Gallery Associates of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.
… and there…
The other day it was six degrees and sunny in Victoria. A brisk wind that begged for a wool coat blew up from the harbour. The next was five degrees and overcast. Though it’s early spring, these days together with views of the bare branches of plane trees against the power lines outside my window remind me of my winter days in Tokyo.
Thanks to central heating and proper insulation my Victoria apartment is a consistent and cozy 21 degrees. No noisy air conditioning unit blasts hot dry air into my face hour after hour. When I sit in front of the window there’s no icy draft akin to an open refrigerator door. And yet, even with the challenges and frustrations inherent in the overall experience at various levels at every turn while there, the past weeks here have been laced with nostalgia for my Tokyo days.
I remember fondly the little neighbourhood landmarks I used to pass every day. The post office, the little spa where I enjoyed heavenly foot massages, the restaurants I frequented regularly, the dry cleaner in front of Gaienmae station, the inviting window displays of small boutiques.
I recall bird song in the grove beside my apartment, the chirping of traffic lights, the distinctive whine and snarl of Ferrari and Lamborghini engines along Aoyama-dori; a marked contrast to the gentle rustle and clacking of the bamboo grove leading to Baisoin Temple from which the scent of incense wafted on the air.
Often a glass of bubbles or a single malt accompanied night skyline or Fuji views from various locations. As I walked down the little slope leading to my apartment from Gaienmae Station, Tokyo Tower glowed in the distance, a tacit orange welcome against the blue velvet sky. Sometimes the moon paid a call. More than eight light years away Sirius winked between the two apartment buildings across the street.
My friend Vivian writes to tell me that my spirit still inhabits Gaienmae, that she can feel my lingering presence when she pauses for coffee in the neighbourhood. I don’t disbelieve her.
Funny, after three months of living in a chilly apartment the size of my Victoria bedroom and enjoying more success than I’d hoped to achieve at the outset, I was quite ready and content to come home. Now, after a little more than two months back I can’t say I’ve adjusted with ease.
There, in spite of the often exhausting challenges, I was creatively jazzed and vibrantly alive, filled with a quiet radiance that could bring me near to bursting. Here physical comforts fit like a beloved pair of slippers, but an uneasy void remains. In addition, various delays and disappointments on my return have landed me in a rut where the inner compass spins on its center.
Based on a lifetime’s experience with the sine waves of forward momentum, no doubt there’s a spiritual redirect–even something which might resemble a plan–inherent in the situation. Given time and the clear perspective of hindsight it might make sense; however, acquiescence would be easier if I could understand its purpose.
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. Continue reading
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…. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
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. Continue reading