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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.
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.
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.