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The first week of ikebana lessons started well; however, the challenge has been huge. By Thursday of the first week I was punch-exhausted from all that jetlag, settling into my apartment and resuming classes entailed.
To complicate matters, the steel grass I’d chosen for the design I’d imagined was predisposed to bend into sharp angles where I wished to create curves. The flax leaves split, were hard to fix and gave me a considerable amount of grief.
As I worked I felt as if I were floundering around in a creative dead zone. Unable to trust that my instincts were anywhere near the mark, I simply kept going until I got to a point where I figured I was done. Stepping back to assess it I liked it, but that counts for nothing in ikebana.
Because of all that studying in Tokyo rather than in Canada entails, I put significant pressure on myself. Though I’d given it the best I had in me during the allotted hour, the week’s cumulative fatigue had impaired my judgement. I had little confidence in the job done. Was my best enough? Was it even close?
Of course, in that state of mind I was surprised by sensei’s tremendously encouraging evaluation. First, she called the arrangement “unusual” which in Japan isn’t always a welcome thing. Wondering whether I’d broken another unwritten rule and the nail was about to be hammered down, I cringed a little.
However, sensei pointed out the wonderful spaces created by the curved lines which harmonized well with the container. The colours of the leaves and the container were a good contrast as well. In addition, the fact that the challenging materials I’d used were well fixed indicated to her that I had worked very hard.
For the second theme of the day, I curved leaves into the same shape as the container and threaded similarly curved flax leaves between them. I didn’t think it particularly successful or attractive. Frankly, I didn’t like the arrangement all that much.
To my surprise sensei called it a light, lively, fresh, rhythmical and very natural arrangement. In addition, she said that she understood the expression that I was aiming for.
Good. That makes one of us.
At the end of class she came over with the interpreter a second time to ask how long I was staying and to encourage me in my studies. Afterwards I went out into the balmy Tokyo evening to begin the National Sports Day long weekend quite chuffed. I hadn’t expected this delightful high note after the challenges of the first week. To gain confidence in my own artistic instincts I need that sort of feedback.
In addition to knowing where they have gone wrong, all students need to understand what they are doing right in order to do more of the same. It was lovely to get that feedback so early into the lessons. Of course, the next class could be a total bust—or not. There’s no point getting cocky. I know exactly what I don’t know—everything.
Before resuming my ikebana studies at Sogetsu Kaikan, I had determined to do things a little differently this time. Last winter there were various challenges inherent in the move to Tokyo competing for my attention. As a result I often found the energy for my studies somewhat dissipated. This time I have determined to take a more clearly focused approach.
I am determined to pay closer attention to the Master Teachers’ demonstrations, make more comprehensive notes, take more photos, and be more observant of others’ creations.
In addition, since I can be my own worst tiger-mom, I will direct more attention to what I learn as I work through the design themes. Though critical evaluation will always be part of the process, I wish to better manage performance anxiety.
Mindful of the evaluation’s usefulness in refining my technique, awareness and artistic development; I will keep my head down and incorporate feedback into subsequent work.
Paul Arden (once a creative director at Saatchi and Saatchi) was not one to focus first on flawless performance. His was a more practical and achievable approach which might be more gratifying at numerous levels. He put it this way: Run with what you do and fix it along the way.
Speaker, author and former professor Srikumar Rao suggests that in any undertaking to which you attach some importance, you need to ask but one question: Did you do the best you were capable of doing?
Good question. Frankly, my best is all that can do. If my best effort does not result in particularly great ikebana, that’s something I can work on. Forever. How disappointing it would be if we could be perfect at anything and everything on the first go. Where would we then find the joy of ongoing practice and creation?
When you leave the old for the new, you know what you are leaving
but not what you will find. ~Sicilian proverb~
When I landed at Narita Airport the incoming typhoon Trami had made a mess of flights into Nagoya and Osaka. Narita was bearing some of the fallout. Baggage shipping lineups were long and delayed deliveries promised.
Though the major action was well south of Narita, overnight the impact of Trami’s high winds made a mess of the usually efficient railway system.
That’s the reason I boarded the 90-minute, milk run JR Sobu Line instead of the 60-minute JR Narita Express to Tokyo Station during the morning rush hour. The Express was delayed indefinitely and the attendant on the platform called its arrival unreliable. Since the slower train was sitting in the station about to depart I thought: Why wait?
As the train moved toward the city, stop by stop the passenger crush increased. So did the heat. We squished and dripped. I was grateful for my seat and the suitcase in front of me, a welcome barrier against the crush.
At one point we lost power and the train stopped for an extended period. The startling sound of a paper fan broke the silence as passengers waited quietly. Some slept where they stood as it was impossible to fall over. Others opened windows. Behind my head a warm breeze entered the carriage.
How insanely grateful I was for that gentle brush of air against the back of my neck. Sometimes the smallest things are freighted with great impact.
With nothing else to do I thought. I thought about the discomforts of those Russian trains, the ones my Mennonite paternal grandparents boarded as refugees with my newborn father (likely in November 1929, mere weeks before Stalin closed the border to emigres in early December).
Theirs was one of the last few trains to leave Moscow and make it to Latvia. Many others were redirected to Siberia. There the passengers who had sold or left everything behind in hope of leaving the country were at the mercy of their neighbours and the Russian winter.
My discomfort on the Sobu Line couldn’t compare to those crammed cattle trains. No children or adults were dying. No one was giving birth during the journey. Who on board had risked everything—a gamble with their destiny—and embarked with no certainty of their destination?
Two and a half hours later—an hour overdue on a system that prides itself on measuring average late arrivals in seconds—I disembarked at Tokyo Station. I caught the Marunouchi Line to the Ginza Line bound for Gaiemmae Station.
After picking up my keys I settled into my little apartment in Nikko House. That done, as the large luggage was delayed until Tuesday on account of Trami I headed out into the neighbourhood and lunch. Of course, the first place I went was CITRON for salad and a slice of lemon tart.
Then after too much sitting in airports, on planes and on trains I walked along Aoyama-dori. It was as if I’d never left. Like a person at a smorgasbord who piles too much food on a single plate, I had the insane urge to revisit every place I loved on the first day. Thankfully prudence prevailed.
On my return to the apaato, a welcome surprise. Yamato Transport Company had arrived a day ahead of schedule with my shipped luggage. By late evening I was unpacked and moved in. My Tokyo life had begun.
If you’re going to kick start the weekend on a Wednesday with a wine-soaked lunch, the two Michelin Stars restaurant Beige Alain Ducasse Tokyo on the tenth floor of the Chanel Ginza Building is a fine spot to do it. Because we’d had so much fun celebrating her birthday there in January, to welcome me back to Tokyo my friend and fellow-Canuck Vivian suggested we return. Who would say no?
Beige is consistently voted the favourite colour of Canadians, a fact interior designers often disparage as if it brands the nation as somewhat insipid. Not so. Who can argue with French chic as characterized by Coco’s scent of the same name?
This recently renovated and reopened room with its expansive city view showcases various nuances of the hue. Hard and soft surfaces accented in black and glass, create an atmosphere at once spacious and intimate, modern yet warm which oozes serene elegance at every turn.
After being warmly welcomed and seated we were given moist monogrammed towels infused with verbena. How civilized.
Restaurant Director Lionel Lavernhe and his front of house team remembered our previous visit and pampered us through four marvelous courses, wine pairings and little extras especially prepared for us by Chef Kei Kojima. As this was not an assignment-driven working lunch, but for the individual menus presented to us before the service began I kept no notes on the food or wines. The photos will have to stand in for the thousands of superlative words.
Special appetizers not on the menu card arrived: Mushrooms for me as I cannot have the tomato in Vivian’s dish.
Then we were back to the main menu.
When the next course arrived I neglected to get a photo of the wood-fired sujiara fish marinated with shio koji, fennel and citrus served with Chardonnay. This is why I am not a food writer. The work is much too difficult. But you can see the remains of the Chardonnay in the following photo of the Kyushu beef–hard evidence that I’m not quite keeping up.
After these tender morsels Vivian and I agree that we wish to be reincarnated as Kyushu cows. Renowned for their great taste, these specialty breeds are raised in small herds, fed special diets which include beer, and given regular massages. Every effort is made to remove stress from their lives. Of course their lives don’t end well, but whose do?
The luncheon, however, ends brilliantly in a blaze of chocolate which includes Ducasse’s artisan chocolate manufactured in Tokyo under chocolate chef Julien Kientzler using cacao beans prepared in Paris. Le Chocolat Alain Ducasse is available in two Tokyo locations: Nihonbashi and Roppongi. In case that won’t keep us awake–coffee.
As with the fish course, one week in I’m not quite keeping up with the whirlwind start in Tokyo, a world in which I am not literate and nothing is simple as a result.
Remembering and/or figuring out how things work as well as the intense course work have consumed all my creative energy. As a result, any day that I think I’ve finally found my footing and a rhythm, inevitably something else–like complications created by typhoons and unseasonable weather patterns–have added to the glorious challenge.
The Fall 2018 issue of PostScript: The Magazine for Retired Educators containing my article on last year’s ikebana studies in Tokyo arrived in the mail this week. The editorial team did a particularly fine job of the layout and thanks to their skills in manipulating images made my amateur photos (shot in less than ideal conditions and without proper lighting) look fabulous.
Click the link and scroll down to page 10 if you’d like to see the results.
Today I am three weeks from takeoff for Japan. Everything I’ll need for two months is ready to throw into suitcases, and appointments for those last-minute things such as picking up currency and getting a haircut are scheduled.
At this stage it’s that paradoxical state of anticipation and dread, not unlike the slow climb toward the first descent of a roller coaster. Though I maintain a beginner mind-set and allow myself a great deal of latitude because I am a novice, the knowledge that I will be working alongside amazing artists and will be taught by master teachers is daunting. There’s something about being in the presence of greatness that elevates performance at the same time that it commands humility. The trick is to let the terror fuel the joy.
Due to a milestone birthday earlier this year, on August 2 I enjoyed my first sailing on BC Ferries free of charge. When I pulled up to the ticket booth I announced the fact as I handed over my credit card.
It was a test.
“Ma’m, I’ll need to see your ID,” the cashier said.
Sweet! I passed.
In my last entry more than a month ago, Yellow: CITRON Tokyo, I wrote of the sublime, puckering sweetness that had me sorely tempted to return. I could taste it.
I wasn’t kidding. Mid May, a bit down in the dumps after my bi-weekly ikebana classes recessed for summer (as well as other boring reasons I won’t mention), I was deep into a flirtation with the idea of returning to Tokyo.
When I started I had no serious intention of going, I was merely trying to cheer myself up. I flipped through back issues of Time Out Tokyo, Kateigaho and Omosan Street; clicked on bookmarked websites, opened the To Do List files from last year and re-read journals. Much the way I poured over the Sears Christmas Wish Book as a child or later as an adult tore pages from magazines to create a dream board, toying with the idea was enough.
My appetite whet, I studied the Sogetsu Kaikan October and November schedules. Then I revised my “Take to Tokyo” checklist from winter to autumn. Once I was that far along there didn’t seem to be any reason why I shouldn’t send a query to the company which had provided my furnished suite last year. Then I checked flight schedules and airfare.
Even so, I hesitated. When I mentioned that to a friend she couldn’t understand why. GO! She urged. Life is short, health can be precarious. Do it while—do it because—you can! Put that way, I thought: Why not? She was right. There was no rational reason not to go.
I fired off an email to my travel agent, put down the plastic and booked the flights. A week later I received confirmation that a studio suite in Nikko House where I lived last winter had become available. That was something I’d been told they couldn’t guarantee and hadn’t expected to ascertain before mid-August.
Much as they did last year and in very short order, like pieces of a child’s interlocking picture puzzle, the elements clicked effortlessly one by one. I bite on the obvious cliché. No, I’m not going to write that, but I’ll flirt on the borderline and quote Sir Paul and John: Let it be.
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.