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Small Successes in My Ikebana Studies in Tokyo 5

4—[18] In a Suiban without Kenzan

  • Alder (Alnus) branches and long-stemmed green roses (Rosa) in a green suiban (flat dish).

The morning lesson went badly. Without a doubt it had to be the worst arrangement I have ever made. And that’s not coming from inner Tiger-mom. That’s straight from me.

I’d been rather excited by the prospect as I had by great good fortune caught pruners culling dead bamboo from the grove leading up to Baisoin, the small Buddhist temple I passed each day on the way to Sogetsu Kaikan.

I’d begged branches from them and thought all would be well after that bit of luck. I wouldn’t have to purchase additional branches in order to create a framework on which to execute the design, one that hangs on the wall.

The delicate bamboo was a gorgeous gold and a pleasure to touch. However, nothing clicked. The mess I’d made of the design was nothing less than deeply embarrassing. Plus a terrible waste of the exquisite bamboo. Sigh.

When he arrived at my station to evaluate my effort as the whole room watched, I asked the teacher-interpreter to apologize to sensei for wasting his time. However, she refused to speak. He stood silent a long time while I cringed. Silence can be the worst condemnation.

Eventually he asked whether the eucalyptus I had used was fresh or dry. I answered that it was fresh now (a requirement of the lesson) but would dry nicely. Eventually he said dai jobu desu and moved on.

Dai jobu desu can mean many things. However, in this case it was used in the way that you’d encourage a kid who’d wobbled a half a meter before falling off her bicycle. You say no problem, it’s fine when it’s no success. Plus, you know it won’t be the only tumble she’ll take before she eventually gets the hang of it. Still, for the one who took the fall it smarts a little.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays I regularly took two lessons in one day. Next in the course sequence I had another challenging lesson. Initially I had thought to defer the tricky one to the next day, and swap it with a freestyle one that is more flexible as I am always sharper in the morning. However, following this fiasco I figured I might as well do the difficult one after lunch. That way, if it bombed I would ruin a single day rather than two.

4.18 Branches in a Suiban Without Kenzan is an arrangement in which the branches must balance against each other and the sides of the container and hold their position.  The flowers must stand upright on their bases between the branches without a pin frog to hold them in place. Students (as well as demonstrating teachers) work with assistants to hold the branches during the assembly of the design. Wire is also used to secure the branches to each other and keep them from slipping out of position.

Being first in line for the afternoon registration, I was able to claim the single bunch of stunning green roses which had caught my eye. Those matched a softly curved suiban I’d noticed earlier and would be a good weight to balance among the alder branches. I’d been watching other students use those with their striking cones all week and was keen to try them.

Together with one of the assistants who helped me to hold the branches steady and wire them together, I set to work. Once the branches held their position I cut the roses straight across and set them in place on their stems.  Then as I removed minor branches and a few cones in order to create better lines and spaces, I discovered that alder cones drop little black seeds into the water when jostled. In ikebana, water is treated as a design element. As such it should always be beautifully clear in order to reveal the bottom of the container, reflect the foliage or create a sense of space.

Fishing those bits out without knocking the whole structure off balance or more junk into the water wasn’t easy. That’s the major reason why, after standing back to consider the design elements, I didn’t remove a few more cones and branches. Too risky. Too late in the lesson period to fix it if the house of cards collapsed. Instead, I gambled that the detail might go unnoticed during the evaluation.

In every other respect the result was spectacular even if I said so myself. How gratifying to achieve this quiet, simple elegance after the morning’s miserable flop. Inner Tiger-mom gave me an A-plus, and we gave each other an inner high five while other students gathered around to admire the result.

In contrast to his earlier silence, sensei couldn’t stop talking about this arrangement, especially since it was the first one of this type I had ever attempted. He pointed out its various merits to the class. Only two wires! Wonderful container colour and harmony with the unusual roses. Lovely perpendicular lines of the roses. Excellent choice of branches for movement and colour. Kire! Beautiful! Omedeto! Congratulations.

He didn’t mention the stunningly clean water. However, he also didn’t point out the small swamp in the suiban of another student behind me who was working on the same lesson. After I noted that, inner Tiger-mom gave me an upgrade to Super A-plus.

Alas, from high to heartbreak, the work had to be struck down moments after sensei finished praising it. Sigh.


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Small Successes in My Ikebana Studies in Tokyo 4

4—[15] Keeping in Mind the view from Above

  • Japanese witch hazel (Hamamalis japonica) branches and cosmos (Cosmos), also known as the cherry blossoms of autumn in Japan, in a two-toned blue container with five openings.

In an arrangement for a low table or the floor, the objective is to create beautiful line and a composition which is attractive from any viewpoint. Since I got pushback in an earlier lesson for choosing dark colours, for this enterprise I decided to go boldly.

I chose the container for its colour and the fact that it could accommodate a kenzan (spiky frog) to hold the cosmos and the branches. The five holes in the vase also allowed me access to the kenzan from multiple points making it easier to create an all-around design and easily hide most of the kenzan under the ceramic without needing many leaves to do the job.

The red, gold, orange and green tones in the leaves together with the magenta and burgundy in the flowers hit every segment of the color wheel. Sensei’s verdict? Omedeto!  (Congratulations.) All points excellent.

Though in ikebana it doesn’t always count as success to think so, I liked it too. For example, I liked the rich and rusty tones of an earlier work more than sensei did. Sometimes it’s a matter of preference and not necessarily rightness. Other times it’s failing to hit the execution of the theme even though the arrangement may look fantastic to the untrained eye.

I’m constantly impressed by how the top-level master teachers assess each student’s work, then remove a leaf or shift the kenzan or add a small branch and create something splendid where originally there was something very good.

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Small Successes in my Ikebana Studies in Tokyo 3

4—[14] Keeping in Mind the View from Below

  • Asparagus fern and mauve Phalaenopsis orchids in a three-throated, cream-coloured, tubular vase.

Some arrangements are placed above eye level and the composition must reflect that point of view. We don’t always get asparagus fern. Luckily this day we did because it drapes wonderfully and has natural depth. However, I also emphasized the line and depth by pruning dense parts and adding branches in the back.

The fern’s airy nature softened the heavy container which I chose for its interesting shape and in order to ensure stability in the arrangement. In addition, the three narrow throats in the container allowed me to insert the pliable orchid stem deep into the tubular vase in order to counter the effect of gravity on the heavy blossoms.

I removed all but three flowers from the stem and bent it into a curved line before inserting it into the neck of the vase. This was one of those arrangements which came together in a few minutes. I agonized over that while waiting for the evaluation. It’s difficult to trust something which seems too quick and easy.

Sensei and others in class loved it. It was also one of the heart breakers. At the end of the hour it was wrenching to tear it apart.

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Small Successes in My Ikebana Studies in Tokyo 2

4—[12] Focusing on the Uses of Water

  • Fruiting Mikan (Citrus unshiu, or satsuma mandarin) and Pincushion Protea (Leucospermum) in a brown pottery suiban (flat dish). Not fixed with a kenzan (spiky frog).

In this arrangement attention is given to the water as the primary element. The water can also be featured in transparent vases and styles other than flat, spreading containers; however, a large suiban makes the emphasis of the water element more obvious and eliminates the need to address the composition inside a transparent vase. That said, it doesn’t necessarily make the arrangement easier. Branches don’t always behave as you might wish.

I chose autumnal colours for this arrangement as well as strong branches and flowers which would be stable in the arrangement. I had wanted to work with some of the larger fruit I can’t source in Canada which is available to us in the Sogetsu Kaikan classroom setting. Unlike 2—[16] Variation No.7 which also emphasizes the water element, in this instance the flowers do not need to float. They can be fixed with or without a kenzan.

To my surprise I got pushback on the colour of the container and was asked to consider using red, green or blue. I happen to love dark, rich tones, plus they are seasonally appropriate. However, we don’t have optimal lighting or noise-free conditions in which to photograph our work at school. Therefore, the autumnal flowers, fruit and leaves are much more vibrant and reflections in the water clearer to the eye than what the camera captures.

I did as Sensei asked and imagined containers with colours that pop. I could see the difference such choices would make to the composition; however, couldn’t get on board with any of those options.

Interesting, last year a different Sensei remarked on my exceptional sensitivity when I chose a mottled brown container and combined it with subdued blossoms.

Rule 33 from The 50 Rules of Sogetsu Ikebana by Sofu Teshigahara the founder of the Sogetsu School states: Select a container that accentuates the beauty of the ikebana arranged in it.  As beauty is said to be in the eye of the beholder, why not pick the colour which would do it for you.

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Small Successes in My Ikebana Studies in Tokyo 1

4—[8] Simplified arrangement

  • Japanese winterberry (Illix serrata) in a red vase with two throats

The objective of the arrangement is to manipulate the material by cutting, bending and removing unnecessary parts until nothing more can be removed. The ultimate aim is to emphasize the beauty and power of what remains.

Though some might have cut more aggressively, I chose to retain seven side branches to balance the strong container and to provide depth in the arrangement. Branches which point to the rear and the front often aren’t clear in two dimensional photographs.

I particularly liked the way the dark brown stem and waxy red berries echoed the two colour tones in the glass container.


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Ikebana Progress

It’s almost possible to forget that I am in Tokyo—glorious autumnal Tokyo—to study ikebana. Classes ended for an extended period between the 20th and 29th of October due to a major exhibition at month’s end.

Given that amount of time to play hooky I went to Yonezawa. Then lucking into a JR East Rail pass I extended the gallivanting around to include Atami and Akita. After that I was grounded by technical issues with the Wi-Fi router and computer. Together with the time lag between me and my tech support as well as holiday periods here, that required more than a week to resolve.

Suddenly I was behind the blogging 8-ball with a backlog of posts rhapsodizing about all the other great stuff going on in my Tokyo life stacked up: travel adventures, exhibits, food, concerts and such.

At the beginning of November the five ikebana classes I take weekly resumed. In the coming posts I will feature highlights from the course work. Not like the one above which is seriously flawed. Sigh. A rather glorious mistake, but Sofu Teshigahara, the founder of Sogetsu Ikebana was clear. The first of The  50 Rules of Sogetsu Ikebana states this: Beautiful flowers do not always make beautiful ikebana.

Now, as preliminary preparations for my departure begin, I’m delighted to have completed the coursework goals I set at the outset. I have a few more scheduled classes left to enjoy during which I intend to have another go at that “disaster” above. However, I am desperately trying not to think about dwindling numbers of days. Time. Always slipping away.

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Finding Dinner

Though I often choose to enjoy my large meal at lunch (because a large meal mid-day is about half the price for the same standard of food and service), every day, no matter where I am, I face the question of finding dinner.

When making food choices I mix up high and low. I’m no food snob. I’ve cooked chicken organs with cabbage hotpot style in a subterranean Tokyo room for a few hundred yen, and occasionally when others have arranged it enjoyed Michelin stars.

Of course, I frequently return to favourite places where I am most warmly welcomed. To my surprise, Two Rooms kept my name tag for my coat from last year. How sweet is that?

However, repeatedly I face the daunting prospect of navigating a Japanese menu with Google Translate and a great deal of uncertainty as to what exactly will arrive at the table. While I have rarely been disappointed, sometimes I have been surprised–squid guts as an appetizer comes to mind.

Whenever possible I like sampling local specialties.  Therefore, the other weekend when I landed in Yonezawa I definitely wanted to enjoy their call to fame: Yonezawa beef.  During a stroll back from the river park where I’d gone to stretch my legs after long ride from Tokyo, quite near my hotel I found Bekoya. The restaurant offers a number of dining options and I chose to have steak grilled for me over yakiniku, shabu shabu or sukiyaki which are better enjoyed in groups.

I was led into a restfully dark room, brought a warm hand towel and given a menu. Between the picture-menu, a little English and a little Japanese I requested the dinner set: 100 grams of Yonezawa beef done rare.

The set included appetizers: salad, a slice of ham, slices of beef, and a special local tofu.  In addition to the beef, the meal featured the newly harvested, regional Tsuyahime rice, a choice of vegetables, two desserts and tea.

When I indicated that I’d like to sample Nihonshu for which the area is also renowned, the waiter suggested a regional sake only available in the autumn.

While I enjoyed the appetizers and the wine, Chef Ito prepared the vegetables and meat which he finished in a flambé.

The double-header dessert included a crème brulee along with apple granita. Yonezawa apples are famous throughout Japan, and that simple confection I’d most definitely like to have twice.

There’s nothing that quite matches being led to the table to be fed. Bite for bite, food–especially fresh, seasonal, local food–not only nourishes but also delights and consoles.

The tea was hot and slightly bitter. I leaned back most pleasantly stuffed. Sweet.


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Rias Kammerchor Berlin in Tokyo

During my recent two-week recess from classes, extensive travels followed by technical difficulties with WiFi connection and balky computer performance, I continued to enjoy the pleasures of Tokyo’s various wards.

In early November as part of a five-concert tour of Tokyo, Kanazawa and Osaka, the Rias Kammerchor Berlin performed in the Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall. Its impressive pyramidal ceiling, technological innovation and oak mantled interior create idyllic acoustic conditions. Trevor Cox, author, broadcaster, researcher and teaching Professor of Acoustic Engineering has ranked it among the world’s best ten concert halls.

I chanced on one of two remaining seats on the far left of the front row of the lower orchestra when I learned the choir would be in the city. Normally I’d move back (even into the balconies) for a better listening experience; however, in this hall I was assured there were no bad seats. That fluke gave me wonderful proximity to the singers as well as a profile view of conductor Justin Doyle whose fluid energy and subtle gestures enhanced the performance enormously.

The familiar repertoire of various Bach and Bruckner Motets as well as Mendelssohn’s Drei Psalmen Opus 78 was performed in German and Latin.  Sweet relief! I could enjoy the glorious evening without having to navigate language issues and communication problems.

The gorgeous a cappella sound was powerful and brilliant when called for, gentle and pulled back when not. It brought me home, not to a geographical or physical place, but to the soundscape which I recognize as embedded in my DNA.

For some their home is soul. For others it’s Gospel or blues or folk or rock or hip hop or any one of numerous musical genres. Mine is in the classical a cappella choral tradition.

Rias Kammerchor Berlin can be found on YouTube and Spotify. For anyone with off-key, pre-Christmas jingle fatigue (already going strong here in Tokyo), there are magnificent alternatives from this group.


Used with permission. Black & White Photos © Matthias Heyde from the RKC Press Files. Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall photo from TOCCH Website.


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Akita: The True North of Japan

Sometimes an idea calls me. When it does, I like to say yes. 

The day after visiting Atami I used my JR East Rail Pass to visit Akita City. It is home to the Akita Museum of Fine Art: Hirano Masakichi Museum of Fine Art built by architect Ando Tadao as well as the Akita Senshu Museum of Art.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t choose to hit the northern regions of Japan in a single day. I’d prefer a leisurely journey with time to savour the local atmosphere and discover off the beaten track surprises.

Even when presented with the unexpected option to cash in about $400 worth of free train fare, some might think a 14-hour day to see two galleries a touch insane. However by seizing the serendipitous opportunity, I experienced incomparable, time-limited exhibits and stunning architecture which I may never have a second opportunity to view in my lifetime.

Then during the long haul in the dark from Akita back to Tokyo, I had four hours to shape my scribbled notes from the adventures in Yonezawa, Atami and Akita into rough drafts.

The Akita Museum of Fine Art: Hirano  Masakichi Museum of Fine Art

Though showing a significant number of the Western-style works of Tsuguharu Foujita, a 20th century painter, the main feature of the exhibit is his massive mural titled “Events of Akita.”

According to the very limited information available in English, after numerous trips to Akita to gather information, Foujita created the work 1937 using oil. The panels depict seasonal events in Tomachi, a merchant district in Akita City.

The vibrantly coloured scenes depict various seasonal festivals at local shrines as well social life and commerce in the town’s winter landscape. Celebration, prayer, entertainment and livelihood, stand alongside oil derricks, bags of rice, lumber and a sake barrel—Akita’s primary industries. A symbolic rendering of Korogibashi Bridge near the site of the ancient Akita Castle separates the festive from the mundane scenes, and alludes to Akita’s long history.

There is a ban on photography at the museum. A few clandestine online shots fail to reveal the work to the standard that it deserves. Reduced to a few pixels it’s hard to imagine it towering above you with any sort of power and grandeur. However, for anyone dying for a look, I found a link to a copyrighted image on the Masakichi Hirano Art Foundation website (which I will assume lends it some legitimacy).

Though I was somewhat disappointed not to be able to share images of this massive and captivating work, I was delighted to find the “Events of Akita” still thriving on the street. Approaching the museum from the station it was Akita’s centuries-old business as usual.

Along the promenade from Akita Station the association for Creative Farmers’ Action held its annual week-long festival promoting local produce and merchandise. Shop owners called irashaimase from their doorways. Packs of school kids hung about. Mothers urged their children along. Housewives carried on with their shopping while street artists performed.

Though it was closed for the day when I got to it, an extensive display featured numerous samples of local rice. The poster on the end wall featured a single grain  as if it were a fine jewel (which indeed it is).

Though few outside Japan may remember this point in their history lessons, Japan’s currency (its equivalent of the gold standard) was once measured and paid not in coin but in rice.

Alas, due to blustery winds this poor fellow kept having his pylons blown off before he could climb to the top rung, balance them to his chin, and then his head. However, to the delight of the spectators after many disappointing starts he persevered long enough to succeed. All clowning aside, perhaps an apposite reminder for us all.


The Akita Senshu Museum of Art

Described as a museum which holds distinctive exhibitions of outstanding works renowned worldwide as well as from within Japan, a number of artists exhibited here have connections to Akita. There is also a memorial gallery for Okada Kenzo who is well-regarded abroad.

Though I had no idea of the marvel I was about to view, the main exhibit during my visit featured the large-scale works of Senju Hiroshi an artist who works using traditional Japanese methods and materials in original ways. Again, most of the halls in this exhibit do not permit photos. Just as well. Amateur shots of exhibition items rarely qualify as splendid things.

However, for the one room which does permit photography, the mesmerizing way that alternating black and white lighting plays over special paints used in Senju Hiroshi’s Day Falls/Night Falls” painting might provide a glimpse of the glory that imbues these works.

Visceral. Ethereal. Overwhelming.

Words fail the impact of Senju’s screen and wall paintings of cliffs and waterfalls commissioned from him for Kongobuji Temple at Koyosan, a sacred Buddhist site. Though nothing can touch the scale of the works in a darkened room, numerous compelling images of his waterfall and cliff paintings as well as other works can be found online.

During the exhibit, a video documentary of Senju’s methods chronicles some of the process to achieve what the artist has described as “the culmination of his career to date.”

Fortunately, there is more English exposition throughout this exhibit. I am particularly struck by the details of Senju’s transcendence practice and his shaman-like ability to open to altered states of perception. His works carry the power of those states of ecstasy and Senju’s deeply spiritual experience of beauty. As such they are incredibly moving.

Yes, after five days of back to back travel and numerous shattering wonders to behold, my brief moment in Akita meant a long ride for a brief experience. Still its intensity was such that it’s one I won’t forget or regret.

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Update: MOA Museum of Art in Atami

Apologies, folks. An unedited photo slipped into the blog post full-sized and messed up the subscriber’s version.

Click here to read the post from the website.

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