Lynda’s Blog

Welcome to the way of words. If you need a writing problem solved, contact me.

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Where–How–Why–to Begin?

In Joke Show on Netflix, comedian Michelle Wolf said that a blog is conversation that no one wants to have with you. Hmm. While that made me wince, it’s like that. With a few exceptions, I haven’t even been able to persuade people who like me and should probably wish to support my creative efforts to subscribe.

Besides, there’s so much more that’s out there now. The Blog Age is the dinosaur era of social media. Alas, it means reading. That’s no competition for YouTube or Tik Toks. Or posting endless photos of yourself on Instagram.

Of course, the longer I write about anything that sparks my interest, the more I realize how many others have done it before or after or better than I do. So, why continue?

A couple of reasons:

  1. It’s a platform on which to publish without the hassle and insult of pitching. The rejection of my material comes with silence rather than a form rejection letter—sometimes not even that. One editor slapped a pencil scribbled post-it note on my returned material shilling for his course. Another sent it back mutilated and coffee-stained without a note of any kind. Beyond lame.
  2. I can write about what I like to write about on my own terms. However, by doing so my Google ratings aren’t high because I refuse to write in a format that’s suited to AI and bots. That’s worse than the creativity-stifling, 5-paragraph essays I used to have to demand from my high school students. Like many plusses, there are also minuses to most points.

Recently, the problem is that I find less and less that I am motivated to write about.  A new year and a new decade have begun, but realistically that feels not all that promising or fresh. There isn’t anything new under the sun as the jaded and likely depressed Solomon once said. Still, a good writer can take that same-old same-old stuff and give it that je ne sais quoi to make it live anew on the page.

When my mother died in May 2016 I decided to give myself a sabbatical year from writing except for the blog. That’s now coming up to 4 years. Part of me thinks I probably should stop pretending and retire the blog. Another part is reluctant to embrace another in the numerous major losses I have since experienced. So I make a 2020 Vision Board and choose a word for the year: Ignite. It’s time to get the fire started.

As I rub sticks together to coax something–anything–the words of James Thurber offer comfort: He [She] who hesitates is sometimes saved.

 

2020 Image Credit to Pearl White Media

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Christmas Lights Butchart Gardens

The closest thing Victoria has to rival the Christmas lights of Japan is the show on view at Butchart Gardens. Keen to view the displays as close to Christmas as possible, I ventured out yesterday around 4 o’clock thinking I might catch sunset too. Well dream on.

Everything was just fine as I left the Pat Bay Highway for Keating Cross Road. Already the skies were streaked with orange and pink—a most welcome change from the socked-in grays we’ve had recently. But at West Saanich Road a sandwich board announced a 90-minute wait to get into the gardens. Surely not.

Ordinarily, the journey from my home takes all of 25 minutes. However, as I turned the corner the traffic was bumper to bumper. The closer we got to the Wallace Drive intersection the slower things got until they ground to a standstill. I was reminded of a trip to Korankei Gorge in Japan to view autumn leaves. I wondered then why people would do this, and I wondered again.

At the intersection police officers directed traffic—most of which coming from three directions had the same destination in mind. Two hours later I finally entered the gates. Once in, the capable staff who are well-seasoned in handling the crush directed traffic to available parking.

Though I’ve seen it before (minus the traffic jam as I went earlier in the season) the spectacle is worth it. Alas, neither my skill as a photographer or my phone camera (though it’s better than I am) are up to conveying that splendor here. Today, neither are my words.

I wandered happily in the crisp 3-degree air on which wafted the jaunty tunes from carolers and The Festive Brass—marred occasionally by the piercing shrieks of toddlers whose parents seemed to find it musical. The millennial parents’ idea of an extemporaneous descant line, I suspect. Shrug. It’s Christmas. Why be a humbug about it?

Gifts bought, food prepped mise en place, wines stocked, the tree glowing, beloved carols as rendered by choice choirs (pitch-perfect and shriek-free) play. Finally, after three years I spend Christmas in my own home in the company of people I enjoy. It’s easy to be magnanimous.

While the gentle winter sun slowly opens its eyes, let us all bring more light and compassion into the world.   ~D. Avelin~

 

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My Love Affair with the Christmas Tree

I must have inherited my love of Christmas trees from my paternal grandmother who kept hers up until Orthodox Christmas in January. After everyone else had taken theirs down and boxed all the baubles and tinsel, the magic continued at her house. Of course, as the tree dried she didn’t leave the lights plugged in, turned them on only while she kept careful watch and never for long. The enchantment of it indelibly imprinted my young brain.

The Christmas tree many North Americans opt for today was popularized by Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert who brought his Germanic traditions to their marriage. However, since ancient times long before Christianity, various European peoples have attributed powerful symbolism to evergreen trees whether burned in the hearth or used to festoon their homes in the season surrounding the Solstice.

Whatever the deeper meaning one might attribute to the tree, I am always transfixed by its beauty. As the days dip into deeper darkness the lights reflected from the ornaments cast a warm glow through the room which is further enhanced by aromas of seasonal foods, glasses of favourite beverages and centuries of stunning music created especially for the season.

Throughout the months of November and December in Tokyo, I found some of the most artistic interpretations of the Christmas tree in public spaces throughout the city. Massive structures in malls or hotels, smaller versions in shop windows and a few natural trees in plazas lit for the season offered riffs on every imaginable interpretation of a festive, conical structure.

Every year in various neighborhoods the deciduous trees flanking the streets are also decorated profusely. I wish I had taken more photos of the endless variations.

Undaunted by my shoe box Tokyo apartment’s limitations, I sourced a $10 tree complete with lights and ornaments from Nitori. This I combined with multi-stranded fairy lights I brought with me from Canada. No way was I going to miss out on a full-on Christmas glow simply because I was spending the season in a city where I didn’t know a soul. As the state rarely happens unbidden or at random, I find that comfort and joy is something I must create, especially during those times which can dismay. Therefore, I make a very big deal of my Christmas tree.

Though nothing beats a lovely fir from a tree farm, condominium bylaws prohibit them. When I moved to a small apartment in Victoria I chose an artificial pencil tree with a 60 cm (2 foot) diameter which doesn’t require rearrangement of the furniture to accommodate it. At 2.1 meters (7 feet) it also doesn’t compromise on height, for cute as they may be, the miniature options don’t satisfy quite the same way. Coupled with a Thymes Frasier Fir diffuser and the lights turned low, it’s as close to the real deal as I can muster.

Every year I rediscover the magic mix of lights together with vintage and modern ornaments. Some are from my parents’ first Christmas tree in 1951, another treasure is a gift received from my Grade 5 teacher. Everyone in the class got one though many were smashed before we got on the bus (a few quite deliberately as she was not well-loved).

For the month of December (and yes, through to Orthodox Christmas as Grandma did) it glows all day and dispels any wintry gloom with comfort and joy.

***

Star Wars & Grand Hyatt Gold Photo credits to Japan Today

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The Culture Map: A Book Review

Today I return to an old love besides Japan—the book review. I stumbled into that niche quite by accident when back in the oughts I was invited to write for Books in Canada. That invitation from then Associate Editor Carmine Starnino launched my freelance career writing reviews and short features along with work for private clients.

The buzz at the time was—and still is—to find your niche as a writer. The review was mine. Alas, just as I was getting into a lovely upward swing of regular assignments from editors including The Globe and Mail; the Internet exploded and everyone with a keyboard was invited (and eager) to contribute to sites like Goodreads and Amazon for free. As a result that niche dried up. The books sections of newspapers went the way of the dodo bird. Now what we get is a good deal of e-ink about what people like.

Once in a while, however, I talk about a book here. The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business by INSEAD professor Erin Meyer is a book I wish I’d read long before traveling to or studying in Japan. Even though my regular travels to Japan since 1998 and broad reading from various sources gave me extensive knowledge about Japanese culture, greater insights such as those Meyer provides would have relieved some acute moments of distress as I struggled to comprehend the world I was trying to navigate.

The book is an insightful analysis of the ways people from a variety of cultures communicate, lead, follow their leaders, function as teams, make decisions, handle disagreements, perceive time, offer performance evaluations, and build trust.

It is highly useful for people who work or study internationally. Its insights (with illustrative cases as examples) are vital for understanding how bosses, professors, peers or subordinates in various cultures can be expected to behave and why. Once in the know, people can work together with others from diverse cultures more harmoniously and without wasting time suffering negative experiences before figuring out what’s going on.

Often individuals, whatever their cultural norms, believe that their skills and previous accomplishments will carry them through any challenges in a new culture.  However, expectations for outsiders and how critical information may be delivered to them might be quite different from any they’ve previously known.

Awareness of the numerous disparate nuances allows individuals to navigate the shoals of manners and cultural norms with greater ease and less distress. I highly recommend The Culture Map to anyone wishing to work or study or live abroad.

For anyone without the time for 253 pages, this YouTube option might be a good alternative: https://www.insead.edu/.

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4.20 You in Ikebana: Experiments in Personal Expression

In November 2018, I completed Level 4 of the Sogetsu School’s course in ikebana studies in Tokyo. That achieved, I was asked to choose a flower name and granted certification. Afterwards I returned to Canada, bought and moved into my new home, and resumed ikebana studies with the class I joined in Victoria.

Though I had the option to do so, for numerous reasons I didn’t wish to immediately start Level 5. Instead, I thought I would benefit more from review of various themes from Levels 1 through 4.  Doing that would allow me to experiment more freely, gain more experience with varied plant materials, and help me to hone the technical elements I have learned to date.

As a result, mindful of the Sogetsu tagline “the flower becomes me” and the direction to “deeply look into yourself” and “create new beauty,” I chose a single focus.  I have focused on what the textbook describes as “discovering more pleasure of self-expression” and “pursuing ‘your ikebana’ [as opposed to someone else’s] further.”

This is especially challenging on numerous levels as my options in Victoria are more limited. I can’t walk into a classroom where all the materials required are on hand. As I don’t have a garden I must source plant materials from the wild or purchase them from a florist. Moreover, it’s not uncommon for Canadian florists to prepare flowers for sale by removing the leaves from the stems. Alas, those leaves are needed for proper expression in ikebana.

As well as materials not being Japanese varietals or groomed with ikebana in mind, what I can source here is often expensive. Not that it’s cheap or perfect in Tokyo, but there materials are included in the class fee. Sometimes I find whole plants on sale in nurseries and plunder those; however, that still doesn’t provide the scope of choices I have at Sogetsu Kaikan. When choices are limited, so is full creative expression.

After that, my expression is further restricted by the number of containers I own. Fortunately I have been able to acquire the specimens pictured in this post in thrift or consignment stores as well as estate sales.

However, the range of containers available to me on two floors at Sogetsu Kaikan—most especially the extra-large ones which I have no place to store in a small condo–greatly enhances my options for creative expression.

Even so, flowers are forgiving and always beautiful even if my technical skills aren’t at mastery levels yet.

For example, the rather glorious mistake above didn’t follow the rules for the particular theme. Oops! My (splendid) bad.

Sōfu Teshigahara, founder of Sogetsu Ikebana and author of The 50 Rules of Sogetsu Ikebana states that beautiful flowers do not always make beautiful ikebana.

Sigh. It’s the first rule as well as the easiest and most beguiling one to break. Never mind. Each arrangement and every misstep teaches me more. I’m content to make progress.

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Tokyo Is Safe–And It Isn’t

Depending on which source you consult, Tokyo, a city of 14 million, boasts distinction as the safest city in the world. Provided that I use common sense and remain aware as I would do anywhere, I am free to enjoy myself with little fear of being mugged or accosted as the likelihood of encountering such a problem is slim. Returning home shortly before midnight after a four-hour opera, I had no concern for my safety anywhere in the subway stations or on the street.

On another late evening occasion half a dozen men had paused to converse around the vending machines adjacent to the parking lot near my apartment. As I approached them I thought about the fact that faced with the same scenario anywhere else I would most likely feel very uneasy, turn around and approach my apartment building from a different direction.

For example, I often felt quite vulnerable in broad daylight when parking in one of Vancouver’s open lots. Frequently street-people hoping for a tip hovered near the ticket dispensing machines with offers to help, invaded my personal space and stood much too close to my credit card.

Even so, as is the case in cities anywhere, in spite of its record for safety, residents, travelers and women most especially need to take sensible precautions. Women who are interested in the night-life scene will need to consider safety measures that I don’t, a point well-covered in a recent Savvy Tokyo article.

There are important basics. First, stay sober. Choose accommodations wisely. Ground floor apartments are not a good idea, nor are disclosures about where you live or the location of your hotel. If you think you are being followed, walk to the nearest koban (police box). Of course, freelance English teachers need to meet their clients in public spaces. Always. Even in safe Japan, horrific crimes can and do happen.

In addition, Tokyo has its entertainment and dodgy districts where I wouldn’t venture. However, sometimes people looking for the least expensive lodgings end up in these areas unwittingly. For men this can be somewhat less problematic, but other choices exist. Though I’ve never used them as I opted for a membership in Toyoko Inn a nation-wide business hotel chain, women only floors are an option in many hotels.

Since I do not commute to work during the times I live in Tokyo, I rarely have the need to use crammed trains during Tokyo’s infamous rush hours.

Therefore, I have not sought out the cars designated for women only. But they, like hotel floors, exist for a reason. With people squished so tightly inside that it’s possible to sleep standing up, groping and grinding are problematic on trains. Sometimes the opposite occurs. A woman may be the sole occupant of a car and a man might sit right next to her. If that happens, move. Immediately. Get off at the next station, find a station washroom, wait there a few minutes and catch the next train to come along.

Although it’s more commonly directed at fashionable young women who are fond of ultra-short skirts, travelers should also be aware that up-skirt photography occurs on trains as well as escalators. In addition, I wouldn’t choose to travel after 11 PM on the last trains of the day with workers who, if they haven’t collapsed on the platform, vomit or pass out in the cars.

Even so, because the locals view Japan as safe, it’s not uncommon to see locals asleep on trains quite unaware of how vulnerable they are.

Another precaution is also wise. In 2017, I first noticed warnings posted in washrooms of some Tokyo department stores advising patrons to remain alert as pickpockets had been reported in the area. No matter how on trend, open style tote bags are not good idea. The distraction of smart phones leaves people vulnerable as well. Vigilance is key.

However, for the most part, in Tokyo patrons who leave their computers on café tables and walk away to use the washroom will find them still there on their return. Likewise, should people inadvertently leave a camera, bag or other item behind on train station platform it’s unlikely that anyone will touch it. When in a panic they return to the platform, they’ll likely find it where they left it. At day’s end station staff will safeguard any items left inside cars in the Lost and Found where they can be claimed. Few major cities worldwide can boast that distinction.

In hotels, suitcases belonging to people who have checked out often sit under a net in the lobby with no security beyond the attendant at the reception desk. It’s also not uncommon to see lines of bags left unattended on a railway station platform for long periods of time. Of course, many train stations also have coin lockers and larger ones offer concierge storage service; however, the honor system common throughout Japan allows large groups of travelers to leave their goods on the platform at no risk and no cost.  Remarkably, on their return they will find everything as they left it.

To those not familiar with the rules of the road, in Japan the numerous bicycles on sidewalks can also pose a hazard should people wander mindlessly distracted by mobile phones or the numerous beguiling things there are to see. However, statistically, compared to other cities, Tokyo’s accident and fatality numbers for pedestrians are low. (I dealt with that subject some years ago should you wish to check out that post.)

For all of Japan’s purported orderliness and general adherence to rules, I also noted a number of occasions when drivers screamed through turns against the red light, threading the needle between pedestrians who had already entered the crosswalk. As I’m never in a mad rush to an appointment or to end up in a body bag, I happily stand back a few seconds before crossing a street.

Of course, any time we venture beyond our familiar environs; it makes sense to be hyper vigilant. That said, complacency about personal safety is dangerous anywhere.

In fact, it’s equally important to be especially mindful in the place we call home. According to statistics, a significant percentage of injuries and deaths are the direct result of incidents at home or work. Though we often fail to consciously consider it, we remain at risk where we think we are safest.

*

Available credits for photos not my own:

Photo credit Tokyo Tower By Kakidai; Women Only Carriage, www.sogival.com; Station Platform, Wikimedia

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Cultural Habits From Japan: Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down

After traveling extensively through Japan and living in Tokyo for several months at a time, I’ve integrated a number of habits acquired there with my life in Canada. However, some things done in Japan simply do not fly with me.

For instance, nothing will entice me to sniffle instead of blowing my nose when hot soup, allergies, a virus or cold winds cause it to run. Nothing. Not there and not here. When in Japan I make sure to step into a washroom or discretely turn away and dab, though I wonder at my solicitude for Japanese sensibilities when I have regularly seen men booger mining on the trains. Seriously. It’s a widely publicized fact that the rudeness of foreigners offends the locals; however, that lack of charm works both ways.

Nor will I loudly slurp noodles and hot drinks. Perhaps it improves the flavour. I won’t dispute the connoisseurs on that point, but I will happily sacrifice a modicum of flavour for the noiseless consumption of food.

Ramen-mad Asia can’t get enough of noodles whether instant in a cup or handmade. In Kyoto Station the entire 9th floor Ramen Street offers numerous variations to tantalize noodle fandom. Specialty noodle shops are everywhere across the country, and Yokohama boasts a Cup-of-Noodles Museum where you can design your own and take them home as souvenirs.

To each her own. Carb-high noodles are simply not my thing. I’ll eat them, of course. An occasional pasta dish is not distasteful; however, I don’t make a habit of it.

And running right behind gross odours, I find nothing quite as off-putting as a hot, steamy room full of heads bent over noodle bowls sucking up and slurping the stuff accompanied by copious sniffling. It reminds me too much of troughs on the farm. I’ll pass.

That said, I make an exception for soba noodles, especially if an artisan who has spent a lifetime growing his own buckwheat handcrafts them. Yum! And since I once saw an elegant woman lift her noodles out of the bowl and into her soup spoon, that’s what I do.

That method is also less likely to splash soup all over my chin and clothes. If anyone wonders what the weird foreigner is doing or finds her odd, should I care? Frankly, I don’t. Cultural exchange is not a one way street but involves give and take. Deal with it.

Although I complied with the custom in living spaces, hotels, restaurants, schools, castles, temples and shrines while in Japan, I also can’t get behind the tradition of no shoes in the house or no socks in the genkan (the sunken area in front of the entrance door where shoes are left when not put into the closet).

While many people all over the world choose the no shoes inside habit, if I’m satisfied that my soles are free of substances I don’t wish to track in, I find strict observance of such a rule impractical.  Because I find slippers a nuisance, I mainly wear socks or go barefooted inside. However, I can’t be bothered to drop everything I am carrying to immediately remove my shoes on entering only to have to pick everything up again. Way too much bother. But my Japanese friends gasped in dismay when I took three steps back into my apartment with perfectly clean boots on to grab the gloves I’d left on the chair.

That said, I do prefer and have adopted the idea of making the closet nearest the entrance into a dedicated shoe closet. In homes which often have limited and windowless closet space in bedrooms, I like to separate shoes from clothing. Then I can counter residual foot odor with deodorizers and have my shoes handy as I exit.  Quite sensible.

However, that’s not the end of the footwear hassles In Japan. Once shoes are off and stored in the closet adjacent to the genkan, slippers are worn inside. If there is a dedicated tatami room the slippers come off and only socks are allowed on tatami (flooring made of woven rushes).

To use the toilet room you step out of your house slippers and into toilet slippers. Then you must remember to switch to your regular slippers on the way out or face a good deal of laughter as you sashay into the room in bright pink toire surippa. When I first traveled to Japan in 1998, I spent more waking hours attending to my footwear in those two weeks than I had my entire lifetime prior. And coming from a shoe-queen, that’s saying something.

In addition, if you haven’t stepped out of the bathtub and into your slippers shortly before heading to bed, it’s customary in Japan to wipe your feet with a damp towel because feet are considered dirty. This is a habit I’ve made my own, not because I believe that the condition of my feet is gross per se, but because—like brushing my teeth and washing my face or applying cream before bed—it feels good. Reason enough.

 

A most agreeable evening ritual in Japan is that interlude spent soaking in the bath before bed. That’s a custom I can get behind. I was lucky to have deep soaker tubs in my Surrey and Abbotsford homes. The typical Western tubs which barely hold nine inches of water cannot compare to a tub you can sink into where the water reaches to the bottoms of your earlobes.  Japanese mineral bath salts, some with specific healing properties of various onsen (hot springs) throughout the nation, are a wonderful, aromatic addition to the bath.  Bliss!

I think one of my favourite new habits, however, has been to keep my tea in airtight Japanese tea tins. These are crafted in many styles, with a variety of materials and in numerous sizes. I’ve collected several covered in colourful washi paper. I especially love the moment I replace the lid and slowly turn it until it clicks into place. Do that and the patterns on the paper line up. Perfectly.

I know the Buddha says the search for perfection outside of ourselves is a cause of suffering. (And searching for impossible perfection within isn’t?)  Give me any little moment of delight in an imperfect world that—click—never fails to spark joy.

*

Photo Credits: Cup of Noodles Museum Website, Kyoto Station Website, Genkan Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Fg2,Tea Tins https://kotodocan.com/ No photo credit available for spoon shot

 

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Baisoin: Aoyama Neighbourhood Buddhist Temple

I walked the bamboo lined approach to Baisoin Temple on my way home between Gaiemmae Station and my apartment in Nikko House too many times to count the first three months I studied in Tokyo.

However, in spite of my interest in the temple as I knew Kengo Kuma was its architect, I hesitated to enter–much as I generally don’t enter churches or other public buildings anywhere else without an invitation or a purpose. It wasn’t a tourist destination, but a neighbourhood place of worship which often held several funerals in a day. Barging in Nosy Parker style didn’t feel comfortable.

However, during my second sojourn in Tokyo, sensing a wasted opportunity should I choose not to check it out, my curiosity compelled me to peek through the window late one evening when the reception booth was closed. There I noticed a welcome sign and an English guidance brochure which was enough encouragement for me to drop in during a free moment to inquire. The charming attendant informed me that so long as a funeral service was not in session I was welcome to take a self-guided tour of the first and second floors at any time during open hours.

Described as Number 24 on the Great 33 Kannon Pilgrimage in Tokyo (though I couldn’t unearth a list of the others online), Baisoin was founded at this location thirteen generations ago in 1634 by the Aoyama family after whom the district and nearby Aoyama-dori (street) take their name. First destroyed in the firebombing of Tokyo during WWII, the temple was rebuilt. However, it became outmoded and the decision was taken to build again. The upgrades now include barrier free design and spaces for occasional public events.

In 2003 Kengo Kuma, an internationally renowned architect whose office is across the street, was commissioned with its design. Though its approach along a bamboo-lined path and entrance through a heavy gate is traditional in style, the building looks nothing like the usual wooden neighbourhood temples. Instead, contemporary facades of glass and metal louvers greet visitors.

Though the interior iconography is consistent with other Buddhist places of worship, the interior spaces and furnishings are a fusion of traditional Japanese aesthetics and modern design.

Baisoin is dedicated to the Kannon or Goddess of Mercy, a beloved deity, who towers over many countryside villages and is enshrined in various temples throughout Japan. Pilgrimages in her name are ubiquitous all over the country.  Kannon take on numerous forms according to local tradition. Early adopters of Christianity in Japan (which was outlawed) created Maria Kannon holding a child in order continue to bring their prayers to the Virgin Mary. Today, numerous Kannon statues are officially designated as Cultural Treasures.

As I enter the hall an involuntary inner voice which takes me quite by surprise greets the energy present here: I’m sorry I waited so long to visit you.  However, even more unexpected, I hear a reply: Never mind. We have watched over you all the same.

Though it happens on occasion, I’m not one to hear voices. However, this is not the only time I have heard the Kannon speak or felt her presence.

During my first independent journey through numerous areas of Japan, I heard her voice during a visit to Kamakura Hasedera, a temple which is often called Hase-Kannon.  To my surprise, without warning I found myself weeping as I stood below the 9 meter (30 feet) gilded statue. Then to my astonishment a voice said: Welcome home, my child.

Home. What is home? Where is home?

Throughout my life I have made homes in numerous types of dwellings. I have also been homeless in my own house.  Other times I have felt at home in places not my own. During those times when I have had no home where I was greeted with love, I had to find the one within my heart.

The Buddha states: With a quiet mind come into that empty house, your heart, and feel the joy of the way beyond the world.

And Guru Rinpoche writes: Peace in my heart, peace in my soul, wherever I’m going I’m already home.

*

Photo Credits: Bamboo Grove Entrance https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aoyama-Baisoin-Temple.jpg; Countryside Kannon  https://www.japanvisitor.com/japanese-culture/kannon; Hase-Kannon face https://www.hasedera.jp/en/

 

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Lessons in Waste Disposal Japanese Style

Recent news stories have covered nations refusing and returning contaminated materials intended for recycling to their countries of origin. In addition, multiple municipalities have begun to ban single-use plastic bags. Until recently, in my area of Canada clean plastics and tins as well as paper have been sorted according to type in blue containers. Waste which can be turned to compost goes in green bins and anything else goes to gray bins.  Not too onerous and not something I gave much thought once out of sight.

However, in Japan, the proper disposal of household garbage is more strictly defined. Different types of waste are put at the curb in plastic bags or bundled for pick up on different days of the week. Initially that can be somewhat confusing to non-Japanese not accustomed to the garbage protocols. In fact, stories in the Japanese press regularly cite cases of non-Japanese residents offending the citizens for consistently failing Garbage Disposal 101. But I didn’t anticipate that this might be a problem for me.

Therefore, as the first week settling in to my Nikko House apartment and starting school at Sogetsu Kaikan was quite overwhelming, I didn’t get around to reading all the directives included in the hefty instruction manual for my apartment immediately. Nor did I peruse the separate, colourful 10-page recycling guide with its cheer-leading cartoon characters provided by the Minato-ku district office.

For the most part, I did as I normally do in my Canadian home. I carried my cleaned and sorted materials into the appropriate bins in the garbage disposal center located in the lower floor of the building. Then, before 8 o’clock in the morning the building’s caretaker put the waste out for collection on the designated days.

However, when I finally sat down to read the information I had been given, my methods scored a big red F. As counter-intuitive as it seemed and irksome as it was to do it, I was expected to purchase the clear plastic bags in the photo above to hold each type of refuse. Reusing opaque bags from the grocery store for this purpose as I had been doing was not acceptable. Oops!

Clean, dry milk cartons which I squashed with a good stomping were to be cut neatly, laid flat and bundled with string. Oops again! Newspapers and magazines, too, had to be neatly bundled and tied for recycling according to type as illustrated below. Simply putting them into the designated bins loosely as I had been doing was not adequate.

I’d also flubbed the strict protocols for disposal of PET water bottles which I’d simply transferred from my plastic bag directly into the downstairs bin. All wrong! The label, cap and the ring attaching it to the bottle needed to be removed and included with other plastic waste.

That done, the bottles also needed to be flattened. (Japanese house slippers are a great tool for this job!) I quickly learned to purchase PET bottles that had soft caps and rings as I had nothing other than a wonky pair of cheap kitchen shears (and liberal curses) with which to remove them.

Combustible garbage was more straightforward. Whew! I’d done just fine applying logic when sorting it from non-burnable trash. Fortunately, I was not using toxic materials. Nor did I need to dispose of appliances and or electronics. However, pages of detailed instructions for each type and lists of organizations which handled those was provided. For anyone not literate in Japanese, the English user-manual was a godsend.

In order to avoid time-consuming disposal of my garbage, I adjusted my habits. After the first week I chose to refill PET bottles with tap water and chill them in the fridge. I didn’t purchase English newspapers or pick up magazines I didn’t intend to keep. I also routinely took my own shopping bags to the grocery store where I purchased basic breakfast items. As I ate most of my other meals in restaurants, I almost eliminated the need to dispose of Styrofoam trays or plastic wrappers and containers.

Even so, it’s extremely difficult to live without creating garbage in today’s world. Every convenience enjoyed comes with packaging that keeps it sanitary, fresh and easy to carry. Even more so in Japan where the cultural norm is to attractively wrap merchandise in paper as well as plastic and carry it home in another lovely paper or plastic bag provided by the merchant.

This was also true of flowers I carried home from school. The Japanese students wrapped and taped theirs in three layers—newspaper, fresh cellophane, and glossy white paper—before neatly tying them with Styrofoam strings. Though one of the teaching assistants showed me how it was done, I nixed that idea immediately. Any side-eye notwithstanding, one aspect of being a guest in Japan is the liberating option not to do things exactly the same way everyone else does.

Rather than discarding it, I kept the cellophane wrapper in which the flowers arrived from the florist as well as the elastic bands securing them. At the lesson’s end I re-used those to re-wrap the blossoms and slipped them into a carrying bag specially designed for flowers which I purchased from the school’s supplies store.  This way I succeeded in not using three additional layers of wrapping as well as Styrofoam string.

Though the scope of how recyclable waste is managed in Japan after it’s collected is not the focus of this post, I learned a few new (and likely as futile) ways of handling my day to day waste. At the same time, I had no difficulty in sticking to my own methods when it was the more sensible thing to do.

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Photo credits for photos not my own (the opening shot and garbage truck) were not available.

 

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Tadaima! I’m Home.

A long hallway with blond wood floors and white walls leads from the entrance to a doorway which opens to the studio section of my furnished Tokyo home. From this hallway doors open to the shoe closet, the laundry area, the bath area and the toire room.

Honestly, this room designated for the toilet becomes my favourite room in the house for its Zen simplicity. It delights the eye every time I open the door. After I figure out how to turn off the heated seat function, that is.  As the October temperatures have spiked to an abnormal, summer-like heat wave in the 30s and humidity levels hover around 90%, the last thing I need is to park my bottom on a heating pad. Of course, when November and December roll around and interior temperatures dip into the low-teens, that turns out to be a toasty welcome.

I’m lucky to have in suite laundry facilities on the opposite side of the hallway. The washing machine with a drying function, remains a mystery I fail to solve in the five months spent trying to follow the translated instructions contained in the hefty apartment user manual.

There is a quick wash option; however, the manual fails to explain it. No amount of button bashing enables me to find it. The regular wash/dry cycle takes hours during which I am not supposed to leave it unattended. Alas, I am stuck while the machine endlessly sloshes and then burps the clothes. Thank heaven for Post-It Notes I use to label the functions I have figured out.

Fortunately the machine is quiet. I’m on the ground floor and can’t disturb anyone below me. In order not to waste my whole day off waiting for the machine, I can start a load at 6 AM. By the time I have meditated, showered, dressed and had breakfast, the cycle is done before any stores have opened. Sweet.

The laundry room is housed in the same room as the sink and vanity which is next to the bath. Fortunately, the bath also has a dryer and hanging rack on which I can dry towels on a daily basis. Normally Japanese people hang their washing to dry on the balcony, but the apartment rules forbid it.

On opening the door to the studio which faces south, bright light streams in through the balcony curtains. The studio area contains a compact u-shaped kitchen with no overhead cupboard space or shelving. I have six inches of counter space on either side of the 2 burner glass-top stove. Thankfully it’s not gas and stands in for a work surface when I need to make coffee or assemble a salad compose or a charcuterie plate as I did on Christmas Eve.

Other than making oatmeal daily in the microwave, I don’t cook at home. I didn’t come to Tokyo in order to spend a third of the waking day in a shoe-box sized studio.

Occasionally, when I don’t go out to explore one of the numerous neighbourhood restaurants, attend a concert or visit an attraction; I purchase prepared salads, vegetables, meats, breads, cheeses and sushi available in portions for one at the local supermarket. The most ambitious thing I do in the kitchen is open a bottle of wine with a cork.

A small refrigerator with the microwave oven on top stands across from the sink.  As there is no shelving or storage in the gaping space beside the refrigerator, I commandeer the ironing board which is doing absolutely no good in the closet to hold the kettle. At the other end I put my shopping bags and carry-all for my ikebana tools and books.

Since I must recycle very precisely on separate days but no containers are provided for me to do so, I have gathered all the waste baskets in the place and separated the liner in the step-on one to create two. These, along with a paper bag to hold paper waste, I line up under the ironing board. It’s not pretty, but it’s out of sight when I am not in the kitchen. It works efficiently enough.

To minimize clutter I stash a bar stool I am not using in the closet, shift the furniture around, and drop all the modems, routers, cords and such behind the entertainment console. I’d have jettisoned the TV as well if the cord connecting it to the DVD machine had been long enough. Instead, I shove it as far back as possible. Though they’re visible in the photo, before long I shove the phone/fax and clock into the space behind the console as well.

Then I throw the monstrous apartment user manual, half a dozen remotes and anything else using too much real estate on the console into one of the two drawers below. In addition to the two open shelves, the remaining drawer allows me to store books, journals, the laptop, and my own tech accessories.

During my stay I love to keep the glossy console surface clutter free. From time to time it’s a lovely reflective surface for candles or flowers I bring home five times a week. Some weeks I have so many that I must stuff every beer glass, kettle, empty milk carton, cooking pot and even the rice cooker full of flowers and ring the kitchen sink–a lovely problem to enjoy. To display them elsewhere would risk spillage on the computer, smart phone or books.

A narrow counter top with bar stools surrounds the sink area. In the corner away from the sink and possible water damage, I have created an office area & work station. Not the best situation ergonomically, but neither is the sagging couch. That leaves the bed as option three.

In any other circumstances, the only time I would use my bedroom during the day is if I were ill, but, a studio offers no other option. Occasionally I go out to a café or bar to write or edit photos. However, the Wi-Fi which is included with the apartment rent is more secure than anything available publicly; therefore, I prefer to do any extensive online research at home.

To make things cozier I’ve brought my own cushion covers to mask the garish orange cushions provided, and I hide the matching bed runner in the closet. The white pillow cases I cover with black ones to better tone in with the glossy headboard and toss a fake-fur throw I also brought with me across the bed. Not quite as far as I would go if my stay were permanent, though. With a few luxe touches and cabinetry, I could make this space both a more functional as well as elegant home.

Home. After a few simple touches are added, this 340 square foot apartment which is less than 1/3 the size of my present home in Victoria works its way into my heart. So much so that I notice I never use the words back home. I always say in Canada or in Victoria. Frankly, there are moments (when I am not cursing the washing machine) as I relax before bed with Netflix, read, or try to capture the many little raptures of the day in my journal, I lose all sense of being away. Rather, I am fully present in the cozy little corner of this vast city I call my own. Tadaima! I’m home.

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