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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
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
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/
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.
Photo credits for photos not my own (the opening shot and garbage truck) were not available.
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.
A few days ago a note from a friend (who has also moved recently and like me is settling into her new locale) spoke of feeling a little unsettled now that the feverish busyness has passed. She put her finger on the heart of things as I struggle to reboot the blog posts.
Mid-March I mentioned returning to Tokyo-related themes after settling into my new Victoria home. However, inner tiger-mom is a mean girl who taunts: What for? Who reads it? Who cares? But as my friend lovingly describes her joy while reading my various Tokyo adventures, her words re-ignite the bliss of writing.
Though part of me feels that perhaps my Tokyo life is too much of a bygone after all these months, another part wants to keep that splendid experience and that elation alive. Truth is, it has never died. Back of mind the ikebana classes at Sogetsu Kaikan and my daily meanderings along the streets of my Minato-ku neighbourhood live on, still imbued with vibrant energy.
As if still physically present, I walk home through the rustling bamboo grove leading from Aoyama-dori toward Baisoin the local Buddhist temple—a Kengo Kuma design with the most un-temple-like facade ever.
I also pass his Kengo Kuma & Associates office across the street and often glance into the upstairs rooms. There, in the minds of the people I witness bent over their computers, splendid structures which dot the globe are dreamed.
Then my steps take me down the slope past the local school and tennis courts toward Aoyama Cemetery.
In the evenings, behind the cemetery the light-spangled city spreads eastward. Always uplifting no matter how challenging the day’s ikebana lessons, adventures or encounters, Tokyo Tower’s cheery orange greeting glows against an indigo sky.
Where the slope levels out, a small grove of trees crisscrossed with pathways houses numerous cheerful birds and marks the changing season.
Leaves which turn and drop are swept up each morning by caretakers I pass on the way to school. I greet them and they respond with huge smiles, bow and reply in kind.
In general, Japanese people who don’t know each other don’t greet each other with niceties in public. Those are reserved for acquaintances, family members and friends. However, since I am not Japanese I blithely carry on in my Canadian way as if I don’t know the local habits. As I haven’t met anyone yet who hasn’t reacted with pleasure when acknowledged and appreciated, I persist. But I digress.
Or sometimes I walk in the other direction—perhaps to post a letter, drop into the drugstore, pick up something from Peacock Supermarket or gaze into the glowing windows of Francfranc.
From across the street tantalizing lemon tarts wait and heavenly aroma of Provençal herbs waft from CITRON.
Or as I make my way along Gaien-nishi Dori and Aoyama Dori to Sincere Garden for one of Azusa-san’s wonderfully restorative reflexology treatments, the chirps and chimes of walk-signals together with the snarl of an occasional Lamborghini or whine of a Ferrari punctuate the traffic’s hum.
How does a place bore into the psyche that way? Three years in Victoria have not yet given me that gloriously elated I’m home feeling which five months spent in the few square kilometers of my Tokyo neighbourhood has.
Still, I must be honest. Any elation I knew in Tokyo was often fraught with longing for more space as well as the efficiencies and coziness—especially central heating, insulation, laundry facilities and comfortable seating—I enjoy and never take for granted in my Canadian digs.
In addition, the pedagogical methods which are quite different from the ones to which I am accustomed can be quite vexing. Adjusting to different cultural norms, too, requires heightened awareness and constant modifications in behavior.
However, the absolute worst for someone who loves language, (even more daunting than being an outsider who joined Tokyo’s millions without knowing a single soul) is the fact that I in this world I am illiterate. I spend a great deal of energy trying to comprehend the simplest things, but most of all I starve for scintillating conversation.
At the same time, in Tokyo I am creatively engaged at numerous levels, unable to keep up with capturing much less conveying the ecstatic magic of it all. What can I say? Life is full of contradictions, including the possibility that it’s probably bordering on irrational to go to such lengths and considerable expense to stick a few branches and flowers into a vase.
When my friend asks why Japan keeps calling, I can’t say. Why do people climb mountains or run marathons or write books or indulge any of the multiple compulsions commanding human beings at any given time? For the rapture. Because it answers an urge of the heart and soul to which the reply is simple: Yes.
In my case that’s yes to beauty, yes to art and yes to rapture. Oh, yes, yes, yes!
Photo credit Tokyo Tower By Kakidai. Own work. Photo credit of Francfranc to madeintokyo.
In addition to choosing Rindou (Gentian) as a personal flower name after completing my Sogetsu Ikebana Level 4 Certificate, I was informed that I would need to select Chinese characters with which to write the name—one for each syllable rin and dou. That put me into a linguistic minefield.
There are multiple meanings, homonyms and pronunciations inherent in Chinese characters and Japanese kanji. How was I to navigate the highly significant components of a name and choose appropriately? My fear was that in my ignorance I might select some ridiculous meaning or unfortunate homonym such as this Japanese brand of men’s briefs when spelled in Roman letters.
I don’t usually take photos of this sort as I don’t believe mockery is an edifying pastime; however, in this context the example is useful. When I happened upon this sign during one of my evening strolls I couldn’t help but read FLACT as flaccid. Heaven knows what that word or sound might mean—if it means anything at all—in Japanese, but in English that’s likely not what might be wished by the gentleman choosing the briefs. How might I avoid doing something similar when faced with choosing characters for an elegant flower?
My apprehension was heightened after I received two pages of options I might consider for rin alone (and none for dou) without any guidance on which combinations might be auspicious or which pairings, if any, ought to be avoided. Had I been in Tokyo I could have invited a friend for a glass of wine and discussed it, but I certainly couldn’t Google them all.
Though I was reluctant to put any of my friends on the spot with my problem via email, I had little choice. I sent half a dozen characters with meanings I found agreeable to friends in Tokyo who had a good command of English and invited their opinion. However, their responses—some incomplete, some contradictory—only added to my confusion.
I begged off. Frankly, Chinese characters wouldn’t be of much use in Canada. I’d constantly have to explain them, plus I didn’t know how to write them. But no. The Services for Membership Department needed me to choose the characters as well as the name and offered their suggestion 竜胆. When I plugged that into Google translate the first meaning was bold. Not bad.
Then a friend to whom I sent the suggestion for her input pointed out that with the school’s option, pronunciation of the syllables changed when read by Japanese people. It wouldn’t sound like Rindou (phonetically reen doe) meaning the flower, but Ryudan (phonetically ryou tan) meaning dragon’s gall. Oops! Not quite what I had been aiming for.
Going back to Google (which can’t be counted on for 100% accuracy) the character given for dou did have a connotation of bitterness and gall. Was that gall as in audacity? Or bitter resentment? Was this a little shade in the guise of a flower name? Or something else?
“There’s a fine line between audacity and idiocy.”
In English there is an expression that a person has “a lot of gall” which is generally not a positive thing unless, of course, that quality of character helps a person succeed by bold action which turns out to be admirable. Steve Jobs who created Apple comes to mind. Therefore, it didn’t surprise me that the person who elaborated on this meaning preferred a different character for rin—one which meant jewel. That’s a bit prettier.
Yikes! The more input I received the murkier the matter became. I had no clear idea what I was choosing and became ever more reluctant to pester people for answers and certainly didn’t feel like matching something else with jewel.
When I asked Sogetsu for further clarification regarding the rindou versus ryudan pronunciations and bitter meaning I received this reply: The root of the Rindou is used for Kampo (Chinese traditional medicine) which has a very bitter taste.
Then I turned to a Canadian friend with a degree in Japanese literature who offered the most coherent reply I’d received throughout the drawn out correspondence. There are markedly different independent, alternate translations of the two kanji. “Rin” could be translated as perhaps “imperial” or “elegant” and “dou” as perhaps “courage.” He recommended that I opt for the school’s suggestion.
The number of times he used “perhaps” notwithstanding (the Japanese language is abstruse after all—a matter of considerable national pride), I trusted this. After weeks of navigating ambiguous answers, that was the best I could do without starting over. I chose the Chinese characters 竜胆 as the kanji for Rindou.
The bold aspect resonates. More than once during my time in Tokyo my teachers encouraged me to greater boldness or praised designs which demonstrated it. Thus the name should remind me not to hesitate or avoid creative risks. Considered philosophically, the bitter element of the healing properties in the flower’s root enhances rather than diminishes its merit.
Plus, if there’s something subversive or naughty I’ve inadvertently missed, no worries. I’ll try to live up to it. Or live it down. Whatever the case may be.
Il nous faut de l’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours de l’audace!
(We must dare, and dare again, and go on daring!) Georges Jacques Danton
4.17 Arrangement with Plants on a Wall
In her New York Times best-selling book Stress Less, Accomplish More, Emily Fletcher (founder of Ziva Meditation the world’s first online meditation training program) believes that attempts to judge any creative endeavor and how to figure out what might be improved next time does not mean that people should preemptively criticize or apologize for their work. Why not? It gives others “permission to lead with disapproval.” That’s why not.
Fletcher also speaks of creators as people who are vulnerable to other people’s judgements which “can be incredibly scary and lead to a less-than-elegant plague of self-consciousness and doubt.” Indeed.
This is exacerbated when studying an art form outside my own culture, coping with sometimes vexing pedagogical methods and social expectations as well as grasping dissimilar aesthetic norms. It’s not always easy to trust in any confidence I might have about my work.
Marisa Peer, another woman whose approach I have applied for many years now, is an advocate of changing any negative words and pictures held in mind. All of this is useful to me in my development as a fledgling ikebana artist, and I stick to it. Faithfully.
A case in point. When I shared a photo of my latest ikebana creation with Anne, a sensitive and exceptional ikebana artist I met and befriended during my studies in Tokyo, she wrote: Now that is beautiful! Great! Hope your ikebana continues to go well. That was some of your best work. Congratulations!
Delighted with that response from someone with great probity and exceptional talent, I replied to express my thanks. I thought my response was unapologetic and positive, quite in keeping with Fletcher and Peer’s counsel. Of course—and I’m not being self-deprecating about it as I did have to envision the concept—the splendid piece of driftwood did a great deal of the work for me.
Anne countered: No, I disagree. You made the driftwood work for you, and you did that splendidly.
With those words from a valued mentor and friend, my perception shifted 180 degrees. Splendidly.
A few months ago, my friend Azusa and I sat with our smart phones in a crowded Omotesando yakitori bar. Between delicious skewers of chicken, various delectable side dishes, wine and Japanese highball (a whisky-based soda drink the Japanese have reinvented and made their own) we listed flowers I loved and a few she suggested. Then we considered their Japanese names.
Question: Why were we doing this?
Answer: When I finished Level 4 of Sogetsu Ikebana and applied for the certificate of completion I discovered that I was expected to choose a flower name for myself.
That is no simple task. I didn’t get to choose my own name, its sound or its symbolism. However, in choosing a flower name I felt compelled to find a flower I loved which was emblematic and also sounded mellifluous in Japanese. I was surprised at how many flower names sound quite spiky and harsh in Japanese. At evening’s end only two had made the list.
I spent the next days considering additional flowers. Thankfully, the information required was at my fingertips. With a few clicks and swipes I checked and eliminated various options in two languages. Throughout the process one flower of the two Azusa and I had on our shortlist continued to resonate.
Gentian. An autumnal flower, it has been extensively bred by the Japanese to produce a wide range of variations and colours that are at once strong, soft and elegant. In addition, the flower’s Japanese name Rindou (or Rindō) is similar to the way my name Lynda is pronounced in Japanese: Rinda.
That done, another more daunting task remained. I needed to choose Chinese characters for the syllables Rin and dou. Complicating matters is that any given Japanese syllable can be rendered in multiple Chinese characters. These often carry more than one meaning and may change pronunciation in Japanese.
Not knowing Chinese or Japanese and not wishing to choose something which unbeknownst to me might harbour some dodgy or ridiculous connotations, I solicited the help of friends who were knowledgeable in these matters. However, even for them the numerous options could be confusing.
For many weeks I considered suggestions and advice, including the recommendation of the Services for the Membership Department staff at Sogetsu Kaikan who administer the certification and issue the diplomas. Eventually I went with their recommendation and chose these characters 竜胆 meaning (among other things) bold.
The choice was sealed by additional pertinent element I discovered during my extensive research. The autumnal gentian’s ravishing colour and highly nuanced symbolism are referenced in an Emily Dickinson poem “God made a little Gentian.” The final line asks: Creator—Shall I—bloom?
I shall–indeed! Boldly! Here’s to my new flower-name and all ravishing, late-blooming creators.
When astronauts return from time spent in space, how do they react to their return to earth? The Human Research Program at NASA notes that astronauts experience various disturbances to human physiology as a result of sleep disruptions, confined environments with limited social interactions at long distances from home which have predictable effects.
Without belaboring the extensive research, an astronaut’s experience in space can include strain, distress and negative states of mind requiring medical intervention. However, it can also contain joyful highs, a heightened sense of beauty and wonder, as well as the feeling of being connected to a larger whole. On return to earth it’s not uncommon to experience shifts in mood states in spite of the growth-enhancing experience, changed perceptions and the pleasure of coming home.
Though I don’t equate a 10-hour flight to a destination on this planet to space flight, I am not surprised to find parallels with my state of mind four months after my return from Tokyo. Sleep disruptions, confined environments, limited social interactions were characteristic of my experiences abroad, too. However, a difference between me and astronauts was that I had no home or homecoming to anticipate with deep joy. Though I wasn’t living rough by any means, after two and a half years in Victoria I was not yet settled. Essentially, I still felt homeless.
Joseph Campbell in his seminal work The Hero’s Journey describes another point regarding returnees once the quest is over. On his return the hero finds himself quite out of sync with those whom he left behind. Similarly, in addition to feeling homeless, after leaving my intense and often rapturous program of ikebana studies and Tokyo adventures I found no one with whom I might fully share my experience.
Fortunately, on my return to Canada I had major undertakings to fully occupy my mind which protected me from any serious downward plunge into variable mood states or adjustment disorders. As described in my last two posts I began a search for a property to call home and plunged into Victoria’s broad range of Christmas festivities. Even though I had not yet found a suitable property, as a gesture of faith and concrete intention I started packing on Boxing Day. Shortly after New Year the offer I made on a condo was accepted, and day by day I ticked items off my To Do lists in preparation for the possession date before month’s end.
Yet, before the ink was dry on the documents, thoughts about whether it might also be possible to return to Tokyo drifted in and out of mind. Email conversations with the school liaison regarding my certification documents and the choice of my flower name (which I will get to in another post) prompted night dreams of fellow students at Sogetsu Kaikan and the streets of Gaiemmae where my spirit wanders still.
Though I am continuing my ikebana studies in Victoria, after Anne and Aude from International Class sent photos, yearning for the Tokyo classes I deeply miss grew. I wondered whether I could manage a return to receive my certificates from Sogetsu Kaikan in person rather than having them sent by mail.
That tantalizing prospect has also been intensified by frequent longings for CITRON’S matchless lemon tarts. Nothing comparable exists here. My last morning in Tokyo before heading over to Shinjuku Station where I caught the JR Narita Express to the airport, I left my apartment and wandered around the corner to CITRON. Since I wasn’t going to enjoy this indulgence again for a long time, I ordered two slices and asked Benjamin to plate them to look like a single slice. He laughed when I confessed sotto voce that I didn’t want to suffer any Japanese side-eye over this foreigner-style excess. But I digress.
Even during moments fraught with frustration and the significant challenges inherent in stepping out of my own culture and language, my Tokyo days were out of this world. Not perfect. Not always ideal. Nothing I should consider superior to the life I relish in my new home in Victoria. However, my Tokyo time was most definitely a matchless interlude I cannot replicate on this side of the Pacific.
I can’t walk into a classroom with resplendent views, take instruction from numerous top-tier teachers or enjoy as many as seven (though I usually took five) classes each week. Here I also study with a nice group, but that number of weekly lessons is spread over three months.
In Victoria I also don’t have the vast choice of materials grown especially for ikebana or full range of supplies on hand. In addition, I miss the connection formed with kindred spirits I chanced to meet and ikebana artists who found their way to Sogetsu Kaikan from all over the world. Women whom I grew to admire and cherish over the five months spent together.
Then during the time outside of class, the city and all its myriad offerings—high and low, sacred and profane—beckoned. I’d be a poor specimen of a sentient being not to miss it all. As a result, I will return to Tokyo-related themes on this blog as I get settled in my new home. Some of the stories of my Tokyo days remain untold. Though part of me questions whether it’s not too much of a bygone after all these months, another part wants to keep that out of this world experience alive.
*Photos of Japan from space used with permission. NASA & Shutterstock.