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Words, of course, are the most powerful drug used by mankind.
- Rudyard Kipling
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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.
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