A Weekend in Yonezawa, Yamagata

Cloud streaks caught the setting sun and bathed the valley in soft light as I disembarked from the Shinkansen at Yonezawa Station on a late October Friday afternoon. The crisp air was faintly redolent with smoke–like incense–as farmers had burned the rice stubble from their fields earlier that day. I had arrived in Japan’s countryside or satoyama with its own distinctive nature and culture.

Though southerly Tokyo was still green and had finally started to cool off in proper autumnal fashion, in Yamagata prefecture’s mountains koyo (autumn leaf viewing) season was already in full swing. Some places were said to have already peaked.

When I lived in Tokyo last winter my friend Derrick who now lives and works in Yonezawa encouraged me to visit; however, I did not have the requisite clothing for an area that essentially becomes a freezer during the winter. Snows to the second storey. Roads of solid ice. That sort of thing.

But during the last week of October Sogetsu Kaikan had cancelled my classes for a major exhibition giving me a window of time to head north. On Saturday morning Derrick picked me up from my hotel and we embarked on an adventure through Yonezawa and outlying areas.

Before departing by car we walk through the nearby Uesugi Shrine gardens in the morning sunshine.

Then we hop into the car for Tengendai-kogeni a a popular  hill for skiers and snowboarders in the winter months. There we take a gondola up the mountainside. The brilliant foliage covering the mountain hillsides, beyond superlatives or anything a phone camera can render, seems to float past as we ascend.

At the top we step outside for a look around, but a fierce wind nearly blows us over.

Moments later we are hit by hard rain. The hillside was golden. Now it’s gone, shrouded in dense mist.

Visitors are invited to place a sticker on a world map. The second Canadian to visit and the only one from Vancouver Island, I embellish mine a little.

On the way back we pause at Kamoshika a Nihonshu (sake) purveyor’s shop where I sample several local varieties. Derrick is driving and cannot partake as Japan has 0% tolerance for alcohol consumption for drivers. So I buy him a bottle of the one I like best.

Then we are off to Kameoka Monju, a mountain temple where students pray for success in exams. I don’t normally pray in these situations, but this time I  ask for the right spirit and success in my ikebana studies. Who knows who might be listening and feeling magnanimous when it comes to the gods?

After pausing for a tasty soba lunch at Konaya back in Yonezawa we carry on to Mahoroba Inishie-no-Sato Historical Park in neighbouring Takahata city. Nestled against the hills is a small pagoda, part of Akutsu Hachiman Jinja (a shrine).

Nearby, two Jomon period huts and a koruna (burial mound), reconstructions on the original site, allow us a glimpse into the lives of prehistoric peoples living in that area of Japan.


Sunday morning after a brief stop at Starbucks (as no indie shops were open at 9:30 AM) we drive over to Fukutoku Bishamonten a small, 1200 year-old temple with a lovely rustic garden.

Then we are off to Yoneori Kaikan, the Yonezawa Textiles Association Hall (which is not to be confused with the separate Yonezawa Historical Textiles Museum).  Yoneori Kaikan is still operating. Alas, who knows for how long?

Yonezawa was once renowned for its silk industry. However, the decline in demand for high quality fabrics and fewer people wearing kimono has forced many establishments to close over the years.

Others hang on trying to reinvent themselves to suit the times, offering a variety of small items they hope will appeal to the tourist trade. What to do when the prestigious work for which you and generations before you have devoted a lifetime honing skills and artistic vision no longer has commercial or other value? Carry on under a cloud of despair knowing that it dies with you? Difficult questions with more than difficult answers.

Then it is off to Onogawa, a mountain onsen (hot springs) town up winding roads lined with newly harvested rice fields, small apple orchards, heavily laden persimmon trees, and kitchen gardens nestled into the red and gold hills. We don’t bathe but wander around through shops and buy a few things before heading back to the city for lunch.

All too soon it is time for my train and speedy, grateful goodbyes to my thoughtful, generous friend who planned a comprehensive view of his city and surrounding areas for me, and invited me to join his friends for Halloween revelry.

Trains have a way of inducing a hypnotic state. On the crowded Ginza Line back toward my home in Gaiemmae, I stood half asleep with a knee against my spinner suitcase so that it wouldn’t roll away. Then my forearm bumped someone. I turned to offer the requisite sumimasen (excuse me, sorry) which nearly left my lips. Luckily it didn’t. I had almost apologized to the handle of my suitcase.

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A Period of Technical Difficulties

It has been a while. Longer than I’d hoped. After an eventful weekend in the Japanese countryside followed by jaunts to distant areas of Japan and several hours on trains to write about the adventures, the computer got balky.

Photos refused to download from the phone. Photos emailed to computer failed to arrive. The Halloween post which should have been done in less than half an hour took three hours to format. The computer’s speed reminded me of the not so good-old dial-up days.

After I connected with my trusty go-to tech for remote support he had the matter figured out in short order. Whew! I had not picked up e-pestilence from a dodgy free WiFi source. I had a faulty router. WiFi connection was was terminating and reconnecting every 30-40 seconds.

Monday morning the management company for my building sent over a new router. Tuesday I had two intense classes. Now Wednesday in my part of the world and my day off, dealing with the backlog has begun. More is coming. Soon.

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Halloween Karaoke Party

What do you dress as when you’ve unexpectedly been invited to a Halloween karaoke party and you don’t want to spend big bucks on a costume? I’d bought a cheap wig in Tokyo but left it behind as it was hot, uncomfortable and shed like crazy.

When I bought the wig I had found a little pumpkin hair clip to pin into it; however, my own hair is too fine to hold anything of that kind. I decided to clip it to my clothing and make lame excuses for not dressing up. Then while chatting at lunch about the party with my friend whom I was visiting in Yonezawa I got an idea.

In Japan the (separate) room in the house which houses the toilet has its own slippers. You leave yours outside the door and even though you aren’t walking anywhere but more or less turning around to face the door in them, you step into the toire srippa. When you are ready to leave you step back into your own and turn the others ready for the next person to step into.

Except that most non-Japanese forget at some point in their stay in Japan. They waltz out into the main living area with the toire srippa still on their feet—a matter for some mild derision.

On the spur of the moment I decided to go as “the gaiijin who forgot.” (Please note that I rarely use the G-word as some consider it as offensive as the N-word in reference to persons who are not Japanese. I normally and consistently use the term non-Japanese. In this instance, however, the phrase is what a Japanese person would most likely say in the context. Therefore I have made an uneasy exception.)

We popped into a local discount store and found the perfect, ghastly pink pair with the word “toilet” printed on them.

The party was well underway when we got to Oirase, a small, cozy karaoke bar in downtown Yonezawa. The owners had gone all out to decorate the bar for Halloween, and the attendees got into the spirit of the occasion.

The culture of cosplay is strong in Japan and my last minute effort was pretty lame compared to that which the others had put into theirs—skillful make-up, coloured contact lenses, wacky accessories.

The toilet slippers? Well, everyone (very graciously) thought that was pretty funny. I was given a flashing pink bow to match and we joined the crazy fun.



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The Flow of Time: DESIGNART TOKYO 2018

October moves into its final week and I am more acutely aware of the flow of time as my stay here is limited to the end of November. There are only so many days until Christmas, and in what will seem like milliseconds we will be ringing in the New Year.

Thus, on Tuesday evening I was first attracted to the title The Flow of Time when I stumbled upon several more DESIGNART TOKYO 2018 installations I’d missed on previous outings.

A dark blue carpet led to blackened subterranean rooms in which the installation played. Progressing from a starry night through sunrise the film captured both a moment in a year and the progression of a day as it looped through a succession of startling images which were mirrored from the floor.

In front of the film loop glowing lamp posts contained over 200 watch parts while a single timepiece marked the minutes and seconds as they passed.

Again, except for a few paragraphs on the wall at the exhibition’s exit, I deeply felt the absence of information in English. I was left wanting greater depth of understanding of the creators’ state of mind. However, there I did find this:

By looking at the smooth movement of the [Seiko] Spring Drive’s second hand, gliding across the dial without a sound, the most obvious fact takes your breath away. Time in nature flows without a “tick.” As a result of aiming for the ultimate precision, Spring Drive has reached a new dimension that makes you feel the transience of time, approach the essence of time.

On the Grand-Seiko website Google translate offer these somewhat unsatisfactory excerpts (but not atypical explanation in these parts) from company Chairman and CEO Shinji Hattori :

The theme of this exhibition … is the “flow of time” in Japanese aesthetic sense.  …we are now promoting “the aesthetic sense of Japan” that underlies the Grand Seiko brand … I wanted to disseminate it to the world through “emotional expression” art. 

Available in full on YouTube, the small screen experience is quite unlike feeling the work in a cavernous, blackened room where (in the absence of any information about it but walking into the installation cold from the street) the wonder of the exhibit is nothing at all like a marketing tool.

Rather, it truly is “emotional expression art,” an affecting work that prompted me to sit through several loops—mesmerized, enchanted and acutely aware (again) of the pathos of things. Mono no aware.

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When Everything Claps

In Plautdietsch or Low German, a language used among Mennonites for more than 500 years, there’s a saying: Daut klaupt aules. Meaning everything claps. In English we say everything clicks to describe such a state of convergence.

Monday’s International Class at Sogetsu Kaikan was like that. I was given no choice of flowers as they came as a pre-ordered set for Lesson 4.5 A Variety of Materials.  The challenge was to combine more than five elements, mainly flowers, in a single arrangement.

The ideal is to show fullness while maintaining space. The arrangement must be colourful but harmoniously so. The container, too, is a significant part of the desired aesthetic.

Theme 4.5 Variety of Materials


Though I had chosen a container, sensei suggested that I might also look among the baskets in the outer room before starting as the desired softness of the theme might be better realized with a woven rather than a ceramic container. That suggestion meant that buried under the baskets, as if meant to be, I discovered a stunning bamboo container bold enough to balance the single, scarlet cockscomb.

Close-up showing depth of Theme 4.5 Variety of Materials


From there on in everything else clapped, too. The flowers appeared soft and light as they were meant to. The desired space and depth and asymmetry worked without hassle. That’s often a challenge when the materials succumb to gravity and won’t hold their place. Sensei was pleased and suggested only a few minor tweaks—adding another stem to reinforce the depth, removing a few leaves.

It was one of those successes I wished had happened at home in order to enjoy it for several days. It broke my heart to take it apart. Mono no aware. The pathos of things.

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Food. Glorious Food.

Near the end of January as my first three-month adventure at Sogetsu Kaikan was drawing to a close I met Mayumi in the elevator of my apartment building. The cultural norm in Japan is not to engage with strangers. It’s assumed that you are content to mind own business and should politely ignore others. But somehow, and I can’t recall who initiated the conversation, we got to chatting.

Learning that we each liked food and drink we exchanged contact information and agreed to meet for coffee or wine or dinner or something. I left everything to Mayumi. As it happened, the day I completed Level 2 she was able to reserve a room for us at Kinari. I had passed the location every day, often casting longing eyes into the glowing rooms hidden by the bamboo at the entrance. However, I knew without being told that it was not a place which would welcome a walk-in.

The approach to Kinari


There we enjoyed a splendid 8 course kaiseki dinner, a serendipitous as well as triumphant celebration of my final day of Sogetsu course work.  Alas, with all that leaving Tokyo and re-establishing a life in Victoria afterwards entailed, although I absolutely should have, I never got around to blogging the details.

After my return, once I got settled I dropped a note in Mayumi’s mailbox letting her know I was back in the building. We set a date for lunch. Again, I left everything in her capable hands and she introduced me to Abysse, a restaurant focused on seafood and seasonal Japanese vegetables prepared in the French style under Chef Kotaro Meguro. Still in his early thirties, he has  already managed to snag a Michelin star in his second year of operation.

Chef Kotaro Meguro in front of his restaurant


As is often the case in Japan, the establishment shows few visible signs of existence from the street. To find it, you need to be in the know. In the case of Abysse, a discrete name plate  against a white wall is all you see. The doorway is down a narrow balcony to the right, and if it were not for the long handle, it would be hard to know there was a door at all. That’s how well it blends into the wall.

The sophisticated Abysse interior is black and softly lit. Enough tables for twelve diners are set with fine linens, stemware and glass plates in clear and smoke-gray hues. A small private room is tucked into the back.

Teppei Fujimura who seated us inquired about any allergies we might have so that the kitchen might make the needed adjustments. He then explained that their luncheon menu was set by Chef Meguro. An amuse bouche of Conger eel on roasted cacao chips would be followed by six courses which were described on individual menu cards he left at the table.

We didn’t opt for the full wine-pairings offered, but deferred to Fujimura-san’s expertise for wines by the glass–a Sancerre and a Pinot Noir–as well.

The amuse bouche was followed by the first appetizer. Squid from Kanagawa with Hasu-Imo, Makomotake, Italian flat beans, dill and mascarpone.

The second appetizer: Mussels from Hokkaido with ground cherry, sea bream broth and truffle.

The third appetizer: Sanma (pike) from Kanagawa with wild Enoki mushrooms, Hebesu (Japanese citrus) and pecan nuts.

Oops! I forgot to snap the main feature: Kuro-Mutsu (Blue-fish) from Kagoshima with black garlic, black olives, trumpet mushrooms and taro.

The first dessert course, likewise. The date sweetened rice pudding sprinkled with macadamia nuts and chestnuts wouldn’t have photographed well even if I had remembered to do it.

The second dessert course: Figs with blue cheese ice powder, sablé and blueberry.

In a world where multiple specifications regarding personal food or drink choices are the norm, there is a divine sense of being taken care of when no decisions of any kind are required. Instead, for three hours we trusted ourselves to the exemplary care of masterful professionals, artists in their own right.

After lingering over chocolate and coffee we said our farewells and wandered out into the sunny autumnal afternoon. Satiated. Serene. Smiling.



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Showers and Blessings

Saturday evening I was about to go out for another round of exploring DESIGNART TOKYO 2018 when thundershowers hit the city. Instead, with soft jazz streaming I poured the wine, laid out the bread and cheese, and pulled out the computer.

Oh where should I start? Okay, let’s start with the camera and its tendency to distort things. Most especially the high definition ones we are blessed with currently. Images are so often deceptive. Mere pixilation of perceptions and manipulations of light. Below I look into a mirror which is part of the Francfranc exhibit DESIGNART TOKYO 2018.

On Thursday I’d created something a little out there (but Sogetsu is like that). I’d manipulated mimosa branches by braiding them and used an oddly shaped container. This past week I’d deliberately taken a more playful, let’s see what happens if approach.

Sensei’s comments about the results were quite positive.  However, the camera showed the scale-like leaves and gray-toned green of the mimosa as rather reptilian, an unfortunate cross between an octopus and a lizard. At least, that’s what the inner tiger-mom said.

Thankfully, in ikebana, when that happens the great blessing of the art form is that can go straight to compost.  In Sogetsu, another blessing is that outré is a desirable normal. I guess that’s what you could define as win-win, but try telling that to tiger-mom.

There’s wisdom for ikebana practice in this page from Swedish graphic designer Benedetta Crippa’s handmade book World of Desire.

As I plan to visit a friend next weekend, on Friday afternoon I booked a Shinkansen (bullet train) ticket from Tokyo to Yonezawa.  The lovely young woman assisting me informed me that a five-day JR East Pass would be cheaper than the price of the single return ticket. Bonus! I now have two days after the weekend in which to go anywhere in JR East’s world for free. I have grand plans for that, but no reveal right now.

Friday morning and evening I had first explored some of the DESIGNART TOKYO 2018 festival which is on in various parts of the city for 10 days.

Businesses and ateliers and venues offer cutting edge installations and exhibitions too numerous to recount. Check out this chirping chair from the Audible Furniture Collection of Hemmo Honkonnen.

For several hours I wandered around my neighbourhood following the DESIGNART TOKYO arrows into delightful worlds of human imagination realized in concrete form. Below is Andrej Malinin’s undulating floor that acts like an acupressure mat and provides the illusion of walking on water.

Then Saturday I met Vivian who had suggested brunch at a spot near Tokyo Opera City (TOC). Afterwards, on my way back downstairs toward the subway I passed the TOC ticket desk, perused brochures advertising upcoming performances in the TOC Concert Hall and (joy of all joys) obtained one of the few remaining tickets for the Rias Kammerchor Berlin, a top tier chamber choir, in early November.

Overwhelmed, I wondered how I was going to find the time to write about all of it. As I stepped out my door into the hallway I heard the answer pelting against the windows. Lightning and thundershowers of blessings.

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Week One: Valuable Lessons

The first week of ikebana lessons started well; however, the challenge has been huge. By Thursday of the first week I was punch-exhausted from all that jetlag, settling into my apartment and resuming classes entailed.

Image credit to Sogetsu Ikebana website http://www.sogetsu.or.jp/e/

To complicate matters, the steel grass I’d chosen for the design I’d imagined was predisposed to  bend into sharp angles where I wished to create curves. The flax leaves split, were hard to fix and gave me a considerable amount of grief.

As I worked I felt as if I were floundering around in a creative dead zone. Unable to trust that my instincts were anywhere near the mark, I simply kept going until I got to a point where I figured I was done. Stepping back to assess it I liked it, but that counts for nothing in ikebana.

Because of all that studying in Tokyo rather than in Canada entails, I put significant pressure on myself.  Though I’d given it the best I had in me during the allotted hour, the week’s cumulative fatigue had impaired my judgement. I had little confidence in the job done. Was my best enough? Was it even close?

Of course, in that state of mind I was surprised by sensei’s tremendously encouraging evaluation. First, she called the arrangement “unusual” which in Japan isn’t always a welcome thing. Wondering whether I’d broken another unwritten rule and the nail was about to be hammered down, I cringed a little.

3.16 Intertwining Leaves

However, sensei pointed out the wonderful spaces created by the curved lines which harmonized well with the container. The colours of the leaves and the container were a good contrast as well. In addition, the fact that the challenging materials I’d used were well fixed indicated to her that I had worked very hard.

For the second theme of the day, I curved leaves into the same shape as the container and threaded similarly curved flax leaves between them. I didn’t think it particularly successful or attractive. Frankly, I didn’t like the arrangement all that much.

Repeating Forms 3.17

To my surprise sensei called it a light, lively, fresh, rhythmical and very natural arrangement. In addition, she said that she understood the expression that I was aiming for.

Good. That makes one of us.

At the end of class she came over with the interpreter a second time to ask how long I was staying and to encourage me in my studies. Afterwards I went out into the balmy Tokyo evening to begin the National Sports Day long weekend quite chuffed. I hadn’t expected this delightful high note after the challenges of the first week. To gain confidence in my own artistic instincts I need that sort of feedback.

In addition to knowing where they have gone wrong, all students need to understand what they are doing right in order to do more of the same. It was lovely to get that feedback so early into the lessons. Of course, the next class could be a total bust—or not. There’s no point getting cocky. I know exactly what I don’t know—everything.

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Ikebana: Revised Goals and Aspirations


Image credit to Sogetsu Ikebana website http://www.sogetsu.or.jp/e/

Before resuming my ikebana studies at Sogetsu Kaikan, I had determined to do things a little differently this time. Last winter there were various challenges inherent in the move to Tokyo competing for my attention. As a result I often found the energy for my studies somewhat dissipated. This time I have determined to take a more clearly focused approach.

I am determined to pay closer attention to the Master Teachers’ demonstrations, make more comprehensive notes, take more photos, and be more observant of others’ creations.

In addition, since I can be my own worst tiger-mom, I will direct more attention to what I learn as I work through the design themes.  Though critical evaluation will always be part of the process, I wish to better manage performance anxiety.

Mindful of the evaluation’s usefulness in refining my technique, awareness and artistic development; I will keep my head down and incorporate feedback into subsequent work.

Paul Arden (once a creative director at Saatchi and Saatchi) was not one to focus first on flawless performance. His was a more practical and achievable approach which might be more gratifying at numerous levels. He put it this way: Run with what you do and fix it along the way.

Speaker, author and former professor Srikumar Rao suggests that in any undertaking to which you attach some importance, you need to ask but one question: Did you do the best you were capable of doing?

Other students’ work awaiting evaluation

Good question. Frankly, my best is all that can do. If my best effort does not result in particularly great ikebana, that’s something I can work on. Forever. How disappointing it would be if we could be perfect at anything and everything on the first go. Where would we then find the joy of ongoing practice and creation?

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My Arrival in Tokyo

When you leave the old for the new, you know what you are leaving

but not what you will find.  ~Sicilian proverb~


When I landed at Narita Airport the incoming typhoon Trami had made a mess of flights into Nagoya and Osaka. Narita was bearing some of the fallout. Baggage shipping lineups were long and delayed deliveries promised.

Though the major action was well south of Narita, overnight the impact of Trami’s high winds made a mess of the usually efficient railway system.

That’s the reason I boarded the 90-minute, milk run JR Sobu Line instead of the 60-minute JR Narita Express to Tokyo Station during the morning rush hour. The Express was delayed indefinitely and the attendant on the platform called its arrival unreliable. Since the slower train was sitting in the station about to depart I thought: Why wait?

As the train moved toward the city, stop by stop the passenger crush increased. So did the heat. We squished and dripped. I was grateful for my seat and the suitcase in front of me, a welcome barrier against the crush.

Photo Credit: Electric Wave Radio Blog

At one point we lost power and the train stopped for an extended period. The startling sound of a paper fan broke the silence as passengers waited quietly. Some slept where they stood as it was impossible to fall over. Others opened windows. Behind my head a warm breeze entered the carriage.

How insanely grateful I was for that gentle brush of air against the back of my neck. Sometimes the smallest things are freighted with great impact.

With nothing else to do I thought. I thought about the discomforts of those Russian trains, the ones my Mennonite paternal grandparents boarded as refugees with my newborn father (likely in November 1929, mere weeks before Stalin closed the border to emigres in early December).

Theirs was one of the last few trains to leave Moscow and make it to Latvia. Many others were redirected to Siberia.  There the passengers who had sold or left everything behind in hope of leaving the country were at the mercy of their neighbours and the Russian winter.

My discomfort on the Sobu Line couldn’t compare to those crammed cattle trains. No children or adults were dying. No one was giving birth during the journey. Who on board had risked everything—a gamble with their destiny—and embarked with no certainty of their destination?

Two and a half hours later—an hour overdue on a system that prides itself on measuring average late arrivals in seconds—I disembarked at Tokyo Station. I caught the Marunouchi Line to the Ginza Line bound for Gaiemmae Station.

After picking up my keys I settled into my little apartment in Nikko House. That done, as the large luggage was delayed until Tuesday on account of Trami I headed out into the neighbourhood and lunch. Of course, the first place I went was CITRON for salad and a slice of lemon tart.

Then after too much sitting in airports, on planes and on trains I walked along Aoyama-dori. It was as if I’d never left. Like a person at a smorgasbord who piles too much food on a single plate, I had the insane urge to revisit every place I loved on the first day. Thankfully prudence prevailed.

On my return to the apaato, a welcome surprise. Yamato Transport Company had arrived a day ahead of schedule with my shipped luggage. By late evening I was unpacked and moved in. My Tokyo life had begun.

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