AN ATTEMPT AT IKEBANA

IMG_2101Although my birthday is in early December, I often defer my treats, not liking the ho-ho-hoing, and so the other week Anne, Barbara and Carolyn took me to Jeremy’s for lunch which was very nice.   They also brought me flowers.

I belong to the plonk-it-in-a-jar school of flower arranging.    I went,  many years ago, to a six week flower arranging course, with Carolyn, Anne and the late Geraldine Lane.   I was surprised to discover that everyone had their own unique style which persisted throughout.   Carolyn, as with nearly everything, showed real ability, and produced elegant arrangements and went on to do more advanced courses.   She gave me, for example, an original and lovely arrangement of flowers in a box for my 60th birthday.   Geraldine followed the rules and her arrangements were precise and attractive.   Anne had a kind of over-flowing English summer garden exuberance about her charming arrangements, and I learnt to plonk it in a jar with slightly more style than previously.

I’ve never really liked flowers ‘tortured into shape’, and I positively despise those flower arranging competitions where an entry can consist of 5 flowers, an eggcup, a fishing rod, and a spider’s web, and the resulting collection is entitled, Sorrow.   (‘Sorry’ might be more appropriate!)

When I visited Japan however, I was intrigued by the beautiful ikebana flower arrangements that decorated some of the Zen temples.   A most elegant and arresting composition could be created using a very few flowers.

Last year I visited Fallings Waters, Pennsylvania, USA which in addition to being Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic house through which a river flows, also has a shop where every object is covetable.   We bought two of our children lovely wooden vases intended for ikebana.    I looked up books on ikebana to accompany this gift.  I wanted one written by a Japanese person, but I was astounded at the cost of these – £400 – £500 in some cases.   I read that ikebana takes seven years of training and to complete an arrangement consisting of a branch and two flowers might take two and a half hours.

In some respects I’m a Philistine in matters oriental.   I once asked a hapless young, kimono clad girl who was organising the reception of tourists at a tea pavilion:  ‘How long will this take, how much does it cost, and can we do it right now?’    She should have said to me, ‘Go home, geijin, (foreigner) such mysteries are not for you.’   But she was polite in the Japanese fashion, and simply arranged for us to participate immediately.  I still wasn’t impressed!

But to return to the birthday flowers, I assembled, in about half an hour, these two arrangements.   I enjoyed doing them.   Anne’s attempt at ikebana.

I like how you can use meaningful props.   So in these two photographs, (courtesy of John), the green glass bottle is my favourite vase,   It’s a Mateus Rose bottle I picked up on the shore beside my grandfather’s house on the island of Lewis when with my mother, and the rub of the ocean has rendered its glass opaque.

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The other arrangement contains (apart from the flowers) a wooden tray I bought in Ueno, Tokyo;  a metal pinholder I acquired at Brodick, Isle of Arran;  a glass jar which once held pudding;   green stones that Rory picked up in Strahan, Tasmania and shoved in his pocket to carry round the world before giving them to me on his return.   The little green boar (to hold tooth picks, I think,) was a gift to me from a ceramics shop in Asakusa, Tokyo, where we bought – er  – one or two things.

So, clearly it’s not ikebana.   I haven’t trained for seven years, it didn’t take two and a half hours, and I’m geijin and will forever remain so.   But I enjoyed the process, I like the results, and perhaps I’ll get better at it.

THE BEAUTIFUL MT FUJI

THE BEAUTIFUL MOUNT FUJI

 

It is now over three months since we returned from visiting Elisabeth and Rob in Japan and I think I’m finally coming to the end of my reflections, which like those in a pool of water, ripple across my mind for a long time.

Japan is a culturally different, beautiful country of great contrasts, and anyone who has the opportunity to visit should seize it with both hands.

When we visited Japan in March 1997, we travelled in the company of John’s eldest daughter of his first marriage, Kerri.    As we walked round a garden in Kyoto, we were ‘adopted’ by an old man, a former headmaster, now retired.    He still retained a somewhat didactic style, and turned to me and enquired: “And what do you think of the atmosphere in this garden?”    Er, what? I thought.    Does he mean, green?   Damp?    Then inspiration came.    “It is very tranquil.”    He listened carefully, then nodded in approval.   So, all the way round he asked us questions.    He also obtained for us, by vigorous discussion with officials which we could not follow, access to forbidden areas, special views, VIP sections and so on.    His English was very good, and he also talked with Kerri in Japanese.    Finally, when we took our leave of him, (John presenting him with his business card, two hands, small bow, and inviting him to visit us should he ever come to England) he turned to me and said, “One last question, madam.   What is the most impressive thing you have seen in Japan?”     But I had my answer ready.    “The most impressive thing I have seen in Japan is the beautiful Mount Fuji.”     His face lit up.    “Ah, Fuji-san.”     Then he gave me a small, valedictory nod.    “It is a good answer.”

Fuji, which rises out of a plain in an almost symmetrical cone is a most beautiful, mysterious mountain.    You can go out looking for it all day – it’s huge, and you know it’s right there in front of you – but it can remain utterly absent.    Then, disappointed, you walk away, but you drop your glove and turning round to retrieve it, there’s Fuji in all his majesty, in full and glorious view, as though he had been teasing you on his game of hide and seek but had suddenly relented.    Yet on a clear day, you can see Fuji from Tokyo.   Whenever you do see Fuji you feel blessed and privileged, and experience an uprising of the heart.

The lovely photographs of Japan in my blogs have all been courtesy of John, and above is his photograph of Fuji taken from the  shinkansen, and below by Rob  of a boat on a canal in Kurashiki.

 

It is always a pleasure to visit the land of the rising sun.

SERVICE WITH A SMILE

SERVICE WITH A SMILE  

I have outlined previously some of the difficulties encountered during a visit to Japan but where ‘service’ comes into anything,  Japan is vastly superior to anywhere else I’ve been.    Tips are not expected and should you offer one, generally refused.

We had requested wheel chair assistance on arrival at Narita (because it was in the middle of the night, body time) and this was offered with great care and courtesy so I felt like a piece of valuable china.    (A very good service was also offered at Heathrow.)

Elisabeth and Rob’s flat was a wonderful affair on the 27th floor of a modern tower.   After our outings but before their return from work, we would rest in their sitting room and watch the light change over the city, noting the daily alternation of the glorious Autumn colours.   As darkness fell, the lights would come on one by one.   Tokyo is a lovely city with many parks.   The building had white gloved doormen who would rush to help you with your luggage, or open the doors for you, and a receptionist who would receive messages and parcels.   

 

We went with Elisabeth to Comptoir des Cotonniers (http://comptoirdescotonniers.com)  where she had been thinking of purchasing a coat and suit for her working wardrobe.   Service here was excellent.    They settled me down in a comfortable chair.   The saleslady listened carefully to what Elisabeth had to say, and then directed her junior assistants to bring a selection of clothes, all the correct size and meeting Elisabeth’s brief.    At some point they realised that John was lurking outside, not wishing to enter a ladies’ clothes shop, and presumably recognised that if he were comfortable, we could spend more time in the shop.   “We have a seat for your father,” they said to her.   We answered he wouldn’t come in, but two of the young pretty girls were despatched and in that tactful but persuasive way of Japanese ladies would brook no refusal.    He was made comfortable in a corner.      Meanwhile Elisabeth was trying out outfits, with their accessories, my scarf, her own garments…     While she was dressing, the saleslady would talk to me.    I said my daughter was getting married.   “Oh,” she replied.   “In England?”    When I said, Yes, she asked, ‘Will it be like a wedding in  a film?’     Wedding in a film, I thought.   Does she mean, like in The Godfather?   Four Weddings and a Funeral?    Pride and Prejudice?    Anyway, Elisabeth decided to buy a camel coat and a black trouser suit.    The junior girls busily took away the rejected clothes, and the next in seniority to our saleslady wrapped the clothes up beautifully.   Elisabeth was asked for her card, and permission was sought to advise her when new collections came in and I am quite sure when she makes her appointment and goes there, they will have a selection that does suit her and is appropriate hanging up in the correct size waiting for her to try them on.    She was given a lovely mirror in a white leather case  ‘and one for your mother’.     Then they all accompanied us to the door, and bowed us out.     It’s a seductive experience, let me tell you.

You could argue that Elisabeth spent a fair sum there, and that this level of service would be forthcoming in many places, but our greatest service experience was not costly.   The lens of John’s glasses fell out into his hand but was fortunately not damaged.   However, a small screw was missing.   Rob and he attempted to fix them with a screw from a redundant pair of Rob’s glasses but only succeeded in disabling two pairs.    The receptionist downstairs produced an address for an optician open mid morning on  Sunday just around the corner, so we went there with me holding John firmly by the hand (no jokes about the lame and the blind please!)     We all went into the shop and John presented the problem.    We were all gathered in and all four of us relieved of our glasses.   We were seated.   We were served green  tea.   My glasses were returned to me, cleaned as they had never been cleaned before, and with the nose supports replaced.    Equal attention  had been  paid to everyone’s, and the  two pairs of damaged glasses were as new.   We gave our thanks and John asked for the bill.   No charge.   Four of them had worked for perhaps quarter of an hour.     We were horrified.    There was nothing for it but to smile and leave.    Elisabeth suggested we might take them a small gift which they  could all share – but it had to be wrapped.   Next day we purchased a box of French macaroons (a luxury there I assure you!) and duly returned to present it – mindful of Elisabeth’s instructions, John presented the gift with his two hands and the nod of the head that is the nearest Scots are going to approach to a bow.  He just offered it to the lady who came to meet him, but was quickly redirected to the master of the establishment.    They seemed pleased and enquired after our ‘son and daughter’ and ‘children’ – they spoke good English, so they do not seem to make a distinction for relatives by marriage, and I had noticed that the Empress was referred to as being ‘with her mother’, when the accompanying  lady was in fact the Dowager Empress and therefore her mother in law.

You encounter this level of service everywhere.   On the legendary bullet train, the beautiful Shinkansen, there are four staff (at least) – the driver, the guard/ticket inspector, and one or two people serving snacks who bow to the carriage on leaving and entering, and to each customer in each transaction.   John put one young girl thoroughly off by selecting an item himself from her trolley before the bowing was finished.   At the front of the train is a section with a moving map where young passengers can sit before a wheel and ‘drive the train’ and an attendant scours the train winkling out young future train drivers and their mothers.    (Some fathers looked on quite wistfully…)    And on one journey in Tokyo, using the ‘Oyster’ cards our children had given us, I could not walk through the barrier as mine needed topping up.    I was tired and getting a bit stressed.   A guard came and asked us to follow him to his little cubbyhole where he took John’s card as well and disappeared within.    When he came out he presented the cards to John (two hands presenting the card, with bow.)    “They get you home now.”    John thanked him and asked what we owed him.   He waved us on.      “Courtesy of Japanese Railway.”    

One shudders to think what the Japanese make of our levels of service.   Somehow I can’t see British Railways being so courteous.   I don’t think they give a toss whether you ever get home or not.

SPEAKING IN TONGUES

SPEAKING IN TONGUES

 

When I was a small child, I used to read with relish a battered old book that belonged to my grandfather, giving useful and necessary phrases for travellers, translated into several African languages.      I looked forward to the day when I too could insist imperially:  ‘This room has not been cleaned sufficiently.’    Or declare, ‘You are  charging too much.   I refuse to pay.’    Then there was the dramatic, ‘Has anyone with cholera slept in this bed?’    And (my personal favourite): ‘This person seems to be dead.    Kindly fetch the appropriate person in authority.’   Though I have on my travels occasionally found it expedient to enact the English memsahib, emergencies of these types have not happened to us (yet.)

 When we first visited Japan in 1997, people outside of Tokyo would stare to see a European, and travel was very difficult because there was virtually no signing in English.   This is not at all the case now which makes travelling in Japan a lot easier.

I have explained before how this family has a shameful record of incapacity in acquiring anything other than a rudimentary grasp of other languages.   Elisabeth’s fiancé, Rob, has a much more commendable thoroughness in his language studies and we tended to depend on him in any situation where English would not suffice.

When I looked at his Japanese equivalent of our ‘Janet and John’ books, lazy as I am in these matters, I’d have promptly consigned it to the ‘too difficult’ category.   For a start there is the lack of any alphabet that we recognise.   There are three different systems of characters – thousands of those (I am reminded of the chrysanthemum fancier’s  500 million).   They  use all three systems, sometimes in the same sentence.     There are only past and present tenses.   With our complexity of tense, I found restriction to only two, impossible to imagine.   Japan is a caste oriented society so there are many varieties of phrases addressing people in different relationships to yourself.    Japanese used by men and by women is quite different.   (Apparently, when the Emperor Hirohito addressed the Japanese people after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to recommend surrender, he used the language of the court and the majority of ordinary citizens did not understand him.  He described their situation as – ‘the war has developed in ways not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.’)     There are standard phrases which may mean many things and which might be employed say when concluding a transaction.    I do recall eventually becoming very irritated with a tour guide who used exactly the same phrases all the time.    When you consider the extreme shades of subtlety with which you can take your leave of someone in English, it is hard to contemplate there being one phrase to cover all eventualities.

While I was writing this I heard a good example of what I mean by this subtlety of English.   Ann Widdecombe on Andrew Marr, discussing issues of the presumed eventual succession to the throne, said of course it would be the heir apparent, there ‘was not going to be a plebiscite.’   I wondered what the difference was between plebiscite and referendum, and looked them up.    There is virtually no difference: both mean that the entire population votes on one issue.    But I suggest that in choosing the word ‘plebiscite’ with our association of common, uneducated and uninformed in the word ‘plebs’ Ms Widdecombe was subtly scornful (possibly subconsciously) of the very idea of the Great Unwashed being so bold as to have an opinion on the holy issue of Majesty.   (She probably believes in the divine right of kings.)    

To return to Japan however, everyone there speaks ‘English’ which is wholly admirable, but they have often been taught by a teacher who has never visited our islands and may therefore not be very easily understood.

Children on the other hand often understand remarkably well, and I said to a little girl of 8, dressed in her ceremonial kimono, ‘How beautiful you are.’ – thinking she would not understand but her grave face broke into a broad grin of delight and she rushed off to tell her father.

We had coffee in a French bistro in Tokyo where a sign said, Les huitres sont arrives.   Underneath it said, Fresh oysters has came.

On a boat, ‘Remember the finger thing’, was interesting to contemplate.

In general, Rob’s instruction to a taxi driver would be accepted at once, whereas Elisabeth saying exactly the same would be repeatedly queried until we decided what was actually happening was that they were saying, Are you sure you know where you’re going, Missy?

However the most annoying communication on this trip came in English, on the plane.   I hate it when the crew make prattling announcements or talks more than is necessary.   The assistant pilot was so bouncy and garrulous you felt as if ‘Roo’ was flying  the plane.   He interrupted our thoughts.   Ladies and gentlemen, we seem to have a problem with – then something took his attention and he fell briefly silent.   Problem with what, I thought.    The engine?   The fuel pump?   The landing gear?    When he continued, ‘with the Entertainment system’, I really felt quite annoyed.

You realise how the language you learn at your mother’s knee to some extent directs how you later think.   In English it may be customary for women (certainly of my generation) to swear less than men, but the whole of the subtle and complex language is at your disposal.   You are not required to define your relationship with the person you address, and you can, if you choose, be both very polite and extremely insulting at the same time.    Doubtless there are in turn subtleties in the Japanese language which are beyond our comprehension, but when I’m examining other tongues I’m always extremely grateful to be English mutter-spreche!

POTATOES FOR ME

POTATOES FOR ME!

 The Japanese seem very interested in food – several TV channels are devoted exclusively to cooking.    Most of their food is delicious, and the presentation of even inexpensive meals is generally exquisite.   It is however very different to our own, and there is considerable room for misunderstanding.

 I should perhaps just mention here that at present (December 2010), Japan is prohibitively expensive for British visitors.   We were already cushioned by the fact that our wonderful accommodation was provided by Elisabeth and Rob; and we suspect our children tactfully used their local knowledge to find affordable restaurants etc.    The rise in prices seemed beyond what you would expect in the normal way, even allowing for the weakness of the pound.   For example, 4 years ago we bought Elisabeth a lacquer box about the size of a foolscap folder, with storks on it; the cost was £30.   This time the equivalent would have cost £300 (it may have been better quality of course, but even so…)    Two coffees and a cake cost about £20.

 Shopping for food in Japan (i.e. food to eat at Rob and Elisabeth’s home) was a deeply depressing experience.    The shop is stuffed full of wrapped goods.   They are all named entirely in Japanese.    You do not recognise what any of it is.   When you look closely at any item, you have never seen it before; you have no idea what role it performs in the diet;  left to your own devices you would regard it as inedible.   Eventually you realise you do recognise a few things – fruit juice, say.    But these are not like any you have eaten previously.    When you eat them, they do not taste quite as you expect.    (For example, eggs taste so sweet and peculiar you wonder what bird lays them?)    But finally you round up a few articles which might do.    They cost an exorbitant amount.

 Eating out also brought difficulties.   As each customer is found a place and crosses the threshold to go to their table, all the staff, waiting, kitchen, everyone, shouts.   Elisabeth thought it was something along the lines of, Let’s all welcome these people and enjoy our food together.   We of course did not respond very favourably to shouting as we entered and this then meant that the entire duration of your dining was punctuated by endless shouting.

 We had sushi in a restaurant in Ginza (Tokyo) where we were the only non Orientals.   In the middle of the floor was a large fish pool that the waitresses (in kimonos) had to step around.   One did hope that the fish which lay on our plate had not been swimming in that pool.   Sometimes it is better not to dwell on things too closely.   Although much of Japanese food is genuinely delicious, it is sometimes better just to close your eyes and eat.   Some things, if you allowed yourself to examine them in any detail, you would never be able to swallow.

 

Breakfast, Western style, was good enough, but it was never quite right.    I found it especially off-putting to see and smell our Japanese fellow diners tucking in to what appeared to me to be the same as they’d eaten the previous night.    In the meantime, we would start our breakfast with a dressed mixed salad,  then sausage, scrambled eggs, bacon etc but it never tasted quite right – too sweet.     One is surprisingly to being served chips, broccoli and carrots for breakfast.

 You get attractive ‘bento’ boxes of rice and cold dishes to eat on trains.  One hot day John bought 2 bottles which we thought contained apple juice – but in fact it was a hot Japanese tea in a bottle – quite good.   We also drank beer – good – and hot sake of which I could discern no taste, just a sensation of fiery alcohol.

In our ryokan in Miyajima we had very good European style meals, beautifully served.   When we left (tipping not being acceptable) I shook hands with the waiter and thanked him for his good care of us.   He took my hand, but he bowed his head completely over it.

One thing about Japanese style meals is the exquisite elegance of the presentation,   and sometimes I would sit, not particularly enamoured of rice – yet again – but coveting the ceramic dishes.   I guess we are as addicted to the potato as they are to rice.

Although I have discussed some minor difficulties, I should emphasise that Japan has a lively and healthy cuisine.    It is rare to see a fat person in Japan.

THE KIMONO

THE KIMONO

Over the years, during my visits to Japan, I’ve purchased various kimonos.   These have been bought second hand and being made of silk and often very beautiful, they represent very good value for money, as the Japanese do not seem to care for ‘second hand’.   I have asked John to photograph one of mine to illustrate the points I am making. 

 

 

So far as I can see, Japanese ladies wear kimonos only for weddings, ceremonial occasions, and high days or holidays.   Sometimes at some shrine where a festival is taking place you will see an attractive family, the mother in an elegant kimono, the girls and boys in traditional dress – but the father in Western suit.   (Although the man’s version of traditional garb is a surprisingly masculine garment.)

Traditionally, under her kimono a lady would wear a piece of silk wrapped tightly round the body from waist to knee (this gives rise to a typical short stepped walk that Japanese women still seem to adopt even when not wearing the kimono.)   Over this, and its collar visible in wear, was worn a white silk chemise, which would be easier to launder and would protect the kimono.   On her feet would be silk socks with a division between the big toe and the smaller ones, and sandals with a wooden platform.

The kimono is constructed from very narrow lengths of silk.    There is only one size therefore and the construction of each kimono is exactly the same (apart from sleeve length).   Any adjustments for height etc are  made in the dressing, when material is tucked into the obi (wide belt.)    If the kimono were worn as a dressing-gown by us, it would fit a woman of 5’8 – 10” without needing adjustment.

As ever in Japan there are subtleties beyond my understanding.   I think the actual design placed on the kimono was probably intended for wear in one season of the year, so the photographed example with the exquisite hand painted maple or acer leaves would be intended for use in Autumn.    The length of the sleeves denoted marital status, with shorter sleeves being for married women.   The garment is worn the opposite way to what we are accustomed to (ie it is worn left side over right, as a man’s garment is); and to wear it the other way signifies death.

The obi, that wide belt that holds everything together, also gave information on marital status, number of children etc , depending on how it was tied. 

Other accessories could include a narrow rope cord, tied around the obi; hair ornaments of mother of pearl; pearls worn around the neck; and a very small handbag with handles.

Often, as in the example, the design on a kimono is asymmetrical.    The inside is lined with silk, beautifully finished, and often a wash of handpainted colour matching  the outside decoration is drawn along the inner edges.    In examining our kimonos, they appear to be entirely hand-stitched, although i find it hard to believe that some of the construction is not done on machine.    It is easy to see why a new kimono in Japan is a very costly affair, running into thousands of pounds.

 

I own two at present.    The one shown is, I think, a particularly fine example, made of heavy ivory silk with a faint design woven into the fabric, and with hand painted Autumn leaves in an asymmetrical design.     I bought it in Kyoto on my first visit to Japan.   My other one had been intended for less special occasions, but it is also of cream silk, with an overall grey pattern of fans.     I have decided I am going to bite the bullet and alter them for wear, and make silk pyjamas to match.   I also own two short silk coats, originally intended to be worn over the kimono, in cream with silver and gold embroidery, and purple shot through with silver, respectively.    Other kimonos owned by the women of our family are a subtle blue and gold one, of Joanna’s; and I have just brought her an oyster coloured silk with an abstract hand painted brown tree design on it.    Elisabeth had a pale green one with a design of cranes that she wore when in Oxford, and now a pale blueish design; plus a short red one given her by a friend of Rob’s as a thank you for being his hostess.    Sarah, Rory’s fiancée, has a cream silk kimono hand decorated with spring flowers.   When Kerri was with us on our first visit, she chose a lightweight green kimono.

If one owned a kimono but did not wish to adjust it for wear, it could also be used as a wall decoration.

From our various visits to Japan a few elegant ladies in their traditional garb stand out in our memories.   Kerri and I, in Tokyo, saw a young woman get out of a taxi wearing a kimono of plain emerald green.      She was of such exceptional beauty and looked so stunning in her outfit with her black hair, that she called forth murmurs of appreciation as she entered the building.    In Kyoto, at the Zen gardens, a group of matrons enjoying an outing together, one of whom wore an elegant plain kimono in a cream colour, topped by a navy short coat whose only decoration was that, woven into the fabric, were designs of swallows.    And finally, with Elisabeth in Tokyo, having brunch in The Park Hyatt Hotel (used for Lost in Translation), a lady in an austere navy kimono, but whose obi was folded in such a way that when she turned her back, a life size paradise duck beautifully hand painted or embroidered, was displayed.

While the kimono is not really a practical garment for use in the Western world, apart from in the privacy of one’s own home, it is sumptuous to wear and uplifting to put on, being so carefully crafted and of such wonderful natural material and exquisite design.