Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Momiji – Autumn Leaves

Hakone Cablecar
The leaves are changing here ... the Ginko's are turning from a grass green to a luscious banana yellow, the maples are making their shift towards a brilliant crimson red. Fall is my favorite season, the crisp air, the gorgeous blue skys, the vivid colors of the leaves. 
On Veterans Day we took advantage of no school and no work and headed to Hakone to view the Fall foliage. We took the cablecar up the mountain and then the ropeway across and down to the lake. We could see Mt. Fuji in the distance and the changing leaves dotted the landscape. It was a beautiful Fall day – just over a year since the last time we made it to Hakone. Like the leaves changing, marking another season passing by, we all tried to take in the day - not knowing yet what the Navy has in store for us. Each day here is a gift.
Shift to yesterday. Three Tuesdays a month I drive about 20 minutes to Zushi for an English Conversation Class. My students are wonderful. All are retired although some still do a bit of consulting and it is a nice mix - 12 students, split evenly between male and female. The second half of the lesson each student has an opportunity to speak - this could be a prepared essay or something off the top of their heads. I never know what I'm going to hear. Sometimes it's hysterically funny when my English ears cannot quite make the leap to a Japanese word - like when one of my students was speaking about Sumo. I asked him to repeat it several times - still not understanding, the entire class trying to help me out, I finally said spell it for me. Well, duh ... I cracked up and said in English we pronounce it "sue-mo" but apparently in Japanese it's pronounced "smo." They amaze me by their worldliness – I swear they know more about what's going on in the United States than I do, and they remind me that I need to expand my horizons - every day. Sometimes though the gifts I receive from them are more simple - maybe they do not realize it, but everything they share with me, is a moment, a piece of knowledge that enriches my life. And so, yesterday I received a special gift from my students in Zushi. Saita-san, quiet, elegant, a former English teacher (yes, that intimidates me) shared with me that her 10-year-old granddaughter came to her house for a visit and asked her to teach her the Japanese song, Momiji. This is a traditional Japanese song about the Fall that most Japanese children learn at an early age. Saita-san took the time to translate the words from Japanese to English for me so that I would understand the song and then as I'm writing this down there is A LOT of discussion back and forth in Japanese and suddenly Saita-san in a clear alto begins to sing, and the others join in acapella, a beautiful mixture of male and female voices singing me a song from their childhood. It was simple, it was impromptu, it was poignant and it was such a gift. I will treasure that moment long after I've returned to the U.S. Last night, after finding the link below, I was sitting in the living room and I could hear my own children playing this song over and over again. It was a beautiful moment, a moment I realized that because Saita-san had shared something personal, my children were learning yet another aspect of Japanese culture, it was inspiring.

Sunset on the mountains, the fall trees aglow,
Brilliant shades of autumn - crimson red, tan, yellow.
Maple leaves and ivy adorning the tall pine trees
Weave a beautiful pattern here at the foot of the mountains.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Shinjuku Gyoen Chrysanthemum Exhibition

Another beautiful Fall day, another chance to get outside those gates. Our destination this time? Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, Tokyo. This garden is located in the central part of Tokyo and was opened as an imperial garden in 1906. From 1906 until 1947 this garden was for the Imperial Family's use only. The garden was destroyed during World War II and was transferred for pubic use and reopened in 1949. The garden has three areas the English Landscape Garden, the French Formal Garden and the Japanese Traditional Garden. First stop – the Chrysanthemum Exhibition being held in the Japanese Traditional Garden.

I love, love, love gardens and since moving to Japan I've really enjoyed learning about the "Japanese Way" of garden design. I've taken oodles of pictures, pictures of lanterns, garden paths, bamboo fences, trees that have been amputated, I mean severely pruned. It is such a different way of garden design from what I learned as a Master Gardener and I'm fascinated. Most of the time, I take my photos, I take some notes, but rarely do they have any descriptions in English - the most I can hope for is I'll go home and try to find out more information the web.

Not so in Shinjuku Gyoen - much to my delight they had at each exhibition bed a description in English on the type of chrysanthemum we were viewing and any historical significance. A BIG thank you to the Japanese official that thought this was worth the time and effort - my garden experience was all the richer because of these signs. Here's what I learned that day ...

Kengai bed
The Kengai style is a cascade style where small-flowered chrysanthemums are trained to look like wild chrysanthemums flowering over a cliff.

Ise, Choji and Saga-giku bed
Three different varieties were on display in this bed; the Ise variety has crinkled and drooping petals, the Choji has anemone-like flowers and the Saga variety has thing straight petals. The Ise and Saga varieties are trained to make a form of broom (seen in the Saga picture). The Choji variety is trained to have one flower in the center and is surrounded by six flowers (Ichiroku-zukuri).

Ozukuri bed
This bed blew me away ... look closely at the photo taken from the bottom looking up, there is a single stem that this dome of blooms comes from! It takes a year for one root division to produce the hundreds of flowers that are known as the "thousand bloom" style. Through careful pinching and training this single stem grows into this beautiful flowering dome.

Edo-giku bed
This classical medium flowered chrysanthemum was developed during the 18th and 19th centuries. The particular characteristic associated with this variety is that the flower petals change as the flower opens. Each cultivar is trained to produce 27 flowers.

Ichimonji and Kudamono-giku bed
The Ichimonji variety has a single large flowered head. The Kudamono (spider) variety has thin and straight tubular petals. The two varieties were planted in the Tazuna-ue (horse bridle) style, because the pattern resembles the horse bridle used for Shinto ceremonies. 


Higo-giku bed
Strict rules for the culture and display of the Higo variety, established by the Hideshima school were followed in this chrysanthemum bed. Historically, this classical single flowered variety was grown by samuari as part of their discipline.

Ogiku (large flowered chrysanthemum)

Ogiku bed
Ogiku (large-flowered chrysanthemum) is characterized by its incurved petals forming a puffy flowerhead. The flowers are arranged in the traditional Tazuna-ue style, diagonal stripes of yellow, white and red which is traditional to Shinjuku Gyoen.

Seven different Chrysanthemum beds, seven different ways to be inspired. I like chrysanthemums, they are another signal that the beastly hot days of summer are over and cooler weather and beautiful Fall days are here to stay – but I absolutely, totally stink at taking care of them. I try, each year I buy them with the hope that this will be the year that they maintain their garden store beauty and stay all full of blossoms, each year I realize I don't have the patience to deadhead off all the spent flowers, remember to water them everyday during the dry days of Fall. They require too much attention. My chrysanthemums fade and wither until I sigh and pull them to be replaced by easy care pansies. But seeing these beautiful varieties I'm rethinking this lack of attention - as the daylight hours dwindle I realize this is the time I need to be outside. I need to do something as simple as taking off the spent flowers, this simple meditative act will reward me with more than just a beautiful plant it will give me the chance to be inspired"now where did I put those garden shears?..."

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Dueling Teahouses - Hokoku-Ji vs. Jomyo-Ji

Sunday was a lovely Fall day, mid 60’s, clouds moving in and out, low humidity … like the leaves on the trees around here, this weather will not last. I offered to take my crew to Kamakura and introduce them to two different Japanese Teahouses, each located within the grounds of their respective temples. Child no. 3 was more than game and didn’t hesitate to say yes, while child no. 1 and 2 took a whole lot more convincing. After promising this would not be an all day affair, they would still have time to come home and chill out in front of technology (truly a major counterbalance to the Zen-like experience they were about to have), my sons decided to come along.

Ground rules: “do not ask me how much longer, do not tell me you don’t like this and for the love of God – please make sure you finish all the matcha.”

I love taking my children places and sharing experiences with them, I know my opportunities, with “2teensandatween,” are becoming few and far between. Some times, when all the hormones (their’s and mine) are in alignment the experience is oooohh, soooo sweet. Others … well let’s just say that the thought has crossed my mind on why some species eat their young. Just like when they were toddlers and I had to set ground rules more for safety than anything else, “don’t leave Mommy, don’t talk to strangers” now the ground rules have more to do with attitude and expectations. You cop an adolescent attitude with me, you no longer meet my expectations.

So with ground rules established, more than enough Yen in my pocket (or so I think) we head out to Kamakura to the Hokoku-ji Temple a.k.a. Bamboo Temple. More than a few times I hear “that’s not fair, you’re getting to see all the cool places in Japan and we’re stuck here on base going to school.” Hokoku-ji is one of those “cool places” … this temple is part of the Rinzai-Shu Buddhist sect and has a lovely bamboo garden and a teahouse where you can sit and enjoy a small waterfall while listening to the bamboo leaves rustle in the wind. This is our first destination in comparing two different styles of Japanese teahouses and I cannot claim originality – this idea came from my friend Kim who shared these two temples with me last Spring.

My children had not experience matcha – a powdered green tea that is whisked briskly until frothy, using a bamboo tea whisk called a chasen. The tea can be bitter and is served with a sweet. In this teahouse it is served with two small sugar pats that have been molded into seasonal shapes. In the Spring when I visited the teahouse the sugar pats were bamboo leaves and a bird. This season it was a beautiful chrysanthemum blossom and an oak leaf. There were three ladies working in the teahouse and one asked if we knew what to do and so I’m sure embarrassing my offspring beyond measure I said “I’ve been here before but please would you explain to my children?” She was very gracious and showed them the tea that is used is powdered (vs. tea bag) and hot water is added to individual teacups and then whisked. You are supposed to place the pat of sugar on your tongue while sipping the tea. We each sat down to enjoy our tea while viewing the bamboo garden and have a quiet moment.

Our next stop was Jomyo-Ji also of the Rinzai-Shu Buddhist sect but the approach to their garden and teahouse is very different. The Kisen-an, tea ceremony house, looks out on a Zen style Japanese rock garden, Karezansui. This style of garden is known as dry-landscape and they are an abstract way to use stones, gravel and moss to represent mountains, boats, islands, seas – the gardens are used for meditation. In this teahouse you may purchase a wagashi, a traditional Japanese treat that has a filling, in this case red bean paste. Like the sugar pats in Hokoku-Ji, the wagashi also change with the season. Everyone was game to try, so while we slipped off our shoes and padded across the tatami mats our hostess disappeared to prepare our tea and treat.

It’s funny how things start to come together and my experience this time around was so much richer, not only because I was sharing it with my children but also because of the knowledge I’ve gained while living here in Japan. In the early Spring, Bossy, Weather, Novice Explorer’s and I (named Artist Explorer by Bossy) all experienced listening to a suikinkutsu, Japanese water chimes, when we stumbled on one in a garden outside of Tokyo. Only because a Japanese lady took a moment out of her day to share and show us what the suikinkutsu was … we could have easily passed it by and never experienced the delightful sound. If you go to the link there is a recording you can listen too http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suikinkutsu.

Now it was my turn to share, the teahouse at Jomyo-JI also has a suikinkutsu and each of my children took a turn listening and having a Japanese moment. In a Zen garden in Japan listening to water chimes … for nothing other than the pure joy of the experience. Sounds sort of Zen to me …

While waiting to be served, I pointed out that there was a tea alcove with a hanging scroll and a chabana arrangement. And so, the lesson continued … I told them how the vase was simple, the arrangement was also simple and that the flowers would be “just picked from the field” flowers. This I learned from the sensei who gave the lecture at the Ikebana International Kamakura’s October program.

When the tea was served, in a very basic way I was able to explain and point out some of the differences between Hokoku-Ji and Jomyo-Ji – how the hostess rotates the cup and when it’s placed in front of you, she will give you a seated bow and you return the bow. You are supposed to view the teacup before picking it up and cradle it with both hands while sipping the tea. This is really basic folks, but it was enough to get two 15 year old boys and my 12 year old daughter started – sort of like going to a formal dinner and knowing which fork you’re supposed to pick up first. Thanks to Yuko who invited me into her home for a tea ceremony lesson, I was able to pass along the bare bones to my children.

Authority on Japanese teahouses I am definitely not … but what occurred to me at the end of the day was that getting outside those gates has taught me things and changed my perspective in ways I hadn’t realized. My experience this time around was so much richer for the knowledge I’d gained … from the stranger who taught us how to listen, to the friend who showed me the way to two teahouses, to the Japanese friend who opened her home to a Westerner and let her experience a part of this country’s culture, to the organization I belong to that helped me become more aware – that’s not just any flower vase sitting there in the tea alcove. All this I would have missed if I’d stayed home. All this I would not have been able to share with my children.

Will they care? I’m not sure … in the moment maybe they were just remembering not to ask how much longer, or to make sure they finish all the tea (even though I know it took an effort for 2 of them). My hope is that one day they will care, it will be an experience they look back on and remember that because they decided to also get outside those gates (even though technology was awfully tempting) they had a chance to experience a part of Japanese culture. For me, that’s inspiring.

From Yokosuka take the JR to Kamakura. Exit the train station on the bus terminal side. You can take a 20 minute walk or take any bus from bus stop no. 5. Exit the bus at the Jomyo-ji bus stop. The two temples are about 3 blocks away from each other. I would recommend walking back to the station – on the day we were there, the traffic was so bad going into Kamakura that we actually beat the bus we would have gotten on. You can use your Suica card on the bus. It’s that easy!

Helpful Guidebook:
I cannot recommend this book highly enough: An English Guide to Kamakura’s Temples and Shrines. It is available in the bookstore on the main street in Kamakura – If you walk out of the train station, past the buses and continue straight – you will see the bookstore on the other side of the street.

Hokou-Ji Temple entrance fee is 200 yen. You pay for the tea at the entrance to the temple an additional 300 yen.
Jomyo-Ji Temple entrance fee is 100 yen. If you would like to have tea with the wagashi this is an additional 800 yen – you pay at the teahouse. 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sankeien Garden Chrysanthemum Exhibition

It is Chrysanthemum season here in Japan. There are exhibitions at different gardens and shrines and I'm fortunate enough to live within an easy train ride to Sankeien Garden outside of Yokohama. November 3rd is Culture Day, a National holiday here in Japan where the nation celebrates their artists and scholars - through parades, exhibitions and awards. It was also the day a group of us decided to explore beyond the gates and experience another part of Japan.

Bossy Explorer had the inside scoop on how to get from Negishi train station to the gardens back entrance. Jeff and I had traveled to the gardens during Cherry Blossom season but had followed the Base directions of taking the train to Yokohama and then the city bus to the gardens. I'm pretty sure we could have walked there faster than the bus ... it was not something I wanted to repeat with a dozen or so American ladies and so when Bossy Explorer said "my Japanese friend Reiko took me in the back way" I was game to try the "Japanese Way" ... which of course involved quite a bit of walking. Why didn't I have my step counter on that day? I think I might just have hit the elusive 10,000 mark.

It was a glorious Fall day. THIS is what I'd been waiting for. A slight nip in the air, enough to start out with a light sweater and then shed it later, low humidity and a crystal blue sky. A perfect day for being outside. Thank goodness Bossy Explorer was in the lead, because there are no signs directing you from the Negishi train station to Sankeien. I don't think I would have found this on my own. There is a decided benefit to going with someone who has been places before here in Japan - you get to discover things you might otherwise have missed. As our group approached the back entrance to the garden Weather Explorer and I noticed that there were a couple of festival tents set up on our left and "What's this? Pottery?!" Val (a.k.a Weather Explorer) and I immediately veer off to the left to see just what all the fuss was about. Because none of us are fluent in Japanese I am guessing that this was a student show with some very reasonably priced pottery for sale. I have totally fallen in love with Japanese pottery ... I'm like an addict, I can't get enough. So when I saw the pretty black/blue/white vase that reminded me of Mashiko style pottery I snatched that baby right up before anyone else could put their fingers on it. For Y800 (if 1:1 that would be $8) I could not resist and I didn't even care that I'd be lugging it through the garden for the rest of the day. There was also an exhibition of the students work and with an enthusiastic wave from one of the students she gave us a sheet, explained that we were to vote on our favorite three entries. My favorite from the day was the photo with the 3 white vases (of course).

Purchases made we were off to find the Chrysanthemum Exhibition. There were a number of exhibition tents set up throughout the garden and the photos in the slide show were my favorites. These mums are huge – some the size of a dinner plate. The care and nurturing it must have taken to get them to this stage, after what was what some say the worst summer on record here, is inspiring. We meandered our way through the garden looking at the different displays, I was particularly taken with the bonzai tents. These tiny, miniaturized versions of chrysanthemums, shaped not into jurassic sized mums but delicately sculpted art forms were delightful to behold. The photo with the vermillion bridge and pond is a recreation of Sankeien Gardens. Bossy Explorer stated the display was not to the level that she saw last year, but without anything to compare it to, I was duly impressed.

Living here in Japan, I've received many gifts ... one of them is the reminder that time here is finite. It would have been easy to stay home last week and take care of laundry, errands, the day-to-day stuff of a family. But all of that can wait. I have places to see, a culture to experience, and each day here is a gentle nudge that time is short – I will not have these chances again. The Chrysanthemum Exhibition only comes around once a year ... there is no putting it off and waiting till next time. That was the gift, don't wait, grab these experiences while you can both here and when you eventually get back to the U.S. – be more present and live in the moment and for me that's inspiring.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Recycled Kimono Sale

Twice a year in Yokohama there is a Recycled Kimono Sale, where Kimono's, Obi's and all sorts of things that would accompany wearing a traditional Japanese Kimono are on sale. This event has been on my calendar for months and I eagerly awaited the opportunity to immerse myself in a room full of Kimono's at bargain basement prices.

This outing was a combined trip for two of the spouse groups here on base, add to the "Friends and Family" invitation and we had a group of 20 U.S. women standing in line an hour before the sale was to start. We'd gotten the skinny ... get there early as the sale is fast and furious. The deal is you arrive early, get a numbered ticket and then await your admission time. If you get there early enough you can be in the first group of 100 and have the opportunity to get first dibs on the items for sale. This was our goal.

Managing a large number of females, drooling for the opportunity to get their hands on Kimonos and Obi's is not for the faint of heart. Our friendly yet firm "handler" was the Japanese gentleman seen in the photo. I felt for him, really I did. He must have started out his day thinking "o.k. it'll be a busy day but we're organized, I can handle this" ... I think he was in a state of shock when our group waltzed in. He tried his best to organize us 4 abreast. That's 5 rows of excited, noisy American ladies chatting away. And while we're all military spouses and know how to follow directions/rules, we're not the active duty members ... we weren't standing in formation as the Japanese ladies surrounding us were. Numerous times he came down off of his perch to try and straighten us up and in the end I think gave up. We were a respectful but rather unruly bunch. There's one thing that is apparent here in Japan, everywhere you go ... bus stops, train platforms, Kimono sales ... they like order. Everyone lines up in an orderly fashion, patiently waiting their turn. No pushing to get through the train door (they save the pushing for the professional people pushers), no group surrounding the bus door – everyone is in line and waiting their turn. Quietly.

The rope went down and the first group was admitted and it was a free-for-all. There were beautiful Kimonos and Obi's everywhere. Some for as little as 500 Yen (in better days that would be $5), some more expensive (I think the most I paid for a Kimono was roughly $20). It was frenzied fun, if you even thought you might want it you'd better put it in your bag because someone else was apt to snatch from right under your nose. I have no idea what I'll do with my purchases (5 Kimono's, 12 Obi's) but the ideas were running rampant. Purses. Art Quilts. Really, I don't know. What I do know is that I came away feeling like I'd won the lottery, excited by my finds. I reorganized our linen closet to make room for my purchases and as I stepped back to look at the beautiful Obi's all stacked up I thought yet again how very lucky I am to have this experience of living in Japan and to come away with another chance to be ... inspired.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Chabana - Tea Flowers

Recently, I had another opportunity to get outside those gates and experience a part of Japanese culture. I am a member of Ikebana International and the October program was held in KitaKamakura at the Engaku-ji Temple. For those of you who follow my blog this was the temple our family went to in August to see the archery demonstration.

This event afforded me yet another chance to experience the life of a temple beyond the sightseeing areas and to learn about Chabana, a simple free-style form of flower arranging used for the Japanese tea ceremony. Temples and flowers? Count me in!

My friends and I thought we were being ooohhhh, soooo, smart by driving there - but as usual it was another reminder on why the Japanese take the trains ... everywhere. We got stuck in traffic, for no readily apparent reason other than too many people trying to get into Kamakura at the same time. We arrived right as the program was about to start – which is not a good thing in Japan. You don't just "scoot in" at the last minute here. If the program says it will start at 10:30 (and believe me it will – their adherence to schedule is uber efficient), everyone is checked in and seated by 10.  For someone who is always trying to cram in one more thing before an appointment or arrival time – if my "deadline" is 10:30, in the States I'd be walking through the door at 10:29 and 59 seconds – Japan has forced me to let go of that bad habit. But traffic is an unpredictable variable here, we should have known better. Our friend, Bossy Explorer, meets us at the gate and says the program is about to start and they've had the largest turn out ... ever. With name tags picked up, shoes off and socks on, we round the corner to the large tatami mat room to see it is packed, really packed, and the only "seats" available are the cushions on the floor in front. My back, neck, knees and hips give a groan and a crack as they desperately try to find a way to be comfortable. I am truly in awe of the Japanese ladies who fold their legs up under themselves and appear to sit quite comfortably for hours. I was like a little kid, shifting one way, then another as various limbs proceeded to fall asleep and my neck and back felt like someone had stretched them in an odd way. Comfort aside, there was a distinct benefit to all this ... we were basically front and center – I could get in some photos unobstructed and could hear the soft spoken Chabana sensei.

So what is Chabana or tea flowers? It is the simple yet artful arrangement of flowers for the Japanese tea ceremony. The flowers are arranged in their natural state, meaning they are not fussed with, no wiring, no tape, no kenzan (frog) - once they are placed in their vase you leave them alone. The flowers are only used for the tea ceremony and once the ceremony is over they are discarded. The flowers or greenery matches the season – "it is as it was in the fields" and they are supposed to match the atmosphere, the tranquility of the tea ceremony. Nothing flashy here folks, no speciality flowers. The Chabana master explained a bit about the tea ceremony and how it is like a theatre performance. Act I you are served a thick green tea and a small meal. There is a traditional hanging scroll in the tea alcove with perhaps a poem about the season. There is a break and then Act II begins where the scroll is changed and the tea flowers are brought out and placed in the alcove with the scroll. We learned about the importance of odd numbers - you would have 3 or 5 different types of flowers/foliage for good balance; in the warm seasons you would use a bamboo basket for it's lightness and movement of air; in the cold season a simple vase of unglazed pottery or bronze. The flowers should have different size, shape and colors. The leaves on the flowers should have different patterns. If you are going to place a single flower in the vase, like a camelia, there should be an odd number of leaves on the stem. The flowers are lightly arranged in your hand and then placed in the vase. A gentle spray of water over the arrangement gives the impression of early morning dew.

It was a miserable day, pouring down rain, but with all the attendees the tatami room had become stuffy during the lecture and they had opened the sliding doors to let in some air. Our group found our lunch boxes with our names on them (note the pretty box in the photo), opened them up and enjoyed a boxed lunch, Japanese style, while taking in the view of the small garden at our feet and the Engaku-ji grounds beyond.

Aside from shifting constantly, trying in vain to find a comfortable place on the floor, I enjoyed the program. I continue to be amazed at the "Japanese Way" – this interconnectedness of patience, tranquility, the attention to detail, the quest for essence. I'm trying to take it all in, I'm trying to lose some of my Western ways and focus on the lessons I'm learning while here ... like patience. The traffic (patience), the sitting on the floor (patience and tranquility), the flower arrangement (essence) ... all these lessons ... now that's inspiring.