This color combination is close to something that I would normally wear.
Kyoto, Japan — Ah, Kyoto. It encompasses so much of what I love about Japan: Clean public restrooms, delicious food, escalators that work, reliable public transportation, chic fashion, art (I could go on). But one of my favorite things about Kyoto is how comfortable it feels. Even teeming with tourists like myself, it still seems ‘small-town’ in the best possible way.
One thing that I desperately wanted to do before leaving Japan is to learn about kimonos. Prior to visiting Kyoto, my knowledge of the kimono, was extremely limited. Okay, so everything I know about kimonos I learned from the film, Memoirs of a Geisha, based on the novel by Arthur Golden by the same title. The visuals in the film are breathtakingly beautiful. While I can’t speak on the historical accuracy of the film, it does give some insight into the artistry, skill and thought that is central to the profession.
“…the very word ‘geisha’ means artist and to be a geisha is to be judged as a moving work of art.”1
So, there I was in a kimono rental shop on a Saturday morning. It was like being at Macy’s on Black Friday…a bit overwhelming. Many tourists who visit Kyoto rent kimonos to take photos at one of the shrines. I resolved to go back the next day with the hope of missing the crowd. Luckily, day two was a lot quieter.
Putting on a kimono is an arduous task. It’s not something that one can do comfortably on her own. First, there are several layers involved, with lots of binding and pulling, smoothing and folding. There were three ladies who helped me with my clothes and hair. I learned about the structure of dressing and how to coordinate colors, which was a lot of fun.
The result was a work of art.
Fisher, L. et al. (Producer), & Marshall, R. (Director). (2005). Memoirs of a Geisha [Motion Picture]. United States: Columbia Pictures Corporation.
I told a Japanese friend from college that I was taking a Shodo class while I’m in Tokyo. She told me, “Shodo is a way of life.” I had never heard it put like that but I completely understand it. It could take a lifetime for a person to master Shodo. I started taking lessons last week and I’m slowly but surely catching on but I know that I will have to practice consistently.
My biggest problem so far is my ignorance of the hiragana and katakana. When I’m drawing the characters, I’m consistently trying to quiet my mind while focusing on each stroke, so I won’t mess up. I know that it’s just practice and because I’m such a novice, it’s expected that I will make mistakes. But I have a commitment to honor the Shodo, and knowing that it is something that is taken very seriously makes me feel justified in my obsessiveness.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the written word as art. The only good thing about not being able to read Japanese is that I can look at it from a purely aesthetic view, not assigning any meaning to words (a skill that is completely unhelpful when I need directions or have questions about what’s on a menu.) As frustrating as it is to not be able to communicate, I relish in the fact that I can appreciate the language in a way that a person who is literate in Japanese can’t.
This week I started learning Shodo, or Japanese calligraphy. I’ve noticed that it’s quite calming, even if you’re not very good at it (like me). I’m reminded of how I learned to write the English alphabet in kindergarten and first grade. We would practice writing each letter, one by one, over and over. You don’t realize all of the components that you had to master with your first language until you try learning another language.
Shodo requires patience and intention. Starting with making the ink, every action is purposeful. As I was practicing today, my teacher reminded me to breathe and be calm while creating the characters, which is funny because it’s the same advice that I give myself when I’m trying to speak Japanese.
Tokyo, Japan – Sushi is one of those things that people either love or hate. I don’t remember when I first tried sushi, it was sometime during my freshman year in college. I just remember trying to convert my skeptical friends, like a sushi evangelist. One friend was adamantly opposed because of the raw fish. I think if you strip anything down to its disparate parts, it has the become unappealing but sushi is more than just raw fish. The combination of freshness and immediacy makes it special. An experience. Add to that the skill of the chef and well, it can be a bit intimidating.
Today I learned how to make sushi. It was quite simple. Notice I said ‘simple’ not ‘easy.’ I imagine a person could spend half a lifetime trying to perfect the art of making sushi. I have a great deal of respect for people who make (good) food. They’re artists. Anyone who has ever had bad sushi recognizes that there’s an art to it. From material preparation to presentation, there seems to be a purposefulness to everything.
Having a teacher is my preferred way to learn most new skills. There is no substitute for it (pun not intended). Our teacher today has been making sushi longer than I have been alive. I had to let that sink in. I observed him, how he placed his hands, how he moved, everything. When you’ve done something for so long, it becomes second nature so when trying to explain your technique, some things may not translate (another pun, BAM!).
In Tokyo, it’s acceptable to eat sushi with your hands. You have no idea how happy I was to hear that. My chopstick skills are at an intermediate level. I mean, I can use them just fine, but it takes effort. Removing them was like removing a barrier between me and the sushi. It became a more informal and enjoyable experience.
My only problem now is that I can’t wait to get into my own kitchen and practice.
The first day in a new place is always exciting and a bit anxiety inducing. I like to get familiar with a city by learning the public transportation, i.e. getting lost on the train. By that measure, my first day in Tokyo was a success! I managed to get lost but I also learned a couple of ways to get from my home base to points of interest.
The first day is also important for me to observe myself observing the culture…meta. Everything is new that first day and because I am usually pretty quick to adapt, I don’t get do-overs for experiencing things for the first time. For instance, I had an ‘aha’ moment when I noticed that the steering wheel is on the right side of the car in Tokyo. I started to think about the implications of this, like the proper side to walk on a sidewalk. I’m sure these things are connected. By the way, you’re supposed to walk on the left side of the sidewalk.
Transitioning into a new city also means seeing art. It’s my safe place. So I visited the National Museum of Modern Art, which was beautiful and they had lots of great works on display. There was a special exhibition by German artist, Thomas Ruff, on display but I opted not to see it because it cost ¥1,600 (which is about $15 USD).
After checking out the museum, I had lunch in the restaurant. I don’t typically have meals at museums because it tends to be expensive. This place was no different. What was different was the quality, flavor and presentation of the food. Absolutely impeccable. In my experience, you usually sacrifice one of those three things. It was a set menu and there were several courses, each more delicious than the last. My only complaint is that the portions were small.
I believe in the idea of art being in everything, especially in the mundane, and everyday things. I wonder what are the quality of life implications for creating artistic experiences in things like food presentation. This idea is not new, as evidenced by the number of fancy restaurants in the world. But I don’t think these experiences should be reserved for people who are able to spend a lot of money for them. Art is in everything and should be appreciated and enjoyed by all people.
Speaking of food and perfection, you should see the documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. You will have an appreciation for the idea of creating in an ‘everyday’ context.