While spring has surely arrived in other parts of the world, in northern Japan it is puttering along in fits and starts. The first signs were the pale green cabbage-flowers cropping up along the roads. These homely weeds were soon joined by lily-looking plants, lurking in the dark marshes in the woods. The trees are just now budding, so cherry blossom season (which has already hit and run Tokyo) is a couple weeks away. Patches of snow still dot the mountains, but not enough for skiing. Just enough for getting good and muddy. Given all this in-between and awkward weather, playing outside has entailed running the paved and dirt roads of my town – and while it’s tiding me over, it’s not so exciting for a blog post. So, for a change, here’s a little bit about what I do indoors up here in the Japan hinterlands.
Months ago, I started attending a weekly ikebana (flower arranging) class in my village. The other students are women over the age of forty-five who have been studying this art for years. And it truly is an art. Closely tied to my ikebana studies, I’ve also begun learning the art of tea ceremony bi-monthly. In many regards, these two cultural pastimes seem like they have much in common with each other and very little in common with my outdoor hobbies: the participant is required to spend long, excruciating hours sitting in perfect posture on her knees, going through an almost maddeningly precise ritual of mundane tasks. Tasks such as clipping stalks and placing them into a vase; or simple actions like folding a cloth, or whisking tea to a delicious froth. But the more I practice, the more I take solace and pleasure in the ritual of it. The more I find calm in the pre-appointed steps.
Where my indoor pursuits lack the adrenaline rush I seek in some of my outdoor jaunts, they do mirror other feelings I encounter in my outside playtime. Whether I’m sitting in a kimono drinking macha green tea or sitting smelly and cold around a camp stove with a twice-used bag of Tetley’s, the end result is the same prickly, warm bitterness on my tongue followed by a drowsy comfort in my belly. The way I appreciate a meticulously crafted flower arrangement in a vessel is similar to the awe inspired by the changing of the maples, their star-shaped leaves cutting a brilliant red figure against the blue sky background. In fact, the way my knees feel after I stand up from sitting seiza for two hours is nearly the same as the creaky pain after a day of downhill, switchback hiking.
So while I am ready for the warm weather to blow in – to get my hike and my camp on – I feel fortunate to have been able to enjoy some of Japan’s cultural traditions and realize that the reasons for their popularity is not so entirely different from my desire to go take a walk in the woods.