Feature image is edited from ‘Moon’ by Tokugawa Nariaki” by Howard Cheng, under the license CC BY-SA 2.0. After three solid days of shrines and temples, we were itching to do something else—something less physical than climbing stairs, and less poetic than gazing across vistas. Although much of traditional Japanese culture is tied to religion in some way, there’s more to it than shrines and temples. We wanted to get our hands on something, to probe with our fingers and explore and play. I had just the thing for it: calligraphy and flower arranging at WAK Japan, a company dedicated to providing jobs to local women by matching local experts with tourists who want to learn from their experience.We were late again, the running theme of our journey, despite leaving 30 minutes early! (Clearly I shouldn’t take a career in cattle herding.) The door rattled in its rolling track as we stepped into the large entryway of the WAK office, an old machiya-style townhouse in a quiet district of downtown Kyoto that looked more like a home than a place of business.
There was no one to be seen, so I called out into the depths of the house. A woman in a kimono rushed down the stairs, clearly surprised to see us. I gave our name to check in for our reservation, but apparently their clock runs fast, so they’d assumed that we weren’t coming at all! She ushered us upstairs for our lesson nonetheless. Our teacher also seemed surprised to see us turn up late, the three other students in the class already sitting in this places with brushes and inkstones before them. I felt terrible; am I the only one who has trouble herding a gaggle of boys through a major city? We slipped behind our desks as the teacher set out additional supplies for us.
Once we were settled, she introduced herself: a housewife who had studied calligraphy for about 15 years, and who had lived in the States for about 5 years. She discussed kanji, the pictographic characters that originate from Chinese. In this class, we’d be learning to write the character sachi, meaning “happiness.” As important as knowing how to write a character, however, is focusing on the meaning of the character. Traditionally, calligraphy is an important component of zen thought and practice. The belief is that it is impossible to write a good piece of calligraphy without focusing on the meaning of the character so intensely that you embody it, which itself wraps in to the concept of mushin (literally “no mind,” similar to the concept of being “in the zone” in English).
The teacher showed us how to grind our inkstones, mentioning how the long strokes required are another important component in the meditative practice of calligraphy… Then she produced a large bottle of ink, since it takes too long to both grind the ink and learn how to write Japanese characters. We all laughed and set down our ink sticks, allowing her to fill our inkstones with the prepared ink. She showed us how to collect ink on the brush, how to tilt it at the perfect 45-degree angle needed to create beautiful strokes, the different ways to begin and end strokes to give them the right shape, the concepts of spacing the strokes, and the proportion strokes should have to one another. After each mini lesson she directed us to practice on thin paper so that we could get a feeling for the brush.
During all this, I found the greatest difficulty was within myself: my left-handedness. Holy cow, you guys. I’d tried entering a calligraphy class once before only to be told that lefties are only allowed if they’re willing to write with their right hand. I was angry—I’ve gotten this a lot, but it still sucks—but I didn’t have the time or energy to teach myself, so I gave up before I started. I was so mad at the time, but now I understand why the rule exists. Although I’m sure that it’s possible to do calligraphy with your left hand if you’re dedicated enough, the angle at which you have to hold the brush is so unnatural that doing it with my right hand was actually easier than trying to maintain the correct angle with my left hand. It was hard to focus on the quality of my writing as my right hand grew tired, but I managed to get something presentable on the test paper.
Satisfied with our practice, the teacher handed out the boards for our final piece. I shook out my right hand and gave it my best. Although it wasn’t the most lovely calligraphy, and although I certainly didn’t embody “happiness” as I wrote, it was a decent, legible piece. Shannon’s looked better, his lack of Japanese skill more than made up for by being a natural rightie. Jason suffered similarly; being another lefty who’d found it easier to use his right hand, his kanji was fine from a technical perspective, but a little lackluster in terms of artistic merit. Even so, who can tell? I’m sure all our calligraphy looks equally impressive to the untrained eyes at home.
The teacher wrote each of our names in katakana for us to copy onto our boards, then packaged up our calligraphy for us all to take home.
As we walked downstairs to our flower arrangement class, we gave our goodbyes to Jeremy, who was leaving Japan a few weeks before the rest of us. We set him off toward the subway station, then followed our next teacher into the classroom. At the table were three vases, three pairs of shears, and several plant parts: chrysanthemums, willow branches, and some kind of small purple flower.
The teacher introduced herself as a housewife with 30 years experience in Japanese flower arranging, called ikebana. Although she had never lived overseas, her English was quite passable; I suspected that she had some American friends to practice with.
She discussed ikebana principals, making partiuclar note that ikebana has very few rules, unlike most Japanese traditional art. A calligraphy brush must be held just so and the stroke order of the character carefully followed; traditional tea cannot be taken without the pageant of formalities and niceties that accompany it. Ikebana, however, is much more subjective, and in that way closer to what a Westerner would recognize as “art.” There are three rules: first, three elements of the overall design must be used to represent heaven, earth, and humanity; second, these three elements must be placed in traditional positions to indicate their importance in the composition; third, the only measure of success for your arrangement is whether you find it beautiful yourself. Now those are some rules I can work with! After explaining these principles to us, the teacher gave us several minutes to work on our arrangements, offering help and advice as needed.
While calligraphy had been carefully directed, ikebana was more free. I looked closely at the plants in my pile and selected a closed chrysanthemum bud to represent earth, a fully open chrysanthemum to represent humanity, and a partly closed one to represent heaven. I trimmed the closed bud short and placed it right at the lip of the vase to ground the arrangement, then trimmed the forward and backward facing leaves from my heaven and earth chrystanthemums to take out some of the volume. After placing them, I tried different combinations of the willow branches and purple flowers until I was satisfied with the arrangement.
I’ll be honest: I thought it was beautiful, and probably one of the best works of art I’ve ever made. I steeled that knowledge in myself before I told the teacher I was done, determined to follow rule number three to the ends of the earth. Even if this woman doesn’t like it, I thought, at least I can be satisfied that I made something I’m really happy with. But far from being critical, the teacher was free with praise! She seemed genuinely surprised by my arrangement, even asking if I’d taken ikebana classes back in the States. When I revealed that this was my first arrangement ever, she seemed shocked. “You have a lot of natural talent!” she said. “You should definitely take classes when you get back to America!” She complimented the negative space in my arrangement and the use of the closed bud to ground the composition. She made a small tweak to my arrangement, twisting one of my purple flowers just a touch to get a better angle on it, then encouraged Shannon and Jason to keep working.
Shannon finished next. She liked that he had also placed a chrysanthemum close to the bottom, as well as the subtle balance he achieved by leaning the flowers and branches away from one another. As before, she made a small tweak to his, then congratulated him on his work. Jason finished last, getting praise for his use of the willow branch to represent heaven (a break from Shannon and I, who had both used chrysanthemums) and the positioning of the three key elements in relation to one another. Once again, she made a subtle tweak to his work and congratulated him on his final piece. She offered to pack them up for us, but this was our last stop before heading to Osaka. We thanked her for her help and time, then left our arrangements on the table for someone else to enjoy their fleeting beauty.
Address: 761 Tenshucho, Takakura-dori, Nijo-agaru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan 604-0812
Get there: From Marutamachi Station (Karasuma Line), follow Exit 6 out to the street and turn right. At the first light, turn left on Ebisugawa Doori Street and cross to the other side of Karasuma Doori Street. Walk four blocks and turn right on Takakura Doori Street. WAK Japan is on the right side of the street, clearly marked with signs.
Price: Calligraphy is 3,888 yen (~$33 USD) at the WAK Japan office, and ikebana is 6,048 yen (~$51 USD) at the office. However, WAK Japan offers a huge number of courses both in their office and in the homes of local experts. In-home courses are more expensive, but they do include taxi rides and a bilingual assistant to help guide your instruction with the expert. For a full list of courses and to make reservations, visit their website.
- Although reservations are not required for most in-office courses, they are highly recommended. Reservations are required for in-home courses and tours, however. You can make reservations at the bottom of the webpage for your selected course.
- Arrive early, arrive early, arrive early. (Do as I say, not as I do.) This is important at WAK Japan in particular, as it seems their clock runs a bit fast. As it’s said: if you’re early, you’re on time; if you’re on time, you’re late.
- If you plan to take the ikebana class, try taking it on your first day in Kyoto. You’re allowed to take your arrangement home with you, and although it certainly won’t make it overseas, you’ll enjoy seeing it each morning as you wake up at your hotel.
Based on my diary entries from November 16, 2013.