The Patience of Bamboo

In 3 months, we’ll have been in Japan a year. During that time, I’ve managed to avoid all forms of cultural education that didn’t involve travel, snowboarding, hiking, junking, or eating. I’m a firm believer in learning the culture based on interest and not educational relevance.

Wikipedia- Sumi-e

Based on the above Wikipedia example, perhaps painted in under 5 minutes,  sumi-e- ink wash painting- didn’t appear the most formidable of the traditional arts. Given the magnitude of my ignorance regarding traditional Japanese art forms, and the apparent simplicity of the art form, I readily agreed to join a group lesson of sumi-e confident our apartment, and Spouse’s office, would soon be papered with moonlit scenes of forested landscapes.

On our way, Andretti-san peppered me with questions and comments, stemming from his premonition of impending doom:

A-” Ouiser-san- what do you know about sumi-e?”

A-“Very hard to master.”

A-“Only paint with ink- one color- mistakes all show.”

As he sputtered on, ignorant of my prowess with a paint brush, I flicked spray starch off the grey khakis recently rescued off the floor.

Although jeans would’ve been the preferred painting ensemble, denim not only gets one ignored in Japan, it transmits disrespect. Knowing the Japanese don’t embrace “casual,” I debated appropriate paint wear.

Something that would blend nicely with black ink in case smocks weren’t offered. My black harem pants looked too much like pajamas, and too much like harem pants. Every other pair of blacks were at the cleaners so the greys, fresh off the floor, with a heavy starching, would be fine. Unlike my first choice, the black t-shirt, a silk shirt would keep everyone’s eyes off the pants.

“Andretti-san- I bow during the word ‘yoroshiku’ right?”


Andretti-san nodded his head toward an apartment building located in the ExPat part of town.

I knocked on the door. As it opened, I looked down to meet the unblinking gaze of three Japanese women the age of my grandmother had she lived long enough to marry off her grandsons. One wore a black silk suit, the other wore a black crepe dress, the last, a divine lavender kimono.

Dueling banjos playing deliriously at red neck speed broke out in my head.

The ladies graciously feigned ignorance to the state of my bottom half and obligingly focused on the top portion.  I ran my tongue over my front teeth to make sure they were all present.

Thankfully I knew to remove my shoes and keep bare feet off the carpet while replacing with the slippers provided. My wits evaporated in a poof of veneration when led down the rabbit hole to a formal main room connected to a tea room surrounded by a 17-year-old Japanese garden. When I regained command of my voice, surprisingly, I was a soprano.

Did the hostess perform the Japanese tea ceremony? I somehow squeaked, breaking the stem ware in the kitchen. She politely demurred. Instead, one of the other ladies politely answered, telling of the hostess’ ability and that of her uncle- a tea master- one in a long line of tea masters in the family- for the last 17 generations.

17 generations? Aren’t we Americans lucky to know our own fathers? Knowing 3 generations is miraculous – 4 generations means one comes from a family that lives in a secluded mountaintop region such as the Ozarks.

Kamini-san showed me to the place at the table reserved for me, all the supplies already arranged.

Unlike the supplies pictured above, mine were antique. With gold leafed rabbits. Chosen in my honor for the year of my learning sumi-e, the Year of the Rabbit.

Otaki-san showed me how to use the ink stone. Which I promptly ruined. Right after I spilled water all over the table.

I felt GI distress rapidly approaching. With the exception of my GI tract, every other part of my body was now completely paralyzed. How exactly does one initiate an out-of-body experience while appearing to be engaged with the outside world? This would have been an opportune moment to commence upon a journey.

Problematic was the fact that I still hadn’t touched a paint brush.

Sensei made her way over. I eyed her carefully, taking in her subtle hand movements as she demonstrated the beginning strokes, all the while I slowly chewed on a long blade of grass.

I demolished a forest while painting a bamboo forest. Then came the samurai sword through the heart. Sensei returned to hold my hand like a toddler with a fat pencil, this time guiding it over the page, explaining:

“Ouiser-san- no flicking of the wrist. Contact always- smoothly- like this.”

Sensei’s 20 second demonstration of the strokes one learns in the first 5 lessons:

My best bamboo after two hours:

Several times during the session, I thought I heard the scratching of nails attempting to gain a finger hold on the bricks outside only to turn and find the courtyard empty. Did I catch a momentary glimpse of a greying head just on the other side of the bonsai?Andretti-san certainly was standing on top of the car trying to find a better vantage point of the lesson inside, for when I came out, he was already parked inside the lobby.

One look at the bamboo series rendered him incapable of speech.

“Don’t show me the next – I still enjoying this one,” and he was off for another few minutes, gasping for air, until he regained his composure, to once again hold the “painting” aloft, shout of the hilarity of this or that, and start again. Once composed, he reveled in drawing comparisons between my leaf series and the bones of the human hand. After haw hawing for a few more minutes, thoroughly entertained by his own comparisons of my sumi-e objects to others not found in nature, he begged me to continue in my study of sumi-e, purely for his own enjoyment.

Which set him off again. He got a full 30 minute ab work out that afternoon.

And drove away laughing.

Either I was invited back or I invited myself back- regardless, I’ll be there on Monday in a stunning outfit.

Sensei said “One learns bamboo first because one must have the patience of bamboo to learn sumi-e.” I hope she has the patience of bamboo to teach me.

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32 Responses to The Patience of Bamboo

  1. mairedubhtx says:

    I know nothing of Japanese painting, but you certainly did much better than I could even begin to touch. Keep up the lessons. You’ll be a master soon.


  2. That was HILARIOUS! I just love your accounts of Japan and the way you come into contact with each of their culture lessons.

    I am waiting for the next installment of the sumi-e lessons.

    Good luck on finding a divine outfit and leaving them all agape with your painting 🙂


    • amblerangel says:

      Fire Crystals- I’ve been trying to leave comments on your blog and can’t? Might’ve been something I was doing wrong. Hmmmm.. Glad you enjoyed my pain! I keep blundering through – luckily for me the Japanese are very gracious and forgiving!


  3. Tokyo Jinja says:

    This has to be one of my favorite posts of yours ever. I think you did great, but I am still laughing as hard as Andretti-san!


  4. Brilliantly funny–pitch perfect! I agree–this is one of my favorite, as well. Can’t wait to read about your next lesson.


  5. Paul says:

    I follow your posts with much interest. I do not think your 2 hour effort at sumi-e at all disasterous. Definately a work of art deserving of Andretti san’s attention. I quite like the depiction of the Praying Mantis hanging between the Bamboo. Perhaps you will teach your Sensei a new style. If you wish to know what the Japanese think of your efforts, try painting them, though personaly I should stick to using brush and paper if I were you. Your last couple of posts suggested that the Billy Lids were rejecting your attempts at showing them a new culture. Good luck with that and may your painting classes fill you with joy!


    • amblerangel says:

      Hahaha! The billy lids are at the rejecting age- mainly rejecting me! I’ll have to re-examine the art work for the praying mantis- good to know of my hidden talent for insects.


  6. The Nose says:

    It is a good thing you are so thick skinned (not literally), confident, and self-effacing otherwise Andretti-san would be looking for another job that day! And there might possibly have been a fire in that venerable neighborhood. Kudos for trying. I loved the comment about americans knowing their ancestors. I bet “” would be a huge flop in Japan. I think you deserve some type of Nobel Prize for your efforts at ALL things Japan!


    • amblerangel says:

      I couldn’t believe it- she said that they have a shrine of some kind at the apartment and every time a child is born a Buddhist monk enters the child’s name in a book kept in the shrine. What is 17 generations- about 425 years? Each new generation occurs about every 25 to 30 years?


  7. I giggled all the way through this piece, amblerangel…I am feeling your pain right along with you. I am hopeless at most art, especially painting!

    Looking forward to another post!



  8. Stem ware, bamboo forest destruction, ink stone desecration? I bet 14 generations down the road they will still be talking about their delightful Emily. You are gonna be a legend!


    • amblerangel says:

      I hope to be a better grasshopper next time- and I’m bringing my own equipment…. I wonder how that will look next to the fine antiques? I’m getting sweaty just thinking about it.


  9. The Tourist says:

    At least you didn’t turn your bamboo into a stick figure. This japanese art is a little less bold than some of your other pieces. I still prefer the large rooster you painted before you left the states. I want that on a tshirt. Once Andretti-san stops laughing at your bamboo, I’ll take that on a tshirt too. I will wear both proudly with jeans and open toed sandals with pride in Texas. Love the blog Ouiser.


  10. Tori Nelson says:

    “Dueling banjos playing deliriously at red neck speed broke out in my head”… pretty much what my brain sounds like ALL. THE. TIME.


  11. Emiel says:

    Great writing Emily! Patience of bamboo you need, Yoda says.
    You know what, your post reminds me of a book I read last year, Pictures of the Watertrade. That also describes the efforts of a ‘gaijin’ to master kanji. His old sensei shows no dissapointment or signs of conceding. He waits until his student knows how to use the brush. Years and years of practice….
    Thanks again for another awesome post!


  12. Lisa Wields Words says:

    I love this story. I think you will figure it out!


  13. Dana says:

    LOVED this post! I am a big “art appreciator”, but I can’t create my own art to save my life! I would have probably died from the pressure of the whole lesson– the outfit, the etiquette, the symbolism of the rabbit-adorned brushes, the not-being-able-to-draw AT ALL factor, etc. Way to survive, lady! 🙂


  14. Olga SE says:

    You’ve only been in Japan for less than a year? I can’t believe that! So much done, experienced and described.

    I think it is the most hilarious post I’ve read on your blog. Good luck with learning sumi-e. I’ll keep an eye on your progress.


    • amblerangel says:

      Now that I’ve opened my big bloggy mouth, I’m going to have post more paintings. Or maybe I’ll just post my classmates paintings…. Yeh- that’s what I’ll do. I’ll be doing GREAT by the end of the year Olga- just wait and see…


  15. This post made me laugh! Brought back memories of the time I thought I could teach myself Japanese-style ink-wash painting. From a book. After all, I had done western-style calligraphy for a couple of years, and this looked fairly simple. Needless to say, I gave up on that idea pretty soon.

    Enjoy your art classes!


  16. Michi says:

    I love how involved you are. 🙂 And hey, those are some pretty nice bamboos!


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