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.
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 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:
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.