To Japan, with Love


Written by Joanna Moen

August 17. Tokyo
Tokyo by Joanna Moen

Tokyo by Joanna Moen

It’s 5:30 am but I can’t sleep; I am in Tokyo for goodness sake! I ease out of my tiny tidy firm bed, slip my body sideways, and exit this miniature version of a hotel room. I leave my sleeping adult son and his Japanese girlfriend sleeping softly.

In the early dawn streets of this monolithic post-modern urban vision-scape, the buildings loom above me, tall and luminous in the early morning sun. Few people are on the streets, save for an occasional street cleaner or an eager businessman in his requisite suit-tie uniform rushing early to his office.

Trees line this quiet street in an area known as Ginza. Black birds squawk, banter, and rustle branches. The alleys I pass intrigue me. They are tiny yet pristine walkways laden with visual surprises, potted geraniums and bonsai trees, little benches, a ramen shop, and one powder puff of a shaggy dog snoozing beneath a pine futon. Artful alleys—a Japanese statement on use of limited space married to the creation of beauty.

Along the way—again in an alley, a Shinto shrine waits for pilgrims to arrive. A lady in a tailored navy suit and exquisite pumps, stops for a moment and fishes coins from her Gucci handbag. Facing the shrine she drops coins into a wooden slot. Framing her from above, a classic Shinto arch is perched upon massive vertical pine logs. She bows twice and claps two times, lowers her head momentarily, then rings the large brass bell and goes on about her day.

August 19. To Tokyo with Love
To Tokyo with Love by Joanna Moen

To Tokyo with Love by Joanna Moen

My Japanese friend, Junko, has invited me to the Mori Art Museum this evening to see the exhibition “Love.” We begin with a cappuccino in the museum café with the word “Love” spelled into the foam. Junko is a bank vice president by day, shoe designer by night. We met in Oaxaca, Mexico three years prior, over our love for handwoven and naturally dyed weaving. We ascend 53 floors to the Mori gallery in this tower in the Roppongi Hills. The first exhibit is Tokyo herself, a night blanket below of endless shimmering light. All the art pieces this evening represent love: from Jeff Koons’s flawless high chromium stainless steel Sacred Heart, to Chagall’s Above the Town, to Chirico’s The Painter’s Family, to Frida Kahlo’s My Grandparents and I. There are installations and video pieces and so much more…We end this magical evening floating like Chagall’s bride through the streets and alleys of nighttime Tokyo.

August 21. Kyoto

We are in the most visually traditional city in Japan. It is a cultural and historical wellspring of Japanese culture with serene temples, gardens and shrines. Indeed we see many woman dressed in traditional kimonos with obi sash, walking on elevated wooden shoes. We hear them before we see them—clop clop—then a vision of Japanese sartorial loveliness with painted white face, garnet lips, and dramatic eyes.

Kyoto by Joanna Moen

Kyoto by Joanna Moen

We are staying in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn complete with koi pond, waterfall, futons, and tatami floor mats. We are greeted warmly by our hosts and given toe socks to wear indoors. The washrooms are communal; by the way, the toilets in Japan are art unto themselves. In this ryokan, the loos play music, or you can choose waterfall sounds or birds. Amazing!

In the artful Kyoto railway station—itself a 15-story exposed steel and glass matrix—we ascend a tall escalator to Museum Eki Kyoto, featuring a show of traditional Japanese watercolours and wood blocks prints from the Edo Period. The show’s theme in this hot and humid month, is ‘Cooling.’ That night I dream of dangling my feet in the nearby Pacific. In my art journal I blatantly reference traditional Japanese painting style.

August 23. Death by Tenugui

This is what my son calls our trip. I admit I hungrily purchase these lovely scraps of fabric at every opportunity. Tenugui is a rectangular piece of cloth that has many uses from head scarf, to tea towel, to decorative wall hanging, and beyond. They are lovely and varied. Many are signed by the artist and they range from traditional patterns to whimsical scenes. An affordable gift/collectible; my suitcase begins to bulge!

Death by Tenugui by Joanna Moen

Death by Tenugui by Joanna Moen

August 24. Washi Washi

Japanese handmade papers have long been a passion of mine and lend themselves to the mixed media pieces I currently create. As I seek them out, I learn that papermaking was brought to Japan by Buddhist monks in 610 CE. Soon, Japanese handmade washi was an unrivalled paper art form, often created in family groups.

I satisfy my washi craving in the five floors of Ito-Ya art store in Ginza. If you are an artist, you will enjoy a morning of shopping/viewing in Ito-Ya. Besides drawers and drawers of Japanese washi patterned, plain and multi-coloured, I find some delightful markers with brush tips—very useful in my art journal. Ito-Ya also features unique stationery, calligraphy tools, fountain pens, and art materials. Sigh. It was dangerously close to my hotel. I can’t say how many times I went up and down the wooden stairways on my hunting and gathering expeditions.

August 30. Next Time

Loaded with washi and tenugui, I lament that I cannot take home any ceramic pieces from Japan. There are super bargains on these and much more at the Ameyoko Shopping Street. Japan is art itself, from the food (there is so much more than sushi—witness the live squid with blinking eyes and moving tentacles our lovely friends offered to us!), the elaborate gestures (you will bow a lot), Shinto shrines, Buddhist monasteries, and fashion. Sayonara Japan…for now!

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