Friday, May 17, 2013

Day 17 - Mealtime manners

It's been a bit more than two weeks and I'm starting to have faith that I can adapt to the customs and expectations by the people at Shunkaen. It's an unbelievable experience just to stay in this house, to wake up in the morning and walk barefoot in hallways of tatami mats, to look out over rows of excellent bonsai while brushing your teeth, and that's before any of the work and learning has even begun. But it's also probably the most difficult and challenging situation I've every been put in. Doing bonsai is the "easy" and relaxing time, most of my energy is spent trying to satisfy all of the more or less mysterious expectations. If it was only about hard work then it wouldn't have been so difficult. The challenge is that you are not told what to do, you have to be constantly on your toes ready to help out faster than any of the higher apprentices, who are equally eager to win the race. This is especially evident at meal times, you need to be the first one to finish eating in order to make and serve tea before anyone else. Before and after meals there's a flurry of activity with all the lower apprentices stumbling over each other to help set the table, carry things dish up rice etc. If you're slow to act, you'll be scorned for not helping out. Even when it's apparent someone else will beat you to the kitchen for fetching the soup, it's good form to get up and make an honest attempt. As I'm used to calm and relaxing meals, either taking care of everything or nothing, this was a difficult change. At first I kept wanting to suggest that if they left it all to me (I'm the most recent arrival) we could all have a more relaxing time, but that's not how it works. A week ago I thought this was one custom I could never get used to, but these days my speed-eating abilities have improved, and I'm starting to understand the order of things.
Another peculiarity that was easier to master is the concept of higher and lower positions at the table, where the middle is usually the higher, except for at home where the chief has his high seat in front of the tokonoma, the lower seats being at the far end (well, not that far actually). This is easy enough even for a novice to grasp (I knew of it but have rarely seen it practised) but to spice things up, the higher apprentices are ever ready to invite you to the high seats, especially if you don't appear busy arranging things. The unsuspecting novice who does as he is told is soon to get some funny looks and has to endure the agony of watching his superiors fetch soup, tea and clean up the table at the end of the meal as most of us are seated on benches. Once when we went to a restaurant, the two seats closest to the chief were empty, as the higher apprentices took lower seats and me and a Japanese guy, coming last, outsmarted the game by sitting down at a nearby table. When in Rome...

I thought I was pretty well versed in Japanese traditions, but this place is probably more traditional than most. Now that I'm starting to feel more comfortable in this little world, I think the traditional ways are are a unique experience in itself, as the bonsai world is probably one of the few areas where old traditions and values are still alive, Sumo being another such sphere.
Whatever I did know has certainly been of great help, my new friend and the next most recent apprentice, Marcelo from Bolivia has had a hard time learning the ways and fitting in, and probably won't be staying for as long as he had hoped.

If you made it all the way down here, you're probably wondering how I found time to write such a momentous piece of a blog post. The answer is that I've spent the last four hours waiting for my turn to hand in my visa application at the immigration office. Only three numbers left...

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Apprenticing at Shunkaen - Day 1

I was expected, so they walked me with my luggage straight to my room, the old kitchen that they no longer use. Then the crew from a local paper seized the opportunity to interview me shortly, and then it was time to get to work. I de-leaved a plum, de-flowered an azalea, and then I got to thin and trim a japanese black pine, which took me most of the day and all evening.

It all felt surprisingly unceremonious. You walk through the door and pof! - you're part of the team. We have still to discuss the practical issues, especially of the monetary kind. I'm also not yet sure if I'll be able to get a visa for the period I'm hoping for, until October. I'd like to stay until next spring, especially with all the exhibitions during the winter, but my plants at home would face fairly certain death if I don't return.

Apparently, 10 pm is when all the magic happens. I felt pretty much finished with my work on the black pine when 'Oyakata', our master Mr. Kunio Kobayashi came into the studio to inspect. "hm, yeah looks good enough" he said, turned the tree almost 90 degrees to it's side, pulled out the BIG branch-cutter and tore away, cutting off perhaps two thirds of the foliage in big chunks. It's safe to say I was a bit surprised. Or to put it this way, I had been working on a millimeter scale for hours, pondering which bud to cut, while he chopped away at a decimeter scale, transforming the tree in about 15 minutes. He said he also changed the tree from a common and unsurprising piece to something much more interesting, expecting a four-fold increase in it's value. He never said so, but it was fairly clear that instead of chopping it down right away, I was given the chance to practice some thinning first. Pretty cool for a first day.

And now that I have found a spot with some wi-fi, I feel pretty well settled in.