Live and Learn
cityscape is a maze of weird and wonderful modern architecture, design and extravagance,
which makes it the perfect place to study the absurdities of Japanese pop culture. For a
lesson in alternative fashion head for Takeshita Dori in Harajuku, Shibuya 109 for a crash
course in consumerism, Shinjuku's Kabukicho for a close study of salarymen in their
natural habitat, and Roppongi for expat gaijin in theirs. All well and good, but does this
mean that Tokyo's a barren wasteland when it comes to really discovering some of the more
traditional Japanese pursuits? The answer's no - in fact, in Tokyo you can study almost
every tradition imaginable, from sushi to tea ceremony. Kate Crockett
takes a look at some of the options for cultural study in the Big Mikan.
of Ohara School of Ikebana
at Sumida Women's Center
Anyone new to this country and unfamiliar with Japanese cuisine will remember their first
nightmarish trip to the local supermarket. If the kanji labeling on the product didn't get
you, then what to do with it once you got it home probably didÉ which is where a few
friendly pointers in the art of Japanese cooking can come in very handy.
Every month at the Sumida Women's Center, local volunteer cooks offer the opportunity to
create traditional Japanese recipes under the supervision of those who really know how.
The class is only JY300 and it's fine to just turn up on the day and register. The
"lesson" starts at 11am prompt. The Japanese cooks demonstrate how to make the
dishes of the day (recipes are supplied in Japanese and English) after which everyone
mucks in to create the dishes.
hurrying the recipes for hakusai wagu rollu (Japanese-style cabbage rolls) and gomoku
chirashi (mixed sushi). The two dishes are created simultaneously - which is a little
confusing at first - but necessary in order to get everything done in the allotted time.
As there are 60 or so people here (apparently a much larger turnout than usual) we all
share in the preparation. As the initial instructions are in Japanese (with a little
translation) the non-nihongo speakers among us observe what to do before having a go
ourselves. Somehow, despite the volume of people, it's not a case of "too many
cooks," in fact, it's the opportunity to meet lots of new people which makes the
morning so enjoyable. If you're learning Japanese then it's also the perfect chance to
practice. I use the term "class" loosely here, as the session is more a chance
to observe the preparation, chop a few veggies, meet people and enjoy the delicious food
afterwards than to become a master of Japanese cuisine.
The verdict? Delicious. A fun and inexpensive way to sample traditional Japanese cuisine
and (hopefully) take home the knowledge of how to make it yourself.
Where: Sumida Women's Center (Josei Senta), Room 2/3, 2-12-7
Tel: Call 03-5608-6212 for information & map
Nearest stn: Oshiage (Asakusa line), exit A4
When: Every third Tue, 11am-2pm
The bottom line? JY300
Tea Time at Hotel Okura
The tea ceremony is one of the most famous and fascinating of Japanese traditions, which
probably explains why most of Tokyo's major hotels offer the chance for guests to take
part in a ceremony in purpose-built tea houses on their premises. The Hotel Okura is no
exception, and here you'll find the management cashing in on tradition on the seventh
floor of the main building.
The tea room is nestled between suites along a regular hotel corridor - just follow the
sound of running water and turn to the right into a rough, patio area with low ceilings,
leading to a series of tatami rooms. This indoor patio looks out on an elaborate rooftop
garden complete with sakura trees and a winding path of pebbles, symbolizing a river.
|Courtesy of Hotel
After being welcomed
by your host and "washing" your hands in the fountain, you'll be invited into
the tea room. A Westernized version of the tea ceremony is performed (i.e., you won't have
to sit on the floor) unless you think you can manage to sit on your knees for half an hour
and request otherwise. If you're one of the first guests you'll get the "best
seat" in the house, next to the alcove with the cha-bana and the
First you will be given some traditional wagashi and anko sweets with a
seasonal theme. The host then proceeds with the preparation for the ceremony. The
preparation is a fascinating ritual of precise processes and movements. After the utensils
have been prepared, a powdered, bitter-tasting form of green tea called macha is combined
with water and whisked vigorously but precisely. When the tea is finally served you must
drink it quickly, as the temperature is important. The "cleaning-up" which
follows is done as carefully as the initial preparation was. The ceremony itself lasts
about 30 minutes which, although not long, is so engrossing that you'll forget you're in a
busy hotel in the middle of stressful Tokyo. Afterwards your host will answer any
questions you may have.
Where: Hotel Okura, Main Building 7F, 2-10-4 Toranomon, Minato-ku.
Nearest stn: Kamiyacho (Hibiya line), Shiroyama Hills exit
When: Mon-Fri 11am-4pm (30 mins)
The bottom line? JY1050
Education in Bloom
at Ohara School of Ikebana
The Ohara School, which was founded in the 1800s, is one of the three main flower
arrangement schools in Japan. Their studies are based on two main forms of ikebana - moribana,
which is created in flat containers with a large water surface area, and heika, which uses
tall vases with small openings.
The ikebana classes held at the Ohara School on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings
are taught in English, and are popular with non-Japanese speakers and English learners
alike. The classes are for students of all levels and ability and so different arrangement
styles will be studied simultaneously within the one class.
At your first lesson you'll need to go in early so that the tutor can explain the style
rules and basic terminology used before the class starts. You'll then need to prepare your
container and collect scissors and a kenzan (a spiky metal block into which you stick the
stems). The tutor will demonstrate any new styles to the students, who will then complete
their own designs. After completion, the tutor advises on where to improve and will,
invariably, totally redo what you thought was perfect (at least for the first few weeks,
anyway). Make notes and drawings of your work (before and after alteration) to help you
remember the styles and the mistakes you made.
The beginner's course is devoted entirely to Moribana and the Elementary Form styles,
which are necessary in order to progress on to Heika and freestyle arrangements. You'll
also learn about traditional groups of plants used in arrangements and how to create
arrangements for different occasions.
Every other week you'll revise the style learnt the previous week, using different
flowers, in order to remember it and to get a feel for the varied materials that can be
used. The first course takes eight sessions to complete, but it's extremely flexible, so
they need not be done consecutively. Ikebana is a remarkably adaptable traditional skill
that you can (eventually) take home and use - regardless of where you hail from.
Where: Ohara School of Ikebana, Ohara Ryu Kaikan 6F, 5-7-17 Minami
Tel: 03-3499-1200, fax 03-5485-1734 or email
Nearest stn: Omotesando (Chiyoda, Ginza, Hanzomon lines), exit B1
When: For Japanese students, Tue 1:30-3:30pm. For foreign students, Wed
and Thur 10am-12pm (first time, 9:30am). For Japanese and foreign students together, Thur
The bottom line? JY2000, plus about JY2000 for flowers. Visitors can
observe the lesson for JY800.
Maestros with Nishimura Makoto
In the long list of Japanese things to study, the music is one that is often overlooked as
too expensive, too difficult, and too obscure. True enough, like other traditional arts,
the music is usually taught within a rigid and very expensive hierarchy. Enter Nishimura
Makoto, a traditional Japanese musician in Tokyo who is devoted to perpetuating the music
by teaching it to foreigners for - you're not going to believe it - free.
Nishimura sensei's specialty is nagauta music, which means
"long songs," and is a style of kabuki music. She teaches and trains people on
shamisen, voice, drums, and flute. Sensing a growing apathy among the Japanese for their
own traditional music, Nishimura sensei - fluent in English - has "ironically"
turned to the foreign community to perpetuate this beautiful and endangered music.
Because she works full-time during the day, Nishimura sensei teaches in the evenings and
on weekends. After you call and set up an appointment with her, you will go to her house,
where you will be graciously welcomed into her music sanctuary. Her lavish array of
instruments is worthy of any museum collection; shamisen hang in every nook and drums line
the shelves. Nishimura sensei can work with you in any of the areas listed above, but
encourages all students to study at least a little of the shamisen, as it is the
foundation of much of the music. After introductory lessons, Nishimura's students - from
eleven different countries - often practice together, making for an animated Japanese
afternoon straight out of Edo.
Nishimura sensei's group, The Daita Nagauta Kai, performs around Tokyo several times a
year. She encourages both musicians and non-musicians to join. A highly recommended
experience. Janet Pocorobba
Where: Nishimura sensei's house in Setagaya-ku, Daita 1-10-5-103.
Tel: 03-3412-6096 (evenings only)
Nearest Stn: Setagaya Daita (Odakyu line)
When: Nishimura sensei gives private and group lessons in the evenings
and on weekends. She also holds Sunday workshops from 1-4pm.
The bottom line? Free!