Ichi-go Ichi-e

Japanese Garden

I’m going to come clean with you today. Give you a peek into one of those drawers I usually keep bolted tight.

I do most things half-assed.

Yeah. That feels really good to admit.

Sure, I can rhapsodize about excellence and the well-designed life and having a Virgoan’s superior attention to detail. But I’d be kidding both of us. There’s so much more to my capabilities than I recognize and develop and a whole lot of potential that’s just growing hairy penicillin in the back of my medicine cabinet.. If I don’t reverse this, rigor mortis of my art and work may just set in.

When I was living in Roppongi, the ex-pat neighborhood of Tokyo, a few years back, I was part of the opening team of a new restaurant. I knew a lot about the business, and was expert in our company’s culture. What I didn’t realize was that the Japanese generally give a new venture ONE chance to prove itself. If we didn’t win our guests over during their first visit, they would never come again.

This brought a whole other level to our preparations, because once the novelty wore off, our best foot forward is what we’d be judged on. That’s pressure enough to change the game. In the more forgiving U.S., we’re all about innovation, tweaking, upgrading – it’s ongoing, but in Japan, more goes into the design process before the debut, to present the best possible product or service, than we probably do by the time we get down to our fifth version.

We live in a ‘good enough’ society. We settle. We get by. Sometimes that’s OK, and sometimes we suffer for it.

There’s an ancient proverb in Japan, derived from the grace and beauty of the tea ceremony:  Ichi-go Ichi-e. “One lifetime, one encounter.”  It means to bring full attention and complete sincerity to your actions, because each moment only exists once and must be fully realized and lived.

I was reminded of this last night, as I was dining with friends at Bizen in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The owner, Michael Marcus, is not just the sushi chef, but he’s also a potter who apprenticed in Bizen, Okayama Prefecture and creates all the dishware used in his restaurant. His unglazed pieces are fired for 12 days, just once a year, in a large kiln he’s built on his property nearby. Talk about getting it right the first time!

We connected over a shared love of trekking and all things Nippon. He gave us a tour through his private tatami rooms dedicated to chado (tea ceremony) and kaiseki (a seasonal, multi-course meal), and his stunning, hand-crafted collection of vases.

The care, dedication, and passion he brought to both his pottery and our dinner was without question. He won us over by giving his full attention and heart to our experience. I used to do this, too, when I was serving others. But now that I’m in the service of myself, I think it’s time my inner CEO call a board meeting.

My best work is lying fallow. There’s a reason, yes, and that I’ll explore in my next post, but for now, suffice it to say that I’m committing – with you as my witness – that Ichi-go ichi-e is my new mantra.

Because once I devote to giving it EVERYTHING ~ to being my own best critic before I step in front of the mic ~ to crafting the most exquisite container for my bouquet ~ then I will truly be alive.

Hold me to this, I ask of you. My life depends on it.

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PechaKucha Night

“Whose coat is this?”

“Mine,” I say, to the thin, grey-haired woman marking the chairs on either side with various winter accoutrements.  “Oh, sorry.  I went to get a glass of wine.”

Another woman, coming up behind me, leans over and says, “It’s alright Sandy, I’ll sit on the end.”

“Are you sure?” I ask.  “I can slide down so you and your friends can sit together.”

“No, dear, we’ll all be friends by the end of the night,” she declares, smiling.  “Hi, I’m Georgeanne.”

And so my first PechaKucha commences.

Born in Tokyo in 2003,  PechaKucha, which means ‘chit chat’ in Japanese, is the brainchild of two designers who wanted an efficient yet lively forum to present their work and new ideas, as well as mingle and network.  Each presenter gets to show 20 slides for 20 seconds apiece, and share their passion with the audience.  The concept has taken off worldwide, and there are now events in hundreds of cities.  I have the good fortune to attend one just down the road in Thomaston, at Watts Hall Auditorium with an overflowing crowd – just another example of the creative economy’s momentum, even, or especially, in Midcoast Maine, far from any dense urban locale.

The room is a who’s who of local talent and leadership, and is enthusiastically  emceed by Senator Chris Rector, an amiable man with strong local ties and support.  (I hope he takes kindly to my letter opposing the Governor’s environmental hatchet job).  Eight people take center stage over the course of an hour, and the topics range from texturally sculpted forms (Jacques Vesery) to equatorial coffee-picking (Yvonne Smith, Roaster at Rock City Coffee) to the history of women in Champagne (Jane Barnes, wine pro and partner on the Schooner, Stephen Taber).

(Sculptures by Jacques Vesery)
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While the presenters are both oral and visual storytellers, their styles swing from scripted to off the cuff.  Peter Digirolamo, soapmaker at Trillum Soaps, is cheeky as he flips leaf-shaped notecards downstage à la David Letterman after reading winter-related haikus from each one, while colorful slides of almost-pretty-enough-to-eat soap blocks charm us.  Elizabeth Greenberg, Director of Education at the highly regarded Maine Media College in Rockport, waxes poetic about memory and nostalgia while her ephemeral photographs seduce us with their dreaminess and longing.

Abbie Read, Artist and Garden Designer

There’s more than a glimpse at rich and interesting lives behind the cross section of those gathered and my view of all the resources tapping away here is blown wide open.  I learn how Maine coastal and island communities are leaders in US alternative energy solutions from Suzanne Pude, Community Energy Director at the Island Institute as she shares documentary-style scenes of wind turbine installations on Vinalhaven Island in Penobscot Bay.

Vinalhaven

photo by Karen Oakes, Vinalhaven resident

The action is equally compelling on either side of me, perched on folding chairs.  To my left I meet a longtime local newspaper columnist, Georgeanne, who covers the Home and Garden beat, among other newsworthy topics and after inquiring about my earlier life in restaurants, fills me in on all the best tables from Belfast to Rockland.  On my right is Sandy, who I learn is a caterer and massage therapist, just another one of those cool, many-hat-wearing personalities tucked into towns with names like Friendship, Owl’s Head, and Port Clyde (formerly Herring Gut, not the most appealing moniker in Vacationland).  I take her number down right away – a good masseuse should always be on speed dial.  I’m beginning to think that vibrant isn’t just a word reserved for downtowns and springtime – because smack dab in the middle of what might seem like nowhere I find a hotbed of creativity, vitality and homespun community, with an open bar and no posturing.

Like flipping through a guidebook to the Renaissance Lifestyles of the Self-Reliant and Visionary, my first PechaKucha cheers me with its generosity and lack of pretentious agenda.  A roomful of strangers is just a group of friends I haven’t met yet, and I leave with a couple new ones already.  Who says there’s nothing going on in February?

Pecha Kucha Night

 

How An Acupuncturist Taught Me To Roast My Vegetables And Relax

Working in Japan was a pain in the neck, literally.  From my shoulder blades to the base of my brain, I had been in persistent agony for several months by the time I got desperate enough to call an acupuncturist.  My neck had petrified into one frozen, stony mess.  I was a stranger in a strange land on assignment in Tokyo back in 2007 and irrationally worried that if I didn’t get help, I might never be able to turn my head freely again.  Not that I necessarily wanted to, because everywhere I looked, all I saw loomed cold, lonesome and aloof.

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I missed my old restaurant job.  I missed understanding snippets of conversation on the train.  I even missed the F train – you know it’s bad when you ride the world’s cleanest, most efficient metro system and you long for the Jamaica-to-Coney Island local.  More than anything, though, I missed the flexibility that carried me through past adventures around the globe.  Where did it go?  What had happened to me? I was tight in the grip of physical and mental paralysis.  I finally called an English-speaking doctor and booked an appointment.  Must. Have. Relief. Now.

Have I mention my trypanophobia?  Come near me with a needle and I have a meltdown. I have actually skipped college matriculation just to avoid the required MMR inoculation and would almost rather get my teeth drilled sans Novocaine.  I’ll pretty much do anything to avoid the dreaded syringe.  Here I am then, lying on an acupuncturist’s table in a foreign country with a man in a white lab coat sticking needles in my neck and down my spine, trying to convince me there’s really nothing to be afraid of.  That’s how bad my neck felt.  Pain is relative, I tell myself, but I surrender as best I can to 2,200 years of Eastern orthodoxy and hope I don’t hyperventilate or start weeping uncontrollably, although that’s probably just what I need to do – breathing and crying can be great relief in times of debilitation, but I’m unable to unclench my body or my mind.

“OK, now just lie here while your body adjusts,” the doctor says, as his hands move skillfully down the back of me in a calm, healing manner.  His touch is soothing.  “Your feet are really cold,” he remarks, as he inserts a few more needles along my legs.

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“They’ve been cold lately,” I reply.

“Do you eat a lot of salad?” he asks.

“Yeah, I guess so,” I answer, slightly irritated that he’s focused on the temperature of my feet when clearly it’s my neck that needs his full attention.  I’m suffering;  who cares about my feet?  Make my neck feel better!

“You should cook your vegetables,” he advises.  “Don’t eat them raw.  You need warmth in your food, then your feet won’t be so cold.”

I resisted him; all I could think was that I liked salad.  It’s healthy, quick and easy to prepare and besides, cooking had really not been my forte anyway.  I preferred going out to eat and ordering a garde manger-composed leafy pile of raw vegetables with some fancy vinaigrette.  Or did I?  Was I just on a road that was a little too well-traveled for a contrarian like me?  Perhaps it was time for things in my life to change.  Hey, even my doctor was telling me I had cold feet.

The simple and obvious have often eluded me.  Could it be as easy as that?  Warm begets warm.  I soon came to consider his gentle demeanor and the possible wisdom in his words.  For the rest of my time in Tokyo, I sautéed up lots of greens and experimented with making vegetable miso soups.  I stopped ordering salads when I ate out, even if they sounded nutritious and gourmet.  I considered the radical notion of change and questioned the prudence of stamina.  As I began to relax into cooking, the chill in my feet lessened and the pleasures of the kitchen dawned. Gradually I gained movement in my neck and loosened up other restricted places in my life.

farmer's market Maine organic vegetablesI carried this lesson home with me and now, four years later, I love cooking.  I’ve found warmth in the kitchen and in my life.  I’m roasting  sheetpans of beets, sweet potatoes, and turnips.  I’m simmering cabbage and chard in soups and sauteing kale and garlic with local Maine shrimp and scallops.  As my upper body has slowly recovered from tension and tightness, I have also started to recover from twenty-five years in the restaurant business and its accompanying foodie mentality, which from a certain stance can both be seen as rigid and competitive.  The constant pursuit of the highest rating, the latest dish, the most perfect execution can sap the playful and judicious, leaving us in less than good health.

I don’t reject it all, however.  I do embrace eating seasonal and local, I support healthy school lunches and food security campaigns.  I enjoy the widespread availability of organic produce and all the attention and respect serving and cooking professionally get these days.  The world is a healthier place as the general public becomes more fluent on farm-to-table restaurants, the impact of governmental subsidies for corn and soy, and the environmental consequences of Monsanto-like genetic manipulations.

I’m just not as religious and precious about it anymore.  I’m looser in my approach, less driven and uptight.  This top chef, that obscure ingredient, dissecting what’s on my molecularly gastronomic plate – I leave that for the next generation.  All I really want to do now is breathe, relax, and cook up some beans and greens that warm me from head to feet when it’s cold outside.  I want to break bread that I baked this morning with people I love and turn to them with soft suppleness and toast to our good health.

The Royal Flush

Design reigns supreme in Japan, and luxury design is as commonplace there as the mediocre is here in the States.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in a Japanese restaurant.  However, it’s not the interior architecture or the food styling to which I refer.  It’s the bathroom.

When I was opening Union Square Tokyo in Japan a few years back, I was fascinated by bathroom culture and design.  Our store didn’t have its own restroom, rather it was a shared commodity, with an anteroom and four stalls.  Sounds familiar, right?  But once I stepped into a stall, it was as if I ventured into the cockpit of a jet airliner:  all these buttons and levers and, of course, the unfamiliar Kanji characters (not, to me) explaining it all.  At least I thought I knew the basics:  sit down and let nature take its course.  But wait!  The  sensor alerts a mechanism to rotate the plastic liner on the seat before I sit down, which is slightly startling, and then once I do… Oh!  The seat’s warm.  You know that gross feeling you get when you sit on a public toilet, and it’s been warmed by the last person?  Your backside has just been IM’ed by the bare bum of a stranger.  Yuck.

That wasn’t the case, however – no one had been inside before I entered.  Then I keyed in on the display panel… who knew there were so many variations to relieve yourself?  I pushed several of the buttons, just to see what happened.  There were sound  options.  Odor options.  Temperature options.  To distract fellow stall-dwellers from any offending sounds or smells, I could make fake flushing sounds, at different volume levels (trickle, whoosh and Niagara Falls), and pick three degrees of deodorizer to scent the room.  The seat could be heated on a scale from room temperature up to ski-slope thaw.  And although I could practically bathe in the basin,  I was never bold enough to explore all the cleansing options.  I feared walking back into work with telltale signs of toilet water geysers gone mad.

Recently, I was reminded of my Japanese powder room explorations during my last visit to New York.  I was deciding whether to go high-end or low-end for lunch – a Shake Shack burger or the healthier sushi option.  The Upper West Side fast food line out the door swayed me –  to Gari – and I figured enough time had passed since my last raw fish dining mishap (laugh at my Empty Cup story).  Seated right away, I  decide to treat myself and order the omakase (chef’s choice) and a small carafe of junmai daiginjo sake.  Then, I ask for the ladies’ room.

In here I am instantly transported back, and this time I can actually read what each button is for.  As I lock the door behind me, I turn while the lid  rises automatically.  This is what’s so great about Nippon hygiene:  the seamless choreography of sanitation.  The lid self-rises, I can warm my chilled bum, gently shower my nether regions  – all with ease and discretion.  Of course, this is the scaled back US version and I feel slightly gypped.  I want the full, miso-soup-to-gingko-nut Tokyo experience, but I’ll either have to sell my car for airfare or settle for installing one of these modern contraptions in my own house someday, along with a Japanese soaking tub.

In the meantime,  you can vicariously experience the sheer bliss of bathing in Japan as I’ll soon share my hot springs in Hakone escapade.  The Japanese really know how to treat the naked body.

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