Friday, July 25, 2014

The very first step to the road of Ikebana / Lisa Kawai

Hi Baum-kuchen friends!  I hope you're enjoying a beautiful month of June wherever you are in the world.  I'm writing to you from Tokyo, Japan, where the wild hydrangeas are in full bloom at every corner of the street here (making a "not-so-great-rainy-season" not too bad).  And once again, I am happy to be able to take part in contributing to the lovely newsletter of Baum-kuchen this month!

- Lisa

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

Coincidently, we have exactly same saying in Japanese that reads:


I always wonder how some of the quotes transcend in same phrase & context through different languages. Did these originate in one country and got translated while being spread? Or are these truths so universal that they simultaneously grew in each culture and ended up in identical sayings across different places of the world…? Well, this quote might be one of those. Back to the Japanese translation, it is almost as is word for word the English version, except, where the word "journey" is used in English, a character "道" which means "course / road / way" is used in Japanese.  So in Japanese it reads:

A course of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Interestingly, this character of "course / road / way", "道” is also used to express many forms of traditional art in Japan like Sado (Japanese Tea Ceremony), Shodo (Japanese calligraphy) and Judo (a Japanese form of martial arts). It means "A way to become master of the area (tea, calligraphy, judo etc) both technically and spiritually". Another one of these Japanese arts is Kado or more commonly known as Ikebana (Japanese Flower arrangement), which I would like to share my story with you today: My very first step of a thousand miles in pursuing Japanese flower arrangement.

I have been practicing flower arrangement over years - to be specific, western style arrangement. I always appreciate fresh flowers and greens in season in the form of bouquets, wreaths, all kinds of arrangements, or simply style them in a humble jar, glass, or whatever comes handy to treasure them at home. Sometimes sharing them as a gift for occasions with a special someone makes me happy. Especially living in Japan, we are spoiled with 4 distinctively different seasonalities during the year. I celebrate New Year's with red Nandina, Cherry blossoms in Spring and Roses in early Summer... fresh flower pieces always bring a breath of nature into the home and sense of time passing by in our everyday life, reminding me that nothing stays the same and everything is in change - so be present in the beautiful moment here and now.
Soaking myself into the world of flowers, my passion grew deeper over time. Also, my experience of living together with my mother-in-law for a few years who embraces her Ikebana practice in spirit and in her everyday living inspired me. She is very traditionally Japanese and would always have a welcoming Ikebana flower piece at the entrance, reflecting the essence of the outside air either as a climate or spirit of a Japanese holiday. A simple gesture for welcoming certain guests is also expressed in Ikebana work. Just one piece of a tiny bud from the garden can be designed in a way to create art that is to be placed on a dining table in minimalistic Ikebana form.
As I became further serious about exploring my passion for flowers, I realized a simple thought: Why not learn my own culture of flowers which I already get inspired in spirit and gestures... and its aesthetics that are deeply rooted into a way of life and admiration of the nature of Japan? Its 500+ years of history intrigued me even more. And then the last push to pursue this field came from the Kagoshima trip I took with Wakako + family where I experienced how amazingly people lived in perfect harmony with the rich nature around them… I was determined and ready to take my first step in action :)

I always wanted to take a class from this mastery Ikebana teacher in Harajuku, Toru Watarai from Tumbler & FLOWERS. Unlike classes and teachers that are strictly loyal to traditional & historical ways of Ikebana practice (which sometimes feels little bit outdated), he uniquely combines traditional Ikebana forms and floral materials to suit today's lifestyle, while sustaining the very core of its values and spirits. He introduced to me a whole new approach to flower arrangement compared to what I had known. It was almost completely opposite to the western style that I thought I had become pretty comfortable with. It was purely an eye opening experience...  Or rather, jaw dropping! There were the technical aspect of styles of the work itself of course, but most significantly the thoughts behind and interpretation of beauty and balance that took shape in certain way of art - spirit and values that had been passed over hundreds of years distilled into laws, procedures, and forms in creating Ikebana art. Here are some inspiration from my class I would love to share with you.

First of all, for the size of the work about 50cm high x 10cm width, guess how many flowers will be used to compose a piece? In western style for reference I would say about 20 - 30 floral / green materials at minimum. So I was shocked, also lost to first find out I only had 5 pieces of flowers to complete the work of this dimension! Styling a space of that scale with ONLY FIVE... how??
My teacher carried on. As a starter, learning how to use each of the 5 pieces, I was taught to start with 2 flowers. One hero flower to define the hight plus another for the depth as a frame. Use remaining 3 to complete the work. I was little bit relieved I could use trimmed leaves too.  
In doing so I was naturally exposed to a fundamental difference with western flower arrangement - you do not fill space, but create space. That is with 5 points of focus and using relationships created by each other in the design. Usually western arrangement or bouquet becomes more gorgeous correlating with the number of flowers used, but in Ikebana this approach doesn't work. 5 flowers - that's it. The rest of the "ingredients" are the space created around, the rhythm, and interactions of what's present etc. that make up the design. Something there but not necessary visible. It came to mind the contrast of western and Japanese beauty comparing the garden of Versaille Palace of Paris and Zen Stone Garden of Kyoto. It is as if similar kind of difference is being applied to 2 different ways of styling flowers, uniquely distinguished approaches of beauty and maybe at nature. Witnessing wabi-sabi aesthetic alive and present in Japanese art of flowers grasped my interest.

And here is my teacher :)  In the class, after students put together their own piece, he comes around, critiques, and shows us his take which is shockingly different from the original one we struggled to make (before & after images to come in the last part)... So here is him fixing my composition.  
For this basic shape, there is a law that defines the hight (of the flower that stands perpendicular) and length & angle of the depth (for the flower bending forward) defining radius of the work which has a certain proportion to the size of the vase. So the design is defined by the size and shape of the vase you are using and not by your taste - it takes math and formula. These first two hero flowers function as the frame of the work and for placing the remaining 3 pieces - you're left to arrange as you wish.
When I first tried to apply the law myself, I asked if we absolutely had to follow the math in any circumstances and if there was any flexibility allowed. He answered, "You can try, but it's not going to be easy because the defined length & angle of balance is one form of beauty that was derived from thousands and millions of tries and errors over 500 years of history by the Ikebana people who practiced before you. Over time it is being passed down in the form of a formula which is, ultimately, the boiled down aesthetic from Ikebana perspective we are lucky to use." He suggested to try first using the law until it sank down in me, and I would know what to keep and where to improvise. I thought that was very inspiring way of looking at laws and formulas, the very best practices passed down from hundreds of years in a nutshell from like-minded and masters of our ancestors traveled through time.  

Among all discoveries in Ikebana, what hit me the most, is the procedure to go through in front of the vase and 5 pieces of flowers when you start composing the work. "Three important steps", he told me. First, is OBSERVATION.  Closely observe each piece of flower. Take one in your hand. Where do you like the best about it? The stem, the petals missing, or certain colors in certain place...? Find where you find most appealing and see what angle would make that point look most attractive. 

Slightest details matter. A flower in these four images are one same flower but seen from different angles... Do I like it dead front, little tilted upward, or short needles in the back of the face, or maybe not the flower itself but the curve of the neck? And why? Carefully take a close look, pay really close attention, examine, have an intention where to feature.  

After you find where to focus, now use IMAGINATION. Imagine the environment where that flower in my hand had been growing, and try seeing how it was living when it had its roots on the ground. Was it in the mountain, by the river? Or on the sand, which way was the sunlight coming from?  At which direction and angle was it facing when alive? There are many hints in the flower, the direction of the stem growing, the color, texture of various parts where leaves and buds are, if I really listen and carefully, see.
With these two points in mind, cut, then place the flower in a way that looks most attractive from your eyes, and natural to its organic environment, lively to kenzan. 
It was a process of reflecting myself and what my focuses were. What I see and don't see. What part speaks to me the most, why, how can I make best out of this life away from its home...and make CONSCIOUS DECISION to make one stroke down to kenzan extracting the best out of its life. It is one of the most focused and meditating process I found. It focuses eyes to closely observe each and little detail, be in the moment which otherwise I would pass by. Nurture the vision to see what's not visible but that breathes beneath. Imagination to create interaction and relationships among these pieces of flowers as if I'm creating my world. And how subtle differences impact overall harmony... Hard to believe it took full one hour to go through this process to complete one piece of work, using just 5 pieces of flowers.
And here is how two different approaches looked with exact same materials + vase used - between my very first newbie try (on the left) and my teacher's (on the right). Do you see how obviously they differ...?  Although it is hard to capture the whole picture since the actual pieces are three dimensional, but it's there. One is so much lively than the other while also accomplishing to present character of each piece, so balanced out. The other...I stop describing. Also it took me 1hr to do this and less than 10 min for my teacher! It's really harder than it looks. I gave my second shot after seeing my teacher's arrangement but I couldn't replicate it at all!
These are only a few of ever awakening moments of my learnings in starting the journey of Ikebana. Whole experience was just so new from flower arrangement approach I had familiarized myself with over the years, especially, I was swept away by perception of nature and angles of the way in creating beauty - very zen, giving respect to each life of its form. For western flower arrangement, it feels like we use flowers as pieces of materials to create intended design of geometric shapes by human, i.e. round bouquet, triangular table arrangement, circle wreaths in circle etc. 

Whereas in Ikebana, it's important to make them look as they exist in nature. You start from one piece of flower, find most distinctive, beautiful, or your one most favorite part in it, and present them in an angle, spot, length etc that best shows that unique form of life. And next one with the same procedure but adding the perspective how it best interacts with other individuals in the space who are also proud of their one and best charm of their own...that no same piece exists as long as they are living creatures. Same speaks for the relationships created among each other and ultimately all put together results into one harmony of sole existence.  
Doesn't it sound like we are talking about nature including us humans, and our relationships beyond discussing flowers?  
It was only my very first step down the road of Ikebana and already, I'm finding so many inspiring realizations that is making me look at the world in fresh angles. Philosophies still present that synch with unique Japanese way of looking at nature as well as appreciating ever changing lives as nothing is eternal, made into practice of flower art is truly mesmerizing to me.
It is for sure only the beginning of a beautiful journey of mastery worth exploring. I can't wait to see what sceneries await along the way. Hope to share more stories with you again sometime in near future :)
PS.  Classes at Tumbler & FLOWERS are open for trial / one-off lessons with my teacher anytime.  If you are interested I would love to recommend this amazing experience when you have a chance to visit Tokyo!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step / Angie Park

Hello! I am excited to be part of Baum-Kuchen’s ongoing story. Especially during the summer when our thoughts are ripe with planning trips, getting away, relaxing, and having adventures.  Today, I’d like to share a story of my trip to Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago, or perhaps, more appropriately, a journey.

To prepare for this post, I thought a lot about what makes a journey so different from a trip. The 'Internet' tells me that a journey is having a greater sense of the unknown. A journey is an adventure. A journey is a long timeframe. A journey implies difficulty or unpleasantness.  Indeed, it may be all these things, but I think, the crux of a journey, is transformation. Not the kind of transformation that alters a fleeting mood, but a transformation that moves your inner gut and fiercely changes the way you see things.  I am reminded of the wonderful Max in Where the Wild Things Are, the anthropomorphized Buck from Call of the Wild, Pi Patel adrift in the Pacific Ocean in Life of Pi and also the old mythical Beowolf and Odysseus whose epic journeys yielded a window into a brand new world.

I liken that many journeys, like good stories, have a narrative structure.  There’s an introduction, a rising action, a climax and a resolution. Hope you enjoy the story of my walk.


The Camino de Santiago (or, the Way of St. James) are pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela where apostle St. James is rumored to be buried. Camino Frances, one of the main routes is a 500-mile, 30-40 day pilgrimage that starts just over the border of Spain in St. Jean Pied de Port, crossing northern Spain and ending at the Santiago de Compostela.

Pilgrims have been walking the route since the 11th-12th century, and considered one of the most important pilgrimages during the medieval times. In the past, the pilgrimage served as a religious phenomenon, but today, many walk the Camino for different reasons (religious and non-religious). In Spain, "El Camino de Santiago" is also used to reference the Milky Way. According to legend, the "Milky Way was formed from the dust raised by traveling pilgrims. Compostela itself means 'field of stars.'

Lightly trace the Camino route with your fingertips, and it will brush against the Pyrenees, a steep rolling expanse dribbled with wild horses and sheep—a Hemingway dream...

Through the mountainous vast of Navarra...

Into La Rioja, the wine region full of thick vineyards...

Castilla y Leon and its endless horizon...

Lastly, into the wet luscious regions of Galicia— a place of myths and folklore.

Many pilgrims prepare months and years to walk the camino. When I abruptly decided to walk the Camino de Santiago (during a particularly rough patch of time for me in New York), I had a time frame of two weeks before flying out. It is an understatement that I was physically ill-prepared but sometimes, it’s good to follow that pull in your heart. It’s good to take the plunge despite the fear—the first step on a journey of a thousand miles.

Perhaps preparing is half the battle. I spent the first week madly scouring forums and sites to put together a meticulous packing list of things I’ve never heard of and the second week furiously shopping in stores I’ve never set a foot in. I set aside many things to reduce the pack weight. In the weeks to come, I would shed more things (along with many other pilgrims) on the road, and begin to grasp the value of simplicity. In extremities, it becomes more clear that you don't need much to be happy. An adage as old and true as time.

It took a long plane ride and multiple train transfers to get to the city of St. Jean Pied de Port, a small  beautiful town in the south of France. The pilgrim offices are located there, where you receive your pilgrim’s passport (a document that is used to trace your progress along the route) which is required to stay in albergues (more on this later) and collect stamps along the route.

The first day of walking is considered the most difficult, as you tackle the grand Pyrenees. It is tough, steep and unrelenting. But my memory of its immensity, its romance and its breathtaking view prevails above it all. Many people I met on the first day would become a permanent presence on the road to Santiago, and a gracious friend after a long day— people I grew to love quickly and boundlessly.

Often you are reminded of all the other pilgrims that have walked the same path centuries and centuries ago. Once upon a time, when there were kings, queens, conquests and the fierce belief in the higher being. Those who suffered and experienced great joy, just like you. There is a power to retracing footsteps that transports us into the past and connects you to others. These roads have lives and they are witness to things.

A constant experience we had, was seeing a remote village from a distance, approaching the village, walking through the entire village, and then finally looking back at the village— a "future, present, past" scenario captured over and over again. It is a road metaphor that is hard to forget. My memories are mostly damp with the eager anticipation of walking towards a new village and the bittersweetness I felt looking over my shoulders at the disappearing edges— more rare, are the memories walking through them. I think about this scenario often, and am reminded constantly that I should spend less time looking towards the far future, and less time looking back, but more time in the present— appreciating it and living it.

Early on, thoughts are littered by the approaching destination, the circumstances that brought you on the road, the food, the want for rich showers, and the pain. I spent a lot of time thinking about pain, because walking wasn't easy for me. I was obsessed with the tightness of my shoelaces, the dryness of my socks, the wailing knees, and the moistness of the vaseline that I slathered onto my feet each morning. I woke up early every morning to go through an extensive foot ritual (my favorite store in Spain, to this day, is the Farmacia). For me, pain was an important part of the journey. It reminds me of something Jaime, a fellow pilgrim, said—"pain is inevitable, misery is optional, but joy and healing are available." This is true—on the road and off the road. 

Slowly and overtime, after exhausting thoughts and conversations, walking the long distances become meditative. There is more presence and mindfulness in each step that you take. You begin to find your own rhythm and your own way. Sometimes you have to let people walk ahead of you, sometimes you have to walk ahead of them—but the best peace comes when walking at your own pace (on the road and off the road). It is true, that our emotional, physical and mental states are unequivocally linked in a deeply complex way—and that experience is unique and personal to each person.

Many pilgrims ebb and flow beside you as you walk. In a way, they are the Camino and what makes the experience tremendous. You are bounded together by the road with all its joys and sufferings. They are as colorful as the rainbow, kind as saints, and come from all over the world—each with an unique reason for being on the road. There are pilgrims who survive off donations, pilgrims who walk without shoes, pilgrims who hitch-hiked across multiple countries to get to the path, and some pilgrims who have been walking from the doorsteps of their home in Holland. They are vagabonds, business owners, students, psychics, retirees, professors, priests, etc. They are incredible people.

They are also the ones who cared for you at the end of a long rough day, made you laugh till you cried tears, boiled eggs for you in the morning, gave you massages and treats along the road, and selflessly provided you with so much affection. The pilgrim community is a remarkable experience— the love and respect felt amongst the Camino family is indescribable and something I deeply cherish.

Each evening, the day would end at an albergue, a pilgrim hostel along the Camino usually run by hospitaleros, monks, private owners, or even the local parish. I stayed in albergues that housed hundreds of pilgrims in dormitory-style bunks, but have also slept on the old wooden floors of rooms that accommodated just five. Here, we cook together, drink wine, rest our feet and enjoy each others company.

One of my favorite experiences was at an albergue in the magical city of Granon. On the road, I heard word that it was a place that shouldn't be missed and I remember pushing hard for several more miles to get there.  Indeed, it was everything and more. This donation-based albergue was located in the attic and tower of the local Romanesque church and run by Parish volunteers. The evening was a collection of incredible moments—communal dinners, blessings at mass and a evening candle vigil.

If there is no inner motivation to walk the Camino, let the inner motive be your stomach. Come for the food and the rich history. On the road,  I ate an ungodly amount of tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelette), pan (bread) and drank a cortado every break I could get— but you also get to experience the variety of foods originating from the different regions the path runs through— each region with its speciality and ingredients that emerged from their unique climate and soil. You get to taste the chorizo and the terrific trucha (trouts) in Navarra, cocidos (meat, bean, vegetable stew), and sopa de ajo (Castillian garlic soup) in Castilla y Leon, caldo gallego (Galician Stew) and empanada and pulpo (octopus) in Galicia. Food has always been linked to culture and history. It is a spectacular and special experience to eat from the land you walk on for an entire month—you are connected to the road in this way. 

I arrived into Santiago on a Sunday afternoon after 32 days of walking. Arriving in front of the cathedral is a blender of emotions—unbelievable happiness, relief, disbelief, gratitude, and also deep sadness. We spent a lot of time celebrating, and thinking back on the long road that brought us there. 

Legend has it that the body of Apostle James was brought to Galicia and the cathedral was built over the spot where his remains were found. Every day at noon, there is a service for the pilgrims inside the cathedral. If you're lucky, you get to experience the "cleansing" from the botafumeiro, a incense burner (weighing 116 pounds) that was used as a purifying element for the tired and unwashed pilgrims back centuries ago. It was also believed that the smoke from the incense had a prophylactic effect during the time of plague and epidemics (Video example of botafumeiro).  It is an indescribable feeling to stand inside the cathedral with a crowd of pilgrims—and to think about all those who have entered the cathedral after a long long journey for thousands of years.

At the end of the Camino, Finisterre is the final destination for many pilgrims after reaching Santiago. Some walk (90 km, 3 days), but I decided to take a car for a beautiful ride along the coast with a few friends I made along the road. "Finisterre" derives from the Latin name Finisterrae, which literally means "Land's End." Many people believed that this was the edge of the world, where the sun died and the worlds of the dead and living became closer.

As tradition, we went to burn our boots, clothing, etc. as a closure to our journey and to give thanks to this long, strange, difficult and beautiful experience.

On the Camino, one of the things that you hear a lot is "don't stop walking"— it's sort of a mantra on the road. It sounds obvious, but it is profound— to continue, to move forward, to take the first step. There are many reasons to stop, but you don't.  The thing about a "journey" and a "story," is that it needs action to move the plot forward (perhaps just one step). It isn't about the nouns and adjectives, but the verbs that make it exciting and pushes the storyline on further. Unlike the stories of Beowolf, Max, Pi Patel and Buck, we don't know how our own stories will end. For me, this is what makes it so compelling— to be able to shift and change and do whatever we can to make our journey an exciting one, so that when you reach the Finisterrae of your life, you can say, that was a good run and a great journey. 

A Buen Camino!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Happy Sunday!

Frido and I had a few hours this afternoon to spend some grown-up time in LA downtown. We wondered around, had cocktails at ACE hotel, hang out at Angel City Brewery and took some pictures along the way. Here are some of my favorites;)

I hope you had a lovely weekend!

Little changes... making BK better everyday.

We had a very productive week after Satchi and I came back from Michigan last weekend. I always get little bit overwhelmed by the rush of reality post travel... Does it happen to you?

On Monday I was preparing packages to fulfill for customers... and I must have been little bit disoriented from my travel. I made a classic mistake and placed an wrong item in one of my customer's envelope. (So sorry Eunice!!!) I found out that I made the mistake when my customer reached out to me on Wednesday with a picture of the item she received and "what should we do" question.

I shipped a new package with a correct item as soon as possible and shared a sincere apology with her. I am hoping that she would have her item in her hands... by now.

The mistake and feeling so terrible made me question "what can Baum-kuchen do to make less mistakes like this?". Especially now that we have both me and Nerine working behind the scene to prepare the packages... and I came across a great idea when I was reading SWITCH, which is all about making small and big changes.

One of the case studies they mentioned was to "create a checklist" to prevent avoidable simple mistakes... So simple... but so true. A checklist can bring awareness to our small actions. So I created a quick prototype of an invoice incorporating a set of checklists. It's a small change but I am hoping that a continuous changes and improvements like this will make Baum-kuchen a better place to interact for customers... and for us to work in.


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