Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Japanese Silk

There was really only one thing that I would have been heartbroken to leave Japan without and that was a silk made-in-Japan kimono. Before the trip my mom and I both did a little research on the best place to find them and we decided that I didn't actually want a kimono at all–what I wanted was a yukata. A kimono is a very formal, very expensive, very hard-to-put-on-by-yourself piece of clothing. But a yukata, a simple robe that is made in both cotton and silk, in indoor and outdoor versions, is something I knew I would use and love for years and years.

We read that the best place to find good quality silk yukata (when in Japan, always go for the silk) was in high-end department stores. So one evening I took a cab to Takashimaya just before closing time before meeting the rest of our group for a late dinner. The "kimono floor" where I was instructed to go was magical. Wooden and paper fans and exquisite hair clips and the most luscious fabric samples surrounded me as I stepped off the escalator.

I decided on an indoor yukata as opposed to an outdoor one, something intimate and lovely to slip into after a bath or wear on lazy Saturday mornings before getting dressed. I tried on short and long ones but think I knew the whole time that the long, almost floor-length ones were for me. The saleswoman helped me into pale pastels with dark brushstrokes and a cream-colored one that I thought might be it.

But then I put on an orange-red yukata, that color that is so Japanese, with the most gorgeous white and gold and blue flowers and cherry blossoms pattern. (The photos don't do it justice.) I looked in the mirror and knew. There was no other yukata for me. This was the one. It made me feel elegant and lovely and isn't that the point of a luxury robe, how it makes you feel? The beauty of buying a piece of clothing that's meant to be worn only around the house is that its purpose is purely to make you feel good and soft and pretty. (And maybe to make your husband think that too.)

Since I was alone this first time around I was excited to bring Val back with me a few days later because she wanted to bring a yukata home too. (Side note: I was so touched when, this second time on the kimono floor in Kyoto's Takashimaya, Brahms' Op. 118 No. 2–which I consider my signature piece–was playing overhead.) She decided on a knee-length yukata in a fresh mint shade that is to-die-for against her dark hair and light skin.

I had thought I'd save my yukata to wear only every so often but I've been slinking into it almost every night. The older I get the less I believe in "saving" our nicest things for special occasions, but instead using them and loving them in regular everyday life. As evening looms I get excited to put it on and lay in bed with a book and I'm not sure I own anything (aside from my wedding dress) that makes me feel more beautiful.

p.s. Val and I decided that kimono just sounds better than yukata so that's what we call our robes, even though we know it isn't really accurate. :)

Friday, June 19, 2015

Never Stop Noticing

Isn't it lovely when life overwhelms you with joy over the simplest things? The other day I was making a chickpea salad, a new-to-me food that I can't believe I haven't thought to make before because chickpeas and I are very close friends. I whirred up the chickpeas and olives and tomatoes and red onion and jalapeƱos and stirred in a squeeze of lime juice and olive oil and kosher salt and chopped basil from the porch and it was all so fragrant and heavenly.

As slices of sourdough bread toasted I ran into our bedroom to grab my book to read while I ate and the sight of our tidy bedroom, which I'd spent some time cleaning and organizing earlier that day, made me ridiculously glad. There are few things as satisfying as a clean bedroom.

Back to the kitchen I skipped with a smile to assemble the chickpea salad sandwich. My first bite, that combination of warm, crisp slightly sour bread, slathers of mayo, earthy garden lettuce and the incredible flavor of chickpeas mixed with herbs and onions and spice almost made me fall over. It was so. good.

We can find joy anywhere. In fresh sheets, in warm baths, in powerful thunderstorms, in that first sip of cold lemonade, in a hug, in a pretty bike spotted on the street, in a line from a poem. We just can't allow ourselves to stop noticing it.

Happy Friday, friends!

Monday, June 15, 2015

On Traveling With Friends

I think most people would agree that traveling with friends is risky. We went to Japan with another married couple and we joked on the trip that we'd either love each other even more or hate each other by the end of it!

But with these friends there was never any question in my mind which way it would go. If you are lucky enough to find friends who are as delightfully laid back, curious and interested, positive even in a crisis, fun-loving and goofy, un-picky about food and uncomplaining in general, and excited by life as these friends are then I can wholeheartedly recommend going on vacation with them. Seriously. We had the time of our lives, the four of us.

There are so many cool perks to traveling with friends and particularly another married couple. First of all it's just plain fun. Of course I love traveling with my husband and family but there was something about traveling with good friends that made us giddy. It felt extraordinary to be sharing these otherworldly experiences with each other! They also live in Charlottesville so we did plenty of getting together to plan and chat about the trip which amplified the excitement and anticipation.

It was also really wonderful to sometimes pair off for girls things while the guys paired off for guys things. One afternoon us girls went to an onsen where we soaked in hot baths in the nude, along with some other Japanese ladies, for three hours! It was an amazing, culturally beautiful experience and it was so nice to have a girlfriend to do it with. (I loved this recent, related post on this general subject.)

It was neat how we all settled into roles. We four worked so well together and had the right mix of personalities. I was the one who always had a water bottle to pass around. Jim figured out all the subway routes which I appreciated even more after I struck out on my own one day and had to navigate the complicated Tokyo subway system by myself. My husband was good with directions on the ground and keeping us all laughing. Val had the camera and enough enthusiasm to fill three people.

One day we completely miscalculated how long it would take to get to the airport and had to take a $200 cab ride so we didn't miss our flight to Kyoto. And then after our flight we sat on a train for 2 hours just to get to our hotel. It could have been a miserable day but it wasn't, not even a little bit. We made the most of it (in part by buying some wine and beer and sipping it on the train! not illegal in Japan!) as we traded stories and laughed about the super yucky rice ball flavor we picked up at 711.

I think it's safe to say we solidified our friendship with these two for life. We definitely want to travel with them again though we're unsure how we could possibly top Japan. As my sister-in-law recently wrote me in an email, sharing memories makes them live longer. Jim and Val, we think the world of you guys!


Monday, June 8, 2015

Inspired By Japan!

Hi, friends! I've been excited to share bits and pieces of our trip to Japan with you but it's hard to know where to begin. (I've also been fighting the jet lag demons ever since we got home. Ugh!) This trip has left my eyes wide open and my heart expanded and so much of me is inspired by what we saw, learned, witnessed, noticed, absorbed. Here are some of my favorites.

The natural respect
There is an amazing culture of respect in Japan that seems to permeate all relationships. Family relationships, friend to friend, shopkeeper to customer. Everybody bows hello, thank you, goodbye. Even two young friends parting ways in the subway after a night out will give a little bow to each other as they say goodnight. We found it to be so sweet and dignified. All of us loved this tradition.

The design
Oh, Japanese design. It's lovely. It's simple. It's infused into the most everyday facts of life. Everywhere we went I noticed this careful, thoughtful focus on beauty and aesthetics. Spaces were uncluttered, walls were white, little details never went by the wayside. In our hotel room in Kyoto the hair dryer was stored in a cream-colored linen bag with the word "DRYER" hand-stamped on the edge in inky block letters. The tiniest, most subtle thing. At our gate in the Osaka airport, there were rows and rows of kelly green seats with light-colored wooden frames and the notes of a piano trio murmured over the sound system. A garage door near our Airbnb in Tokyo was made of wood, not vinyl, and I never knew a garage door could be so gorgeous. These things are heart-swelling for someone like me. I'm so inspired by this intentional creation of loveliness, by the elevation of the mundane, by the attention to simple beauties.

The cleanliness and general treatment of public property
Japan is a clean place. On the streets, in public restrooms, in the backs of taxi cabs, in the subways. All clean! It was marvelous. We realized partway through the trip that this has less to do with fastidious janitors or a well-paid city cleaning staff and more to do with maintenance by regular people and a respect for what is shared. The tip-top bathrooms were obviously most noticeable to us. People don't trash public restrooms in Japan. If anything, they will leave a bathroom stall cleaner than it was when they walked in. Some bathrooms even had wall-mounted cleaning spray for the seat. Brilliant!

The onsen culture
This was a girls activity that my friend and I did together while the boys headed back to the hotel. An onsen is a Japanese spa where women and men go (separately, usually) to bathe. There were two hot indoor pools, one hot outdoor pool that was dyed red for some reason and one cold pool (which was a godsend). All done in the nude! This part took a little getting-used-to but I think we both found the atmosphere to be quite liberating. There's nothing showy about it and there's also nothing fearful. Body image does not have a place in the onsen. You are there to nourish your body, physically and spiritually, not to criticize it or flaunt it or feel ashamed of it. You soak, pamper, relax, treat. It's like a little thank-you to your body for working so hard. It was neat to get over our natural modesty for a moment and remember that bodies are just bodies. They're functional and biological and they're beautiful no matter what precisely they look like. The Japanese women barely gave us a glance and absolutely none of them (and many of them were quite a bit older than us) were self-conscious about walking around with nothing to hide behind. Really inspiring.

...and SO much more. I loved Japan. I adored it. I didn't want to leave and I definitely want to someday go back.

Of course, having the best travel buddies in the world didn't hurt. Post on that to come!
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