Thursday, May 30, 2013

Adventures in book writing!

I am a polymath and that means I have many talents and many interests - but if someone told me I had to specialise, that my choice was an early death or a long life doing one single thing - I would write. Always, always, always. I would never touch a paintbrush again. I would refrain from doodling. I would cease any sculpture.

But I would create with the written word and that in itself would be enough. 

So I have written a few books and I have, for the past year and a half, focused on getting one of them ready for publication. It's been edited, reviewed, and critiqued. It's been chopped, reworked, and tweaked. It's been laid out, redesigned, and redesigned again.

And this week I finished the final touches to the cover - the last bit of the entire project.

So it's ready. 

Now the question is, when do I set it free? 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Japan blog - A guide

I am now back from a 15 day journey that took me all over Japan. I have seen some amazing things, found oodles of inspiration and learned a lot. Knowing where to begin to summarise the experience is nearly impossible. There were definitely tough times but the entire trip was incredible and I love the country so much I know that I'll go back one day - even if it's just to spent a week in Tokyo.

There were some really important things I learned though, which may be of help to future travellers, so I thought I'd post them here.

Artwork in the Origami Museum shop at Narita Airport
1. Learn some Japanese - despite what I was told I actually found it very difficult to find people who spoke enough English that we could communicate effectively. It's an amazingly complex language and totally worth picking up some key phrases because it will make your life easier. Especially when you leave the major cities.

2. Language apps are your friend! - I thoroughly recommend the LearnJapanese language app but do some research and find one that works for you. They're great because you have access to common phrases that will help you a lot - especially when you're trying to get around or find food.

3. Tokyo isn't actually that crowded - I told people I didn't think the crowds of Tokyo would be that off-putting considering that I live and work in London. I've seen the videos of people being shoved onto trains and I know that would be a rush hour thing. But I was on the train from 7:00am in Tokyo and walking the streets in some of the busiest areas and still found it far less crowded than London. In fact, it almost seemed like people started work at 11:00 or so and even then, at 5:00 or 6:00 in the evening the trains and roads just weren't that busy.

Mind you, Tokyo has wider streets and the culture of the people seems to have a great effect. Arriving back in London I noticed how many people 'muscle' their way in on the roads, cutting people off and overtaking (or undertaking!) without signalling. Something that I haven't seen done for the last two weeks because the Japanese are so damn courteous.

4. Beware Tatami mats and sleeper trains - The Japanese are totally content to sleep on a thin reed mat on the floor. They don't even need a pillow. They seem to be able to sleep almost anywhere.

Be warned! If you're going to travel Japan on the cheap and you need more than carpet or a tatami mat to sleep on, bring an air mattress. Especially if you're taking a sleeper train for free using the JR pass. 12 hours on carpet is not pleasant if you're bony or sleep on your side or have any injuries or arthritis or difficulty sleeping in general.

5. The Japanese are super duper lovely - even if they can't understand you they will go out of their way to help you. They are extremely courteous and I think it's going to take me a few weeks to stop bobbing my head and smiling in acknowledgement of any act of generosity. I may also take a bit to stop saying 'Arigato' as 'thank you'.

I'm getting back into the swing of things and my blog will be resuming it's two entries a week. I've got so much to work with after this trip so do watch this space! Not to mention the fact that the final edit of my book is done so 'Wise at Any Age' is well and truly on its way to publication!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Japan - Beautiful Design

I’m on a very tight budget while in Japan - which is challenging because there are some amazing and wondrous things I’d like to bring back with me. For example, I went into a department store in Kyoto where they had thousands upon thousands of cases for iPhones. Some of them were made to look like Japanese wood cut art, others like folded paper envelopes, and others were clear with little characters that ‘interact’ with the apple on the back - like a worm taking a bite or the apple acting as the eye for some silly cartoon character. 

Then there are the shops full of Tenugui, a traditional Japanese cloth dating back to the 8th century. 

The designs are extremely diverse. Some of unbelievably elegant whilst others are bold and bright. 

And the pottery! I’ve been snapping shots of the pottery every chance I get. Stunning bowls, cups and plates covered in cherry blossoms, bold coi or intricate dragons. 

Needless to say, I’m getting flooded with ideas. So many patterns I can design and play with. So many different materials they can be applied to. So many different functions. 

I will be expanding on the few experimental designs I’ve already done for my shop. I’m definitely letting Japanese art influence my work from here on in. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Japan - Miyajima

After the intensity of Hiroshima it was helpful to see something as serene and beautiful as the Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima. Although ‘on’ Miyajima isn’t quite right as the shrine is built out in the ocean. 

Shintoism and Buddhism are the two major religions in Japan and shrines dot the country side and cities in abundance. But some, like the Itsukushima Shrine at Miyajima, are more breathtaking than others. 

The day we arrived at Miyajima began in Kyoto. There was a parade from the Imperial Palace where people in traditional dress marched through the centre of the city. The outfits and flowers were wonderful and it was stunning to see the old agains the backdrop of such a vibrant city. 

From there we went to Hiroshima and the peace park, which was an extremely emotional experience and one that has only reinforced the significance of the destruction war causes and the absolute waste that it is. 

Arriving in Miyajima to find that the view from the hotel looked out at the shrine was yet another moving experience. The tide was low so we caught the ferry across right away (For free thanks to the JR pass) and walked down to touch the barnacle covered arch. As in Nara, wild deer wandered the streets, coming up to people to see if they had treats. The rolling hills, the wildlife and the shops all reminded me of Banff, if Banff were by the sea and slightly tropical. 

But the shrine was nothing like anything I’ve ever seen in North America or Europe. A stunning monument jutting out of the sand, the sun setting behind it only adding to the serenity of the place. 

I think the thing I love the best about Japanese shrines is the simplicity of the design. Elegant lines with minimal adornment, just enough to make a statement without becoming garish. Like so many things in Japan, stated boldly and beautifully. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Japan - Hiroshima

Paper crane art in the Hiroshima Peace Park
I have a thousand paper cranes. My aunt made them for me over a period of two years, if I remember correctly, and gave them to me as a gift. They are probably the single most beautiful gift I’ve ever been given when you consider the time they took to make. They hang from multiple strands and at the moment they are tucked away in my parent’s house in Canada, although they hung in pride of place in my living room when I still lived there. 

The story of the thousand paper cranes is one I imagine most Canadian school children are familiar with. When we learned about World War II in elementary they told the true story of a girl with cancer and her thousand paper cranes as a way to soften the historic significance of the first atomic bomb to be used against humankind by humankind. 

Standing by the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima was a moving experience that I don’t think I can do justice to by writing about. The display of paper cranes and the memorial of a girl, standing with a folded crane in her hands, made me appreciate all the more the importance of remembering that we are all connected. The cranes were beautiful, as beautiful as my thousand. 
The A-Bomb Dome - the building directly beneath the
bomb when it detonated. 

I rang the peace bell and listened to it reverberate, hoping the intention behind my action was felt everywhere and that maybe we could learn to let go of ‘us and them’ and see how dualism only harms us. 
The Peace Bell

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Japan - Komokuten

Nara used to be the capital of Japan, before Kyoto and now, Tokyo. This was because the new emperor would pick where he wanted the capital to be each time.

As a capital Nara was made a hub of Buddhist temples, including the largest of these in which the 'Big Buddha' stands. The Buddha is indeed, very big, and for me it was quite an incredible experience. The architecture of the building was something to behold. The fine detail of the Buddha, given the scale, was quite impressive. My favourite bit was the fine detailed drawings on the metal petals of the lotus flower on which the Buddha sat.

On either side were two more massive sculptures, this time out of stone. Their fearsome faces indicated that they were deities or protectors of some sort - especially as they both appeared to be standing on top of slain dragons. But it was the one on the left, called Koumokuten, that really struck me. This guy, who was clearly a force to be reckoned with AKA Super badass, was holding a scroll in one hand and a brush in the other.

The pen is mightier than the sword. 

Upon arriving in Kyoto and gaining access to the interwebs once more I looked him up and have come to learn that he is one of four deities that protect the four realms of the Buddha. His name means 'wide eyed' or 'expansive vision' and he encourages aspirations for enlightenment. I think it's pretty nifty that this involves a pen and a scroll - very telling.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Japan Adaptation

I love visiting new countries because I learn best by doing and the experience of being immersed in a different culture allows my brain to sponge up ideas and information like nothing else. 

There are many similarities between the UK and Japan, specifically Tokyo and London, as they are both large cities with dense populations. But it’s the differences that have struck me. 

The first noticeable difference, besides the obvious, were the rules around the escalators. Both countries drive on the left and in London the rule is, 'Stand on the right, walk on the left', on all escalators everywhere - excluding the first few you encounter coming off a flight in Heathrow because tourists don’t know this rule. 

In Tokyo it’s stand on the left, walk on the right and this is indicated with little footprints painted onto the left side of the escalators. Interestingly enough, even in the tourist heavy areas, this rule is very well followed. I put this down to the obvious signage - covered in jolly and charming characters whose facial expressions and body language are impossible to mis construe, regardless of what language you speak. 

Priority seating signs on the train
These charming characters pepper signs for everything and I find myself taking photos of them in an almost obsessive way. Such as the signs for the ‘priority’ seats, where the pregnant woman really doesn’t look very comfortable given the ‘action’ lines protruding from her very round belly. 

There is also a very different etiquette for phone usage on trains. Quite simply, you don’t. It doesn’t matter if you have a signal, you refrain from talking on your phone. And you certainly don’t even switch it on if you’re near the priority seating. 

This was emphasised when my cousin took a call from her sister. We had boarded the train and she remained on the platform to finish the conversation. 

The respect and organisation of the culture is also seen in the queuing to board trains. I know England likes to think of themselves as the originators of the queue and lords of line ups, but they have nothing on the Japanese. They have stickers on all their train platforms which indicate which door will open where for different lengths of trains that come into a platform. People line up in a very orderly fashion and I think the idea of queue jumping would be entirely foreign to them. 

As it is I’m adapting well because the discipline is not cold or rigid but from a place of respect. People are friendly, polite, and extremely helpful. Talking to a stranger doesn’t elicit a scowl or questioning look but rather a beaming smile and friendly nodding. It is a courteous culture - so much so that it appears locking your bicycle up isn't done because the idea of nicking someone's bike is so unfathomable. 

I know I said as much in my last entry but I really do wish that I could speak Japanese - or at least enough to sort our directions and be able to read menus. As it is I've been very fortunate to be able to take this trip with my step-grandma, a native of the country and a brilliant translator and tour guide. 

Five storey Pagoda in Nara - my location for day 3

Sunday, May 12, 2013

First post from Japan!

I've finally found internet! 

Trees around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo
I had intended to be writing blog entries almost daily during my Japan adventure. Actually, I’ll clarify - I intended to be publishing blog entries almost daily. Since arriving in Japan I have actually written about four blog entires, including what will be a guest entry for the Work From Home Wisdom on adapting to work in another country. Well, it’s proven more difficult than I thought it would be.

Wifi is not nearly so widely available in Tokyo as you would think. Tokyo really does have a reputation for being at the cutting edge of technology so the fact that Wifi is seen as a bit of an anomaly locally took me by surprise. Of course my first two days in Japan have been spent in residence at small ‘seaside’ town called Torami. 

This remote and restful location has helped immensely with jet lag so that today, as I write this (hopefully) first proper blog entry to be published, I am feeling refreshed and even quite energised. 

My Bento box - everything was delicious
I am on a train - a bullet train - from Tokyo to Kyoto. It’s a bright, sunny day, the light glinting off of the incredible glazed tiles of the Japanese houses, rolling green mountains in the distance. Mt. Fuji will soon be on the horizon and I’m contentedly full from my Bento box. 

I’m quite in love with this country. I adore the food - but I would. I’m loving the architecture as well. And the people are wonderful. Extremely courteous and very willing to help. I’m also managing to pick up some Japanese, a point of which I am rather proud but also a bit frustrated. I wish I could be instantly fluent for this is a place I could see myself returning to again and again.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Up, up and away!

I've been in the thick of it this week, between trips to opposing end of the planet and all. So I don't have a blog for you today. Not a proper one like I usually publish on a Thursday, because I'm actually in an airport right now. And then I'm going to muck you about because for the next fifteen days I'm going to be exploring and discovering Japan and I'll no doubt find loads of inspiration for blog entries.

Watch this space. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Ten days in Canada. Ten days in London. Fifteen days in Japan.

I’ve been living in London for the past three years and four months. My original plan had been to come over on a two year visa and that was it - returning home at the end of it. As it’s turned out I now seem to have a home in London and I’m divided, very often, between these two worlds. 

Art in the Calgary Bird Sanctuary - one of my
favourite places on the planet. Just look at that sky. 
I miss Calgary immensely sometimes. I miss the space. I miss driving and listening to music. Despite having my UK driver’s license, this is not something I do often in the UK because A) there’s no point in driving in London and B) I find it slightly terrifying because no matter how often I drive, I cannot seem to get a feel for the size of the vehicle when I’m sat on the right hand side.

I miss the sun. I prefer -30 in Calgary on a sunny day over +5 in London on a grey day. I am a lizard and the sun keeps me going. Without it I turn into a bit of a zombie, getting twitchy and moody or outright angsty. 

I also miss the mountains. They’re breathtaking. Without fail, on every visit to Calgary, the first glimpse of the Rockies will bring tears to my eyes. These aren’t just craggy peaks in the distance - these are part of a skyline that says I’m home. They are absolutely gorgeous to see against a clear blue sky - a clear blue sky that can be experienced for days on end despite how cold Calgary can get. 

And then there’s my family, and friends whom I adore so much they are like family. People who feed my soul with conversation. 

It’s only been recently that I’ve started to form similar friendships in London - something I found extremely challenging about English culture - having spent enough time there to break through the stiff upper lip and start getting to really know people. 

But London is also my home because it’s where I have a house with my partner. We have three wonderful fur-children and my heart aches for them when I leave. I also love the energy of London. Where else can I see Dame Judi Dench, Dame  Helen Mirren, Sir Patrick Stewart and Kevin Spacey performing on stage? 

Daffodils in a London park - in March. 
And the food. I love food. I adore it. I love Michelan starred restaurants but I also love the fact that I can get an amazing woodland chicken in a local supermarket. The fact that fruit and vegetables are so inexpensive and the quality of the food is incredible. Scottish blackberries are the best I’ve ever tasted. Cheese from France or apples from the Netherlands. Fantastic organic things that don’t cost an arm and a leg and also don’t imprint the planet with a giant carbon footprint. 

And of course there’s the British Pounds. London is expensive, yes, but when you earn the currency it’s not so bad and then there’s the added advantage of being able to take holidays and know that your money is usually worth more everywhere you go. 

Which is why I can go to Japan for fifteen days just ten days after a visit to Calgary. Not because I have a lot of money - because I really don’t - but because my money goes further. 

But of course, a lot of it comes down to the choices I’ve made. I went to a party while I was in Calgary and one of the women I met said, “Your life is so cool” 

I was going to brush this off because I know how tight my finances are right now. I know how much I fret over every pound I spend and how thrifty my lifestyle is. Most people would be hard pressed to live on the budget I manage for myself. 

This is on my walk to my British Sign Language course.
Simple truth. 
But then I considered it and I realised something else. I may get stressed out about finances and I may not have what most people would consider ‘enough’ - but I’ve made up my mind about the life I’m going to live and I make sure that I’m doing it every day. 

If I were to die tomorrow that would be O.K. because I am content with my life. Because every day I wake up I am happy - even if I miss my family or I’m torn between two homes. Because I get to work a creative job and despite everything I’m not starving and I’m still able to see amazing places and do amazing things. 

I‘d much rather live on a tight budget and still travel than live on a tight budget and feel trapped by a job I don’t enjoy in just one place on this vast and wondrous planet. If something matters enough and is important enough, you will find a way. 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Self taught design

I'm off to Japan soon! I know everyone thinks this makes me a major jet-setter because I was in Canada just last week - actually technically this week - but actually I just had some air miles that were gonna expire and wedging a visit home at the end of April worked for a multitude of reasons: Surprising my best friend for her birthday, seeing my family for my birthday, stocking up on vitamin D because Calgary is the sunniest city in Canada, and getting another edit done on my manuscript so it's even closer to publication!

Anyhoo - Japan has been a trip in the planning for several months and one which I'm looking forward to not because it's a holiday but because it's going to be a whole new culture for me to explore. I'm a huge fan of Japanese art and design. Visiting a country is a fantastic way to get exposure to different ideas and styles and I'm looking forward to how it will influence my work.

For that reason I'm looking at this trip as a working holiday. I've got a lot of personal design projects to work on and I figure, with all the long train journeys, this is going to be the perfect chance for me to get stuck in on them. I'll get to work on my skills with 'Ideas' - the fabulous new app from Adobe that allows a designer to do vector sketches on a tablet.

I've been playing around with it a little bit already. It's super fun but quite a learning curve when I'm used to drawing directly on a paper or canvas surface. It's just adapting to the artificial environment it creates. I will never abandon sketching things by hand but it's nice to know I can create artwork directly on my iPad and then move that into Illustrator to refine.

P.S. I did a few designs for the TrollBeads people's choice contest and have just found out I'm a finalist! My design - Two Peas in a Pod - is up for voting and voting ends May 5th. So please help me out by popping over and voting for my bead!
Thank you!