Saturday, December 17, 2011

Toyoko's pressed flowers

Toyoko’s hands are really beautiful.

Well weathered, and stretching out long and lean.

It is these hands that pick the flowers from her garden or from the pastures beyond, press them in, and make the flowers now brimming with a different air and look into colourful paper bookmarks.

This is Toyoko’s daily routine.

What I first encountered actually, were the paper bookmarks themselves.  After seeing them I knew I had to meet their creator, and that was how they led me to these hands.


I found those bookmarks at a village called Doshi, in the Minamitsuru district of the Yamanashi Prefecture. On rectangular coloured paper were pressed flowers of the season, their names written with a black pen on the side. And though the flowers were kept behind film sheets and the bookmarks were individually packed in plastic like common items to be sold, it was obvious to me that these have been delicately handmade with a loveliness that draws you right in.

There was good taste in both the placement of the flowers and the colours used. It was May. Violets and field horsetails were arranged in bouquets on a paper mount the colour of water, and on another black mount were cascading wild cherry blossoms in pale peach. They struck me as bold and perhaps too chic for something to be found in a train station with a single track running along a single street. What kind of personality would create something like this? Added to that, the flowy vertical handwriting was beautiful too.

When I first spoke to Toyoko Iketani*, it was over the phone, and I was surprised at the spirited voice that sounded nothing like an eighty-seven year old, and her refined way of speaking devoid of a local accent. It was not ‘watashi’ but ‘watakushi’** that Toyoko used as she spoke.

She was the daughter of a Japanese sweets wholesaler, born and bred in Tokyo.  From her father, she inherited the love of flowers and which led her to become a proper certified teacher of Ikebana, or the art of Japanese flower arrangement. Clad in a hakama, a long pleated skirt wrapped over her kimono, those were the days that she would make her daily brisk commute to the district of Kyobashi. Later came marriage, and when the war started, the then twenty year-old wrapped her eldest daughter in her arms and evacuated with her husband to his hometown of Doshi. She stayed on from then, eventually bringing up her 6 daughters in the village.

When I brought up the topic of her bookmarks and of their refined aesthetics, in a truly happy voice she explained in a single breath how it might have come about. “After the war I wanted to return to Tokyo, and I kept pestering my husband about it. He said, even if we go back, there’ll be nothing but burnt fields!’ and so I was resigned.  But after being here for some time, I began to see the goodness of living in the country. In any case, there’s plenty of nature and flowers here aren’t there? I’m always the happiest when I’m playing with the flowers. When spring comes, there is the cheerful chirping of the birds. I did have to endure many things in a place I was not used to, but now thanks to my daughters, I can just play with my flowers every day.”

Toyoko lives now with her daughter Eiko, who cultivates young violas for sale, together with her family and her dachshund. When asked if I could see how she makes her bookmarks, “mine is a way I figured out by myself, if that’s alright with you.  And oh, if you don’t mind dogs too.”

And this was how I got to meet Toyoko in person.

The house was marked by a large vinyl house where Eiko grows the seedlings.  In the garden were also lots of colourful flowers in full bloom. Toyoko was waiting for us among the flowers, very petite, with somehow a sense of refinement in her dressing as well. She was as lively as the voice in the phone.

Her story on how she came about making the bookmarks was interesting too.

We go back 30 years before, when a new road had just been laid and people were venturing to the village; Toyoko thought of creating something that visitors can buy back as a souvenir. The waters there are beautiful and the village is dotted with campsites. Watercress cultivation is flourishing there now too.

“The Iketani families were mushroom farmers then, but I come from a family business kind of background, so the idea of having no daily income is scary to me (laughs).  I have even tried knocking on the windows of cars stuck in traffic to sell the mushrooms, but compared to that, I felt that bookmarks made from local flowers were smaller and easier to sell, and would make better souvenirs.”

Why and how she settled on bookmarks was due to her love of books. The intensity of her reading has greatly decreased now due to her deteriorating eyesight, but during her younger days in her hunger for the literary word, you could often find her immersed in a book at the roaming library with a child on her back, sparking rumours in the village of her being an 'outrageous daughter-in-law’ at one time. It was that kind of era.

“My mother-in-law had already passed away at that time, but my father-in-law was a really understanding kind of person. As long as I finish my work, he did not disapprove of my reading. Now when I think back, that really saved me. There must really be something about people who love flowers; my father-in-law was the one who planted most of the flowers in the garden.”

Nowadays, Toyoko does not have to go far for her flowers. Her flower-picking is usually confined to the garden, the vinyl house, or pastures surrounding her home, but even so the flowers are in abundance.  She has a strict rule for her pressed flowers, which is to pick the ones that have just opened their petals in the morning, and to immediately press them afterwards without delay. “If not, the colours will not turn out beautiful. The flowers will become full blooms. Flowers that have turned into an old lady like me won’t do. (laughs)”

Naturally for someone like Toyoko with an experience of 30 years, there is already flower map of the where, what and when of the surrounding blooms firmly etched in her mind.

The place that she hastily head towards after her morning flower-picking, is the corridor beside her bedroom where a desk has been placed. This is where she would flop into the chair for 3 to 4 hours at a time, absorbed by the task before her while listening to political discussions on her pocket radio. This space facing the garden is Toyoko’s atelier.

In a corner there are layers and layers of stacked plywood to be found. Below them bits of newspapers can be seen here and there, signs of flowers that are in the midst of being pressed. The weight naturally came from the vast piles of old newspapers used.

“It depends on the types of flowers, but generally it takes around 3 to 4 days. After that, in order to fix the colours on the flowers, you need to let them to dry out. That is the special part. On sunny days, I put them out together with the newspapers in the sun. If it’s winter, I’ll put them under the low warmth of a sunken kotatasu***. Well, I think these should be done.” And with that Toyoko opened up the newspapers she had just taken out, revealing flowers and greens that have obtained an altogether new expression and look, invariably drawing a ‘wow’ from me at the same time.

Even though pressed flowers are theoretically dead flowers, these looked to me like they have taken on a new lease of life. Of course, the colours will only fade from this point on as time goes by, but right now, in this very instant, they look even fresher to me than they had when they were blooming.

“Depending on the flowers, some will retain their colours like this for years, while others will naturally fade away. It is something we have to keep in mind when mixing and matching the flowers.” 

Holding a pair of tweezers, Toyoko’s eyes are already sparkling.  Spreading a mass of materials in front of herself, she went alright, what do we do now?” This is the moment where the fun peaks, she says. From the pile of pre-cut paper mounts, Toyoko casually picked out a red piece and there placed a white Reeves’ meadowsweet. On an afterthought, “I think this looks livelier”, and off it went to be replaced by a different meadowsweet. There, a long and slim leaf and a four-leaf clover were added as garnish, the excess cleanly cut away, and if it somehow feels lacking, something else is further added. It is all done on instinct.

“I move my hands accordingly as I think about how to create a pleasing arrangement. It acts as good form of exercise for my mind, I think.”

The way Toyoko’s hands moves, is experienced and graceful with no signs of trembling even for the most delicate of tasks. These are hands where even their tips have known no idleness. “It’s because my mother can be so determined,” was how Eiko explained it repeatedly.

As a last step, a ribbon was tied to finish off, but even here Toyoko found a lot of fun in the choosing of colours. In the past, red was her overwhelming choice, but that was probably because it looked good in itself, she said.

Actually, there is something that Toyoko will not fail to add in her bookmarks, and that is the four-leaf clover that she grows in her garden.

There has been so much good in this for me, making these bookmarks. I pray that good things will also happen to everyone who has bought them from me.”

It is said that the four-leaf clovers when pressed hold on to their colours for a long time. It is hoped that happiness will follow suit and live on for a long time as well.

Even now, Toyoko’s bookmarks can still be found at village train station in Doshi.


*Unable to confirm surname of '池谷'. Could be pronounced as 'Ikegaya" or 'Ikeya' as well.
**'Watakushi' is a formal and refined way of addressing oneself.
***'Kotatsu' is a low level covered table with an attached heat source below found in many Japanese homes.

All photos and japanese text ©ku:nel magazine (2010.9.1)
Photos: 新津保健秀
Japanese Text: 鈴木るみこ
English Translation: Shirley Ye