Japonisme: A New Book by Erin Niimi Longhurst

People often ask me why I love Japan. Often the things that spring to mind are things I like about Japan – the warmth of the family kotatsu (the best invention – a table with a built-in heater and blanket!), the Japanese meticulous attention to detail, their respect for one another, family, friendship, pride in what they do, plus the food (oh the food!), ancient culture, and the sheer beauty of the country. But I know that it’s greater than that, and difficult to articulate – something that is hidden under the surface.

I was lucky enough to meet fellow blogger Erin about a year ago when we were invited to an event at Sozai Cooking School. We learned to make ramen, followed each other on Instagram and the rest is history! When I heard that she was releasing a new book with publisher Harper Collins, I was immediately captivated by her chosen subject: Japonisme. Originally coined in nineteenth-century France to describe the influence of Japanese art in the West, Japonisme in this book extends this to wider reaches of Japanese cultural influence. It’s a digestible but thoughtful exploration of many different arts, ways of thinking, and cultural practices.

There has been a recent wave of popularity of things like mindfulness, hygge, fika, yoga – we’re searching for a way of life that allows us balance, space, a sense of self and a slower pace. I don’t think we really even know why, it’s almost an inexplicable longing – an instinct – for something we just know we need. This book brings another perspective, that of Japanese culture and the author Erin’s maternal heritage. For me this is dear to my heart as it not only brings another piece to the whole puzzle, or lens on the world, but it has allowed me to get that bit closer towards figuring out where my love for Japan and Japanese culture stems from.

The whole book is dotted with stunning, almost ethereal photography juxtaposed with the striking, minimalist illustrations of Ryo Takemasa. The aesthetics of the book, for me, really reflect and complement the message behind it.

Some of the sections I was most inspired by include those about shinrin-yoku, being nourished by nature often by “forest bathing” – no, not actual bathing somewhere in the forest- just taking time out in nature; the benefits of calligraphy or even just writing things down; and creating homes that nourish us as well. The ideas of the fluidity, and flexibility of our lives are the backbone of Japonisme, and Erin stresses the importance of taking time for appreciation and respect of our environment and of others. She also talks about kintsugi which is the art of mending broken ceramics with gold lacquer, and wabi-sabi, the acknowledgment of transience and imperfection. These are traditions built upon the notion that the world keeps moving around us, there is constant change, and rather than fearing it, we should be mindful of it and even celebrate it.

The Japanese have found ways of taking time and appreciating life’s constant change, fluidity and importantly it’s fragility. Both the good times and the bad are fleeting, so it’s all the more important to savour precious moments, but also not to linger unnecessarily on those that are painful or challenging.

Despite the seemingly philosophical subject of Japonisme, it’s actually structured in such a way that makes it a really practical book. It allows you not only to learn a bit more about Japanese culture, but it discusses ways of translating the essence of these traditions into our own lives.

Clearly, I thoroughly loved this book, so you imagine how excited I was to join Erin at her Japonisme supper club last week in partnership with Toral Shah from The Urban Kitchen.

Mark and I arrived at Benk + Bo – (plants, mushroom photography) a perfect backdrop for the evening ahead. We had time for a bit of mingling over a beautiful sake cocktail courtesy of Tengu Sake. I have adored their sakes after meeting them at The Epicurean a couple of years ago, so it was great to see them sponsoring the event.

Needless to say the food was wonderful – and there was plenty of it too! We started with miso soup, a refreshing carrot and cucumber salad with a beautifully subtle wasabi dressing, and some chicken teriyaki cakes. Mains were colourful and generous including pumpkin and watercress salad with tamari pumpkin seeds, miso aubergine salad with rocket, yakisoba, and my personal highlight of the menu: miso marinated cod. A delicate, smooth junmai sake was served with the mains before our dessert of a yuzu-flavoured, yoghurt-based panna cotta to finish.

While we were eating, we heard some short talks about a couple of the topics covered in the book such as ikebana (the Japanese art of flower arranging), ikigai (having a purpose in life), as well as the discipline of aikido and the benefits and nutrition of Japanese cuisine.

It was an absolutely brilliant evening celebrating a great piece of work by a truly lovely author. If you’re interested in finding out more about Erin you should check out her blog, Island Bell. And of course you should snap up a copy of Japonisme!

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