Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Is it over yet?

Pond Hockey - December 2013
Pond Hockey - December 2013

Is winter over yet? It's been a bad one. Over 100 days of snow and 35 extreme cold alert days. For a while, it seemed like something might have gone awry with Earth's yearly revolution. Were we 'stuck' on winter?

Now it's April and change is starting. Nothing is growing yet but there are other signs. At the bus stops, the dry old husks of ice are melting to reveal hundreds of cigarette butts, plastic coffee lids and all the other urban detritus. Seasonal headaches have arrived for those of us who are susceptible. The 14 day forecast shows only two more days with the potential for snow and two more days below freezing. Surely we are safe to say it now: spring is here.

Winter wrap-up:
-My photo walk during the great ice storm that trashed Southern Ontario.
-The horrible truth about Toronto winter "fashion"
-I'm usually an 'eat lunch at my desk while I continue to work' person but this winter, I kept my ice skates at the office and made an effort to enjoy skating at the city hall rink a few times a week
-Knitting eye-catching cozy things, including the epic pompom hat below

Sunday, February 16, 2014

How to Dress for a Toronto Winter: Reality

Maybe I've been reading too many style blogs recently but I am sick to death of 'polar vortex fashion looks' consisting of high heeled ankle boots, no socks, skinny jeans, flimsy coats and meticulously arranged scarves. This is complete nonsense and it makes me furious.

When I am about to leave my apartment for work or some unavoidable errand and my weather app shows me this report, you can bet I'm not going to dress to impress. I'm going to dress to survive my 15 minute walk to the subway. I'm going to dress to trudge through unploughed snowy sidewalks and side streets. I'm going to dress to prevent frostbite.

I present to you the awful truth about dressing for winter in Toronto and other similarly cold/even colder places. Maybe if you commute door-to-door by car or you live in a condo connected directly by tunnel to your workplace, you could manage to look elegant. Otherwise, function absolutely trumps fashion around here.

Perhaps I look ridiculous in the photo below if you don't live where the winters are severe. I promise you, I never get any strange looks in this outfit. I blend right in with everyone else who is smushed into crammed subway seats wearing giant coats, clomping along the street in massive salt-stained boots, revealing frizzy, static-y hair the moment our touques come off.

Welcome to Toronto where this is a completely normal look.

How to Dress for WInter in Toronto

UPDATE: It is now February 27th and I have lost the will to layer thermals under my jeans. I now prefer to get cold hives on my legs than make the extra effort for warmth.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Endless Knot Mittens: Russian Style, Inspired by Bhutan

It's been years since I posted anything here about knitting but I am still an avid knitter. Please allow me to show off my most recent major project.

This is the most fiddly pattern I've taken on so far in my crafting career. It was not the kind of knitting that can be done with one eye on the TV. It required my full attention so it took me several months to complete. I'm happy with the results.

Endless Knot Russian-style Mittens

The Buddhist symbol of the Endless Knot appeals to me very much. I wanted to knit something with this motif. The Endless Knot is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols and it has various meanings, for example, that "all phenomena are conjoined and yoked together as a closed cycle of cause and effect".

I thought I was going to have to attempt to design something myself until I found a pattern that could become what I wanted with only minimal modification. I used a cross-hatched colourwork mitten pattern by Charlene Schurch from an earlier version of her book Mostly Mittens: Ethnic Knitting Designs from Russia ( link). 

Certainly, I am very much aware that slapping a Buddhist symbol on an item for daily use can be extremely offensive. Images of the Buddha should really not be used in the casual way they can be seen here in North America (on t-shirts, homewares, greeting cards and much more). However, I believe it was acceptable to have created a garment bearing the Endless Knot. In Bhutan, I saw this symbol used on clothing, bags, upholstery and even on carpets. I hope that it was correct to have surmised that the symbol could be used on humble, non-sacred objects.

My colour choice, rust and deep blue, was inspired partly by the exquisite coral and turquoise necklaces Bhutanese ladies are known to pile on with their traditional fashions and partly by the rich colours that embellish the many historic fortresses.

Endless Knot Russian-style Mittens

Endless Knot Russian-style Mittens

Endless Knot Russian-style Mittens

Endless Knot Russian-style Mittens

More of my mittens: birds, trees and Totoro.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

my fave pic from 2013

It is a point of shame that I have posted so little about my trip to Japan in March/April. I am in a dilemma as to whether I should write about my more recent trip to the Arabian Gulf first, as it is fresher in my memories. The Japanese cherry blossom photos and the Qatar desert photos both seem incongruous to me when life here and now is all about fur-hooded parkas, shoveling snow and surviving tomorrow's -23˚C forecast.

This is my favourite photo of the ones I took in 2013. I took it on a sidestreet of Higashiyama, Kyoto on April 5th. These ladies are not geisha. They are domestic tourists who went to a geisha costume service and then hired a rickshaw to go sightseeing around the traditional geisha area. It is common to see in western Kyoto. Fake geisha though they are, this pair posed demurely and stayed in character. Only the digicam held by the rickshaw driver reveals the true context.

Faka Geisha in Higashiyama, Kyoto

I like this photo because Kyoto is my favourite city and I love that is totally acceptable for us tourists to lose ourselves in the culture and tradition of the place. I think the photo represents that.

And a moment later, before the driver had the ladies on the move again.

Faka Geisha in Higashiyama, Kyoto

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Toronto Ice Storm

This morning, after two days of non-stop freezing rain, Toronto awoke fettered in ice. Even before sunrise, it was being reported as the worst ice storm in decades for this city.

From The Globe and Mail:

Ice storms can arise whenever warm air forms a wedge between two layers of cold air – one high up in the atmosphere and one at the surface. Precipitation that begins as snow quickly turns to rain as it falls through the warm air. Then, as the raindrops re-enter the cold, they become supercooled, dipping below the freezing point even though they remain liquid. In such a state, droplets of water freeze on contact when they touch a surface, forming an icy glaze on roads, sidewalks and everything else.

This morning, all exposed surfaces were glazed over in solid ice up to 3 cm thick. The trees that could not bear the weight of all this ice drooped over or snapped, sometimes ripping down power lines. Roads and sidewalks were completely slick: no traction whatsoever. Dangerous driving and walking.

Danger aside, I woke up early and dressed myself in the same gear I wore to climb glaciers in Iceland last year. I'm a weather watcher: if this was the biggest ice storm in decades, I wanted to take a look and get some photos, too. I was lucky not to slip over or to get hit by any huge ice-laden branches which continued to crash down throughout the day.

The wide angle view of the storm: the city is a wreck today. Branches everywhere. Sidewalks and roads impassable. The macro view: the ice is beautiful.

(Branches shatter when they hit the ground, as they have taken on the properties of ice instead of wood.)

(Broken branches on power lines at Spadina House)

(St. Clair West looking worse for wear.)

(Streetcar services were suspended for all of Toronto due to ice on the overhead cables.)

(Evergreen trees fared better in the conditions than deciduous ones.)

The weather forecast doesn't show us going above freezing for the next two weeks - there may not be much chance for the ice layer to melt off the trees for quite some time.

As of Sunday night, about 350,000 people in Toronto are without electricity, plus tens of thousands more across southern Ontario and Quebec. There have been several power outages in the almost three years that I've lived at this apartment but I have never lost power even when houses directly behind me did. I don't know why this is but I'm glad to be able to share my photos on the day of the experience.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Vintage Hallowe'en Greetings

Thanks to Kate Beaton of Hark, a vagrant! for sharing this fulsome gallery of vintage Hallowe'en cards. 1,550 cards and counting!

Here is a selection of favourites. Click images for source. So many expressive pumpkin faces!

"Because I was not good you see This fierce old witch is after me. Be good." - copyrighted 1907

"Hallowe'en" - What kind of vegetables are those legs?
"Hallowe'en Greeting - Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief, Doctor, Lawyer, Merchant, Chief" - Pick a pumpkinhead!

"At the witching hour hang a bell of Gold Round a cat's neck and he'll do what he's told" - Someone try this please?

"A Hallowe'en Wish - On Hallowe'en your slightest wish is likely to come true, so be careful, or the gobelins will spoil your wish for you" - GREAT star print dress, lady, but your compost heap date looks leery.

"I will get raven mad - if I do not hear from you soon" - This raven looks indifferent, though.

"The highest expectations for HALLOWE'EN" - How I wish to drift away in this vacant-eyed dirigible.
"The Magic Hallowe'en - All Hallowe'en, the magic night... when folly reigns supreme, the pumpkin heads are all alight, the stars are all agleam"

"Hallowe'en Greetings - May you much fun on Hallowe'en find, and entertainment of all kind." - The jack'o'lantern gazes tenderly at its creator.
"On Hallowe'en your ball of yarn from out the window fling, and he who is to be your fate will come to wind the string!" - I'm a knitter so I can confirm that this one is legit.

"All Hallowe'en - On Hallowe'en strange sights are seen" - such as a pumpkin rocking a fine silk robe.

"The Hallowe'en Lantern - At twelve o'clock you must be ready and hold your pumpkin good and steady for by its rays of candle light on Hallowe'en all things are bright!" - Oh, that moon!
"With Best Wishes for Hallowe'en" - Another pumpkin comes a-courting.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Next Adventure: The Arabian Gulf!

'Know your Thobe' created by

I thought a lot about how to spend the remaining half of my vacation days for 2013. I had a detailed list of destinations under consideration.

In the end, I decided to make the best use of well-placed relatives: my cousin and her family have been living in Qatar for over three years. I have never been to the Middle East - this seemed like a perfect chance to visit a corner of the world I'm completely unfamiliar with. I am very excited to be going - new experiences are the best form of holidays for me.

So, I'll be in Qatar for seven days and then there will be a girls' weekend in Dubai on the way home. November is supposed to be the time of year when the weather starts cooling down but the forecast is still showing 35˚C daily!

I am busy planning out things to do in Qatar (a desert trip! museums! a beach day! the corniche! checking out the architecture!) and in Dubai (souqs! a food tour! fancy buildings! high tea above the ocean!).

The current challenge for me is finding appropriate clothes to bring. I need to dress modestly (no cleavage, shoulders, knees) for alternating high heat/humidity and strong air conditioning, plus my impression is that people generally dress well in the Gulf. I have three maxi skirts ready to go and a few light blouses.

One disappointing thing is that I have not been able to learn any basic phrases in Gulf dialect Arabic. I have made an effort to learn travel basics for every country I have been to so far from Vietnam to Iceland (except for Germany - I am incapable of enunciating any German beyond "Ein bier, bitte"). YouTube is usually handy for this sort of thing but my search for a Gulf Arabic video lesson has come up empty. I Tweeted around for a connection and I contacted some local Arabic language tutors but I could only find "classical" Arabic speakers. My six year old niece is already learning Arabic at school, though, so maybe she'll be my tutor.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Ten cups of green tea

September 28th marked 10 years since I started blogging at

The first two years of posts were lost when I switched platforms from iBlog to Blogger. From the remaining archive, I present 10 of my more interesting posts (not ranked). 

I tried to add keep some variety in the list: I was in danger of listing only Bhutan-related posts. I love to research and write about Bhutan even though I haven’t been back for 2.5 years!

One post that I have been planning to write for months is my account of kimono rental experiences in Kyoto and Nara, Japan. Unfortunately I was unable to finish that one in time for this list. I think it will be a good one.

Nine cups of green tea
Seven cups of green tea
Six cups of green tea
Three cups of green tea

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Ikebana Exhibition in Kyoto

When I was planning our spring trip to Japan, one of my mum's specific requests was, "I want to see some ikebana."

From Ikebana International:
Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arrangement. It is more than simply putting flowers in a container. It is a disciplined art form in which the arrangement is a living thing where nature and humanity are brought together. It is steeped in the philosophy of developing a closeness with nature.

As is true of all other arts, ikebana is creative expression within certain rules of construction. Its materials are living branches, leaves, grasses, and blossoms. Its heart is the beauty resulting from color combinations, natural shapes, graceful lines, and the meaning latent in the total form of the arrangement. Ikebana is, therefore, much more than mere floral decoration.

My mother is very interested in gardening and flower arranging, and I've dabbled a little in ikebana, too. I started researching Kyoto ikebana schools to find out where we could see some arrangements, but I couldn't find anything that looked likely. A couple of the schools' websites specified "visitors permitted on invitation" but that was no use to us.

Thanks to a Tweet from Visit Japan, I found a listing of special events in Kyoto, including a big ikebana show that overlapped with our visit. Perfect!

The exhibition seems to be an annual one hosted by the Kyoto Ikebana Association (華道京展). The spring timing is surely to take advantage of the national blossom frenzy that is late March-early April in Japan.

We rode the Kyoto subway to Daimaru Department Store. In the eighth floor Daimaru Museum, we discovered a paradise of flower arrangement. I was amazed by the variety in form, colour and materials. The artwork had been created by members of 34 different Kyoto ikebana schools, so we we were able to see a wide array of ikebana styles.

This is what my mother had to say about the exhibition:
"I expected the arrangements to be more stark, formal and composed of fewer elements but these arrangements were exuberant and bountiful. They weren't formal but flamboyant, and they did not seem to be created following any strict rules.

The artists must have been aiming for beauty, influenced by the cherry blossom season which is also so exuberant and bountiful.

Ladies dressed in their kimono proudly stood beside their creations while we took photos, looking just as beautiful as what they had created."

We were very fortunate to see this exhibition - it ran for only five days. In the crowd of flower viewers that afternoon, we were the only westerners in attendance. Quite a number of people I chatted with thanked us for coming. This suggests to me that the exhibition was not expected to draw any foreign tourists, so I feel even luckier that I managed to find out about it. As the trip planner, I was really happy and relieved to be able to fulfill one of my mother's Japan wishes.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Let's play Wong Kar-Wai Bingo!

To celebrate the North American opening of director Wong Kar-Wai's The Grandmaster, I've put together a bingo game. Wong Kar-Wai has such a distinctive style and uses many common motifs - part of the enjoyment of watching his films is identifying all these WKW trademarks.

I finished making this before I saw The Grandmaster last night and yes, the bingo card is compatible for this film too.

The inspiration for the bingo card is the New York Times' Haruki Murakami bingo and Slate's Wes Anderson bingo, although I can't match their fancy 'shuffle for new board' feature.

Leave me a comment if you can think of something else that belongs on this board, or if you played it while watching a WKW film!

Some of the elements on my WKW board are open to interpretation because WKW films themselves are very much open to interpretation. I almost put Tony Leung as the free square since he is in most WKW films anyway.

Obviously, I do not own any of these images. All the images are under the copyright of the following films: 2046, Chungking Express, Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love, Fallen Angels, The Grandmaster, Happy Together, Ashes of Time Redux.

Dymo label-style font from here
Mank Sans font from here

I'm not an Adobe Illustrator expert - I'm sure somebody will find fault with the alignment of the images.

You may also enjoy: A Wong Kar-Wai Fan in Hong Kong

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Kōya-san in black and white

The sunlight threw me off completely. Full, blazing brightness in a place I had previously only experienced in shadow and mist.

I first explored Kōya-san in 2001. Since then, it has been one of my most favourite places to revisit to take photos and to breathe in pure mountain air tinged with incense. Every time I have been there, the enormous Oku-no-in cemetery has decayed just a little more, and more offerings have accumulated. 

Oku-no-in is a place of mysticism and long tradition. Harsh sunlight does not suit the scene at all. This was one of those times when perfect weather was not what I wanted. Through black and white photos, I tried to capture some sense the mystery of the place.

Koya-san in black and white 1

Koya-san in black and white 7

Koya-san in black and white 2

Koya-san in black and white 3
Kuan Yin (Guanyin, Kwannon), the Bodhisattva of Compassion
Koya-san in black and white 4

Koya-san in black and white 5

Koya-san in black and white 6

Koya-san in black and white 8

A story about Oku-no-in:
The last time I stayed overnight at Kōya-san, I had a room at the temple located closest to the Oku-no-in entrance. I decided to take a late night walk by lantern light. A short distance into the cemetery, I found my path blocked by a very large three-legged white dog. It just looked at me and did not yield the path. I am not superstitious but I decided that this was a bad omen if ever there was such a thing so I turned back and went to bed.

More about Kōya-san over on the official website, here.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Views of Bhutan 200 Years Ago

In 1783, British East India Company Captain Samuel Turner set out from Calcutta towards Tibet, travelling via Bhutan. Surveyor-soldier Lieutenant Samuel Davis joined the Tibet mission. The group arrived at "Tassisudon" in June of 1783 (exactly 230 years ago) and stayed there for three months.

Davis was a talented artist: his detailed sketches and journals carefully recorded his impressions of a country rarely explored by Westerners. 

Thirty years later, English landscape artist William Daniell created six engravings based on original drawings by Samuel Davis. The series of etchings, titled 'Views in Bootan', was publsihed in June, 1813 (200 years ago this month).

"By the late 18th century the British were beginning to supplant the Tibetans as the major external threat to Bhutan, and Anglo-Bhutanese relations became mired in boundary disputes that eventually resulted in Bhutan losing territory in the 19th century. These were the first images of Bhutan to reach the British public." (source)

William Daniell had not been to Bhutan himself so he would have used some artistic license to bring life to his work. It can be said that the landscape and architecture elements are realistic though romanticized. However, the picturesque, pastoral figures are the standard formulaic inhabitants of colonialist-era engravings. There are two people wearing those backpack-baskets that are very Bhutanese and two red robed monks, but everyone else looks like an ancient Roman.

If you love these engravings and want to own the book, you are in luck! One original 1813 copy of 'Views in Bootan' is for sale priced at £48000/$75,000.

The following six plates and text are copyright to The British Library Board.

All of these prints were featured in Michael Aris' "Views of Medieval Bhutan: The Diary and Drawings of Samuel Davis, 1783". This looks like a fascinating book but I cannot find a copy of it anywhere so I was delighted to discover that the etchings are available in the British Library online gallery

View of Choka, Plate 1
"In the fourth stage of their journey into the mountains of Bhutan, the British detachment arrived at Chukha Dzong, "a lofty and spacious edifice, situated on a bare rock, and commanding the passage of the river". To reach the fortress, they crossed Thimphu Chu by the bridge of iron chains on the left side of the view. The fortress itself was composed of three buildings around a courtyard, an excellent defensive structure in a region so difficult to penetrate. After their sojourn here, Turner's group made their ascent of the hill seen in the middle distance. The vegetation changed from the tropical type they had seen in Bengal to fir forests and beds of wild strawberries and roses, and the climate became chilly."
British Library image source

View of Tassisudon, Plate 2
"This view shows the house where the British detachment was lodged, "simple, unostentatious but clean and commodious". Its projecting balconies were secured from the cold by Bhutanese woollen cloth and used as sleeping apartments, with a fine view of the Thimphu river valley. The rapidly flowing river was apt to swell in the rainy season, necessitating the shoring up of the embankments. In the sketch the Tashicho Dzong is partly obscured by a peach tree. The bridge led to a meadow ornamented by willows planted in neat rows, where priests from the Dzong (two of whom are seen in their red wool robes) gathered for ceremonies and recreation."
British Library image source

The Palace of the Deib Rajah at Tassisudon, Plate 2
"The Bhutanese system of administration was established by Ngawang Namgyal, a monk of the Drukpa sect, who had fled Tibet in 1616. He united the chieftains of Bhutan, who had hitherto ruled independent principalities as Debs or Rajas. Taking the title of Shabdrung, he established a series of fortresses, or Dzongs, in Bhutan's valleys, seats of both temporal and spiritual power.

Tashicho Dzong, the fortress of the Deb in the Thimpu valley, was one of the most stately. On the hill to the left in Davis' sketch is the Deb's villa. Near the Thimphu river is seen a Buddhist chorten (temple). Bhutan held access to important passes deep into the Himalayas. Captain Turner's group, of which Davies was a member, arrived here on the eighth stage of their journey to Tibet. To them, "this edifice and clusters of houses and well-cultivated land produced a favourable contrast to the wild and solitary aspect of the country through which the embassy had advanced."
British Library image source

A View of Bode, Plate 4
"[Samuel] Davis portrays a temple known as a chorten, which is flanked by tall prayer flags known as tall dashis. The flags are inscribed from top to bottom with the sacred Buddhist mantra 'om-mani-padme-hum'. In the distance is a Rajah's small villa. Davis, a keen amateur artist, was in service with the East India Company and accompanied Samuel Turner's embassy to Tibet in 1783, but did not proceed beyond Bhutan."
British Library image source

View on The River Teenchoo, Plate 5
"The river Thimphu Chu (or Wang Chu) descends rapidly towards Bengal. This view was made some three miles below the Tashicho Dzong, the valley's mighty 17th-century fortress that today houses Bhutan's National Assembly and the King's throne room. It is also the summer residence of the Je Khenpo or the religious head of the Bhutanese.

The bridge in Davis's sketch looks insubstantial, but in fact it was 15 feet wide. The accompanying text reads: "The building on the foreground was converted into a post to command the passage of the river, in the course of the insurrection which happened when the Embassy was at Tassiduon." In the village on the summit of the central hill lived a fraternity of gelongs - Buddhist novice monks."
British Library image source

View between Murichom and Choka, Plate 6
"The mountains in this part of the road appear as if separated by violence to give a passage to the river Teenchoo [Thimphu Chu]. The side up which the road ascends is precipitous, and of an height to render the climbing of it intimidating to those less accustomed to it than the natives." As the British climbed the thickly wooded inclines, "the hoarse murmurs of the Teenchoo are heard, though the river is not always seen as the traveller ascends".
British Library image source

Related post: Bhutan 80 years ago - Historical Photos
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