January 20, 1998
The perfect day yesterday and the resting we did last evening was good for us. We had an excellent breakfast in the hotel and then waited in the lobby for Shukuya-san who arrived bringing more photos. As hard as it is to see so much of one's self in living color, I am very grateful now to have each of these photos.
We took a taxi to the Ginza Station before the famous Kabukiza in a bright, cold sunshine. Already the line had formed waiting for tickets for the noon kabuki performance. The men showed me a red felt covered seat on a wooden bench beside the ladies and they went off to sit on another bench. It happened that the young woman next to me spoke English fairly well. We began to talk and she told me that she and her aunt had come today because in the 3rd play-section their favorite actor, Kataoka Takao, was to receive a new name. For this important ceremony all of the most famous actors (in kabuki, also, the female roles are played by men in make-up instead of masks) would be appearing. Both the women were dressed in their best silk dresses and fur-trimmed coats and were carrying cameras. They were so jazzed we ended up taking each other's photographs!
That gave me the idea of photographing the area while we waited, so I did. For me, the waiting did not seem very long as there were so many interesting people and things to see. The theater attendants all wore happy coats (short cotton kimono) with the theater's logo on them. Finally, the doors opened and we were let in at 10:30.
Many people had plastic bags in which they carried a boxed meal because the performances ran right through the lunch time. With our tickets, we had paid for a meal in the theater restaurant.
During all our visit, we had never met Shukuya-san's wife, but for this, he invited her to join us. I was eager to meet her, because it seemed somehow wrong that though I had printed her tanka in Lynx, we had not met. She had to come from Chiba and because of the cold, the trains were delayed.
We went into the theater to find that our seats were padded folding chairs to be set in the aisle! The place was sold out and we were lucky to get even this. Shukuya-san got us speakers and headphones so we could hear an English version with explanations, opera glasses, English programs. With our coats in our laps, along with all these things, I wondered how the other people managed having a lunch in their laps also.
our last day
all Japan becomes
the actors so close
While waiting for the performance to begin, I had been admiring the great golden curtain with a snow-white Fuji-san and full red sun. Just before my nose where the characters spelling out the name of the theater in golden threads. Imagine my surprise when an unseen person walked across the stage pulling a very ugly red, green and black vertically stripped tarpaulin curtain. I could only assume this was a tradition that had been retained. Within seconds both curtains were gone and across the stage was a line of actors who, one after another welcomed the audience and told of the program. They walked off one side and then patterned boards were lifted (like screens on a porch) and here was the complete cast of the first play, "Kotobuki Sog no Taimen"
The story was about two brothers who are invited to a New Year's Celebration of the military ruler who had murdered their father 18 years previously. One brother is hot-heated (an marvelously portrays the style of acting for such young men) and the other calm and determined (a master in the other style of acting so in one play we could compare the different methods of expressing the same emotions).
Instead of the characters coming down a bridge at the left of the stage as in noh, in kabuki the stage entrance is at the back of the theater, behind the audience, with a runway (flower path) that goes from back to front. It was very scary to feel the whoosh of the actors and their costumes coming from the darkness behind one.
For scene changes, there was no curtain closing. Instead prop men dressed in black cotton clothing with black nets before their faces, scurried on stage to move the props or help characters make changes in their clothing. Often between 'jobs' they simply knelt, making themselves as small as possible, behind the characters. Somehow the 'honesty' of this pleased me very much.
The men playing women were a gas! They portrayed all the campiness of a transvestite, yet here they got praise - calls from the audience - and applause for making fun of women as they assumed and held traditional exaggerated poses. On one hand, as theater, it was funny and yet if one reflected on the actions, it did not show much respect for women. I wondered how the modern Tokyo woman felt about the portrayals -- betrayals.
Still, this was just a play, versions of it having been performed since 1655, and was a customary New Year's play. According to the program notes, there are over 300 versions of this one play but it settled into this form about a century ago. I found the 'conclusion' rather interesting: The brothers come to the celebration with the intent of avenging their father's death, but due to the many retainers and people in the court surrounding the murderous duke, they finally realize it would be fool-hardy to attempt to do him in now. To quell their anger, the duke tosses them tickets to attend a hunt he is organizing for the shogun later in the year. This event will give the two brothers a better opportunity to avenge their father's death under similar circumstances in which the duke had killed the father (coming home from a hunt). This solution left the play open to more action (mostly in the viewers' minds) or even possibly for another author. I liked the fact that the eighteen years of anger were not lightly dismissed, but accepted and validated. I would not want to live under such conditions, but for men who did, this solution seems ideal.
I had felt Werner leave during the play, so in the intermission I was glad to see him return to his seat. It was now noon and many people were eating their lunches as where they sat.
Shukuya-san's wife had arrived and we were able to meet her. As we stood talking in the aisle, Shukuya-san brought forth the latest gift. A stuffed Mickey Mouse doll from Aoyagi-san who does the Japanese Mickey Mouse voices for television. Mrs. Shukuya had knitted little yellow booties for the stuffed character. As we admired this, buttons were pressed and out came the voice of Aoyagi-san! This made the people around us stare all the more. Also, Aoyagi-san had given us a video of the concert on the 14th at Ito-san's mansion, but this gift of Mickey impressed everyone who saw it.
Fairly quickly, the clacking of wooden mallets announced the next act. Werner sat down in his seat and I hoped he would be able to overcome his claustrophobia long enough to see the second show.
This piece was less of a drama and more of a show review. Named "Dojoji", it was based on the Noh story of a woman who pursues a priest until he takes refuge inside the temple bell. Her fury is so great that she turns into a snake that winds around the bell, crushes and melts it down along with the reluctant lover. This story I had read translated by Waley. The play before us, now, was loosely formed on a continuation of the Noh story. Here, the bell had been remade and the priests (with white plastic hair coverings and black net tutu skirts) were to conduct the dedication ceremony
However a woman (a great male actor) appears and with many songs, dances and pretty speeches, charms the priests and the audience. At the end it is revealed that 'she' is the ghost of the woman who melted down the last bell and she intends to do it again today. In the final scene she forces the bell to be lowered (a colossal 15 foot stage bell) which she climbs up on and all the priests fall over in a faint. Marvelous kitsch.
I had enjoyed the show so much I had not heard Werner leave this time. But he had. I offered that we leave at this point. Shukuya-san said we had reservations for lunch in the restaurant, but we agreed we had had enough pleasure and could leave. I hated to miss another great meal in Japan, but I felt I could not enjoy it if Werner could not.
We felt like kids playing hooky as we grabbed a cab and floated through the city. In our preparations for the trip to Japan, several of the 'authorities' giving us advice had warned us that we probably would not like the foods and that we should have something from home on which we could sustain ourselves. I had taken power bars and Werner had salami. And we still had most of it because the Japanese meals had been so great and so satisfying, our "emergency" foods were unused. I made tea in the room and we ate what we could.
After a nap, we decided to take a walk back to the Kanda Myojin shrine. What a surprise. This time the place was deserted. Not one stand was open - we were practically the only people around. I photographed things I had missed the first time because of the crowds. But it was lonely here, and a bit cold (later we found out this had been the coldest day in Tokyo in many years) so we left.
As we turned the corner to go back on the street to the hotel, I pointed out to Werner that there seemed to be a park on the other side. There was a wall and some trees. At the one corner, was a gate which we thought at first was closed, but when we crossed the street, we saw it was open and led into a tiny park for children. Feeling drawn along, we walked to the other end of it, back out on to another street. Still we could see that the park wall and trees extend farther. Finding the sun on us here, we walked along until we came to a sign and a big gate.
Yushima Sei-do! This was the temple we had been searching for the other day when we had walked so far. And here it was practically in front of our hotel! I looked at the camera. Four shots, at most left on the film. I turned my bag inside out hoping that a stray unexposed film had fallen to the bottom. No luck. No time to get more film. And this temple was so fantastic. Confucian. Austere. Black with faint orange trims. Bronze animals on the roof. Cool. The Max.
Here there were no pipe and plastic booths. A couple weather beaten benches and tables were scattered by the votive rack. One girl brought a wooden plaque, filled it out and hung it with others on a small rack and quickly left. This place was definitely not the popular one, but we loved it for being so authentic -- though it had been rebuilt of concrete after the earthquake of 1923, it was painted with so many coats of black that it looked to be the lacquered wood that had formed the original built on this site in 1691.
We walked down the wide stairs to the old gate. The hill seemed covered with the cold of all the winters of the temple's existence. No one was around except a young art student working on a watercolor in the one spot of sun. As we debated whether to go on down to the next shrine, the sound of a bell being rang vigorously moved up through the darkening trees. A monk was signaling that the grounds were closing. We would have to leave. And tomorrow we would be on our way home and unable to see the rest of the shrine. The only comfort, as we walked along the street crowded with go-home traffic, was that we had left something to see for another trip to Japan.
Resting and re-heating ourselves with tea, we thought about our last night in Japan. How could anything surpass all we had experienced? Perhaps we should just stay in the hotel, have a quiet dinner, pack and get a good night's sleep before the flight. Still Ito-san had invited us to dinner. We do enjoy his company. And he has excellent tastes in choosing restaurants. As the time to go out again neared we found ourselves getting more excited about the unknown evening before us.
I let my hair down, tied one of the museum scarves from Atami around it, felt younger and more free than in years. In the lobby we were met by Shukuya-san and Ito-san to be informed that instead of taxi, Ito-san was driving us in his car. Such coddling. Music on the tape deck of Japanese lullabies. The gentle way he took the corners.
Shukuya-san had a hand-drawn map that the two men were trying to follow. The streets got narrower and narrower. And darker and darker. Only the pale glints from tiny lanterns picked out points beyond the car lights. "There it is. There it is!" Ito-san's Japanese was recognizable to us. Abruptly we stopped before a tiny doorway with a one-tree, two-stone garden beside it. Before we could get out of the car, women in kimono were crowding around, opening doors, helping us out and into the stone-covered entry way. Everything was intensely crowded, clean, but sort of seedy as if an old tradition was at its end.
We were helped out of our shoes. When the women saw our big feet they instantly gave up on the idea of fitting us in the tiny slippers and let us walk up the two wooden steps in our stockinged feet. Before our noses was a vertical stairway. More ladder than stairway. But kind hands pushed and balanced us, as laughter and goodwill made us dizzy. At the top of the stairs, in the rather large straw-matted room was Michiko Kohga, who was to be our translator again this evening. She was so mischievous and fun herself, the evening automatically lifted to another level.
We were showed to our places around the table. Tonight there was no hole under the table for Western legs. We sprawled as gracefully as we could while Michiko knelt in the proper manner on her cushion. Thankfully there were, at our places, cushions with chairbacks attached so we could occasionally lean back and rest our Western spines.
There seemed to be some moments of indecision in several languages until it was decided that the meal was our treat. Then Ito-san said that he would hire the geisha girls for the evening! Wow! so this was the pinnacle of our Japanese trip. What a treat! Michiko leaned across the table and admitted to us that this was her first experience with geisha entertainment. She was as excited as we were.
Shukuya-san started snapping photos. When he told the attending women who we were, why we were in Japan, they all began talking together very excitedly. When he told them that the photos he took would be shown to the Emperor and Empress, the oldest woman laughed as she told Michiko she wished she were younger. When Michiko translated this, I expressed the wish to be thinner by waving my hands around a thinner silhouette and the women understood this without translation. As the evening went on, I realized the geisha women understood a lot of English, and as they felt more comfortable, they timidly began to use the words they knew. It was touching to feel this increasing contact and confidence over the hours.
Michiko explained to us, that having been to kabuki, it was only proper (in Ito-san's opinion) that we have geisha girls afterwards. He had brought us to one of the oldest houses. The women told a story about a patron who had lost his wallet here and when they returned it to him, they told him that the next time he left his wallet they would just assume it was a tip! Somehow the story seemed to sum up the atmosphere and attitudes in a kind and realistic way.
Through Michiko I complimented the head geisha. Her kimono and obi combination was absolutely stunning. The kimono was silver with white and silver thread-made cloud patterns. As splashes of color were gold and red chrysanthemums-- exactly the proper flower for an older woman. Her obi was a riot of red, gold and yellow threaded patterns around the open negative spaces of silver chrysanthemums. What was color on one garment was the shape of the color on the other. Simply perfect. After seeing some of the really bizarre combinations on the characters in the theater, it felt so right to see someone dressed tastefully.
This meal too started with the tiny juice glasses of beer. I was sorry to see one of the ladies hurry away to get water for me. Later, I again realized how being a woman in this company was unusual. When one of the younger women knelt next to Werner to help him with something -- a napkin or serving dish, she leaned forward and apologized to me for entertaining my husband!
The dinner here was like a step back in time. The dish-ware was older and used looking. You could tell the lacquer trays had witnessed many parties. The low table had old-fashioned carved and curved legs instead of the modern straight pine styles. I was amazed how each thing could be so clean and yet have the patina of years. We were attended by many former parties in the room.
By now, I was getting used to the order of the presentation of the foods, but still the difference in how foods were prepared and combined was always new. I loved the little beginning dishes when they were covered with ceramic lids. Eating was such an adventure.
When our trays were filled with the covered soup bowls and a big platter with a landscape of tidbits, the oldest woman knelt on a thin red cushion, took up her shamisen and began to pluck it with a huge spatula of ivory. Her old, but strong voice, seemed an exact fit to every other thing in the place. The younger woman (serious late 40s) wore a dark blue kimono with a silver obi with wave patterns. It, too, was finely combined but was miles from the combination of the older woman. She bowed, spread her fan, and in the tiny space between our table and the screen began to dance.
I don't know about the men, but I was charmed. Having the kabuki dances still in my head, I could see where her dance related to that and where she had made changes in her style to fit her place and her age. It made her act very original. It was so quiet beyond the other woman's words in her song and the individual striking of the strings, I could hear the click of her fan when she folded it and the shushing sound of her tabi on the tatami straw mat.
Afterwards, when I mentioned to Michiko, that until today, at the kabuki theater and now, I had only read about a shamisen, but had never seen one. Without translation, the woman returned to her cushion, took up her shamisen, carried it over and put it in my lap. I was so amazed that she would let me touch it. How often in stories of Old Japan had I read of this three-stringed, banjo-like instrument? The one woman began to meow like a cat as I stroked the leather covering. Everyone laughed as Michiko told me that it was cat skin! And the strings? "Cat guts?" I asked. No, those were silk -- but no one added -- worm spit.
I felt the movement of the woman in silk at my elbow and she handed me the enormous ivory plectrum. She put it in my hand, bending my stiff fingers this way and that until I was holding it properly. I made a couple tentative picks on two of the stings and it was perfectly tuned, so I begin to strum faster until a little tune formed right under my fingers. My little miracle. Everyone applauded. Then Werner was given a chance to perform.
Halfway through the evening the owner - a very classy lady - came to visit with us. When she heard we had seen the woodcut exhibits and were interested in Hokusai and Hiroshige she came back into the room carrying a picture taken down from the wall. It was an original print from a woodcut made of this establishment. The picture and its history was on the coasters under our glasses. Then she left to bring us unused coasters with the same design so we could take them home.
Before I got a chance to study the picture she had taken it back. When I said I would have liked to have seen it up close, she went out and got different one (with matching coasters for gifts for each of us). This woodcut print showed a beauty contest being held in the courtyard of this inn. The winner is shown holding her kimono up and together with a certain hand movement twisting the fabric. As the owner stood and demonstrated the movement so deftly and so proudly, her voice became clear and ringing with independence and self-determination.
Michiko could hardly contain her laughter as she leaned over to translate for me how the owner was demonstrating the geisha girl's signals of availability, price and terms with the way her fingers folded the fabric of the edge of the kimono. The owner's words and posture showed she was proud to be a woman who could make her own living, her own way in the world. When she was young, being a geisha was the only job possibility and she took it. She was obviously the queen of her profession. It was an honor to meet such an accomplished person.
Once the gifts started flowing from her, she came back with the brightly printed towels that were property of her establishment and more of the woodcut reproduction coasters for our friends. Then she brought boxes containing little tigers - to celebrate the new year - made of yellow soap. The one geisha explored her English as she patiently showed me how to apply the stripes, pink ears and collar (which she called 'necklace' as a word she knew perfectly!) to the tiger. (It took some assembling!)
Ito-san, the person that he is, had heard of my birthday and refused to let it pass. He had gotten stationary for me with tiny woodcuts on each page. Most touching was his writing out "Happy Birthday" in English on the card. Michiko had given us beautiful copies of her father-in-law's books of haiku. Along with the napkins from the kabuki theater which Shukuya-san had brought for us, these gifts began to pile up under the table. Again it was the women who carefully refolded and repacked each item. Bags were gotten and everything gently and professionally packed away for our trip home.
But first, was one more song and dance. I closed my eyes and wondered which of my past lives I was in. The conversation with Ito-san had centered around his dream work and the inspiration for his writing and his books. How he laughed -
until tears ran down his cheeks - when he heard that in my next life I want to be Japanese and that this trip was merely practice for it.
The many courses (Werner was too distracted to count; which tells you something of the women's charm) of Japanese meals means that actual eating time can last over several hours. But once the spoon and fruit and green tea appear, I've learned it is time to get the feeling back in the legs as we will be up and going soon. As we went down the steep stairs, Michiko admitted that sitting in this position was painful for her, even though she had been trained as a child to do it.
At the doorway we found another long panoramic woodcut of old Edo (the former name for Tokyo) and of the area of this building which a hundred years ago had been right on the coast. The dim lights, the high laughter of men and women's voices, the kimono, the very walls and stone steps -- the Japan of my dreams seemed to have come true to go with me into our last night.
Proceed to Wednesday
January 21 , 1998.