Alex’s Birthday Party

by Hanna

Kameoka mist

Remembering a dream the night before – mist over the rice paddies in Kameoka

When I heard Alex Kerr’s birthday party was to be held at his home in Kameoka with many guests and fine entertainment, I could not quite imagine what it would be like. I had only read of his house in his book, Lost Japan, and created a fairytale image of aesthetic perfection in my mind. Since beginning work at Iori, the company of which he is chairman here in Kyoto, I’ve learned that aesthetic perfection is second nature to Alex. I’m reminded of a time shortly before guests were supposed to arrive in our arts dojo, when Alex transformed our driveway into a garden lounge. In the arts dojo itself, Alex kept a set of two gorgeous crane folding screens from the Edo period (roughly 17th century) until recently. When we prepare for a full-scale arts program, Alex takes the arts dojo as his canvas and creates within it a balance of art and space that becomes a stage for Alex’s magic. With this in mind, my excitement of seeing his home at its finest only increased my excitement for the party.

Yet the week of the party came, and I was exhausted from work. One day after the next full of activities to run, guests to guide, and never-ending cleaning was leaving me tired halfway through each day. By the end of the day, I could hardly gather the energy to eat dinner. The day of the party came, and work seemed only to escalate, for as evening approached, a customer was three hours late in arriving, we had to prepare for two extra guests elsewhere, and wine had to be bought as a gift for Alex. Although the party started at 7:30, I left for Kameoka shortly before 8.

I don’t really know when I arrived in Kameoka, I almost fell asleep on the train, and began regretting leaving Kyoto so far behind when I had work the next morning. It must have been close to 9 when I arrived at the station, and my good friend Megan was waiting for me there. It was great to see her, since it only happens once a month or so, and we were both excited to attend the party. It would be Megan’s first time meeting Alex.

Michiko, a woman I work with who lives in Kameoka, came to pick us up and take us to the party in her small van. We drove through the city, far past Megan’s apartment right near the station, on narrow streets through rice paddies, and past a dark forest that was home to Oomoto. We finally stopped outside a traditionally built earthen wall with a tori gate,from which hung the sacred rope and paper streamers. This was Tenmangu Shrine. We stepped out of the car, and Michiko said to go inside the gate to the left.

Taking that as a sign we should go ahead, Megan and I stepped onto the shrine grounds, which were completely dark at this time of night. Turning to the left just past the gate, there stood a house. Yet one could hardly say the house qualities of the scene made its first impressions. The house seemed to have no walls, and golden light streamed into the surrounding darkness. In the wide entryway, guests were sitting or standing casually on the steps next to a huge piece of pottery. I knew we were about to be warmly embraced.

Greeting the people at the door, we went into the house, and were greeted in turn with the question, “Would you like some red wine?” for there was no white wine, but the red was endless. As the wine began affecting my consciousness, so did images of calligraphy screens, gold-leafed screens of the Tale of Genji, Alex’s own calligraphy in blues or flecked with gold, beautiful tansu chests and antique furniture, most of it lit up with candles. Next to all this art, the most impressive view was in the main room, where the doors to the lit-up garden were all removed and we could see the last remaining azaleas. Amid all this, people were grouped in conversation, which I could hardly follow as the atmosphere impinged upon my senses.

Once the last guests arrived, the performances of the evening began in the main room of the house, in front of the Tale of Genji screen with candles set up around the performance space and the garden view to the left. Hanayagi Michikaoru, a former actor of the Takarazuka Review and current teacher of Nihonbuyo, or Japanese dance, performed for us. In a white kimono with a red obi sash, colors celebrating the occasion, she danced about plum and cherry blossoms, both of which are supposed to be beautiful at Tenmangu Shrine when they are in season. As she finished the piece, Alex began to say how something so beautiful goes by so fast when one sees it only once. He said it’s always best to see a dance performance like this twice to fully appreciate it. Poor Hanayagi got nervous at the idea of performing the same thing to more scrutinizing eyes in such close quarters as Alex’s house. Yet she graciously agreed, and the second time I could see in her face the emotions aroused by a beautiful scene of spring flowers.

Following the dance, Megan and I stepped outside to view the garden and the shrine. We were filled with the aura of the evening, as it elevated a moment in our lives above the ordinary to a realm of beauty we had never experienced so personally. The intensity of the sensations drove us to catch our breath in the dark outdoors. Walking out onto the road passing the shrine, we came to a point where we could look out across a dark river. To our amazement, tiny lights came flashing into view here and there. Even the fireflies were out to greet us and celebrate.

Going back to the house, the calligraphy performance was just about to begin. Two two-panelled folding screens with pristine white paper in a dark red lacquer frame with black mouldings were laid out where Hanayagi had danced earlier. I helped lay paper around the screens to catch stray ink, and Sawada-sensei and Alex began their ritual calligraphy performance. Chutohampa (中途半端), they wrote, half-finished, imperfect. Alex explained that although he was 54, he had as of yet done nothing in full and so much was left to accomplish. Sawada-sensei, close to 80 and full of red wine, wrote the most glorious Chu and han characters, they slapped you in the face. Alex wrote the other two, perfecting the balance of the screens, and then dabbed gold flecks into the black ink of all the characters, a touch of royalty and the unusual.

Final came another performance by Hanayagi. She danced three times a congratulatory piece about shrimp that included a dramatic upturn of the arm and twirling of the fan on one finger. The most breathtaking performance of the three was when all the electric lights were turned out and only the candles reflected dully on the gold screen behind it and shone in Hanasagi’s face. No one present could be satiated in our feast of beauty. Yet as the third performance ended, so did the events of the evening. Slowly, slowly, the guests departed in groups to catch trains or taxis for Kyoto. But I stayed behind in Kameoka and spent the night with Megan.

The next morning, waking early I realized despite having taken my camera and being surrounded with such gorgeousness all evening, I had not taken a single picture. On the train platform at 8 in the morning, the mists covered the hills surrounding Kameoka like the lingering fragments of the previous night’s dream.

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