Closing the fan at the end of the performance. The two people behind me were a part of the chorus, the person to the left is my teacher, Udaka Michishige.
On November 2nd, I went to Matsuyama in Shikoku for my Noh debut. One only gets one debut, and I wanted to make mine the best it could possibly be. However, after only a half year of lessons, there was a lot to pull together for a successful performance. All in all, though, the experience was amazing, including also meeting my Sensei’s students from across Japan, being allowed backstage during a full professional performance, and watching a new Noh play Sensei had written.
I went to Shikoku on a night ferry from Kobe. I boarded the ship at 10:30 the night before and arrived at 6:30 the next morning, an hour before a second ship arrived carrying Sensei’s sons, both close to my age, but professional Noh actors themselves, Tatsushige-sensei and Norishige-sensei, and a woman named Hatano-san who was supposed to take care of me upon arrival. While Tatsushige-sensei and Norishige-sensei went directly to their father’s rehearsal hall, Hatano-san and I went to Dogo Onsen, the famous hot spring in Matsuyama, for a refreshing morning dip. Although we had never met before, Hatano-san and I hit it off grandly and were chatting like old friends by the time we had emerged bright pink from a long soak in the hot pools, had walked from the hot spring to the hotel (a good hour) and then to Sensei’s rehearsal hall (another good 45 minutes).
We spent the afternoon at the rehearsal hall during which time we went through the suutai (concert-style chorus-only performance) of Nonomiya once and I got a brief but refreshing nap in a corner under a heated kotatsu table. Before going to the concert hall where the performances would be the next day, Sensei, his sons, Hatano-san, and I all packed into Sensei’s car and accompanied him to his family grave, located on a hill facing another hill that looks like a sleeping dragon he said. Be sure to come visit me here after I’m dead, he continued, to which none of us knew an answer.
The highlight of the evening was not only the second bowl of delicious udon noodles across the street from Sensei’s practice hall, but the chance to witness the first and final rehearsal of a professional Noh performance that would take place the next day after the recitals. They ran through the play once, and then Sensei came out onstage and spoke to each performer in turn – to the chorus as a whole – pointing out details that needed to be adjusted before the next day’s performance. They did not even run through the piece a second time!
After the professionals left the stage, it was the students’ turn to rehearse although the evening was growing late. When I stepped onstage, the full lights on me, Tatsushige-sensei behind me acting as my chorus, I grew nervous for the next day and could not perform the rehearsal to Sensei’s and my own expectations. My timing was off, I knew, and he told me so.
I walked back to the hotel with Hatano-san and found out then that she had been studying Noh already for 30 years and had a daughter who was a high school student. In such company, I felt somewhat more incapable of a decent performance the next day, and went to bed with an unbalanced mixture of anticipation and uneasiness.
The next day came early, and we were back at the performance hall by 8 in the morning, getting dressed in kimono and hakama in the dressing rooms behind the stage, a row of three tatami rooms that were designated to Sensei, men, and women respectively, divided from the back of the stage by a narrow hallway. At the end of the hall closest to Sensei’s dressing room was the large green room from which the shite (main) actor would enter the stage. At the other end of the hall, closest to the women’s dressing room, was the small doorway through which recitalists and the chorus would enter the stage.
One could make all sorts of judgements about the sexism of the women’s dressing room being at the far end of the hallway, yet the women were the first to come to the building that morning and had chosen to change in that room without any instructions to do so that I was aware of. Either they “knew their place” or they took advantage of getting the dressing room closest to the entrance through which all of us would take the stage for our recitals.
Simply being in this backstage world for the first time was fascinating. Although the dressing rooms were partitioned, there was free movement between them after quick checks that no one of the opposite sex (most importantly of the female sex) was changing.
Getting dressed in a man’s kimono ensemble in preparation to go onstage presented a new set of experiences for me, as I’m very familiar with wearing a women’s kimono and had only casually worn the men’s hakama (a split skirt) for my lessons. Is it alright to pull the collar down just a little at the nape of the neck? I asked, at which Hatano-san smiled and said it would be fine. But pulling up the skirts of the long women’s kimono short enough to pull the hakama over created a lot more bulk around my middle, where I folded the excess, than I expected or desired. Sometime we’ll have to play with adjusting the lengths and bulk to just the right balance, I thought, because I didn’t have the luxury to do so then and there. More importantly, I wanted to see what was happening around me.
I found a wonderful place to watch the first few recital pieces from the green room close to Sensei’s dressing room, through a screened window that faced onstage. For one piece I got to be the person who slid the small side door open and closed to let the chorus onstage. Before I knew it, it was my turn to take the stage. Before my nervousness could even reach a peak, the small door was being slid open before me, and before my eyes was only the bright light of the stage. In a dream I walked on stage, moved effortlessly through my performance, and finished without a mistake. I could not say, however, that I had even had a moments’ thought about the meaning of my performance during my time onstage. I was not snow as I should have been. I was in a dream of movements that linked together beautifully.
Later came my first experience to perform in the concert-style performance of Nonomiya, in a chorus of all women. As I had been struggling in my lessons to become comfortable in my chest voice, it was liberating to join voices with other women.
At the end of the day, which came almost without my even realizing it was evening, I saw Sensei’s performance of Hototogisu, about Masaoka Shiki, a young haiku poet of the Meiji Era, who had died at the age of 35 from Tuberculosis. The play is a memorial to him and celebrates haiku poetry. Through the art of poetry, humans can become aware of the sanctity of each moment and thus realize the Buddhahood that lies in all things. I only wish I had had a chance to see the libretto before I had watched the play, because I understood very little.
Afterwards, a glimpse through open doors of elaborate kimono being taken off in the dressing room, a scurry of clean-up, a few quiet moments while watching everyone’s luggage, and I left to catch the overnight ferry back to Kobe.