In the beginning of August, I got a surprise E-mail from two young women from Sweden, who were coming to Japan and wanting a guide into the world of noh.
I met them at the end of the month in Asakusa over a sushi meal. Ylva and Kajsa are contemporary dance artists and were researching for a performance inspired by Mishima Yukio’s modernized version of the noh play Hanjo. The story centers around a young woman, who has been left by her lover, who promised to come back after he finished some pressing business. Waiting for him to return, she becomes distracted to the point of madness and wanders Japan looking for him. In the noh play, she eventually meets him at a shrine in Kyoto. In Mishima’s play, after spending every day in a train station in Tokyo, waiting for him to come, he comes to her home, but runs away when she doesn’t recognize him.
It seems to me in Mishima’s case that the young man doesn’t seem to understand the woman’s madness. Is this perhaps indicative of something larger in our society? Do we emphasize conformity so much that we cannot understand individual pain?
Ylva, Kajsa, and I spent the sushi dinner talking about folktales. After I told them the basic plot of “Hagoromo,” in which an angel comes to earth to bathe in the ocean, and while she is unaware, a man takes her clothes. The story is known nearly all over the wold as the swan maiden tale, so I asked them if there were a similar tale in Sweden. In reply, Ylva told me a wonderful contrasting tale. In the deep dark forests of Sweden, a beautiful young man sails the rivers in a small boat, with no clothes on, playing the violin so exquisitely, anyone who sees him draws near, slips and falls into the river, drowning.
Ylva told me another story. On a small island off of the Swedish coast there was once an old woman, a witch with a magic ball of yarn. When all the other families were milking their cows, she let the ball of yarn bounce out the door. It would roll through every home and soak up all the fresh milk. Filled up, it would come back to the old woman and fill her bucket with fresh, warm milk. The worlds and mythical threads of far away countries came together there over a luxurious meal of raw fish in the heart of Tokyo.
We met again in Shibuya a few days later. There, at the large intersection, they took pictures of the large crowds, bright lights, and over-sized plasma screens. Stockholm is not nearly as large as Tokyo, they said. Stockholm has a population of 825,057. Tokyo has 12,790,000 inhabitants, and is neighbored by other large cities including Yokohama, the second largest city in Japan. In Tokyo, you can practically dissolve into the crowd and disappear. Nowhere is that more possible than at that intersection in Shibuya.
Ylva’s picture of me at the Shibuya intersection.
I met Ylva and Kajsa again about two weeks later on September 9th in Kyoto. Early that morning, I went to Kyoto station to pick them up. They came through the ticket gate from the bullet train, suitcases in tow. There, hardly a few minutes in Kyoto, and Kajsa paused. “It feels completely different. The people walk slower, and the atmosphere is more refined, more elegant,” she said. She said she could feel the city had once been the capital and the cultural center of Japan.
They stowed their luggage in a locker, and we headed off to Arashiyama, in the western hills. We passed through the Arashiyama tourist area, stopping at a few souvenir shops to browse, and came to the Togetsukyo bridge across the river. From there, the green hills rise over the Oi River on one side and continue through Kyoto as the Katsura River on the other side. We were far far away from Tokyo now. Despite being only the first week of September, the air was slightly cooler. It felt like summer was coming to an end.
We crossed the river and climbed up the hill to Horinji Temple. I’ve written about the annual noh performance on September 9th (9/9) in previous posts (here and here). This year, Sensei used a mask Natsuko had carved, a mask which in his dance was somehow more pure and kind-hearted than the mask he had used the year before. His dance was also different. Instead of a powerful show of seemingly supernatural strength, this year the dance’s strength was thinly veiled with a strange supernatural wisdom or insight.
After the performance, the yearly tradition is for all of Sensei’s students to join him to eat shaved ice (flavored with green tea and sweet azuki beans) at a roadside cafe. The cafe overlooks a small lake. The far side is farmland, behind which the green mountains of Arashiyama rise. We arrived there in mid afternoon, and despite the cool weather, many of us had a green mountain of shaved ice like every year.
With Kajsa at the lake in Arashiyama. (Photo courtesy of Ylva Henrikson)
Because of the cool weather, we sat inside the cafe instead of in the garden like we had the year before, but having finished our food, we wandered over the street to the edge of the lake. The sun was already hovering above the hills, so we had to shade our eyes looking at them. Kajsa stretched her arms wide and Ylva lay down on the grassy slope. Their homes in Sweden were more like this than Tokyo. They could relax in a place like this, they said. Of course, in Sweden, they are probably already wearing warmer clothes by now, they said. It’s already fall there.
They also spoke about the winters in Sweden. Almost the whole day is dark. To see the sun, they have to go outside at noon or they will miss it and see only the night sky all day long. It is cold and dark. In contrast, in the summer, there is almost no nighttime. It is warm and light. Kajsa said the first time she had felt hot weather at night on a trip near the equator, she couldn’t comprehend it. For her, hot weather could only be concurrent with sunshine.
Since that time at the equator, however, both Ylva and Kajsa have traveled the world to engage in their art with artists everywhere. Kajsa spent a summer in France. Ylva was in Southeast Aisa and Denmark. Kajsa’s boyfriend was coming to Tokyo to play his guitar for a dance performance at the end of the month. While I was with them, the world seemed very small.
That evening, I took Ylva and Kajsa with me to a meeting of all of the foreigners studying noh. We went to Sensei’s practice stage in Iwakura to watch a recording of the play Iori, which he authored (see previous posts about its performance in Paris, Dresden and Berlin), and to drink sake with chrysanthemum flowers floating in it to celebrate the holiday – a toast to everlasting youth! (to be continued . . .)
Two of Kajsa’s Daily Dances filmed in the Stockholm tube: