A few days after the day in Arashiyama, I met again with Ylva and Kajsa for a morning of sight seeing. We went to Fushimi Inari, the fox mountain a few stops south of Kyoto station on the train line to Uji. The main buildings of the shrine give the appearance of order and decorum, their square structures almost uniformly painted with a fresh coat of vermilion.
The two foxes on either side of the main gate hold a jewel and a key to the storage room, symbols of financial success. Foxes are also famous, however, for trickery. Behind the main shrine buildings, vermilion gates in various states of decay form a tunnel covering paths winding up the mountain. We walked up a little way, passing miniature fox shrines made of stone and adorned with miniature red gates.
We climbed steep stone steps and came to a small lake with a dark shrine building at its shore. There, under heavy eves hung with thick silk banners, fat white candles with wide flames more reminiscent of a fire than a candle flame illuminated stone fox statues with a yellow flickering light. We prayed to the tricksters for respite from their tricks and turned to walk down the mountain again as rain began falling.
By the time we reached the front of the shrine again, we were damp, but before we left, I took them to a small shop that sells the original fortune cookie, now widely thought to be Chinese. I needed to buy some for my American friends in Tokyo. Apparently Chinese restaurants in Sweden don’t serve them, but after a moment, Ylva’s face lit up. She had had them before in a Chinese restaurant in London. When she said that, the world seemed so small.
We left Fushimi and went back to Kyoto. There we had lunch with Cone, a good friend of mine from when I studied at Doshisha University. Cone is currently studying at the Urasenke Gakuen, an institute attached to the Urasenke school of tea that intensively trains tea ceremony teachers and professionals. The four of us had a simple lunch in a small restaurant at the station.
Over lunch, Kajsa asked some great questions: Why would Cone and I want to study traditional Japanese arts with such a strict hierarchy that relegates beginners like us even after three to five years of training to a very low rank?
Cone and I talked about the give and take of such a hierarchy. Although younger students often have to take over menial tasks for experienced students or teachers, the older students are expected to foster the younger students. Older students are also great sources of information and can help with networking for less experienced students. Therefore, in a hierarchy it is much easier to know who to ask questions.
Then Kajsa turned to me and asked me why I wanted to study an art form such as noh, which in its fully professional ranks is completely male?
Before I could think of a good answer, Cone said that the same thing can be said of tea. Although almost all amateurs are women, those at the top are all men. No women have ever been Grand Masters of heads of a school of noh or tea. One reason (for tea only) is that the top masters are all Zen monks and they live together in Konnichian, an elite tea house that is nevertheless very small.
“How can you stand such an atmosphere?” Kajsa asked. In Sweden, women have the same artistic priveleges and rights as men and she would have a hard time dealing with such inequalities.
I couldn’t stop a smiling, because Cone, coming from Mt. Holyoke College, and I, coming from Smith College, are not unfamiliar with feminist ideals. “Perhaps we came for the extra challenge,” I said, thinking of the challenges women a generation or two before us had in our own countries. “But it is still very hard to come to terms with the obvious inequalities. If we become vocal about the unfairness, it will only hurt our situation, not help, because the belief in tradition is very strong.”
Then Cone and I began to dream aloud of the future when things might be a little different for women in tea or noh. “Of course, anything we would want to change would have to be very carefully orchestrated to make the change happen gently,” said Cone.
After lunch, Kajsa and Ylva went to explore the city without us, and Cone and I went to Gion for a luxurious cup of tea.
Again a few days later, I met with Ylva and Kajsa for a noh lesson with Udaka-sensei and a tea lesson with my former tea teacher Matsumoto-sensei. They wanted to buy them gifts, so we went to a department store first, and with time to spare after purchasing wine for Udaka-sensei and a cheesecake for Matsumoto-sensei, we walked around the shopping area at Shijo and food market in Nishiki.
Behind the Daimaru department store, we stumbled upon a small Scandinavian shop. Of course, had to go into it. What remains most vividly in my memory was a small display of CDs of traditional Swedish music. Next to them was a small iPod. Ylva listened to a Japanese band’s Swedish music and looked at me amazed. She placed the headphones on my head, took Kajsa around the waist, and they began showing me a traditional Swedish dance. The center of the store was wide open, and they twirled around a few times with large smiles on their faces. I couldn’t stop tears from coming to my eyes.
At the noh lessons that day and the next, Ylva and Kajsa were amazing. We dressed them in yukata and hakama, which looked fantastic on them. They tried their hand at the taiko drum and were amazed how the rhythm comes from the posture and movement of the whole body. Then they picked up the Oimatsu dance within an hour or two. How I wish we had had time to do more!
When I took them to Matsumoto-sensei’s tea lessons, they were overwhelmed by questions from all the other students, but we had a chance to quietly watch a full performance. The delicate, small movements held their undivided attention, but they also remarked on the involvement of the “audience” in the performance, because as guests they were required to pass sweets, make greetings, and drink the tea just exactly so, according to etiquette.
I hope the two of them enjoyed their stay in Japan. Sadly, I never got to see what sort of art they do! We said good-bye at the Imperial Palace gate, where they started a tour before I had to leave for my mask carving lesson. Running for the palace gate, like for a flight, we hugged in the bright sunshine and the guards smiled. I hope I get to see them again sometime sooner rather than later.
Shortly after Ylva and Kajsa left, I got to see a performance in Tokyo by a choreographer Kajsa has worked with before, Frank Micheletti. Her boyfriend Remi provided accompaniment on his guitar and even joined in the dance. His music was amazing! Take a look at the following links.
Frank Micheletti’s site Kubilai Khan Investigations.
Remi’s band Kafka.