Ylva and Kajsa II and a feminist look at the Japanese cultural arts

(The lake at Arashiyama.  Picture courtesy of Ylva)

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.

4 thoughts on “Ylva and Kajsa II and a feminist look at the Japanese cultural arts

  1. Correct me if I’m wrong, but is it not true in Noh, as well as in tea, that the majority of amateurs are women?

    I hadn’t realized that the heads of the tea schools were Zen monks, though I suppose that makes sense, Zen being so tied to Chinese culture.

    I’m hoping to be in Kyoto for the summer (’10)… reading your posts makes me all the more excited for it.

  2. Also, I’ve been meaning to ask you (have I asked you already?)… I’m curious if you know anything about the Noh stage at Itsukushima-jinja.

    Somehow I had been given the impression that it was the oldest, or one of the oldest, Noh stages extant in the country. But since the shrine was rebuilt in 1557, surely that can’t be right, right? There are places like Sado-ga-shima that as far as I know barely ever saw war, and where presumably there are Noh stages dating back to before Sengoku. Are there not Noh stages somewhere in the capital region around Kyoto that would date back to before Sengoku as well?

    Just curious. I would love to see a performance at Itsukushima some day… the only stage to be built over water. Must be a wonderful experience, in terms of the dreamlike qualities of the setting.


    1. Dear Travis,

      Thank you for the comments. Yes, most amateurs in tea and noh are women, but they are labeled amateurs and because of that cannot proceed past a certain level of training. What you might call a glass ceiling in business is more like wood and clay in Japan. There is really close to no way around it.

      About the Itsukushima noh stage, I think it’s old (I didn’t know the date, but thank you), but not as old as the Nishi-Honganji stage in Kyoto, which is said to be the oldest still in existence. Of course, early performances were not necessarily performed on what we now know as a noh stage. They were also performed out of doors or in their patron’s homes, so stages will probably not date back as far as Zeami, but I’d have to double check facts there.

      I did see a performance at Itsukushima once. Udaka-sensei performed Okina there. The tide was in, and it was a magical experience. I wrote about it in this blog under “Okina: Religion and male chauvinism in noh.” The male chauvinism refers not only to Okina, but even more so to the rules concerning the stage itself. Have a look!

  3. Hanna,

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I had not thought about the informality of stages prior to a certain era, though that certainly makes sense. I suppose the next time I am in Kyoto (hopefully this summer) I will have to visit Nishi-Honganji and check out the stage there.

    I had read your post on Itsukushima before, when you posted it originally, but thanks for pointing me to it again; it was just as interesting the second time.

    I, too, hope to someday get to see a woman perform. The male-only tradition in many of the traditional arts is something that will not be quick or easy to change; I think Noh in particular may move extra slowly on that front, as the result of its close ties to spiritual/religious ideas of purity and devoutness, and of the traditional explanations regarding distracting the actors, etc.

    Young girls sometimes perform on the kabuki stage, and there are female members of the kabuki families who are the heads of schools of nihon buyo, specialists in kabuki dance, who you will never see on stage at a “regular” kabuki performance counted among the official kabuki schedule for the year, but who do perform dances and such, possibly alongside male kabuki actors (I’m not sure). There’s also the Onna-kabuki troupe, whose head was formally granted the Ichikawa name, though they too do not perform at Kabuki-za or otherwise within the context of a “regular” official kabuki performance.

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