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Saturday, September 23

I Think I Prefer The Electric Guitar

Thursday was my initial event with the Ikebana International Kamakura Chapter. We met as a group and took a train to Daibutsu for the performance. This gave me my first opportunity to talk with other members and maybe make some friends. All of the members were much older than myself, so it looks like while I will enjoy learning new aspects of Japanese culture with this group, I don’t see myself meeting any new BFFs.

When we arrived at the event, it was quickly recognized that the Americans I had come with were about it for the day. The entire room was filled with Japanese women dressed in elegant kimono or fancy suits. I knew to dress up but we were told that we would be sitting traditionally Japanese style so avoid any short skirts. Shoes were removed to enter the tatami room where the performance would take place and placed in a shoe cabinet. Women wandered here and there either barefoot or in their hosiery.

The only seats left when we arrived were in the first four rows… cushions spread along the floor where you kneel down and then sit back on your legs underneath of you. For Japanese women who have practiced this seating their entire lives, this position is not a challenge. For the Americans, they understood that we are just not comfortable that way. An effort is to be made to perhaps keep your legs folded to the side and if you absolutely can’t Indian style will work but you will never find a Japanese woman sitting that way. I try to observe the customs here and initially sat in the proper Japanese way. After twenty minutes however, my legs began to go numb and I, along with the rest of the Americans, squirmed myself into various positions throughout the two hour performance. I fared better than some. Many Americans had to take extra time to uncrumple themselves and get their legs to again stand and support themselves.

Biwa is a type of Japanese string instrument, similar to a guitar. There are two types, one called Heike-Biwa and the other slightly larger one on the right, Satsuma Biwa. Biwa performances are rare these days as it is an old art form and as so many things, just not practiced by the younger generations.

Meet Kakusho Nakamura. He is either 83 or 93-years-old, comments were made with regards to both, and became a Biwa performing artist through skills taught by his grandfather. He speaks English and has widely travelled, sharing his talent with people in China, Australia and the United States. He is also an author and has written several works on the anthology of Satsuma Biwa. He was very eager to share his understanding of what Biwa is with us and mixed both Japanese and English into his description. There was an interpreter who also shared parts that weren’t entirely clear which was very helpful as his accent was often thick and the English wasn’t always recognizable at first.

With seats only in the very front rows, that hadn’t left us with much of a choice. We choose the second row but after the first row didn’t fill, the Japanese women encouraged us to move up to the first row and make ourselves comfortable. (How in the hell, may I ask??) Once Mr. Nakamura was explaining Biwa to us, he would often look down at the person directly in front of him… ME… and give me the head nod that ‘yes, I am understanding all of this.’ Of course I didn’t. But I nodded anyway.

Mr. Nakamura began the performance using the Heike-Biwa and seated Indian style with the Biwa resting on his lap similar to a guitar. Once the performance began, I honestly feared for a spell that this was all I would be hearing on this day. The best way to describe the sound of this performance was that it was relatively like an Indian chanting and interspersing it with plucking a chord that made a strained, high twang sound followed by the clap of wood on wood when the bachi (large, pick-like device) struck the Biwa after each chord. For an untrained ear, this performance was relatively slow and completely impossible to follow. The paper explaining it told us that we were listening to “The Tale of the Heike,” a story about the rise and the fall of the five generations of the Taira clan that lasted for about seventy years. I honestly got about none of it. And I wasn’t the only one left slightly bewildered.

Once the performance was finished (we knew because others started clapping), he picked up the other Biwa, the Satsuma Biwa, changed his seated position to one like the women around him because this Biwa is larger and needs more room. He still plays it similar to a guitar but with an even larger bachi, that he had handmade and told us was the largest in the world. As there is no one to dispute this, we gave him his dues.

This performance was much more likeable. The sound was the same but the message was faster and there was more to the chords after he paused in his chanting. The first part of the story with this instrument was another story about rivalry and the second, he retold Shakepeare’s Macbeth. As this was something I have read and understand, it actually made that part extremely enjoyable and I understood much more how the music told the story without even understanding all of the words. Isn’t that how opera works too? I swear I remember learning that from Pretty Woman.

So ended the performance and it was time for lunch. We were served traditional obento boxes, a cookie called a raisin-wich which would knock your socks off and water or tea. The obento box had two layers, one with about 15 to 20 different bite-sized pieces of food, of which I only recognized three! A snap pea, a piece of carrot and one shrimp. Oh, and I recognized some egg too. The rest, well… I tried it all and still couldn’t tell you what it was I ate. Some pieces I ate the whole thing and others I only had that first initial bite before calling it quits. The saving grace was that the bottom part of the obento was filled with rice, of which I ate every morsel, coming this close to licking the box. Eating is always an experience here. You just never know what you may get.

Lunch ended, a fundraising auction was held, and we used the Japanese facilities and then made our way back to the train. Every single one of us looking forward very much to next month’s event.

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