Search This Blog

Friday, January 23

Playing Adult Dress Up

Saturday morning dawned bright and warm. This was a blessing to be discovered, as the day was going to be filled with activity for Ikebana International. It was the day of our most special program of the year and I was going to be a very busy girl. Our chapter had organized for the day a very traditional Japanese New Year’s celebration of Mochitsuki. There would be opportunities for the many gaijin who were coming to try mochi pounding for themselves (pounding rice into a traditional sweet snack) and to listen to huge taiko drums pounding out notes that tell old stories while dragons swirled in front of them. It was going to be a full day for the Kamakura chapter.

I arrived at the private house and gardens behind the Great Buddha early in the morning to be transformed. The chapter had chosen me to be dressed and decorated in traditional kimono fashion, which meant at least an extra hour of getting ready once I got to the house. I had never been past the main room where events are held, so it was an honor to be escorted through this amazing and lovely Japanese house. It took all I had not to gawk at everything around me or to peak into rooms that I passed. I’m one of those people who loves to drive down streets and peak into open windows… usually an impossible task in Japan where high walls and security doors block out any voyeuristic possibilities. The kimono dressing sensei and her team were already set up in a room towards the back of the house. The quickly rushed me to sit down on two fluffy floor pillows in front of a mirror, where two of the three went straight to work. One painted my face in heavy pinks and reds while the other curled and teased my hair into the beginning stages of an updo. The hair dresser tucked bits of soft and fluffy brown plastic that looked almost like a brillo pad into the sides, pinning my hair over it to really give it oomph. When she had it all up in place, she added Japanese ribbons and gold and sparkly jewels that dangled over my forehead. It all felt very much like I was some sort of geisha being prepared for the evenings consorts. Once the hair and makeup were down, I was made to strip down as the started adding layer upon layer of kimono to me. In ancient days, the more layers you wore meant the higher your status in society. All those layers were hundreds of pounds though. Today’s dressing using light layers and even some that would be called dickeys (what a seriously awful name) in American culture. Our chapter president and the sensei had already chosen a pink kimono for me to wear, which was laid out and pressed waiting to be draped and tied onto me. In my mind, kimono is for the skinny Japanese woman. Not some tall, chunky American woman who may have lost all of her baby weight, but the body certainly hasn’t recovered its previous shape. But sensei squeezed and pulled and tucked and tied until I was ready to be presented. I was shocked at the reception that awaited me out of the room.

Our president had asked me to be at the door to greet everyone as they came in. I spent the next thirty minutes hearing how I looked beautiful, most fervently from the Japanese who understand the work behind kimono… compliments ranging from “you look like a doll” to “you look like Madame Butterfly.” I blushed madly the entire time, shy about all the compliments, but really felt wonderful thanks to their words. Often times someone would stop and ask if they could take a picture of me or with me. I happily obliged with cheeks sore from all the smiling. After a spell, another one of our members who is actually Taiwanese came out to join me in kimono as well. Her husband had also donned the traditional costume of the samurai, but he would stick more to the sidelines throughout the day.

Once everyone was settled into their seats, the program began. As I said, it was a big day. We had special guests like the Maria Cuna, the Ambassadors Wife from Mozambique, and her friend, another Ambassadors Wife, but I sadly forget where from, as well as several past I.I. presidents from various other chapters. As they were seated in the front row, the glass wall that faced across the garden was opened where the taiko drum group were all ready to go. The group’s name is Fugaku Taiko and I learned some very interesting information about them that day thanks to the research of our Programs person. She revealed that some members of the group are professionally trained therapists while others have a disability. Fugaku Taiko had toured the United States earlier in 2008 doing performances and conducting a series of workshops promoting taiko drumming as a form of therapy for disabilities such as Down Syndrome and Autism. The incredibly enthusiastic way they all played, it was hard to think that they have even more impressive lives outside of taiko drumming. Every song was played with such intensity and energy as they pounded in perfect sync on a series of different drums. Adding to one song was the famous dragon dance where two members hidden into coiled dragons swirled and twirled around themselves and each other.

As they completed their act, the next part of the program, a man with boundless energy and stand-up comic humor came onto the scene. He and several others dragged out the hollowed wooden “bowl” where mochi waited to be pounded into the perfect sweet. One man kept time with his own tiny drum while the others clapped and chanted, teaching the crowd the correct words to be said when each pound was made. When the lesson was over, our master mochi maker asked for volunteers. At first, people were a bit shy, but it didn’t take long before young and old alike were hopping down into the garden to take a few swings. When one wee thing of a girl climbed down to try, they handed her one of the smallest hammers to be found. I can’t see how a hammer like that would even make a dent, but it was so sweet watching her swing this thing that was perfectly sized for a tot over her head and onto the mochi. I thought I was hidden in the back well enough, but our president found me. She insisted that I go out and try. Only one problem, as I had been in the back, I hadn’t totally seen how you are to specifically do this. When the mochi maker told me I would go first and the gentleman across from me second, I really just decided to literally wing that hammer and hope for the best. I was quite glad when the master finally called for us to stop, although in his humorous way, he had made us pound extra long compared to the previous efforts.

As mochi pounding came to a close, it was time for our bento box lunch, a mikan (something from the orange family) and oocha tea, followed of course by the freshly pounded mochi… one bite rolled in crushed peanuts and the other bite covered in sweet red bean paste. I ate as quickly as I could while hidden in the back, where I could actually sit without worrying that my inner kimono layers were showing or that someone would see me making weird mouth shapes to get bites in without messing up my glossed lips. As soon as I was done, it was back to work. While others continued eating and chatting, sensei took me up front for an obi tying demonstration. The obi is the piece that wraps the waist and apparently there are many ways to tie it artfully. I had started the day with a modern tie decorated by fluffy feathers peaking out the top and ended the day with a more traditional knotted bow, chosen only after she had shown the audience about five other ways to tie it as well. My job was only to stand there and try not to fall forward or backward as she tugged away.

As things were winding down, many guests took their opportunity to go out and try pounding out a correct tune on the taiko drums. While the drums didn’t look hard, the hand movements did, so I again avoided being pulled out for that.

Our group is all about sharing culture and getting the word out about the group and our activities only can add to the sharing. Therefore the president had made sure that the Japanese media was on hand for the day. Two papers sent journalists, the Kanagawa Shinbun and the Asahi, the major paper in Japan. Both of these papers had seen my husband on their front page several months ago. While I didn’t make the front page, I did end up in both Sunday editions. I’m sure the conbini store girl thought it very odd when I asked her which papers were which, then bought four of each. Why would an American who can’t even read the title of the paper buy so many of them? Because we Americans are just crazy like that, that’s why.

(And here... I have no idea what is up with the font. I've tried over and over to fix it, and it just won't cooperate. I'm too irate to continue trying. Deal.)

Other board members on both the Japanese and the American side had wondered why I hadn’t brought my little boy and husband along. The program was a special one meant for families. When they saw me in kimono early that morning, they even tried desperately to get me to call him and tell him to come in. But it was nice to spend a whole day out not worrying about a pipsqueak who would need a bottle every two hours. Plus, I would have a heart attack if my beautiful boy spit up on sensei’s gorgeous kimono. Changed back into my own clothes, it was time to head home. Tried from standing all day and walking in the strange but proper way, there was no place I was looking forward to than the arms of those waiting at home.


Momo-Mama said...

Oh, I am so happy to read a post from you again!

Your kimono was beautiful!

Anonymous said...

You look radiant!

Anonymous said...

mountain peak

Anonymous said...

wow- absolutely amazing karen!! this was definitely a once in a lifetime experince. what a cool experience. you look beautiful!