There are so many firsts of the New Year often marked by the prefix hatsu (初), which means “first” or “new.” Hatsuburogu is one of the few that is not in popular use, as I just made this up for my first freshly written blog post of the year (scheduled entries are great for vacations, and I thoroughly enjoyed my New Year holiday hibernation).

Some things take place on the first day, like the Hatsu-hi-no-de (初日の出, first sunrise) and Hatsuyume (初夢, first dream), and quite often the Hatsuwarai (初笑い, first laugh). In my Hatsuyume I was laughing with my Grandpa, so I guess that covered two. I don’t have a great view of the sunrise from my apartment and the San’in region is much more well-known for its sunsets anyway, but I did kick myself out of bed to go take a look.

My Hatsumode (初詣, first shrine/temple visit) was to Izumo Taisha a couple days later. This was like the opposite experience of my first Hatsumode experience at Kamosu Shrine, which took place after midnight in the midst of a silent snowfall. This being Izumo Taisha during the daytime, we figured it would be so crowded that we could barely move and with our plans to rent kimono we feared it would rain, but it turns out all of Japan had lovely spring-like weather that day, and although the shrine grounds and surrounding area were very lively and the yatai (food stall) areas were too crowded for us to bother sticking around, we made very smooth, thorough rounds around the shrine. Out of all my visits to Izumo Taisha, I enjoyed this time the most.

hatsumode-biyori

kimono-asobi

izumo-taisha-mairi

wabbits

My Hatsugama (初釜, literally “first kettle” but refers to the first tea ceremony) is in a couple days. I’m very busy getting ready for it, since my classmates and I have our turn to serve as touban, the people “on duty” so to speak to prepare the ceremony and serve everyone. It’s more responsibility than I’ve ever been given in a tea ceremony, as usually the most I’ve done is otemae (preparing the tea in front of everyone) and ohakobi (serving tea and sweets to the guests). This time I’ll be doing everything from giving greetings and explaining the decor to serving sake and food in a formal kaiseki meal, but my responsibilities aren’t that heavy when compared to my classmates who are bringing all behind-the-scenes tool, ordering wagashi, arranging flowers, and everything else in addition to the tea preparation and serving we’ll do together! We’ll be hosting it in the place where I had my first Hatsugama experience two years ago.

I’ll be on the serving end instead of the receiving end of this set-up, probably in this very room.


Since it’s the Year of the Monkey, we’ll be using this Hear-No-See-No-Speak-No-Evil futaoki (a tool to rest your hishaku (ladle) on)


A musubi-yanagi (bound willow branch) decoration, a typical New Year decoration in the Omotesenke school. The circle stands for good things coming full circle once again.

At the time this entry is scheduled to post, I’ll be at my naginata Hatsugeiko (初稽古, first practice). The Shimane Prefecture Martial Arts Hall (the Shimane Budokan) puts on a big Saturday event for everyone from a variety of different disciplines to make a first practice at the same time, so the dojo is filled with all shouts of all kinds as people strike, guard, throw, and do whatever else their martial art calls for. Afterward, they serve zenzai, a traditional red bean and mochi soup to kick off the new year.

Last year was a really good year for me in practicing naginata. For instance, there are eight basic engi (set forms done with a partner), and of those, forms 6~8 are a little complicated and therefore usually only taught to high schoolers and adults. We learned 6 and 7 this year and will probably move on to 8 soon. I also borrowed a mask so that I could compete in my first sparring match at the Chuugoku region competition this past November. I lost, but it had to be called by the judges at the end of the match instead of being a clear loss partway through, and I feel I did really well. Actually, last year was my first time to have worn a mask and gotten any real sparring experience at all! There were some long training weekends with lots of pointers from teachers in other cities, and I passed my 1-kyuu test this past fall. I could potentially test for a shodan rank later this year (which, if you’re not familiar with kyuu and dan ranks, is like the equivalent of a first degree black belt), but it’s still hard to say.

Unfortunately the only photos I have of myself doing naginata are showing off my poor stances from a couple years ago. So here is a doodle I did a couple months ago instead, though the stance is still not right. The hands should be lower in chuudan stance.

The first calligraphy of the new year is also special. It’s called Hatsu—er, no. It’s called Kakizome, but still written with that character (書初め). I can’t say Shodo (calligraphy) is among my regular artistic pursuits, although I have been taught for fun a few times. It’s been forever since I held a brush and felt very stiff while writing my first characters on the Izumo style Japanese paper I made at the Abe Eishirou Kinenkan last year, 晃 (akiraka, clear like bright light) and 輝き (kagayaki, shining and radiance and sparkling and all that fun stuff), but then I let loose with a bunch of Zen phrases often used in the tea ceremony world.


蓬莱山
無事是貴人
福寿雙生
和敬清寂

Those were done shortly after watching the sunrise and drinking my first cup of tea of the year. I’d like to blame my poor character balance and stroke control on being blinded by the sunlight, but I suppose this is another year to improve.

One of my favorite memories so far as a CIR in Matsue was the Yakumo International Theatre Festival last November in a mountainous southern district of Matsue. It is held every three years, and over the course of four or five days, professional theater troupes from around the world gather in the village area, experience home stays, and practically backflip over language barriers as they mingle with the local audiences of all ages.

As I am already a big fan of many performaning arts, I was very, very excited to hear about this event. Of course there are regularly traveling professional performances hosted at Matsue’s regal concert hall and culture center, Plover Hall, and at the medium and large size theaters inside the Shimane Civic Center. What I really miss from my university days, however, was getting in free to a wide variety of performances of plays I had never heard of staged in intimate and small settings where the stage takes up the whole world around you. Famous performances in grand halls get you exposed to high culture that often requires some mental effort to fully engage in, but in an intimate setting with a story you’ve never had any exposure to, it engages you directly through the heart.

Therefore, I was excited to not only find out about the festival, but that one of the venues is Japan’s smallest public theater, nestled right into the mountain forest. Shiinomi Theater is a wooden building with seating for 108, designed with class and intimacy in mind. It is managed by a community theater group called Ashibue. Besides the local actors and volunteers of very professional caliber, they also collaborate with professionals from around Japan. I had the pleasure of being invited to one of their practice performances last year to provide some input on how they were tailoring it for a multinational audience, which was a major treat. The director, Tsukushi Sonoyama, left a very deep impression on me. She had an intimidating presence and gave sharp directions, as she had a clear vision and was determined to see it through. I thought she was so cool!

Therefore, even more and more to my excitement, I was overjoyed when I was asked to help with the opening ceremony for the festival. I’ve done the interpreting or English emceeing for a handful of ceremonies, and they’re always fun to some extent while following a typical formula. This, however, was–by design–no run-of-the-mill Japanese ceremony. Director Sonoyama directed it like a theater production, and I was really, really happy to receive her directions on what words to stress, where to pause, where to lead people into applause or prevent them from applause quite yet. It was no simple run-through as usual; I got to receive serious direction from a person whose directing admired. Even though I was speaking into a microphone off stage the entire time and reading from a script, I got to be a theatrical version of myself again instead of a ghost-like interpretor trying not to attract too much attention away from the speaker, or a formal English emcee guiding an audience through a process. I got to be part of an artistic vision.

The days (and long nights) leading up to the opening ceremony gave me a peak into the world of the passionate and serious volunteers who are committed to setting a consistent tone for the festival and seeing it through smoothly. I admired them all, and it built my excitement up even more. I still felt a little apprehensive, though—without a car, how hard would it be to get around all the little mountain venues? Would rural audiences be receptive to so many international theater approaches?

The opening ceremony itself went very well. I did the English emceeing with a Japanese co-host throughout most it, but in the second half he had to leave to be on stage for Ashibue’s opening performance so I did both the English and the Japanese. We only introduced ourselves at the very end of the first half before the intermission, and until that point, a handful of the people who know me at Matsue City Hall (such as the mayor and my department head) thought, “Hm, this voice sounds really familiar… what!? That was Buri-chan!?”

Although there were many, many performances I really wanted to go to, I had some other schedule conflicts that long weekend and could only afford to spend one full day there. I watched three productions: A puppet show with Japanese narration by the Omar Alvarez Titeres Puppetry Arts Company from Argentina, a multilingual and interactive dance production by CORPUS from Canada, and a play by Magnet Theatre from South Africa that did not really require knowledge of English or French to enjoy, though they blended use of both.

As for my concerns, I found access was not a problem at all, even when it rained. There were free shuttles going back and forth from Matsue Station all day, so even without a car I had no difficulty in getting to the Yakumo village area. Likewise, there were shuttles cycling all the venues sites, including the large Alba Hall and little Shiinomi Theaters, as well as the crafts fair and restuarant area, where the menu each day was inspired by the cuisine of some of the countries that the theater groups came from (prepared by a local chef who is known for doing this at monthly parties full of authentic and vegetarian food). Everywhere you went on that cold autumn day, there was a sense of warmth from the theater festival’s decorations and designs, especially its apple theme with the tag line, “Theatre is food for the heart.”

As for the audience receptions? I of course loved all the productions I watched, but I also loved seeing how it affected the other audience members. After the puppet show I saw people passionately express how moved they were by the performance, including an old man with tears in his eyes. The outdoor dance performance had everyone from kids to old people practically in stiches with laughter, and the dad they pulled out of the audience to play “Fifi” got really into it and looked like he was having a lot of fun, even if he perhaps could not believe what he was doing in front of so many people. The performance by Magnet Theatre was both comedic and movingly dramatic even if you couldn’t understand all the words, and I’m getting chills now thinking back to sitting back in Shiinomi Theater and watching it. Although the scene when they lit stage objects on fire has a lot of impact, I’m thinking more of the scene later on when the daughter realizes the truth that her mother had tried to protect her from the whole time. Ah, I want to cry!

So why do I bring this all up now, even when I don’t even have any good pictures to share?

Because although the next Yakumo International Theatre festival is going to be 2017, this September they are hosting the Little Forest Theater Festival!

There will be a variety of puppet shows, including a repeat visit from the Omar Alvarez Titeres Puppetry Arts Company, and also Ashibue’s “Gorsch the Cellist.” Unfortunately I will be out of town during the festival this year, but fortunately I will be in town for a couple later stagings of “Gorsch the Cellist.” I’m looking forward to seeing a production at Shiinomi Theater in the crisp autumn air again!

Please enjoy a few December views of Japan’s highest ranked garden–ten years running!–while I’m organizing photos from the kimono event. These are a few snapshots from my first visit to Adachi Museum of Art, in Matsue’s neighboring town of Yasugi.

Giving the number of shuttles that go directly to and from the museum, you can get there by taking shuttles directly from Tamatsukuri Onsen, Kaike Onsen, Yonago Airport, or Yasugi Station (the next station east of Matsue on the express lines, or four stations down on the local line). As easy as it is for individual travelers to make it there on their own (especially foreign travelers who get a half-off discount on admission!), you can expect to see a line of tour buses out in the parking lot on any given weekend. As such, my friend and I got there at 9am to try to beat the crowds. When we parked outside there were only two buses, but by the time we left there were at least ten!

The garden, a series of small self-contained worlds, varies both by season and by time of day. I visited during the later part of kouyou (autumn leaf) season, and the surrounding mountains of Matsue and Yasugi were all warm hues even on the grayest of days. At this early hour of December 1st, the sun was still relatively low in the sky, so there were slanted rays of light to peak through the leaves in the eastern gardens and cast a heavy shadow over the western dry landscape while illuminating the background mountains. Depending on what kinds of pictures you’re trying to take, the morning light can be a blessing or a curse.

This garden leads to one of two Japanese styles tea houses. The museum also has a restaurant and another cafe, all of which provide different views of the garden. One of the tea houses, Juraku-an, boils the water for the tea in a pure gold kettle.

Many Japanese gardens attempt to create a miniature version of a more vast landscape, with the arrangement of motifs mimicking patterns in nature. The large rocks are mountains, while the white gravel is a river coming forth from the mountains.

The natural mountains of Yasugi also make up part of the garden landscape. This peak is Mt. Katsuyama, where the Mori clan set up camp while battling the Amago clan. The war between these two clans influenced much of the western edge of Honshu before Japan was unified under the Tokugawa shogun’s rule.

Just because they use gravel as a water motif doesn’t mean they can’t use real water, too.

At the far right side of this picture in the distance, there is an artificial 15 meter waterfall–a part of the garden which you can see from outside the museum! The Kikaku Waterfall was constructed in 1978.

This was the only snap shot I could get of the pond garden on the east side. The sun was reflecting so brightly off the surface of the water that you can’t see anything in my other ones! With the naked eye, it was hard to look beyond the shimmering surface at the lively fish for very long.

With my simple point-and-shoot camera I didn’t bother trying to get any perfect shots. Even when setting up the shots I did take, it was hard to decide what to try to include and exclude, as even a little change in angle and zoom will result in a different looking world. You’re really only able to take in the world of the Japanese garden with your own eyes and physical perspective, and it was much more exciting to be there in real life than to see photos. There are parts of the pathway to sit and see the framed view of the garden that make it appear like certain styles of landscape painting, or like the scroll of a tea room in the tokonoma (decorative alcove). In place of a scroll in that room on display, they had a window.

In order for the garden to take on an active, immediate level of art, it must be perceived. It is best perceived in person, as your perception changes with every step, and every unique view provived throughout the course of the art museum. As part of the active perceptive space, you continually pass between views of the living garden and series of Japanese paintings, especially collections of Yokoyama Taikan‘s works.

Yokoyama Taikan. “Distant Landscape” (1957). Click on the picture to go to the Yokoyama Taikan page, or on his name to go to the Wiki page and learn more about his style and contribution to modern Japanese painting.

While everyone talks about the garden and posts pictures of it everywhere, it’s still a perfectly good art museum even if it wasn’t part of the garden world. While I didn’t feel the need to go home and plant a maple tree, I did feel the itching desire to go home and sketch birds sitting on plum tree branches.

Sakakibara Shiho, “Japanese White-eyes and Plum Blossoms” (c.1939). Click on the photo to read more about the “Fragrant Flowers” exhibition, Winter 2013.

In addition to the Japanese landscape, portrait, kachou (flowers and birds) and series of other natural subject matters in Japanese style, there are collections of things like ceramics, paintings from modern travels around the world, illustrations for children, and statues. Thanks to the Google Cultural Institute, you can view some the collection here. I discovered Ide Yasuto and Yoshimura Seiji, a couple of promising, imaginative artists who were featured in one of the exhibitions and were honored with the Adachi Museum of Art Award.

Obligatory “I was here” snapshot.

I mentioned in the previous entry that I practice the naginata. This is not just for fun in the martial arts hall–I have to protect Lord Horio!

As you can see, the job of a CIR can cover a wide range of activities. Well, not that this was for work, but being placed in Matsue means that I get to take part in things like the annual Warrior Parade which reenacts the moving of Lord Horio and his troops into the new domain of Matsue in 1611. There were several different roles and groups, and I was placed among the lady warriors, meaning I got to look menancing in peach and wield a prop naginata (though dancing with one is different from training with one, both methods are quite fun!). Directors from across the country came together to help train a couple hundred budding samurai for the event, and we started practicing a couple months ago.

The parade was set to take place on Saturday, April 6, during the height of cherry blossom season–especially around Matsue Castle, the finale spot. The weather on Friday was perfect–warm, sunny, not much wind.

But that perfect weather was the problem. Due to the warmth, there was plenty of moisture in the air, and there was a very foreboding weather forecast. We knew ahead of time that there was a strong likelihood of rain on our parade–and not just rain, down pour. On the final practice the night before the parade, the resourceful directors announced the back-up to do it in indoors.

Indoors!? I thought. We can’t spread out across the streets and march across the city? That does not fit my mental image of this event!! I wished really, really hard for sunshine, as I’m sure many of the others did, too.

On the day of the parade, the rain started as soon as I stepped outside in the morning. We all gathered several hours before the parade so we would have time for getting into costume and taking pictures (a huge thanks to all the volunteers who got everyone dressed!), and everyone was still in high, hopeful spirits. With everyone stopping each other for pictures, it felt like everyone got together for a samurai convention or something.


Lord Horio’s wife and daughters had really impressive, detailed wigs, but I didn’t get a chance to snap a picture of them personally. These ladies danced with cherry blossoms branches.


Our group leader and sub-leader looked even cooler than the rest of us! We shall proudly follow them into battle!








Last minute practice sessions–and last minute routine changes!


However, the weather was getting worse and worse.

Late in the morning, they called the outdoor parade off and decided to hold it inside the rotunda instead, though our one practice of the cramped rotunda version the night before had been far less than graceful.

A whole parade in this space? No!! I was so disappointed I wanted to cry.

Crying, however, would not have been a fitting reaction for a warrior, so we all pulled together for more flexible strategy. It took adjusting our the movements we had been practicing for months so as to not injure the crowded audience (or each other!), and even in the moments before we took our turn performing, our group leader whispered new instructions to everyone that we had never brought up before. Samurai must think on their feet, and obey with loyalty! Our performance mostly went well, I think.

These pictures will kind of give you idea about the naginata routine.




Thanks, Jin-san!

Thanks, Jin-san!

Of course, I stopped taking pictures once it was time to go on, but the amazing Jin-san has a gallery here. Watch the video he put together, too:

At the end of the performance, the directors (all grown men) were all crying because they were so moved–at least, I hope that was the case!

Good job, everyone! Let’s do our best next year and be prepared for sunshine!

Matsue CIRs double as ninja and as samurai.

With careful attention spent on the first times you do many regular activities, I thought I would post a couple more of my firsts for 2013.

I had originally intended to wake up and watch the Hatsuhi or Hatsuhi-no-de (first sunrise) but I fell asleep. Oh well, the San’in region is better know for its setting sun than rising sun, right? (Nevertheless, my fellow CIR got some very nice pictures of the Hatsuhi from near here!

Then I saw my Hatsuyume (first dream), in which I went to Izumo Taisha and ate some array of pickled vegetables. It’s so fitting with the Japanese New Year theme that it’s almost boring! But what can I say, these things were on the brain. (I’ll get to the vegetables in the next post.)

Before I went to sleep, though, I wrote my Kakizome (first calligraphy), as well as my less standardized first rakugaki (doodle).

"Ishi"

“Ishi”

Hmm. My calligraphy could use a little work. A lot of work.

I went with “willpower” as my first writing of the new year to help reinforce one of my resolutions. It’s probably one of the most commonly chosen and commonly broken of resolutions, but I need to cut some sugar out of my diet. Sure, it has a bit to do with being a little healthier, but perhaps it has more to do with my addiction to dessert cafes–of which Matsue has plenty! It’s so easy to go run some errands and wind up sitting around at a cafe and reading a book and trying out different kinds of teas and desserts and running out of whatever cash I brought with me.

This one had a nice looking lunch menu, too! I'll have to try that sometime...
Had a tasty panini at this one first
Honestly, I came looking for lunch at this one! But they didn't serve any, so I had to eat a dessert sampler instead.

And these are only a small sample of the western style ones! Matsue still has a thriving green tea and wagashi (traditional Japanese confectionery) culture, after all. I suppose I don’t need to deny myself at those establishments, right? Right!? There goes my ishi now…

In 10th month, most of Japan must go without their local kami, because they are all convening for their yearly meeting to decide how they’ll be influencing people in the year to come (more or less on an individual basis). Out here in the old Izumo province, however, we celebrate Kamiarizuki (literally, “the month with gods”) because they gather at Izumo Taisha (the second most important Shinto shrine).

Having kami around is generally a felicitous thing, so paired with the three day weekend, there were plenty of things to do in Matsue this weekend. I didn’t make it to everything I was invited to, but I fit in quite a bit. You’d think it would be hard to draw a crowd for anything going on because of how much is going on, but there was some giant outdoor gathering for everyone this weekend.

For starters, the Daichakai (“Big Tea Party”). I had been looking forward to this one for a while. Different schools of the tea ceremony set up tents around the castle grounds to do constant introductions of their respective styles.

A little hard to have an intimate ceremony with that many people, but it works.

The way it works is that you buy a ticket (or three), then turn in the ticket at the reception area of whatever style you want to try. They give you a colored and numbered ticket to turn in at the next open ceremony (the color indicates which time slot you have, the number is for organization purposes). There is typically a tent to wait in or observe flower arrangements. Once they start, everyone finds a seat in a rather orderly fashion, and one host prepares the tea while another explains the actions and decorations and characteristics of their style. The first and second guests (typically) receive tea prepared in front of everyone, while the other guests receive tea prepared behind the scenes by other practitioners. Before received the tea, everyone eats a fancy little wagashi (traditional Japanese sweet, which comes in all kinds of clever shapes and colors, and is usually identical in their level of sweetness–as in very, very sweet). In contrast, the tea is usually very bitter, but the contrast is refreshing.

Inside the tents, everyone is seated on a nice clean chair, and the ceremony typically goes pretty fast, meaning they probably serve several hundred guests over the course of two days. Instead of paper cups, in my experience every guest got to use a fancy cup/bowl, since appreciating the tools is also an important element of the tea ceremony.

This is Houenryu, which was very popular. This was more of an east-west fusion, with black tea instead of green tea, and European style China instead of traditional Japanese tools.

I didn’t participate, but I did enjoy the glimpse of tasteful fusion I did get.

I tried Soshinryu first, which served the tea in a more Chinese fashion–a delicate cup filled with loose leaves, which you keep pushed back with a matching lid as you sip the brew. It was served with an orange and pink and purple wagashi evoking maple leaves and filled with anko (sweet azuki bean paste).

After that I tried Fumairyu, the local style started by Fumai-ko. That had a lot of wabisabi influence (this is a rustic Japanese aesthetic that appreciates imperfection), and was a matcha (thick green tea made from powdered leaves), and had an orange and purple wagashi that looked simple like a piece of gyoza, and was once again filled with anko.

The following morning I went out to Meimei-an (the historic tea house), as this is one of the rare occasions when you can actually take part in a tea ceremony inside. It was removed from everything else and hidden away up a hill, so it certainly felt more formal. This was the Musha-Koujisenke, which was also matcha and had a green, purple, and pink wagashi coated in a sticky azuki bean concoction.

Lucky for me, kimono attire was not required. An umbrella would have been nice, though. Ninja rain attacks out of nowhere.

After the Daichakai, we went down to the south side of town for the annual Oden Summit. Oden is a seasonal food, and while there is a usual menu of Japanese ingredients, it pretty much consists of any collection of food items served in a hot broth (usually a fishy kind). It’s not quite like soup–you don’t eat it with a spoon, but take bites of the items and they gush with broth. It’s a bit of a comfort food, if you’re used to it.

This is closest to what comes to mind when I think of oden, though not necessarily shaped like Himeji castle (not a pine tree).

There were several Matsue vendors (with everything from traditional to Italian style), but also vendors from other prefectures (and Korea). I tried a couple traditional varieties and a kimchi one, but the curry flavored oden was my favorite.

After that, we checked out an event that seemed to have something to do with Nikoniko Doga (which is like, the Japanese version of YouTube, only with more active promotion? Does that sound like the best way to put it? I don’t have an account, so I don’t know…). It seemed to be aimed at a younger crowd, but there were plenty of people showcasing products and companies and organizations from everywhere.

While attendees at the Daichakai were dressed in fine kimono and western formal wear, youths here were also putting extra effort into the way they dressed. I liked seeing both styles!

There were performing groups and individuals on stages, and a group learning a dance to a pop song, and some famous (?) people giving autographs who people lined up to meet them, and then some wandering performers.



Practically across the street from the Oden Summit and lining any available space between the art museum and Lake Shinji, there was the Mizube Arts Festival, full of food and craft and clothing vendors, and jungle gyms for kids, painters working on giant canvases, and performers (both on large and small stages, or just on the grass with microphones, costumes, choreographed fighting and dramatic background music).

Also, notice that island in the distance behind the stage? This is one of the only weekends when you can visit it. So I did! But that’s a post for another time.

By the way, the kami aren’t actually here yet. They still meet meet according to the 10th month of the old Japanese lunar calendar, whereas the humans have switched to the Gregorian calendar.