November was a busy month, as anyone planning a wedding in Japan was probably planning to attend at least a few others as well.

I’ve heard it’s good luck to witness a wedding procession on a visit to a Shinto shrine, but I have never had that luck. Turns out the secret is to go on a weekend in spring or autumn–especially November, it seems! I witnessed my first traditional Japanese wedding on November 1st when a friend of mine was getting married at Izumo Taisha–one of several weddings scheduled back to back in the Kagura-den that day.

Quick reminder for newer readers to the blog: Izumo Taisha is one of the grandest Shrinto shrines of Japan, as it is where the 8 million gods from around Japan gather for their annual meeting to discuss En-musubi, which is often translated as “matchmaking” but it’s more nuanced than that–En is any sort of tie or fated relation or encounter you might have. Like most Shinto shrines visitors are not allowed in the Honden (main shrine where the god resides), but the Kagura-den is decorated with Japan’s largest shimenawa (sacred rope) and is a popular spot for Shinto ceremonies.

Although I did not attend the hiroen (wedding reception), when I got home I received a gift from another Japanese friend’s wedding. I was not able to attend that one because of the distance, but sent an o-shugi with my best wishes anyway, and she returned the favor by sending the gift I would have received if I were attending as a guest anyway.

So how does this work? Let me start by saying that Japanese weddings are expensive to attend. I appreciate the gift-giving culture surrounding bridal registries in the US so that guests have the fun of selecting something while being sure the couple will want it and that no one else has purchased it yet, with the general rule of thumb being that if you attend the wedding reception the value of your gift should exceed the value of your meal, and you might bring along extra cash to pin to the bride and groom to help them out. However, there is also something to be said for the usefulness of straight, cold cash. In Japan, you better make sure that cash is only in crisp, clean, fresh bills in a decorative envelope designed specifically for an auspicious occasion such as a wedding. This is o-shugi.

Although the o-shugi package–which you can find at department stores or in convenience stores–has instructions for where to place the money and where to write your name and address, it doesn’t cover all the finer details. Hopefully you’ve made sure to buy an envelop intended for weddings rather than funerals or visits to sick people (as there is a similar set of expectations associated with those), but the bigger question is usually how much to put in it?

After consulting with Japanese friends and checking around the internet for advice, the basic answer is that if you are a friend attending the reception, 30,000 yen (roughly $300) in an odd number of bills (to imply they can’t be slipt evenly in a divorce) is the safest bet.

Even though I did not attend the reception, I was still served lunch for attending the ceremony. Note all the auspicious symbols, such as the red and white knot, the pine, and the sekihan (rice colored with red beans).

“But what if we’re not really close friends, just co-workers?”
“What if I’m not attending the reception?”
“What if it’s a foreign couple who just happens to be getting married in Japan?”

…you might ask. In those cases, I can only suggest you use your best judgement but to err on the side of generosity. Just try to get an appropriate o-shugi envelope and you’re probably already in good shape! Enjoy the chance to dress fancy, because there will be people dressed very, very fancy. The bride will probably have two or three fancy outfits, complete with wigs. If you plan to stay for the after-parties, plan on very high entrance costs.

In the middle of November I attended an outdoor DIY wedding in the woods overlooking Lake Shinji and Izumo En-musubi airport (probably the most appropriately named airport to have close to your wedding venue), and the following weekend I had to end my morning plans early to get back and meet three people stopping by my apartment.

The first was a friend who had forgotten something the day before while she was in town visiting from western Shimane. She was visiting for a wedding.
The second was an old-coworker who wanted to say hi while he was back in town from Tokyo. He was in a bit of a rush to get to a wedding.
The third was a friend who stayed for tea, and was in the midst of preparing for a trip to Osaka for a friend’s wedding.

What plans had I been cutting short that morning?
A samurai bridal procession and wedding at Matsue Castle.

It’s been a few years since the last wedding at Matsue Castle, but it was something I had already heard of before. When I was studying abroad in a different region in 2008, I saw a brief news segment about a wedding taking place in a castle, complete with period dress for all the relatives, a full procession, and a happy feudal lord and princess waving to the crowd from the watch tower. It left a strong imprint on my memory that they had won a nationwide contest to hold their wedding like that and–being the history nerd and samurai fan that I was and still am–I found it cool, but I did not remember which castle it was. I only found out recently that it was the castle I see from my window every day.

Turns out its been a royal comedy of errors in trying to get pictures of this event, as they were supposed to have two this year but the first one was canceled due to the groom’s injury, and I was only able to see the opening procession for the second one. Furthermore, my camera broke and I lost all my data. I ran into Kimono-sensei as she had been busy all morning dressing the wedding party up, and she sent photos to me later, but I wasn’t able to download the data. Instead of snapshots I encourage you to check out the page of outstanding photographs on Made In Matsue, and the 51 second news clip on this site will give you any idea what the ceremony was like.

What I didn’t stick around for was mainly the wedding ceremony at Matsue Shrine (down a few stairs from Matsue Castle’s watch tower) and the wedding proclamation from the tower itself, which would have kept me there until lunchtime. Thankfully the weather was comfortable for the crowd that gathered to wish them well, and I got enough of my period-dress fill to last me until the next Matsue Musha Gyoretsu in early April, as well as my fill of weddings to last until next year.

I’ve had the pleasure of borrowing many different kimono get-ups throughout the years, notably the fancy furisode I wore for the kimono dressing contests (I would put a list of links here, but there have been a lot of entries about those–probably best to click on the kimono tag on this entry to browse through them). I also had the fortune of attaining a very cheap washable kimono that was subdued yet nice enough to use for tea ceremonies, as I knew I did not want to be stuck having to borrow kimono every time I might need one. I still have to borrow accessories to make them seasonally appropriate sometimes, but thankfully finding obi and other items at used stores and then matching them to the kimono is a lot easier than buying the kimono in the first place.

Although they were thought of as a one-size-fits-all item, such that a well-maintained kimono can be passed down from generation to generation and fit everyone just fine, particularly round or tall people might find that they cannot attain the right shape with a kimono meant for someone of more standard size. Thankfully I’m mostly standard size, but my limbs are rather long.

This make my cheap green kimono a little problematic for the tea ceremony, in which you make frequent use of your hands before your guests. Mine tends to show more wrist than kimono, but nonetheless, I’ve use it for three tea gatherings (with three different obi to adjust the overall effect, though I’ve bought two more to match with it while getting lucky at used shops).

However, for the Grand Tea Ceremony at Matsue Castle (aka Daichakai), Tea-sensei hoped that I might find something a little nicer.

I had been looking–how I had been looking! But most kimono simply are not meant to fit my arm length! After many searches on my own or in little shops and bazaars with old ladies to help me, many kimono looked beautiful but still fell too many centimeters short to justify purchasing them. I had also looked into how much it would cost to have one adjusted or even have one custom ordered, but those costs were quite prohibitive as well. I really wanted an iromuji, a kimono with a solid color on quality silk and with no family crests, as that would be the safest choice for tea ceremony use to try to make sure I would always have something appropriate, but also nice enough that someday I’ll have something pretty if the need for a kimono get-up arises.

Kimono after kimono after shop and after shop, I finally found it mixed in with a bunch of other seemingly unused iromuji kimono that been dumped at a chain used goods shop. What’s more, it was a little less than $50! For a kimono of that quality in a color I liked and a length and width that was just enough, it was a stroke of extreme luck. However, that the extent of my luck, as it turns out I was 200 yen short that day.

Nervous though I was about losing it, I still managed to attain it, and when I showed it to Tea-sensei everyone ooh’ed and ahh’ed at how nice the silk and color was. The problem was that I had only one obi that could be paired with it, and it was a little too wintery for a large event in early October, especially one in which I’d be attracting a lot of attention no matter what I was wearing. However, with Tea-sensei and Kimono-sensei’s help, we were able to put together an ensemble featuring a festive pine motif on the obi (quite appropriate given the “Matsu” (松)in “Matsue” (松江) refers to pine, one of the symbols of the city).

Looks like this when you lay it out…

…and it looks like this when you put it on.

And this is what it looked like on the day of my Daichakai debut, the first time I did the full temae (preparing of the tea) in public.

Shortly after things had settled down from the Daichakai, I started the next step in my tea ceremony studies: o-koicha, aka, “the thick tea”, aka, “this is the true way of matcha”, aka, “what is good about this ugh it’s like drinking paint and bitter bitter bitter uuughhh what was that.”

That last title is an amalgamation of many people’s reactions when they first try koicha, though I had some similar reactions the first time I drank usucha seven years ago. I was not even a sencha (regular steeped green tea) drinker back then, so I supposed my lack of taste for it was unsurprising. I never would have expected that I’d someday be able to appreciate the taste, texture, after-taste and lingering aroma of koicha. As I do not typically take breaks in my practices to photograph each cup of tea and adorable wagashi we partake of, I do not have my own photos to share for comparison, but Green Tea Chronicle has a very good article about it, including photos that show how the differences between these two types of matcha and how very, very green koicha is.

Making koicha is similar to making usucha, like I had been doing for a year and a half, but getting the right consistentcy is more difficult, and you use much fancier tools. In general I use Tea-sensei’s array of tools, but there are some personal tools that we have to purchase ourselves. Granted, purchasing them ourselves doesn’t always mean picking them out ourselves–in general, Sensei has picked things out for me, and I bought them from her. Perhaps it’s because of my age, but she picked out a lot of cheerful colors and patterns for my tools when I first started, although all women practicing the Omotesenke school of the tea ceremony, whether they are preparing thick or thin tea, use an orange fukusa, a cloth used to clean tools and handle hot objects during the ceremony. Men use a dark purple cloth, and other schools use other colors according to their own rules.

In preparing the extra special thick tea, though, you have a decorative fukusa to serve along with the tea, which each of the guests use to hold the cup when they drink from it. It becomes one of many pretty objects and classy tools that guests may observe closely and ask questions about, which is why you have to remember a lot the names and makers of the tools you use.

Allow me to introduce you to my fukusa that Tea-Sensei picked out for me. It is called Souka-Tsunagi, “Pairs of Linked Flowers” like the pattern embroidered into it.

Now hopefully I can manage to make some tea that tastes as good as the ceremony looks.

The very first time I came to Japan, I got to attend a high school for a week as soon as I arrived. One of my very first impressions I had been the sheer volumes of greetings I could anticipate in a very short trip through the hallway. Ohayou gozaimasu! Ohayo, Buri-chan! Osu!! However they worded a “good morning” I was bowing to each one of them, and when people asked me what I thought of the school, one of the things I said was that I felt I was getting a good ab workout with all the constant bowing, as if it’s aisatsu-undo (greeting exercise).

This goes beyond the halls of a school where people are excited to see an exchange student. It get carried into the work place or out onto the street, out among simple acquaintances and strangers. There are so many set aisatsu that people probably aren’t even aware of how many times they say a single phrase and in how many places. Besides something like konnichiwa, there are the more difficult to translate otsukaresama desu and yoroshiku onegaishimasu everywhere. I had studied Japanese for a few years before that high school experience, but I was still so befuddled why a girl in the club I tried out was saying otsukaresama desu! over and over–even though I insisted I wasn’t tired! You find this phrases is just said signifying the end of a work day or task. You could translate it is as anything from “thanks for your hard work” to the more literal “you seem so tired” or to the more liberal literal translation “Oh you, the great tired one!” I sometimes giggle about this last one my head but probably would just confuse people if I said aloud. Oh, and yoroshiku onegaishimasu? It’s very difficult to translate something like “please (treat me) well” but it works almost everywhere in all kinds of relationships and circumstances.

Before you eat, you proclaim that you will humbly partake.
When you finish eating, you orally express that it was a feast.
When you arrive at your destination, you tell the driver or passengers in your car how tired they must be.

And I’ve gotten so used to this now that it feels very wrong to be other countries have nothing to say sometimes. There must be some predetermined words I need to say at various times of day, and I’ve just forgotten them or something, right? Right!?! Where are my handy aisatsu words??

Aisatsu are part of what make up social harmony, and a fellow American and I have talked about how much importance we see placed on being able to make proper aisatsu. It’s enforced in schools, and one time when I was watching something on the news in which they were interviewing the neighbors of some high school girls who committed a ghastly crime, the things they chose to focus on really stuck out to me: they were chanto aisatsu dekiru ko—“kids who can say proper greetings.” This is not simply a matter of being friendly, it’s a matter of being trustworthy, decent people!

In the interest of being a decent, trustworthy, and friendly person with a foreign-looking face, I make sure to smile at people who I make eye contact with, and more often than not they beat me to the verbalized greeting. Of course, there are plenty of people (especially elementary school kids) who like to address me with the English word they know best, and but most of my interactions are in Japanese, and I like seeing how joyful the old ladies appear after they trade konnichiwa~s on the street.

On this particular walk home one day I passed a lady in the neighborhood who I didn’t recognize, but given the setting, she said Okaerinasai–“Welcome home”–to me, which made me well up with joy too. I was invited back simply as another member of the neighborhood.

There is also an older gentleman in a suit who I usually pass by on my way to naginata lessons, and he typically says a good old otsukaresama desu in recognition of the end of the work day, from one working professional to another. If I’ve been gone for a few weeks, he says “Welcome home” instead.

One of my other favorite people to pass by is a smiley young mother who I always see chatting away with her son as they bike to kindergarten, but when we pass by each other, she always makes eye contact and very cheerfully says, Ohayo gozaimasu! I’ll bet there are many other people who look forward to passing by her, too.

In all of my formal culture training activities (kimono, naginata, and especially the tea ceremony), there is increased formality in how and when to say greetings, but we make say because they are important. However cynical you might be about asking “how are you?” or something, at least in Japanese etiquette, aisatsu establish a bond, call your attention to the people around you, and create a space in time to be acutely appreciative of your meetings and relationships with others, as each time you meet will only come once.

And that’s the end of this entry. Otsukaresama desu.

I am currently on vacation and will return to reply to comments and provide new content later. Until then, please enjoy an excess of doodles and comics about my daily life in the San’in region. See you in mid January!

I stayed in Japan last year for New Years. Besides the plethora of year-end parties and beginning of the year parties, there’s the thorough cleaning of one’s home and work place to start the year on a clean (and if you’re lucky, lazy) note. It is also customary to send New Year’s greetings, or show up in person at work places to thank everyone personally for all their hard work over the year.

There is a familiar dance whenever people want to do something for you or give you something.

“Here, allow me.”
“No, you musn’t!”
“It’s fine!”
“I can’t allow it!”
“I told you, I’m doing it!”
“Absolutely not!”
“I insist!”
“But I couldn’t possibly accept…”
“Here you go.”
“But… well, thank you ever so much.”
“No, no, it was my pleasure.”
“I don’t deserve it; you’re so very generous.”
“You’re welcome.”
“How could such a humble person as myself come to be graced by your generosity?”
“Don’t mention it.”
“I shall treasure this all the days of my life–”
“Seriously. Don’t mention it. Ever again.”
“….. Uh, right. Thanks.”

In the US, it would probably go more like this:

“Here, allow me.”
“No, you don’t have to.”
“No, I insist.”
“Gee, thanks.”
“No problem.”

I mean, what is the giver going to do? Say, “Really? Well, okay!” and not follow through on their offer?

I’m happy to treat people from time to time and depending on the circumstance, especially considering how many times (many, many times!) I’ve been treated. I simply prefer to cut the dance short–I hope I’m doing enough dancing to be polite when I’m on the receiving end, though!

Gift-giving is a big part of interpersonal relations in Japan, but the nuances can make many Westerners uncomfortable. It can even be sticky for Japanese people, as you can see in Natsume Soseki’s novel “Botchan” in which the money for a meal the narrator was treated to is left on his coworker’s desk for weeks with both parties refusing to move it due to its social implications. On a more forcefully friendly note, I once interpreted for a couple of guests and they were given a special item, which they had originally asked if they could find in a gift shop. They really liked it, and wanted to get a second one for a friend, but insisted on finding it in a gift shop and buying it themselves (an understandable notion in Western manners). It turns out it was a limited edition item and no longer sold, so they were gifted a second one, much to the joy of the hosts and to the vague guilt of the visitors.

I’ve heard some other advice that is common in both Japan and a few other cultures–don’t complement your host’s possessions, or they may be inclined to give them to you! A friend of mine has a little collection of accessories that formerly belonged to old ladies thanks to her dishing out of compliments. Then again, though I said nothing about it in the conversation I got into with a lady on a train once, she gave me her necklace when we parted ways. I only had half a chocolate bar from the US to give her in return.

Instead of refusing a gift, which may make the giver embarrassed that you didn’t like it, it’s best practice to be reciprocal. This is a sticky situation when, say, I’m given something expensive by my Tea-sensei who runs a shop of very fine Japanese goods. I don’t trust my taste enough to get her something Japanese in origin! I brought a lot of little Colorado gifts with me when I first came to Matsue, but I suppose I should have packed a few just-in-case nicer gifts, too. (Thank you, Mom and friends for getting a couple of them to me!).

Matcha is a big deal here in the San’in region, especially in what used to be the Izumo province, and especially in the city of Matsue. It’s too cold here to grown tea, but they certainly get their fill of it.

As many people know, tea practically flows like water in this country, and being offered tea when you visit someone is a pretty standard form of hospitality all throughout Japan. However, in daily life in most places, this means something more along the lines of sencha, or a steeped tea. That said, there are many very fine grades of steeped tea, many of which I am quite a fan of. However, in this region, you frequently find people offering you matcha–it’s as if you just haven’t been offered tea until you’ve been offered matcha (unliked steeped tea, very high grade tea leaves raised specifically for matcha use are ground into a powder and consumed along with the water–as you would expect, it is generally more expensive than steeped tea).

This is not only my observation; Japanese people visiting from other regions have been just as surprised to see matcha where they expected to be served sencha.

It’s very easy to attribute the regional fondness for tea to Lord Matsudaira Fumai-ko, but I have heard a couple of suggestions for why it has remained so popular: the people here had extra money from the iron industry and ginseng industry, and because this region is so isolated from the rest of the country by the Chuugoku mountain range they’re a lot slower to change their ways, and old habits tend to develop more without so much outside influence. That’s not to say there aren’t serious coffee lovers here and the typical selection of vending machines, just that matcha remains a standard part of life (even the toddlers are frequent drinkers).

That said, the Izumo-based culture doesn’t always spread through the entire region. When I was talking about etiquite with a Kansai-area man who works all throughout Shimane, he stressed that the people in Izumo resemble people in Kyoto when it comes to being the most thickly mannered of the already rather indirect Japanese populous. He illustrated as follows:

A person from the Iwami region (western Shimane) goes to visit a friend in the Izumo region (eastern Shimane). The Izumo friend asks, “Do you want another cup of tea?” and the Iwami friend replies, “no thank you, I’ve had enough.” The Izumo friend then prepares another cup of tea, and the Iwami friend is surprised and then forces himself to drink it so as to be polite.

A person from the Izumo region goes to visit a friend in the Iwami region. The Iwami friend asks, “Do you want another cup of tea?” and the Izumo friend replies, “no thank you, I’ve had enough.” The Iwami friend pours no more tea, and the Izumo friend sadly wonders why he isn’t getting another cup of tea but says nothing so as to be polite.

In my personal experience, there have been many, many more cups of matcha than I ever blatantly intended.

Yukata season is starting to wind down now, but there are still summer festivals at which to wear them and play games to take home real goldfish (not that I would want to make the poor things suffer in the heat of my apartment while I’m away!). Despite this feeling like the hottest time of the year, we’re technically already in autumn according to the 24 periods of the old lunisolar calendar!

While wearing kimono comes with a certain amount of financial investment and necessary items to achieve the ideal shape on which to base an array of tasteful aesthetics, yukata do not require so much fuss. Unlike kimono, they are usually made of a breathable fabric like cotton and do not require much–if anything?–underneath them, so they are ideal for the hot and humid summers of Japan. Even in my kimono class and other culture classes for which classic dress is standard, they make special allowances for people to wear yukata instead of traditional kimono for practice.

If you have ever stayed at any hotel in Japan, you might have been provided yukata to lounge and sleep in, but there are yukata more proper for wearing in public. They’re cheap enough that most visitors to Japan can afford one, and some fancy hotels in resort areas, like Tamatsukuri Onsen on the south side of Matsue, provide them to the guests to wear around the area anyway. Of course, if you’re just passing through for the day, you can rent them from Himekoromo at the Hakobune Tamatsukuri Art Box. While we’re on that topic, you could always get a brief kimono experience at Karakoro Art Studio closer to Matsue Castle, too.

Just because yukata don’t inheritantly require as much fuss as normal kimono doesn’t mean that you can toss out all the rules of kimono (left side over right!!!), and it doesn’t mean people don’t fuss over them anyway. You see people wearing them all over the place at festivals, and since you can get away with any kind of pattern on a yukata (seeing as the material automatically makes it appropriate for summer, even if its covered in a snowflake pattern), people get very creative with them. It’s gotten very common to see girls with thick make-up, bleach-blonde hair with giant crepe flowers, and sparkly gauze sashes tied over the regular obi (belt). What with the freedom they offer, crafty people are getting craftier and craftier.

For the people just going for a traditional yukata look–the very mental image of which conjures nostalgic memories of summmer, and all the shaved ice, festivals, and refreshing (if infrequent) gusts of wind–there are obi that are tied with strings and have a seperate pre-tied bow that you just stick in the back.

As I call them, “Cheater Obi”–though I’ve happily been cheating for the past six years since attaining my first yukata.

Seeing as I am supposed to be able to wear kimono now, I did take the time to learn how to tie a basic bunko bow. As soon as you master the basics, however, the little creative adjustments you can make–a fold here, a stretch there, flipping inside-out around there–are only limited by your imagination and the length of fabric you have to work with. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of perfectly good, perfectly orthodox ways of arranging it already, though.

I just don’t have enough talent and practice yet to be very orthodox.

Please enjoy this daily series of comics about my tea ceremony adventures while I’m on vacation! I will reply to comments when I get back.

Please enjoy this daily series of comics about my tea ceremony adventures while I’m on vacation! I will reply to comments when I get back.

While sitting in seiza is still challenging enough, I at least learned the proper way to stand up as part of my training in Japanese manner for the kimono competition. Kimono-sensei’s method was to slide one foot into a perched position first, and then used it to push yourself straight up, with the other foot naturally sliding to join it. Sitting down into seiza is similar in that one foot slides behind you as you lower yourself to the tatami mats.

However, Tea-sensei has since instructed me that in the omotesenke school of tea ceremony, the feet stay together. In order to pull this off gracefully, it requires a little more leaning and lifting from the balls of your feet, your knees, back, and… shoulders? I can’t say I have it down to a graceful-looking science yet, though I’ve more or less picked it up well enough that I don’t always feel I’m going to topple over. Toppling over would be a bad thing in pretty much any setting, but even worse when you’re carrying antique tea tools. Thankfully I do not (yet) have any horror stories to report!