Monday, August 27, 2007

Sensuous Japan #2: Ready for a Kabuki Dance Lesson?

The first stop on your journey to Donna’s Japan is a kabuki dance lesson with Fujima Kansome at her traditional home high in the hills of eastern Kyoto. I was introduced to Kansome Sensei by one of the administrative assistants at “Voice of Kyoto,” the English conversation school at the intersection of Shijo Karasuma where I got my first job. The job sucked, but the Nihon buyo lessons and concert performances were highlights of my stay in Japan. Here’s a description of a lesson from an earlier draft of Amorous Woman, written back in 2001 before the novel took on its erotic focus. Lydia does mention to her charming dentist in chapter three that she takes Japanese dance lessons, but the following scenes never made it to the novel—and for good reason. It’s pure description with not a shred of juicy conflict. It’s clearly better suited to a leisurely personal essay or travel memoir, but I hope it gives you a good sense of how and why I love Japan. So, have a sip of that cold barley tea and read on.

My dance teacher lived in a traditional Japanese villa set halfway up a mountain in the eastern part of Kyoto. The house was over a hundred years old, I’d guess, the posts of the front gate well-weathered. Two huge maple trees crossed hoary arms over the stone path, a canopy of green lace against the summer sky. The garden was always a few degrees cooler than the city streets below. I paused to dab my forehead with a handkerchief, a Japanese custom I'd adopted in the past few weeks. In August Kyoto was, true to its reputation, a steam bath.

I didn't bother knocking. The whine of shamisen music within was answer enough. I slid the wooden-slatted door open far enough to slip through, then closed it behind me as quietly as I could. Leaving my sandals at the entryway in neat alignment with a pair of black lacquer geta, I stepped up into the anteroom.

Sensei was at her usual post at the entrance to the zashiki, the spacious formal tatami room where we practiced our lessons. A small figure wrapped in a pale green summer kimono, she was barely larger than the hulking boom box at her side. I bowed. She nodded back. The student on “stage” inclined her head a cordial centimeter in my direction without breaking her pose. With another bow, I hurried into the changing room, one tatami mat wide, pulling the sliding door of translucent paper closed behind me.

I took my kimono bag from the wardrobe and replaced it with my own sweat-dampened dress, neatly folded. Through the glass doors overlooking the city, I could see part of Nyoigatake mountain where a great bonfire would be lit in a few weeks to light the dead back to the underworld after their annual mid-August visit to the land of the living. I’d seen pictures of the Daimonji, the huge Chinese character for “great,” glowing orange against the darkness. To me it looked like a human figure, one horizontal stroke for the arms, one sweeping diagonal forming the head and leg, then a second stroke curving out from the arms as if poised to step over the mountainside. But this close, in the clear afternoon light, I saw only a swath of bare earth gouged from the surrounding forest like a wound.

I quickly fastened the metal clips of my tabi, socks of snow-white cotton split between the first and second toes to accommodate the strap of a sandal. With their thick soles, designed to both grip and glide, they were the slippers of the Japanese dancer. Then I put on my yukata of dark blue cotton, securing it around my waist with a single cotton sash. Dressing was easier in the summer. When I first started my lessons six months before, I had to struggle with two layers of underkimono bound up with numerous cords and belts, followed by a wool kimono. The practice obi was the same all year, a narrow yellow sash which needed no pads or scarves like the formal version. I’d finally mastered the technique of tying a simple bow in front and tugging it around to its proper position in the back, a source of some pride, although I’d heard a graduate of a kimono dressing school was required to tie an obi in an elaborate butterfly shape behind her back without a mirror.

The shamisen music stopped. Through the paper door I heard the other student murmur her thanks to the teacher above the hum of the air-conditioner. I quickly pulled my hair back into a ponytail and took my dancing fan from its case of orange brocade.

My legs bound in a column of cotton cloth, my back erect in the obi’s steady embrace, I left the changing room much differently than I entered. A Japanese girl glides, toes pointed inward, rooted to the earth, yet supple like a willow or a flower. It is the Japanese way--in dance and in life--to transform constriction into art.

The practice room was empty. The other student must have gone home in her yukata, wearing those geta in the entryway. I waited, breathing in the incense riding the chilly currents of air. The dusty fragrance originated, I assumed, from the Buddhist altar in the far corner of the room, a large cabinet of glossy wood trimmed in gold, with mysterious little shelves and drawers, and a small bell resting on a cushion before it.

The door to the right of the practice room slid open. Sensei excused herself for her absence with a smile. I caught a glimpse of a TV in the corner, the edge of a low table. Once, from a different angle of the room, I'd seen a white-haired old woman huddled at that table. I knew little about my teacher’s other, ordinary life, only that she spent half of each month in Tokyo, performing, studying with her own teacher, the head of this school of kabuki dance, and, she once intimated, attending to the pleasures of a wealthy patron.

"Shall we begin?" she said in Japanese.

"Hai," I replied, dipping my head. After nine months in Japan, this constant bowing seemed almost natural to me. I moved to the center of the room, turned to face the teacher and sank down into the formal seated posture. Laying the dancing fan before me, I placed my hands on the tatami so my thumbs and forefingers formed a triangle and bowed low, my forehead grazing my hands.

"Onegai itashimasu." It is the most humble form of "please" used in the presence of teachers and other superiors. "Give me the favor of your instruction" is understood.

"From the beginning."

I arranged my body in the opening pose of the dance I would perform for the recital the following month: crouching, one knee touching the floor, the open fan shielding my bowed head. Thanks to my practice at home, I no longer wobbled as I waited for the music to begin.

The hiss of the tape gave way to the trill of a bamboo flute--a cool, lonely sound--then the harsh strum of plecturn on cat-gut shamisen strings. My cue was the singer's nasal voice, warbling words I only half understood:

The most famous place for cherry blossoms is Yoshino,
For maple leaves, the Tatsuta River,
For tea it is the village of Uji.

Lowering my fan, I was the Tea Maiden, rising to her feet like a new leaf unfurling. I held the fan over my head, a bamboo hat shielding the maiden from the sun as she went to pick the first and finest tea leaves of spring. With a flourish and a quick change of grip, the fan was a basket. The tea maiden picked three leaves in pantomime, then bent, tired from her labor. She took three steps, turned, slipped her left hand into her sleeve, then posed for three beats, closed her fan and sank to her knees again to perform a tea ceremony, the trusty fan now serving as a tea scoop. Before the dance was through I would dally with a lover, parade as a high courtesan and mime an old crone finding solace in a brew of well-cured leaves as a temple gong signaled the end of the illusions of this mortal world.

Sensei watched from the front of the room, mirroring the more difficult movements of the hands, her face set in the customary expression of the Japanese dancer, detached but slightly pained as if she were pretending not to overhear some unpleasant gossip about herself. I was about to move on to the next section of the dance where the maiden flirts and quarrels with her lover, when she clapped her hands, switched off the tape and joined me on "stage."

A Japanese doll from afar, up close my teacher’s face had a vaguely Mediterranean look. I sometimes wondered if her patience with my awkwardness wasn’t a result of a dash of foreign blood in her family tree.

"Now, Donna-san moves like this." She stepped forward, toe-heel, toe-heel, bobbing like a marionette in the hand of an unskilled puppeteer. She paused, then tilted her head toward me with a playful smile. I laughed and blushed.

"But the Tea Maiden moves like this." Her body suddenly took on new gravity as she glided across the floor and turned with a smooth dip and swivel of the hips.

I fixed my eyes on her lower body, wishing I could part her kimono to observe the movements of her legs. We never discussed technique. In Japanese dance, the student was to learn karada de--with the body--not words.

Eyes twinkling, Sensei positioned herself in front of me, slightly to my right, so I could watch her as we practiced this passage of the dance together.

“Again,” she said, and we stepped and turned, stepped and turned over and over. At first my feet resisted, as if I were pushing through thick mud, but with each repetition they grew lighter, the tatami smoother. At last, I felt it, the barest glimmer of what it would be like to know in my muscles and bones the secrets of her grace.

Sensei nodded, satisfied with my efforts for the moment. I was not. I knew her criticism was a sign she thought I was ready to move one step further in my study, one step further toward perfection. I silently vowed to practice at home until I got it right, until I could dance the Tea Maiden just like a Japanese girl.

Back in the garden, I picked my way gingerly over the mossy stepping stones. Ribbons of soreness rippled along my outer thighs. I always seemed to discover a new muscle after my dance lesson. In spite of the freedom of my Western dress, I still hobbled a little.

I paused under the maples. The deep, water-rich green leaves tapered into points like fingers, set off perfectly by the wooden fence, the mossy earth below. Today’s lushness was only a precursor to the dazzling crimson of October. I thought of the courtyard of Akikonomu, the lady in The Tale of Genji who loved autumn. The beauty of this place gave me a strange, hollow ache as if I were already missing it and the young woman I once was. I’d been told it’s a Japanese feeling, as if the land itself brought out this sweet melancholy from the human soul.

But I had an appointment to keep, a private English lesson in the western part of the city. Passing through the wooden gate into the twentieth century, I hurried down the narrow, tree-lined street to the bus stop. Halfway down the hill I recognized a slender, sleepy-looking young woman ascending the path. Her name was Chieko, another dance student whose parents owned the kimono store at the foot of the mountain where I had my winter dance kimono made at a special discount. I learned then, over tea and sweets, that their daughter was an English major at a prestigious private university in the city.

Chieko nodded, but I felt my stomach tighten as she crossed to my side of the street. The first time she approached me I thought she was after English lessons, but it soon became clear that she had been assigned the role of go-between to explain the many financial obligations of the dance student. Every time I talked with her, I ended up at least ten thousand yen poorer. Sensei herself never mentioned money. At the beginning of each month a low table appeared in the anteroom with wallets of white paper calligraphed with our names, into which we quietly slipped a crisp ten thousand-yen bill. Over the past months, Chieko had informed me that I had to buy a package of tickets every time the teacher appeared in a concert and include an additional month’s fee in July and December as the customary seasonal gifts.

Today, after a cursory greeting, she explained in careful English that my portion of the fee to rent the hall and print up the programs for our concert was eighty thousand yen, due with the next month's tuition. I would also have to pay the special kimono-dresser ten thousand yen and give the teacher an extra ten-thousand yen gift on the day of the concert.

I felt my eyes widen, but I had enough presence of mind to stop my jaw mid-drop.

Chieko’s eyes flickered uncertainly.

"This is our Japanese custom," she said, smile of apology playing over her full, round lips. "I have been studying longer and must pay much more."

After a moment of panicked arithmetic—a hundred thousand yen was a half a month’s salary and I had about eighty thousand in the bank to last until next month--I forced my lips into a weak smile. "Yes, I understand."

Chieko rewarded me with a grin. "Thank you."

We both bowed quick goodbyes, she no doubt relieved to have discharged an unpleasant duty, me anxious another moment in her presence would bring more unwelcome news for my bank account.

I reached the bus stop just as the light green city bus came into view. Forfeiting more coins into the fare box, I sank into an empty seat beside the exit door, leaned back and closed my eyes. One hundred thousand yen! I realized now that serious expression Japanese dancers wore was not Buddhist detachment, but worry about how much it was all going to cost.

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