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Short Stories

The Japanese Sagas (Part 5)
by Kristin K. Trompeter
While teaching ESL in Aizu, Japan

One weekend a friend of mine and I rented a car. There was Kabuki playing at an outdoor theater that we wanted to see. I had heard and read about Kabuki, but didn’t think I would have the chance to see it as it plays mainly in Tokyo or other places in the south. However, I did learn that there is a permanent theater in a very small town that is not easily reached by train or bus. So off I went to rent a car...

The scenery was fabulous as we drove along. These vast stretches of green rice paddies stretching as far as you could see until you round a bend and suddenly you’re in the middle of a dense green forest with trees reaching way up into the sky.

Jane is fascinated by the rice paddies where you see all these old people working, many of them old women bent almost double just working from sunup (it gets light here about 4:30-5:00 am) until sundown (about 8:30ish).

These old farmers come into Aizu from time to time. Mostly early morning on weekends when there are a couple of street markets. They invariably are pulling old carts as though they are workhorses loaded with fruits and vegetables or other products that they might have made on the farm.

First stop on the journey was a scenic little town Ohuchijuku. This is a small village famous for its traditional thatched roof houses and they specialize in old time food products and traditional arts.

There we wandered around looking at the lovely old buildings and thrilling small children with our foreignness. A friend of mine, Tamra, has these paper maiche masks that I love as I have also seen them in movies and photos of theater productions. I am particularly enamored of the fox mask. It is so delicately lovely. Anyhow, I found a fox mask and a demon mask and bought those as well as a local key chain that is supposed to serve as a safe journey charm.

We then climbed up these steep, steep steps to reach a shrine at the top of a hill. We watched a father teach his twin daughters how to pray: throw in your money, clap your hands twice to draw the gods’ attention to you, make your wish, clap your hands twice more, and go on your merry way assured that the gods have heard your petition and will take it under advisement.

Exhausted from shopping, hill climbing and just having such big eyes all day to take so much in, we selected a restaurant for lunch. Now this village is famous for its soba, so we had soba. Jane and I both elected to have hot soba with tempura vegetables. Fumie had soba with seaweed.

After lunch we headed out again. As we were nearing Hinoemata, the Kabuki town, we saw we had just enough time for an onsen (hot springs) stop. This hot springs was a smaller one and not many people were actually there. We were about seven in total.

There was actually an Australian girl there whose Japanese teacher had invited her to go camping as a farewell present with the idea of surprising her with the Kabuki show. Both she and her teacher, an elderly Japanese woman who spoke wonderful English (my Japanese still leaves everything to be desired), were lovely.

Then it was time to head out for Kabuki. It had just started raining and we hoped that the show would be moved to an indoor arena, but no such luck at that late hour. We hoisted our umbrellas and trudged in with the rest of the eager theatergoers - there were tour buses full, literally.

The first man came out to introduce the theater and he did a little presentation in full Kabuki garb and exaggerated speech manner. Then the presenters came out and explained which play they were doing and the photography rules, etc.

Then the first actor hit the stage. Now, though Kabuki generally involves both men and women in their stories, like Elizabethan theater of old, all the parts are played by men. The men who specialize in women’s roles are known as onnagata. This is quite a thing when you figure that all Kabuki tends to be set in the time of the samurai so you are looking at men wearing elaborate face paint and wigs, intricate kimono garb, and painful sandals. It is truly amazing.

Kabuki theater is very stylized. All the gestures are very broad and formalized and the language is actually old Japanese so just about no one understands it. But the costumes are incredibly intricate and the choreography of fights and dances are amazingly stirring. Also, whenever an actor is not speaking, there is the music of the shamisen (a three-stringed Japanese instrument) pervading the theater.

Normally a Kabuki performance lasts three hours and involves various pieces. The one we saw was only one piece and lasted only an hour. Since most of that time was spent fighting to stay dry and watch and listen to everything going on, I do not feel cheated. It was just enough to satisfy.

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