Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Performance Art

A lot of history today.

The Tokugawa era of Japan is one of the better known ones. Tokugawa Ieyasu took over after the current daimyo Hideyoshi's death, decimating resistance from the other warlords and uniting the country under his rule. It was he who closed off Japan from the rest of the world for two and a half centuries, a fanatical xenophobe who's family forever changed the history of Japan.

The Nijo Castle was built in Kyoto after he became shogun in 1603. Though it has a moat and high walls, it was less a fortress and more a testament to Tokugawa's power and influence. Lavishly decorated and sprawling, each room has huge doors/murals of landscapes. Gold leaf is in a lot of it, and even the ceiling is carefully painted with flower designs, different ones for different rooms.

We had to take our shoes off before we could enter the castle, and it was nice to walk around in just our socks. As we went, the floors chirped pleasantly. The sound was nice, but it had a serious application. Intruders were a unwelcome possibility, and the nightingale floors were a kind of alarm system since you cannot walk on them and not make a squeaking noise.

Another interesting part of the palace was the guards doors. It was important that the shogun was guarded at all times, but keeping the guards hidden was useful for surprise attacks. Dotted around the rooms were doors with red tassels, and these were closets where the guards would sit keep on the lookout.

Unfortunately, I have very few pictures of the palace. They said it was because the flash photography would damage the decorations (the light would fade them) but I think it was so you would have to buy the pictures in the souvenir shop :P

For me, this palace was extremely exciting. I could just imagine servants and attendants rushing around, of the ladies and lords sitting in meeting or going about their business. This was a piece of the Japan I had come for. Unfortunately I was several centuries too late.

After that, we headed to Gion Corner where we knew geisha were. Geisha are half the reason I flew 22 hours to get here. Their grace and elegance is unsurpassed by years of training. But how to find them? You can see them on the street during certain times of the day, but many people wait for them also, and the whole thing feels vaguely like we are paparazzi. Other than that, all their festivals and public dances take place in August or May or January. And a private party with a geisha means spending upwards of 1000$ if not more, not to mention they won't take just anybody, least of all foreigners. You have to be rich and connected to see a geisha. Since I was neither, I called up Kyoto Tourist Information.

Me: “I would like to see some geisha, do you know where I can find some? I'm in Ponto-cho (a prefecture in Gion district where geisha often work).

Them: “Well...you can't just go into their houses or anything.”

Me: (awkward pause)...No, I mean, I would like to see them doing their traditional dance or instrument playing or something.

I wondered what the heck this person thought, that I would just wander into someone's house like an idiot. I guess the information must get a lot of stupid tourists?

Anyway, I was directed to a theatre in Gion and we found it without much work. A note about Gion; it is quite beautiful and worth seeing even if you aren't going to any shows. It's packed to the gills with little restaurants, most of them traditional. We found a couple holes in the walls while we were there and generally found the people to be tolerant and accepting of us, not to mention extremely pleasant.

The show was amazing. It's was basically a compilation of several forms of Japanese theatre and art. Within an hour, we saw Japanese tea ceremony, ikebana (traditional flower arrangement), koto playing, kabuki, comedy play, traditional dance, and bunraku (puppet theatre).

The traditional dance was performed by a maiko, or junior geisha. I'm no expert on traditional Japanese dance, but I thought it was beautiful. Every move was practised until it was second nature, controlled to the point of perfection, not a hair or fold was out of place. I know this was a performance that was mostly for foreigners, but it didn't matter. This was as close as I was every probably going to get and that was good enough for me.

Watching all the artistic performances together was an eye opening experience in that it showed me what I believe is the heart of Japanese culture. With every act, the performer was in complete control of what s/he was doing, even when it came to the comedy. There was a set number of steps to what they did, and while to an outsider this may seem “unoriginal” or “stiff” to me it showed what was important to them. Life is itself chaos, and you never know what is coming next, no matter how much you plan. Perhaps to them this was a way of dealing with that, by putting as much stability in their lives as possible. Look at their gardens, every stone and leaf in place. Look at their face, a mask of neutral expression. They control what they can because who knows what may happen tomorrow.

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