Tag Archives: obi

Merry Maiko Christmas

True, Christmas is not an official event in the hanamachi. But in today’s post, we learn how playful maiko characters pop up in Christmas merrymaking.  Even a former geiko’s ensemble nods to the holiday.

Making My Desk Maiko-Christmas Ready

Nothing like some cheery maiko to welcome December to my study.

I hang the “Maiko’s Christmas” tenugui from Eirakuya–shown above– across the wide computer screen. It’s an easy way to brighten up my desk for the holidays. Looking at this, you can almost forget December writing deadlines.

Holiday card from Greeting Life, Inc., Kyoto. 2021.

Displaying this delightful holiday card from Haruka sparks joy, too. Here, the maiko sits quietly at Renge-ji Temple. She gazes at its lovely garden. Tiny Santa Claus characters rambling around her seem comically misplaced. Merry mischief makers!

Christmas Decorations in Japan

Christmas 2018. Shizuoka. Jan Bardsley

Of course, I enjoy Christmas in Japan, too. Festive lights and special department store windows, prettily decorated Christmas cakes, and ornamented trees brighten the urban landscape in December. Spectacular light shows, known as winter illuminations, create fantasy spaces of LED lights, even in the Kyoto area. In 2018, Phil and I had great fun in Shizuoka City (near Mt. Fuji), hearing the brass band outside the train station belting out bouncy Christmas tunes, seeing Santa Claus-costumed dancers and Dixie Land band members in the shopping street, and attending a handbell-ringing concert by local high school girls.

Brass Band Shizuoka, 2018. Jan Bardsley.

Maiko and Geiko Join in Unofficial Christmas Fun

Christmas inspires hanamachi fiction, too. Koyama Aiko’s manga about superstar maiko Momohana and her cooking pal Kiyo “whip up” a sweet story.

Koyama Aiko, 2017.

The NHK-World Japan online anime “Kiyo in Kyoto: From the Maiko House” imagines maiko enjoying sugary delights in “Christmas in Kagai.” (Kagai is another pronunciation for hanamachi, the “flower districts” of teahouses and okiya).

As “Christmas in Kagai” opens, it’s nighttime. We see a giant lighted Christmas tree outdoors and illuminations. But when the view shifts to the hanamachi, the quiet streets look the same as ever. Only the usual hanamachi lanterns stand out.  The narrator explains:

“There are no special Christmas events in kagai. No Christmas light decorations. And no Christmas trees. But there are hints of Christmas.”

Takashimaya Christmas Cake 2021.

The anime shows these jolly hints. One elderly teahouse okami-san (manager) wraps her obi with a bright red, green, and white obijime cord. Western-style flower arrangements in the room carry the Christmas theme. Clients bring gifts of brightly decorated Christmas cake, like the pretty 2021 confection shown here from Takashimaya.

Indeed, so many cakes arrive at Kiyo’s okiya that soon the maiko have had their fill of whipped cream and strawberries. Too busy practicing her dance, the diligent maiko Momohana has not had a single bite!  Kiyo comes to the rescue, whipping up a tasty strawberry fruit sandwich for her pal.  The “Christmas in Kagai” anime ends with a lesson in how to make fruit sandwiches, a maiko favorite.

An Elegant Geiko’s Christmas-themed Obi 

Kiriki Chizu’s chic Christmas obi. Posted on her blog Dec. 12, 2021.

“In Gion, the kimono is the indispensable heart of style,” writes former geiko Kiriki Chizu (226).  As we see on her blog, Kiriki always turns an elegant figure in her tasteful kimono. Invoking Christmas gives an unusual seasonal dash to her ensemble.

In December, Kiriki sometimes posts photos of her chic yuletide obi. In 2017, she wrote about wearing it to Kabuki, “I wore my Christmas wreath obi. Kimono help you enjoy the feeling of the season, and that makes me happy.”  This December, she paired the obi with a  pale mauve kimono. In her book The Gion Way, Kiriki credits her sartorial flair to her okiya mother’s tutelage during her maiko days. She’d advise, “Doing the same thing as others is never stylish” (227).

Enjoy Seasonality, Feel Free to Invent

The Gion Way, 2007.

Thus, Kiriki learned to enjoy inventing her own creative moments within  kimono conventions. Among these, the Christmas wreath most delights her.  When a certain Kabuki actor’s wife, an aficionado of kimono, spotted her wearing the obi from afar, she rushed up to Kiriki. “Ooooh my, oh my, oh my…what is that?,” she asked with glee.  With great satisfaction, Kiriki responded, “Oh, this? It’s Christmas.”  Kiriki’s sole regret: she can only wear this chic obi in December (228).

Happy Holidays from Chapel Hill

Here’s to enjoying the year’s end in 2021 with your own ways of celebrating the season.

Maiko Solar Doll. 2021.

REFERENCES

Today’s featured image, the design “Maiko’s Christmas” is found at the website of Eirakuya, Kyoto’s famed textile firm, known for its tenugui (cloth hand towels).
https://eirakuya.shop-pro.jp/?pid=85952743

Kiriki Chizu. Aisare jōzu ni naru Gion-ryū: Onna migaki [The Gion way to skill in becoming loveable: A woman’s polish]. Tokyo: Kōdansha, 2007. For much more discussion of Kiriki’s book, see Maiko Masquerade: Crafting Geisha Girlhood in Japan, 2021. Translations here are mine.

Koyama Aiko.  Maiko-san-chi-no Makanai-san. Serialized manga. Volume 17. Episode 23, Shōgakukan, 2017. NHK World Japan translates the manga title for its anime adaptation as Kiyo in Kyoto: From the Maiko House.  Here, I reference anime Chapter 17: “Christmas in Kagai.” https://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/ondemand/video/2094006/

Jan Bardsley, “Merry Maiko Christmas,” https://janbardsley.web.unc.edu/  December 20, 2021.

Woodblock print of Japanese girl with knotted love letter, 1910

The Magic of Koibumi: The Japanese Love Letter

What does this girl hold in her hand?  The white paper, carefully folded, draws our attention.  What is inside? Does her glance backward express concern about keeping the object a secret?

Looking closer, we see the print’s title, Girl with Love Letter. That identifies the object. It’s a koibumi (love letter). But what about its shape and folds?

A Conversation with Dr. Aki Hirota, Scholar of Japanese Arts and Culture

To learn more about koibumi, I asked Dr. Aki Hirota. An expert in classical Japanese literature and practitioner of several Japanese arts, Aki gave me wonderful insights.

Tied Letters: An Ancient Custom

“Before envelopes, everyone tied letters, including business letters. But people today looking back to these traditions most often think of love letters,” explained Aki.

“We know that noble men and women tied their letters in this fashion. We know much about their love letters. They often tied the letter onto a flowering branch of a tree and handed it to a messenger who delivered it to the intended person.”

Ah, yes!  That Heian classic, The Pillow Book has beautiful examples of this.

Sei Shōnagon. Wikimedia Commons.

Sei Shōnagon describes a love letter “attached to a spray of bush-clover, still damp with dew, and the paper gives off a delicious aroma of incense” (62).  She also observes, “Very elegant men enclose long iris roots in their letters, and it is a pleasure to watch the women who have received the contents discussing them with their companions and showing each other their replies” (65).

 

 

 

“This custom is still practiced in Japan by shrine worshippers,” Aki continued. “Shrine visitors tie their o-mikuji onto a tree branch.”

That made me curious about o-mikuji. In English, you might call them, “sacred lots.” They are narrow, white strips of papers, each bearing a fortune.

O-mikuji: Good Fortune and Bad Omens

Visiting Shinto Shrines, you often see trees filled with knotted fortunes.  What’s the story here?

Omikuji near Nikkō Tōshō-gū, 2016. Wikimedia Comm.

“When the o-mikuji is a 凶 (bad omen),” said Aki, “lots of people leave it behind–along with the bad luck– by tying the o-mikuji to a living tree. Doing this is supposed to bestow you with life force.”

 

 

Heart-shaped rack.三浦半島散歩多摩 @miurasanpo
Twitter.

 

Pointing to photos of overloaded trees, Aki explains, “But in reality, the tips of tree branches themselves could wilt from the lack of sun that too many tied o-mikuji cause. That’s why  shrines ask you not to use their ancient divine trees. They build racks and the like to serve as a tying space. There are even some racks fashioned in a heart shape.”

Europeans Tied Letters Too

Folded letter. Unlocking History Research Group.

Aki observes that not only Japanese folded messages in the past.

“In Europe, from the Middle Ages down to fairly recent times, letters were folded and sealed with red wax. The writer then stamped the letter with a seal instead of using an envelope.”

Koibumi Style: Obi Fashioned with Love 恋文結び

Obi in Love-Letter Knot Style. Satomi Miyadera.  2018.

Returning to love letters bring us to fashion.  How does the folded koibumi inspire romantics still? Aki explained how the legacy of the tied love note shapes obi fashion today.

“Among the zillion ways of tying an obi on kimono, the koibumi musubi is especially popular now for yukata.”

 

 

“People say it’s great for a date! Of course, today your date may not know anything about the message that it’s supposed to deliver. You’d need to explain what this way of tying is meant to signify.”

Age-old Custom of Japanese Love Letters

Woodblock print of Japanese girl with knotted love letter, 1910

Girl with Love Letter. Circa 1910. Artist Ikeda Terukata(1883-1921). Wikimedia Commons. MFA Boston.

Even this brief foray into koibumi takes us to ancient Japanese customs, art and literature, and obi fashion.  It recalls European folded letters, too. And we know the Girl with Love Letter points to an age-old custom in Japan. Still, the print piques our curiosity about this particular letter.

 

 

For more on koibumi, you can visit the National Diet Library, Japan site, Book Kaleidoscope: The World of Love Letters.  Access this site in English through Google Translate. This site takes you from ancient to modern koibumi in Japanese arts and literature:

https://www.ndl.go.jp/kaleido/entry/26/index.html

Many thanks to Dr. Aki Hirota for sharing her insights into the koibumi, unfolding some of its history.

REFERENCE

Sei Shōnagon, and Ivan Morris. The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Jan Bardsley, “The Magic of Koibumi: The Japanese Love Letter,” janbardsley.web.unc.edu, August 12, 2021.

Dance in The Kimono Tattoo: An Interview with Rebecca Copeland

The Kimono Tattoo, 2021.

The Kimono Tattoo, a fast-paced mystery set in Kyoto, follows American translator Ruth Bennett on her dangerous quest for the truth. Ruth’s expertise in kimono history and fluency in Japanese give her the tools. Her intrepid friends take risks to help. Amid the chaos, Ruth’s practice of Nihon buyō (Japanese dance) steadies her.

As we explored in our last blog, The Kimono Tattoo gives insight into the practice of Nihon buyō by its teachers and students.

 

Meet Rebecca Copeland

Today’s blog features a special treat. We get to catch up with the author, Rebecca Copeland.    Renown for her expertise in modern Japanese women’s literature, Rebecca has studied dance in Japan, too.  Our interview explores how her experiences learning Nihon buyō shaped the dance scenes in The Kimono Tattoo.

You can also hear Rebecca’s podcast on The Kimono Tattoo. It’s on the popular channel, Japan Station: A Podcast About Japan by JapanKyo.com

The fun of taking first steps in Nihon buyō

JB:  Great to talk with you today, Rebecca.  Let’s start with your first experiences of Japanese dance.

In your blog post on dance, you recount taking your first steps in dance in 1976 at age nineteen. You describe the fun of staying “for tea, sweets, and gossip” after the lesson.  Much later, rather like Ruth, you took Nihon buyō lessons as an adult in Kyoto.  But what were those first lessons like?

RC:  Thanks, Jan.  I first began studying Japanese dance when I was a college student in Japan. A young woman about my age offered to teach dance to the foreigners where she lived in Fukuoka.  At the time I did not know how extraordinary this was.  I’ve since learned how difficult it is to acquire the credentials and more importantly the permission to teach a traditional art.  But since this young woman was only providing foreigners with a form of “art appreciation,” her sensei thought it would be okay. After all, no one expected any of us to pursue dance seriously.

What stands out about these early dance lessons? What did you learn?

RC:  For me, it was much more than “art appreciation,” and even much more than dance.  I learned basic forms of etiquette.  I learned different ways to understand grace and elegance. I learned how to dress myself in a kimono and how to fold and store the kimono after use.

Even though my sensei knew I would never excel at the form, she still pursued her teaching with serious intention.  She was proud of her art.  It meant so much to her.  Clearly, it wasn’t just a hobby or a weekend exercise. It was a way of life. Her investment in her art touched me deeply. This experience, along with others I had that year in Fukuoka, influenced me to continue my study of Japan.

Now I see why Ruth Bennett knows so much about kimono. What about your later dance lessons as an adult?

In the mid-2000s, I lived for a year in Kyoto. I taught at what was then the Kyoto Center for Japanese Studies (a consortium of American universities). The students in my program were given the opportunity to study Japanese dance, but none of them did.  I asked the organizers if I could.

The class was offered by Nishikawa Senrei Sensei, of the Nishikawa School of Dance.  All the other students in the class were about the age I was when I first began studying dance in Fukuoka.

We began our studies with the same dance I had learned when I was 19, “Sakura, sakura.”  But because in Fukuoka I had trained in the Hanayagi-style, the movements were different.

That must have been frustrating. Like Ruth Bennett, you had to start all over again.

Yes, I do remember feeling very frustrated at first.  I knew I should know this.  But everything was new to me, and I felt so disoriented.

Actually, it had been that way from the start.  As soon as I arrived in Kyoto, I felt dislocated.  I was used to Tokyo. After that year in Fukuoka, my next visits to Japan had all been in Tokyo.  I had lived there off and on for close to ten years.  Kyoto was so different.  I found it hard to get around as I was unfamiliar with the bus system (in Tokyo I almost always took trains.)  Everything was different.

On top of that, I was in a class with quick young women who immediately picked up the dance movements.  I was always the one lagging behind.  But Senrei Sensei was very kind to me.    After class I would often linger and talk with her about literature.  That’s when I learned that sensei also choreographed new, original dances.  She performed one that year based on the French sculptor Camille Claudel.  Another dance of hers retold the famous Meiji-era story of Mori Ogai’s “Dancing Girl” (Maihime).

Senrei Sensei was incredibly talented. She invested her time teaching foreigners out of a spirit of generosity and passion, not unlike that of my first dance teacher.

Senrei Sensei must have been quite a talented artist in her own right.

Senrei Sensei

Absolutely. Senrei Sensei managed her own studio, curated her own recitals, choreographed her own dances, and traveled the world.  She was grounded in traditional Japanese arts and amazingly independent and fierce. Jonah Salz published a wonderful essay about Senrei Sensei in Kyoto Journal.

She was a strict teacher.  A sharp glance from her would be enough to make me wilt with embarrassment and regret.  But she was also patient and understanding.  I would be so honored to share The Kimono Tattoo with her, but she tragically died several years ago.

Such rich experiences! How did these help you craft the dance scenes in The Kimono Tattoo?

Admittedly, the dance teacher is loosely modeled on Senrei Sensei. She taught me so much about Kyoto and kimono.  She also taught me about art and about finding the source of art in yourself.

As I noted, I wasn’t very quick to pick up the steps and I often felt like a drag on the class. As we prepared for our recital, I was amazed by how smooth the young women in the class were.  They had no problem remembering all the steps.

Later, after one class when we were putting away our kimono, one of the students told me that they watched videos of earlier performances. They received them from previous students.  Aha! I could certainly use that help. I wanted to see those videos and practice at home with them, too.

Rebecca Copeland dancing Shizuka Gozen.

When I mentioned borrowing a video to Sensei,  she grew visibly irritated.  “Art is not about perfecting form!” she snapped.  “It’s not just about memorizing.  You have to feel it in your heart.”  Then and there, she forbade all of us from studying the videos.  She told me to listen to the music at home.  “Feel the music,” she said as she thumped my breast.  “Feel it here.”  So, I tried that.  I was never as smooth as the other students, but Sensei complimented me for having the right spirit. I think Ruth and her sensei share a similar relationship. Ruth isn’t perfect but she is keen to appreciate the spirit of the dance.

Looking back on these dance lessons, what did you take away from the Sensei’s guidance?

Strangely, I think her lessons helped me in other aspects of my life as well. I stopped worrying so much about making mistakes and getting facts wrong in my own lectures and classes.  My classes became better as a result.  And, perhaps it is this awareness of following the heart, trusting the heart, that gave me the courage to try my hand at a novel.

Do you have more in store for these characters?

Rebecca, I enjoyed the lively cast of characters in The Kimono Tattoo. My favorite is Ruth’s pal Maho, who wears a Mohawk.  And, of course, one gets attached to Ruth Bennett, who can’t pull away from signs of danger.  What’s next for them?

Thanks, Jan.  You know, it took so long to complete The Kimono Tattoo–almost ten years.  I started it in 2012, and I could only work on it during the summers.  That means that I have lived with Ruth and Maho for a long time.  They continue to visit me, especially when I return to Japan.  Ruth will walk alongside me and make comments.  I don’t think I’ve seen the last of her.

Will the next mystery take place in Kyoto, too?

Sarasa Nishijin Cafe. Posted to Matcha, 2016. https://matcha-jp.com/en/1224

Yes. A few years ago I started another Ruth Bennett story.  This one is set in the Nishijin area of Kyoto. It features the sumptuous brocade for which Kyoto is famous.

Fragment of Noh theater robe produced in Nishijin district. . Freer Gallery. Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

 

 

Nishijin brocades are exquisite.  But like so many works of art that rely on human labor, the people who enjoy the brocades and the people who labor to produce them live very different kinds of lives.  In earlier times weavers often lived subsistence lives and were exploited for their labor.  This kind of dichotomy, the bright side versus the darker underside, as in The Kimono Tattoo, fascinates me.  I want to see what happens when Ruth spends time with this art form.  Sadly, people will die.  And Ruth will find herself once more in the thick of things.

After this novel I would like to send Ruth on the road.  She’ll spend time in Fukuoka and perhaps Nagasaki exploring the traditional arts there and trying to stay out of trouble.  Nagasaki is a particularly interesting city with its different layers of cultural histories: Japanese, Chinese, Dutch, British, American, and more.

Thanks to Rebecca Copeland

Following Ruth Bennett to Kyushu will be an adventure for sure. And I look forward to learning more about Nishijin in her next Kyoto mystery.

Thanks for sharing your experiences with Japanese dance and photos, Rebecca. This gives me renewed appreciation for the evocative dance scenes in The Kimono Tattoo and Ruth’s brilliant sensei.

I highly recommend The Kimono Tattoo.   “Silks unravels. A tattoo is forever. Layer by layer the truth is revealed.”  And you can stay up all night watching the layers fall away.

Jan Bardsley, “Dance in The Kimono Tattoo: Interview with Author Rebecca Copeland.” janbardsley. web.unc.edu  June 3, 2021.