The next sign of fall came last weekend, in Kyoto. Trees were changing colors and people crowded the streets admiring the clean city. When you dream of visiting me in Japan, you might think of something like Noh theatre, Kabuki, or Butoh. Then you might think, “o well, I’m sure I’ll never get to actually do that, that’s probably really expensive and difficult to organize, and besides, who really does that, anyway?” Well, in Kyoto, I found myself watching my first Noh theatre. Similar to the Setouichi Festival, I thought, “am I really doing this? How did this happen?” The play was beautiful and austere. I didn’t understand a word, but I understood everything. This paradox was made possible via my new iphone. In a noodle shop, sitting on my knees slurping soba and tempura, I searched the transcript on Google and so was able to follow along. Meanwhile, the ladies running the noodle shop tramped back and forth, yelling orders loudly up and down the stairwell, which we were sitting next to.
The play was called “Kantan.” The plot is like this: a wanderer goes to an inn and decides to sleep on an enchanted pillow that supposedly reveals the truth of the universe to the sleeper. He dreams that he is king for 50 years. Then the innkeeper wakes him up and says that his rice is ready: only 20 minutes has passed! He feels enlightened and goes home to live out his days in humble solitude. I like to call it, “the opera about the man who took a nap.”
The main character wears a wooden mask carved into the expression that best represents his age and disposition. You can see almost nothing through the mask, and must communicate the depth of your character using a minimum of props, gestures, and vocal variation. The movements of the characters were clear and moving and theatrical. It was clear that in this kind of theatre, the way that you show, for example, that your attention has been drawn from one side of the stage to another is proscribed and distinct, like a word. Another element that spoke as clear as language were the sounds the actors made with their feet. The three or four actors on the stage were accompanied by an 8-man chorus sitting on their knees on one edge of the stage, and by a 4-piece instrumentation along the back. At first, the sounds made by the musicians was so weird for the context that it was difficult not to laugh. But as the music developed, the strange beauty emerged. However, the most surprisingly communicative part was the sound of the actors feet on the stage. At certain moments of high tension, the stamping feet of an actor caused the entire stage to reverberate like a drum. That was pretty cool.
Fall arrived in full force for me the next day, when my friend Liz and I took a hike organized by an English expat who has lived in Japan for at least a decade and who began organizing hikes two weeks after his arrival. After transferring trains four or five times, we accrued hikers until we were all together. It felt like there were fifty of us. Although at first this seemed hopeless for a good hike, by the end it was really fun. It felt like a long, interesting party where you feel equally comfortable striking up a conversation with a stranger as standing by the appetizers and taking in the scenery. The others on the hike were interesting, warm, and friendly. I think I made several friends.
At the end of the hike, we went to an onsen. It was the most beautiful (of four) that I’ve seen so far. After our bath and long train ride home, I fell asleep for twelve hours. Fall is here.