It all began with a phone call.
Sam: Anne, I have a favor to ask.
Me: Why do I already not like the sound of that?
Sam: Now I want you to keep an open mind. Think of it as a possibility for a truly interesting experience.
Me: Now I REALLY don’t like the sound of it.
Sam: You haven’t even let me tell you what it is!
Me: You haven’t given me any indication that I should.
Sam: Just hear me out.
Me: Why should I?
Sam: Because if you don’t, I’ll have all the disgusting pictures I have of you blown up to life-size and distributed throughout the ken. You won’t be able to go anywhere without every single man, woman and child running from you in horror. Eventually, you’ll find the only time you can slither from your home is at night, under hat and cloak, when all people (except those as heinous as yourself) lay in their beds – trying to sleep – but waking, time and time again, screaming your name and trembling with fear.
Me: I think you’ve made your point.
Sam: Little children will create games using your picture in mask form-
Me: All right, Sam, I get the picture. Just ask what you have to and leave me to my misery.
Sam: There’s a festival in Hyuga at the end of September and my office wants you and I to join in.
Me: That’s it? You want me to help out at a festival?
Sam: There’s a little more to it than that… They want us to dance.
Me: Dance? You mean the Twist, the Tango, the Hustle – something like that?
Sam: Not exactly.
Me: Well EXACTLY what kind of dance are we talking about here?
Sam: The kind that has us dressed in yukata, straw hats and geta [traditional footwear] and dancing down the streets of Hyuga for a few hours.
Sam: So what do you think?
Sam: Really, it’ll be larks. I think we should do it.
Me: Ha-ha-ha-ha-hee-hee-hee-hee, ho-ho-ho-ho, haw-haw-haw-
Sam: Is that a yes?
Me: Not if my life and those of my family depended on it.
Sam: I don’t think you’re being very open-minded about this.
Me: Oh, my mind is wide open! I can just see it now – the two of us stuffed into undersized yukata, falling over our feet and making total asses of ourselves in front of the entire city of Hyuga [population 300,000], most of whom already think we’re freakishly amusing! No way. You better get those photo negatives to the store-ha, ha, ha, ha, ’cause there is no way in hell I’m doing it – hee hee hee hee – US, dancing down the streets of Hyuga – ha ha ha ha – don’t make me laugh!
Me: Ha ha ha ha – yes, Sam? – hee hee hee hee-
Sam: I’ve already told them we’d do it.
Sam: They’ve already ordered the yukata, geta and tabi [split-toed socks] for us… Come on, Anne, we’ll only dance for an hour and then make our excuses.
Me: Sam, I don’t seem to be getting through to you. My answer is an unequivocal, undeniable, incontrovertible, “NO!”
(Scene flashes forward a few weeks later to the city of Hyuga.)
Me: This really isn’t happening.
Sam: Actually, it is.
(I have no witty comeback, but merely throw my dear friend my bitchiest look.)
Me: So, tell me again when this nightmare will unfold?
Sam: 11 o’clock.
Me: And what time do they want us there?
Sam: About 10 o’clock.
Me: And that’s when we practice the dance?
Me: Yeh. That’s the thing you do when you’re expected to perform something you’ve never seen or heard before. Call me a perfectionist, but I always like to make sure I understand exactly how I’ll be making a complete ass out of myself.
Sam: We’ll practice after we get into costume. Don’t worry. It’s not that difficult.
Me: Said the tightrope walker to the one-legged man.
Sam: Don’t be so negative. This is going to be fun. Remember the Yokagura?
Me: Yes! It was utterly humiliating.
Sam: Well, yes, WHILE you were doing it. But now that you look back on it…
Me: May I remind you, Sam, that that was a 10 minute dance in front of 20 or 30 very tired, very drunk or very hungover people, at 6 o’clock in the morning, on top of a mountain. This is dancing down the streets of Hyuga, in broad daylight, in front of thousands of people – stone sober – for several hours.
Sam: There’s a slight difference, isn’t there?
Me: Only slight.
Sam: But they’ll never be able to recognize us with those big, straw hats on.
(I simply offer a “Who are you kidding?” look.)
Sam: Well, whatever the case… Come on, we have to pick Maria up at the train station.
Me: Maybe I can throw myself in front of one.
Sam: I heard that!
Now Maria is a new friend of ours who lives in Nobeoka, a town just to the west of Hyuga. She teaches privately at an all-Girls’ Catholic School there. Originally, she comes from Manchester, England. She’s a very colorful character and always bound to bring something lively to a situation.
We found her waiting at the station in a mood altogether different from our own.She was actually looking forward to the event. So cheery and upbeat was Maria that she almost lifted my sour mood.
This slight surge in my will to live, however, soon catapulted downward when we entered a large room brimming with chattering and excitement. That is, until a spine-tingling silence fell upon the crowd of women when they caught sight of the three of us as we walked through the door.
I swear I could hear a pin drop.
Once the initial shock of seeing us wore off, the chattering began anew and, one by one, we were taken through the process of getting into costume.
Picture, if you will, a large room in which 40-50 very shy Japanese women are desperately trying to undress and dress without showing more than their wrists. At the same time, three Western women are running around the room, half-naked, trying to convince their dressers that it isn’t necessary to locate full length slips for them to wear beneath what they already feel will be the hottest and most uncomfortable outfit they’ve worn since the invention of the polyester jumpsuit.
The physical differences between Sam, Maria and I and the 50 or so Japanese women who stood before us seems too obvious to mention. However, it must be pointed out that the main difference – or should I say six main differences which would undoubtedly give us away as foreigners – was quite clearly our breasts, which were being bound and stuffed into gowns originally designed without any consideration of the mammary glands whatsoever.
We couldn’t help but notice many of the women glancing our way, “down” their way, and our way again, followed by gasps and concealed giggles.
Me: How are you doing over there, Sam?
Sam: I’m fi-ay-ay-ow-ay-ne.
Me: Are you sure? Your color looks a bit off. Maybe your obi is too tight.
Sam: I’ll be alri-if-I-don-breafor-the-nex-few-hours.
Me: Where’s Maria?
Maria: Here luv.
(I turned but all I could see was a sea of ark-shaped straw hats with giant, pink paper flowers.)
Maria: Don’t ask me. I can’t see a bloody thing with this hat on.
Me: I believe that’ll be more of a blessing than a curse.
Me: I’m here!
Me: Left, Maria. Now a little to the right.
Me: Hey! You look great!
Maria: So do you?
Me: How do you know, you can’t see me.
Me: I feel ridiculous.
(Sam enters, fully costumed.)
Sam: Come now. You’ll be able to tell your children about this.
Me: I’m not sure how childbirth will be physically possible after the way I’ve been bound up.
Sam: Don’t bitch, just breathe! Now let’s go learn that dance!
The dance we were being taught embodies a woman praying to the Harvest moon for her one true love. I was praying just to make it through the day without the need of therapy. Or an ambulance.Our practice session lasted about ten minutes until the three of us decided we were helpless and hopeless and that our only chance for coming out of this event with a shred of dignity was to employ the “duck and cover” strategy.
The parade began outside the Hyuga Town Hall where our dance group formed two lines and followed behind a little, white car with a big, white loudspeaker (they really love this device) that piped out the music we would be “dancing” to. After a few practice turns around the parking lot, we quickly discovered that we had no idea what we were doing.
Our fellow dancers kept assuring and reassuring us that no one would even notice us. Yet it was hard to find comfort in these promises each time one of Sam’s students passed our supposedly “inconspicuous” trio and screamed, “Samansa-sensei!”
To make matters worse, we were asked to stand at the very head of the line. Putting a total kibosh on our plans to mimic the dancers in front of us.
As if this wasn’t going to prove awkward enough, as the procession began, we were being touted as a “special attraction” to the day’s events, with the loudspeaker announcing our presence in the group every few minutes.
Necks strained all along the parade route to catch a glimpse of the “gaijin-san.”
The three of us tried to keep our conversations down to a minimum, so as not to make us too easy to pinpoint, but each time one of us looked at the other, we couldn’t helped but crack up.
Now don’t get me wrong, the dance was truly lovely and the women were both charming and graceful in their performance.
I couldn’t help but be very appreciative of my front row seat.
It’s just that I never really got the hang of it and was constantly being reminded of my ineptitude each time another familiar face burst through the crowd with a video camera in hand and a huge grin on their face.
“I AM NOT ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille!”
Nevertheless, the next couple of hours managed to pass with relative ease and we soon found ourselves paused at a shrine with hundreds of other parade participants. We watched a holy man pray for our health and then stood back as a group of about thirty men, all clad in white, took hold of a portable shrine, or “mikoshi” and began the procession once more.
We followed behind. Watching the men carry the tiny shrine. Gently rocking it to and fro. Like a boat sailing atop the ocean waves.
I was spellbound.
Until the music from our little, white car with the big, white speaker called us to realign and begin the procession again. Eventually, we broke for lunch and returned to the town hall where we had an hour to rest up before dancing the remainder of the parade route.
It was then we learned that the event would go on until 6 o’clock that evening. Maria and I slowly turned toward Sam.
“What?” she laughed nervously. “It’s not that bad. We’re having fun, aren’t we? Believe me, you’ll thank-”
I had her in a headlock and Maria was giving her one hell of a “noogie” when the call of “Bieru” [beer] caused us to halt our assault and run toward the bearer of libations.
With time to kill before the procession began again, we took the opportunity to wander around the town hall to see all the other parade participants. We stopped where the local high school and junior high brass bands were warming up and that’s when Sam and I decided to do some dancing which we were far more familiar with. I led and the two of us swung and twirled, turned and jived around the parking lot (a true feat wrapped in yukata), but soon ran out of breath and stopped to a round of applause. At least now there was proof that we weren’t complete clumsy oafs.
Drawing a short straw plucked from my hat, Maria went in search of more beer, returning a short time later with a look of utter disappointment.
Sam: Where’s the beer?
Me: Gone? That’s ridiculous. It can’t be gone. Are you sure you looked in the right place?
Maria: Oh, I’m sure. I found the beer, but the bottles were all empty.
Sam: I don’t understand. We were the only ones drinking it and I specifically remember seeing an entire case. Now STOP KIDDING AROUND AND GIVE ME MY BEER!
Me: Calm yourself, Sam. There has to be a reasonable explanation… Now then… Maria…
(I said as I grabbed her shoulders and attempted to shake the truth out of her.)
Maria: For God’s sake, I’m telling the truth. You know those very shy, very demure, “Oh I-never-touch-the-stuff” ladies we’ve been dancing with? Well, they’ve been having a bloody party upstairs and drank every last drop. They’re practically swinging on the rafters.
(Suddenly, a roar of laughter could be heard as a group of about twenty women came rolling down the stairs of the town hall, smiles as wide and askew as the brims of their hats.)
Me: Well, I’ll be darned!
It has to be said that this little “pick me up” boosted morale considerably, almost to the point of mutiny. Once we began our dance again, we could hear rumblings from below the sea of straw hats behind us and the rising chant of “Bieru! Bieru! Bieru!” coming from our once “shy” little group of dancers.
The chant would continue and continue to grow louder until the little, white car with the big, white loudspeaker would be forced to stop and open the trunk containing more beer. In the end, I think we had more fun than any other group at the festival. These soft-spoken, unassuming women ended up showing a good deal of spunk.
I have to admit that 6 p.m. rolled around faster than I had expected it to and even though we were all exhausted by the day’s end, we left with smiles on our faces and truly warm feelings in our hearts.
I have Sam to thank for “volunteering” me.
She was right.
It’s an experience I’ll never forget.
I so enjoyed myself that when I returned to the office the next Monday, I showed them the dance I did and told them what a great time I had.
This was a grave mistake.
They immediately signed me up to dance in a festival in Shintomi next weekend!