This is so cool: the Japanese military wives, a solid fixture at NAF Atsugi because their husbands don’t deploy and move around in the same way the American military does, invite the American military wives to dance at the summer Bon Odori festival every August. Last year the dancers received a special honor—the festival organizers invited them to perform in this year’s opening dance at July’s Awa Odori festival in Yamato. At last week’s first dance practice of the summer the coordinator asked for volunteers for the opening dance who were willing and able to come to extra practices. I signed right up! There was some confusion about the start date of the practices, but I showed up to the mirrored martial arts room of the gym this morning just in case. A couple of Japanese men in work out gear, some guys with drums, and a petite Japanese woman in a suit were in the room. Oops…wrong room? The woman spotted me and turned around—oh, it was the wives coordinator. “Ah! I’ll go change!” she said. I stood in the doorway wondering what the heck was going on. The men waved me in. I stood still. They waved me in again, doing that palm-down sweeping gesture like they do in Europe. I went inside. They politely introduced themselves and looked like they were wondering why I was there. I stood there and wondered why I was there. Being myself and feeling awkward, I joked, “So, are you dancing with us?” thinking of the graceful, synchronized arm movements we did last week. The men nodded enthusiastically. “Yes! I have danced at this festival more than six years! And he, the Mountain, has danced more than that,” the taller one said. “Awa Odori is an important festival. You see we dance with the shamisen, the taiko drums, and this is a Japanese flute carved from bamboo,” he said, handing it to me. “Very light!”
“Wow! Very nice!” I said. “Did you carve it?” I was not joking this time, but the Mountain laughed. “No! I did not carve it,” he said. “I will play it in the festival.”
Then the coordinator lady was back, apologizing that the female instructor was not able to attend practice that day, but we’d get a head start. So the instrumentalists began, drums first, shimisen next (a Japanese string instrument that looks like a banjo and is played with the instrument laid flat on the floor in front), flute last, and the men jumped into position: arms up, slight crouch, leading with their shoulders as they pulsed across the room. Then they showed us how the lady counterparts hold their arms—up, over the head as we glided across the floor alternating our leading shoulder. We set up the next practice and the coordinator and I chatted about the festival and dance. She told me about what an honor it was for our group to be invited to participate in the opening and how excited the Japanese get to see Americans in yukata dancing with other Japanese. “Really?” I asked. “I’m afraid people will think, ‘Look at that American out of step with clumsy arm movements!'” Her eyes widened. “Oh no!” she said. “You will see! At the first festival, you will see!” I can’t wait! And even after I’d descended the stairs and left the building, I could still hear the steady thumping of taiko drums and a high-pitched flute drifting down through the walls of the martial arts room.
Note: A yukata is an unlined, cotton summer kimono. It’s also the type of kimono worn to the bathhouse. This week we get fitted for our personal yukata to wear in the Awa Odori and Bon Odori festivals!
Note: I went to the Jusco by the train station on an errand this evening and right outside the shop where I bought my curtains I saw a yukata shop. It had the handy “how-tos” adorning this post.