Kabukiza with Keiko Tanaka

Entrance, Imperial TheaterLike last year, my final week in Tokyo was packed full with teaching, events, outings, and preparations for the last sessions of the teacher training. Keiko Tanaka, the director of Yoga Plus treated me to Kabuki. I’ve always wanted to see a live Kabuki performance and was really excited to meet her on a Tuesday morning at the newly re-opened Kabukiza in Ginza. I remembered all of the hoopla from last year’s unveiling of the newly remodeled theater and there has been a constant, steady stream of visitors since then. The original Kabukiza dates back to 1889 and has been rebuilt five times over the years due to fires and natural disasters.  Now towering sky- scrapers have blossomed up around it in the midst of bustling Ginza.

Our program for the afternoon started at 11:00 a.m. and consisted of the following: “Tsurukame” (The Crane and the Tortoise); “Terakoya” (The Village School); “Sannin Kichisa Tomoe No Shiranami” (Three Thieves Named Kichisa).  Two more programs would run throughout the day—2:40 p.m, and then 6:00 p.m. Tickets could be purchased for the entire day or for separate programs.

Once we entered the grand theater and found our seats I looked out over the serenely lit auditorium with a sloping ceiling.  Soon, the orchestra began to play as a boldly striped scrim lifted to reveal an expansive stage with a backdrop of an abstractly painted landscape.  Fortunately, I was able to get earphones with English commentators to help me follow along.  I discreetly tried to take pictures of the fantastic characters moving across the stage in grand kimonos, but only managed to get a few shots before I was promptly told to put my camera away.

At intermission, many people suddenly produced bento boxes and began to share lunch in their seats. Keiko and I got up and walked around surveying  the concession stands that lined the corridors and found some really delicious warm waffles filled with sweet azuki beans.  Black and white photos highlighting the lineage of great Kabuki actors adorned the hallways– all of them quite famous and known as household names. Keiko told me about some of her favorite actors and how much she loved Kabuki particularly the expressive acting, elegant costumes and sets. I certainly had to agree with her.

Kabuki which dates back at least 400 years, has been the primary form of popular theater in Japan and a venue to reflect fashion, cultural tastes, political and socio-economic trends of the time.  Many of the stories are part of a repertoire that actors memorize and perform routinely.  However, there are stylistic distinctions made with pieces associated to different periods over the years from the Edo and Mejii periods to the present.   Nevertheless, there have been long held traditions that apply to Kabuki. First of all, only men and young boys play a range of roles, from grieving mothers, wives, to samurai and emperors.  Male actors train for many years to perfect their impersonation of women which is called—“onngata.”   I will admit that it was impossible for me to tell that the female actors were in fact men!  However, there was a time when women did perform (early 1600s) and their provacative performances were later banned from the stage due to social morals enforced by the “shogunate “in 1629.  Young boys would systematically replace women, however, prohibition would routinely apply to them as well.  Ultimately, Kabuki flourished with older actors, all men depicting subjects on serious drama.

The costumes throughout all the programs were of course stunning and the actors wore them with graceful ease. The kimonos, which are made with the finest materials, can be quite expensive. I also found it interesting that men in complete black (kurogo), are always on stage,  blending into the background as they move sets and props or assist with costume changes. They sit huddled around on the sets or behind main characters, squatting or in other positions for long periods of time without flinching or twitching. I told Keiko that I couldn’t believe their physical discipline and stamina. We jokingly laughed and said, “Now that is yoga!”  The actors also had an impressive physicality that met the rigorous demands of their roles.  Elegant stage sets are austere and suggestive of real locations, but also engineered to move around, collapse or emerge in an instance. For example, in the “Three Thieves Named Kichisa,” a woman is tossed into an undulating river and drowns in the waves!

Live music is played with traditional instruments such as Japanese drums, shamisen, and flutes while members of the audience occasionally shout at the actors. This is another unique factor of Kabuki. The “presentational” stage action is directed towards the audience and they actors may actually be situated in or enter the stage via the audience. “Mie”—a strong pose struck by male characters to express a powerful emotion or conflict– is accompanied by loud beats of wooden clappers. Finally, spoken word, diction are also categorically stylized.

After seeing three shows that day, I appreciated the historical and cultural significance of Kabuki theater and felt so grateful for this generous gift from Keiko. It would take quite some time to see the breadth of performances and study the volumes of scholarly material written on the subject. But if you’re ever in Tokyo, you must make a special trip to the Kabukiza— you will have a rare and truly remarkable experience in the performing arts.

Romy outside of Imperial Theater


Japanese Weddings, Pt. III: “The Hall of Beautiful Ladies”

The final installment on the subject of Japanese Weddings is the “Hall of Beautiful Ladies” at Meguro Gajoen.  These portraits are uniquely distinctive because they illustrate, much like the figures in the wood panel murals, the exquisitely stylish variations of Japanese women’s fashion. Furthermore, I have learned that there are long held customs on the proper wearing of kimonos that are very similar to traditional wedding attire.  (The fascinating subject of Kimonos will be addressed in a future post).

These captivating vignettes of  “Bijin”– “beautiful” women that show so much personality and flair,  were salvaged from the old Meguro Gajoen.   As I slowly walked around looking up at the alluring medallions on the shimmering gold-leafed ceiling panels, I found myself wondering who were these stylish women with so much vivre? Models?  Or, notable women of their time?  (early 20thC, circa 1920’s-30’s)—their true identity is a mystery.

Complimenting these figures is the dramatic “Serial Mural of Trees,” —tranquil and graceful landscapes of flowers and trees transitioning through the seasons—winter, spring, summer and fall, that run along the upper wall spaces of the corridor and also reclaimed from the old Meguro Gajoen.  In addition, each woman’s portrait also represents a characteristic detail of a particular season.  I found out later that the landscapes were painted by artists who were members of the “Seiryu Shah Group.”  I did write down the name of the artists who rendered the portraits and murals, but I could find scant information on them:


The Seiryu Shah Group

  • Kano Sanraku
  • Anzai Keimei
  • Kimura Shikanosube
  • Obata Teiko
  • Sakagre Isso
  • Satu Mokuso
  • Hamade Siesho
  • Yamazaki Yutaka

Throughout the halls of Meguro Gajoen are breathtaking depictions of humans existing in the natural world. The timeless stories based on the constantly evolving cycle of life are displayed in a successive range of seasons, emotions and vividly colorful artistry.

Japanese Weddings Pt. II: Meguro Gajoen

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The setting for many of the weddings in Tokyo is the magnificent Meguro Gajoen, which I discovered by coincidence one day as I strolled along the Meguro River.  I was walking back towards Gotanda and suddenly came upon a massive, towering building that seemed out of scale for the neighborhood.  Curious, I revisited the site on my day off and discovered an extravagant world of art, design and architecture.

I first entered the slick Arco Tower with its serene white, glass and steel interior eventually leading to café in an adjoining building that featured a soaring wood beamed ceiling with the corporate offices of Amazon, Tokyo situated on a deck above. The café overlooked a garden courtyard and small pond with a graceful shrine–like structure connecting the buildings.  After a brief snack, I continued on and entered a large hall and was surprised to see a long curving wall lined with over 300 ft. of fantastic wood carved murals!  The elegantly dressed figures of Japanese women rendered in motion, rapt with expression, were characters illustrating various narratives played out against a panoramic backdrop of the seasons.

I followed the glimmering hallway which led me towards delightful wonders revealed at every turn—restaruants, wedding halls, an indoor pond and waterfall, a luxurious hotel, gardens and art–lots of it–all housed inside a looming terrarium-like habitat. I literally spent two afternoons exploring this vast richly decorated building–a perfect place to spend a rainy day.

After some research I was able to find out some history on this unusual compound. Meguro Gajoen was established in 1931 as a social outlet consisting of lavishly decorated banquet, wedding halls with other related services and amenities on a much smaller scale than the current grand incarnation. Extensively adorned with hand crafted wooden panels, murals, portraits and gilded ceilings and more. Many of the images are based on the Japanese fairy tale “Palace of the Sea God.”  Now a popular setting for weddings in Tokyo, Meguro Gajoen was meant to be a refuge for the citizens of Tokyo during a difficult time.  Viewers could be visually transported to an idealized world of imagination and fantasy. After successfully existing on this site for more than fifty years, the original building was torn down to allow for commercial development along the Meguro River. Fortunately all of the artwork was salvaged and restored–even the antique rooms have been seamlessly re-installed, including the “100 Stairs” on one of the upper floors.

I continued to walk each floor transfixed by so many marvelous treasures. Finally, exhausted and over-stimulated by sensory overload and a dead camera battery, I returned again at a future date to take it all in.  On my second visit there, I was fortunate to be there on a quiet afternoon and a courteous attendant let me to enter the foyer of the glorious chapel to take pictures, but I was not allowed beyond the threshold. Yet, still a rare opportunity to snap away un-inhibited and also by chance, to see a couple being photographed for a wedding portrait.

This monolithic compound is now a valued cultural asset of Japan. Overall, I found Meguro Gajoen brilliantly presents a balanced and harmonious unity of modern architecture and traditional imagery. The scale of the contemporary architecture provides a clean and spacious backdrop for the lavish weddings and rich art on display, allowing the viewer to absorb the fine details of the visually compelling works or festivities.   In addition, the self-contained environment provided a comfortable place to leisurely spend time, host a wedding or an event, or perhaps stay a while in the luxurious hotel.  This tremendous project must have taken years to complete, especially if one considers the respect for artifacts, consideration of cultural traditions and the collaborative efforts of many individuals involved in creating an enduring showpiece.

Japanese Weddings Pt. I—Style and Tradition

Japanese Style Wedding promo  European Style Wedding

Weddings became a surprising diversion from yoga with the emergence of a number of interrelated events. First, the discovery of Meguro Gajoen, a popular and spectacularly decorated wedding hall; next, the chance encounter of a couple of wedding photo shoots; and the timely marriages of Yuri Nakamura and other Yoga Plus teachers and students. Weddings around the world are typically joyous and  festive celebrations highlighting customs unique to a culture. In some cases it may be mandatory that a ceremony embrace many aspects of the past. However, for weddings in Japan, a youthful desire for modern, stylistic touches are in contrast with a splendid heritage associated with marriages. The solution?  From what I see,  a delightful compromise that presents an extravagant pageant of colorful finery and dazzling rituals.

Wedding Photo Shoot, A

On my way home from Hanami viewing at Shinjuku Goyen, I walked over towards a group of women peering into a storefront with “Innocently” printed  across the glass window.  I stood amongst them and saw a young couple inside being photographed for their wedding. The bride and groom wore stunning clothes.  We all gasped as an attendant removed the bride’s towering satin white headdress to reveal an elaborate, ornamental hairstyle….Wedding Shoot, B

Curious about what I’d seen, I later mentioned this incident to Sari (Sahoko Matsuo) who shared insight on the details and customs of traditional Japanese wedding attire.  She conveniently had pictures of her sister’s recent wedding on her I-phone. Sari told me about her sister’s rigorous lessons in the months prior to the event, learning how to walk, move and pose in the very heavy gown and headdress, while teetering on zori. Furthermore, all of the women attending the wedding, especially relatives, wore kimonos made especially for the occasion, some being handed down through generations. The ceremony is usually held in a Shinto Shrine (Buddhist).

Women's Traditional Japanese Wedding Outfits

After additional research and discussion with Sari, I found out that the  wedding attire and ceremony are laden with symbolic details:

  • The traditional Japanese wedding dress for women is a simply designed white kimono shiro-maku (“shiro”- white, “maku” – pure).
  • The headpiece is a tsuno kakushi, which covers the elaborate hairstyle, bunkin takashimada, signifying obedience to the husband.
  • The golden accessories, kanzashi, that adorn the hair symbolize horns of jealousy.
  • The bride’s face is dusted in white powder, indicating purity. Black outlined eyes and red lips complete the dramatic look.
  • She will also wear traditional Japanese footwear (tabi and zori) and array of other fine accessories.
  • For the reception the bride will change into an Uchikake a lucky, red silk kimono embroidered with flowers, cranes or natural scenes.
  • Nevertheless, a Japanese bride may change at least five times throughout the entire ceremony finally ending up in a Western style dress if she pleases.

marriage-japanese, traditional

The groom also wears a formal black kimono montsuki, with a family crest on the back, tucked into gray or white pinstriped Hakama pants.  The ensemble is covered with a haori coat that may be black over gray.

Getting photographed

A Wedding Portrait seen at Meguro Gajoen

Yuri Nakamura who recently got married in July, cheerfully kept me apprised on the developments of her wedding throughout our training. I enjoyed hearing stories about outings with her mother in search for the right dress to fit her small frame. By coincidence her wedding would also be held at Meguro Gajoen.  I mentioned how I discovered this amazing place. She was so excited and said that almost everyone in Tokyo had a wedding there. These photos from Yuri’s wedding show a harmonious weaving of traditions and style. Note the kimonos worn by her and the groom, the lucky accents of red, later contrasted by his shiny suit and her western style gown covered in a cascade of roses.


Yuri Nakamura & Tatsuhiro Hayashi


Tatsuhiro Hayashi & Yuri Nakamura with a “lucky red” Higasa


This is just an overview on the subject and there is so much more information to reveal, but hopefully one can get a glimpse of the complexity and significance of wedding ceremonies in Japan. I’ve included a few, wonderful photos below of the recent nuptials of Yoga Plus teachers and students.


Ayako Yoshioka & Shinji Oba


Aki Kagoh’s wedding party with (Kosai Kato, Yumiko Unno, Emi Aoi, Yuk Takiyanagi)


“Kii” Maki Sonobe