Thursday, October 22, 2009

Felix's Little Thin Japanese Wedding

[Note that due to "issues" the photos are in reverse order - so if you want to experience the occasion as we did, start at the bottom!]

An invite to my best mate's wedding in the southerly town of Kokura was a privilege that we were not going to miss.

Kokura is a sprawling industrial city and key train junction on the northern tip of Kyushu island. After a walk around the bustling centre, Felix exceeded my expectations and was exactly where he said he would be when he should be. Not a first, but maybe a second...

A few drinks at a local Izikaya and good night's kip was followed by a bus ride up into the hills. As with most of the Japanese cities I've visited, packed urbanity is almost always broken by hills. Out of the hecticness and into a peaceful hilltop of greenery and views.

A minor panic concerning my suit (or lack thereof) added to the pre-ceremony butterflies. We were grouped with Felix's family and were able to retire for a couple of minutes in a serene traditional room. The Japanese do these things so well.

The Marriage

The ceremony was held in a Shinto shrine. Ornate yet, full of space, light and air. We met the married couple (this was their second wedding after the one in Sweden) on the steps by the temple gate. I've seen traditional Japanese clothing on films etc, but nothing had prepared me for Fumie's (the bride) outfit. A simply stunning white kimono. The only thing I can liken it to is an outfit Queen Amadala wore in Star Wars part 1. Intricate, with an arched-out back and hood. To give him credit, Felix did not look much less cool in his kimono. Full out Hitachi from Tekken, complete with fan, huge sleeves and a grin.

Removing our shoes, we walked round and into the shrine. Rather like the layout of a chapel, a large room for the congregation leads up a couple of stairs to the more holy area from where the Shinto priest and helper's descend onto the couple. Running along the sides of the main room are pews. Fumie's family filled up the one on the left hand wall as you enter the shrine and we did our best to half fill the one on the right. As you can imagine some minor comic moments lined the ceremony where our side tried to copy the other, clearly bowing in the wrong places etc.

Put simply, the ceremony was remarkable. Two aspects of this jump to mind.

Firstly its beauty. A series of rituals followed, including the banging of a drum, chanting, bowing and the exchange of sake glasses. The latter of which was done first by the couple and then by everyone - very tasty sake I have to say too. Felix showed his talents, removing a scroll from his sleeve and reading Japanese to the audience – I wish I knew what he said!

I was lost in the simplicity and power of the ritual performed by the priest and his two assistants – young ladies in white/red kimono. Taken as a whole it was like nothing I've seen before.

Secondly, familiarity. While as a whole it was so new and wondrous to me, aspects were strikingly similar to other weddings I've been to recently – most markedly to my own Greek orthodox affair. The repetition of ritual three times. Drinking from the sacred cup and swapping back and forth between the bride and the groom. The bride saying nothing...

A real tear to the eye affair. Sometimes you question why people have a second wedding, but after being there I can completely understand why Fumie wished to also make her vows in the traditional Japanese way. There is something about following in the footsteps of your forebears. I'm not sure it even matters if you believe in the spiritual background of the ceremony, it just seems to connect you and important actions of your life to the stream of your culture and people.
We then followed the couple out from the shrine and back down the steps. Fumie removed her hood at this point and revealed a geisha style buffon, jet black and curling back in one high-arching sweep. A sight to follow all the way back to the reception.

The Reception

As with a wedding in Europe, the family of the couple meet and greet the guests. Fumie's parents are so welcoming. Each of us received personalised gifts. I am now the proud owner of a traditional carry bag sheet made in their local town and initialed with Japanese characters as close as you can get to James – something like “Jimmu” I think.

A 16 odd course meal awaited us. From snails, to sushimi, to tender marbled-beef and back many more times to uncooked fish, it was a feast. Throughout there was a peppering of further ritual and tradition. The couple bashing open the sake barrel and cutting the rice. Somewhere in the middle they left individually to huge applause for what I had mistaken for a toilet stop, but in fact was a costume change. Out with the kimono's and in with sparkling white Western attire. She in her puff, sparkling white dress and him more neat then I've ever seen him in a bleach white suit.

The prize dish was the infamous fugu (puffer fish). World wide known for it highly poisonous parts, history of killing a few people and rigorously trained chefs, it created some excitement if only at our end of the table. In fact no one has died of the fish for a while and the chefs have to train for a long time in order to prepare the potentially fatal dish. None of the hardcore leaving just enough poison to numb the lips, we had the shavings from the side and I can safely say that it tasted of very little and we survived. A “seen it done it” sort of thing.

A round of multi-lingual speeches finished off the boozy-foody affair and with a final few bows to the parents we were off for a siesta.

The After-party

As is the thing at Japanese weddings (I am lead to believe), the young of the do all met up a couple of hours later. All you can drink and eat places are common hear and we went to a nice little joint in downtown Kokura. After one of the largest feasts of my life at lunch, we found a hole somewhere and devoured a whole lot more sushimi, terriyaki, soup and goodness knows what else. I only stopped at the local pig's stomach speciality.

Beer, sake and sucho (evil spirit stuff that is served by the big glass and catches you unawares) flowed as Christina and I had a very entertaining time on a table of Fumie's school friends. Their lack of English was significantly beaten by our lack of Japanese, but we got by with some translation services and loads of rounds of cheers in as many languages as we could think of. I learned “Hoshe”, which apparently does the trick in Kazakhstan.

A couple of hours more in an odd bar adorned by rock music and a wandering pussy-cat ended with saying a warm goodbye to the last of Fumie's Japanese friends. That left about 7 of us geijin to do very silly things at a karaoke bar. I shall stop at alluding to accidentally broken glasses, doctor wrestling, table-jumping, fire-extinguisher knocking, police attracting, very bad singing. All worth it to see Vik's face in the morning...

A raucous end to a most wonderful day. Alcohol fueled antics may pass from memory, but the intricacy, interest, peace and generosity of this wedding will stay with me for good. I can only say thanks to Fumie and her parents for putting on such a do!
The celebrations over, we jumped on the shinkansen for one last time, spent a night and a day touring the sights of Tokyo and jumped on a plane to down under. The Greeks of Melbourne awaited...
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