I met Mutsuko in Nakatsu. She wasn’t part of the art group I wrote about in my last post, but she was an artist all the same. She was years younger than me but we connected right from the start through our love of travel and art. Her family home was in Usa, just a few kilometres from Nakatsu, and I visited often. Mutsuko was a teacher of English, but loved teaching me Japanese. Our classes were weekly, but often shorter than planned as she liked to show me the sights in her wee Toyota. I was introduced to her family, as well as the Sagara family whose girls she taught. And when my husband came to visit, he got to meet them all too. It truly was a special time.
We were invited to stay at Mutsuko’s home on New Year’s Eve, an especially significant time for Japanese and loaded with ritual. After delicacies at dinner, like soft-shell crab, horsemeat sashimi, grated radish, nato (fermented beans) and umeboshi (pickled plums). We finished with, and were nearly finished off by, several glasses of warm rice sake. Close to midnight we slurped small dishes of cold soba noodles, then walked the winding path to the local Buddhist temple, where we were offered rice cakes and green tea, by the twenty-seventh priest in his family to have had the role, a lineage of more than three hundred years. The twenty-eighth-priest-to-be was in the corner of the temple compound sounding a massive bell as was his duty.
Next day it was snowing gently, the flakes swirling before kissing the ground. Inside, with three kerosene heaters pumping, ‘the girls’ of the family were dressed in kimono by Mutsuko’s mother in the large tatami room. It was a special honour to be dressed by Mrs Kajitani, for not only was she an official kimono dresser but she was giving me her own kimono to wear. Mrs Kajitani passed me a white cotton petticoat. “Just leave your knickers on,” Mutsuko said (translating for her mother). “Then I’ll help Mum tie the binding.” I stood, rigid with embarrassment and goose-bumps, while Mrs Kajitani held one end of a cotton strip against my body and Mutsuko circled me wrapping my midriff tight. Mrs Kajitani lifted a green kimono from its bed of tissue, and held it out to me as if it was a newborn baby. We all were dressed in traditional attire, although not expected to wear kimono to the shrine we were soon to visit. I could imagine the looks from the Japanese visitors if we had.
We headed off to Usa Shrine, which is of the Shinto religion, and identifiable by the tall red tori gates through which one enters the shrine. New year is a time for families to offer prayer, and (it seemed to me) to have a lot of fun, and food. Whether Buddhist or Shinto, each religion exists in harmony with the other, having their special roles to play at New Year (Shogatsu).
The following week I sketched a number of images in pencil, of myself and friends wearing kimono, from photographs taken at the Kajitani’s house on that most memorable day. I shall always appreciate their kindness. Goshinsetsu ni kansha shimasu.