Over a month ago I visited Los Angeles for a big event. If you follow me on Facebook you would've seen some of the daily pictures I posted about the event. Now I want to tell you about my little adventure in Little Tokyo, LA.
I started my little adventure at 4am in East Tennessee (10/15). I flew from Knoxville to Atlanta and from there to LA. From LAX my group was shuttled to Little Tokyo where we would stay and practice for the rest of the week. It was Tuesday afternoon when I finally walked into the Zenshuji temple to meet up with the rest of the school. The last time I saw everyone together like this was 10 years ago, which is how long it has been since I have seen most of the others. I was greeted with smiles, hugs, and so much happiness. It was like coming home after a long time away.
I arrived around 2:30 in the afternoon and we worked until 10pm. The first day was tiring and long but a lot of fun. For the first day of practice I was allowed to wear a basic outfit, but for the second day and each day after that I was informed that I must be in a full kimono. The reason they asked this was because on the second day the masters, grand masters, and other Sensei's from Okinawa arrived.
We would arrive at 10 in the morning and leave at 10 at night. When I wasn't rehearsing under the watchful eye of Master Nosho, I stepped aside and practiced with some of the other students so we could get the dances right.
Soon the musicians joined us with a whole array of Japanese instruments. It is a joy to be able to practice and perform with live music, especially from high quality musicians. Nothing truly compares to the sound of instruments filling a music hall, even if that hall is the basement of a temple.
Lunch and dinner were provided by the support staff. They came in with us at 10am and worked all day to make food. We had soba, curry, goya, rice, pork, fish, pizza and many other treats. About 1pm the basement started really smelling good and we were ready for lunch. At least on one occasion the dancers had finished and were looking around to get direction from Master Nosho only to find her poking about in the kitchen getting a sample of lunch.
Being the only truly non-Japanese dancer in the room you might think I would feel out of place. That is impossible with Okinawan's. They act like I am family, not foreign. I admit that I do not speak any Japanese. Okay, so I speak a few words and I can understand a little.....very little....of what is being said. But I am not really able to converse with them. For the American/Japanese members, this wasn't a problem since they spoke English. For those coming in from Okinawa, it wasn't as easy. Yet, what they couldn't say to me in English they said in smiles and a little help from one of the bi-lingual members.
For reasons that I still don't fully understand yet, Master Nosho informed me that several of the Sensei's and Masters coming in from Okinawa had asked if I was going to be there. They wanted to see me again. I haven't seen them in 10 years, but I still remembered everyone clearly and they remembered me. One in particular was Master Hiroko, a sensei who I first met at the 50th anniversary. She could speak very little English and yet could teach anyone. Though her knees prevent her from doing as much as she could 10 years ago, she did not hold back when instructing. On the last day of my visit, at the after-party for the show, she presented me a very lovely fan. I am unaware if she knew this or not, but I collect fans and this one is a very special performance fan for dancing. I was so honored at that gesture that I truly wished to be able to speak Japanese so I could thank her properly.
The star of the show and the whole week was, of course, Master Nosho Miyagi. The show celebrated her 60th year in the performing arts. Half my size, Nosho Miyagi is a towering person with a fierce smile and stern instruction. When I first arrived she didn't require a bow in acknowledgment but a hug. I first met Master Nosho early in my 13 year long career in this school. She seemed impressed by me and that only set my bar higher to continue to impress her. I hope I succeeded. Funny, witty, and clever, Master Nosho saw to each detail of the show.
After 5 long days of practice and work the day had finally arrived for the show. Just like when I left for this adventure I was up at 4 am. With stars overhead I joined the rest of my school as we walked across Little Tokyo in search of the Aratani Japan American Theater. Once we arrived it was a lot of hurry up and wait. The stage managers and workers got the lights, props, and sets ready while we got on stage to check our placing.
For me, I needed a lot of help. The costuming is very particular when wearing Kimono's like these. And the make-up is something unique. I had to wait for someone who knew what they were doing to get my face redesigned. As I said before, I am not Japanese and therefore my makeup is different than the rest. First they had to cover my eyebrows with this clay like substance, then came layer after layer to remake myself in the likeness of the other dancers. Just about the only part I got to avoid was the thick white paint they use on their arms and feet. Being Scotch-Irish I have naturally pasty skin. I sat for thirty minutes staring at one of the Sensei's from Okinawa while he redecorated me. Once done, I was as pretty as ever. Note: The first dance I was doing was a woman’s dance, and so...yup, I was dressed and made up to look like a woman. A six foot one inch five o'clock shadowed woman.
At over 4 hours the show was long, but it detailed many of the styles of Okinawan performance art. We had dancing, live music, plays, comedy, and the presentation of certifications to several of the students who graduated up in rank. The audience stuck with us and seemed to enjoy the show thoroughly. I am pleased that we had a good stage crew that did a wonderful job in keeping us on schedule. Just before the show started we all got out on stage and took a group photo to commemorate the event. Being so tall I was in a row all my own.
Monday arrived and it was time to go home. I started to really feel sad when I realized that it HAD been 10 years since I had last seen these people and it could be that long before I saw them again. Friends old and new were all saying goodbye. I didn't want to see it end. But life moves on and we boarded the shuttle. I returned to LAX and got on a plane headed back to Atlanta. My adventure in Little Tokyo was over.
One and a half years ago I lost my Sensei to lung cancer. She introduced me to this school almost 13 years ago and it has taken me to new places and to new people like nothing else in my life. Just before she died she expressed the hope that I would stay with the school and that I would make it to this particular show. I knew why she wanted me to stay with the school but I really didn't understand the importance of her request that I make it to this show. Now I know what she wanted all along. These people care about me and I know that I care about them. It wasn't the show she wanted me to go back to, it was to see the family again.