Category Archives: Julie in Japan

Last Week in Japan

This is officially my last week in Japan. When I first arrived this seemed like a very foreign place. Now that I have been here for a while and contemplating a return to the good ole US of A, Japan feel like home and the US seems like some alien world full of ghosts and strangers.

I hope that is not the case! I really do look forward to getting back to being an artist and disseminating the inspiration I have received here. I feel like a sponge that has soaked up all it can and needs to be wrung out.  Well not really wrung out just squeezed gently!

I have gained so much from this experience. The workshops, classes and performances have been at the core, and through the butoh connection I have met fascinating new friends, been inspired by brilliant teachers, luxuriated in exquisite performance and even had time to enjoy a few amazing sights along the way.

I feel I have only touched the surface of the butoh opportunities that are here — I am just now getting into the loop of finding out about performances, classes and workshops. So many teachers, performers and artists struggling to survive and even succeed.  Butoh is alive and well in Japan; it just lives underground, on the fringe, along the edges, beneath the suface where you have to dig to find it. I am glad I brought my shovel, but mostly I used my hands and feet. My fingernails are pretty dirty from the effort but I will use that grime as fodder for new growth in my home community and beyond.

I visited with Kazuo Ohno again last night. My friend Nathan left a bouquet of lillies on Kazuo’s chest when we left. This beautiful image made me cry. He was so peaceful last evening, not like the last time — Yoshito was with us and seemed to stir him up. Kazuo was singing and dancing — in his way, with the feeding tube in his nose, his beautiful hands drawn up to his chest, his glowing skin vibrating with love and life — what dance is he doing now?

Sankai Juku Workshop

Sankai Juku is known for their visually stunning, ritualistic movement style, sensually performed by only men. The workshop was taught by director Semimaru, who was the original member of the company whose work is choreographed by Amagatsu. Members of the company took class with us and performed with us during the final performance at the end of the week.

During this workshop I learned a lot about the Noguchi Taiso method of body conditioning which is used by many butoh teachers. This method defines the body as a skin bag filled with water in which float the bones, muscles and organs. Movements involve shaking, waving, floating. Spinal alignment, a central axis, relaxed shoulders, and hanging from a string are basic to Noguchi Taiso. Semimaru also uses the ideas of tension /relaxation, center of gravity, vertical /horizontal, breathing, and rhythm in this work. These exercises felt so good to my body. I plan to continue them to keep me loose and strong.

The movement material we performed was not particularly interesting and used the same quality (soft, slow, wavy) throughout.

I did not feel a strong connection with Semimaru who is not particularly warm or friendly. I felt he just wanted us to pay our money, not make too much trouble and then go quietly away.

Kyogen Workshop

I took a 10-day workshop in Kyogen, the 700-year-old comedy form of Noh theatre taught by 8 different Kyogen actors, including Manzo Nomura IX, who is a Living National Treasure.  The form blends ancient techniques of Chinese and Japanese theatre. There is no book for teaching Noh and Kyogen. It is handed down by experienced actors and learned through imitation. Children begin learning at 3 or 4 in a 5-minute lesson. Each day 2 minutes are added to the lesson. The first role given to a child is that of a monkey. The role is quite a difficult one because the player must wear a mask which limits breathing and visibility.  During one of our sessions we put on the masks and moved around on the stage which proved to be quite challenging. The wearing of masks in Nom and Kyogen symbolizes the embodiment of the gods.

The workshop was from 10 – 5 every day and at the end we presented a performance to an audience. This was the most difficult work I have ever attempted! Dance and theatre have been challenging for me but I also felt that I had some talent or gift for it. This workshop showed me my weaknesses and really put me in my place.

There were 6 gaijin (foreigners), 2 from the US, 1 director from the UK, 1 director from Germany as well as a French director and dancer who was his wife.  The rest of the participants were Japanese dancers and actors. We were allowed to choose what we wanted to learn. I wanted a challenge so I chose to take on a small role (in Japanese) in one of the plays. All of the other gaijin chose to learn songs and dances which is actually the first step in learning how to be a Kyogen performer. I spent hours and hours outside of workshop time just trying to learn the lines, which are written in 600-year-old Japanese which is even difficult for modern Japanese speakers. The instructor and I decided that it was truly impossible for me to experience success in this role.

So then I began to try to catch up with my other colleagues who were well on their way to learning 2 songs and the fan dances that went with them. Again I spent many hours learning ancient Japanese words, strange melodies and how to move and manipulate a fan while wearing a tight kimono. I did eventually feel confidence in performing these dances and songs. The performance was terrifying but ended up being quite successful. I was most impressed by my Japanese friends’ performances in this completely unrealistic, extremely challenging form.

Another small role we all had was to perform as mushrooms, where we scurried around on the balls of our feet with our butts on our heels, very close to the floor and then squatted in stillness on our knees. This was very difficult.

Another small role we all had was to perform as mushrooms, where we scurried around on the balls of our feet with our butts on our heels, very close to the floor and then squatted in stillness on our knees. This was very difficult!

The Noh stage is designed with concepts from the Shinto religion in mind. All aspects of human life are included. The actors enter from the west, like ghosts travelling down a bridge from the past to the present to share a story. The audience sits in the south, highest point of the sun, the position of the gods. There is a small door on the eastern side signifying rebirth and transformation. This is the entrance for the assistants, played by high ranking actors who help with onstage costume and prop changes. Big lives come from small doors.  Upon entering the actors must bend low and step through from darkness into the light, birth into the Kyogen world. The north side is where the musicians sit. This is the dark shadow side into which the audience sees. The music (drums, flute and voice) is a significant part of the story, keeping the rhythm, reflecting the inner life of the characters as well as sound effects. There is a pine tree painted on the back wall, whose evergreen nature signifies all seasons. The three pine trees in front of the bridge where the actors enter are small, medium and tall to give perspective. A moat filled with small white stones surrounds the stage, both to include the element light and to illuminate the actors. Underneath the wooden stage huge earthenware pots are arranged to add resonance for voices and foot stamping in the dances. The columns are named for 1st , 2nd, and 3rd actors and signify their positions on the stage. The 4th column is called “metsuke” or eye-fixing column and is used for mask navigation.

Noh drama was created to entertain the upper classes and Kyogen is for lower social classes. The costumes for Noh and Kyogen are basically the same. High-class characters wear long “hakima” (pants) which drag the ground always striped to symbolize stability. Lower class characters, servants and such wear short hakima always plaid. The long pants signify that these characters don’t have to do as much movement as their lower ranking associates. Actors must practice manipulating and moving these enormous pantlegs, not to mention sleeves. swords, and the fans, which are used to represent pantomimed props. All Kyogen characters, whether high or low class wear the symbol of the dandelion on their costumes, symbolizing the toughness and stubbornness of the common people who will always endure. High class characters use real swords rather than fans which are used by the lower class counterparts.

The “Maku” (curtain) which is raised by 2 bamboo poles for the slow “suriashi” (sliding walk) entrances of the actors contains 5 colors suggestive of the 5 elements of human life: 1) Green – nature, 2) Yellow – metal for tools, 3) Red – fire for heat. 4) White – water, 5) Purple – earth. These symbols come from Taoist and Buddhist  philosophies.

Noh and Kyogen use exaggerated movement and voice because they were originally performed in outside gardens where the audience was farther away than in the more focused concentrated area of the Noh theatre. My personal belief is that, as ghosts from the past returning to earth to tell stories, these characters have forgotten how to be human and therefore must present themselves as best they can, from memories of what it was like to be in the world. The style also relates to samurai ideals of a kind of sadistic stoicism, keeping death in mind there is no time to relax; you must behave with focused, patient tension. Kyogen and Noh are like life, difficult and painful; you must endure, hold and build the tension until the release at the end.

Use of the voice is probably the most significant aspect of Noh and Kyogen. They told us to speak like we are singing, with the vocal current flowing like a river over stones. The actors exchange breath with eachother as they speak.

I have seen four different Noh /Kyogen performances. This workshop has given me such insight into this fascinating theatre form. Each time I witness a performance  I enjoy it more and feel that I gained so much understanding from the workshop. Thank you International Theatre Institute.

Dairakudakan Workshop

Hakuba mountains, photo by jbgThe Dairakudakan workshop took place in Hakuba in northern Honshu where the ’97 Olympic skiing took place. The scenery was stunning as you can see from the photo taken from the front of our hostel.

The first 4 days of the workshop were interesting and physically challenging. We worked from 8 til noon, 2 – 5, 7:30 – 9:30. The rest of the time we were cleaning the hostel, cooking or grabbing a desperately needed nap. Morning and afternoon sessions were with company members learning and experimenting with new movement material. Evening sessions were with Akaji Maru, part movement exploration and part lectures about his philosophy of butoh dance.

Basically his belief is that the body should speak for itself and not be imposed upon with movements. He works with 3 concepts: movement from daily actions, abstract forms, and space body. “Daily actions” consist of purposeful movements, restricted movements performed for a reason. Many of these movements, related to tools and human need have been eliminated. There is a giant trash can full of movement material from which to recover and recycle for dance. Sometimes our daily actions don’t allow us to see the treasures of repressed movement sources.

Primitive man’s fear became his God with whom he began to negotiate. Many “abstract movement forms in the world result from communication with, oras Maru said, doing business with God. Primitive people did more for their gods than for themselves.  Dance is the body sacrificing its energy to God, a thank you, an appeasement, a show of weakness against strength. All art forms began as a sacrifice. As science gives us understanding  and control of nature, we are losing our fear.soaking my aching feet in the foot onsen

Within our daily activities, breaks happen which distract us from our purpose. These breaks are the internal world of originality. Dance creation is an attempt to get into this world of repressed movements.  Examples of these breaks in daily life are: a) you are chopping vegetables and cut your finger; B)You are digging in your garden, a snake slithers by; c)You are reading a book and discover a misprint. According to Maru, these accidents are openings into the realm of potentiality. The artist must STOP in order to experience these moments fully, to sense this rupture between what is inside and what is outside. Energy flows in and out altering the space body. What was there has disappeared; time does not exist, only emptiness; silence is music; stillness is dance. This gateway into the deep is the “space body.”

The last 3 days were spent learning choreography for our erotic cabaret performance in which we wore gold g-strings and painted our naked bodies gold. We performed in pouring rain which ended up being a lot of fun even though the choreography was not particularly butoh. One section of the hour long piece involved fire torches which never lit because of the rain.

Kyoto Sightseeing

Yes Virginia, it's another gorgeous garden in Kyoto, photo by jbgIf Tokyo is the beating heart of Japan then Kyoto is the soul. It is lush green gardens, serene temples and shrines and a much slower paced life style. My two favorite places were Ryoangi zen garden and Sanjusangendo temple. Ryoangi is a world heritage site, a sand garden with 15 perfectly placed stones. It reminds me of the ocean with islands rising up from the depths.  The groupings of stones suggest varied images unique to each viewer. The wall that surrounds the garden is an object of meditation in itself. The surface of oiled stucco projects ghost-like visions.  Just sitting, this lovely garden washing over me, I felt the presence of another time and place — “Ma”.

Nijo Castle garden, photo by jbg

Sanjusangendo Temple had a powerful effect on me also. It literally means 33 halls and contained 1001 exact replicas of the Kannon (Buddhist goddess of Mercy) with her many arms covered in gold leaf. The statues were guarded by 33 frightening dieties, whose Hindu roots have been transformed by Japanese sensibilities. In the center of all this was a giant statue of buddha which somehow paled in comparison.Bamboo forest in Kyoto, photo by jbg

The bamboo forest was splendid. You can see it here on the right.

Another fascinating sight was Nijo Castle, medieval shogun castle with nightingale floors, made to squeak to warn of anyone approaching. See below.

The moat, Nijo Castle, Kyoto, photo by jbg


The Great Buddha of Kamakura, photo by JBGOn Monday July 20, I went to Kamakura, which was the capital city of Japan between 1192 and 1333. It is a religious hub with 65 Buddhist temples and 19 Shinto shrines. We hiked from temple to shrine and saw many but not all of them. Ginger and I were guided by our new friend Hiromi who is charming and lots of fun.

We visited the Great Buddha (32 feet high) at Kotokuin Temple. He is seated out-doors because in the 13th century a tidal wave washed away the massive temple structure that used to house him. He remains unmoved and most impressive.

Hase Kannon Temple is home to the famous 11-headed gilt statue of KannonStatue female diety, Kamakura, photo by JBG (29 feet tall). The many faces of the goddess symbolize various stages of enlightenment and she is a carved from the trunk of a giant camphor tree. WOW!

Julie With Fox, Kamakura, photo by JBGOne of my favorite shrines, paid tribute to foxes (inari) with thousands of the little buggers everywhere. It was charming!

Vampire Diety, Kamakura, photo by JBGI had a delicious, very Japanese lunch of soba noodles covered with a lovely pile of delicately arranged vegetables (I couldn’t tell you what most of them were).  We enjoyed a delicious cup of macha (thick green tea) and elegant sweet bean paste treats about mid-afternoon then on to the money laundering, I mean “washing” shrine , where you wash your money in the sacred stream and pray for it to bring you wealth. Hope it works!

The most magical part of the day happened after dark when we visited the largest shrine. There was an enormous lake filled with giant lotus, with leaves as broad as my torso and head-sized flowers of pink and white.  I took some photos but they are not very good. We had a lovely encounter with an 80 year-old man who spoke English and told us about the history of Kamakura, the shogun and women samurais. He included some fascinating and sometimes gory details the history books leave out. What a fabulous day in Japan!Hiromi With Paper Crane Chains, Kamakura, photo by JBG

New Digs

Entrancee to Kazuko Asaba's House, photo by jbgI have found a new place to stay. Ginger Krebs, my friend from Chicago who is also here dancing and checking out Japanese culture is rooming with me.
Kanazawa-bunko Temple, photo by JBGWe are staying in the home of Kazuko Asaba, a lovely, new-age, world-travelled artist. I feel right at home; it’s just like Asheville and only a 10-minute walk to the beach. Kazuko’s home is in an area called Kanazawa-bunko. It is named for the oldest library in Japan which is here. There is also a very picturesque 750 year-old temple (seen here) practically in our back yard. It is much cheaper, bigger, and “cooler” than our hostel in Yokohama.

Last night Yoshito took us to a jazz concert plus we had back-stage passes and met the musicians. It was really good music and a lot of fun.  The Japanese are very well-behaved at concerts unlike most of us Americans. Afterwards we ate at an Italian restaurant with a Japanese flair–pasta with seaweed. . . ?

Meeting Kazuo Ohno & Dinner With Yoshito

On Saturday night after class I was fortunate to visit Kazuo Ohno in his bed. He woke up when we came into his room, then dozed, then woke again while we were there. I held his beautiful hands and in my exitement blurted out many silly things . . . “honor to meet you. . . . waited for this moment for 12 years . . . thrilling to touch your lovely, expressive hands . . . so much admiration . . .  at this moment fulfilling the ultimate butoh dance . . . thankful to be a witness . . . fulfilling moment in my life . . . and so on.” I am sure he hears this all the time from so many admirers.  Meeting Kazuo Ohno, on his death bed was truly one of the top ten!

On Sunday, my friend Nathan and I went to the Asakusa area where we bought Japanese incense and bathed in a very old, funky onsen (public bath). The water was hot, clean and most refreshing though.

After our baths we went to Ginza to see a performance by a new Japanese dancer friend I met at Yoshito’s class. She was so lovely, possessing a quiet, passionate elegance within the tiny gallery /performance space crowded with 30 or so spectators. Afterwards everyone gathered for wine, beer and snacks –artists, dancers, critics, film producers — a very artsy crowd, many of whom spoke English so I was able to communicate. It seems when artists, no matter what nationality, get together there is great conversation which opens up the potential for creative collaboration.

Yoshito invited Nathan and I to have dinner with him at a famous, old restaurant in Ginza called “Torigin”, named for the chicken dishes they specialize in. The food was delicious and Yoshito and I drank much red wine then staggered to the subway clinging to eachother in order to stand.

Yoshito Ohno

After teaching class, Yoshito, son of butoh founder Kazuo Ohno, often dances with a puppet of Kazuo, to the music of Elvis. It is really a treat!

On Saturday night we danced a requiem for Pina Bausch, avant garde German choreographer and dear friend of the Ohnos, who died on Friday June 26. We danced about strength and delicacy to “Amazing Grace” and “Ave Maria.” There were students from Brazil, Thailand, Israel, Japan and the US. It was quite powerful!

Yoshito with Kazuo puppetKazuo has a generous and warm personality. Because he was in the first ankoku butoh performance when he was 14 he has been present for the entire history of the genre.  His classes are filled with quotes and stories about Hijikata and Kazuo.

A Visit to Old Edo

Yanaka Cemetery /City View, Tokyo photo by JBGThis district was one of the few in Tokyo to escape most of the destruction of the 1923 earthquake and WWII bombing. There are many old wooden houses, shops and temples. In addition, there is a lovely old cemetery and many Japanese style mansions. I had a lovely time getting lost in the warren of narrow streets.
The photo is taken from inside the cemetery with a view of Tokyo skyscrapers in the background.