David Notkin's and Cathy Tuttle's "Japan Stories" (1990-91)

17 October 1990, Japan Stories #9: Naomi Gets Married

It all started with a fish. A wedding fish.

We had been invited to the wedding of Naomi Ishizeki, a Japanese friend, and Glenn Dale (that's really his name), a Swiss-Canadian. They got married in Switzerland and are now living in Basel, but came back for a Japanese ceremony.

We went to a party at Naomi's folks the Saturday before the wedding. Another mutual friend, Mayumi, arranged to meet us at the ladies cosmetics counter of a nearby department store (guess who picked the rendezvous spot). We went to the store a little early to look for a white tie for David, since the standard men's dress at Japanese weddings is a black suit and white tie. Funerals are a black suit and black tie. A reversable tie would make formal wear even easier. There was a special counter for white ties, with about forty different styles. We picked up the first and saw it was 5000 yen (about $40), so we looked for the cheaper ones. Hah! That was the cheapest one. They ranged up to at least $100.

We then met Mayumi and took a taxi to Naomi's, along with Mayumi's sidekick. (We now have spent the better part of two whole days with the sidekick, but we have never heard her speak a word and still don't know her name.) Even though Mayumi had a detailed map, it took her and the taxi driver ages to actually find Naomi's house. (This was great for us to see, since we've had similiar troubles that we chalked up almost entirely to language.)

We arrived at noon. Glenn's parents, in from Vancouver BC, were there: they looked a bit stunned. But Naomi's mother handled everything smoothly, despite the facts that she speaks little English and that the big foreigners outnumbered the Japanese. She did what all mothers do: she fed us. And fed us. And fed us.

We started with custard that someone had brought as an "omiyage" (one of the many kinds of Japanese presents that are obligatory and that we don't understand---we brought a $40 box of tangerines, along with smoked salmon from Seattle, just to be safe). Along with custard came the first round of tea, in elegant china cups. Soon, the sushi-deliveryman came by with two large lacquered platters of sushi.

After the sushi, we had another round of tea (in another set of matched, beautiful china cups). Naomi's Mom also put out some huge peeled and quartered pears. While we were nibbling on the pears using special silver forks, the wedding fish arrived at the door.

The fish, a whole red snapper, was sent by a friend of the family. It was in a styrofoam box lined with pine branches. The head and tail were drawn taut with a special red-and-white wedding string that was wrapped around the rest of the fish in a ceremonial way. We think. Given the cost of a box of tangerines, we can't even guess what this wedding fish cost.

Rod, Glenn's stepfather-in-fact, said he was getting tired and would like a cup of coffee. They asked who wanted coffee and who wanted tea (and whether we wanted Japanese green tea or black tea). After getting a variety of answers, we were all served coffee in yet another set of elegant, English porcelain, complete with saucers and matching tiny spoons.

Naomi returned from her errands in late afternoon, and we all had ice cream puffs. (The sushi was still out for anybody who was hungry. We weren't.) Dinner was delayed (thank goodness!) because Glenn's flight from Europe was about three hours late. However, we didn't go thirsty, since her mother served us all a wonderful homemade plum juice (in matching glasses, of course). Naomi brought Glenn back from the airport around 7:30PM.

Of course, now it was time for dinner, which consisted of two courses: fish and fish. The first fish, served with a green salad (which is unusual in Japan), was a salmon that Glenn's parents brought from Canada. Rod cooked the fish; Mayumi had never seen a man cook before, except in a restaurant, so she was convinced that he was a professional chef. (In reality, he's a CPA, so the fish was sort of oily.) We also had wine, starting with some Japanese whites (bleah!) followed by some French Reds that Glenn had brought from Europe. (When Glenn came through customs, he had just a small carry-on bag with a few clothes and lots of wine. The customs men worked him over, telling him he had to be a drug-trafficker since he wasn't bringing anything to wear.) Not so long after the first course, the wedding fish (now cooked) appeared at the table. It was delicious, served with fresh lime juice.

Naomi's brother came home from his part-time job after we had eaten. His younger sister, who had arrived from her part-time job about an hour earlier, jumped to attention and made sure he had everything he wanted. Naomi then asked (well, told) him to take us home. After saying goodbyes to everyone (this takes a *long* time in Japan), we hopped in his Chevrolet Camaro (what trade imbalance?), complete with the high-status left-side steering wheel. Cathy's Japanese was sufficient to direct us home. After he let us out of the car, we got a nearly 90-degree bow because Cathy had told him David was a professor at Osaka University. (It's nice it impresses some people.)

We skipped the family outing to Nara Prefecture the next day because we were a little burned out. We were sorry, however, to miss a special ceremony where a giant Buddha is served tea in a giant cup. (If Naomi's mother brought the cup, we're sure it was one of a matching set.)

The ceremony itself was on Tuesday, at the very famous Yasaka (Shinto) Shrine in the center of Kyoto. Along with most of the family (mother, sister, grandmother, Naomi and Glenn, and Glenn's folks), we took the bus, monorail, and train, arriving at the Shrine around 10:30AM. We walked through the grounds; we were much more of a draw for the school groups than was the temple architecture. The special wedding building is a Meiji-era house. Apparently it was once owned by the Mitsui Group (a huge Japanese conglomerate), and the Emperor slept there. We think. David heard this in a mixture of Japanese and English, while Cathy was off getting fitted.

Fitted into what, you ask? Well, actually nothing fit. Cathy, along with Naomi, her sister, her mother, her grandmother, and Glenn's mother, were all being dressed in kimono, the women's formal wear for a wedding. Of course, Cathy's not quite the same size as the average Japanese woman. So, finding underslips and kimono and tabi (a kind of ankle-length sock split at the big toe) and shoes at the shrine's formal-wear rental shop was a source of difficulty and amusement for everyone. But finally, the women appeared, all of them absolutely stunning. And unable to walk or breathe.

Most of the kimono were black with beautiful obi sashes. The obi of recently married women, like Cathy, is tied into a flower at the back of the kimono. Unmarried women, like Naomi's sister, were in a much more colorful kimino, with long sleeves (which must be cut after marriage), and an even bigger flower tied in back. The older women have no flower, but have the obi folded sort of in a fanny-pack in back. Cathy says there was a lot going on under the kimono. There were layers of underwear, padded cushions, and many (maybe eight or ten) tightly drawn strings holding it all together. There was no Velcro in sight. Cathy quickly learned to stick her belly out while the dressers were trying to draw the strings; this was especially hard when one of the ladies kneed Cathy in the stomach to try to tie the strings even tighter. The women all had their hair and makeup professionally done after they were dressed. The dressers followed the women all day to make sure that they stayed beautiful at all times. Since Cathy's top-half is especially not kimono-sized, they spent much of their time adjusting the top-half of her kimono. No doubt, this is a full-service shrine.

While the women were getting dressed, Glenn, Rod, and David were upstairs chatting. Naomi's father, who only Rod had met before, came in. Of course, her father spoke no English so David's Japanese, which is pitiful, was the only way to communicate. Now, this isn't usually so bad, but Glenn felt awful since it was the first time he was meeting his father-in-law. (He couldn't even introduce himself with the Japanese version of, "How do you do?") The good news was that Glenn had no idea if her father was saying "Pleased to meet you" or "Stay away from my daughter!" There was one sort of incomprehensible "conversation" about watches and how big Glenn's wrist was. Later on, when he and Naomi received Seiko watches (not, we promise, the K-Mart blue-light variety) from her father, the conversation became clearer. (Glenn's Swiss Mom wanted to know why the watches weren't Swiss; she was appeased a bit when Naomi's mother showed off her Swiss watch.) Other presents had been arriving during the day. The traditional present is money---good in any culture. Of course there is a Japanese way to give it: wrap it in a set of beautiful, intricately folded envelopes, and give lots of it. We gave the minimum (or maybe below the minimum, but we're foreigners) of 10,000 yen (about $70). On the previous day, one of her father's business assoicates had delivered a envelope about 100 times as thick. (Glenn was upset both by the amount and because Naomi's mother did a super-bow, prostrated on the floor, when it arrived. Geez, we don't think it was out-of-line at all.)

Now, you might think that David's white tie was enough. But no. Naomi wanted Glenn, Rod, and David dressed in traditional Japanese wedding clothes. So all of us trouped downstairs to get dressed in identical outfits. The bottom layer consisted of a white t-shirt and tabi. Next came several underlayers, including a kind of cumberbund, and a gray overshirt. The top was a black jacket with a simple design. The bottom was a grey and white striped hakama (split skirt). Across the top was a string holding a white pom-pom of some sort. Of course, finding shoes that fit was as difficult for the men as for the Western women. (The dress itself was pretty unusual for us. But what was even more unusual was that Naomi's father and brother were in---you guessed it---suits and ties. Figure that out, will ya.)

We've saved the best for last: Naomi's clothes. She started off in traditional white Shinto wedding kimono. It was very heavy, consisting of many layers. Her face was completely whitened with traditional Japanese makeup. She had silver platform sandals that were four or five inches high. She wore a heavy laquered wig and a white headress that weighed about five kilograms. Really.

We were led into the room for the ceremony by two women dressed in white robes, black hakama, and unusual red and green feathered crowns. The Japanese family sat on one side, the rest of us on the other. Naomi and Glenn sat on stools in the middle. There were two Shinto priests already there, a young one who did most of the work and an older one who supervised. They both wore floor-length white robes, with huge lacquered black clogs sticking out at the bottom. Their hats looked like shiny black boxes. They brought out five platters, containing sake, apples, big cakes of mochi (rice gluten), and two other weird foods. The younger priest then did some chanting and waved a long wand, maybe made of rice stalks, over everybody in the room, especially Naomi and the two women priestesses. (At some point in the middle of the ceremony, everyone was permitted to take pictures. And out came 10 cameras and a video-camera.) During all this two musicians played haunting, Japanese music from behind a screen. Then Glenn had to read some vows in Japanese (that Naomi had transliterated into Roman characters). The priestesses then served Naomi and Glenn sake, moving back and forth between them, pouring and re-pouring many times in some complex pattern.

We then went into another room and stood at some high tables. Each place was set with a small plate, a cup, and a small wrapped condom-sized package. The priest stood and said some blessing. The priestesses then came to each of us (again, in some intricate pattern) and poured a little sake in each of our cups. After the conventional kampai (no glasses were clinked together---this was serious business), we each drank the sake. They told us to take the small package, which we later found out contained a piece of dried squid and a kombu, which is a seaweed that has the same pronounciation as the Japanese word for pleasure.

It wouldn't be a wedding without professional photographs. So we trooped outside to an incredible garden with an excitable old Japanese man all set up to shoot us. The pictures were pretty much like at a Western wedding, although everybody was seated for most of them and people aren't supposed to smile. The best part was watching the photographer try to get Naomi's head straight; remember, this ain't easy with 11 pounds of headdress (and a heavy wig) on top.

Then Naomi ran off to change into her next costume. (Well, in that costume, she couldn't exactly run.) While she was changing, we waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, we were all taken upstairs to yet another room. She and Glenn stood in the hallway against a gilded screen, sort of like a reception line. Naomi had changed into a sumptuous red silk kimono. (We later learned that the rental fee for this was about $3,000.) We went into the room for dinner. (This is the room where the Emporer slept.) Naomi and Glenn sat at the front of the room, at their own raised table. We were all on cushions on the tatami (except Glenn's parents, who also got low tables since they were unable to kneel for an extended period). The seating plan had all the Japanese on one side and all us foreigners on the other. After the first course was served, Naomi took off to change clothes yet again. After the ninth or tenth course was served, she returned in her (very own) blue kimono and her (very own) hair. Glenn was happy to have her back, since it's lonely at the front. (Luckily, the attendants were very good at keeping his beer glass full.)

Each individual or couple, including the grandmother but not the rest of the Naomi's immediate family, received a present. It turned out to be a set of five simple, but elegant, white tea cups. (We're all ready to start entertaining.)

Afterwards, almost everybody went on a walk to Kiyomizu, a wonderful nearby temple in the hills overlooking Kyoto. Naomi and Glenn's mother stayed in their kimono, but everybody else changed back to street clothes. Glenn was not wearing a white tie, and looked pretty much like the average, scruffy Canadian out looking for a good time. Several people stopped Naoimi to take her picture, but somehow they didn't want to include Glenn when she asked to have her husband in the picture. Between the kimono, the unusual combination of Japanese and foreigners, and Glenn and Naomi holding hands (holding hands on the street is a weak taboo in Japan), it was nice change for David's beard not to be the center of attention.

All in all, it was nice to see two people who had bridged such different cultures and were very much in love.