Part Three: The Dancers’ Practice Session

We practice at the Kokin-en. It’s close to the Funaoka Onsen,” my friend instructed.

Funaoka Onsen is well known in Northwest Kyoto. Many consider it the best public bath in the city. The name “onsen” means hot spring. But, as I understand it, the water isn’t naturally thermal. It’s heated. Even so, the building is iconic. I’d passed it any number of times out and about and lost in Kyoto!

I looked up the Kokin-en online and found photographs of it on a webpage but I could find neither a map nor a street address. Not wishing to bother my friend for further details, and knowing the general location, I struck out in search of the studio on the appointed day.

I walked along Senbon-dori Avenue and then turned down Kurama-guchi towards Funaoka Onsen. I walked around a few side streets where I thought the house was but failed to find it.

It was the middle of the rainy season, and the air was particularly humid—sweltering, but not raining.

Hot and growing discouraged with my search for the elusive Kokin-en, I retraced my steps to Senbon-dori Avenue and stopped by the local “police box” to ask for directions.

The policeman on duty pulled out a few maps and investigated. Even he wasn’t certain. But he said it had to be close to the bathhouse. Back I went to Funaoka Onsen and wandered along the streets fronting the iconic landmark. I tried to keep to the city’s grid pattern, believing that if I went systematically from street to street, I would eventually find the spot.

I was just on the point of giving up when I heard the strains of a nagauta shamisen drifting out over the humid streets.

I followed the sounds and there it was, the house, just as it appeared in the online photographs. Perhaps a bit smaller.

The Kokin-en; author’s photograph

The Kokin-en; author’s photograph

I slid open the door, removed my shoes, and climbed the steep stairs to the second-floor practice space—following the twang of the shamisen. The tatami-matted room extended across the entirety of the second floor. Even so, with three dancers, two other observers, and a man with a camera on a tripod, the space was cramped.

I squeezed into a spot by the stairway and tried to quiet my breathing. My roundabout search for the house had left me sweaty and frazzled. I mopped my neck and forehead with my handkerchief and dug a folding fan out of my backpack. Gradually, the heat no longer felt as oppressive, and I begin to focus on the beauty of the dance.

Here is what I saw:

The dancers’ tabi-clad feet glide over the tatami-matted flooring with a swish, swish—as soothing as a tiny wind chime on a summer night. Swish, swish. The sound is cool, like bamboo leaves fluttering.

“Imagine Tamasaburō,” my friend tells the dancers referring to the exquisite onnagata noted for his performance of this dance.

“He takes his time with this turn, allowing his audience ample opportunity to see him, his languid form, his beauty.”

She demonstrates and in that moment I can see in her diminutive frame the tall and slender onnagata. She conjures him forward.

The two other dancers, her students, mimic her movements. They are contemporary dancers and have not studied classical Japanese dance, except for the lessons my friend has offered. Yet somehow, their hands know just how to move in delicate curves like a Buddhist mudra.

I don’t think I ever managed that quiet arch when I practiced Nihon buyō. My fingers were always too stiff, too consciously fixated on being soft. With these dancers, the thumb tucks into the hand like a sleeping puppy.

My friend, dancing alongside the students, demonstrates the steps. They watch her, imitate her. Now and again she slows the movements down to help them see the transitions from one step to another. When she does, when she tries to go slow, occasionally the steps elude her and her body forgets.

Muscle memory. She dances without thinking, following the rhythm of experience. Slowing down disrupts that memory as surely as a dream snapped in two when we awaken from sleep.

She has to stop and think about the movement, going through it in her mind’s eye and then coaxing her body to return to the dance—first in the natural tempo of the performance, and then slower so her students can follow her.

An oscillating fan stirs the hot air in the room and through the open window I can see a seven-story apartment building—a yellow square blocking the view that once was—stifling the breeze that can’t be.
The dancers lift their feet too high—ever eager—and my friend corrects them.

“No, here, like this,” she demonstrates, lifting the hem of her yukata ever so slightly so they can see the way her foot raises up just so the toe barely passes the top of her tabi socks above the round curve of her ankle bone.

Next, she shows them how to lift the sleeves of their garments. The sleeves of their practice yukatas are too short for doing this well. If they were in an actual performance they would wear a furisode kimono with long dangling sleeves.

“Like this,” she says. “Be careful not to cover your face.” The sleeves should serve as an elegant frame, showing the beauty of the face.

It’s late afternoon now and sun pours through the opened, unscreened windows catching the silver sound of the bells that the dancers shake. I can hear children playing in the street below. The dancers perform the heart of a young girl, a girl perhaps not much older than these children, a girl who nevertheless goes mad from desire.

Or is it anger, rather?

Isn’t she enraged by the way she was lied to and tricked by all the men she met—her father, the young monk, the priests?

The demonic spirit rises in the girl and with one swift glance, she fixes her gaze on the monk.

My friend demonstrates the swift direction of the glance. The dancer’s head should move first to the left, then slightly lower, and in a sharp, swift move, it juts to the right. There. There you are. There’s no escaping now.

The dancers watch my friend. And now they stand at the ready, preparing to move through the steps she has just taught them. As they wait for the music to start, they go through the steps in their minds, moving their hands and seeing the dance in the space before their eyes.

“That’s good,” my friend says. “We’ll stop here.” She pushes an app on her iPhone and the shamisen music ends.

The dancers kneel on the tatami, their dancing fans now folded and placed parallel to their knees. They smooth the wrinkles in their yukatas and bow in thanks to my friend for her lesson. My friend turns to the three of us observing and we bow as well.

I make my way down the narrow stairs, my steps a bit uncertain, my knees stiff from having sat so long on the tatami. At the door, I slip into my shoes again and step outside into the gathering dusk. It looks like rain.