The Cherry Blossom Dance

I remember being almost giddy when someone first gave me a handkerchief with Uno Chiyo’s signature motif. It was pale pink with small white dots, not quite cherry blossoms. But the sheerness of the fabric hinted at the delicateness of the petals.

Whenever I met with Uno Sensei in the 1980s and early 1990s, I always came away with new cherry-petal-patterned gifts: handkerchiefs, towels, and sensei’s latest books resplendently bound in cherry-petal patterns.

Once while shopping in Tokyo, I came across a bolt of dark indigo-blue cotton yukata fabric, sprinkled with white cherry petals. It was a little bit more than what I wanted to spend, but I had to have it.

I planned to cut it into curtains, but could never bring myself to put scissors to the fabric. It remains, to this day, rolled up and stored away, alongside my Uno Chiyo handkerchiefs, towels, teacups, and other items.

After Uno Chiyo died in 1998, I found that our bond only deepened.

When I taught about her in class, she returned to me.

I’d bring her fabrics and photographs to show my students. I’d tell them about meeting her.

And there she was, smiling at me, her eyes twinkling behind her thick-lensed eyeglasses.

In 2004 I had the opportunity to teach at the Kyoto Center for Japanese Studies. During my stay in Kyoto, I joined a group of American college students who were studying Japanese dance, Nihon buyō.

It had been years since I’d practiced dance and I admit I was much slower to learn than the younger students! Nishikawa Sensei, the teacher, was very patient with me. In fact, she would sometimes allow me to stay behind after class to talk.

We talked about kimonos, theater, and literature.

At some point, we discovered that we were both great fans of Uno Chiyo.

Not just fans. Nishikawa Sensei had been Uno’s friend.

And, she was still in touch with Uno’s secretary and surrogate daughter, Fujie Atsuko-san.

“Atchan has been depressed lately,” she told me one day after class, using the familiar name for Fujie-san. It’s the name Uno Chiyo had used. Hearing Nishikawa Sensei refer to Fujie-san that way reminded me of how fond she had been of Uno.

When I inquired further, I learned that Fujie-san often felt lonely now that Uno Chiyo had died.

That surprised me.

She always struck me as rather formidable! The perfect gatekeeper.

But then I remembered the way she always sat next to Uno Chiyo whenever I visited and fussed over her, straightening the collar of her kimono, pouring her tea, often finishing her sentences.

At some point, I struck upon an idea.

I’ll travel to Tokyo and pay Fujie-san a visit. I wanted to light incense for Uno Sensei. And, I wanted to perform the dance “Sakura” (Cherry Blossom) for her.

By now I had practiced three dances with Nishikawa Sensei: Sakura (Cherry Blossom—the first dance in almost any repertoire), Takasago (a dance derived from the Noh stage and very stately), and I was still learning Oborozuki (Hazy Moon, a beautifully melancholy dance miming lost love).

I had also practiced wearing kimono.

It had become my habit to dress in kimono at home and then commute to Nishikawa Sensei’s dance studio. The commute included a bus ride and then a walk of four-five blocks. At first I had been self-conscious, worried that people (whoever that means) would think I was impetuous or inappropriate or vain.

In fact, hardly anyone noticed me. The people who did, usually women my age or older, treated me kindly—either remarking on how nice I looked or just smiling warmly.

I began to look forward to my kimono commutes.

It was settled.

I called Fujie-san to let her know of my interest in visiting Tokyo to offer incense at Uno Chiyo’s Buddhist altar—housed in her Minami-Aoyama apartment. I didn’t tell her about my wish to dance, though.

Dressed in lavender hitoe. Kyoto, Japan. Author’s photograph

Dressed in lavender hitoe. Kyoto, Japan. Author’s photograph.

On the appointed day, I carefully laid out the kimono I would wear, a light lavender hitoe (unlined kimono) appropriate for the warm July weather and a white ro silk fukuro obi.

I had purchased the hitoe kimono at a second-hand shop that I frequented on my way to and from my dance lessons. The obi I had found at the monthly Kitano Tenjin market.

Seeking out kimonos had become a hobby of mine. Finding occasions to wear them was a treat.

Properly dressed, I took the bus to Kyoto Station and from there caught the Shinkansen to Tokyo.

I don’t remember much about the commute from Tokyo to Minami Aoyama. At some point, I took a taxi. I was nervous about sitting so long and allowing my kimono to wrinkle.

I also noticed that people in Tokyo greeted me and my attire with greater curiosity than did those in Kyoto.

Fujie-san was delighted when she saw me. She had never seen me in kimono.

She had me spin and turn. She tugged a bit at my collar. (Admittedly, it is the feature of the kimono that I can never quite get right. It’s such an important feature, too.)

She invited me into the familiar sitting room. The low wooden table was still there along with the Oyumi puppet in the glass case. In fact, everything was the same as it had always been.

Copeland with Fujie

Meeting Fujie Atsuko-san at Minami Aoyama, Tokyo. Author’s photograph

Only, Uno Chiyo was missing.

I could understand Fujie’s loneliness. Uno Sensei’s absence was palpable.

“May I burn incense for Sensei?” I asked.

I had received careful instructions on the proper incense to buy, the way to light the stick (never blow the flame, only fan it out), and how to pray.

Fujie-san watched as I sat before the altar and offered my prayers.

When I was done, I told her I wanted to perform a dance for Uno Sensei and would she mind?
Fujie-san smiled brightly. She had not expected me to appear in kimono. And she certainly had not expected me to dance. But she was pleased to acquiesce.

I pulled the cassette tape recorder out of my bag, set it on the low wooden table, opened my pink fan—the one Nishikawa Sensei had given the students practicing Sakura with her—and nodded to Fujie-san to push the button on the recorder. When the strings of the koto sounded, I began.

I danced the best Sakura I had ever danced.

I could feel Uno Chiyo smiling down on me.

I could see her acting out the way she scattered magic ashes over the dormant cherry blossom tree—the Hanasaku Obaasan (“The Old Woman Who Made the Dead Trees Blossom”)—whoosh, whoosh.

My heart burst with scattered petals.

When the dance was done, I knelt on the tatami before the butsudan, folded my fan, brought the tips of my fingers together on the floor and bowed.

When I looked up, Fujie-san had tears in her eyes.

My eyes, too, misted over.

She offered me tea.

Suddenly, she instructed her assistants to bring out bolts of fabric.

Bolts unfurled, silk swished, colors flashed. One by one she wrapped them around my shoulders.

I was to have an original Uno Chiyo kimono!

The blue was beautiful but too bright. The pink was surprisingly drab. We decided on a dark grey fabric with multicolored petals, a few flecked with gold.

Fujie-san had the kimono sewn and a month later shipped to Nishikawa Sensei’s studio.

Nishikawa Sensei selected an obi from her collection and gave it to me to wear with the kimono, a subtle gold satin with an overlay design of opalescent mother-of-pearl.

An obi that complements but does not compete, the perfect choice for my Uno Chiyo kimono.

Wearing my Uno Chiyo kimono and Nishikawa Senrei obi. Raleigh, NC. Author’s photograph.

As I have grown older, the color of the kimono suits me more and more. And each time I wear it (admittedly not as often as before), I feel Uno Chiyo once more come to life—whoosh, whoosh—with cherry petals brightly scattering.