The Takabayashi Family and Our Great Bamboo Adventure

Our day began at 9:15 am when we took a taxi to the Takabayashi family home. The Takabayashi family is a family that has been performing Noh for generations. They are notable for both their commitment to the craft and their residence in Kyoto (most Noh theaters and schools have moved to Tokyo in the modern day). We were given special tabi socks to be worn on a stage at their residence earlier in the week, so I was definitely expecting to end up somewhere out in the country when we headed out for their residence. Imagine my surprise when we ended up on a street only a little ways out from the central part of the city that was in all respects a pretty normal city street! We were led past the family’s living quarters through a narrow passageway to the practice stage that was behind the house. I was astonished that all of that space could fit into what I saw from the street, but I’m starting to think that that is rather typical — I don’t think I’ve seen an inch of wasted space since we arrived in Kyoto!

We were met by a father and son in the Takabayashi family who began our workshop by demonstrating two different types of Noh dances for us. The father performed a dance from a women’s Noh play wherein a heavenly maiden dances as a gift to mankind, and the son performed an iteration of the dragon god’s dance from the play Iwafune that we saw yesterday at the theatre. I have to say that viewing Noh from that close a distance, even without the performers in elaborate costume and without a full ensemble, was a completely different experience than viewing Noh from the balcony of a theatre. With the heavy costuming and distance stripped away we were able to see every careful and minute change the actors made in their posture and the position of their limbs. I found that watching Noh like this was a much more breathtaking and visceral experience than watching from a distance when all of the small, but incredibly intentional, movements of the actors were obscured.

The two then showed us a line-up of beautiful Noh masks, all the while explaining which ones might be used for what characters and the subtle differences between the characters portrayed by two masks that looked pretty identical to my untrained eye. We were even allowed to try on one of the masks! As soon as one of the “young women” masks was tied to my face, my respect for Noh performers increased dramatically — I could hardly see! I wasn’t sure how anyone could intentionally dance like that. Then they told us that Noh performers don’t actually tie the mask so that the eye holes of the mask line up with their own eyes. They rather tie the masks so that the chin of the actor is visible and the mask is more balanced on the face. This results in the actor’s eyes being partly between the nose and eye holes of the mask. As a result, the actor can only see the floor and the ceiling when he is performing! Yikes! They then showed us some of the heavy patterned outer robes worn by Noh actors. I was even lucky enough to get to try one on! It was a real experience to see how intentional every stitch in these robes was as the patterns would change their sheen and vibrancy depending on how they were moved in relation to the light. After this they showed us some different Japanese fans that are used in various Noh dances.

Visiting the Takabayashi family was a wonderful experience, and I definitely came away with an even greater appreciation of Noh as an art form and a craft.

After our visit, we made our way via train to Arashiyama, where the famous bamboo forest is located. When we arrived, we first stopped for lunch as we were all really hungry! I went to an amazing little restaurant with Kagaya-sensei and we were able to sample many dishes that are characteristic of this region of Japan! The whole tray was amazing, but the yuba was by far my favorite. For all of my family in Wisconsin, yuba is a bit like the cream on top of the milk, except it’s the skin on top of a batch of tofu when tofu is made.

After lunch, we visited a temple called Tenryu-ji on our way to the bamboo forest. The temple garden was a beautiful paradise centered around a still blue-green pond. I will say that it was a bit harder to appreciate the beauty of said pond fully once Kagaya-sensi told us the story of how the pond used to be teeming with Koi until a species of invasive turtle brought over from America as pets staged a coup of that particular ecosystem. We then exited the garden and entered the bamboo forest. I’m not sure what to say about this forest except that it was even more beautiful than I expected it to be. The bamboo stalks were so tall and the sun shined down in between them giving the tops of the bamboo a lighter green color than the bottoms. I’m sure that I could have sat and stared for quite some time. After going through the forest, the group split up. I accompanied Kagaya-sensei to look at a particular temple further into the countryside. On our walk there we encountered a famous mobile food stand that sold baked sweet potatoes. We split one as we walked toward the temple and I will say that it easily ranks in the top five snacks I’ve ever had. I swear, if I had access to those potatoes in America I would never be tempted to snack on junk food again!

The temple that we ended up seeing was incredibly gorgeous. It was out of the way and quiet, a peaceful hillside covered by smooth moss. It’s definitely one of my favorite places we’ve visited so far. We climbed the temple hillside and found a vantage point where all of Kyoto was spread out beneath us. I have to say that although I don’t think I’ll ever find cities beautiful, perse, there is definitely some immutable breathtaking quality to seeing one spread out below you like an open book. We then had a peaceful walk to the bus stop that would take us back to our hostel.

Today was a really wonderful day, and I can’t wait for the exciting sites and new learning experiences that tomorrow will bring!

See you tomorrow!


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