Wednesday January 14, 1998

Naturally I could not sleep late this morning, so I got up to wash my hair as an attempt to calm myself. While my hair dried, I wrote up yesterday's notes. I was too excited to eat breakfast, so Werner went down alone while I made a cup of tea for myself in the room.

Afraid that during the ceremony I would forget to invoke the spirits of my grandparents, parents, aunts, children and friends, I wrote down all the names on a sheet of paper to put into my purse. In went the handkerchief with lace handmade by my Aunt Naola beside the invitation.

We knew it would take longer for us to get dressed in these new strange clothes, but I had not counted on having to pin up my hair so many times! My hands were shaking so much the familiar movements simply did not come. Suddenly I wished I had had the foresight to hire a hair stylist and make-up artist (they were available in the hotel as this was a recognized place for weddings with chapels for Christian and Buddhist ceremonies, clothes rental -- the whole nine yards). We had allowed ourselves plenty of time, so I simply kept redoing my hair until my arms got tired and I gave up and accepted whatever.

Everything fit perfectly. When we finished dressing, we stared at each other and laughed out loud with glee. Werner gathered up his white gloves, I grabbed up my peacock fan and velvet clutch bag as we swished out the door. Then we checked once more that we had our invitations with us.

Down in the lobby Shukuya-san and the driver of the limousine were waiting for us. As photos of us were taken in the lobby -- I thought, "Well, if I die of excitement, at least this will be the last photo!"

Shukuya-san had typed up translations of the 'rules' of the ceremony so we would know when to stand and when to sit and how to behave. We went over these once more. Then we got into the big, black car (with the name "Royal Saloon") and were soon at the street that went along the moat around the Palace.

When we went through the first checkpoint, the driver had Shukuya-san's poster card taped in the window, but the guard looked inside and saw that there were two more of us. We had to get out our big cards for the car and stick them to the window also. We drove across the plaza to the next check point where a tab was torn off our tickets. After a short drive among small pine trees, the car smoothly slid up under a portico before the broad entrance steps.

As we went in the door we passed through rows of uniformed guards. Again one of our tickets was taken. We were directed to a table where my coat and Werner's hat was given up. We were so early we got the tags #8 and #9. Then we were led up more wide stairs. At the top we were directed by a row of men to enter the waiting room and to take a seat.

The room was about 50 feet wide and 100 feet long. The last 30 feet were curtained off with Chinese-styled screens. Behind them one could see tables covered with white cloths. In the waiting area were chairs in the French court style with golden brocade upholstery set all along the walls. Every ten - fifteen feet was a small table covered with a turquoise silk cloth on which stood a silver ashtray, a silver chest of Imperial cigarettes and silver lighter. Because none of us smoked, Shukuya-san encouraged us to take cigarettes as souvenirs. At first I was too shy to do so, because there were only about 10 of us in this one corner of the room. But as the other people arrived and I saw how the natives scarfed up the cigarettes, I got the courage to take a couple for us.

Many of the women wore kimono, tabi and geta (white socks like mittens split between the first and second toes and thongs on wooden platforms) with their hair styled in unfamiliar old patterns. The other women wore full-length dresses in pastel colors tailored like suits. The only really fancy long ball gown dress was worn by the author from Korea, but it looked to be a native, traditional garment. There was a famous Buddhist nun dressed in a beautiful orange brocade jacket and a famous priest in his best regalia. All the other men wore tuxedos and looked very distinguished. I was the only woman in black and in velvet. And the only one with a peacock fan...

We were introduced to several persons who spoke English, so the waiting time went very fast. Soon, a microphone was set up across the room and a man spoke some words and many people began to walk toward him. Shukuya-san translated, "Anyone who wanted to use the toilet could now go."

My case was not urgent but I was eager to get up to walk around a bit, so I followed everyone through the sliding door on the opposite side of the room from where we had entered. This led to a glassed in corridor that ran the perimeter of the inner courtyard. Here there was unmarked deep snow. In one corner, on a small hill, was a plum tree, already in bloom. I walked very slowly down the hallway so I could just enjoy the plum tree and the serenity of the courtyard. I was one of the last women down the stairs and suddenly was unsure which door to use and where I should be going. Farther down the hallway were two small signs. One with a black top hat on it and farther down, one with a pink bow.

As I walked into the marble-covered stall, I couldn't believe what I was seeing as toilet. For the first time since being in Cyprus was I confronted with one of these porcelain troughs flat in the floor over which one is expected to stand and squat. Maybe in a kimono wearing no underwear one could manage, but not in a long straight skirt, pantyhose and heels. I gave up on the idea of relief and washed my hands and dabbed cool water on my forehead.

At each of the mirrors was a silver hand mirror, silver brush and comb, tissues in a gold ruffled box and atomizers of perfume. It looked as if the Empress herself was expected here. All of the other ladies hurried out so quickly I did not let myself linger to enjoy the sights any longer. But in the hallway, I did slow down for the plum tree again.

Back in the waiting room, the intensity had increased along with the second-hand smoke. I was thankful to have and be able to use my fan. Soon another man came to the microphone and spoke for some minutes. Shukuya-san said he was giving the instructions which he had translated and printed out for us. Everyone was perched on the edges of their chairs glancing at watches.

At precisely 10:10 another man came to the microphone and began to read off names. The persons were summoned according to their ages. Werner was #36, I was #71 and Shukuya-san was #82 - one of the last and youngest of the guests. We had to rise, bow to the rest of the guests and then walk across the room and out the sliding door that opened on the corridor around the courtyard.

The hallway was alive with footmen and palace watchers. In one group I recognized Mr. Nakajima, and his sweet smile gave me courage to stand up straighter and take smaller steps. The lines of men directed me to a door and there someone who knew my number (how I do not know) lead me in to my chair.

It was like a wedding. Some guests were seated on one side, the others separated to the other side. I was in the last row on the right-hand side next to a Japanese woman I had met in the waiting room. Here we spoke not a word but just sat perfectly still. I wondered where Werner was sitting and could not recognize any of the black suited backs before me. People filled up the row beside me. Several of the women held closed up fans in their gloved hands and wore small hats with veils that matched their dresses. I wondered how they knew to dress so properly.

Across the way, to my left, the winners of the contest were led in a row with the oldest person first and the youngest, a girl dressed in her school uniform with white knee-socks and pigtails. Then came the male chanters to their seats and beside them - the judges. They all sat down together.

Suddenly there was an unknown whirring noise like a miracle taking place. Looking to my left I saw that a man had slid shut one of the 30 foot high paper doors. Then the other one was pulled shut. In the wall I was facing I could see banks of bright lights shining in my eyes. Below them was a glassed-in room where one could barely make out the lights on TV cameras and movements of photographers.

A man walked to a door just 10 feet to my right and knocked twice. And he walked away. Seconds later we could hear a similar clear tapping on the other side of the door. Everyone rose as the door swung open wide and the Emperor entered, followed by the Empress, then the Crown Prince and the rest of the Imperial Family. The last man and last woman to enter were carrying long narrow boxes covered with purple cloths held at the level of their foreheads.

When everyone was in place the Emperor sat down, the rest of us followed his example, except for these two persons. They made a wide circle around behind the chairs to go back behind the huge embroidered purple screen which shielded the Emperor and Empress from the wall. Here I could see the lady remove the purple cloth from her box. She again raised it to the level of her forehead and in slow ceremonial steps, matching those of the man, they proceeded to march before the brocade-draped tables in front of the Emperor and Empress.

After bowing they set the identical wooden boxes on the tables each next to a large tray. They bowed again and The Majesties nodded solemnly to them as they backed away, bowing again before they took their seats.

I was delighted that I had been given a seat that gave me such a clear view of the Emperor and Empress. The Emperor had a small smile on his face as if he was rather enjoying himself. The Empress was wearing a beautiful willow green brocade dress with a fitted top and straight skirt, except at the waist in the back it flowed out into a small train. I was touched that she let her hair be gray and dark without trying to dye it. Her face looked soft and gentle but with a touch of sadness that made one want to be very gentle with her.

All of the Princesses and Ladies-in-Waiting wore little hats matching the pastel colors of their slim, full-length dresses. In their white-gloved hands were folded fans which they held exactly alike -- the right hand on top and the left hand cupped underneath. Once they sat down, with every spine straight and six inches from the back of the chair, small smiles on each face, and they stayed that way without moving for the next hour and ten minutes.

Then the chanters rose from their seats, bowed to The Majesties and took their places at a table in the exact center of the room. A name was called out, a man stood. The reciter took a paper from a tray, laid it down and read the poem.

One could tell the end of each 'line' because, not only was the syllable count correct, but he held the last vowel for as long as he physically could. When he had recited the complete poem, the chanters then sang it together very much in the style of a Gregorian chant or the chanting of sutras. I got the feeling that the poem was read in one style for the humans gathered here and then chanted for the gods.

feeling the poetry
deepening in the voices
men chanting
The Pine Tree Room reaches out
to the god in every one

In autumn a call goes out through Japan for people to write their tanka on the given subject. This year the topic was "Michi" (the way, the path, the road, all the connotations these words have in English). From the 30,000 poems sent in, ten are chosen to be recited at this the Imperial New Year's Poetry Party. This ceremony was begun back at the turn of the millennium when the capitol was in Kyoto. After the Meiji Restoration of the Imperial Family in 1868, the custom was revived and since the end of the Second World War, has been held every year. Slowly but surely the people of Japan are being included. At first, only members of the court were allowed to submit poems, but now any Japanese may enter. In 1936 the Poetry Party was broadcast on radio and since 1967 it has been televised.

The youngest winner this year, the school girl was so charming as she stood there listening to her poem being read. She was so proud, so strong and sure in herself. Her face glistened with joy.

the purity of snow
in the Japanese Pine Tree Room
poems chanted
rise on the incense-scented air
lifted by a nation of hearts

As poem after poem was recited and then chanted, my feelings deepened that this was truly a ceremony led by the Emperor for the gods to officially let them know the hearts and wills of the people of Japan. Reverence and thankfulness rose up within me for the Japanese and their Imperial Household which was so instilled with the traditions that these oldest rites were preserved and followed yet today. That I could witness, in these days, a continuation of such basic needs being met by poetry, made me think seriously about the ways poetry is treated in the world. Have we forgotten the highest 'use' of poetry? Should poetry, and especially tanka, be dedicated to our 'highest' moments of being? Yet, are these not the situations in which our hearts are moved? But who is to say that an emotion is not worthy of being laid before our highest authority?

gates flung open
chanted into the scented air
heart words
in ancient patterned vessels
the peoples' messages of today

Then a name was read and the eldest of the Imperial Family rose, bowed to the Emperor, and stood unmoving as her poem was recited and chanted. She was so serene and majestic in her bearing, I felt myself sitting up straighter in my chair that was beginning to dig into my back.

I begin to think of tanka's long association with the Imperial Court of Japan and wondered, since this association so strongly continues, if tanka, should be, even in a foreign language, slightly regal, decorous, elevated in diction and tone? Yet a hundred years ago, led by Shiki, there was started a 'revolution' to bring tanka 'down' closer to the speech and feelings of the average person on the street. But was this right? Do some aspects of our lives need to stop, stay the same, even if they become old-fashioned, in order to retain a special intent?

gods of poetry
protected and celebrated
by the hearts of state
once in a lifetime
I get to hear the elegance

I couldn't see the Crown Prince and I heard later that the Crown Princess did not attend because she was meeting with people for the preparations for the Winter Olympic Games. But I did have a clear view of the next part of the ceremony.

One man stood from the table of chanters and proceeded to the table before the Empress. After bowing, his gloved hand lifted her folded poem (on the royal orange paper) from the long, thin box which the Lady-in-Waiting had placed on the table and transferred it to the large square tray. Lifting this to his forehead, he bowed and backed away to return to the table.

The room was so quiet you could hear the crackling of the paper as he unfolded it. Her poem was, I could see, handwritten on a quarto of paper. He smoothed it and laid silver bars to hold it flat.

The Empress rose, turned and bowed to the Emperor, and then faced straight ahead to the standing audience as her poem was recited and then chanted once in a melody and then repeated in a different melody. As the ringing of the men's voices completed their circling of the room and silence came back, the Empress turned to bow to the Emperor, her husband, and he looked at her briefly with a big smile on his face. It seemed as if his eyes were saying, "Great poem. I am so proud of you!" as he nodded to her.

from far away lands
comes the call to celebrate
a marriage --
the poets to their muses
The Japanese Imperial Family

I felt that in the midst of a national celebration of poetry, one shining second of the happiness of the Imperial Couple flashed forth. I was so touched. I realized that here was the highest goal of tanka poetry - to convey by expression - our love for every thing, person and situation.

poems by the subjects
poems by the lovely Empress
chanted to the stillness
if I were a goddess listening
I would have wept shining tears

Then the same man from the Chanters went to the Emperor, bowed and placed the Emperor's poem in the tray and carried it to the table where it was opened. As the Emperor stood everyone rose and listened to his poem being read in the reciting voice and then sung in three different melodies. I knew this was the last poem I would hear chanted today and I wanted the moment to continue forever; so these sounds could remain in my ears.

a pure heart
raises a voice to the gods
the chanted tanka
of the Imperial Family
and now I've heard the elegance

Holy Mount Fuji
comes closer to hear
poems chanted at
The New Year's Poetry Party
shine with the purity of snow

a year opens
the Pine Tree Room
Imperial poetry prayers
for the hearts of the people

Now came a ceremony of the Chamberlain refolding the poems and returning them to the tables before their Majesties and laying the poems in the long, thin, boxes. Again the Lady-in-Waiting and Male Attendant came forward and picked up the boxes and carried them again behind the screen. The purple cloths were again laid on top and ritually carried as they returned to their seats.

the ancient rite
marriage of a nation
to poetry
The New Year's Poetry Party
chants the heart-made vows

poets gathered
by the First Family of the land
our allegiance to the muses
with the grace of Their living

All the other poems on the chanters' table were returned to their tray and carried aside. The chanters resumed their seats. The Imperial Family rose as did the other attendees. As if saying, "Amen." the Emperor nodded as we all bowed and the Family filed out the opposite door.

The big paper-covered doors were slid open and the people in the three remaining sections filed out into the hallway brilliant with the noonday light on the snowy courtyard. At the doorway I again saw Mr. Nakajima and his relaxed smile was as broad as my most thankful one to him for all his help in making it possible for me to attend this ceremony.

In the hallway I could see the blooming plum tree was directly in front of me. With a rush I realized that from now on, the plum tree for me would personify all the holy feelings I had experienced in this ceremony.

As I turned the corner, I wondered where I ever got the courage to compose a tanka in English. It surely must be akin to writing 'Hail Mary' limericks. I had just experienced the highest purpose of poetry, probably the reason for the beginning of all poetry. Again, I vowed to use my own small skills at poetry to express the best and most noble ideas of which I was worthy. If I ever could.

The woman who had sat next to me, now began to talk to me in English about her trips to America. The Korean poet accidentally dropped her scarf right in our path and we stopped while footmen picked it up and draped it back around her shoulders. We proceeded slowly down the stairs and along the hallway, coming to a bare tree in the other corner, surely a cherry tree saving itself for another occasion. I was again among the last to re-enter the waiting room at the curtained off end where the tables were.

Now they were bright with place-settings in the Royal Orange-red lacquer. A cup held warm sake. Never had I been so glad for a sip of a warm comforting drink. On the small saucer where several dried fish, complete and minnow-sized. Seven dark ripe-olive looking fruits turned out to be sweet beans. Two slices of what looked to be turnips were actually pressed fish cakes. Folded into a sheet of white paper was a small plastic bag in which we were instructed to place the rest of the food on our dish to take home to our families. As I laboriously picked up each item with the chopsticks, the man at my side simply picked up his dish and dumped the goodies into the sack.

Also, on the table was a gift-tied box containing pancake-wrapped bean cakes impressed with the royal crest of the sixteen-sided chrysanthemum; also meant to be taken home. Along side of that was the printed program tied in purple with the poems which had been read in Japanese.

There was a rush of people getting their coats as names were called out to announce the arrival of the various limousines. Too soon Shukuya-san's name was repeated and we hastened to get into the car.

After passing through the last gate, the driver stopped the car and I saw that the other cars ahead of us, too, were stopped. It was traditional that people attending the party stop here by the moat wall to have their official photos taken.

As we followed the caravan of black cars through the park, I noticed the workers who had been trimming the small Japanese pines were having their lunch. Only then did I notice how individual each tree was even though they were all the same species. They were all pine trees of the same age but each one had its very own space and way of expressing its pine tree-ness. I felt I wanted to capture each one in a photograph, but the car was speeding so quickly out of the Palace Grounds.

In the car I found out we were headed to the residence of Kazuo Ito in Harajuku. His apartment was at the top of the house on a small hill that overlooked the west side of a park. We entered the house to the pop of flash bulbs and the whir of a video camera, the excited hellos of people we knew and didn't know. Okimoto-san took charge of us, guiding us down the hallway to the master bedroom. This, he gave us to understand, was our place until the press conference at three o'clock. Here we could change clothes, take a nap and just make ourselves at home. Adjoining was a large bathroom so carefully equipped there were even new toothbrushes with tiny individual tubes of toothpaste.

When I came back out someone had brought in a tray with ice water, hot tea and American sandwiches with the crusts trimmed and wrapped in cellophane. Werner had changed out of his morning suit so we settled down in two big chairs soft with fur rugs and blankets. Someone understood the phrase "comfort food" and knew it was just what was needed to make us feel at home. The tea service was English Wedgewood, there was a cherry wood sleigh bed piled high with down comforters and wide windows overlooking a garden.

Finally the effect of the tea quieted us enough to make Werner want a nap which gave me the emotional space to write down some of my thoughts in tanka. I was surprised that I could still 'use' tanka after my feelings of the morning. I was a bit thankful, too, that I still had the form available for me.

Later, we could hear voices in other parts of the house and occasionally stocking feet padded into the living room. Someone began playing the piano. At first tentatively with just short musical phrases, but soon we were hearing with the whole songs of earnest rehearsal. By 2:30 we felt ready to be social again and ventured out with the food gifts from the Palace for Ito-san. We were discretely ushered back into our lair.

The press people were late so Werner and I sat and talked about the morning as if we had never met before. Two strangers in someone else's bedroom.

After about an hour we were summoned and led up a spiral stairs to the garden penthouse. The reporters were Mr. Hiroshi Saitoh from the "Sankei" and Ginny Parker from "The Japan Times". She, being female, motioned that Mr. Saitoh should begin. He asked his question in Japanese and Okimoto-san asked me, "How did you feel being at the Imperial Poetry Party?"

Before I could think of an answer, my throat closed and tears came to my eyes. More cameras, until I shot them a pleading look. The poor male reporter, unused to displays of emotion, gave Ginny her chance to ask something, so she changed the subject by asking, "How did you become interested in tanka?"

This one I was ready for so I started out with my practiced spiel. It went fine until I got to naming the author of Japanese Court Poetry - Earl Miner. She interrupted with, "Oh, he was my professor at Princeton!" "You know Earl Miner?" "Yes, and ..." Ginny and I were off and running away with the interview.

Mr. Saitoh called a halt and requested that we have two interviews: one in Japanese with him alone and then one with Ginny in English. Okimoto-san earned his keep translating answers from both Werner and me. We probably told Saitoh-san more than he ever wanted to know about tanka in English.

One of his questions surprised me. He asked what the Japanese could do because the number of tanka entries to the Imperial Contest was sinking so rapidly -- younger kids simply were not interested in poetry or at least in tanka poetry. Werner came forth with his "bring tanka into the schools" answer, but I was simply aghast.

We answered all his questions until the last one when he had not mentioned the work on the Internet and I surprised myself by being comfortable in brashly ignoring his question to tell him the information I wanted him to have. I had admired others who were being interviewed who could do this, but I never thought of myself as that kind of person. He wrote his notes in beautiful black Japanese so rapidly it was like watching magic. When he needed time to think of a new question he focused his camera on us.

When we switched reporters, one of the serving girls - dressed in brand new Chinese dresses - brought us iced orange juice. Again, just the perfect refreshment. The interview with Ginny could proceed without Okimoto-san's translations, so it went faster, but still we spent over an hour with her. (A copy of her article on January 24th in "The Japan Times" is at the end of this report.)

Afterwards we were ushered back to 'our' room. The hubbub increased by the minute as more and more voices were heard arriving. Finally we were called and escorted into the living room to the cheers of a roomful of people. Cameras were flashing and Shinuke Arai was standing on a chair with his video camera. We were given the seats of honor on a couch. The older, less limber, sat on chairs; everyone else knelt on the thick carpet. It was so exciting that now, in retrospect, there are gaps for me in the evening. I do not know if these were purely times when Japanese was spoken or if, as a safely valve, I drifted off. At least all the photos show me upright.

Because he and his wife had come all the way from Kyoto, we were able to meet Mitsuzane Shionokoji, head a school of calligraphy, and the 38th generation relative of Sugawara-no-Michizane (845-903). Sugawara-no-Michizane, a court noble, is one of Japan's 36 Poetic Sages. After being deified as poet, calligrapher and helper for anyone taking exams (!), over 10,000 shrines in Japan have been dedicated to him.

This opportunity allowed Okimoto-san to make his historic toast to the four assembled 'pillars' of tanka poetry: Mitsuzane Shionokoji, representing his forebears, Mutsuo Shukuya, as modern poet and bearer of the famous Reizei name, Hojo Nakajima, as poet and representative of the Imperial Court, and the Reichholds, as representative of tanka in the English-language.

To cap this, Mr. Warabi was soon playing the grand piano and two young men were standing before the group singing. They were singing in English and I strained to make out the words. After a bit I recognized through the operatic runs that they were singing my tanka. I was so touched that my words could be combined with such beautiful music that tears started again. Tohru Warabi had truly created a miracle out of my small words.

your sleeping breath
night rain revives the earth
waves in sea air
in bright yellow daffodils
nod to the dark wind

getting older now
the sun rises so much later
in winter's approach
yet this glorious day fills
with my thankfulness in it

almost young again
in the year of my rebirth
time passes so fast
lost in childish wonderment
snails, dandelions and sunshine

And then it was Werner's turn. When he heard his words being sung so beautifully, he began swallowing hard and grabbed my hand and squeezed it hard. The two young men, Shuji Abe (tenor) and Satoshi Hirano (baritone) were such handsome people with these astoundingly well-trained voices. To hear tanka sung by them was simply an experience for which we were not prepared.

Light on its way
around the glow of faces
at the time of New Year
we gather at a place
with thoughts of togetherness

Ripples on my tea
the waving of a first word
comes across the table
then the flit of golden wings
announces a butterfly

As she moves closer
into the space between us
our voices meet
soon the monarch's eye twinkles
taking off to a ripe field

Now in one day I had heard tanka recited, chanted and now our own poems sung to original music. Poetry opened up for me like a flower with petals spilling outward in all directions. But there was yet one more experience with music and tanka.

Later in the evening, after a sumptuous buffet, with every kind of delicacy from the East and the West, toasts in champagne (thanks to the woman who owned the apartment complex) and speeches by everyone (in both languages thanks to Okimoto-san and Michiko Kohga), Teruko Ohtaki, the daughter of a famous Japanese singing pair, came forward and sang eight tanka of Hojo Nakajima which Tohru Warabi had set to music for last summer's concert.

After she had given a magnificent performance of these works she invited all of us to sing the songs together. Not knowing a word other than the first line, "Chichi haha yo" but following her lips we sang our hearts out as the piano covered up any slips in the melody. What an experience that was - to feel the room expand with all our voices united in one poem. It was good to see that Nakajima-san's eyes spilled over, too. His wife carefully pulled a tissue from her kimono sleeve and wiped her eyes; she was so touched.

A translation of Hojo Nakajima's tanka by Mutsuo Shukuya:

My dear father and
mother - when I remember
those days now far off
the paper windmill still seems
to be spinning in my heart.

By now everyone was so high, Okimoto-san instinctively knew this was the point at which to end the party. Werner and I were called to stand up to express our thanks and we were each given huge bouquets of flowers and led away down the hall to where our shoes had been laid out. As we crowded down the hall there were individual thank-yous for each of these people we had gotten to know on this one short evening. At the door was Ito-san. We forgot he was Japanese and exchanged good old American hugs and kisses. He had sponsored this party and it was a huge success. Even the serving girls ran out into the terrace in their stocking feet to the car waiting for us, still giving us hugs and kisses and pressing their hands to the car windows.

Then the motor of the expensive car sounded so quiet.

Proceed to Chapter Four .