16. Theatrical Yokohama
by Pencil Louis
Vince loved beer and never cared for tea. Tea, he had stated
more than once, was far too much trouble. There might well
be the odd bar room brawl on account of beer, but tea had
been the cause of revolutions. When Vince thought of tea, he
remembered the Boston Tea Party and that it had been one of
the fundamental reasons for colonising Asia. Within Japan,
tea was a major area of contention. Some factories and
companies victimised individuals by refusing en masse to
drink any tea made by their scapegoat. Furthermore, tea
making was a mark of sexism within Japanese society. Highly
educated Japanese women joined top companies as office
ladies (OL) only to discover that their job was to make the
It was hardly surprising that, in a country where there was
a ritual way of doing anything, that one of the most
complicated and rigid ceremonies was Chanoyu, the gentile
art of tea making. When the basic rules were formulated and
finalised under the great tea master, Sennorikyu, tea making
had been a purely stag affair. Sennorikyu's granddaughter
was the first woman to take it on and Vince reflected that
perhaps she was the first ever OL.
Vince was well aware that Chanoyu wasn't the only rigid art
form in Japan. All Japanese art forms, from Shodo
calligraphy to Sumie ink painting, from Kyudo archery to
Ikebana flower arrangement, required painstaking repetitive
practise, so that no action was spontaneous or fortuitous.
Such was reality of Zen, where the mind and the body became
The big difference with Chanoyu was that Vince had perceived
something similar among Australian tea makers. The Japanese
tea ceremony was indeed a complex process that Vince had
witnessed first in Chiba and only later in Yokohama's Isogo
Ward at the Kuragi Noh theatre. The tea maker would approach
the room with a bow and move around with a succession of
sliding motions in a kneeling position. He watched the
endless succession of napkin folding and unfolding, the
washing and warming of the drinking bowls, the careful
ladling of the macha powdered green tea into the bowl, the
brisk whisk action that turned the macha into a frothy green
When he thought about it, Vince recalled the way his mother
and older relatives had made a pot of Bushell's during his
childhood. Boiling water was left to sit for three and a
half minutes in the pot to warm it before the tea was added.
This water was then thrown out and then it was like anteing
up in a poker game, one scoop of tea for every cup and one
extra for the pot. When the boiling water was finally added,
the pot was turned two and a half times counterclockwise.
The milk was always poured into the cup before the brew or
else it tasted like varnish. The second cup was never as
good as the first, although the first cup was always so good
that you were compelled to have a second.
For Australians, the ritual ended with the making of the
tea. They hardly drank their cha with pinky fingers extended
and Vince had witnessed his grandfather many a time pour the
contents of the cup into his saucer and drink it from there.
With Chanoyu, the drinker was as much part of the ceremony
as the pourer. They had to turn the bowl around two part
turns before sculling the whole bitter brew in one gulp and
eating a small confectionery to mellow or completely kill
the taste. Even doing the dishes was part of the ceremony,
cleaning the bowl and whisk, and refolding the napkin.
For someone who was part of the tea bag generation, Vince
rather liked the taste of macha, although perhaps he could
have done without the ceremony. Connie, on the other hand,
came from a long line of coffee drinkers and she had
absolutely no appreciation of why it should take so long
just to make a cup of tea. Even grinding and percolating
coffee was a totally sensuous pleasure in comparison. You
always had that satisfying aroma of freshly ground coffee
beans and this was in some ways even better than its taste.
If Connie hardly appreciated Australian tea making, she
found Japanese Chanoyu exasperating in its deliberation. At
one point during the ceremony, Connie burst out laughing and
remarked that the bamboo whisk looked just like a shaving
brush, which Vince had to admit it did.
Vince, however, was also aware that one should never laugh
at tea ceremonies. This was a serious business and laughter
would be interpreted as an insult. He was, however, relieved
that, for once, it had been Connie and not himself who had
offended the collective sensibilities of the entire Japanese
It was also true that Noh was a serious business. Indeed, it
had flourished in the 15th. and 16th. centuries at the same
time as the tea ceremony and Japanese landscape gardening
had become formalised. It was obviously a very serious time
as Noh theatre afforded even fewer laughs than tea making.
There were no Noh comedies.
As Kuraki Noh was a theatre in a magnificent setting of
rocks and bamboo, they were permitted to see some
rehearsals. The stage itself was more colourful than the
action on the stage with dyed cloth streamers in green,
yellow, red, white and purple and a mock roof affair over
the main stage area like the ones you might see over sushi
Vince had always thought that Noh was an all male affair,
but the main performers in everything he saw at Kuraki Noh
were women. It occurred to him that the Noh theatre had only
recently been liberated, even though most of these women
were in their sixties or seventies. He was able to draw some
parallel between these dour-looking ladies and Sennorikyu's
The main actress moved across the stage like a Queen on a
chess board, vertically, horizontally or diagonally while a
chorus of four men accompanied her vocally in what sounded
like a Gregorian chant. Vince had no translator to tell him
the story line, but he was able to assume that it was a
tragic and slow moving piece. The expressions of the main
actress and her backing vocal group looked to all intents
and purposes as if they had all just seen their parents,
spouses and children hung, drawn and quartered before their
Vince had seen performances of rakugo classical stand-up
comedy, bunraku puppet drama and the vivid kabuki theatre
and they were all incredibly entertaining genres. Noh, in
comparison, seemed a dreary theatrical form. In a cynical
frame of mind, Vince hummed:
"There's no business like Noh business, There's no business
we know ..."
However, whatever Vince wanted to say about Noh theatre, he
had to admit that it had had a lasting effect on all later
dramatic art forms. While all Vince's other theatre
experiences were in Tokyo, he witnessed the other extreme of
Japanese theatre in downtown Yokohama. In America, it would
have been called Vaudeville. In England, it was the music
hall tradition. In Japan, it's called sukkyo and is
performed in engeijo theatres in the downtown shitamachi
districts of Japanese cities. Only one of these still
existed in Yokohama's Minami ward. It was Miyoshi Engeijo
Kaikan and was run by Ms. Tamae Honda, who had fought the
popularity of the cinema and television all through the
1950's, 1960's and 1970's to maintain this style of theatre.
Connie and Vince were to discover that it was hard to get a
couple of seats to Miyoshi Engeijo Kaikan. They nevertheless
managed to get seats at a matinee session on a Saturday
afternoon. The theatre was ancient. The seats had no springs
and there were bare floor boards which dated back to an era
when Vince used to accidentally drop his jaffas and hear
them cascading down to the front of the theatre. It was
traditional to buy an obento to eat during the the
performance. Sushi was the most popular snack so Vince and
Connie bought up half a dozen makizushi rolls filled with
natto, cucumber or tuna from a sushiya in nearby Bandobashi.
The interior of the theatre was very much of the Kabuki
style with a hanamachi ramp, so called because it was where
favoured actors had once collected flowers from grateful
fans. Vince looked around and noted that the audience were
not young. They were mainly women in their late fifties and
older. People had come from all over the country. There were
folk from Osaka and Hiroshima, Kagoshima-ken in the south of
Kyushu and Aomori-ken in the north of Honshu. Vince was even
surprised to discover that there were quite a few foreigners
in the audience on that particular day - American,
Australian, Belgian, Burmese, Cambodian, Canadian, English,
Malaysian and New Zealand. Who could blame them? At 1500 yen
a ticket, it was substantially cheaper than going to the
The pinnacle of Vince's brief acting career had been the
role of the villain, a certain Desmond Darkacre, in a
melodrama, a major component of the music hall style review.
It had been produced in order to raise money for a school
gymnasium. He liked to think that his performance had been a
good one, but, even so, he had recognised that the acting
had to be pretty damned awful for you to miss with such a
form of entertainment.
Even as the curtain rose, Vince recognised similarities not
only with the western style melodrama, but also the more
traditional Japanese television comedies. Vince
automatically reached down to grab a jaffa only to feel his
hand sink into the gooey natto centre of a temakizushi roll.
The first play was about three suitors who all managed to
extract a promise of marriage from a beautiful young maiden
called Mochiwaka-san, or Miss Young Rice Cake. They all had
names symbolising strength in Japanese folklore - Ume-san
(Mr. Plum Tree), Take-san (Mr. Bamboo) and Matsu-san (Mr.
Mochiwaka's obasan helped her make the decision between the
three suitors, but, rather incongruously at the end, all
three are reluctant to marry the girl when they discover
that she is, in fact, as bald as a rice cake. If the plot
was a trifle thin, it was chocked with gags, topical jokes
and jibes at the expense of the other characters and the
audience as well.
The second play had far more tragic proportions as a young
yakuza gangster finds his long lost mother who deserted him
when he was just five years old. His mother is now the
madame of a brothel and has a young daughter who has to be
protected. She spurns the young man and sends him away, only
to realise her mistake too late. She then sends messengers
to find him and bring him back, but they report that one of
her assistants has ordered her son's assassination.
The play ended with a chainbara sword dance. Vince had
automatically expected something like the flash of steel
which characterised the samurai dramas on television, but
soon discovered that they were akin to real sword play of
samurai times. The blows were rhythmic, definitive and fast.
Each fight was of short duration and began with samurai
poise as the opponents eyed each other off waiting for one
false move. The play, of course, ends with Chotaru, the
young yakuza, victorious and walking off into the sunset.
The second half of the performance was devoted to enka and
dances with fans. Many of the men were dressed up as women
and one in particular was very beautiful. Another was
actually a woman and because of the number of characters in
drag, Vince had to ask Connie if it was a bloke or a girl.
"Of course, it's a woman!" Connie hissed.
Vince excused himself by noting that some of the men looked
extremely feminine and beautiful. Vince was most amazed by
the audience at this stage who would run up to the front and
deposit 10,000 yen notes into belts or lapels of the
performers. The largest cash gift he saw for the night was
60,000 yen. Some received gifts of cloth and these were
displayed to the rest of the audience while the performer
was still giving his number and then taken back stage.
The performers threw envelopes weighted with 50 yen coins
into the audience at one stage of the proceedings One
collected an elderly man right between the eyes and damned
near knocked him out. Connie caught one of the envelopes and
discovered that they either had Atari or Make, win or lose.
Hers read Atari and she collected a small hand held fan.
If Vince had thought that the men were sexy in their kimono,
he soon discovered as they lined the stairway on the way out
that their faces were literally caked with make-up. Vince
had never fancied make-up on women and was happy Connie wore
very little. He would have to be content with watching these
actors from a distance.