ultimate religious cosplay

22Aug05

The other evening I took the JR line to Kobe to meet Loren Goodman, who is moving back to the United States, for a kind of good-bye dinner. Loren is a fantastic poet, and was a student of my grandfather’s, which was how he was introduced to me (more posts about hanging out with Loren to come). We met his friend Hiromi, a plastic surgeon, and then took a taxi up to what has got to be the most upscale restaurant I’ve been to since I’ve been in Japan. Located in the mountains above Kobe it was one of those warm, low-lit places with lots of small fires going, a piano, and a perfect view of Kobe at night. We ordered some appetizers and some drinks, and were soon joined by Takagaki-san, Loren’s former boss in the wedding business, and her sister. Takagaki-san and her sister both play piano, but Takagaki-san plays in a range of styles while her sister is primarily a classical pianist (and piano teacher). Takagaki-san also plays the organ at Western-style weddings and is a wedding coordinator for the Hotel Monterey Osaka. Which is how I became a minister (again).

In Japan, foreigners often take side jobs working as “ministers” at Western-style weddings (side jobs are known as “arubaito” in Japanese, a word that is borrowed from German). These weddings take place in marriage chapels that resemble Christian churches, but are not in fact associated with a practicing denomination. According to Takagaki-san this style of wedding became particularly popular during the years of the bubble economy, but the popularlity of these weddings has been waning lately. Apparently all of Takagaki-san’s regular “ministry” — including Loren, who was too busy packing — were off on retreat, so Takagaki-san, after hearing that I had performed two weddings in the States, asked me to stand in as a “pinch-hitter.” I agreed to perform as a “nise-bokushi,” or “false pastor.”

Chapel Goedele is located in the middle of an open-air terrace on the eighth floor of the Hotel Monterey Osaka in Umeda. The Hotel Monterey Osaka is a “theme” hotel that is supposed to recreate some sense of Hapsburg Austria, which as far as I can tell means chandeliers, plaster busts, marble floors, mirrors, a lot of yellow paint, and Hapsburg-style French maid outfits. It also means that a perfectly reconstructed European-style church, impressive in all its stone squatness, can be found right in the center of one of the most metropolitan shopping districts in the world. To give you an example of how incongruous the existence of Chapel Goedele is, I think you have to imagine walking through Times Square in New York (except with shopping rather than entertainment), stepping into a hotel elevator, and then stepping out into a quiet courtyard that just happens to have a medieval church sitting in the center of it. The interior of the Chapel is quite beautiful, and has a real authentic aesthetic sense of Christian ritual about it — probably because all the accoutrements are either stupendously executed copies, or, more likely, actual religious artifacts decontextualized from ritual practice and recontextualized as an aesthetics of religious practice. If you can imagine the sense that many Marin County Buddhists must have as they sit (mu-minded?) in from of their Buddha icons you can probably get some idea of how Christian icons are functioning in this context. Chapel Goedele is a stage upon which a fantasy and aesthetics of religion is practiced, rather than a place in which any kind of daily, community-centered, performance of faith takes place. Which is, of course, not to say that the people who take part in a Goedele wedding ritual experience a kind of spiritually vacuous event — a religious aesthetics, like any aesthetics, can produce immense emotional affect, which is one of the reasons that weddings are still held in churches even as the general population becomes increasingly secular.

On Sunday, August 21, I performed two weddings at Chapel Goedele. I came to work wearing dress pants and a tie, and put on the minister’s gown that lives in a cupboard behind the altar. Takagaki-san and I went through the basic ceremony a couple of times to make sure that there wouldn’t be any mistakes, and then the bride and groom arrived with their parents. I met the families at the door — anxious looking father on one side, happy looking mothers on both sides (both wearing kimono) — bowed to them, said “Omedetou gozaimas” (“Congratulations”), and then proceeded to practice the wedding vows with the bride and the groom. The groom was wearing a really nice grey-striped suit with tails and was clearly incredibly overjoyed, while the bride wore an incredibly large and fabulous wedding dress with a full veil and a crepe train that was about ten feet long. Once they had been given a basic run-through of the ceremony, we were ushered into the waiting room (very Hapsburg the 14th) where I sat alone and rococo until the announcement came and I walked through a pair of newly opened double doors and down the center aisle of the chapel, full pews on either side. The ceremony itself was pretty standard in form, though quite beautiful in execution. This was primarily due to Takagaki-san’s organ playing, and the beautiful vocal accompaniment of a skilled two-woman choir. The entrance theme was “Ave Maria,” and there were several other songs as well, though I was concentrating too much to be able to remember what they were. Of course, most of the ceremony was in Japanese, which meant that I was reading from a script and understood almost none of what I was saying. I did, however, do a good job of putting together the rhythms and the paces of Corinthians 13 (the standard wedding reading these days), and I think my rendition of the vows was also decent. After the ceremony, everyone filed out of the chapel for the “flower shower” extravaganza during which the bride and groom walk together through a kind of wrought-iron tunnel/gazebo lined with their friends who are busy throwing flower petals over them. A very high production value wedding indeed.

To sell these weddings, sample weddings are performed on a regular basis so that prospective buyers can get a sense of the goods. The second wedding I performed on Sunday was a sample wedding, which was a lot more fun because there was almost zero pressure since my position in this wedding was doubly ersatz. The groom for this wedding was played by the hotel photographer, a young and handsome 24-year old, and the bride was played by a pretty young woman who was doing this type of thing for the first time. In no time the chapel was full of aspiring couples, and aspiring singles too (all of which were women, as you might imagine). For this ceremony a bit more pomp and circumstance was added, as well as a beautiful rendition of “The Rose.” While this ceremony was performed with a kind of nod and a wink among all the performers (it’s difficult to keep from smiling too much while you’re looking directly into the faces of two people who are also in on the joke), you could also see that this kind of thing was indeed what several people in the audience wanted. In fact, there were actual tears at the sample ceremony, which I chalk up to either the power of my performance, or the fact that somebody had already booked a wedding at Chapel Goedele and they were hearing the minister’s Japanese for the first time.

After the second ceremony was over, I took off the minister’s black robe, rode the elevator downstairs with Takagaki-san and one of the members of the choir, and we had lunch in the concrete downtown of Umeda, next to an outdoor waterfall.

This is the reconstructed European-style stone wedding chapel where the service was held. It’s really incredibly authentic, and I’m fairly sure that several of the chapel’s religious accoutrements are authentic, though decontextualized from actual religious service, and recontextualized as style. The chapel is located on the 8th floor of the Osaka Monterey Hotel in an open-air terrace with a beautiful industrial-age glass ceiling to keep the rain off of the “flower shower” portion of the ceremony.

The stained glass appears to be a copy of a stained glass window from another church (unless they actually moved an entire wall of stained glass to Osaka, which is perfectly possible). If you look carefully you can see that one of these windows is dedicated to the “loving memory of George Bainbridge, died July 10, 1884.” I’m no expert on Japanese history, but I’m pretty sure that this George Bainbridge fellow didn’t meet his maker in Umeda.

Umm. Here I am in my ‘minister’s’ robes with the chapel choir. The woman on my left is a music student at Kobe Women’s College who wants to be an opera singer. Photo taken by Takagaki-san.

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