ayabe trilogy (part I): the wedding of Akita and Ai

20Mar10

Elizabethan comedy traditionally ends with a marriage that resolves the tensions that have, up to the point of the marriage, been driving the plot along.  My Ayabe trilogy, on the other hand, really has no plot at all so it makes perfect sense to put the happy ending first and then fill in the details later.  Ayabe (綾部市) is a small rural city in Kyoto Prefecture, located relatively close to the Sea of Japan.  As with many cities in rural Japan, Ayabe doesn’t quite seem to have a strong enough gravitational center to keep its shrinking population from falling into the orbit of major cities like Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo.  My friends Akita and Ai found themselves in Ayabe because of Akita’s work as a news reporter.  Ai is a ceramicist and was lucky enough to find work nearby teaching classes at a local community center.

Akita and Ai got married at a small local shrine in Ayabe and, unlike my friend Tomo, chose to hold their ceremony in the traditional Japanese Shinto style.  Shinto-style weddings are becoming less and less common in Japan, primarily because of cost and convenience, so this was not only the first Shinto wedding that I’d been too, but also the first Shinto wedding that many of the Japanese guests had been to as well.  Unlike a formal Shinto wedding in which the only people invited to the ceremony itself are the family members of the bride and groom, Akita and Ai opted to hold a more informal ceremony so that friends and workmates could attend as well.

A Shinto wedding is essentially quite simple — the bride and the groom are joined in front of the gods by a kannushi, a Shinto priest (神主) in a ceremony that involves purification rites, the recitation of prayer, the sharing of three sips of sake (and perhaps some food as well), the exchange of wedding rings, and the offering of a branch of the sakaki tree to the kami (the gods).  For the ceremony the groom wears a special kimono called a montsuki (紋付), which has the family crest printed on it, and the bride wears a shiro-muko (白無垢), an entirely white kimono.  A special feature of this kind of kimono is the tsunokakushi (角隠し) headdress which is worn to keep the “jealous horns” of the bride from showing themselves during the ceremony.

The wedding reception was held in a hundred-year old, Western-style wooden building in the back of the shrine that was apparently the original headquarters for a major Japanese clothing company that relocated to Osaka sometime during the 1940s.  A group of local musicians played various traditional Japanese songs using only acoustic guitar and piano, and there was even an older local guitarist who made a brief appearance and played some Hawaiian-style music.  The piano player was in charge of making any announcements relevant to the running of the reception, but a great deal of that responsibility was delegated to the wooden puppet that he kept on the piano with him.  And, of course, there was plenty of food and plenty of speeches.  At the end of the reception, rather than cutting cake together, Akita and Ai broke open a cask of a rare, red Ayabe sake made from an ancient local strain of red-colored rice.

That night we all spent the night in a rustic thatched-roof ryokan located in the mountains around Ayabe.  The main building of the ryokan was in the traditional minka farmhouse style — with two long irori (囲炉裏) fire pits running the length of the room — and everything we ate that night was cooked in cast iron pots hanging from the ceiling over the fire.  All the food was local as well — most of it coming from within two kilometers of the ryokan itself — including rice (grown in the fields at the bottom of the mountain), chicken and eggs (from a farm down the hill), and early spring mountain vegetables picked right around the area where we were staying.  We spent the next morning relaxing in the early spring sunshine and then took a walk through the neighborhood, past rice farmers who were planting their fields and up to the ancient local shrine where the cherry trees were in perfect blossom.

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