Wednesday, March 27, 2013

End-of-Class Party!

So today I went to the end-of-semester/class party for the free kimono dressing lessons I've been taking. :) It was a lot of fun and I look forward to taking more classes starting next month!

Monday, March 18, 2013

My First Akita-Style Shamisen Lesson

The shamisen lessons worked out! So here is my first experience with Akita shamisen, a cousin of the northern-Japan Tsugaru style that the Yoshida Brothers and others have made famous. :)

My lesson was two hours and held at my teacher's house, and I will take lessons more or less once a week barring trips out of town, etc. We began with seated bows and "Yoroshiku onegai-itashimasu" (Let's do our best together.) and when we ended as the student I said "Arigatou gozaimashita" (Thank you very much.) while we did seated bows.

Like my buyo (dance) classes, there wasn't much of any learning of "steps" or "notes", like I'd expect in a Western-style class, before we started a piece. He let me borrow one of his shamisen, (futozao, the kind used in tsugaru), showed me how to hold the plectrum and pluck a note properly, and within twenty minutes or so we started on a song. Shamisen have no marking for where the frets are, so because I was a beginner he glued on temporary dots on the side of the neck to help me get used to their position.

I would play through a line of the song, and once I'd done that a few times he'd play slowly and I would try to keep pace with him. There is no Western-style 4/4 beat in shamisen from my understanding, so like my steps in buyo I have to time my notes to him to figure out how long to extend certain notes, etc. (I am a musical idiot, so this part may be wrong! All I know is I asked him if it was 4/4 and he said it wasn't quite the same.)

We added a new line one at a time until we were halfway through the song by the end of the two hours. Needless to say, I wasn't playing that first half like he was. ;) But once he felt I had a basic grasp of the line, we'd move on to introduce more and then come back at a later point to everything we'd done so far.

The sheet music is written as three lines, the top one the highest string (furthest from your body when you hold the shamisen up), with numbers written in on each line for which fret you're hitting per note. A Roman numeral under that number shows which finger you use (I - index finger), and there are small katakana below that if different techniques are used (ス "su" for plucking up rather than down, etc.). Again, there are no indications of how long a note is held, so my complete ignorance of Western musical notation was not actually a problem here.

He also said I can continue to borrow one of his shamisen for practice during class for as long as I need to, which was nice because shamisen are ungodly expensive.

Also, the entire two-hour class was in seiza (where you kneel on a pillow with your legs and feet under you). He, of course, had no problem doing this but an hour in I had to ask for a bathroom break just so I could get up and move around. So I'm definitely going to have to practice sitting in seiza at home.

Overall I really enjoyed it, and even though I have no musical background my teacher was pleased with the progress I made and said he was surprised I was doing this well my first lesson. So there is hope for me yet! :)

Monday, March 11, 2013

Come Visit Us

Two years ago today, the triple disaster of 3/11 hit Tohoku, the northeastern region of Japan, killing almost 19,000 people and displacing over 300,000. 160,000 are still unsure if they will ever be able to return to their homes on the northeastern coast.

Tohoku and Japan in general is trying to recover from 3/11, but it will take years for the economy to fully come back. What's not helping is the ignorance I frequently see online in English about Japan, which can scare people into not visiting.

A good example is an online photo I saw of a kimono-wearing girl wearing a cold mask in Tokyo (which is over 120 miles from the disaster site, as a note): someone in the comments actually wondered if it was because of fear of radioactive fallout two years later. People wear cold masks all the time in the winter here if they have a cold, are trying not to get a cold, or even if they're just suffering from hayfever. It's considered polite. It has nothing to do with radiation.

As for me, I live in Tohoku. I love Tohoku. Please come visit us. Please come to Japan period. Please don't listen to the ignorant online comments about how people are glowing in the dark or how the whole country is radioactive. Outside of a very small area on the coast (12 miles), Japan is safe. It would be like not going to any place in America because of a problem in Boston. Here's the official travel advisory, updated just a few days ago.

I am not Japanese, but having lived in Sendai and now Akita, Tohoku is one of my favorite places in the world. Please take a moment today to send your thoughts, a prayer, or a donation to the victims still suffering.

And please don't let rumors and misinformation keep you from ever visiting. Japan can be a really amazing place, and Tohoku people are some of the friendliest you'll ever meet.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Akita Shamisen Concert... and Lessons?

Today I had the chance to go to a small, local shamisen concert by Akita shamisen player Houshuu Asano! He played, among other songs, Akita Obako and Akita Nikatabushi, two famous songs from the area.

It was fun, interesting, and it turns out I might actually have the chance to start lessons with him, but we're still trying to work out the schedule and details for now. Here's a sample of the Akita style:

The shamisen is a three-stringed instrument that is often compared to a banjo and is heard in traditional Japanese music. There are several main styles, but if you've heard of the Yoshida Brothers or their music, they play Tsugaru, a close relative to the Akita style. They're also famous for adding new and modern styling and instruments to the traditional shamisen sound. Here's one example:

After hearing so much shamisen during my traditional dance practices, it's grown on me and I've wanted to try learning how to play since I came back to Japan, but couldn't find any classes held during my off days. While talking with Asano after his performance, it came up that he teaches and he offered to be my teacher! So we'll see. :)

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Kimono Seasonal Motifs, Flowers and Colors: March

Here is the next installment in my big seasonality translating project: to get aligned with the calendar month, I've dropped back to March and will go in chronological order from here on out. Did you know that apparently March can be considered beach-opening season?

(If you're looking to buy kimono, I recommend Rakuten for new ones, especially casual wear, and Ichiroya for nice vintage ones!)

The Month of March 


Donsu,  a type of contrasting satin weave
Kimono are lined. Choose rinzu, chirimen, and donsu (silk/satin damask) silks or tsumugi (pongee silk) with spring-related patterns. In the case of chirimen silk, use things like hitokoshi or kawari-chirimen. For rinzu silks or “mon-ishou” (pattern design) silks, woven designs of spring-related things like flowing water, mist, waves, and flowers bring a feeling of freshness. For colors, light colors hazy with white or grey suggest spring. It’s good to use slightly muted colors like brown-red (azuki) 98514B, gray (nezumi) 8A8C8E, pale pink (sakura) FEEEED, or rape-blossom yellow (na-no-hana) FFEC50, young-grass green (waka-kusa) C3D941, and light blue (mizu-iro) AFDFE4.

Mon-ishou silks
Patterns reminiscent of spring dyed on a gradated background are suitable, as are plain-color kimono with family crest(s).

In situations where a fukuro obi is called for, choose something with a small pattern like what you see on some “fukusa” (tea cloth wrappers).

Obi-age are gradated rinzu silk or shibori, and obi-jime are somewhat narrow like the “kanze-hineri” or “yurugi” (crown-style) types.

Kanze-hineri type

Yurugi type

Naga-juban are unlined on the body part only, and are plain or gradated. Han-eri are white shioze, habutae, or chirimen silk. For footwear, choose zori with slightly high heels in bright colors that coordinate with the kimono.

Notes (original author's)
In the first part of the month, lined coats are used with unlined coats coming into use in the middle of the month. By the end of the month we see unlined or “sha” (gauze silk) lined ones. Create a feeling of elegance by using a coat that coordinates well with the color of your kimono.

Colors like fresh green (waka-midori) 9DD29C, silver-gray (gin-nezu) A1A3A6, finch green (hiwa-iro) CBC547, water light blue (mizu-asagi) 80ABA9, cream FFEDB3, light orange (awai-orenji) F8A885, and neutral warm colors with white in them.

Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival/Girls’ Day) dolls (hina-ningyou), shell-matching game (kai-awase), formal fans (ougi), flowing water/streams (ryuu-sui), spring gradated colors, mist (kasumi), and from the middle of the month cherry blossom patterns (sakura) are used.

Hina Matsuri dolls

Shell-matching game

Formal fans

Flowing water/streams

Spring gradated colors


Cherry blossoms

March Flowers
Cherry blossom (sakura), cherry blossom branches (eda-sakura), weeping cherry (shidare-zakura), falling/scattering cherry blossoms (chiri-sakura), dandelion (tampopo), violets (sumire), fields of spring flowers, peaches (momo), kobus magnolia (kobushi), weeping golden bell (ren-gyou), primula like primrose, cowslips, etc. (sakura-sou).

See above for general cherry blossoms.

Cherry blossom branches

Weeping cherry

Falling/scattering cherry blossoms



Fields of general spring flowers.

Peach blossoms

Kobus magnolia

Weeping golden bell

Primula (like primrose, cowslips, etc.)

Patterns Associated with March
Due to the opening of beach-going season: assorted shells (kai-zukushi), shell baskets (kai-oke), and shells of the shell-matching game (kai-awase).

Due to the Doll Festival/Girls’ Day: flutes (fue), taiko drums.

Assorted shells

Shell baskets

See first section for shell-matching game.


Taiko drums

More (Original Author) Notes
Assorted spring lined kimono: March 3 is the Doll Festival/Girls’ Day. This festival is counted as one of the classical Five Festivals (January 7, March 3, May 5, July 7, September 9). It’s a girlish and splendid festival with the traditional doll decorations, peach blossoms, and rape blossoms (the name comes from an old English word for turnip, rapum).

A furidashi container
Tea ceremonies held around the Doll Festival should offer konpeitou (a special colored sugar candy) or arara (roasted mochi pieces) in a special cylinder kind of sweets container called a “furi-dashi”. Like shaking the furi-dashi to reveal colorful pieces of candy as they fall out, we can enjoy a colorful Girls’ Day atmosphere by using brightly colored kimono with fine patterns (komon) while sitting near the kettle hanging over the tea room’s hearth.

The anniversary of (hugely influential tea ceremony master) Sen no Rikyuu’s death is also in March (March 28 as observed by the popular Urasenke School). If you go out on this day, an iromuji with crests and a mature, quiet obi are suitable.

Generally, the woven background pattern of an iromuji (formal single-color kimono) can include things like mist or clouds, stylized ocean waves (sei-gai-ha), the flowing of water (mizu-no-nagare), patterns taken from famous things, arabesque designs (karakusa), or other suitably formal patterns. If using a floral background pattern, it should feature stylized flowers in repeating circles (kamon).

Stylized ocean waves

Arabesque design

Kimono colors should be chosen from composed ones that reflect the colors of spring flowers. Obi with a black background are not used this month (too reminiscent of all-black mourning obi). Nagoya obi in background colors like silver gray (gin-nezu) A1A3A6, maroon (ebi-cha) 7C4036, seaweed green (miru no midori) 6E6B41, light tea (shibu-iro) E6BE91, ash gray (hai-iro) 717375 with hand-drawn and dyed seasonal flowers or the lotus flower (hasu) match the season well.

Woven (tsuzure) Nagoya obi with small patterns like “mei-butsu-gire” or old court patterns (koten) are good to use. With obijime and obiage, loud and flashy colors should be avoided: like the kimono colors this month, plain and subdued colors that won’t stand out too much are used.


Old court patterns, here mixed with mist

Translator Footnotes
No special footnotes this time around.

Translator Notes
Nothing in particular for this month.

(Notes below repeated from previous months)

-The original author repeats several points, so with certain common terms I am using the Japanese name on first mention only. If you’re unsure of something, feel free to ask and I can clarify.

-The number next to the color name is that color's hex code as used in HTML. Keep in mind the exact shade may vary as well, from what I've seen cross-checking traditional color-name sites with actual kimono vendors.

- As a note, this is a translation of a tea ceremony kimono site. The tea ceremony world, I have learned, is among the strictest when it comes to following proper seasonality rules, so bear in mind that these rules are more stringent than the general thinking for daily and casual kimono wearers.

It’s great if a daily wearer can put together an outfit following all of these rules, but very few will look at you funny if you can’t, as it’s hard and can be expensive to collect all the proper pieces. I’m translating this site more as part of my efforts to add to the world of English-language kimono information for those who don’t speak Japanese.