Sometimes when I have a lot to say about topics, I write and write… only at the end to realize that I write quite a lot! As a result, I decided to split what was originally one piece into two, with this first part focusing on why my first experience attending Kabuki theater was one I won’t ever forget. 🙂
My first time going to a Kabuki (歌舞伎) show was in 2015. I stood in a striped black and white shirt and a black vest finished with a black skirt in the Ginza (銀座) district in Tokyo (東京) in front of the theater, Kabuki-za (歌舞伎座), holding onto the strap of my purse and my phone waiting nervously, hoping I’d be easy to spot (which, looking back on it, was rather dumb – my red hair made me stick out like a sore thumb). My eyes darted around, trying to find someone I knew in a sea of faces.
And then, out of the blue, I saw a woman running towards me and I smiled as we hugged, squealing happily. It was probably quite the sight. Most of the people around us were older Japanese people who were probably not used to seeing such a public, excited, and showy American way of greeting. But neither of us cared I think. It had been five years since we had first met and it was the first time that we were meeting each other, this time, in Japan.
Teachers are amazing people. They work hard all year to teach dozens of students subjects that can be difficult and challenging. Inevitably, there are teachers whose names and faces you can’t recall. But then there’s always that one teacher that you have, who you never forget, who helps to change your life.
So while yes, this post is very much so about my first experience with Kabuki theater, it’s also about the time I met that one teacher, the one who helped to change my life, but finally, meeting her in Japan – a rather significant day in my life because I first met this teacher in 2010 on the first day of my “Japanese 101” class.
I first signed up for the class because my school was requiring me to take a language and, having what one might call something similar to PTSD regarding Spanish classes, I made the “logical” decision to take Japanese instead, which would require me to learn a whole new system of writing and I knew next to nothing about. That made… so much sense. But at least it wasn’t Spanish. And I’d have friends who had taken the class or were also taking the class, so we’d have each other to help one another out, right? That’s what I hoped anyway.
On the first day of class, our professor walked into the room in a light pink colored suit and 1 inch heels, immediately picking up a piece of chalk and getting to work setting up. My friends who had taken her class before me had spoken fondly of her, but also said she was a strict teacher and that she was serious about her subject matter. It was the most bizarre description to me at the time – how could students like a difficult teacher?
Once she finished setting up, she turned around smiling to the class. She told us we could call her “Sensei” (先生), meaning “teacher”, and then told us all that Japanese wasn’t hard, if we did the work – but it would be a lot of work. I felt intimidated and nervous, but then she said that she wouldn’t be surprised or have hurt feelings if people here this week dropped the class in the coming weeks, knowing this was the nature of such a course. Immediately, I felt determined to NOT be one of those students. She had set the challenge and I was determined to meet it.
And so it went. Week after week, “challenge” after “challenge”. I would make hundreds of flash cards with Kanji (漢字) characters on them, which my friends would drill me on as I would lie down on the cold linoleum floors of our dorms at the end of long days. And wouldn’t you know it? I slowly started learning Japanese. But perhaps most shockingly, despite all the work, I was having fun and something many of my classmates and I discussed amongst ourselves was the fact that we all wanted to succeed in Sensei’s classes because she was such a great teacher. She wasn’t just teaching us a language – she was teaching us about a culture and how to work to understand others.
She never judged us either for any of our quirks and always encouraged us in our quests of learning about anything in Japan. She also acted as our sponsor for the Asian Culture Club where I served in several positions (don’t ask me how – I don’t have an ounce of southeast Asian blood in my ancestry to my knowledge). As a result, I often worked with Sensei to get ideas on ways to help teach students about Asian cultures.
By the end of college, I was wrong about one thing – I thought when I first started Japanese classes, I’d only take it for two semesters. I ended up minoring in it, and if the option had existed, I would have likely switched my major to Japanese. The thing was, I had found something that I had become really passionate about. And it was all thanks to taking that first course in 2010.
Yet, despite having that passion for Japanese upon graduating, I struggled after college. The job hunt for me was difficult. I found myself really questioning what I wanted to do with the education I had worked hard for. One day, my mom asked me, “Well, what do you see yourself wanting to be?” and my immediate thought was “I want to be like Sensei.” And so, I started applying for jobs teaching English in Japan.
Shortly after, I was hired and on my way to live in Saitama, Japan, (埼玉, 日本) a prefecture just north of Tokyo. The move was not without its hurdles (which I’ll talk about another day), however, despite those I quickly found myself in love with my new home. A year later in 2015, I spoke via Skype and email with Sensei, when she told me she would be visiting Tokyo that summer and was interested in going with me to see a Kabuki theater show – at which I was thrilled! Fast forward to June there we were in Ginza at Kabuki-za, hugging and excited to see one another two years after my graduation.
After we got our tickets, we went to the basement level of the building to grab a quick bento (弁当) or boxed lunch prior to the show. We also browsed around, looking at omiyage (お土産) to and various costumes on display below from past shows. Our show started at 12:49, so shortly before, we made our way to our seats. The show, called “Shin Usuyuki Monogatari” (新薄雪物語), or “The Tale of Princess Usuyuki” in English, told a tale of a love story, with the first Act “Hanami” (花見), or “Cherry Blossom Viewing”, telling how the couple met.
As the show took a long time, we decided to forgo the second act, in favor of getting a light dinner/snack at the restaurant Fujiya, a short walk away. I got a banana pancake dessert while Sensei got a green tea sunday! Oh the wonders of Japan! Inside, we talked about the show, things back in the states, Saitama, and some of Sensei’s experiences growing up in Tokyo. It was a really nice outing and it made me feel really lucky to be a student of hers. 😉
We soon finished our treats, paid, and made our way to our respective stations. Before parting, Sensei gave me a cute apple shaped New York cookie, ‘a gift from home’. We hugged, waved goodbye and I walked the rest of the way to Yūrakuchō Station (有楽町駅), boarding the Keihin Tōhoku Line (京浜東北線) which would take me back home.
I had by this point experienced quite a bit in Japan. Sitting in my seat on the ride back, looking at my cookie, I felt extremely grateful for Sensei. Without her, I never would be where I was, sitting on a JR train, riding back to my now “second home” in Saitama. I don’t know if I would have met so many of the friends I have today, been courageous enough to live overseas alone, met so many of my own wonderful students, felt empowered enough to believe I could indeed accomplish something as hard as learning Japanese, or simply found a place in the world that would fit so nicely into my heart.
I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher and I will forever credit Sensei for helping me find my passion for Japanese.
While I’ve withheld her name for her privacy’s sake, I hope my university knows what a wonderful, and truly remarkable professor they employ. They are so incredibly lucky to have her and she is the gem of that college.
本当にありがとうございます, 先生. Thank you so very much, Sensei, for all that you’ve done for me and all of your students. We love and appreciate you so much!
So I guess the whole point of this post, other than talking about how incredibly blessed I feel having had Sensei as a teacher, is just to recognize those teachers and professors in your life. Don’t be afraid to get to know them, to pick their brain, and learn as much as you can from them. You never know what you might find and how learning from them might change your life for the better. My life was certainly changed – and I’m sure yours will be too.
In the second part of this blog post series, I go in depth into the actual experience of attending a Kabuki show (which I definitely recommend you do if you get the chance). Till then, keep living, laughing, learning, and loving.