The dancer arrives.
The dancer arrives“I was attracted by Japan since I even started walking”says Melvin, the butoh dancer from France. Six years since his encounter butoh in his student years that changed his life. “For me, butoh is not just a dance. Butoh is about how I live, butoh is my life.”To trace back his roots, for the first time in his life, he steps on to the ground of the metropolis of the far east.There are two missions for this trip: To visit the places where butoh was born, and to perform his own butoh inspired by this trip. The trip starts from Tokyo, going further northeast to the Tohoku, to Akita, and finally to Tashiro, the land of Kamaitachi, following Hijikata’s shadows.
Day 1：Lost in the concrete jungle of Tokyo
When seeing the people wandering between the concrete jungle, some are looking for something, some are going somewhere, and some are just staying there since their birth. In the eastern capital showing millions of different human textures, a single piece of a sand, the 26 years old dancer, was following the shadow of his teacher from half a century ago.
The Tokyo tower is glowing red in the morning bustle. The first sight of visit is the Keio University Art center. Prof. Takashi Morishita, the chief of this center, served under Hijikata as his assistant for long years. “The new horizon of butoh was opened up when the Japanese classic art and the culture of Akita, his homeland, has encountered.” Melvin keeps firing questions at the professor, asking about shironuri, the white body painting, about the butoh worldwide, about its future. Picking up various data and accounts, his curiosity starts to accelerate.
Passing by the port with the highway, we go to the Ohno butoh studio in Yokohama. In the lesson, Mr. Yoshito Ohno at the age of 80 carefully chooses his words, and the students were all ears not to miss a single clue. After 2 hours of dance practice, Melvin mentioned his thoughts. “The Japanese dancers started moving their body immediately as the music began. For my butoh, I have to wait. Wait until my body gets gradually filled with emotions, and then it can finally move.”
Asakusa temple, the scramble intersection in Shibuya at night, the performance at Kabukiza, passing through the Shinjuku golden ally, … the eyes goggling around the sceneries passing by, the day in Tokyo is coming to its end. “It’s amazing. I feel like, I became empty, a NOTHING.” He described his impressions about Tokyo afterwords.
Day 2：Into Tashiro, a stage in the snow
4 hours have passed on the seat of the rapid train. The scenery outside passing by so rapidly gradually loses its human smell. The mountains go deeper, and layers of snow cover them like a dress. A single stroke of the rail goes along the curvy valley, carrying the passengers into the land of wilderness.
“Morioka” “Tazawako” “Kakunodate” … after a number of unfamiliar station names, the train arrives at Omagari station. An obvious silence, and the touch of human society has grayed. The cold air sticks in the skin. Picked by a car, we glide over the white basin still in its hibernation. The snow has started to melt, but the remaining 1 meter high wall is enough to surprise the stranger. “When this snow melts, it soaks into the fields. That’s how the good rice grows.” says the driver.
As we arrived at Tashiro, the locals welcome us into the Kamaitachi Museum of Art. Which is actually supposed to be closed, but they shoveled the snow and made an entrance for us since 3 days ago. Putting our feet into the inner storage of the mansion, and walking past the sharp icy floor, a rural landscape from half a century ago lies in front of our eyes. There are some photographs from “Kamaitachi”, various records of different butoh dancers, and behind-the-scene stories by the locals that are only available here (of course, you have to visit the place to learn them).
“Butoh started from harvesting rice,” said Melvin, after arriving at the farm in. The bow legs for walking in the paddy mud is the beginning for butoh becoming “the dance crawling on the ground”, he says. Right across the museum, there is a traditional thatched roof house, and three butoh dancers warm at the fireplace. The table is flooded with local dishes: Tofu soup, buckwheat tempura, mountain vegetable hot pot,… all is prepared even for Melvin, who is a vegetarian. The slight tension floating in the air at first became warmed up, and the night slowly went on with a cheerful conversation.
Day 3：Sensei and the priest
The morning of Tashiro starts early. In the snowy season, the residents start sparsely appearing on the streets within the morning dusk, and start shoveling the snow that has surrounded their houses during the night. As the view from the window of the inn gets brighter, the mother brought a full plate of breakfast. “Usually I’m a night owl, and don’t eat that much in the morning…” Melvin smiles a little bit embarrassed.
4 days from here on, every morning we will have a butoh workshop. For this day, Ms. Saga Kobayashi, a direct disciple of Hijikata takes the lead. Melvin makes all his senses keen to not miss a single movement of her. The spacious gym within a slightly deserted town hall resonates the melody of their footsteps.
After the practice, we wander around the streets to a temple at the edge of the town. Going through the magnificent gate, Melvin seems a little bit nervous. Being welcomed by the mistress, who was just preparing the matcha tea. A short tea break, a moment of sight. As the wave in your heart has calmed down, it is time to visit the zazen meditation room. Setting the posture on the cushion, and with the sound of the bell as a sign, the time seizes. The body feels slightly cold, something like the sound of the wind is there, but the consciousness leaves apart from that body, and the body lies on the seat. After the long short time, the priest leads Melvin to let him hear reading out the sutra. The sound of the big drums and the Sanskrit syllables floats into the air, and Melvin keeps his eyes set on the priest’ prayer. “That was one of the most beautiful moments I ever experienced in life,” he told at the end of the day.
After the prayer comes the Buddhist meal. “A slight luxury for guests cannot be bad” said the mistress smiling. All of the meals, needless to say that they are all vegetarian, are local dishes cooked by the locals. As we fulfill our body with pleasure, the conversation between the locals and the dancer starts. “How do you hold funerals in France?” “What does the great heart sutra mean?” Casual questions and laughters pass by, and with a heart that has been warmed, we left the place.
Day 4：Dancing with the dead
For today’s morning practice, Melvin shows how he leads butoh workshops for French people. “It is just showing how I do it for French people, so it might be a little bit strange…” he seems to be nervous to lead the workshop in front of a leading butoh dancer. As the practice starts, however, Melvin shows powerful lessons and relaxing small talks. The methods he inherited from his teachers in France and in Japan appeared to be fresh in Ms. Kobayashi’s eyes.
“This is the pose of Indian Kathakali” “This is like a seducing Geisha” Melvin introduces various images to lead the participants’ posture. At the end of the workshop, Ms. Kobayashi shared a picture with everyone. “Evolving from a monad, fish, amphibian, mammal, … each of us, regardless of the race or nationality, have these ancient memories within ourselves”
And they practiced metamorphosing their body through this process of evolution.
In the afternoon, we went down to the town to learn the “Nishimonai Bon Dance”, a mourning dance that has been inherited for more than 700 years, and which today is a summer festival well known among all of Japan. Being enchanted by the smooth movement of the legs and the hands of the Bon dance sensei, the music of the flutes and the drums enter into our heart. Like a river that flows since the ancient times, the 700 years of history appears in front of Melvin’s eyes as a form of dance. “You see this turn within the dance? Here, we are taking a turn between ‘this world’ and ‘that world’.” Sometimes being called as the “dance of the dead”, at the festival, the dancers cover their faces with straw hats and hoods to obscure their gender, their identity, and even their state of life or death.
This is a sort of dance that you shouldn’t actually just ‘experience’ for one day. You should keep practicing and practicing every day, and you learn with your body little by little,” Melvin says. The festival is held in August, but the locals begin with their practice since the snowy February in the middle of the cold.
Day 5：To color and to be colored
At day 5, Melvin’s smattering of Japanese seems to have gained more energy. “Koreha nandesuka? (what is this?)” “Utsukushii desunee (It’s so beautiful)” Tashiro welcomed him being a stranger. And he tries to breathe deeply the air of this land into himself.
A town of Bon dance has shops for kimonos. This afternoon Melvin is at a local indigo dye artisan to experience the beauty of coincidence. Tying, folding and stitching the fabric with various methods, the master tells Melvin that he always tries new ways instead of sticking to the perfected traditional method. “That is where the fun comes in when you have no idea what you will make.” The textile of the handkerchief that Melvin dyed that day looked like a reflection of a gene map that has been flowing since the ancient history of humankind.
In Japan, you all share your foods together and enjoy them. I really think that’s wonderful.” Melvin tells us that there is no equivalent of izakaya-style diners in France. Eating together, talking together and having fun together. It seems too usual for us, but seeing from outside it appears to be a unique culture. This night again, the fellows go to the local pub.
Pouring into the superior’s cup, being on the lower side when cheering the cups, and proposing for another cups while thinking of the others around you. These rules seemed to appear as a joke initially, but the moment Melvin met a local man sitting next to him, his practice begun. “It is strange, in France I cannot drink at all, but…“ At one point they seem to be best friends, and all languages and nationalities vanished into the alcohol. Before leaving, the man asked Melvin to show him France when he visits there with his wife.
Day 6：Know with the gut
There is something besides the Bon dance that the local people of Ugo town are proud of: Nishimonai soba noodle carried on the Edo merchant ship from Osaka 200 years ago. The seaweed in the noodle and the cold fish soup enrich the fine texture and the rich taste of buckwheat. At Hijikata’s home in Akita city, his parents managed a boardinghouse and a soba noodle shop. Hijikata’s father is from Ugo town, so there might be a connection somehow.
The soba master arrives, and Melvin starts following the master’s movements one by one. Kneading the dough smoothly, folding them, and cutting them into noodles like a kind of magic. It seems too easy at first sight, but when trying with one’s own hands, you immediately realize how much skills and practice are needed. “So difficult…” he mumbles. As the noodles are boiled, the soba lunch is ready. Melvin dips his noodles into the vegetarian seaweed soup and sips them in a still awkward manner.
At the final day of the practice, Melvin and Ms. Kobayashi say that they want to dance butoh on the snow. First being surprised by their requests, soon we start to imagine the scenery. What kind of butoh will we see, on the stage in the snowfield, without any storylines or structures, with all the differences of the two butoh dancers share: their backgrounds, their cultures, their lives? As the sun gets closer to the horizon, a gang of kamaitachi brews a disquiet air on the snowy field.
What makes them walk onto the snow being half naked? What memories of pain and sufferings drive them to madness? And what joy and beauty do they find there? A 30 minute long, sheer moment of life.
Like a flashback lighting the white scenery, their butoh screens all sorts of emotions within our memories: the loneliness of an infant, the libido of youth, the warmth of first love, the weight of age, …
Photo book: Kamaitachi in the snow
On the final day, one day after the moment on the snow, Melvin and Ms. Kobayashi shared a butoh stage at the 61st Tatsumi Hijikata Anniversary Event held in Akita city. First being suspicious towards the strange foreign butoh dancer, at the end of the performance, the audience welcomed Melvin’s energetic butoh with applause.
The next morning, Melvin left the land of Kamaitachi. It was a departure that sounded like a good-bye between childhood first loves.
“I don’t know if my butoh has changed through the trip. But when I myself have changed, of course, my butoh changes too. And through this trip, I feel like I cannot go back to my past self ever again …”, Melvin told us at the end of his journey.
He came like a wind, and he leaves like a wind. He keeps moving forward, just like his butoh does. And one day not so far in the future, he will come back again, blowing through this land as a kamaitachi.
Ugo Winter Travel Guide
Meet the mastery of Soba noodle
313-4 Minami Nishimonai, Ugo
Feel like home with Natto Ramen
11:00~14:00/Closed on Tuesday/¥700~
114-1 Fumoto, Tashiro, Ugo
Enter the winter Satoyama Kitchen
61 Fumoto, Tashiro, Ugo
Taste the wonder of fermentation
Open on Weekdays/1h/2~6/￥1500
Ugo Beer Brewery
109 Honcho, Nishimonai, Ugo
Meditate with Tea and Buddhist cuisine
25 Komoride, Naka Sendo, Ugo
Experience the sake serving culture
17:30~23:00/Closed on Monday
2-6 Kami Kawahara, Nishimonai, Ugo
Meet Hijikata at the Kamaitachi Museum of Art
Closed during Winter (Dec~Apr)/Weekends only/10:00~16:30/¥300/Reservation available for 5~
67-3 Fumoto, Tashiro, Ugo
Face the eternity of the time with Zazen
25 Komoride, Naka Sendo, Ugo
Feel the dance of the dead with Nishimonai Bon Dance
All year except July August/2h/1~10/¥3000
Ugo Tourism Association
200 Nakano, Nishimonai, Ugo
Taste all the fun of winter in Tashiro
Place depending on snow condition
Find the beauty of coincidence with Indigo dying
All year except August/3h/3~5/￥3000
Akagawa Kimono Shop
44 Honcho, Nishimonai, Ugo
Roadside Station Ugo
24/7 open parking space, bathrooms, shower room, nursery room, rest area, free wifi
Tourist information center 9:00~17:00
Facilities: farmers market, diner, cafe, gelato shop
200 Nakano, Nishimonai, Ugo
All year/¥10000~15000 per person
max. 7 ppl
52 Sendatsuzawa, Iizawa, Ugo
All year/Closed on Wed & Thu
¥5000 Breakfast +¥1500 Dinner +¥2000
max. 5 ppl
Cafe closed on Thu & Fri (entirely closed during winter)
140 Amasawa, Tashiro, Ugo
Farm Inn Rira
￥4500 Breakfast +¥1000 Dinner +¥1500
max. 4 ppl
60 Fukushima, Ashida, Ugo
Gorinzaka Onsen Toshito Land
￥8,640~ (2 meals)/Log house ￥12000
max. 112 ppl (including annex)
43-4 Gorinzaka Shita, Ashida, Ugo
max. 5 ppl
61 Fumoto, Tashiro, Ugo
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445 E 86 W 27th St # 601