Posted by Dave Bull at 11:24 PM, January 7, 2009
In 1999 Dave was honoured with an invitation to attend
the Utakai Hajime - the 'First Poetry Reading of the Year' -
a ceremony held at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo every January.
This is part four of his story of the event ... (start is here)
As we rose to listen to the presentation of the Emperor's poem, the room was momentarily filled with the sound of the rustle of our clothing. This was disturbed by a more dramatic sound, that of attendants rushing to the side of the elderly gentleman who was falling forward - fainting from the effect of standing up suddenly after the long time spent sitting motionless.
I had a clear view of what happened, and it was an astonishing display of professional preparedness on the part of the attendants. Whether or not they had been keeping an eye on this man out of concern for his condition I can't say. It would seem so though, because as he fell straight forward, two attendants sprang to his side and caught him before he reached the ground. They lowered him gently back into his chair, and then stood supporting him, one on each side. It was all over in an instant. Those of us who had noticed this episode turned our attention back to the poetry readers, as the room became silent. Many of the people in the room were probably completely unaware of what had happened.
The ceremony then proceeded to its culmination, with the reading and singing of the Emperor's poem, which proceeded along the same lines as had the previous readings. We then sat down, and watched as the readers and their attendants restored all the poetry papers to the trays, which were then removed and taken back behind the screen.
We then rose for the final time, and stood silently as the Imperial Family left the room by the same doors through which they had entered. Once those were closed, the main doors of the room slid open, and I was a bit surprised to find that we were now 'free'. Instead of a replay in reverse of our formal entry into the ceremony room, we left randomly. People walked slowly through the long hallway back to the reception room, some singly, some gathered in small groups talking quietly with each other.
Long white-covered tables had been set out for us, containing a selection of small ceremonial foods, sweets, and flasks of o-sake. There were no chairs, and this was not to be a formal reception. I wasn't sure what to do, but just followed the example set by those who had arrived before me. Everybody first took a tiny sip of sake, and a token morsel of food. What happened next was extremely un-ceremonious. Small plastic bags were on the table next to the trays, and each person took a few of these, and using the chopsticks provided, proceeded to shovel food from the trays into the bags, piling it up randomly. Some people didn't use the chopsticks, but simply picked up the small plates and dumped the food into the bags.
One by one, on our own time, we left the room, swinging our little clear plastic bags with the jumble of food. As we came out, an attendant asked our names. We replied, and were then directed to proceed down the hallway. I had no idea what this was about, but it was another example of their efficient organization. They had a radio system set up, and were communicating with the drivers in the auto pool, letting them know the order and timing of the departing guests. And indeed, as we descended the long stairway leading down and out of the building, our car pulled up exactly as we reached the bottom. The door was opened for us, and away we went.
But this was not the end of our adventure. It is customary for guests to the poetry ceremony to pause their car at a point just outside the palace moat, for a quick souvenir photo session with the walls as a backdrop. As our car pulled over, and we stepped out into the open air, we were astonished at the sound that washed over us.
It was actually a quiet Sunday morning in Tokyo, but what an incredible noise we heard! I suppose the traffic streaming by on the nearby major road made up the main part of it, but it seemed to encompass much more than that; the entire city seemed to be roaring at us - there is no other word to describe it.
Over the past hour or so while inside the palace grounds, we had unconsciously been 'wound down' to a completely different scale and pace of living. Everything had moved very slowly; everything had been very quiet. Our body clocks had been reset. And now suddenly, at the moment we opened the car door we were thrown back out into the modern world. It was a vivid demonstration of just how vastly different our contemporary world must be from that of the 'old days'.
Once back in the car, we pulled out into the stream of traffic, and in a mere couple of minutes, during the trip back to our hotel, we were dragged back to the present, and the world of the palace and the ceremony began to fade in mind and memory.
But imagine! What must it be like to live inside that palace, to have lived there all one's life, and then to come out onto the streets of Tokyo?
David Bull, January 1999