The day I went to see Miyako-odori, I went into Kennin-ji, bearing my camera, when I met another Japanese girl who also had a camera with her.
Traveler, we told ourselves, and went our own ways, as if we did not see one another.
I reached the venue and managed to get a ticket and entered the theatre just before the performance began. Except me, the people there all came in small groups. In front of me a pair of old ladies discussed excitedly which seats they should get, and even grabbed the arm of a staff for advice, like two happy little girls.
As I was by myself, once I reached the balcony, I did not wait for the people in front of me to hesitate over their seats but immediately found myself one in the very middle. When I thrusted my legs through the railing, imitating the man next to me, I heard a string of excited conversation right behind me. It was the old ladies. There was also a young woman’s voice, probably their relative. They kept on babbling and I could not pretend not to hear them, incomprehensible words turned into meaningless noise booming through my brain, but if one were to try comprehending it just took one too much energy. And with much more vigour I thought to myself: Travellers.
After the sakura season, there are much less foreign visitors, but still many mainland visitors. One always sees old ladies’s groups in twos and threes like the pair behind me, or female groups in their middle age. They can be identified by their iconic uniform: blazers, sports shoes, hats and parasols to shield the sun, and a one-day city bus pass and map in hand. I always wonder what has become of their husbands, but it appears to be very popular for women to travel together in Japan. There are many travel plans designed for female groups, probably even more than those for couples.
Japan has always been a communal people, and nobody goes solitary without meeting disapproving glances. Expensive restaurants reject single customers, and it is almost a shame to have to go to Yoshinoya alone. Naoko Takagi discusses in her illustrated book which is the best gyudon place to go by one self. One just cannot be alone, especially if you are female. One cannot help not having a boyfriend, but it is a crime not to have a good friend of the same sex. To some extent the school bullying phenomenon in Japan probably comes from this fear of isolation. There are many books and films that deal with this topic, and one relatively profound exploration of such can be found in Mitsuyo Kakuta’s Taigan no Kanojo (『対岸の彼女』) .
Somehow it has changed in the recent years. The all single seat Ramen shop “Ichiran" is so popular that there is a branch in Hong Kong, and in most big cities there are capsule hotels catering for single travellers. When you search the internet, there is even this new vocabulary “solo girl travel". That means while the old order gradually crumbles, Japanese women also begin to rip off their past bondages and fear, and go solo.
After the performance, I seemed to hear at my back one of the old ladies asking the young girl where she came from, upon which the girl answered Kobe. The old ladies, on the other hand, came from Kyushu. Amused, I turned my head, and lo! Was that not the girl I met at Kennin-ji just now? Still laughing, they left separately. She pretended not to see me, and I her.
Perhaps people look at me the way just as I look at her, and seeing each other we also see our own solitary self. A complicated feeling.
No matter what, we alone know our own freedom, and solitude.