Passing out of Awaji Island, I saw the great white whirlpools beneath Onaruto Bridge.
Amidst a plain of a color deeper than blue, obi made of seawater surged and danced.
How many years had it been since I last returned home?
From the window of the highway bus, I watched the churning Naruto Strait.
Ever since moving to Tokyo, I had been swamped with work and had long lacked the time to visit my family in Tokushima. But I was fine with that. I guess I had refused to return home until I had made something of myself in my job.
It had been in early July. Checking my smartphone, I had seen that my grandmother had left me a voicemail.
“Kasumi-chan, come home for Obon this year.”
My grandmother’s drawl. I found myself instantly relaxing at the sound of her gravelly yet still firm voice.
A woman sharply dressed in a dark gray suit, braced for work in the harsh environs of Tokyo, now once again the little girl being pulled along by her grandmother’s hand. That is what it felt like, and I found myself unconsciously nodding slightly to her words.
“Are we there yet?”
Now across the Onaruto Bridge, the bus passed into Shikoku. Seeing the mountains for the first time in ages, the trees and shrubs which covered them were displaying their summer colors. I casually listened to the conversation between a mother and child sitting nearby who looked to be heading home themselves.
“How many more minutes?”
“I’d say about forty.”
“Are we going to see the dancing?”
“Will grandma dance?”
“Of course. Your grandmother is a very good dancer.”
“I’m good too.”
The boy nimbly raised both arms and opened and closed his hands in a flutter to show his dancing. “Yes you are. Just like your grandmother,” the mother said, her shoulders shaking with laughter.
From August 12 to 15, the Tokushima summer bustles with the Awa Dance Festival.
For just those four days, the normally mild and quiet residents of the prefecture, men and women of all ages, engage in a passionate dance procession amidst the heat of high summer. The festival has been held from some 400 years.
The boy did his best to pronounce the familiar shout of the dance.
Suddenly I could hear the distinctive rhythms of the zomeki* accompanied by the piercing notes of a shinobue**. My chest tightened ever so slightly with the uncontrollable exhilaration I had felt as a child.
Every summer, the Shinmachi River flowing through Tokushima City had reflected the vermillion of light of paper lanterns, quivering with dazzling radiance.
Even now I could picture it vividly.
Pulling on the straps, my white tabi easily slide into the geta. Led by a shamisen, the band is going wild while women in flower patterns dance gracefully amidst people carrying paper lanterns on polls.
Looking up at a dancer passing close by, my heart races at the sight of a vivid crimson smile beneath a beautifully braided steeple-shaped bamboo hat. Perhaps I sensed the elegant adult sensuality of it even as a child.
Each year we invariably went as a family to see the Awa Dance Festival. And my grandmother would always put on my yukata for me.
When summer vacation came, my carefully folded indigo yukata would be removed from her ancient paulownia chest and hung in a corner of her dressing room.
There was a large mirror in that dressing room, and in it would be reflected my slightly downcast and timid form. Unlike my sociable and charming sister two years older than me, I was a sullen girl, always reading books in the library. That was who I was.
Once I stood in front of the mirror, my grandmother would slowly put my arms through the sleeves of the yukata to get me to relax the tension in my body. With my arms through both sleeves and the collar straightened, the yukata would smell faintly of that paulownia chest.
With practiced hands my grandmother would diligently tie the red obi so vivid against the indigo. I would watch her working through the mirror. I’m reminded of how my grandmother used to say that the obi was the most important part when wearing a yukata.
“The obi must be firmly tightened, but it cannot be too tight. Let that which will relax, relax, and thoroughly tighten that which will be tightened.”
With her trustworthy face, my grandmother would tightly wind the long obi around my middle, but amazingly it never felt constricting. With just the right amount of pressure, it would support my back, keeping it straight and dignified. In turn, my perennially lowered head would shoot up straight.
“Such an Awa beauty you are, Kasumi.”
A cute hana-bunko knot would decorate my tiny back. Once my dressing was complete, lipstick the same color as the obi would be drawn across my thin lips.
“Will the obi stay tied?”
“Even if you run.”
“Are you sure? Even if I dance?”
Nervous child that I was, I would check the hana-bunko knot my grandmother had tied in the mirror over and over again and ask her to make extra sure. Lightly patting my shoulders, she would reassure me, answering, “There’s no need to worry. You’ll be fine. You’ll be fine.”
“Your grandma has been putting on countless dancers’ yukatas for ages. Your obi won’t come undone just from dancing.”
“Tell you what; if it gets loose, you come right back to grandma’s house. I’ll re-tie your obi any time, day or night.”
With the corners of her eyes crinkling, my grandmother smiled like the pure white summer sun. That smile was so dazzling it made me squint just like her.
My grandmother was a working woman, a rarity in her time.
After the war, she worked in a beautician’s on the mountain where she was born and raised, and in her twenties she moved to town and opened her own shop. She was intelligent, cheerful, and a hard worker. She tied many of the dancers’ obi and her shop thrived; my grandmother was a beautician of high repute and adored by the people of the town.
Now her shop had been handed over to my aunt, but my grandmother never stopped working, continuing to cut hair and dress people in yukata and kimono, aiding my aunt.
I guess that’s why.
After I graduated from university, my grandmother didn’t object when I said I wasn’t coming home but rather was going to work at a publishing company in Tokyo.
“You stand straight and tall, do whatever you do with confidence, and you’ll be fine.”
So saying, my grandmother convinced my parents to agree with my decision.
Little by little, homes and restaurants had begun to appear, and things gradually grew more lively outside the bus. Perhaps tired from the long trip, the boy who had been dancing moments ago was now sleeping with his head on his mother’s arm.
What would my grandmother say if she could see me now?
The publishing world was more difficult than I had imagined. Wrapped up in nothing but work, at some point I had vaguely begun to resemble that timid girl in the mirror.
“Think I need grandma to re-tie my obi.”
So whispering to the little girl in the bus window, I heard lively, geta-moving music.
*Zomeki: A traditional and energetic song played during the Awa Dance Festival.
**Shinobue: A type of bamboo flute.