Just call me "The Matriarch"

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September 7 2017 was an amazing day. The sort of day that happens occasionally when you are travelling. When you experience a tradition in a new country, and it's exciting and unexpected. Normally you are an onlooker, a witness. This time I was an integral part of it. Mandow as Matriarch, in a Japanese baby-welcoming ceremony. It's something I'll never forget. 

Oddly, despite me being in Osaka for more than two weeks before it happened, the experience was as unexpected as if we'd stumbled upon it in some unknown South American village.

True, we'd been kinda building up to something for a while in our Osaka household. But Ben and I didn't have the least idea what we were building up to. Saho's mum talked about a family meal. Then she talked about a kimono photo shoot. A kimono expert arrived at the temple and we tried out different colours for the robes, the collars, the stiff sashes round your waist. It was like dressing up for adults. Fun.

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Playing at dress-up

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Then things started to appear which might or might not have been something to do with it - a temple hanging with Zen's name and birth date, some baby gift bags. Yuri (Saho's mum) made up other gift baskets, with nappies, cuddly toys, balloons and flowers, and put them in the temple. A baby chair was prepared at the head of tables there. Smart clothes arrived for Haruma, Saho's 3-year-old brother.

Saho and Yuri make up gift baskets

Saho and Yuri make up gift baskets

It was starting to look like a bigger event than Ben and I had thought. 

The day dawned and we were told we should start getting ready at 9am. At 9.15 we were called through to a small room off the temple and inside were three (yes, three!) kimono dressers, plus a hairdresser, and a mass of activity. Over the next few hours, the three women in the family (Saho, Yuri and me) got into our kimonos, got our hair done (I don't often wish for long hair, but I would have loved a proper Japanese hairdo, with combs and flowers!).

A tad of hair envy. Saho looking amazing

A tad of hair envy. Saho looking amazing

Ben got the same treatment, minus the hair. 

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I say "got into our kimonos" as if this was an easy thing; until that day, I had no idea how complicated it is to wear a kimono. I definitely needed a dresser or two to sort me out - I just stood there like a medieval princess. First there were special white socks, made with a tuck between the big toe and the next one along which makes it possible to wear the Japanese jandal things. Next a white robe, then an additional collar, then the kimono - making sure to wrap the right side over the left first, as doing it the other way means death. Then there was a confusing mass of steps involving ties and underbelts and overbelts and bits of stiff cardboard - mostly round my waist. And finally there was the beautiful waistband thing, with its complicated looped fastening at the back. Then I had my hair done and I was ready. Saho and Yuri went through similar lengthy dressings - even Ben needed help. Only Yoshi Saho's step-dad got dressed on his own - presumably all this is old hat for him. He's in robes every day.

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I wonder... who dresses the dressers?

I wonder... who dresses the dressers?

I'll say it now: a kimono is not a practical garment. You have to walk like a penguin, kneeling down is hard, breastfeeding (for Saho) would have been impossible. Even bottle-feeding was a bit fraught; we were all paranoid about Zen throwing up on our kimonos - a lot of arms-length burping went on that day. 

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The photographer had arrived sometime when we were getting dressed, and was busy filming the preparations. Then around midday, three hours after we started getting ready, it seemed  things were happening. I was sat down on a low chair, and given Zen to hold. A white collar was put round Zen's neck and then a long black robe was put round both of us. Why me, not Saho, or the other grandmother - the one who had organised the whole event. No, as mother of the baby's father, I am the matriarch, and therefore got to be centre stage in the photos - with Zen, of course. It was all very exciting.

At last, the Matriarch!

At last, the Matriarch!

Meanwhile, a feast was being delivered and laid out on the table. We each had our own set of dishes - little bowls of Truly Astonishing Japanese food. Soups and lot of different bits of fish and seafood, pickles, rice. Haruma had a sort of temple Happy Meal, and Zen - aged three weeks had a little tray of dishes. (Click across for some photos of the food.)

Then Zen was placed in his chair at the head of the table and I sat on the floor next to him,  took a piece of fish on my chopsticks, and touched it to his lips. I don't have a photo of my moment of glory, which was perhaps a good thing - digging out a morsel from a whole fish with chopsticks, in front of an audience, isn't easy - well I didn't cover myself in chopstick glory, anyway. But still, everyone clapped. Perhaps from relief. And we all got down to the serious business of eating.

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And it was only then that Ben and I found out what was going on. This was Zen's "Okuizome" ceremony. I should explain. Okuizome is the second of the three major milestones in a Japanese baby’s life. The first, "Omiyamairi", happens on the one-month anniversary of his birth, and involves a visit to a shrine to pray for health and a good future. The second, “Okuizome”, or “first meal” usually takes place after 100 days; however Saho and her family kindly did it very early (three weeks) so Ben and I would be there. Okuizome involves a celebratory meal, during which the baby’s grandmother on the father’s side takes a small piece of fish in her chopsticks and touches it on the baby’s lips. Sometimes she does the same with fish and soup and other things, but I didn't. Perhaps they realised my chopstick skills weren't up to it. The ritual (hopefully without the soup and vegetables) ensures that the baby will eat well during his life.

(In case you want to know, the third milestone, Kodomo-no-hi or Children’s day is celebrated on the baby’s first May 5th (the fifth day of the fifth month).)

In case you REALLY want to know more, there's the video too, where in 15 minutes of glorious technicolour you can see the build-up, the dressing, the photoshoot, the ceremony - and Mandow in her new role as Matriarch. Don't all shout at once.

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