We pulled up to the entrance of the shrine, the driver pausing only briefly to navigate an ancient tree trunk that had been split in two to form an awe-inspiring entryway to a steep flight of stairs leading up to the main place of worship.
Looking up, I saw splashes of bright pink flowers framing the stairs, and a gorgeous shidare zakura (weeping cherry blossom) in the courtyard of the shrine. Everything was even more perfect than I could have imagined.
My heart was pounding as I gingerly stepped out of the taxi. Yoshida-san, my attendant, rushed to my side to help me gather up the excess fabric of my kimono, and reminded me once again to grasp it with four fingers on one side, thumb on the other, everything hidden beneath the heavy layers of embroidered white silk.
I glanced over at Hayato, looking every part the samurai in his hakama (what I like to call a “man kimono”), who gave me a stoic nod and slight smile as passersby began to gather, smile, and congratulate us. The moment had arrived to ascend those stairs (oh, did I mention my feet were hemmed in to split-toed tabi socks and traditional Japanese sandals?) and begin our traditional Japanese wedding.
How on earth did I end up here?
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when my obsession with Japan began.
My mom claims it was when I was three years old and insisted on getting a Hello Kitty umbrella, but I have no memory of that event, so I’ll say it was sometime in junior high when I would visit San Francisco’s Japantown and find myself entranced by everything.
The food was different—you had to eat miso soup with chopsticks!! The written language fascinated me—how could you ever learn to interpret those complex characters? And everything was so beautifully packaged and presented—even the simplest item was created with obsessive care and artistry.
After college, I got a teaching job with NOVA and moved to Kyoto, where I lived for a year and a half. I loved being in Japan but didn’t love my job, so I left to go to grad school, where I studied translation and professional language skills.
During my graduate program, I befriended many of the Japanese students and continued to feel the pull of Japan, so I found an internship and an apartment in Tokyo and decided to spend the summer there finishing my dissertation and figuring out my next step.
I quickly decided that three months wouldn’t be long enough in Tokyo, so I found a job, secured a place to live, and extended my visa.
One evening soon after I’d made the decision to stay, I was at Ageha, a huge nightclub on the outskirts of the city. It was a warm September night, so I went to the outdoor area to cool off and enjoy the dancehall DJ who was spinning there. After a few minutes, a tanned and laid-back surfer dude (that would be Hayato) approached me and said “hi.”
Seriously, that’s what he opened with.
We spent the evening talking and dancing, and exchanged phone numbers before he left with his friends.
We ended up meeting the next week, again at Ageha, and before the night was over, he asked me to be his girlfriend. I figured I had nothing to lose, so I said yes.
Less than a year later, we had moved in together, and we shared an apartment in Tokyo for about six and a half years. (Many of our adventures as a couple were chronicled in my column in Japanzine, “Let’s Dating”).
Then the big earthquake and tsunami hit Tohoku on March 11, 2011, and the nuclear reactor in Fukushima exploded. All of this was enough to convince me that maybe it was a good idea to take a break from Japan, so I left in May 2011 and he joined me in the US in February 2012.
We got engaged in summer 2012 and had a simple wedding ceremony and reception in San Francisco in November 2012.
Hayato’s family was in Japan and I still had a lot of friends there, so it just made sense for us to have a second wedding in Japan. This was only slightly complicated by the fact that we lived in California while we were planning it.
Our Japanese wedding
Ever since I had lived in Kyoto and heard that one of my coworkers was getting married in a traditional ceremony at Heian Shrine, I had dreamed of one day having my wedding there, too. It’s one of my favorite places in the world—the garden is so mysterious and beautiful, there’s something to see every time of year, and there’s always something new to discover.
But that dream was quickly squashed because Hayato’s family lives in Kanagawa Prefecture (near Tokyo) and it wouldn’t be right to ask them to travel all the way to Kyoto.
Luckily, Kanagawa Prefecture is also home to an ancient capital city, Kamakura, so it was easy to decide on Kamakura as the setting for our wedding.
Choosing the exact shrine where we’d have the ceremony, though, was a little trickier. Kamakura is home to several well-known shrines, but Hayato ruled those out immediately because he didn’t want to go anywhere big and touristy. He wanted the wedding to feel private and not like a big spectacle.
If we had been in Japan, we could have just done some day trips to Kamakura to scope possible sites out in person, but that wasn’t an option from California. So we resorted to good old Google. We spent a lot of time just looking at Google maps to see which shrines were physically located in Kamakura and then looking up their websites to see if they looked interesting. And this is how we found Egara Tenjinja, the shrine we eventually chose.
I liked Egara Tenjinja because it had plum blossom details throughout the shrine, and Hayato liked it because it was small and not as much of a tourist destination as some of the other shrines in Kamakura.
We initially went through a slight hiccup when Hayato’s parents went to scope out the shrine and they discovered that while they did offer weddings, they only tended to perform about four weddings a year. This was a major cause for concern (mostly for my mother-in-law) because the ceremony probably wouldn’t be as fancy as if we went to a more typical wedding shrine.
(Just a quick side note: In Japan, shrines tend to be popular for one particular thing, so you would go to one shrine to pray for good luck on an entrance exam or test, a different shrine if you were sick and trying to get better, and a different shrine if you were looking for a partner or to have a wedding. All shrines offer most services, but they tend to have one “claim to fame.”)
The main difference between a “fancy” and a “not fancy” ceremony, as best as I can tell, is that during part of the ceremony, the priestess performs a dance. If it’s a fancy ceremony, she’ll be accompanied by live musicians (who will also walk with the couple and family during the procession). If it’s a not fancy ceremony, it’ll just be a CD playing in the background. There may have been one or two other things, but basically it was not a deal-breaker for us.
I think my mother-in-law was just concerned because she wanted everything to be perfect, but she didn’t realize that I had no idea what “perfect” would even look like since I had never been to a traditional Japanese wedding before!
Once we decided on the location and date of the ceremony (and by the way, choosing an unpopular shrine meant that we got our first choice for the wedding date), we only had to make a few other decisions.
It’s pretty rare for brides to purchase wedding kimono because they’re so expensive and can really only be used on that single occasion. So the main thing was choosing the vendor for our kimono and hakama rentals and attendants to dress us in them, hair and makeup artist, and photographer.
The men really only have one option for their wedding outfit, but for women, there are so many choices to make! Brides have a lot of decisions to make about how traditional or modern they want their appearance to be.
First I had to decide if I wanted a white kimono or a colorful one. I also had to choose whether I wanted the traditional wig, the traditional wig and headdress, or just to use my natural hair.
I quickly decided against the wig and headdress, which meant that I needed to decide if I wanted natural flowers or a Japanese-style fascinator called a kanzashi. This is the option I chose and I found a really beautiful hand-made one on Etsy.
There are a lot of one-stop shops that will do all of the things I just mentioned.
One of Hayato’s close friends is a photographer and had agreed to take photos for a very reasonable price, so we opted for a package that included the kimono, hakama, attendant, hair, and makeup. Hayato’s mom took care of arranging that, so we just went in to their Ginza studio a few days before the actual wedding to do a hair and makeup trial.
I love playing dress-up, so it was so much fun, and the ladies were all very sweet and made everything look so much nicer than I even imagined was possible. Definitely one of my favorite parts of the whole thing!
The actual wedding ceremony
I really had no idea what to expect for the ceremony itself. I had only ever been to one wedding ceremony in Japan, and it had been Western-style, so that didn’t give me much help.
It turns out that there’s not a whole lot for the bride and groom to do in a Shinto ceremony, which was lucky for us!
We arrived at the shrine and the entire party (consisting of Hayato’s mom, dad, brother, sister-in-law, and niece and my mom, dad, and best friend) was escorted to a small reception area, where the priestess served us cherry blossom tea (don’t be fooled by its light pink hue, though—it’s actually really salty!).
There was kind of a funny moment because it was a traditional tatami mat room and my parents are not able to sit on their knees in seiza style (being American, they don’t do a lot of sitting on the floor), so we asked if they could find a chair or a stool for the two of them.
Then Hayato’s mom realized that she couldn’t really sit comfortably that way either, so we asked for another chair. It turned out that the only person who seemed totally at ease sitting seiza style was Hayato’s niece, Kaho-chan, since she needs to sit that way in kindergarten every day.
The priestess took us through the ceremony and what would be expected of us. We would all walk around the perimeter of the shrine into the main prayer area and she would stand behind us throughout the ceremony to tell us when to bow, when to stand, and when to sit. The priest would do some chanting, perform a blessing, pour sake into ceremonial cups, and Hayato and I would take turns taking sips in the sankon no gi ceremony.
Even though I didn’t understand the symbolism of every single thing that happened in the ceremony, I still thought it was beautiful and I loved the priestess’s dance (and didn’t even miss the band of musicians).
One of my favorite things about the entire ceremony was Kaho-chan, our four-year-old niece. I kept hearing her say “hayaku” (“quickly,” as in “I want this to be over quickly”). We later learned that she had seen a vendor selling grilled rice crackers outside their hotel and her parents promised her she could have one after the ceremony. She wanted the ceremony to be over as soon as possible so she could go back to the hotel to eat one. It added a nice touch of levity to the whole event.
I was a little nervous about how people might react to a foreign woman in a wedding kimono, and the whole ride in the taxi I anxiously looked out the window to see if people were staring at me. They weren’t.
Once we arrived at the shrine, all the people we encountered were so kind, just congratulating us and smiling.
A few days later, we were at Heian Jingu in Kyoto, admiring all the cherry blossoms that were in spectacular full bloom. We realized that a wedding was taking place and stopped to watch it—along with a crowd of about 50 strangers who were snapping photos incessantly. It made me realize that I had been lucky to have a tranquil, private wedding instead of having random strangers clamor to take photos and block my way.
So I did end up with my dream wedding after all.
Melissa Feineman Suzuno is a Bay Area based writer and editor. Find more of her personal writing at jadorejapon.blogspot.com. She lives with her husband Hayato and their kitty Ebisu.
Photo credits: Katsumi Kosakai (except for taxi selfie, which was taken by Hayato)