Hana Wa Saku

19 Jul

Today at lunch I was talking with a friend who had recently traveled to Japan. He spent a week there last year, mostly staying in Tokyo with a short trip to Kyoto. Anyone who knows me knows that I will talk about Japan until I’m hoarse, and he made the mistake of asking me what I liked about Japan. He wasn’t being critical – he just wanted to understand why I loved my time there so much.

I gave him the only answer I could come up with: I loved everything. I completely fell in love with the country, the people, the architecture, the landscapes, the culture, the language, the order and structure and, as I would come to realize midway through our tour, I fell in love with Japanese tamashii, or spirit.

A few months ago, as I was flipping through the channels on our television, I came across a new channel – NHK World – which basically featured all things Japanese, just in English. I love to watch their news broadcasts to find out what’s actually going on in the rest of the world as opposed to hearing more about Jodi Arias or what the Kardashians are up to these days. It’s nice to have another perspective on the world. And their cultural programming warms my heart and brings tears to my eyes because it often reminds me of the wonderful friends I made while I was working there.

The more I watched, the more I noticed a tune in the background of all of the NHK World commercials. It was beautiful, but I’d never heard it before and I had no way of identifying it. Shazaam certainly was of no help, so I did some investigating by way of Google. Finding a Japanese song title is incredibly difficult when you don’t read or write kanji, so I used the listening skills I learned in Japan to write out a line of the song phonetically so I could search it. Turns out, it was either incredibly easy to find, or my Japanese is better than I thought.

The song was written and produced by NHK – the Japan Broadcasting Corporation – in response to the devastating earthquake and tsunami in the Tohoku region of eastern Japan in March, 2011. The version I’d been hearing on NHK World was sung by a children’s choir, but I found this video of various Japanese celebrities lending their voice to the song. It’s called “Hana wa saku,” which roughly means, “flowers will continue to bloom.” It’s a song about strength and hope and faith. Every time I hear it, it makes me think of our time in Kuji, Japan.

As I mentioned in “You Gotta Have Heart! Miles and Miles and Miles of Heart,” I went to Japan in September of 2011, just six months after that devastating earthquake and tsunami, to do a concert tour with the Tokyo Philharmonic “Neverland” Orchestra. All of us involved in the show had been keeping a close eye on the State Department website regarding the nuclear crisis happening in Fukushima, worried that our government might find it unsafe for us to travel there. But mostly I kept watching and wishing that there was something that I could do to help. I didn’t have any money to send, and I wasn’t entirely sure that money was what they wanted or needed, anyway. I felt helpless. I wanted to help them and couldn’t. I saw booking the concert tour as my opportunity to do something – even if it was just to make someone forget for a minute or two or to make them smile with a song. That desire to be good for them drove me to study my music and to do the best I could at each and every rehearsal and performance.

There was one show in particular that stood out from the rest. We had been in Sapporo, on the northern island of Hokkaido, which is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life, and we traveled south by train, back to the main island of Honshu. At the time, we still weren’t allowed by the U.S. government to travel within 50 miles of Fukushima, so we weren’t able to perform in any of the hardest hit areas, but we were able to perform in Kuji, a small town about 250 miles north of Fukushima.

From the train station, we transferred to a bus that would take us to Kuji. Japan is a country of overstimulation – color and lights everywhere – but we could tell something was different about Kuji. It was dark. Most of us didn’t even know we’d passed through the downtown area. There were no lights – not from houses, not from businesses, not from billboards or street lights. It was just dark. I think it was then that we realized that the town had taken a serious beating. It was dark because they still didn’t have enough power to illuminate the whole town.

The next day we went to the theatre to do our show, and in the daylight most everything where we were looked alright. We were told, though, that a few miles out toward the shore was a completely different story.

Before every performance, we would arrive at the theatre approximately four hours before the curtain actually went up. (That would never fly in the States). During those four hours, each and every instrument on the stage got its own private sound check. Every triangle, every flute, piccolo and penny whistle…they all got a sound check. Then each section of the orchestra would have a sound check together for balance. And then the entire orchestra would have a sound check for balance. Then it was the singer’s turn – each of us got about 30 seconds to sing whatever we wanted as we wandered the stage, checking to make sure they could hear us and that we could hear ourselves in the monitors. Then our Navigator (emcee), Francesco Sasaki-san, would get his own sound check. And then we’d have a rehearsal. Depending on what needed to be run, we would spot check songs or do entire pieces – with choreography – to make sure everything was right. The Japanese aren’t known for being perfectionists for nothing! After our rehearsal, we would be fed. The orchestra would get pre-packaged bento boxes, but the singers and our conductor got hot catered food – usually something the caterers thought Americans would like, which typically meant some form of a hamburg steak (a beef patty smothered in a Worchestershire-esque sauce) and/or a piece of grey, chewy chicken. There was also often salad or fruit of some sort, which is incredibly expensive in Japan, and there was always miso and rice. We also had a fantastic snack and drink table where we’d have all kinds of cookies and rice crackers and chocolates. They took great care of us.

In Kuji, we were still called four hours prior to curtain, but that day, our rehearsal would be an open one, meaning there would be people there watching us. We had a set list, and instead of spot checking numbers, we would basically give an hour-long performance. The audience members would be people who had lost their homes in the tsunami as well as many children who had been orphaned in the disaster. Backstage, next to the snack table, was a book about the tsunami and someone had marked the section with photos from Kuji.

Kuji, Japan, after the March 2011 tsunami.

Kuji, Japan, after the March 2011 tsunami.

The devastation was unreal, and to think that we were there to sing some Disney songs made the whole situation seem ridiculous. All through rehearsals in New York we had made jokes at the expense of some of the lyrics we were singing. In the opening number, “One Man’s Dream,” we sang about Walt Disney’s dream “to give to us a Disneyland where young and old can play” at a breakneck tempo. The next number was a song that had been written for the 10th anniversary of the Tokyo DisneySea theme park. It was called, “Be Magical!” and featured lyrics like, “Friends will be near for you./It’s all here for you./The perfect place to be,/Tokyo DisneySea!/It’ll be magical!” and “Worries behind you/Here you will find excitement instead.” That transitioned into “Fantasmic!”, in which we had to sing, “Imagination!/Follow your dreams/Imagination!/Catch a ride upon a moonbeam!” And then, of course, we closed the show singing “When You Wish Upon A Star” in Japanese, complete with a violin solo that would make even the hardest heart explode into fairy dust. It just seemed so trite. So…silly. Or maybe we were just jaded New Yorkers…

Those songs and their silly lyrics took on a whole new meaning that day. Standing out there, singing to kids who somehow were able to smile and laugh after all they’d lost; seeing grown men and women – Japanese men and women, who are notoriously stoic – openly weeping, either from joy or sorrow, or both. It suddenly made me realize that all they had were dreams and hopes and wishes and imagination, and we were telling them to follow those dreams. That nothing was impossible. And we were telling them that somehow, everything would be alright. Uncle Walt would make it so. And standing on that stage as Aoki-san started playing the all-too familiar, all-too sentimental melody of “When You Wish Upon A Star” as thousands of colored lights began to rise up all around us on stage, I found myself weeping, too. That’s what I had come to Japan for. That’s why I was there. I had finally found my way to help. I had never felt so fulfilled and satisfied in my entire life. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much gratitude and humility.

The rest of the tour took on a new feel for me after that, and I think for some of my cast mates, too. That day changed the show for us. We were all a little more committed to those lyrics. They felt a little more relevant and substantial. It was…magical.

Taking our bows after the open rehearsal in Kuji, Japan.

Taking our bows after the open rehearsal in Kuji, Japan.

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One Response to “Hana Wa Saku”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. What A Difference A Year Can Make | Confessions of a Merch Whore - September 18, 2013

    […] room, screaming like little girls because a giant bug flew in the window; how incredible it was to sing for the orphans in Kuji; about your friend Sasaki-san, who dressed like an anime character and spent his days off in Sendai […]

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