Monday, November 5, 2012

A real white wedding


Finally, I had the opportunity to attend a Shinto wedding ceremony. If you've seen Lost in Translation, I'm sure you remember the lovely scene of a bride in shiromoku, being led up the stairs by her groom in hakama at Heian Jingu, Kyoto. However, a real Shinto wedding doesn't have the pretty, ambient soundtrack, and I ain't no Scarlett Johansson.

My friend got married at Hie Jinja in Akasaka. It's one of the major shinto shrines in Tokyo. I have a print of the shrine by Toshi Yoshida, so I was surprised that the shrine in real life looks different to the print. Then I found out, Yoshida made the print in the 1930's but the shrine was destroyed during the firebombing of Tokyo in WWII. It has been rebuilt, slightly differently.

Hie Jinja before the war

Hie Jinja rebuilt

Before the ceremony, I wandered around, trying to work out where I should "be". I was soon directed to the waiting room for friends and family of the bride. I had a chance to see her in her gorgeous gold kimono, decorated with cherry blossoms, before she was covered in the white silk "shiromoku" kimono, which covers the head as well. It had a delicate pattern of cranes, or tsuru, which are often used for weddings - not just for the usual meanings of longevity and fortune, but because they are believed to mate for life.

Final adjustments and instructions.

A lady in pink kimono was 'in charge' of my friend, helping her to sit down, arranging the kimono and practicing with her what to do at the ceremony. Since most people get married just once, we have no idea what to actually "do", but the staff quietly guide and instruct, and even help you walk.

At the appointed hour, the guests who weren't family, stood off to one side in the shrine grounds as the wedding party assembled. Technically, the ceremony only involves immediate family and possibly a couple who acted as their "go-between" or matchmaker, in the case of old-style omiai or arranged marriages.

The miko san come to meet the couple and their families.

Sake set up on an elaborate red lacquer table.

The whole set up with the table and cups is then carried over to the bride.

Our view from the folding chairs. The shrine smells amazing - it's all made of hinoki wood (Japanese cypress).

After the ceremony, the miko-san direct the bridal party out. Actually, while the priest does the prayers, the miko-san kind of run the show.

With a huge 'boom' sound, as someone struck a massive taiko drum inside the shrine, the ceremony began. Two shrine maidens or miko, dressed in Heian-style robes, walked down to meet the wedding party, then led them in a slow processession, into the shrine as drums and hichiriki played (that slightly harsh sound, a bit like a clarinet). The two families were quite separate. There were no tender couple moments like in Lost in Translation. The pink kimono lady was firmly in charge of the bride.

Family members all had to take off their shoes to enter the inner shrine; which was pretty difficult for some of the elder members. The friends were invited to sit on folding chairs inside the shrine, but outside the actual ceremony area.

After purification (the couple rinsed their hands and mouths), the priest announced the couple to the altar, prayers were said, then the shrine maidens and priest brought out the sake. They took the cups to the groom to sip, then the bride, a total of three times.

At this point, my recollection of the exact order of events gets hazy. Hie Jinja is a working shrine, which means people were still coming up to the entrance of the shrine to pray, throw coins and ring the temple bell just on the other side of a translucent curtain, as the ceremony went on. Just a little distracting!

The shrine maidens performed a ritual dance with branches of sakaki, an evergreen tree used in shinto rituals. Then, I think the mothers of the bride and groom presented sakaki branches to the altar (the mothers, because one father had died, and one was in a wheelchair - otherwise, perhaps all parents would go up to the altar), then the couple did the same. Or was it the other way around? Anyway, more words were said, rings were exchanged, then everyone in the wedding party drank sake to symbolise the joining of the two families.

And with that, it was off to the nearby Capital Hotel Tokyu, to wait while the bride and groom got changed out of their elaborate kimono and into western-style wedding clothes. This took a long time, as the bride wore a katsura - traditional wig - and had to have her hair completely redone.

At the hotel, the mix of Japanese and western traditions continued. We had elegant French-style dishes on plates decorated with Japanese-style cranes. It worked beautifully.

Silver cranes decorate plates, while the napkins are embroidered with gold cranes.

Very pretty French cuisine

It helps to read French - the menu was in French and Japanese, but there was a lot of katakana-ized French, which had the Japanese guests confused.

Ooh, that creme brulee was good!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

We need to talk

Argh! Making a wedding speech

I was delighted to be invited to my friend's wedding. It'll be my first chance to attend a shinto ceremony, and she's been so excited about the whole wedding process. Then, she asked me to make a speech (she also asked me to sing, but I had to shoot down that idea quickly. Yelling out a few verses of Dolly Parton's "Jolene" or Morning Musume's "Love Machine" is just hilarious with a few friends and a lot of drinks at karaoke but... not in front of 80 strangers at a formal wedding party).

I'll leave the singing to the 'professionals'. 

Since there's no maid of honour or best man, it's up to friends and co-workers to make the speeches.  As a friend, I will probably be speaking after her or her husband's boss makes a formal speech introducing the couple. I thought I'd say something like "Hi, this is my friend, I've known her for 4 years and she's really cool and stylish and I hope she and her husband will be happy for a very long time. Thank you." Apparently, not.  My husband said I'd better find out who else will be making a speech and what the speaking order is, as this will determine what I talk about and how formal my language needs to be. Doh! It sounds complicated already!

I watched Jack Nicholson make a wedding speech in About Schmidt. Then I watched The Five Year Engagement, featuring a cringe worthy "we didn't start the fire" slide show and a sobbing sister's speech. Strangely, these didn't help and neither did Steve Buscemi in The Wedding Singer. Hub suggested I find a good English quote about love and then explain it in Japanese. Did I mention this speech is meant to be in Japanese?

Maybe a slideshow of past lovers - even if set to catchy music - is not the best idea

You don't want the couple to choke on their cake.

Don't go there.

It gets worse: in Japanese wedding speeches, there are a whole bunch of 'taboo' words and phrases. Anything that suggests cutting or separation is a no-go. You either avoid those words or use special words instead.

In case you are ever in this joyous position, here are some suggestions for a Japanese wedding speech:

Don't go there:
kiru - to cut (sounds like break off the relationship) - use naifu o ireru if you must.
owari - to end (obviously unlucky) - use o-hiraki
kyonen - last year (it has the same kanji as "to leave") - use sakunen
kaeru - to leave (obviously unlucky) - use chuuza suru or shitsurei suru
just plain avoid these words: saru (to leave), wakareru (to part), modoru (return - sounds like remarry), yaburu (to break), akiru (to be bored), tabitabi (repeatedly) and mou ichido (once more).

Remember:  words about knives, cutting, separation or... divorce!

Here are some rather bland, but useful phrases: "x-san, y-san, omedetou gozaimasu. kyou wa omaneki itadaki, arigatou gozaimashita." - Congratulations, x-san and y-san, I'm really happy to be here today.
"Itsumade mo, oshiawase ni" - I wish you a long and happy marriage.

The good news: the speech only needs to be around 2 - 3 minutes.

I bet the wedding robot doesn't make grammar mistakes!
If you have to make a formal speech, you'll need a lot of keigo (all that "watakushi" etc). Get a friend to proofread your speech - not just for grammar, but for taboo words or cultural clangers. Hugh Grant made a very funny wedding speech in Four Weddings, but jokes about relationships with sheep, etc probably won't play so well here...Four Weddings and a Funeral speech

Save it up for the "nijikai" or second party - when the rellies and bosses have gone home and everyone's blotto... then you can tell them what you really think!

Friday, August 31, 2012

Time to face the music

The dreaded playlist

Oh, I thought this would be the easy part of wedding planning. No, no. Nothing is easy! If you have little interest in music, you can leave it all up to the DJ to choose appropriately stirring, popular and cheesy songs. Or you can do it yourself, like I did, and nearly go crazy. Let’s go with option two.

First, you need two playlists. One is the BGM, or background music. This needs to be about 1.5 to 2 hours of pleasant, vaguely familiar music that won’t distract the guests too much from eating.

The other is the event music. This music serves a very specific purpose at each point in the party, just picking some songs you like isn’t good enough; imagine this is a TV show (maybe a cringe-inducing, reality show), and you are the musical director. This is music for effect, not to show off your muso credentials. Get over your inner music snob and surrender to the schmaltz.

Make 'em happy.

So what events need songs and what kind of music? I give you the list and handy notes, translated from our sage old DJ:

• Guests enter the reception room: 2 songs, up to 10 mins total. Upbeat, but not too loud.

• Bride & groom’s big entry: 1 song, about 3 to 4 mins long, to present the couple’s image (eek!)
[This was hard. In the end, we went with my husband’s choice, “Fight Together” by Namie Amuro, from his favourite cartoon, One Piece! The message is about starting an adventure and sticking together, so it’s a good message].

• Cut the cake: 1 song, 3 to 4 mins with a good hook – this is a high point of the party, so something genki and uplifting. High point should come in middle of song.
[I think in the end we went with “Arigatou” by Ikimonogakari. A great song, though it always makes me think of Shiratori (Naomi Watanabe) from the comedy show Picaru no Teiri].
Naomi Watanabe as Shiratori - and Arigatou is her signature 

• The toast (kanpai): 1 song. will play for about 1 minute – a dramatic start, then becomes quieter
[I got my wish for this one: “Banzai” by Ulfuls – dramatic start, very happy song, conducive to drinking.

Ulfuls! The toast signals the start of the real party.

• Bride leaves to change into ‘colour dress’ – 1 song about 3 to 4 mins, cheerful, representative of the bride
[I was toying with “There she goes” by The La’s. In the end, I went conventional Japanese and chose “Butterfly” by Kaela Kimura; very popular with the female guests]

• Groom leaves to change – 1 song about 3 to 4 mins, representative of the groom.

• Profile video – 2 or 3 songs, 5 to 6 mins total, songs will be cut to fit. A song to represent the groom, one for the bride and one for them as a couple. (slideshow or video generally runs groom first, then bride, then pix of them together). Something a little nostalgic is good for the old photos.
[We started with “Kiseki” by Greeen, very popular profile video song for the groom, then “Tsubomi” by Kobukuro for the bride, then “Ai o komete hanatabe o” (A bouquet of love), by Superfly – another classic profile video song].

• Bride and groom re-enter for candle service – 1 song, about 3 mins. A bit of drama.
[I can’t remember exactly, but I think we used “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer, as the jangly guitar went well with our giant sparkler / firelighter thingy]

• Candle service – 2 songs, about 10 mins total, as the couple walk around the tables lighting candles. This music should be a little calmer, happy, perhaps “sparkly” but everyone can talk over it.

• Main candle – another dramatic moment!  1 song, building up to a high point around the middle (around the 1 min mark). [I can’t believe it, but the song my husband agreed to was “When I see you smile” by Bad English. Argh! I pulled it out in desperation, and he thought it fitted the brief. I gave in to the cheesiness. A Japanese wedding is not the time to be cool.]

Bad English? For real? 

• Thank you speech to parents – instrumental only, 1 song, about 5 mins. A little sentimental.
[Chose a piano version of Hanamizuki, a super weepy song]

• Giving flowers to parents and lining up to say goodbye: 1 song, about 3 mins, calm.
[Can’t remember what we used. I know “She” by Elvis Costello is popular, but it seems a weird song for your Mum.]

• Leaving music, as guests file out: 2 to 3 songs, about 10 – 15 mins. The first song should be happy and uplifting to express the couple’s new life together. The next songs should thank the guests / express enduring friendship.
[Completely forgot. Might have given up by this time!]

Phew! Still think choosing music is easy?

Of course, you can just leave it all to the DJ.

On top of that, you need to choose music that somehow reflects your personality and appeals to the guests (bear in mind the average age of the guests, whether they’re Japanese or not, their relationship to you, etc). We had a few tense moments involving music culture. Songs that meant nothing to me but were popular in Japan (like “Can we Celebrate” by Namie Amuro with the terrible English line, “We will love, long long time”. Or worse, English songs which were inexplicably popular. I give you the case of “My heart will go on”, by Celine Dion. Yes, the Titanic song. My husband thought it was a possible for our leaving song. As he reasoned, it was dramatic, the message was one of eternal love, and it was well known amongst the Japanese guests, but in English. Just one problem: “I can’t stand that song! It’s so cheesy!” I wailed. This just didn’t appeal to his sense of logic. I tried to explain that it wasn’t popular in Australia, in fact it would be embarrassing. I got the old, “but this is Japan and more than 70% of the guests are Japanese.” I pulled out my final weapon: “My mother hates that song” (sorry for taking your name in vain, Mum). And that worked. A good husband respects his mother in law, so use her when you need to!


We wanted to mix Japanese and English songs. You need to be careful with lyrics, in both languages. Some of the English suggestions from the DJ were hilarious. Some Japanese songs I thought were good had unexpected associations. I thought Kazumasa Oda’s song “Tokyo Love Story”, would be a go, but it was from a drama of the same name and apparently the couple ends up unhappy, so husband said NO. Unless you sit around watching a lot of Japanese dramas from the 80’s and 90’s you won’t know these things, so get help from your partner or a Japanese friend.

No happy ending.

After all the angst over songs, I can barely remember which songs we used, which says one thing: don’t stress too much over song choice! We had a mix of Japanese and English songs, and I filled the BGM with moody, jazzy, indie songs that I liked. 

UPDATE: I found the DJ recommendations list for foreign songs: among them are "Hot" by Avril Lavigne - for the candle ceremony. It has great lyrics like "I wanna lock you up in my closet when no one's around". Also from Avril Lavigne, "Girlfriend" - an interesting message for a wedding: "I don't like your girlfriend! I think you need a new one!" And for giving thank you flowers to your parents: "Let it be" by The Beatles. Really? Mother Mary comes to me? But maybe my favourite is the suggestion that you finish the party with a rousing chorus of "We are the World". A wedding feast with a song about famine. Brilliant.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The food you can't eat

Do you love food? Are you looking forward to eating all the delicious things you've been going without in order to fit into your dress / suit? Ready to drink everyone under the table?

Then make sure you eat before or after the wedding party. Seriously, there's no time for the bride and groom to eat! A standard Hirouen goes for about 2 and a half hours, and as detailed here, by the time you've had speeches, entertainments and all the 'events' (with a zillion photos), you'll barely touch your plate. At our party, the staff were kind enough to cut up our steak for quick bites and they didn't whisk the plates away from the bridal table, urging us to eat whenever we had the chance.

These very pretty dishes are from the Conrad Tokyo, Gordon Ramsay wedding menu. Not cheap!

But fear not, you'll have a chance to try everything before the big day. We went to a Bridal Fair at the hotel we booked, about 2 months before the wedding. For about Y3,000 each we could try the whole wedding meal with free-flowing alcohol, which normally costs around Y15000 or more. Some people had brought the whole family. They stage a faux wedding with all the trimmings, to hopefully up-sell you to the fancier flowers, elaborate candles, dry ice entrance, etc. It was like being a wedding guest without the boring speeches and without having to dress up. When I found myself getting emotional for the fake couple, I knew I had to ease off the wine!

The Chinese course appetizers - various kinds of seafood - prawn, abalone, crab,  etc.

The French course appetiser - salmon mousse, and a pyramid of gelatin with cubes of something, on more mousse. Pretty, but didn't taste great.

A sample dessert - blancmange with white chocolate 

A sample table setting. There were about 15 tables set up with different arrangements.
Here's the kids' menu. We asked our friends with kids what they'd like to eat. They chose the simplest one, with sandwiches, hamburger, etc.

At hotels here, for a seated lunch / dinner, you usually have a choice of cuisines: French, Italian, Chinese or Japanese. We tried the French and the Chinese. I liked the French course for its visual appeal - it was elegant and colourful, while the Chinese course tended to a lot of similar colours and cooking techniques. However, for taste, the Chinese course won hands down. And we had to think of the guests - would they prefer salmon mousse or steamed abalone with ginger? I know I'd go for the abalone! In the end, we compromised with a mix French, Chinese and Japanese. As a "food story", it wasn't perfect, but there was a little something for everyone. You have to think about who your guests are and what they would like, not what you like to eat (since you probably won't get any, anyway). Whatever the cuisine, basically every wedding meal I've tried in Japan has had some variation on filet mignon, seafood, roast vegetables, soup, plenty of bread, dessert and cake. No one will go hungry! Vegetarians and allergies can be handled, but there just isn't much awareness here - so you will need to be proactive.

This is a sample table arrangement at the Hotel Lungwood. Really, less is more!

Costs: Expect to pay between Y11000 and Y19000 ($120 - $180) per head, plus alcohol (around $25 - $35 per head). Wedding cake will be about another Y900 per person. You can also opt for a buffet style dinner, which will save you a bit of money.

Wedding cakes are chosen from a catalogue of pictures, unless you want a custom cake. There are no cake toppers, but fresh fruit is very popular. The standard cake will be a sponge with fresh strawberries and cream. It will be quite simple, but pretty and tasty. No heavy fruit cakes or elaborate fondant flowers.

Apparently it cost Tomkat $10,000???

Typical Japanese wedding cakes cost about $350 for 40 people

This is similar to what we had.  If you want something more elaborate, you can order a custom cake. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

There is no plus one

The guest list 

There is no plus one, or two or three.

When I was planning our wedding, I read some of the forums on big wedding sites like The Knot. One of the most common issues was how to deal with cousins who wanted to bring their kids, friends who wanted to bring their latest boyfriend of a week, and worst of all, people who just turned up on the day with a "plus one". To those whiny people who didn't want to go to a wedding party alone, I wanted to shout "grow up! It's a few hours out of your life, filled with good food and free-flowing wine, paid for by someone else! It's not about you!"

At least, in Japan, you don't have that problem. It's understood by everyone, there is no plus one. Besides, guests, as I mentioned before, are expected to pay around $300 each, so I doubt that guy you met at Starbucks last week wants to pony up that kind of money. Even married couples rarely get invited together, unless they are both friends of the bride or groom.

At our wedding I invited one married couple because I was close to both of them. Even then, they had to sit separately, because one was a close friend who was giving a speech. She had to sit at the "VIP" table at the front, with my husband's boss and a few other 'important' people. The exception, of course, is family. You don't just invite your aunty and expect your uncle to stay at home. Close family usually pay between $500 and $1000 - as a group - so my husband's aunty and two of his cousins came together and paid about $500 (discounts for bulk!) One day, we may have to go to one of the cousin's weddings, and we'll basically pay back the $500. In Japan, you have to keep a mental tally of all these 'debts' you accumulate.

Because it costs money to attend a wedding (by the way, you don't HAVE to pay anything, it's just a social expectation, but you may be remembered and resented if you don't!), you should think carefully about the financial situation of your friends and family. My folks flew in from Australia, so of course we didn't expect them to then pay on top of their flights. We also paid for their hotel room and the rooms for other out-of-town guests (but this is not an expectation. People are happy to pay their own way).

The whole money thing can feel uncomfortable, if you were brought up in a culture where toasters and fondue sets are more common than envelopes of cash. Talking about cash can seem a bit... tacky. But it's a fact of life in Japan and considered normal, so deal with it. Some of my friends are school teachers, who obviously don't have a lot of free-floating cash. I wanted to make clear to them that any amount would be gratefully received and $300 was not an expected amount. Friends who were still students, or just starting out in a new job etc, gave about $150. A couple of friends who are talented musicians contributed to the entertainment, so they also gave less money. It also means you have to think carefully about you invite as they will feel obligated to pay. At most Japanese wedding parties, there should be a basic split of 50 - 50 in guests between the bride and groom. Having lived here only a few years, I didn't know heaps of people, so it was a little unbalanced; more like 60 - 40 to the groom's side. You can't just go inviting random acquaintances to make up the numbers and expect them to pay!

Some of your friends might want to contribute to the entertainment.

It's your choice to invite kids or not. You won't get a hard time from your Japanese relatives or friends if you don't - they will understand. I have a few friends with kids and I didn't include the kids - in fact these women were more than happy to leave the kids at home with their husbands and have a good gossip and drink! Since Japanese weddings tend to have a lot of speeches, young kids can get bored. I did include the kids of an out-of-town couple, as I knew they had no-one to look after them. I made sure to provide some colouring books and koala toys and consulted with my friends about what their kids would like to eat (the hotel gave a choice of kids meals, ranging from sandwiches to mini Japanese feasts). The staff really went out of their way to look after them - high chairs, lots of ice (the kids loved playing with ice cubes!) and seats near the exit for quick dashes to the toilet or time-out. There was also a family room where crying babies could be taken if needed.

You won't be expected to invite people's kids.

Before you send out the invitations, you pretty much know who is coming, because in Japanese wedding planning, you see, call or email your friends to let them know about the wedding around 2 months before and enquire gently as to whether they might be free to come (which means you can also have a secret "B" list). There's no nail biting wait till 2 weeks before the wedding to finalise the seating. If someone can't come to the wedding, they tell you pretty quickly and you don't have to send an invitation. When invitations cost about $5 each all up, reducing unnecessary paper can help keep your budget in check. And if they say the can come, barring sudden illness, they will come. The invitation also includes a stamped reply card, which is useful just to check off your list and double check people's name spelling. A few friends who couldn't come due to work or travel, sent gifts to our house instead, which was nice. Towel sets, cook ware and wine glasses are typical gifts, or you can send about $100 cash / gift card.

The actual invitation only needs to be sent out about 1 month before the event. The thing I found strange was the hotel wanted to know my relationship to all my guests. This went on to the seating chart, so you could see "this is the bride's former co-worker", "a high school friend" "his boss" etc. People here love to know the relationships and the social pecking order! My husband's co-workers could identify my parents and go congratulate them / try out their English (I also assigned a bilingual Japanese friend to be translator / run interference). It also means you know how to address people - should you use super polite/ humble language or just speak normally? But perhaps most importantly, my husband's single friends knew the relationship of "that cute chick over on table 4" to the bride, and plan an approach at the more casual after party(also saves the embarrassment of hitting on someone's aunty). 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The party

The reception, or “hirouen” usually lasts about 2 and a half hours and there is never a dull moment. This means, there is little time for you to drink and chat (don’t worry, you can have a “nijikai” or second party, to actually talk to and drink with your friends!).

The guests take their seats, start to chat and have a drink, then the lights dim, the spotlights search, the music swells and tada! The doors open to reveal the happy couple, who bow to the waiting guests. You can have dry ice to add mystery or emerge from a giant vinyl “pearl” pumped full of air. Or, just walk in. Guess what we did? Yep, we didn’t feel like stumping up an extra $150 for dry ice mist or $300 for the “bubble”. We tried it out at a Bridal fair though, just for fun. The MC will introduce the couple and your attendants will help you to your seats. The couple gets a separate table at the front of the room, sometimes on a raised stage. Expect a lot of photos. The MC will then give a run down of how you met, where you’re from, your hobbies etc – you give them the info and have a meeting beforehand. It seemed a bit strange to me, but since about 40% of the guests had never met me and some of my friends had never met my husband, I could see the sense.

This is the "bubble"! There's a secret entrance at the back and a kind of zip so it looks like you burst out of  a pearl.

There is usually a speech from the groom’s boss / professor / someone ‘impressive’. Hopefully it won’t go too long. The bride can also get someone to speak if she wants. Then another jolly fellow from the groom’s side will make a short speech and give the ‘kanpai’, accompanied by some rousing music. After that, the party can begin! One note: when someone comes to give a speech, the bridal couple and their parents should stand (crouching minions in black suits will indicate it’s time to stand or sit). The speaker will quickly say, ‘please relax, take a seat’. It’s good for your parents to know this – mine were confused by the endless standing and sitting.

People in black will manipulate you - er - help you stand up and sit down on cue.

The first course will be served and you can relax a little. Friends will come up to say hi, pour you a drink and have a photo, so eat if/while you can. Luckily we tasted most of the food before the party, because there was little time for eating on the day.

Then, it’s time to cut the cake! Some cakes are fake cakes (much cheaper) and the real cake is plated up in the kitchen. There’s a slice of real cake at the back to ‘feed’ each other. We opted for a “nama” or fresh cake. They don’t usually have a bride and groom on top. The MC will call everyone over to take pictures, so you’ll be holding that knife and pretending to cut for a long time. Then there’s first bite” – groom serves his bride, then (often with a giant joke spoon), the bride serves him back. Cake fights aren’t so popular. For one thing, that dress is a rental!

Another option is a champagne tower. The waiters slice off the corks with sabres. Fun, but expensive! This  was the room we had our party in, but this is at the Bridal Fair.

After a short while, it’s time for the bride and groom to change into different outfits (this is optional). The bride goes first, led by her mother, to applause and appropriate music like Kimura Kaela’s “Butterfly”. It’s a good chance to breathe, maybe eat something and share a joke with Mum, who’s been stuck down the back of the room. While the bride gets changed and has her hair & makeup changed (optional), the groom’s friends are all plying him with drinks. After a while, he also exits to change or refresh. (Mum slips back into the party room). Traditionally, a bride exchanged her formal white shiromoku for a colourful kimono and some brides still do the same, or change from western wedding dress into a kimono or a “colour dress”. The advantage: you can relax a little about dropping food and drink onto your white dress, and you can wear something a little more relaxing. It also adds to the anticipation / spectacle as guests wonder what the bride will be wearing. But wait, won't the guests get bored with nothing to do while you get changed? Fear not, this is where the 'profile video' comes in - a slide show or powerpoint presentation set to nostalgic music. Pix of you both as kids "kawaii!!!" and your first date in Disneyland, etc. It's a chance to include your parents, who don't have much to do - you can at least have them in some of the photos. Some people go over the top and get mini movies made, complete with animation, for around $600. 

The couple are ready for another grand entrance, to stirring music. We chose Amuro Namie’s “Fight together” – no, it’s not about fighting, it’s about sticking together, and it was the music for the animated series One Piece, last year. My husband chose that!

It’s time for the Candle Service! Actually, we were pretty keen on the “breaking sake barrel service” where you break a mini sake barrel at each table with a wooden hammer… until we saw how much it would cost! I don’t know where the candle service tradition came from, but it’s really popular in Japan. You have a long gas-powered taper that you use to light a candle at each table, and everyone takes pictures. Then you light a central candle, which they give you later as a memento.

Finally, you can sit down again and maybe have a bite of your main course, while assorted friends entertain. There might be funny speeches from friends, music, or skits – especially from the groom’s co-workers who are well sauced by now.

Maybe one of your friend will sing after a few drinks!

After coffee and dessert and cake, the party starts winding down. The parents are ushered to stand by the main doors and it’s time for the bride to read a heartfelt letter to thank her parents. I was a little reluctant to do this, but my husband said it would be the emotional high point for a lot of people, and they’d be disappointed if I didn’t say a few words to sad plinky piano music and maybe shed a tear. So I did, and dammit, I did choke up! Then we gave flowers to our parents and a father or the groom will give a closing speech thanking everyone for coming. The families exit and the guests gather up their gift bags, finish their drinks and make their way out. The families and the couple are lined up to say goodbye and accept congratulations, and the bride and groom give out small gifts. This was my one chance to give a bit of “Australia”, so I ordered a bunch of handkerchiefs embroidered with Australian animals and flora and wrapped them in little baggies with “thank you” tags.

And you’re done! No dancing, and for the bride and groom, not much chance to eat or drink. By the time we got to our second party, we were starving!

The nijikai is usually at a local restaurant or the same hotel in a more casual room. It’s usually a 2 hour all you can eat and drink affair which the guests pay for – anything from $25 to $60 each. By the time we got changed into normal clothes, had a moment to breath and counted out the money (more about that later!), we were an hour late and all the food was gone! It was great to just sit and chat and drink with friends, finally. You do feel a bit odd and isolated at your little bridal table. We finished our wedding day around midnight, grabbing McDonalds to eat in our hotel room!

The ceremony

ah, sorry for the neglect! I'd like to say my life has been so busy and exciting, but really, this poor wedding blog got shunted off to the side. Well, it's back!

If you're planning a wedding or you're going to be a guest at a Japanese wedding, I hope this basic rundown will help!

Within the basic structure, of course, you can add options to your heart’s content. There are certain events that might seem unnecessary, but be warned, your Japanese guests and family might be disappointed if you leave them out, so it’s important to discuss the schedule with your Japanese spouse, with an open mind.

Kekkon Shiki

Getting ready for the big moment

First you have the “kekkon shiki”, the wedding ceremony, which can be Shinto or Christian or “Civil” style. About 20 minutes before the actual ceremony, you’ll do a quick walk-through / rehearsal. Don’t worry if you don’t remember what to do – you’ll have wedding staff to guide you through the actual event. We had a “Christian” service, which is probably the most common, though Civil services are gaining in popularity. The Christian service has a ‘priest’ – often a male English teacher doing it for extra cash on the weekends. I don’t know why, but I found the idea of a dodgy priest mixing English and mangled Japanese, unappealing. I’m sure they’re nice guys, but I wanted my ‘fake’ priest to seem slightly believable, so I requested “an older, dignified-looking Japanese man.” I’m sure my wedding planner thought I was mad, but if I was going to pay for an actor, I wanted a hand in the casting.

Choose your "priest" wisely.

If you want a real Christian service, there are some beautiful real churches around Tokyo, and they tend to be quite easy going – ie, you don’t need to be a member of the congregation. I saw a beautiful service in St Mary’s Cathedral (Catholic), which was designed by Kenzo Tange. In Harajuku, there’s “Harajuku Church” which looks cool and futuristic. Tokyo Union Church is also conveniently located on Omotesando Dori. Karuizawa and Yokohama also have a lot of beautiful churches, from the quaint wooden charms of St Paul’s Karuizawa to the spectacular natural stone of Kendrick Kellog’s Stone Church, also in Karuizawa.

St Mary's Cathedral in Mejiro

Harajuku Church
The Stone Church in Karuizawa

If you’re in a hotel or wedding centre, just before the service, the couple and their families head to the photo studio for some group shots, while the guests take their seats.

The pretend Christian service follows the basic formula of a real service. The cost of the chapel includes ‘priest’ and a small chorus who doubled as chapel assistants / sacristans in surplice style robes and strange hats. They sang beautifully, though! The chapel typically costs around $1,500 to $3,000 which will be in your ‘package’.

There are no bridesmaids or groomsmen. The groom usually walks down the aisle alone and stands at the front. I’ve seen some weddings here where the groom walks with his mother or another relative, or the bride & groom walk down together – since it’s not a ‘real’ ceremony, you can be flexible. It’s become a recent trend for the bride’s mother to put her veil down as a last gesture before her little girl (sob) moves on to her new life. They call it “veil down” and then “veil up”. Very practical katakana English. Usually, the bride and her father walk down the “Virgin Road”. I don’t know why they call it that, especially given the high number of “double happiness” weddings there are here.

I haven't seen "Killer Virgin Road", but now I'm curious!

There is usually a reading from Corinthians and a hymn – either The Lord’s My Shepherd or What a Friend we have in Jesus, in Japanese. Rings are exchanged, the couples say their vows – which is basically just “I do” – you don’t need to memorise any “I xxx take thee, xxx in sickness and in health” type things. A prayer is said and a certificate is signed, which has no legal meaning, the veil lifted, the bride is kissed and you’re done!

Optional extras (which will cost you) include musicians – trumpets, violins etc or gospel singers. If you want to toss the bouquet, you don’t actually toss the bride’s bouquet (which costs around $150 - $300); you toss a ‘stunt’ bouquet – a smaller one in the same colours called a “toss bouquet”, which costs around $50. The “Flower Shower” of rose petals – usually paper, rather than real petals – about $5 per guest – is very popular, or you can have bubbles or release balloons.

A Shinto service is usually restricted to family and select friends, plus the official go-betweens, “nakoudo” – traditionally a couple who introduced the bride and groom, but more recently a senior or respected person – eg the boss and his wife. There are offerings made and sake shared. Again, you will be guided through the whole process.

Getting ready for a Shinto ceremony at Hachimangu in Kamakura. You can see big bottles of sake.

The third ceremony type, increasingly popular among young couples, is the “civil” style, which is held in a chapel or a room arranged in a similar style to a chapel. There’s usually a kind of MC to lead the service (which can be a friend), and the couple write and say their own vows. There aren’t any prayers, but one of the couple’s friends might read a poem or play music.

After, the couple is whisked off to get make-up touch ups / have a drink / go to the loo etc while the guests mill around in the lobby of the function room, having their “welcome drinks” and signing in. At this stage, guests give their gift money “goshugi” in a special envelope called a shugi bukuro, sign the guest book and get their seating plan. A lot of people don’t know each other, so it’s common to decorate the reception area with pictures of the couple and / or their friends and have something to sign. Some people have “Message Bears” – white fabric bears in bride and groom costumes, which guests can sign (which cost stupid amounts of money), or sakura shaped cards which can make a tree of messages, or a bottle of champagne that can be signed and then opened by the couple on their anniversary, etc. It’s also common to include a profile of the couple with the seating chart – education, hobbies, nickname and blood type are all included. Having been to a few weddings where I didn’t know anyone apart from the bride, it was good to have something to read / do and it made making small talk much easier.

"Message bears" which can cost around $80 to $120 for the pair

How about Miffy's Shinto wedding?

The families of the bride and groom usually have a separate family room each, which they can use before and after the service and party. It’s a good place to whisk crying babies or for uncle to have a quick nap. It’s also where the families will possibly meet for the first time, unless they’ve had a traditional engagement meeting. Since my folks flew in from Australia just before the wedding, we had a semi-awkward introduction session with a friend translating. The two families just don’t hang out together so much in Japan, and they don’t do a rehearsal dinner the night before, or bridal shower or any of those get-togethers before the wedding.

Coming up… The Party!