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In 1999 Dave was honoured with an invitation to attend
the Utakai Hajime - the 'First Poetry Reading of the Year' -
a ceremony held at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo every January.


Imperial Poetry Ceremony

(January 1999)


The Imperial Palace is in Tokyo, but not of Tokyo. A vast chunk of land in the centre of the city is walled and moated off, and I'm sure it's no easier to get in there now than it would have been back in the days of old. The car that took the three of us into the grounds (myself, a scholar from Korea, and our Japanese escort) had to stop at two steel barricades, and at each one we had to show our invitations to one guard, while others ran checks on the car itself.

Once through these two barriers, we passed through a huge wooden gate, and the car rolled along a smooth path through a forest. The city disappeared. We could hear no roar of traffic, could see no tall buildings, hear no trains ...

We were on our way to the palace to take part in the annual 'Utakai Hajime' ('Imperial New Year's Poetry Reading'), a ceremony dating from the 13th century. Each year, a number of people are selected to be special guests to observe the ceremony, and just the previous year, foreigners had been included in this group for the first time. Myself and the Korean scholar were the two who had been selected this year.

After a minute or so on the forested lane, we came round a curve in the road, up a small slope, and entered a wide open space, across which we could see one wing of the palace in front of us - a wide low-slung building with a dominating roof, which although it is relatively new, seems to my untutored eye to owe quite a lot to Frank L. Wright. As we pulled up to the entrance, the car doors were whisked open for us, and we were directed up a vast wide carpeted stairway towards the main level of the building.

Once inside, our route was silently indicated by attendants standing at every corner, and we found ourselves walking along a wide corridor towards the assembly point. Two-story high glass on one side, with the sun streaming in, and on the other, soft wooden walls interrupted here and there by paper screened doors. No ornamentation, just beautiful smooth wooden surfaces, and soft deep carpet. And all very high and wide, extremely spacious, and extremely quiet.

A tiny table with a lady standing by it came into view, and we found that this was the reception. She took our invitation cards, and gestured us into the waiting room - about the size of a big school gymnasium. Wood wood everywhere, and again, a very light and airy feeling. Chairs were arranged around the perimeter of the wide space, and I picked an empty one and sat down to wait.

One by one the guests came in, and as the time for the ceremony approached, another attendant spoke and gave us some instructions. Our names would be called in order of age beginning with the eldest guest; we were to rise, make our way to the doorway he indicated, and from there proceed to the 'Matsu no Ma' (Pine Room), where the ceremony would be held.

The reading out of the names began, and as each person was called, he rose, walked softly across the wide room, and then turned and left at the exit. It was quite a roster: government ministers, corporate executives, university chancellors, etc. etc. I assumed that at 47 years of age, I would perhaps be last, but was a bit surprised to hear my name called when there were still about a dozen people remaining. "Woodblock printmaker David Bull" ...

When I passed through the doorway, I had quite a shock. This wide and spacious building that we had been waiting in was not the palace itself ... but merely a sort of ante-building. Through the tall glass windows across a wide courtyard (around the size of a football field) I was now able to see the main building itself. A covered veranda ran around this courtyard on all sides, and I could see, making their way along it, spaced out one by one, the people who had been called before me.

I joined the line, walking softly along the hall, trying to take in all the 'sights'. The courtyard itself was landscaped with stones, with a huge pine tree positioned in one corner, but out the windows on the other side of the hallway I could see a green Japanese garden. You may laugh when I say this, but walking down that long hallway in the palace, surrounded by the beautiful wood and glass, in my formal attire ... I really felt quite a bit 'special'.

It seems that I walked a bit too slowly, rubbernecking as I was, because as I came near the end of the long stretch of hallway I heard a soft cough from behind me, and turned to see that the people who had been called after me were stacked up in a line right on my heels. I put on a bit of speed, turned the corner, and came to the Pine Room.

As before, attendants directed our every movement, and a minute later I was seated in my chair waiting to see what would come next. After our entire group of 80 invited 'viewers' were ready, the ten guests of honour (whose poems would be read) came in, followed by a group of people who would turn out to be the poetry readers. When everybody was finally seated, the large shoji doors through which we had entered were slid silently shut from the outside.

At the front of the room, two armchairs for the Emperor and Empress stood empty, as did the chairs ranged near them, for the rest of the Imperial family.

Silence. Nobody coughed, nobody moved, nobody did anything. At least a full minute passed.

An attendant then rose from his seat, moved slowly to a large closed double door at one side of the room, and knocked ... once ... twice. He then returned to his seat. The signal had been sent. We were ready ...


(continued in part two)