By NICK NARIGON
Last June my wife Lisa took me along to attend my first Japanese wedding.
Her former classmate Shin and his bride Emma held a traditional wedding in a Protestant church in downtown Tokyo. It was the perfect ceremony. Shin is an honorable, sincere (rich) man and Emma is one of the sweetest, most darling women you will ever meet.
Anyway, enough about them. Let’s talk about me, which is what this column is all about.
I am possibly the worst wedding guest ever.
I never meet the RSVP deadline. I turn in my tux measurements a week before the wedding. I show up five minutes late to the service and open the creaky doors during the quietest part of the ceremony (usually when a harp is playing). At the reception I park next to the free keg until it is empty. I crowd the dance floor, bumping the bride out of the way to showcase an off-balance running man.
I’m not afraid to speak into an open microphone, even if nobody asked me to give a speech.
I’m still there when the lights turn on and the DJ is playing “Closing Time” and the bride and groom are smiling through clenched teeth just wanting to go to bed listening to me bellow “One more song!”
Needless to say, I love weddings.
For one reason: free booze all day.
Japanese weddings, thankfully, follow this near and dear tradition.
Actually, I was relatively surprised how similar Japanese weddings are to American celebrations. Shin and Emma’s wedding was held in a Christian church, while some Japanese weddings are held at a Buddhist shrine. They even sang “We have a Friend in Jesus” at the opening of the service, except the lyrics were in Japanese.
American or Japanese, I still can’t carry a tune.
The church itself was lacking in ornate religious decor. There was an organ, a pulpit and a cross. That was it. No stained glass windows. No statues. No banners. No pews – but they did have really comfortable leather-bound chairs.
The service was average in length – just about half an hour. Emma wore a gorgeous white wedding dress with a long train carried by a flower girl. Shin wore a tux with a black jacket and gray vest. Some Japanese brides wear kimonos, but Emma went with the princess look.
A few of the female guests did wear kimonos, but most of the women wore standard wedding garb. However, it is customary for men to wear black suits and white ties. Lisa bought my white tie back in Philadelphia before we moved to Tokyo. I noticed some men wore off-white or even silver-striped ties.
Probably the biggest difference at the wedding is that there were no bridesmaids or groomsmen. Not even a best man or maid of honor. Also, guests are not supposed to bring a date unless they are specifically invited. I noticed that on the bride’s side there were a lot of women sitting together without men, and vice versa on the groom’s side. Lisa said the only couples allowed to attend together are usually married and friends of both the groom and bride.
Another divergence between cultures is that in Japan you do not bring a gift. They have never even heard of a gift registry.
You only bring an envelope filled with cash. Lots of cash. After doing the conversion, our contribution was close to $300. This is pretty typical. However, guests at Japanese weddings do go home with some pretty pricy parting gifts.
Anyway, following the service we recognized another tradition of Japanese weddings: waiting.
The service started at 10 a.m. The lunch reception wasn’t until 1 p.m. After the ceremony we took a taxi to the Okura Hotel, a Tokyo landmark where the reception was being held. The waiters greeted us at the door with trays of drinks.
“Birru?” the girl said.
Now that is Japanese I understand.
However, what I grabbed wasn’t beer. It was wheat tea.
Probably for the best.
Finally we made it to the dining room which was extravagant with glittering chandeliers and brilliant flowers and more fine silverware than I have underwear.
The meal started off with a speech from our friend Naoki, who could filibuster with the best of them. This wouldn’t be the last speech of the day by far. Before the end of the afternoon, there would be a speech by Shin’s former baseball coach, by Shin’s brother, by Shin’s father, by Shin, by two of Shin’s friends, by two of Emma’s friends, by someone for whom I don’t have a frame of reference and by Shin again.
If somebody had handed me a microphone I was ready to give a speech, by God.
But I want to say this before I forget. The food at the lunch/reception/dinner was hands-down the best food I have ever eaten. This is no exaggeration. Now I love my mother’s chicken divan, and it will be what I request on my death bed. But the food served at Shin and Emma’s wedding was exquisite. So exquisite that I started taking pictures of the plates, and I hate it when people take pictures of their food.
The first thing they brought out was this little gelatinous cube that was filled with vegetables and shrimp or lobster or something. It was a seafood surprise.
The main course was roast beef. And it was as tender as anything I ever ate in the heartland. It had an herb crust and was pink rare perfection.
And at all times there were two full glasses of alcohol in front of me. First it was a glass of champagne, and before that was gone they poured white wine, and as they filled that up somebody poured a glass of red wine.
After dessert (they did cut the cake) and a photo slide show and many tears and more wine and speeches, it was time to move to the next party.
We had three hours to kill, so a bunch of Lisa’s classmates from business school invited us to join them at an izakaya bar. We had a private room and drank more birru and ate more food. This was a pleasant time because we had all reached that perfect buzzing point.
No shots, no hard liquor, just good champagne and wine and a little beer, plus plenty of good food to absorb the alcohol.
When we reached the second reception at 6:30, that’s when things took a slight turn for ol’ Narigon.
Now, granted, I held my own. I didn’t dance foolishly. My saving grace was the fact that Japanese weddings don’t have dances – they don’t even have DJs. They just have quiet background music and everyone chats politely.
Now while I didn’t say anything stupid, Lord knows I didn’t say anything smart.
I found a couple of drinking buddies among Shin’s old baseball teammates. Even though they didn’t speak English, we got along great over several bottles of beer. Alcohol – bringing different cultures together since 2,000 B.C.
It was around 10 p.m. when they kicked us out of the reception. Since there was still plenty of night to burn, we decided to stoke the fire.
Our friend Jun found a cheap izakaya nearby, and the same classmates as earlier joined us for a bit of late night revelry.
Now, at this point a couple of the wives departed for home, knowing that nothing good was to come of this rendezvous.
But this is a lesson I have never learned: leave while you are still ahead.
Once at the izakaya, heads started to droop one by one. The day of indulgence had taken its toll.
The wise thing to do would have been to order some coffee, tea or water and calm down.
I guzzled down beers like a 16-year-old at an off-campus house party.
Finally, Shin and Emma briefly joined us, which was awfully nice of them. They were making rounds from bar to bar to visit all of their drunk friends.
Once they retreated to the night, our party was over.
There was talk amongst some to go to a night club.
One classmate said to Lisa (this is what she told me later), “You should probably take your husband home.”
They usually tell me the same thing at American weddings.