When you tell Japanese people that a British wedding can go on all day, or that an Outer Mongolian wedding can go on for five days (I’m making that example up, but you get the idea), they will look shocked and wonder how much like hard work it must be to get married or go to a wedding in the UK / Outer Mongolia. But for sheer, concentrated, intensive hard work, even at an average of less than three hours’ duration, nothing can compete with a Japanese wedding.

Mrs M and I went to one the other day – my first as a guest – and somehow it managed to be just as tiring as when we were the happy couple two years ago. I suppose part of the problem is that a Japanese wedding planner will try and cram everything that happens at an overseas wedding into a much shorter space of time, meaning there’s no time to relax, eat, chat with the other guests or generally let one’s hair down, and the couple themselves – in this case, two childhood friends of Mrs M’s – are more like performers in a West End musical, who have to deal with at least one costume change (and sometimes two), several different performance spaces (the chapel, the sweeping staircase outside, the grand entrance into the reception, the speeches and so on) and the whole gamut of emotions, from light humour to uncontrollable sobbing.

It didn’t help that the wedding in question was taking place in a venue that would have taken more than three hours to reach by a very roundabout train route, so that what we ended up doing was getting a lift from the bride- and groom-to-be (in fact they were already married in the legal sense, having held a small, family-only ceremony a few months ago), and being obliged to hang around in a shopping mall near the wedding venue for about four hours.

When we did finally arrive, the venue itself was a typically post-modern example of Japanese architecture. It was situated beside a nondescript dual carriageway with a large-ish car park at the front, which meant no direct pedestrian access, so that quite apart from dodging each other – such a venue deals with several ceremonies a day – the guests have to dodge a procession of vehicular comings and goings before making it through the front door. Once inside, there was a reception area where we waited for everything to kick off, and which was done up like a kind of spaghetti western theme pub, with wagon wheel wooden tables, a bar at one end, and amateur Canalletto-style paintings on the wall. As we sipped on our coffee and / or orange juice, we were encouraged to peruse two specially prepared photo albums, and to take part in a sweepstake to see if we could guess what colour the bride’s second dress of the day would be (it was purple – I guessed orange).

Having been told that the ceremony was about to commence, we made our way through a large courtyard, replete with free-standing faux Greco-Roman columns around five metres high (I tested their faux-ness with a rap of the knuckles, to be greeted by the tell-tale hollow sound of moulded fibreglass), a pond (although no fountain), and a very grand looking staircase leading up to the chapel, which was topped off not with a church spire but three minarets, painted blue and resembling those you might find on a mosque or a Russian orthodox church.

I had assumed that I would be the only foreigner present, but waiting at the top of the steps was a tall Caucasian man with a big nose and kind face, all dressed up as a priest, even though he was almost certainly not officially qualified to be one (moonlighting as such is a fairly common activity for white men in Japan, and pays rather well when you consider that including a rehearsal, it only takes up a couple of hours of your weekend). This faux-priest, who spoke with an English accent and had that authentically soft-spoken and effeminate air of a real-life vicar, spoke equal amounts of English and Japanese, although for the latter he had to consult a script, and his pronunciation was hard to follow. I was the only other person in the room who would have understood his English, but perhaps because they have grown accustomed to Western filmic and televisual depictions of church weddings, many Japanese have embraced the idea that a sprinkling of ‘Do you take this man?’s and ‘You may kiss the bride’s will enhance their wedding experience (I suppose it is no more odd than Catholics listening to Latin).

When the bride entered the room and walked along what was described in phonetically transliterated terms as the ‘virgin road’, her father, bless him, was already in tears, and this was partly due, I suspect, to the fact that like almost everything else that was to happen during the course of the afternoon, his duties were accompanied by a heart-wrenching musical backdrop. In the chapel, there were four very skilled musicians – two singers, a violinist and an organist (the entire back wall of the chapel was taken up with what may or may not have been a working pipe organ), who performed a selection of western classics and Japanese film music, and once we had made it downstairs into the reception venue, hardly five minutes would go by without a J-pop ballad or a sentimental popular classical piece surging to its climax in the background, to induce floods of tears from everyone present.

The chapel’s stucco walls were adorned with several faux-gilt picture frames, and before the couple walked back down the aisle, they paused to stick a small brass plaque engraved with their names into the next available space in the most recent frame. Like several other rituals at the wedding, this was not something I had ever seen before, and seemed as if it had been made up in a particularly caffeine-fuelled brainstorming session, simply to give the couple something else to do: even more so than the guests, the two of them had not a single second of down time in which to collect their thoughts, and on reflection, the wedding as a whole was like the kind of game show challenge of which the Japanese are very fond, and contained almost nothing of traditional or religious significance (the only religious elements were Christian, and as Mrs M pointed out, neither the bride, the groom nor their families have the slightest interest in Christianity, and are in no danger of being converted any time soon).

After a photo call, during which we got to shower the couple with real flower petals and the bride threw not one but three bouquets into the crowd (why three? This seemed to entirely detract from the suspense of finding out who will do the catching), the reception proceeded to a strict timetable. There was the cutting of the cake, which involved not just the bride and groom feeding each other, but the bride and groom feeding their mothers too – a particularly undignified thing for such demure, kimono-clad and clearly emotional women to have to endure. There was the ‘candle service’, another Japanese concoction, which involves the bride and groom brandishing a metre-long, sword-shaped cigarette lighter, visiting each table-full of guests in turn and lighting the candle thereon. There were a grand total of three videos, shown when the couple were changing clothes or had left the room for some other reason, and when the guests were supposed to be eating, so that I ended up leaving half of my food untouched, as I was too busy trying to read the on-screen text. There was the point towards the end of the reception when the bride read out a letter to her parents, thanking them for bringing her up, always being there to help her and so on, directly after which, her and her new husband presented each of their respective mothers with a teddy bear of exactly the same weight as they were when they were born (did the bears come in different sizes, I wondered, or did they contain some kind of lead ballast depending on how many kilogrammes were required?), thus lending a surreal twist to what should have been the afternoon’s emotional climax. Most bizarre of all, there was a ritual where the bride and groom poured the contents of two large bottles of dry ice into what must have been a substitute for one of those champagne tower-type things, so that a Top of the Pops-style fog cascaded down towards the floor.

Aside from all of this oddness, however, and even allowing for the cinematically manipulative aspects of the wedding’s presentation, it was still a genuinely moving experience, and for some reason the first time in my life that I had been struck by the true symbolic power of the institution of marriage. True, at a British wedding there is all the usual talk of parents seeing their child fly the nest, but Japanese families somehow seem to be closer: many children still live at home until they get married, and even if they don’t, they seem to have a more authentically sentimental view of the magic of childhood, and what it means for this to have finished irrevocably. Perhaps it is because Mrs M and I are still comparative newlyweds, and haven’t been to anyone else’s wedding since our own, or perhaps it is because I have been particularly affected on this visit to Japan by how close and happy Mrs M’s family are, and become more aware than ever of how I have symbolically stolen her away from them. In any case, the speeches were the one aspect of the day that could not be manipulated or turned into some kind of endurance test, and although I didn’t understand all of what was said – in fact, because much of the language was repetitive, dealing as it often did with the polite affirmation that the happy couple should be wished well in their quest to build a happy family together, I found it difficult to pay attention the longer things went on – this didn’t seem to matter.

One aspect of the wedding that was very traditional was the fact that both the bride and groom’s work colleagues took pride of place at the front row of tables (the couple were at a table facing their guests, and their families were relegated to the back of the room), and the first two speeches came from their respective superiors. The groom’s boss – from what, as far as I could make out, was the software division of an electronics company – was nervous, hesitant and consequently easier to understand. He also stuck to a quite formal assessment of his colleague, whereas the bride’s boss – from a local bank – was more confident, spoke more quickly, and had a more anecdotal approach. Among other things, he praised the bride for her ability to remember her colleague’s birthdays, as well as providing the one bona fide awkward moment of the day, by confessing that he and several other male members of staff still had photos on their mobile phones of the time when the bride dressed up in a French maid costume for a promotional event at the bank.

The groom’s best friend from university had a torrid time, partly because he was nervous (approximately three seconds into his attempt to recite his speech from memory, he gave up and fished a cheat sheet from his suit pocket), and partly because he stood up to the microphone just as the starters were being served. I congratulated him at the end of the day as we stood next to each other in the queue for the cloakroom, but to be honest, I had barely been able to hear or understand any of his speech. Four of the bride’s best friends from junior high school, meanwhile, were clever enough to spread their first-night nerves around, and stood in a line, each saying a few words in turn, so that while they were all crying, they at least had some moral support to help them through the experience.

Even with moral support of my own in the form of Mrs M, by the end of the day – that is after four hours in a shopping mall and just three hours at the wedding venue – I was absolutely exhausted. The other guests at our table were a couple with a young son who burst into tears at the sight of his favourite auntie in her wedding garb, and had to be driven off by his mum to the aforementioned shopping mall to calm down, leaving us with only his dad to talk to. My one brief opportunity to relax was when one of the bride’s uncles came over to talk to me about cycling (a small description of everyone present was included in the seating plan), so that by the end of the afternoon, it felt as if I had not been the guest at a wedding but an extra for a particularly arduous day’s filming on a soap opera or drama series. Mrs M and I had planned to go back to the shopping mall and have puri-kura photographs taken of us in our formal wear, but in the end were glad to be driven straight back home by her elder brother, who had very kindly knocked off work early to save us the further endurance of a three-hour-plus train journey to round off the day.

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