Female Dentists Are Few

Female Dentists Are Few

– a Vippon story –

by Bo_Emp

Version for “Tales of the Veils” website.
Not for reproduction on other websites or in any other publishing format without author’s permission.

PART ONE – SCHOOLGIRLS

female_dentists1_kigurumi

1.

Mrs. Sasaki has been standing unmoving, hands folded on her chest and head bowed, in the kitchen doorway for more than five minutes when she hears her husband go to the breakfast table. Without lifting her head she turns around to turn on the electric kettle already filled with hot water. In seconds the water is ready for tea and she fills the waiting pot. Face down she carries the pot to the table and waits again. She prefers waiting until her husband has left rather than eat at the table with him, a screen between them. A woman showing more than her eyes is considered just as obscene as showing her breasts here in the Boar province.

They both come from Tokuto, the capital of Vippon, where women only veil to men outside of the family, but although not adhering to the Boar view before moving here Aiko soon found it wrong showing herself to her husband when not in the bedroom. And right now she behaves as the submissive housewife almost all women in the province are, brought up to be and can’t imagine life differently. Working outside the home is by most considered a life gone wrong. That is why Aiko and Mutsuto have moved here. Shortly after completing her education as a dentist, the government asked her to move here, offering a clinic and almost any job her husband would like. Being a middle-twenties couple, unable to have made any savings, and struggling to afford to have children and a normal middle class lifestyle the move was an offer they couldn’t refuse.

Aiko doesn’t mind the strict rules, where her husband is the only man she is allowed to communicate with non-professionally. She tries to run the clinic without breaking the Boar traditions, and behave like any other Boar woman outside work. That means hardly speaking as well. Only speaking to men outside family is not allowed, but the balaclava hood covering her head is padded over the mouth so as the lips cannot be seen through the otherwise tight fitting elastic fabric. This makes the voice dark and unclear, making women replace speaking with writing in most situations. After thin flat large ‘phones’, as they are still called, with large displays working like blackboards became available years ago carrying an infinitely reusable writing surface, communication is always possible now.

Her husband doesn’t speak during breakfast either. The meal is only to bring the body energy for a long day, if he has something to say before leaving for work it will be said just before opening the front door. But ten minutes later, while Aiko holds his jacket for him to put on he still doesn’t speak. They show that they still love each other very much and long for meeting again as they hug for a minute, standing cheek to cheek before Mutsuto says “Fortunately I think I will be home early, before seven today. I wish we could be together all day. If it wasn’t a woman-only clinic you work at, I would have worked with you as receptionist, cleaning or whatever. Have a nice day my love.” Mutsuto leaves.

It’s about half past eight. An advantage of a provincial city is that distances are much smaller. Mutsuto will be ready for work at nine and she has more than half an hour before having to leave for the clinic. The clinic, being for women only it is only open from ten to three, allowing staff and patients to clear the house after sending the husband to work and children to school, leaving time afterwards for house chores and especially cooking dinner. Having only a husband to serve Aiko can eat and clear the kitchen quickly, and then she has time for some light cleaning as well. Ten past nine Aiko replaces her thin worn-out morning gloves with new thicker ones presentable to others. But both pairs reach just above her elbows, skin must not show even if the wide sleeves of her kimono slide up. Then she takes a cloak from a hook in the wardrobe, wraps it around her shoulders, closes the hook at the neck and waist and pulls the hood over her head. All cloaks are manufactured at the same site to make them identical except for length. Women in public are completely anonymous black subjects, as all women wear a cloak touching their geta sandals, and as the kimono stops a few centimeters above the geta only the cloak is seen. Its hood reaches below the chin hiding the entire head, but most importantly the uncovered eyes. Like this the hood opening faces nearly downwards, but it’s large and stiff, enabling vision some meters ahead by tilting the head backwards. Aiko lifts her cloak with one hand to grab her handbag with the other and opens the front door.

2.

She only has to walk about ten houses down the street to be at the house of her receptionist Mrs. Kimura. They always accompany each other as women never walk alone much away from their own house. Of course it’s for there own safety and the husband decides the range. In residential areas most husbands allow local shopping, but on streets with heavy traffic no further than their own staircase might be allowed. Aiko pushes the doorbell through her cloak. As the door opens she sees the lower part of another cloak. Mrs. Kimura is ready. Aiko and Mrs. Kimura turn side to side. Mrs. Kimura lifts her cloak and attaches the clip of a silk leash hanging from a small strap at her waist to a similar strap at Aiko’s waist. With all women looking identical, not allowed to speak and unable to see very much the chances of getting separated and not finding each other again are large even at less crowded places. Of course husbands and wives are leashed together as well. He can’t identify her amidst other women and she can’t see him more than a few meters away, and for him to have to shout his name is unacceptable behavior. Today Mrs. Kimura holds her phone in front of the opening of Aiko’s hood. Aiko reads a name and address and lets her gloved hand come out through the cloak’s front slit to gently push at the wrist holding the phone signaling she has seen it. On their walk to the clinic they will stop at another door to act as company for a patient. On the twenty minute walk to the clinic, more than half the distance is through the densely populated part of the city with apartment blocks and they have several routes to choose from within all of which only vary by a few minutes. If a patient lives within that area Mrs. Kimura offers to accompany her to the clinic, the patient only having to arrange for company in one direction.

The walk is dull. They cannot communicate and cannot see their surroundings. They advance toward their destination and get exercise that’s about all. At the patients apartment Mrs. Kimura shows her phone in the slit of her cloak, probably showing the name of the clinic. The patient attaches herself to the back of Mrs. Kimura knowing that three people walking side by side is more than the width of the pavement permits. Three walking leashed together is of course a little slower than two walking, but they are all skilled at doing it and walking in geta is never fast. Besides they are close to the clinic. The clinic is on the second floor of an office building. The door is open when they arrive, which means her dental assistant, Mrs. Okada, has arrived. Mrs. Okada lives close enough to the clinic to have been permitted by her husband to walk there alone.

Pushing the hood back she sees Mrs. Okada waiting in the doorway to the treatment room, which means they will be ready to treat the patient arriving with them as soon as Aiko has dressed. After removing the cloak and her geta she puts on medical shoe covers reaching her knees on top of her stockings. Then she winds each of the wide sleeves of her kimono around the arm and holds it there with two elastic straps around each forearm. This allows her to put on a long medical gown reaching nearly to the floor. Then her head and neck is covered by a surgical hood and the face by a medical mask with a transparent eye cover. Finally, pulling latex gloves over top of her normal gloves and the sleeves of the gown she looks like Mrs. Okada did minutes ago and Mrs. Kimura will do all day. They are very well protected against infection from patients and infecting them. But Aiko and her assistant Mrs. Okada working inside the treatment room all day wear one more item. Mrs. Okada, already completely fitted, is waiting in the doorway to the treatment room, which is as far as she can now go, holding the last item ready for Aiko. It’s a large airtight hood with a clear face cover and a loose shroud covering the shoulders. An air hose attached at the top back of the hood supplies air inside the hood from outside the room with a small pressure keeping the air of the room out. By this the dentist and her assistant are breathing different air from the patients, which reduces the chances of exchanging infected particles even further, but most importantly prevents Aiko and Mrs. Okada from breathing the laughing gas used to sedate all patients. On the other hand the patients breathing a slight amount of laughing gas as soon as they enter the room makes them relax and perhaps even enjoy coming.

Aiko touches a soft key on the patient management computer and immediately the dental record of the first patient are available and in a little while Mrs. Shimizu enters. Aiko recalls her name from Mrs. Kimura showing her the phone to indicate they were going to pick up Mrs. Shimizu on their way. She is an upper middle class woman like herself Aiko judges from the quality of the kimono now showing as Mrs. Shimizu has opened the waist hook of her cloak and pushed it behind her shoulders. Aiko and Mrs. Okada bow to her and she nods to them. Aiko gestures her to sit down in the dental chair and then points to the display just below the light source. It reads ‘Dentist Mrs. Sasaki and her assistant Mrs. Okada is ready for your dental check Mrs. Shimizu. Nothing was wrong at your last check three years ago, have you experienced any problems since?’ Mrs. Shimizu thinks for some seconds and then shakes her head. Aiko is curious because although bi-yearly checks are recommended, there are far too few female dentists in the Boar province to make this possible. Five years between checks for adult women is average and okay with the current general attitude to keeping teeth clean and healthy although the long interval raises the number of acute visits a little. Aiko breaks out of the pre-programmed texts and writes ‘How did you get this appointment Mrs. Shimizu?’ Mrs. Shimizu leans forward to type on the display for Aiko and Mrs. Okada to read. ‘I solved five sudukos and won the lottery in the Boar Fashion magazine. Thank you for accompanying me here Mrs. Sasaki.’ Mrs. Shimizu makes a deep nod towards Aiko who nods in return. Then she returns to the standard texts ‘Mrs. Shimizu, if you’re ready for today’s check then please pull your face covering below the mouth and let the assistant secure it.’ Mrs. Shimizu reaches with both hands at the eye opening of her balaclava and with closed eyes, embarrassed at showing her lower face even to medical staff, pulls the lower edge of the opening below her lips. As soon as her hands move away from her head Mrs. Okada, with skilled movements, attaches a small hook to the edge of the balaclava on each side of the mouth and then closes a strap to which the hooks are connected with smaller straps around the neck of Mrs. Shimizu. The elastic force on the balaclava’s lower edge is quite large now and the straps and the hooks assure the balaclava won’t slip and interfere with the dental procedure. Mrs. Shimizu is then equipped with a dental bib and is ready for the examination. Mrs. Shimizu opens her eyes to read ‘Please lean back and breathe calmly, even as a small hose is held to your nose. When you wake again it’s all over.’ Mrs. Okada waits until Mrs. Shimizu is resting comfortably with closed eyes. Then she holds the hose with laughing gas to the nose of Mrs. Shimizu, while opening the valve, waiting for some seconds to let the gas work until pressing the hose down over the nose. Meanwhile Aiko has adjusted the lamp and is now taking Mrs. Shimizu’s hand shaking it slightly. With no response she begins the check. Her teeth are in perfect condition. In less than five minutes Aiko signals Mrs. Okada to turn off the gas. As soon as Aiko puts the instruments down Mrs. Okada opens the neck strap, removes the hooks and covers Mrs. Shimizu’s face again. Then Mrs. Okada takes care of the instruments while Aiko updates the record and Mrs. Shimizu recovers.

With no problems Aiko has time to let her display show the waiting area. There are about twenty five females waiting. But some of them are probably only waiting as company for a patient. And fifteen are a class of schoolgirls old enough to be cloaked. Unlike the adult patients sitting comfortably along the walls with cloaks in their laps or hanging down the back, most of them browsing a magazine or reading a novel on their phone, the girls are standing in the middle of the room forming two lines and still cloaked with hoods covering the head and leashed like when they walk the streets. Next to the front of the line is sitting the teacher accompanying them, easily recognized by her navy blue and white kimono, no doubt matching the colors of the girl’s school uniforms which are currently hidden by their cloaks. Mrs. Shimizu is awake again and reads on the patient display ‘Your teeth are in good condition. Please wash your mouth, directly drinking from the cup to your left and spitting out is recommended, but if modesty prevails using a straw and swallowing is okay.’ As Mrs. Okada is working with her back to the dental chair and Aiko is turned away as well looking at the computer Mrs. Shimizu sees she can wash with her mouth uncovered, but showing intimate parts she still keeps her face as low as possible. Covered again she gets up from the chair and Aiko and Mrs. Okada, having secretly watched her, turn. Aiko turns and tilts the patient display for Mrs. Shimizu to read ‘Thank you for visiting the Sasaki dental clinic. Please settle the payment at the reception counter.’ Mrs. Shimizu makes a short bow to Mrs. Okada and a much deeper bow to Aiko. Then Aiko and Mrs. Okada at the same time bow to Mrs. Shimizu and Mrs. Okada holds the door open to her. In less than ten minutes they are ready for the next patient.

3.

Mrs. Shimizu approaches the counter. Mrs. Kimura comes to meet her and with a nod and a gesture bids her to wait while she calls the next patient in. She goes to the teacher and takes her to the treatment room. As the door opens Aiko meets with the teacher, who holds up her phone and recalls a question she has asked Mrs. Kimura. Aiko reads ‘If you do not have time for the entire class I’ll let my phone select among them at random, otherwise they are lined up alphabetically?’ Aiko writes on her phone ‘It is most considerate of your school wanting to give your contribution to improve the small female dental treatment capacity. But my receptionist has entered the entire class into today’s schedule. The clinic finds it particularly important that girls soon to be married have perfectly healthy teeth. We take your lineup.’ Aiko hands the phone back to the teacher and while she reads, Mrs. Okada and Mrs. Kimura read the same message on the patient display. The teacher bows deeply three times to Aiko, who nods and gestures Mrs. Kimura to bring the first girl in. But before leaving the teacher holds up a key which Mrs. Okada receives. While Mrs. Okada makes everything ready for the next series of patients Aiko takes a break just looking out the door. Mrs. Kimura leads the teacher to the line of girls and gestures as to who is first, second and third to know how they are lined up. The teacher shows first the left line and then the right and would like girls checked to be placed in a new line facing the exit. Mrs. Kimura nods understandingly, guides the teacher to take a seat and indicates the teacher can just read as she will handle the girls. Before sitting down the teacher bows deeply to Mrs. Kimura, then opens her handbag to take up her phone again and starts reading. Mrs. Kimura unclips the first girl from the girl behind her and the girl next to her and guides her into the treatment room. The cut of girl’s cloaks are similar to the adult ones, but they are white and completely closed, with only a zipper at the neck just long enough to allow the hood to be pulled off and the cloak removed. Being straightened up and accompanied by a teacher, on a trip like this the girls never lift their heads, only able to see where they place their next step, making the chance of even a glimpse of what is inside the hood non-existent. But the sight is well known to everybody having seen an older teenage girl from Boar recently, even men having daughters or sisters that age, because the girls are all masked identically. Mrs. Okada, having taken over the girl at the doorway and got her seated in the dental chair, now unzips her hood, which can only be done from the outside, to reveal this year’s kigurumi mask and hair.

On the last day of the old school year the winner of the competition to design next year’s teenage head is presented with a small prize by the governor, but giving enormous prestige to the winner and her family. And before the first day after the summer break, all girls at the right ages have received three sets of identical masks and wigs to be worn from the first day of the new school year. The winning design is often a cross between a popular cartoon character and a natural face, and although the wig is mostly rag doll style it’s always black. The cartoon look appeals to the girls wearing it and the natural to the adults. A committee of female teachers selects the winner, and the girls participating with drawings know this and that their contribution first has to be approved by their own teacher. Of course a fresh smiling expression is always selected, but the cartoon look comes in with too small lips and exaggerated eyes. Somewhere in the black of the eyes of the mask are placed peep-holes to see out of, and in or below the mask lips a slit for a straw is made. Wearing the mask feels about the same from year to year, being hot, a little sound attenuating, mainly breathing through cloth and making speech impossible. But the size of the eye holes is always adapted to the design to make them as unobtrusive as possible but taking into account if last years design were deemed to small to see acceptably or too large spoiling the face. Various tinted covers have been tried for the holes as well, but normally just an opening, ideally revealing the pupils of the eyes, goes well with the black fabric of the mask eyes. This year the girls have good direct vision and as always nearly no peripheral vision with hole sizes a little larger than average.

Besides the head the cloak opening only reveals a navy blue sailor style collar on a white shirt. Immediately after the hood is removed the girl gets up and bows to the two identically masked, suited and hooded women. The sight doesn’t scare her enough to shiver or forget her manners, but if she has got a frightened expression from having had previous visits of course can’t be seen. Aiko points to the display again reading ‘Dentist Mrs. Sasaki and her assistant Mrs. Okada are ready to do your dental check Miss Fujita. Nothing was wrong at your last check two and a half years ago. Have you experienced any problems since?’ Miss Fujita thinks for some seconds and then shakes her head making Aiko show the next screen, which has been modified for the girls. ‘Your mask will now be removed. Afterwards please lean back and breathe calmly, even as a small hose is held to your nose. When you wake again it’s all over.’ Finished reading the girl bows her head fully forward to give easy access to the back of her neck. Mrs. Okada lifts at the wig to reveal a small padlock at the end of the zipper holding the mask closed. With the key from the teacher she opens the mask and pulls it forward off the girls head with the wig attached to the mask.

But no face is seen, just a pair of eyes somewhere between frightened and embarrassed and a mouth sealed not to make a sound. Following kigurumi tradition, the entire body is covered in a flesh colored bodysuit, but this suit covers the head as well, having only two holes for the eyes and one for the mouth. The girls are almost completely covered, even when removing the mask, which is normally only done to eat. The mask is placed face down in the girls lap as is normally done while eating, while the girl closes her eyes and leans back, then the bib is positioned and the girl is ready to be put to sleep. Soon her fear is removed by the laughing gas and Aiko can start her examination. The girl is ready for her wedding, at least her teeth are. As soon as her eyes open Mrs. Okada holds a cup of water to her lips. The girl washes her mouth and as she puts the cup down Mrs. Okada points to the mask in the girls lap and lifts her cloak up to help reveal her arms and signaling its okay doing it. The mask is best put on by the wearer. First aligning the eyes with the mask eye openings is critical. Secondly the mask may fold or squeeze somewhere, making wearing it even more annoying. While the girl puts the mask on the front of her cloak is folded onto her chest revealing how she looks without a cloak. Her school uniform is traditional consisting of a white shirt, a navy blue skirt, white stockings, black shoes and white gloves. The skirt reaches just below the knees and the stockings reach just above the knees only revealing thighs covered by the flesh colored suit if the skirt is lifted. The cuffs of the shirt have lines in blue matching the collar and the gloves are short, reaching just above the wrists, showing a little of the flesh colored suit if the shirt sleeves slide up, but making the gloves easily replaceable. Girls wear their school uniform all the time they are awake, seven days a week. Soon Miss Fujita, being able to zip and lock her mask herself, is a kigurumi schoolgirl only cloth showing again, but nearly all of her school uniform is immediately hidden as her hands move directly from her head to her lap to push the front of the cloak down. On the display a short message is waiting. ‘Your teeth are in excellent condition Miss Fujita. Please stay with your current care and nutritional habits to avoid problems for many years to come. Goodbye and thank you.’ While the girl has been reading, Mrs. Okada has moved behind her to discreetly check that she hasn’t cheated with the padlock. Having finished reading the message the girl gets up from the dental chair and bows deeply to Aiko who nods. Then the girl can directly turn to face Mrs. Okada and bow as well. As the girl straightens Mrs. Okada grabs her hood, lifts it over her head and zips it shut.

4.

Miss Fujita was in the treatment room for less than six minutes. Immediately an identical girl followed her, followed by another, and another. It was like working on an assembly line. But Aiko and Mrs. Okada look where the girls differ by most considering their suits are not removed. But they work mechanically not even looking at the names of the girls, reckoning they would object if not reading their own name. They are both shocked when the fifth girl doesn’t shake her head after reading the opening screen, but lifts at her cloak from the inside signaling she wants to write. Mrs. Okada lifts the girl’s cloak to let her right arm appear. While she writes Aiko takes a glance at the computer display to learn the girl is Miss Ikeda. She writes ‘No problems with my teeth, but I want to be a dentist. May I watch an examination following my own?’ Aiko is happily surprised. The Boar province cries for female dentists, in fact females in any profession excepting teachers. Although she knows that ninety five percent of the girls choose to become full time housewives when marrying, she has to give it a try and help Miss Ikeda in following her dream.

Aiko writes ‘It might be your lucky day. I can’t allow you to watch the private parts of your classmates and adult patients without the consent of their father or husband, but we stop examining ordinary patients half an hour early today to check on ourselves. My assistant Mrs. Okada and I, not native to Boar, are not embarrassed to show our mouths to other women. I’ll ask for your teacher’s permission and she will have to text your mother to get permission to stay here until three. If you get permission it is understood that everything you see, hear or read here is strictly confidential and no names except the staff are to be mentioned anywhere outside of this clinic.’ Although probably extremely excited Miss Ikeda has quietly got up from the chair to make three large bows first towards Aiko and then three again towards Mrs. Okada, who has nodded to confirm she will allow being watched.

Aiko has put a message on Mrs. Kimura’s display telling her to bring the teacher. Meanwhile Aiko writes ‘I and my dental assistant have allowed your bright pupil Miss Ikeda, interested in a dental career, to watch our own examinations taking place at the end of the day. If you permit, and can get permission from her mother, we will ensure her being accompanied home, arriving around half past three.’ Aiko has found out that Miss Ikeda lives less than ten minutes walk from the street of Mrs. Kimura and herself. The teacher won’t resist someone having a higher education than herself. She likes being told she educates bright pupils and finally Mrs. Sasaki has insisted taking her entire class, which she didn’t need to do, but which will make the teacher popular with all the parents. The teacher just bows as a colleague agreeing on a small issue and holds up her phone to show she is texting Mrs. Ikeda as she leaves.

Miss Ikeda seems to know her parents are in favor of her getting an education and her mother is home all day and is the first and only girl who doesn’t reveal frightened eyes and even keeps her eyes open as the hose with laughing gas is put to her nose. As the gas takes effect she is probably dreaming it’s herself covered in medical protective clothing, mask and pressurized hood doing the examination. After doing the check Aiko knows she has done the right thing. The girl has by far the cleanest teeth she has seen for a long time, but she gets the usual message about keep caring. Aiko has only replaced the goodbye ending of the standard message with ‘I hope you’ll be allowed to stay.’ Miss Ikeda bows to say thank you for the examination, expecting to have to wait cloaked for some hours, and Mrs. Okada is about to cover her head with the hood, when Mrs. Kimura and the teacher appears. The teacher holds her phone in front of Aiko, who reads ‘I Mrs. Ikeda permit my daughter to stay with the staff of the Sasaki clinic until four today.’ Aiko leads the hand holding the phone towards Miss Ikeda who bows deeply to thank her teacher for getting the permission. Meanwhile Mrs. Kimura is writing on the patient display gesturing for Aiko to read what she has written. ‘I can have Miss Ikeda assist me until she is allowed to watch in here.’ Aiko nods and pats her shoulder for the excellent idea, but makes the teacher read the message as well. The teacher nods approvingly, writing on her phone ‘Miss Ikeda, you are now under supervision from the staff of the Sasaki clinic. Obey and make your parents and your school proud.’ Miss Ikeda bows deeply to her teacher once more and the teacher turns towards the door. Aiko gently pushes Miss Ikeda towards Mrs. Kimura and gestures Mrs. Kimura to bring the next girl before taking care of Miss Ikeda. Then Aiko and Mrs. Okada continue the kigurumi assembly line.

While being handed the last tool after examining the last girl Mrs. Okada gestures tea break to Aiko, but she shakes her head letting Mrs. Okada follow a message she writes to Mrs. Kimura. ‘The girls were quick, only one for a new appointment, I think we’re five minutes ahead of the schedule. I will see the teacher if she likes.’ Half a minute later Miss Ikeda shows her teacher in. Aiko immediately sees its Miss Ikeda even though she is looking almost the same as Mrs. Kimura and behaves like an experienced receptionist, but she doesn’t move in exactly the same manner as Mrs. Kimura and seeing her face behind the clear face cover no real eye shows. Instead the surgical green is almost completely covering her face. As they walk through the doorway Miss Ikeda points to the area next to Mrs. Okada asking if she can watch her being examined. But the teacher is local and faces down, shakes her head and holds her hands to her mouth to, in all ways possible, tell that this is too much to ask crossing her line of privacy. Miss Ikeda just nods like she has asked any patient a standard question and gestures towards Aiko. The teacher bows deeply, while Miss Ikeda leaves with her classmate to leash her at the back of the line of waiting girls.

The teacher has no problems with her teeth, but this unexpected check causes her to bow continuously, from when she leaves the chair until a receptionist comes and guides her out, which they are both happy doesn’t take long. It’s Miss Ikeda again and both Aiko and Mrs. Okada follow them through the open door. The teacher inspects if the lines of girls are ready to walk. Then she hooks her cloak at the waist and first bows to Mrs. Kimura some meters away behind the counter and then to Miss Ikeda. Miss Ikeda bows as to a customer leaving the shop and reaches to pull the hood of her teacher over her head. Then the teacher places herself in front of the two lines of girls and reaches out through the slit of her cloak for one of the leashes hanging from the waist of both the front girls. Miss Ikeda immediately stops her hand to do the leashing for her. She is here to help and it wouldn’t be easy for the teacher having to sense clipping to a strap on her own back. With so many practically blind girls, and not able to shout a start command the teacher can do nothing but start walking until the leashes get tight, then walk a little more expecting a backwards pull when the next set of leashes tighten and so on. But they have done it numerous times, and in a moment they watch Miss Ikeda holding the door while all her classmates pass. They are going back to school as usual, but she will be experiencing a dental clinic from within.

5.

They all assemble in the staff room. For the first time Miss Ikeda sees Aiko and Mrs. Okada without airtight hoods. Now they all look nearly identical. They all untie the lower ties of their medical masks to put a straw through their balaclava or mask mouth slit for drinking tea. Mrs. Okada points to the special covering around Miss Ikeda’s eyes to hide she is kigurumi masked and not showing her own eyes like the others. This makes Miss Ikeda get up and open a closet. She takes out a bib and mimics how she has cut a piece with two holes for the eyes. She is not showing real eyes, but for the casual viewer it looks like she is just wearing a more covering protection, as the color of the bib is close to that of the surgical mask and hood. Mrs. Okada gestures if Mrs. Kimura has made her cut the bib, but Mrs. Kimura points to Miss Ikeda, which makes both Mrs. Okada and Aiko nod approvingly and clap their hands. Then Mrs. Kimura hands her phone round where it reads ‘Miss Ikeda has very quickly understood the patient management system and has promised to try and produce some statistics, which I have never been able to make myself.’ Mrs. Okada and Aiko nod and clap again. Miss Ikeda points to the phone and Mrs. Kimura nods. Miss Ikeda enters some symbols and then shows Mrs. Okada she is about to text a school-mate to take her bag home, it was left at the school before coming here. Mrs. Kimura barely nods, and then Miss Ikeda writes before handing the phone to Mrs. Kimura ‘May I ask a few questions?’ She reads the message, nods clearly and hands the phone on. Miss Ikeda gets the phone back having received three nods.

Then she writes ‘Isn’t it hard both working here and maintaining a home?’ Mrs. Okada answers ‘It is, but I wanted to continue my education, and having got an education, both myself and my husband want it to be used. It pays very well for a woman with a higher education working in the Boar province. But it makes me a bad housewife and unable to have children. I have to stop in a few years.’ Aiko adds ‘I wanted an education, to become a dentist. Here in Boar I make the most money possible. Children will only be possible if we can afford and find a wet nurse, I don’t see myself as housewife.’ Mrs Kimura finally adds ‘I am a young widow having to work. This said I couldn’t find better colleagues and my work is challenging, needed and appreciated. But women are by nature housewives, the world outside the house is primarily for males.’ Reading the answers Miss Ikeda realizes that work versus home may easily lead to a heated discussion here and asks in a different direction.

‘Is the work as dentist difficult?’ Mrs. Okada immediately hands the phone on to Aiko, who writes ‘Yes it requires both theoretical and practical skills and not many are good at both. A firm steady hand is mandatory as sharp tools are used in a confined space to work accurately on hard materials. The practical is most important, as your assistant or literature can help you with what to use when, but it’s your hand working in the mouth of the patient. From how you have been acting today I’m sure you can handle the theoretical demands.’ Aiko hands the phone directly to Miss Ikeda, who is probably blushing inside her already hot mask.

Aiko then hands her own phone to Miss Ikeda, who reads ‘Why do you want to be a dentist?’ Miss Ikeda writes back ‘I want to help other women, working at a respectable site with little male contact. Housework is fine, but doesn’t contain any work for the brain. Seeing a mouth, even on a woman, is like seeing a handsome man. It gives me some sensations I think are similar to those when being with a man.’ Miss Ikeda has erased and rephrased the last lines a couple of times before she hands the phone back to Aiko, who notices she is breathing as if really hot. Aiko tries to hide that her eyes reveal her smiling face. A part of the body covered makes it erotic, and Boar women never showing their mouths makes it a sexual experience when you see one. She nods to Miss Ikeda to indicate she likes her answer and then hands the phone on for the others to read, which probably makes Miss Ikeda glad she is completely hidden. Mrs. Kimura after reading adds ‘It is with good reasons that the mouth, the breasts and the crotch have to be hidden.’ And Mrs. Okada writes ‘I guess your mother hasn’t kissed you goodnight for a long time, and if she started now it would make you dream forbidden dreams.’ Aiko watching Miss Ikeda closely isn’t sure she understands the last comment. Tonight she will surely be dreaming about being a dentist, but will it be a forbidden dream? Then Aiko gets up signaling the break is over. She and Mrs. Okada go to the treatment room to put on their hoods, leaving it to Mrs. Kimura and Miss Ikeda to clear the table before going to the reception counter.

In a minute Aiko signals she wants the next patient. From now on more than half the patients have an appointment because they have a problem already identified. Each patient requires much longer and Aiko and Mrs. Okada have to work hard and use a broader range of their professional skills before Aiko is ready to write a long waited message to the reception: ‘Lunch’

As Aiko and Mrs. Okada enter the staff room Miss Ikeda is seated at the table and Mrs. Kimura is waiting by the fridge. She returns with four bottles, as usual containing blended vegetables which can be consumed with a straw. After they have all been drinking by themselves for some minutes Miss Ikeda points to a phone and when given permission writes ‘I’m happy you have liquid food like we do in school. But you are able to uncover the mouth, why do you not have solid food?‘ Aiko answers ‘Pulling at the balaclava requires taking the mask entirely off and loosening the surgical hood, opening the full covering protection much more than for drinking. Also eating means mouth uncovered, having to eat screened off from the others. I like our breaks to be a time where the entire staff sit together, strengthening the team spirit and making us feel like a family. Here we are dressed identically adding to these feelings.’

Then Miss Ikeda asks a daring question and hands the phone directly to Aiko ‘It’s not because your teeth are too weak for solid food Mrs. Sasaki?’ Aiko is about to spit her straw out from laughing. If Miss Ikeda’s teacher ever asks, Aiko will recommend Miss Ikeda taking an education, because she isn’t the demure submissive character a good housewife should be right now. But she writes ‘You have seen my dental record I assume, which contains quite a few fillings I admit. Let me give you your first dental lesson. That my teeth are much more fragile than average for a woman my age is a correct observation, but eight cavities will still make my teeth better than a person fifty years old. And they have all been treated and filled making the teeth as good as new if not biting rocks.’ After Miss Ikeda has read the answer Aiko gestures her to hand the phone on for the other two to see. They pat her shoulder to indicate they like her question, if it’s for being daring or funny doesn’t matter. Miss Ikeda has created a good mood around the lunch table. Sitting close they treat each other like sisters. Mrs. Kimura takes the phone and writes ‘If my dear late husband had got a question like that I would have been caned severely and not allowed to address him for a month.’ Aiko and Mrs. Okada are surprised that this girl has been able to make Mrs. Kimura talk about her personal life, perhaps her idea of having Miss Ikeda as an assistant receptionist was a subconscious wish to have a daughter of her own. But the ‘daughter’ keeps her humorous bold style answering ‘Of course you would get punished. Any girl from eight with a good upbringing knows that males are only to be asked questions required for house keeping. Other subjects only come up if the male wishes.’ This is an answer fitting Mrs. Kimura’s view of the world. Without asking Aiko she walks to the fridge returning with a smoothies bottle with strawberry flavor. She places it right between Miss Ikeda and herself and puts two straws in. First Miss Ikeda is allowed to sip for half a minute alone, then when she lifts her head nodding to indicate it tastes wonderful, Mrs. Kimura starts sipping with the second straw and gestures Miss Ikeda to start sipping again. Their clear face coverings touch and they stare into each others eyes. They eyes of Miss Ikeda are mainly black fabric and the eyes of Mrs. Kimura are too close to Miss Ikeda for her to really see them, but it seems they both feel they are looking into the other’s soul and what is in there is happiness. Aiko points to the bottle and teasingly gestures it will be subtracted from Mrs. Kimura’s salary. But Mrs. Kimura writes on the phone ‘Miss Ikeda has found out how to retrieve the statistics you want. She has saved me hours of struggling with the system.’ Aiko nods and claps towards Miss Ikeda and then pulls Mrs. Kimura’s straw out of the bottle and pushes it towards Miss Ikeda for her alone. But Mrs. Okada finds Aiko is going too far mocking Mrs. Kimura for not being good at the patient management system. Mrs. Kimura has set aside her own pride to let a girl solve a task that benefits them all. Mrs. Okada puts the straw back in the bottle and then gestures Aiko to get another. Aiko accepts she has gone too far and obeying her assistant is her punishment. She goes to the fridge and takes a similar bottle for her and Mrs. Okada to share. Now the lunch has turned into a party. A couple of minutes later Miss Ikeda lifts her straw out of the bottle and puts it into the other bottle sipping for a minute with Aiko and Mrs. Okada to show she likes them as well. All filled and happy Aiko after a couple of minutes just resting gets up and points to the treatment room. Patients are waiting.

When, ninety minutes later, Aiko signals it’s time for the afternoon break Mrs. Kimura answers ‘It has to wait! This emergency patient has arrived.’ A patient record is attached, and Aiko reads Mrs. Kimura and Miss Ikeda have been playing a game. In the record Mrs. Kimura has written ‘Miss Nosy.’ Then Miss Ikeda has filled in an address writing ‘99999999.1 OnlyFemaleQuestion Street’. All the fields of the record have been filled like this and finally Miss Ikeda has created a dental history including ‘Small car removed from upper right 2,’ ‘Cavity lower right 4 filled with a kilo of fine chocolate’ and ‘The patient liked a space between lower left 1 and lower left 2 large enough for his dog to sleep in.’ Aiko answers ‘Please come in here after seeing the current patient out. Bring Miss Ikeda in as well.’ Two minutes later Mrs. Kimura and Miss Ikeda enter the treatment room and Aiko gestures Mrs. Kimura to read on the patient display. It says ‘You certainly need emergency treatment‘ As Mrs. Kimura’s head starts turning to indicate she has read the message, Aiko takes hold of her head and Mrs. Okada presses the laughing gas hose against her mask. After some seconds struggling Mrs. Kimura collapses in the dental chair. The hose is removed and Aiko and Mrs. Okada take off their hoods to have tea. As they are ready to leave the room Mrs. Kimura starts moving and Aiko gestures Miss Ikeda to wait until Mrs. Kimura is on her feet and then accompany her to the staff room.

6.

During the break they only suck tea and absolutely nothing else. No one communicates even by gesturing. Miss Ikeda is longing to see a dentist work and the three others are perhaps a little worried about what their examination might bring. In just five minutes Aiko finds it’s time to go on. They have one check and one treatment left. Twenty past two Aiko writes the reception ‘Last patient is ready to leave. Let Miss Ikeda see her out and take care of reception while we check Mrs. Kimura.’ In the treatment room Aiko gestures Mrs. Kimura to remove her medical mask and surgical hood having her head covered only by a balaclava, as do all adult patients. Mrs. Kimura then places herself in the dentist chair to be handled like any other patient, getting the standard screen where she is welcomed and being asked if she has had any problems since her last check. Soon Mrs. Kimura inhales the laughing gas for the second time today, but this time she is leant comfortably back in the chair knowing what she’s in for. And she gets a much larger dose to be out for five minutes while Aiko examines her teeth. Waking up again Aiko has written a very different message starting normally. ‘Your teeth are in good condition Mrs. Kimura. I know you don’t like assisting in here. You may stay in reception while Mrs. Okada and I are checked, then we’ll work with Miss Ikeda assisting. Although slower we’ll avoid hooking up a third air hood.’ Mrs. Kimura, not a qualified dental assistant and finding it obscene to watch a female mouth nods, gets up from the chair and while walking towards the door gestures if she should send Miss Ikeda in. Aiko nods.

Miss Ikeda is met by Mrs. Okada, who just in front of her takes her air hood off and while holding the hood between her hands makes Miss Ikeda turn her back to her to slide the hood over her head. Mrs. Okada adjusts and checks and then gestures to Miss Ikeda if she can breathe alright. Miss Ikeda nods to confirm she is breathing without problems, but is a little confused, probably expecting Mrs. Kimura to change with Mrs. Okada. Her hesitation makes Aiko gesture if she is breathing alright. Miss Ikeda nods again and then goes to the patient display to write ‘Being masked my head is always somewhere between warm and extremely hot, but inside this hood cool air is gently blown around my head, cooling my hot mask. I wish I had a hood like this at home to wear for a few minutes from time to time, especially when coming home after a strenuous walk from school in the hot afternoon air.’ Aiko has never thought of their protection this way, but she did not grow up in Boar, having her head masked practically 24/7 for five years. She nods understandingly to Miss Ikeda and gestures her to move to the far side of the dentist chair to the area where Mrs. Okada usually stands. Meanwhile Mrs. Okada has removed her medical mask and surgical hood and even uncovered her mouth, secured the balaclava on herself with the neck strap with the hooks and put on a bib. She now seats herself, points to the patient display without reading and shakes her head to Aiko. She knows the question is if she has experienced problems since her last examination and her answer is No. She reaches for the hand where Aiko now is holding the laughing gas hose and pulls the hand towards her face while leaning back in the chair. Aiko nods to Mrs. Okada while opening the valve and in ten seconds Mrs. Okada is unconscious. Aiko lets her breathe the gas for ten seconds more before closing the valve and leave the hose hanging a little above the chair.

Having had Miss Ikeda’s complete attention since Mrs. Okada reached for Aiko’s hand, she now points to a tray with tools Mrs. Okada has prepared. Miss Ikeda starts pointing to the tools starting with the one closest to the chair. Aiko holds up three fingers making Miss Ikeda reach for a pick tool lying third and Aiko nods. Aiko looks into Mrs. Okada’s mouth and gestures Miss Ikeda to come as close as possible and look as well. With the tool Aiko points out some strawberry seeds sitting between the teeth before removing them. Then she makes Miss Ikeda reach for the suction which is hanging within easy reach. Miss Ikeda is shown how to suck away the seeds from Mrs. Okada’s tongue and gums. Then Aiko continues her examination, looking for the less obvious such as cavities. From time to time holding a pointing finger up is the signal to Miss Ikeda to bring the suction into the mouth and remove the saliva which is continuously spooling in Mrs. Okada’s mouth. Now and then she finds something suspicious on the surface of a tooth and gestures Miss Ikeda for another tool. About once a minute she hands her tool to Miss Ikeda to reach for the laughing gas hose and let Mrs. Okada breathe gas for five seconds. Having finished her examination Aiko gestures Miss Ikeda for a small tray of fluoride varnish on a table behind her and a brush to apply it. After having shown Miss Ikeda how to apply it, Aiko hands her the brush and holds three fingers up to get the pick tool herself. Then she points at a tooth surface and gestures Miss Ikeda to apply fluoride where she pointed. Aiko repeats pointing at three more teeth and Miss Ikeda each time with a steady hand brushes at the right place. Then Aiko gestures Miss Ikeda to put the fluoride tray back on the table and when she turns towards her again Aiko bows deeply to indicate the examination is over and Miss Ikeda has done an excellent job as dental assistant. Aiko turns to the computer using half a minute to update Mrs. Okada’s record and then she pulls her air hood off. They both watch Mrs. Okada while Aiko continue removing her medical mask and surgical hood.

Now it’s Aiko who is the patient, but they have to wait for the dentist substitute to wake, which takes one minute more. Mrs. Okada lifts her head and looks at Aiko, who nods a couple of times to indicate her teeth were fine. Then Mrs. Okada turns her head and points to Miss Ikeda, and Aiko nods identically. She has been doing fine as well. First now Mrs. Okada washes her mouth, removes the bib and unhooks her balaclava to cover her mouth and nose, finally handing the strap with hooks to Aiko. Then she leaves the chair and points to her mask and surgical hood which Miss Ikeda hands her. Soon she is standing next to the chair where Aiko stood looking like she did, and Aiko is seated in the chair mouth uncovered wearing a bib. Mrs. Okada reaches for the laughing gas hose and Aiko starts feeling much better, like after drinking some sake. She dreams she only has to work two days a week doing interesting dental procedures on difficult patients because now she has got a partner doing all the tedious routine checks. Her partner has big eyes and a small mouth, but that doesn’t matter, she is an excellent dentist. Of course the entire dream only lasts ten seconds then Aiko is unconscious.

Aiko opens her eyes to realize she still is the only dentist in Boar although she looks at two gowned and hooded women looking like a dentist and her assistant. She then leans forward to read on the patient display ‘Cavity in lower right 4. Fluoride varnish applied at cavity and twelve other places. Appointment with colleague suggested as soon as possible.’ Aiko puts her finger to the symbols for cavity and looks at Mrs. Okada. She nods confidently and points to Miss Ikeda. Aiko repeats her pointing and Miss Ikeda nods as well. Aiko starts writing to be completely sure ‘Have you sensed the tool gets stuck on the surface?’ Miss Ikeda reads and nods. Mrs. Okada nods. Aiko has to visit her nearest female colleague in the neighboring city of Shimoto a hundred kilometers away. Meanwhile Miss Ikeda has written ‘I sucked strawberry seeds and brushed your teeth with fluoride just like with Mrs. Okada, who handled you just like you did with her. We spent twice as long with you to ensure you got the best examination available.’ Aiko can only smile, wash her mouth, remove her bib and cover her face.

Mrs. Okada has started clearing for closing but Miss Ikeda is still fully covered wearing air hood, Aiko realizing she likes to stay as long as possible in the wonderful cool hood. Aiko puts a text on the patient display mainly for Mrs. Okada saying ‘Thanks for checking me, you can’t be blamed for my teeth. Mrs. Kimura and I have to accompany Miss Ikeda home and will leave as soon as possible. Please close the clinic.’ Mrs. Okada stops her clearing to read and then makes a goodbye nod to Aiko, who says goodbye likewise. Then Miss Ikeda makes a deep bow to Mrs. Okada to say goodbye, thank you for being acquainted and much more. Mrs. Okada comes to her, regrettably lifts her air hood off, but then puts her own still hooded, masked and balaclava covered mouth to her own masked and twice hooded forehead like a mother kissing her daughter goodnight. Miss Ikeda is deeply touched, probably no woman apart from her mother has ever done anything like that before. Miss Ikeda bows again, this time like when showing the proper respect to her parents, signaling Mrs. Okada is like close family to her. Aiko watches the touching scene smiling under her covering. It has been a wonderful day and her own little problem should not spoil that impression. Gently she comes over to Miss Ikeda and leads her to the staff room.

Here Mrs. Kimura is waiting already cloak hooked around her neck. In the middle of the room is now a bucket for used clothes. Aiko starts undressing and putting all the items except for the latex gloves and the shoe covers in the bucket. Miss Ikeda copies her. After putting on her shoes Miss Ikeda points to Aiko’s phone and Aiko nods. Miss Ikeda writes ‘I have learned so much today, much more than I had ever dreamt of when asking. You have all been very kind to me. Mrs. Okada is right, you are all like family to me. It is most kind of Mrs. Kimura and you Mrs. Sasaki to take me home. At my home you have to ring the bell and wait perhaps two minutes. I will be happy to meet any of you again sometime.’ Aiko is a little puzzled reading this. Why not wait saying goodbye like this until at her home? But she just hands the phone to Mrs. Kimura and gestures Miss Ikeda to put on her cloak. When getting her phone back Aiko writes ‘We love you too, but no goodbyes until at your door.’ She holds the phone up for Miss Ikeda to read and as she nods Aiko pulls her hood over her head and zips it. Then, before handing the phone to Mrs. Kimura she adds ‘Would you wait saying goodbye until we part? We’ll walk in line, you lead.’ Mrs. Kimura nods twice, hands the phone back and pulls her hood up. Then Aiko leashes Miss Ikeda to the back of Mrs. Kimura and leashes herself to the back of Miss Ikeda. Finally she pulls up her hood, hooks her cloak at the waist and takes a step forward gently pushing Miss Ikeda. Miss Ikeda then bumps into Mrs. Kimura and like that they all start walking.

7.

The difference between walking to the clinic and now, walking home, is to Aiko that now she only has to concentrate on watching the hem of Miss Ikeda’s cloak and never has to tilt her head back to orientate herself. That they walk down different streets doesn’t matter as seeing the general surrounding area is still not possible. They reach the home of Miss Ikeda in about the same time it takes for Aiko to reach home. Without being able to view the entire house, alone walking ten meters from the street to the front door gives the impression of a house larger than city average. Mrs. Kimura has pressed the bell and while they wait Aiko notices a schoolbag leant against the door. It’s in the very limited field of view of Miss Ikeda and she is able to lift her cloak and lift the bag inside it. As Miss Ikeda had written answering the door takes quite some time.

It feels like two minutes before it opens and immediately Aiko can see why it took so long. She is looking at the lower part of a black kimono made of the finest silk and richly embroidered in black with subtle patterns and edgings in gold. The sight makes her, although its bad manners to do so, tilt her head backwards for a moment to see what’s above. The obi is black as well and mostly covered by the large loose sleeves meeting over the belly button where they cover the hands completely and are laced to each other. Above the kimono the head is completely covered by a large sheet of thick black silk draping over the shoulders. If there are no other people in the house, Aiko can stare as much as she wants because Mrs. Ikeda is unable to see. Mrs. Kimura has seen enough to know who is in front of them as well, and that maybe is why she is very hesitant to enter the house which Mrs. Ikeda’s posture and her position at the wall where the door touches is an invitation to do. But the black silk kimono and the covered head shows Mrs. Ikeda is a noble lady from the Dragon province, and Mrs. Kimura probably finds a simple widow is not worthy of entering the house of such a lady. Still leashed together it has to be Mrs. Kimura leading and Aiko has to put an arm through her cloak slit to push Mrs. Kimura.

They walk into a lobby the size of a quarter of Aiko’s house, and as the floor is covered in marble their steps are easily heard making Lady Ikeda close the door and start walking along the wall. While Aiko unhooks her cloak and pulls back her hood she fascinated as she watches Lady Ikeda sliding gracefully, and very slowly, around the room, head down and an elbow just brushing the wall to navigate. It has very likely taken her close to two minutes to walk from some other room because she is only mincing with tiny movements of her feet, scarcely making the kimono move. A lady like her is trained in walking with her knees always touching to avoid any form of indecent opening of her kimono. Aiko unleashes herself from Miss Ikeda and unzips her hood, which makes Miss Ikeda walk to a wardrobe and lift it off. At the last moment Mrs. Kimura has unleashed herself from Miss Ikeda but she is still hooded and with her cloak hooked. Now the kigurumi schoolgirl approaches them and with a polite bow to each gestures for their cloaks and points to their geta. Mrs. Kimura quickly unhooks and while Miss Ikeda walks to the wardrobe with their cloaks they both step out off their geta. Moments later they watch Lady Ikeda passing through a doorway, and Miss Ikeda turning around after having put their geta in the closet just gestures Aiko and Mrs. Kimura to follow her mother and then walks out another door herself.

They stop just inside the doorway waiting for Lady Ikeda to indicate what she wants them to do or Miss Ikeda to appear. This clearly being the living room, or perhaps one of the living rooms, is more than half the size of Aiko’s entire home. Large windows face a green garden and the walls are covered by decorative wooden panels, and on many of the panels hang beautiful ink drawings of landscapes, birds and flowers. While taking in the room Lady Ikeda has moved along the wall opposite the windows and is now turning at the far end corner of the room approaching a low square table that is placed a little out from the wall. Just as she is at the center of the table she gracefully comes down on her knees on one of the cushions surrounding the table and turns to face the table, still head down. A deep bow making her silk head cover hang down and just touch the table is clearly an invitation to Aiko and Mrs. Kimura to join her. Aiko leads the still hesitant Mrs. Kimura to the table and they each get on their knees on cushions opposite Lady Ikeda. Since bowing she has hardly moved at all, just sitting head down like an obedient wife awaiting her husband to order her to do something.

But then a light starts flashing above their heads. They both look up to see a phone hanging over the center of the table from a spiral cord. Its display is flashing and Aiko stretches to reach up and pull it down. The display reads ‘Welcome guests from the Sasaki clinic I presume. I am Lady Ikeda from Tora in the Dragon province. Thank you for having my daughter staying and accompanying her home. Tea is on its way. Who do I have the honor of visiting me?’ Lady Ikeda is communicating through an apparently normal phone but with head covered and hands locked inside the sleeves. They are both a little surprised. Aiko has held the phone for Mrs. Kimura to read as well and now writes ‘We are Mrs. Sasaki, dentist, and Mrs. Kimura, receptionist at the Sasaki clinic. It is an honor to have tea with a Lady from Dragon for nothing but showing her bright daughter a little of what goes on at our clinic. But we unfortunately have to leave soon as I, Mrs. Sasaki, have to serve my husband.’

Miss Ikeda arrives with a tray for tea. Lady Ikeda must be able to follow her in some way, because just before Miss Ikeda puts the tray on the table the phone display changes to just show the symbols ‘tea break’ making Aiko let the phone go. Mrs. Kimura gestures to Aiko that Miss Ikeda seems to have changed. Aiko nods agreeing, her white shirt is without a mark or a wrinkle, the gloves are shining white and the kigurumi mask and wig seem fresh as well. Of course the tea set is best quality porcelain with lovely floral motifs. Even the straws are much better than normal, strong but light and with a bend, probably able to be reused many times, but Aiko doubts that they will be. There are only three cups and after Miss Ikeda has poured the last for Lady Ikeda, Aiko and Mrs. Kimura are surprised. Miss Ikeda lifts at her mother’s silk head cover with one hand and then puts the other up under the cover like moving something at her upper face. Although unable to see any of Lady Ikeda’s face it looks like she is able to get a short glimpse of at least their lower bodies before the hand of Miss Ikeda inside the cover comes down to grab the straw and enter it into her mother’s mouth. Seconds later Lady Ikeda is covered like before but her head is now more raised to have the edge of the silk cover hang a little above her cup and the straw reaching down into the cup. She stays in this position, unmoving, for many minutes. Aiko and Mrs. Kimura then drink likewise not touching the cup on the table just bending until their straws are in the tea. When not sipping tea they sit straighter, still holding the straw in the mouth through the slit in their balaclavas. Miss Ikeda has taken her stand at the side of the table, hands folded and face down.

For five minutes they only drink. Aiko and Mrs. Kimura now and then lift their heads to see that nothing has changed. Lady Ikeda, Miss Ikeda or the phone have not moved. Then the phone flashes. Aiko reaches for it and they both read ‘You both wear lovely kimonos much above average, but I guess your work requires presentable clothing. Who is in blue and who is in green?’ Aiko holds the phone towards Miss Ikeda to let her take part in the conversation, but neither her hands nor her head moves to read the phone. She remains unmoving, like the doll she looks like. Aiko turns with the phone to let Mrs. Kimura answer, but her hands stay in her lap, and then Aiko writes ‘Thank you for praising our clothing but it is no better than what most wear. The way we look now is never seen by our patients as we all are completely covered by an additional layer of protective medical clothing. It’s Mrs. Kimura in green and me, Mrs. Sasaki in blue. Do Dragon ladies wear anything but black?’ The answer comes so quickly Aiko thinks Lady Ikeda is able to read while she types. ‘No is the short answer. But for formal occasions the amount of gold or silver embroidery can be so extensive that the kimono doesn’t look black. And then we sometimes put on ordinary kimonos to take part in female gatherings incognito. Dragon Lord’s are powerful men and like to know what the publics opinion is, even among women, before taking sides or making decisions. Did my daughter behave well at your clinic? I overlook the fact that she has been asking while asked for something else I believe. This is truly bad manners which she knows and will be punished for. But she is at the age of rebellion, I apologize, but what’s done is done. I gave my permission because for strange unknown reasons, teeth have always interested her. My husband and I approve of her being further educated if she is sufficiently talented, and then a dental education might be the right choice for her. You may answer anything you like without offending her as she is unable to follow our conversation.’ As the subject is now changed to Miss Ikeda Aiko once more looks at her. She is still standing completely unmoving like a doll, except once every minute or so shortly lifting her head to see if her service is required like if there are empty cups.

Aiko writes ‘Your apology is accepted and justified. Of course being asked if she has had problems with her teeth she shouldn’t say anything else. For special appointments at her age in general her father should contact us, but now that we have met you Lady Ikeda a text message from you will be sufficient for another visit. But we have to accept that bending the rules often is the way to achieve what we want in life. I’m sure your husband, mastering politics, recognizes that, although it is only for men to act like that. Her interest in teeth is sincere, her knowledge is admirable considering she has no education in this area, her practical skills are flawless, she seems bright and her own teeth I have never seen better. If I do not get the opportunity of having her in my clinic again I will directly recommend her for a dental education. I’m sure my dental assistant will say the same and Mrs. Kimura as well, but she only knows dentist work from what she has seen at the clinic. If your husband decides she can go to dental school, I will gladly arrange for another day in my clinic with some patients approving her being present, and then I can inform her about her weak sides, where she has to concentrate during her education.’

This time there is no immediate answer. Instead Miss Ikeda moves. Their cups are refilled and although Aiko would have said no and left if elsewhere, but it would be bad manners to do that visiting a Dragon Lady and in the middle of a conversation about her remarkable daughter. She just has to accept the possibility of being blamed and perhaps punished if dinner is late. Then the answer comes. ‘If I exaggerated your kimonos, you have just exaggerated my daughter’s skills. But as a mother I’m flattered she has given you a positive impression. I’ll show my husband this conversation and then I’m sure he will find her a husband who will accept a wife working as a dentist and get her into the school if her final exams are at the top as expected. And then I guess my daughter’s punishment will be symbolic. Mrs. Kimura hasn’t taken part in the conversation, is she afraid of offending a Dragon Lady?’

Aiko hands the phone to Mrs. Kimura, who has to answer. She writes ‘I’m just a young widow with only basic education. I should be your maid, not your equal.’ Lady Ikeda writes ‘In Dragon someone widowed below forty would have been offered a position as maid to have a home where she can work with little male contact. In this house my daughter is doing all of the domestic work to educate her as a good housewife. There are too few Lords she can marry, and a position other than first wife is not acceptable. She will have to marry an ordinary man and keep his home. But even I had to do house chores for some years before my daughter had the age to take over. And when she marries in less than a year I have to do it again unless we find a maid. But a Dragon lady’s maid is much less than a housewife. Besides doing all the work you are not allowed to communicate with anyone, just obey. And not performing as expected you risk being sent to an asylum for the old or insane no matter your age or mental state. But on the other hand living a safe life out of the male world, not having to worry about food or clothing and chaperoning your lady when she goes out is very attractive to many. I won’t hold you back any longer. Any man is more important than me. Mrs. Sasaki has a husband to serve. I won’t see you out. Unless any of you has something more to say its goodbye. It has been a pleasure having you here and I would like to meet both of you again some time. Thank you.’

For ten seconds nothing happens. Aiko thinks about if she has something enough important to say to be further delayed. Miss Ikeda and Lady Ikeda are an unmoving doll and a headless kimono clothes-stand respectively. And Mrs. Kimura is looking at Aiko for what to do. Aiko gets up with Mrs. Kimura following. Then they both make a long ninety degree bow for total subordination to Lady Ikeda, which she can’t see. But Miss Ikeda perceives it and starts walking towards the lobby. In front of the wardrobe their geta are waiting on the floor. Then they are handed their handbags and Miss Ikeda puts the cloak first around Aiko and then Mrs. Kimura, who, both unused to being serviced like that, themselves pull their hoods over their heads and close the hooks. But then none of them has to put a hand out as Miss Ikeda connects them side to side with a leash. Then she goes to open the front door, holding it and giving them an impersonal but correct bow as they pass.

It’s a less than a ten minute walk to Mrs. Kimura’s home. Outside her front door Aiko takes the phone from her bag and writes ‘Would you consider being a maid for the Ikeda family?’ Mrs. Kimura writes back ‘I would very much, but I’ll stay with you until a replacement has been found or the clinic would have to close. But you probably have to get a new receptionist from Tokuto with so few women working here.’ Aiko writes ‘Thank you very much Mrs. Kimura. You’re right, without a receptionist capacity would be reduced substantially making it worse for the females of Boar. But I think they need a maid as soon as possible to allow Miss Ikeda more time for non-domestic work. And you would love working in a kitchen with her although neither of you will be allowed to communicate. It was such a wonderful day, tomorrow will be ordinary again, but our work is so much needed. See you tomorrow.’

By serving a dinner much simpler than she had planned Aiko barely succeeds in being ready when her husband comes home. They dine at two small tables with a screen between them for Aiko not to show her uncovered face, which would make at least a native Boar woman feel she was eating naked and an adult male only think about sex. After eating for ten minutes in silence Aiko hits her glass to make it ring.

Mutsuto says “Please speak dear wife, if it was not a mistake.” Aiko says “I examined my staff today at the clinic and my assistant examined me. I have a dental cavity which she isn’t qualified to fill. I have to get an appointment with my colleague in Shimoto. When will it be possible for you to accompany me there?” Mutsuto says “In two weeks from now I can probably take a day off to go there. It will require a full day, won’t it?” Aiko says “I will ask for an appointment at noon to be able to have lunch with my colleague and her staff following the appointment. I probably won’t be allowed to have anything just following the treatment, but I’m rarely in a situation to talk shop with an equal colleague. It means we can take a train home at two o’clock, being at the city here sometimes after three. Would that make you go to work?” Mutsuto says “No, I will arrange for something to make at home and on the trip as well. I might not need to take the day off after all. Is there anything to buy in Shimoto which we can’t just as well get here?” Aiko says “No, but we could sail on the Tazawa lake.” Mutsuto says “Won’t that be a problem after your treatment? By the way you haven’t got an aching tooth right now, have you?” Aiko says “No I can walk right after the treatment, and if I knew I would be dizzy I wouldn’t want to talk to my colleague’s right after. And I’m fine right now, thank you for asking. It’s only a minor cavity not near any nerves.” Mutsuto says “Then let’s sail. It’s a long time since we had a romantic afternoon together and the weather looks good for many weeks to come. Can I just choose the day and buy the tickets?” Aiko says “Yes, my colleague will take me just when I want if her clinic is open.” Mutsuto says “I’ll arrange it then. Please cover, I have an appointment with some of my colleagues living around here to meet at a bar at eight. Until bedtime” Aiko quickly covers as the screen only reaches chest level of a person standing. While Mutsuto goes to the bathroom she goes to the front door, brushes his jacket and wipes his shoes. She is waiting head down and holding his jacket when he is ready to leave. Then she goes back to her table and eats a little more. It has been an interesting but tiring day and she is hungry. Some minutes past eleven Mutsuto is home again smelling of booze. They immediately go to bed without a word. Aiko always sleeps in yukata, gloves and balaclava so as not to keep her husband awake on a day he needs to sleep. But tonight he pulls her balaclava off and they have a wonderful end to a wonderful day.

PART TWO – INVITATIONS

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

8.

On the day of Aiko’s dental appointment they have breakfast together separated by the screen. Today they will be together most of the day. While Aiko clears after breakfast Mutsuto stays at the table to work on his laptop unit. He has managed to arrange his work tasks so that today he can do everything on the laptop, and thus doesn’t need to take a day off. After clearing the table Aiko does some house chores needing no machinery so as not to disturb her husband. They have an hour before they have to leave the house. Fifty minutes later Mutsuto stops working saying “Can we leave in five minutes?” Aiko nods. A couple of minutes later she puts on her special traveling cloak. For long distance travels, and sometimes for formal occasions where women are always accompanied by a close male relative their covering is improved. The traveling cloak is like the teenage cloak closed up most of the front and further has a piece of black silk attached to the top edge of the hood able to completely cover the opening. Not even a glimpse up inside the hood is possible and the wearer won’t see the evils of the male world. In a minute Mutsuto comes to her at the front door, zips up her cloak neck closure and flips the silk cover down. Then a leash is connected between the front of her cloak and the back of his belt. Aiko puts a hand forward inside her cloak to sense Mutsuto’s back, then it’s just to move forward whenever she looses contact until touching again.

Normally she would be able to walk to the local station in five minutes, but walking blind it takes nearly ten. Coming onto the platform a train is ready to leave, but Mutsuto takes it easy, the next train will arrive in a minute. He moves with Aiko right between the surface marks for the male and the female doors of a carriage and disconnects his end of the leash. Here he awaits a child or a woman in a normal cloak noticing them. Travel cloaks have a line of embroidered circles along the hem making them identifiable at close range without looking at the hood. A woman seeing this will approach them, and seeing this Mutsuto will guide Aiko to move towards her and go to the male doors himself. When a train stops the woman guides Aiko to a seat. Here she sits just listening for the name of the next stop being the Central Station. On hearing that name she gets up from the seat and then the nearest passenger is expected to guide her out. In less than fifteen minutes Aiko gets up and is guided out in the forward direction where her male chaperone will appear. Mutsuto comes close to her saying his name. Aiko bows clearly and Mutsuto says “Thank you” to let the woman that is guiding her out know that her help is no longer required. Then they are leashed together again and walk to the platform of the intercity train. Because of the unsurpassed regularity of the Vippon transport system, and knowledge of the duration of the walks, they arrive just five minutes ahead of the train departure without feeling late.

Due to the low number of women making intercity travel there are no sections exclusively for females. Each train has a small number of compartments to be used by one family traveling with more females such as teenage daughters, and then the last row in sections with multiple seats are available for one woman and her chaperone. Mutsuto has reserved such a pair of seats. Aiko is seated at the side of the car, where there are no windows at these rows, and then a curtain is drawn around her seat. Mutsuto of course seated next to her at the aisle, reaches inside the curtain and unzips Aiko’s cloak. Now she can do whatever she likes, even pull her balaclava down and eat. But Aiko just relaxes, taking a nap without even flipping her hood cover back. In twenty minutes Mutsuto peeks inside the curtain, pats her shoulder and says “A trolley is coming, do you want some tea?” Aiko gets up from her leant back position and nods expecting Mutsuto to be looking at her. A few minutes later she has lifted her cloak to get a hand out to receive the cup. It is allowed to remove the cloak entirely, but with its neck open, drinking cloaked and hooded is no problem, and one always has to be on the safe side. The tea lasts for the next twenty minutes. Then Aiko puts a hand outside the curtain along the back of the seat to pat Mutsuto. When he peeks at her she gestures that she would like him to zip her cloak up and leans towards the curtain to make it easy for Mutsuto to reach. She can doze for the remaining twenty minutes. They take a taxi to the clinic.

At the door to the clinic Mutsuto flips Aiko’s blinding cover back and says he will be back at one o’clock. Its ten minutes before twelve when Aiko enters the clinic. Of course it’s a different building making the size and the layout of the rooms a little different, but apart from that the clinic is very much like where she practices. As the staff dress identically to the way Aiko does while at work, she has to concentrate to remember that the woman receiving her and unzipping her cloak is not Mrs. Kimura. Considering it’s just before her appointment and that patients in travel cloaks are rare Aiko doesn’t need to take off her cloak immediately as the display just asks ‘Are you Mrs. Sasaki, the dentist from Aigata?’ Aiko nods and is shown to take a seat. Another woman in staff dress then appears to make two behind the counter. The clinic has only one dentist as far as Aiko knows, Mrs. Hasegawa, so one receptionist should be adequate. Exactly at noon one receptionist guides a patient out of the treatment room and takes her to the counter. Shortly after the other comes to Aiko and asks for her cloak to be taken to an open wardrobe. Then she takes Aiko to the treatment room. Again Aiko gets a sort of deja vu. It’s like seeing herself and Mrs. Okada in green gowns and white air hoods. After nodding to each other Mrs. Hasegawa just points at her own cheek, indicating to where Aiko’s cavity is and gestures her to sit down. Less than a minute after entering the treatment room Aiko inhales the laughing gas. She wakes up and looks at the patient display saying
‘Unproblematic cavity filled. No other problems found. Please wash your mouth. Nothing but water for one hour, I’m sorry.’ The clock at the corner of the screen shows twenty minutes past twelve. Aiko washes her mouth, the bib and the hooks holding her balaclava are removed, and she can cover her nose and mouth and put her arms into the medical gown Mrs. Hasegawa is holding for her. Then follows shoe covers, latex gloves, surgical hood and medical mask. When she has made the last tie her colleagues have removed their air hoods and are ready to take her to the staff room properly dressed as a staff member.

On a phone handed her she is introduced to Mrs. Sato, the dental asisstant, Mrs. Nakano, the old receptionist and Mrs. Suzuki, the new receptionist. Aiko writes ‘Thank you for fixing my problem. Please eat, I have to make do with a cup of water my dentist says.’ The assistant gets Aiko a cup of water and a straw and then bottles from the fridge for the others. Mrs. Hasegawa asks ‘How far are you from the recommended biyearly checks? Last quarter we got down to 2.8 years from 3.0 some quarters back, but unfortunately it’s not because we have increased capacity, but because the city isn’t really growing anymore.’ Aiko answers ‘We have moved from 3.0 as well to 2.9 but for the same reason. With so few women getting an education and then a dental one, we can’t increase staff. And, as all women have to do cooking and house chores in the late afternoon we can’t expand opening hours. My only hope is that the teenage girls I check have less problems now than some years ago resulting in fewer cavities and freeing time for more checks.’ Mrs. Hasegawa writes ‘With so few women working outside the home I’m happy Mrs. Suzuki has been allowed to work for us now that Mrs. Nakano has to leave.’

Mrs. Nakano reaches for the phone and writes ‘My husband has been asked to work for his company’s department in Aigata, but his salary won’t increase much. Do you know a job where a woman can work without male contact? I have no other qualifications than working as a receptionist here for three years.’ Aiko looks at Mrs. Nakano nodding continuously while writing ‘Your qualifications are excellent. You can work for me. My current receptionist, Mrs. Kimura, is very traditional and would rather not work outside the home, and she has been offered a position as maid, but has stayed with me knowing the clinic would have to close without a receptionist. I know I can’t be selective, but I’d prefer you work for me because you want to work and not only because it’s a financial necessity.’ Mrs. Nakano answers ‘My husband and I were married because our parents knew each other from Tokuto. We both find women behaving properly and properly dressed can leave the house.’

Mrs. Hasegawa takes the phone and writes first handing it to Mrs. Suzuki, who after reading goes to the fridge ‘I think Mrs. Sasaki’s filling is now able to handle a chocolate smoothie. We have to celebrate. Congratulations to Mrs. Nakano with her new job.’ A few seconds after the phone has been passed all around the table ending at Mrs. Nakano, Mrs. Hasegawa gets up from her chair and bows to Mrs. Nakano. Then the others do as well and finally Mrs. Suzuki puts a full round of bottles on the table.

After they have all been enjoying their smoothie for a couple of minutes Aiko writes ‘I’m sure Mrs. Kimura will be very happy I got this cavity when she is told she doesn’t have to walk in the male world everyday anymore. But what just happened shouldn’t be coincidental. I think we should stay in much closer contact from now on and inform each other each time we have something which the other clinic may have a solution for.’ Mrs. Hasegawa responds ‘I hereby order Mrs. Suzuki to stay in touch with her predecessor. And then I think we should meet in person all of us something like once a year if possible. Knowing that all three at the Sasaki clinic are soon of non-Boar origin it might be easier for you to persuade your husbands to visit us. If we aim at a Saturday after the summer heat has gone then there’s plenty of time to find a day and make other arrangements.’ Mrs. Nakano writes ‘I’m happy it’s not goodbye forever, when I stop in two weeks.’

When the phone passes Aiko she sees the time is five to one and takes it after the round to write ‘My husband will be here at one, and you have patients. I’m nearly happy I had this cavity. But I have to pay and say goodbye.’ Aiko gets up, making them all get up and a lot of bows are exchanged. Then Aiko is handed the phone from Mrs. Hasegawa to read ‘In the Hasegawa – Sasaki clinic cooperation we treat each other for free.’ With a deep bow Aiko hands the phone back to Mrs. Hasegawa and then bows once more to the other three as well. Then Mrs. Hasegawa, Mrs. Sato and Aiko walk to the treatment room where Aiko removes her medical clothing and the other two put on air hoods. Then Aiko is just a patient again when Mrs. Nakano, she guesses it is, comes to take her out. But the next patient has to wait a little longer, because at the wardrobe the other receptionist is waiting with her cloak. Aiko gets dressed and then one of the receptionists holds the door open to her. Seeing Mutsuto through the doorway she bows and then turns to nod to the two receptionists, resulting in her hood cover being flipped down.

9.

After walking for a minute Mutsuto says “It’s only a few minutes walk to a local station. Inside the train you get out at the Tazawa Station, which is a seven minutes ride.” Aiko nods. A few minutes later she is handed over to an unseen, unknown woman and guided to sit in the train. She gets up seven minutes later and is guided out to hear Mutsuto. A minute’s walk from the station the sounds tell her they are not in the center of the city anymore. The air feels much fresher, she even thinks she can smell the lake. They walk downwards for some minutes. Then Mutsuto says he wants to rent a boat. Aiko senses she is on a boardwalk just before Mutsuto says “Careful, we’re on a narrow pier, you’re not leashed and now I’ll go down some steep steps and into the boat. The last step is very high and you end inside the rocking boat.” But to Aiko it’s just a staircase leading down to Mutsuto’s body and soon she is seated in a calmly rocking seat on a thin cushion. A small engine starts and Aiko feels the boat jump slightly on the surface and the breeze pressing her face cover inwards. Then Mutsuto says “Now we take a break from traveling. I’ll pin your face cover to the hood so you are able to see like all the other women out here. It seems permissible and justified to have the head lifted unless another boat is close by.”

Aiko takes a look around. Although the weather is nice there are not many boats on the lake, probably because it’s an ordinary workday afternoon. Along the shore are several small piers with lots of boats waiting for the weekend. Within some hundred meters radius are three or four boats like their own, one with another couple and the others with two men. It may be a popular way of talking business, getting a good deal by inviting the customer for a nice ride. But it’s a couple of slightly larger boats that catch Aiko’s interest. Behind two seats facing forward they contain four or six seats facing the sides in two rows back to back. In both boats the forward facing front seats are occupied by men and then the other seats contain women and mostly older teenagers of both sexes. Aiko and Mutsuto sit as close as the seats permit, and by moving her head Aiko shows Mutsuto that she finds the large boat slowly passing them fifty meters away on her side interesting.

Mutsuto says “While waiting for you I was having lunch at a small restaurant, and when telling the man sharing the table with me that I was to sail on the Tazawa Lake, he said he would do it on a workday like this as well if possible to be able to enjoy the tranquility of the lake and its surroundings. Because on weekends it is packed with families as one of the most popular ways to enjoy a day off. And families having teenagers to be married make agreements to share a boat and sail to the island to have a snack or light meal while the men discuss if their families should be linked by marriage. He told me a lot about this because he first met his own wife like that and over summer he would have to sail again to find a wife for his own son. The teenagers often ask for such a trip, because in the boats they will often sit back to back with their possible future spouse only separated by the two seat backs. And with their mothers seated right next to them the boy is often allowed to say something directed to the girl. A poem, his own vision of how beautiful he think she is, or if his own looks are not to his advantage describing his virtues. Of course the women don’t lift their heads to look at the men of the opposite family, but with liberal families and the families back to back, the females are often allowed lo lift their heads enough to enjoy the view of the lake when away from other boats like you do now. After your dental procedure are you allowed to have something now?” Aiko nods making Mutsuto continue “Good, because I wouldn’t stop at the island for a refreshment if you couldn’t have anything.”

They sail towards one of the many piers along the shore of the small flat island, which seen from the lake seem to be one large wood with trees growing right out to the water. Boys, not having much to do this afternoon, receive them at the pier to watch the boat and receive a small fee for using the pier. Aiko keeps her hood opening uncovered, keeping her face down as they get up on the pier and walk up on the island in the shadow of trees. They only have to walk the short distance of a few hundred meters to reach the center of the island, a small square completely surrounded by stands selling snacks and beverages. Like the lake, the square is nearly empty, and they can get anything they want without having to wait. Mutsuto says “Take a quick glance around and walk to the stand where they have what you want.” Aiko, wanting something sweet to satisfy her hunger goes to a poster listing milkshakes, and, through her cloak points at chocolate flavor. Mutsuto buys one and a strawberry milkshake for himself.

Then he takes Aiko back towards the boat and turns down one of many side paths leading in between the trees. After a two minutes walk they reach a bench overlooking the lake. They can hear other people not far away, but nobody can see them except if they come up the path from behind, where people will turn when seeing the bench is occupied. Aiko can sit head high and enjoy the view. Mutsuto unzips her cloak to let her hold her own milkshake inside the cloak opening. After both have been drinking for a couple of minutes Mutsuto says “Put your drink in your lap for a few minutes. It’s so quiet here this afternoon I’ll try something the man at the restaurant told me takes place here around sunset. Newly married couples hire a boat like ours to come here and sit on a bench like this in the low light where they are very private and then they turn towards each other, him burying his face in the opening of her hood, and her, when covered by her husband, pulling her balaclava down to let their lips meet.” While saying this Mutsuto has slowly moved his head close to Aiko and is saying the last line practically inside her hood. Aiko pulls her balaclava down and leans a little to let their lips meet. This is something very special as Aiko has never uncovered her mouth out in the open since coming to Boar. And of course her mouth is not uncovered but rather sealed to Mutsuto’s lips and completely hidden by his head, but it is special.

As Mutsuto pulls away Aiko at once covers her face with the balaclava again and Mutsuto says “When we arrive home I think I’ll find a tiny drill to make a new cavity in a tooth of yours so that we can come back here very soon.” Aiko nods several times and puts her head to Mutsuto’s cheek for a minute before drinking again. They sit for another ten minutes enjoying the afternoon sun, which is just warm without being hot. Then Mutsuto reaches to take Aiko’s now empty cup and then says “We’d better slowly start on our way home.” Aiko faces him directly and nods while leaning forward. Just before their faces meet she pulls down her balaclava and they kiss a second time. Walking back Mutsuto suddenly stops and lifts Aiko’s head turning it to force her look in between the trees. Not even twenty meters away is a bench where a young man is holding a white cloak very tight and with his face buried inside her hood as they were doing moments ago. Sitting just behind them on the bench as well are two black cloaked women bowed forward hood openings down in their lap. Mutsuto and Aiko look at this unprecedented scene for more than a minute. Then Mutsuto moves on, Aiko bows her head and they walk to the boat.

Slowly sailing towards the shore Mutsuto says “I hardly believed it when the man told me about what we’ve just seen. This has to be two families having agreed on a marriage probably to take place as soon as the stars are right. Then the coming couple is actually allowed to touch and in a way kiss. But of course she is kigurumi masked and further to prevent her from seeing a man, whom she isn’t related to yet, her head inside the hood is covered in an opaque silk sheet like on your hood. I’ve never heard of so close contact between teenagers in Aigata, but apparently all of Boar isn’t alike.” Aiko has been listening with her head resting on Mutsuto’s shoulder, wishing they could return to the island again tomorrow. As the pier is a couple of minutes away Mutsuto without moving much to keep Aiko’s head on his shoulder removes the pins that holds her face cover. A small wind shear makes the face cover fall down and Aiko has the lake with the pier quite close as her last visual impression before being home about two hours later. In the intercity train she turns away when Mutsuto reaches inside her curtained seat to unzip her hood. She likes to stay with her memories of the lake for as long as possible. Instead she lifts her cloak until able to get an arm out. Blindly she reaches along the seat back until able to pat Mutsuto. Waving her hand he understands and grabs it. For the one hour ride they hold hands on her side of the curtain. If Mutsuto is able to work on his computer using one hand or he just recalls the afternoon in his mind as well Aiko doesn’t care, but their hands stay in a tender grip until Aigata Central is announced.

During dinner for the first time since moving to Boar Aiko feels that if they weren’t separated by a screen they would be kissing passionately and perhaps going further without caring about the meal. Aiko is very close to ripping the screen down, but they stay in control until drinking evening tea. Aiko is drinking veiled with a straw, but directly staring at Mutsuto’s lips reminds her of the bench at the lake. She puts her cup aside, waits for Mutsuto to put his cup down and then removes it as well. Then she pulls her balaclava down and embraces Mutsuto tightly. Closely entangled they walk to the bedroom.

10.

Four months later, a few minutes past three o’clock, Mrs. Nakano and Aiko start their walk from the clinic together, which they have done since Mrs. Nakano and her husband took over the house of Mrs. Kimura, an arrangement suiting both, because it got Mrs. Nakano and her husband a place to stay in Aigata and relieved Aiko from finding a new solution for being accompanied to work. But they are not walking directly to their homes. Today they are invited for tea at Lady Ikeda’s. Immediately after sounding the doorbell the door is opened. The woman who opens it must have been waiting for them. Aiko sees the bottom of a simple kimono in mustard yellow now holding the door to them. Lifting her head a little Aiko sees the woman is lifting her black gloved hands to unleash them and take their cloaks. As the hood is lifted and the cloak removed Aiko is surprised. The head of the woman receiving them is masked with a wooden ko-omote face and the top and back of the head are covered by a black wig. Only the neck shows the usual black fabric indicating she might be wearing the usual balaclava beneath. The mask shows the expression of a happy submissive young woman, the perfect housewife or maid. It takes the maid many small steps to reach the wardrobe, but she walks a little faster than Aiko remembers Lady Ikeda doing. After they have removed their geta, which the maid bows down to put in the wardrobe, they follow her on the slow walk to the large living room where Aiko was at her first visit as well. Nothing has changed, not even Lady Ikeda seems to have moved. Knowing Aiko has been here before Mrs. Nakano looks at Aiko to let her show how the situation is handled. Lady Ikeda still wears an elegant entirely black kimono and a black silk sheet covering her head, is clearly blinded and possibly unable to detect their presence. But Aiko bows deeply anyway with Mrs. Nakano copying. Meanwhile the maid touches the phone hanging above the table. Then with a gesture to sit on the cushions the maid leaves. Mrs. Nakano stares at the black kimono deeply impressed and Aiko looks without being able to discern if it’s the same as at her last visit. After half a minute the phone flashes and Aiko grabs it for them both to read ‘It is a pleasure for me Lady Ikeda once more to have the female dentist of our city and my daughter’s idol, Mrs. Sasaki, and her new receptionist, Mrs. Nakano, visiting. Tea will be served shortly. We are forever grateful for what the Sasaki clinic has meant to our daughter and I’m glad to meet the new receptionist, whom coming has been important to us as well.’ Aiko answers ‘I Mrs. Sasaki, wearing red, is of course only invited here because I always accompany Mrs. Nakano, who I understand you wish to thank for taking the job as my receptionist allowing you to have a maid. But may I ask how the young Miss Ikeda is doing? I hope she is doing well in other subjects than odontology.’ Lady Ikeda writes ‘Yes, she gets the high marks we expect of her. Of course Mrs. Nakano taking over the receptionist position has reduced the amount of tedious house chores for my daughter but she still does lots of kitchen work and cleaning to make sure she will be a good wife. This is after all more important than many school subjects and her interest in teeth. She is doing homework right now, but I think it will be okay if she takes a short break to meet you. We’ll go and see her after the first cup of tea.’

As they read this the masked maid arrives with the tea. Like at Aiko’s previous visit, after pouring lastly for Lady Ikeda, the maid lifts the Lady’s head cover more than needed to enter a straw in her mouth. Aiko is facing her directly and smiling under her balaclava, Lady Ikeda getting a glimpse of her feels like being flashed by a camera. For some minutes the phone is dead to let them enjoy the tea, which is of course of finest quality and perfectly made.

When the phone is flashing again Lady Ikeda has written ‘Has Mrs. Nakano gotten used to living in a new city and in a new house?’ Mrs. Nakano directly takes the phone to write ‘Aigata is a nice city, but I miss the Tazawa Lake, but our new house is wonderful. I’m afraid I won’t be able to maintain it in the excellent condition it was left by Mrs. Kimura. I’m glad I now have the opportunity to thank her for her many years of maintaining the house.’ While waiting for Lady Ikeda’s answer Aiko and Mrs. Nakano look at the maid, Mrs. Kimura, and Mrs. Nakano even makes a bow towards her. But the maid doesn’t react or doesn’t see the action. She stands mostly looking down, unmoving at the end of the table, just once a minute she quickly scans the cups to see if a refill is needed. Lady Ikeda writes ‘I think the virtues of living in Aigata are more subtle. You’ll become fonder of living here with the years. But it doesn’t have the wonderful nature surrounding Shimoto, like Lake Tazawa. The maid is excluded from our current communication and will only service guests. Mrs. Kimura is only a name of the past and the maid is not told the names of invited guests. Let’s go and see my daughter.’

Just as they have finished reading, Lady Ikeda elegantly gets up from her kneeling position hands locked inside her connected sleeves. Very slowly she wriggles along the walls and as she passes Aiko and Mrs. Nakano they get up and take a few steps now and then to follow her. The slow movements of Lady Ikeda give them time to enjoy the precious wooden panels at close range and study the many wonderful ink drawings filling the panels. After close to two minutes they are in a small corridor with three closed doors. Lady Ikeda has been moving along its left side and when she senses the door here she slides it open.

Aiko and Mrs. Nakano look into a small chamber, four by three meters. To the left is a low podium for sleeping, to the right in the corners are closets and in between a low writing desk. On a cushion in front of the desk facing it and her side to the door Miss Ikeda is kneeling. She is working with a phone in her lap and only her gloved fingers are moving. The subtle sounds of the door sliding, and the rustling of three kimono brings no reaction from the kneeling figure. Aiko watches the concentrating young woman, who dressed as a kigurumi schoolgirl doll looks like she would stop to play any second. After looking for about half a minute suddenly her phone flashes and after a few seconds of surprise by being interrupted Miss Ikeda turns her head towards the door, sees them and jumps up to bow to the visiting women and even her blind mother.

After a short glance at the phone Miss Ikeda hands it to Aiko and with Mrs. Nakano at her side they read ‘My guests would like to ask you a few questions.’ Aiko writes ‘Have your cooking skills improved since getting a maid dedicated to housework?’ Aiko hands the phone to Miss Ikeda, who has been standing hands folded on her chest and face down while Aiko had the phone. Her pose is almost unchanged while she writes an answer and hands the phone back to Aiko. ‘I think so honored ladies. It’s a major subject in school, but our maid is better than my teachers and willingly shares her knowledge with me.’ Aiko asks ‘Are you looking forward to the coming-of-age ceremony and becoming an adult woman?’ Miss Ikeda answers ‘Of course it’s sad to leave your parents, but I’m looking forward to having a husband to share my life with and moving to Tokuto to experience a quite different lifestyle.’ Aiko writes ‘Tokuto is different yes, but if you spend a lot of time going to dental school your life won’t change that much from now. Have you been admitted to the dental school?’

Reading this makes Miss Ikeda lift her head and stare at the two guests for some seconds before lowering her head and quickly write ‘My father has promised me once, but has never told me if my future husband has admitted me. At the only contact with the family of my future husband so far I was just allowed to follow a conversation between my mother and my future mother-in-law, where my further education wasn’t discussed. It’s a pleasure meeting you Mrs. Sasaki. I still remember my day at your clinic as one of my best ever.’

Aiko realizes that Miss Ikeda has been unaware of who her guests are, and that by asking about dental school Aiko has revealed herself making her write ‘It’s a pleasure meeting you again Miss Ikeda. I’m in red. My companion is our new receptionist Mrs. Nakano. Remember serving your husband will take precedence over anything else you do. He might wait admitting you to school until he’s sure you can fulfill your duties as housewife and still have energy left for studying. But if you start studying you’re always welcome at our clinic to get a little out-of-school experience and asking questions without having to fear you get bad marks. Have you done a little reading on dental subjects since visiting the clinic?’ Miss Ikeda answers ‘Mother finds I should go over my homework once more or do some more needlework when I’ve done what I’ve been ordered to do. But I do read a little now and then. To me it’s more interesting than poems or old legends.’

Halfway through their reading Lady Ikeda, who has been standing just inside the room probably able to read the entire conversation, turns and starts moving away. They all understand it means the conversation is over and Aiko hands the phone to Miss Ikeda with a small goodbye bow. Mrs. Nakano makes a similar bow, and then Miss Ikeda makes a deep bow to Mrs. Nakano appropriate to greet a guest and someone a generation older. Finally Miss Ikeda makes the same bow to Aiko but just after straightening she takes a step forward to gently let her small kigurumi mouth touch on both of Aiko’s black covered cheeks. Mrs. Nakano is shocked at seeing the nice schoolgirl of a noble family making such intimate contact, which many mothers won’t even allow their own daughters to do to them. But Aiko is deeply touched by this daring sign of affection. She turns gesturing Mrs. Nakano to walk through the door first, and when Mrs. Nakano is facing out of the room she lets her hand caress Miss Ikeda’s masked cheek and nods to let her know she likes her as well.

The maid, head down, is waiting at the table. When they have all knelt on the cushions she pours the cups and returns to her waiting position. They drink for a minute before the phone flashes indicating Lady Ikeda finds it’s time to continue the conversation. She has written ‘It is entirely up to my daughter’s future husband if she will go to dental school. I’m sure my husband has chosen a husband for my daughter approving of female education, and I have told my daughter’s future mother-in-law I find my daughter is capable of both taking care of her husband, a home and taking an education. But my daughter will have to marry him and stay in the marriage even if he changes his mind or doesn’t see her fit. As a mother I’m of course a little sad my little girl has to go as far away as Tokuto, but if she doesn’t marry someone to live there her chances of education are none. With her becoming an adult woman, you and her become equals. Would you like to establish a regular contact and become friends visiting each other when possible?’

Aiko writes ‘I’m very pleased that both your husband and yourself are supporting the education of your daughter as far as possible. Already after my first visit here I felt a sort of friendship, perhaps not a close one, between you Lady Ikeda and myself. This is of course based on that we both want to see your daughter have her dreams come true. When she becomes an adult woman I hope she will ask me for advice not only on educational matters but like a trusted aunt. If she wishes I will certainly stay in contact with her. Besides telling each other about our personal lives we can exchange news about our cities. I lived in Tokuto until moving here and would like to be informed about what happens there, and she might like to stay informed about what’s going on here.’

Lady Ikeda writes ‘I’m happy to learn that you like to strengthen our relationship and like to become a friend of my daughter when she’s no longer a girl. Because the real reason I invited you here today is to tell you that I’d like to see you, I mean the entire staff of your clinic, for the coming-of-age ceremony of my daughter. You probably know that the Coming-of-Age Day is the first Monday of August. We’ll reserve seats for the three of you and your husbands at the Town Hall and then there’ll be a female party at my daughter’s school following.’ Aiko and Mrs. Nakano are happily surprised that Lady Ikeda, Aiko suspects Miss Ikeda might have influenced her mother, regards them as close enough and of sufficient class to be invited to Miss Ikeda’s coming-of-age ceremony. Instinctively without thinking about Lady Ikeda is blind they both make a deep bow to give a visual answer before the written.

‘On behalf of the entire staff of the Sasaki clinic and their husbands I say we are extremely honored to receive this invitation. I’m not sure any of us have clothing suitable for such a party with a noble family. But if you will give us advice we’ll rent the necessary kimonos. Of course our husbands have to decide, but I can’t think of anyone declining.’ Aiko while typing has turned to look at Mrs. Nakano to see if she approves of her answer and she has just nodded continuously. If her husband has ever regretted he accepted her working, it is over now that her work has got him an invitation to a party with a noble family from Dragon.

Lady Ikeda answers ‘The coming-of-age party is not arranged by our family, we have only made a contribution. The female party is for all having a daughter coming of age at the school and no special formal dressing is required. Here in Boar, class differences have been diminished, but at my daughter’s wedding, taking place the following Saturday to enable her to move to Tokuto as soon as possible, a more formal dress-code is required because it takes place at the family estate in Dragon. I would like to see you all there as well, but don’t worry about the clothing. There will be appropriate clothing for both men and women available along with dressers to help the women with the intricate kimonos.’ Aiko and Mrs. Nakano look at each other to confirm they have read the same message and are not dreaming. Aiko lets the phone go to swing in it’s spiral cord while she and Mrs. Nakano get up to make a bow of deep gratitude to the blinded Lady Ikeda.

Down on their knees again Aiko grabs the phone and writes ‘I’m highly surprised a simple female dentist and her staff are found worthy in participating in the wedding in a noble family. I’m not sure we can live up to what is required at such an occasion, but if small deviations from the correct etiquette are tolerable, we will accept.’ Lady Ikeda replies ‘Considering that you and your staff have contributed in selecting the career of my daughter I think you are much more important than many of the other specially invited guests. Then it is not a wedding between noble families. The groom is only a successful businessman from a rich Tokuto family and regrettably not a noble from Dragon. Finally it’s not a small family gathering where all the nobles meet. The entire village of our estate is participating and hundreds of other guests are invited. But what I’ve just said is not a formal invitation to any of the events. This is only to prepare you that your husbands will receive a formal invitation from my husband within two weeks, and as you know now these invitations are correctly addressed. I’m looking forward to meeting you on the Coming-of-Age Day. Goodbye.’

Aiko knows this means they are expected to get up and leave at once, but she keeps typing ‘The only thing my clinic can offer in return are dental services. You, your daughter or your maid are welcome at our clinic at any time you like for a free dental check and if necessary treatment. The offer is open for as long as any of us work at the clinic. But if it is not an offer you’ll use right away then we’ll meet at the Coming-of-Age Day. Until then.’ Lady Ikeda answers ‘As long as my teeth don’t ache unbearably the conduct of a Dragon Lady makes it impossible. I have never shown my face to anyone outside close family. And my daughter and maid have just been checked, you know when. But it’s a most generous offer which we of course will use when necessary. Now please accept my goodbye.’

Aiko and Mrs. Nakano get up and make a deep bow to Lady Ikeda. Although it is wasted on her it signals the maid they are leaving and she starts mincing towards the lobby. Aiko would like to exchange just a few gestures with the maid informing her who has been visiting and perhaps get an indication that Mrs. Kimura is happy with her new life. But she knows Lady Ikeda doesn’t like visitors fraternizing with the maid, and Mrs. Kimura would feel uncomfortable having to step out of her maid role. Aiko has to rely on that the smiling mask of the maid truly reflects how she feels. Aiko and Mrs. Nakano get dressed and only exchange the small bows with the maid as is customary. Then their hoods are pulled up, they are leashed and they walk out. The maid is forgotten, they both think about the invitations.

PART THREE – CELEBRATIONS

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11.

Aiko is dressed in her best kimono and wearing a cloak with silk face cover for participating in Miss Ikeda’s coming-of-age ceremony. As on the day they traveled to Shimoto, Mutsuto leads his blinded wife to the station to take the local train to the city center. Today they then walk for five minutes to reach the Town Hall. Mutsuto gives his name and a man tells him where to sit. Mutsuto whispers as they walk up the hall “We are in the second row, just behind the Ikeda’s and very close to the microphone with all the young men and women just behind. Are you sure I shouldn’t have rented a better kimono?” Aiko nods but she isn’t sure. Then she senses she is unleashed and she is guided to move sideways to reach her seat. Men have chairs and women a cushion to kneel on. As soon as she is positioned Mutsuto starts introducing himself to the men around them. Aiko hears the names of her colleagues and after a couple of minutes Lord Ikeda greets Mutsuko like he is a new colleague he is looking forward to be drinking with later on. Although her hood opening covers her face, Aiko is looking down, which is the proper posture for a woman among men. To her right is Mutsuko and to her left a woman, as couples when seated amongst mixed sexes, always sit with the couples on either side having the one of the same sex right next to them. From hearing the greetings the woman next to Aiko could be Mrs. Okada.

A quarter of an hour after they have arrived the noise made by the male voices quietens, the official speeches are to begin. A male headmaster, a CEO from one of the big companies and other dignities speak for the next hour. Aiko marvels at listening to such important men. Although half the young people coming- of-age today are female, the speeches are only about how important the young men are to society and the great responsibility they now get for building a family and contributing to the ongoing development of society. Such subjects are rarely brought up among women, and recalling her own coming-of-age ceremony many years ago she remembers she was too worried that her kimono wasn’t tight enough to listen to the speeches. With the huge responsibility put on men Aiko is happy being a woman. The list of speakers ends with the most important, the Mayor. After telling about how the City Council will do everything possible to help them find jobs or education and establishing new families and homes, he reminds the young men that now they are voters. He ends the hour of speeches by saying “Not everything after coming-of-age is heavy responsibility. Today you all mainly think of the rights acquired I’m sure, the right to smoke, the right to drink, the right to drive and the right to enjoy adult entertainment. Today the city is especially focused on letting you enjoy those new rights. All entertainments are open to welcome a new group of young men, their male relatives and male guests. And being a national holiday you’ll meet the rest of the adult men as well. But remember if you want to try as much as possible today then drink much less than you feel like. I wish everybody present here, especially the young men and women behind me, a most enjoyable day” The sound of thousands of male hands clapping can be heard for half a minute. Around Aiko it continues a little more, but it is quickly replaced by the sound of people moving.

Mutsuto whispers to Aiko “Most people are leaving as each school will have the individual part of the ceremony in adjoining halls. But just make yourself comfortable where you are. The girl’s school of Miss Ikeda have, through an official draw, won the right to stay here in the main hall and have their personal coming-of-age announced by the Mayor and because it’s girls, with the help of his wife.” Soon less than hundred girls are left on the podium and only the first rows of the hall are occupied. The Mayor speaks again “This year I have the honor to announce the young women coming-of-age from the South Aigata Girls School. We all know the distribution of City Council members and locations for this ceremony have been selected by a draw, but I have to say the South Aigata Girls School have achieved some remarkable results during the past year, and if I could choose myself which school to announce at this ceremony the South Aigata Girls School would certainly have been among those first coming to mind. I see my wife and the first young woman is ready. And the first woman is … the daughter of Matsumuto Amuro.” And so it goes on with a new name about every half a minute. It’s a long way to ‘I’ and Aiko recalls her own waiting years ago. Although her mother at home had rehearsed over and over again, walking in the special kimono for the ceremony and with a neighbor taking the part of the dignity performing the procedure, Aiko was extremely nervous, hoping not to make any errors, or afraid that her kimono wasn’t perfect in front of her parents and all these people. Except for their wedding day this is one of very few moments where a female is the center of attention for men as well. Aiko wonders if Miss Ikeda’s future husband is present now. She hasn’t noticed Mutsuto being introduced to anyone referring to this.

After something like half an hour Mutsuto pats her shoulder, makes her lift her head and then flips her face cover back. Aiko has seconds to take in the entire scene before Miss Ikeda becomes the center of attention. As Mutsuto had told her there is just one row of people between them and the podium five meters ahead. Kneeling and hooded she has to tilt her head and body as back as much as possible to look up on the podium. To the front left is the Mayor in a grey and navy blue kimono. Behind him, facing away, the young women announced so far are lined up in black adult cloaks. A black cloak is just joining them coming from the center. At the front right a woman in a richly flower-decorated kimono, the wife of the Mayor, is waiting hands folded and head down side to the audience. Behind her, likewise heads down and side to the audience, in white cloaks are the young women waiting to be announced. Then the Mayor looks up from a list to announce “The daughter of Lord Ikeda of Tora in Dragon.” The first young woman among the white cloaks to the right moves towards the center front and stops a meter from the front edge of the podium still side to the audience, to make a 90 degrees bow to the Mayor, who nods in return. Then she turns to face the hall and bows likewise again. Finally she turns the other side to the audience to face and bow a little less to the wife of the Mayor, who has meanwhile moved towards the center to be at just the right distance for greeting. The Mayor’s wife bows as appropriate and then steps a little closer to Miss Ikeda. She lifts her arms, hands still folded until touching Miss Ikeda, to unzip her cloak. Then she grabs at the cloak at both shoulders and steps back a little, which, because Miss Ikeda stands head bowed, pulls the cloak off her. One of the most wonderful kimono’s Aiko has ever seen appears. The main color is red with gold edging and gold floral embroidery. The hands, folded on the chest are completely hidden inside the long sleeves which drop to the ankles. A purple obi and underkimono completes and contrasts the red top. Above the kimono Miss Ikeda is showing the standard adult black balaclava, and because her eyes are now uncovered her head is even more bowed facing her own chest and turned a little sideways away from the many men of the audience. While Aiko is admiring the kimono a line of three maidens, just below the age for becoming women and wearing kigurumi, have come from the back of the podium. They are identically dressed in simple plain red kimonos with white tops. The first takes the white cloak the wife of the Mayor has hanging over her arms and returns to the back of the podium. The second hands the Mayors wife the official present, a small package wrapped in fine paper and ribbon before also returning to the back of the podium. Then with a small bow the wife of the Mayor hands the present to Miss Ikeda by reaching forward practically placing the package in her folded hands, which she doesn’t need to move. Getting the present Miss Ikeda, without lifting her head, makes a bow as thank you. Finally the wife of the Mayor turns to the third girl, who holds an adult black cloak up ready to be put on Miss Ikeda, takes the cloak and puts it around Miss Ikeda’s shoulders. Then the wife of the Mayor closes the hooks at the neck and the waist and pulls the hood over Miss Ikeda’s head to define the precise moment she becomes an adult woman. Miss Ikeda slowly walks to the left back of the podium to join the lineup of black cloaks having passed the ceremony, while the wife of the Mayor takes some steps backwards to be ready for the next young woman. Aiko just gets a glimpse of male hands reaching for the hoods of the black cloaks on the row in front of her before her own silk cover is touched and drops down.

The reason she is here has taken thirty seconds, and Aiko has plenty of time to find a comfortable position with her head down again as it takes another half an hour for the remaining girls to be announced. Aiko hasn’t noticed any breaks or inconsistencies in the announcements, either before or after Miss Ikeda, but close to the end, where the entire session has been ordered according to family name, that order is broken. The session ends with four random names. Aiko feels sorry for the young women and their families because it’s without doubt someone who has tied their kimono too tight and in combination with the anxiety and tensions of the ceremony has fainted on the podium. But those announced last were at least put on their feet again and got their ceremony, hopefully none have missed it. As it is the first day any of them wear an adult kimono for real, everybody understands that they are unable to tell those helping with the dressing when the kimono is tied too tight making them short of breath. Most prefer a tight slim look rather than too loose risking the kimono coming open or falling apart. After the last young woman the Mayor instead of a new name says “Now the official part of this year’s coming-of-age ceremony is over. I wish all the new adult women here and their families and guests an enjoyable day.” The few hundred men now clapping do not seem to make noise in the large hall. Aiko then hears the voice of Lord Ikeda saying in a raised voice “Although most of us will stay together accompanying the women to the school, I would like to say to the male members and guests of my family that in case we get separated my tour of partying and entertainment will begin outside the school’s main gate at one o’clock. Those missing that will have to spend the day on their own searching for our company, and they may miss what I’ve been promised will be the most spectacular geisha performance in Aigata for years.” Because of the many people coming from ceremonies in different parts of the Town Hall it takes much longer getting back to the train station. When finally back at the station and on the platform Mutsuto says “Remember from here it’s the station before our own to get to the school.” Aiko nods and immediately unknown hands guide her away from Mutsuto. They arrive at the school after a short walk from the station. Of course Aiko doesn’t know they are there until Mutsuto says “It was a wonderful ceremony, and I’m sure Miss Ikeda’s kimono would not be out of place at the unique geisha performance Lord Ikeda has promised us. But we’re at the school where you’ll spend your day. I hope you women have a party just as enjoyable as a good geisha performance. It will probably be close to midnight before I’m back here, but on this day I think the school will stay open all night if necessary. There’s a female guard just inside the gate, so when I give you a little push just walk until received inside.”

12.

The gate keeper is a teacher Aiko sees as her cloak is unzipped and her hood put down. A number of other women have just entered the school like her. Among them might very well be Mrs. Okada or Mrs. Nakano but Aiko only knows most of their everyday kimonos. The teacher receiving them has pointed to a door with the sign ‘Coming-of-Age Party’ and they all walk inside to find some schoolgirls attending a wardrobe. A schoolgirl takes her cloak and geta and then Aiko takes a look in the mirror. It is not customary to use anything to enhance the eyes, which of course should be as unobtrusive as possible. With the balaclava neither is there any hair to brush, she only needs to check that the kimono is right and tight and her gloves wrinkle free. It’s a large hall, probably large enough to hold the entire school. With today’s attendance being about one third of that it’s not crowded. But Aiko only knows two people among the hundreds of women who all look alike. She saw Miss Ikeda’s kimono at the Town Hall, and she guesses Lady Ikeda is in black with gold decoration and most likely has her head covered in black silk. They are easily found. Half the hall is filled with low tables where the women are kneeling on cushions making it easy to someone overlook when standing. Next to her a woman in a neat burgundy kimono has come from the wardrobe as well and now walks towards the same table close to the right wall.

There are four women at the table besides Lady and Miss Ikeda. At the same time Aiko and the woman in burgundy kneel and bow, first to Lady Ikeda then to Miss Ikeda, then, with a less formal bow, to the other four women and finally Aiko and the woman in the burgundy kimono bow to each other. On the table is a sake bottle, a cup in front of each woman, a number of unused cups, a glass with straws and a phone. Lady Ikeda, as when Aiko has seen her, has her hands enclosed in her sleeves and her head covered in opaque silk, making it Miss Ikeda who for now controls the table, a big change for her after many years as a passive obeying maid besides being a schoolgirl. Miss Ikeda hands the phone to Aiko who reads a number of lines of which the first says ‘Miss Ikeda, red gold purple.’ This is followed by ‘Lady Ikeda, black gold.’ After three names unknown to Aiko she reads ‘Mrs. Nakano, salmon and flowers.’‘Mrs. Sasaki, blue white.’ Then she hands it on to the burgundy woman and has to wait until it has been all way round the table before being able to read ‘Mrs. Okada, burgundy.’ Miss Ikeda places cups and straws in front of Aiko and Mrs. Okada and fills or refills all the cups. Then she lifts her cup towards Aiko and Mrs. Okado, swings it all way round to greet everyone, holds it to her own chest puts a straw into her mouth and sucks the cup empty before putting it down. Aiko has hardly tasted the sake and only takes a few sips like all the other women. Women only drink sake at special occasions, and their body not used to it, they easily get drunk. The phone flashes, Miss Ikeda after ten seconds reading hands it on to the woman next to her, who is more sensible and holds it for the woman on her other side for them to read at the same time. Quickly the phone passes on to every second woman and Aiko reads ‘Lady Ikeda wishes to thank the family and friends present for sharing the first hours of my daughter’s life as an adult women with us. This is not to be a formal occasion where only one takes the word at a time. Please take your own phones and speak to each other.

Aiko takes her phone from her handbag and holds it in front of the woman next to her who nods. Seeing the woman is wearing a balaclava with two separate eye holes makes her write ‘I’m Mrs. Sasaki, the female dentist of Aigata. I lived in Tokuto until after my graduation. Your balaclava suggests you come from there as well.’ A little later Aiko gets her phone back to read ‘I’m Mrs. Kawakami, mother of Miss Ikeda’s fiancé. We live in the Hanko district of Tokuto. I’m very pleased to meet the woman who means nearly as much as her mother to Miss Ikeda.’ Aiko answers ‘Everybody dreams of a house in the Hanko district. I lived in the Kiwara district, lower middle-class, but it is close to the dental school. I have to ask you directly, Will Miss Ikeda be permitted to study?’ Mrs. Kawakami writes ‘I’m only a woman and had to obey my son since his manhood at thirteen. Such matters he only discusses with his father, but my husband is in favor of letting women capable of excellent housekeeping continue their education. But I’m hungry. Being from Aigata perhaps you wouldn’t mind having lunch with me uncovered?’ Aiko is in doubt. Although used to seeing dozens of mouths professionally each day, she is not sure whether she would like to see an uncovered female when not absolutely necessary. But she is hungry as well and Mrs. Kawakami is the wife of a man heading thousands of workers, and soon to be the mother-in-law of Miss Ikeda. She makes a polite nod, puts her phone away and gets up from the cushion along with Mrs. Kawakami.

Aiko has noticed there is a desk serving food opposite the wardrobe, but getting there will take a couple of minutes as Mrs. Kawakami walks nearly as slow as Lady Ikeda with steps as if the knees are bound, a sign that she is a rich woman not working much or walking for shopping. They line up for donburi with fish, and while waiting Aiko sees Mrs. Okada just having got a bowl and gestures her to wait a minute. Some classrooms have been cleared to be used for eating, with low tables with screens in between. Mrs. Kawakami addresses one of the schoolgirls finding free seats. While the girl holds her bowl Mrs. Kawakami takes her phone to tell her what she wants. The girl makes a bow and takes them to an unused room where she moves the screens away from the tables. Then she finds a piece of paper, writes ‘Occupied’, puts it on the outside of the door and leaves with a bow closing the door.

Although expected, at least by Aiko, both Mrs. Okada and herself are a little shocked when Mrs. Kawakami pulls her balaclava off and speaks saying “Welcome to our little corner of Aigata, where faces are shown and voices heard. Although I know these schoolgirls are just a year younger than the women we are here to celebrate today, it still seems a wonder to me that these kigurumi girls, looking like something to play with, are efficient thinking women when asked something. Your name is Mrs. Okada, if I remember the list right?” While Mrs. Kawakami has been talking Mrs. Okada has put her donburi on a table next to where the schoolgirl put Mrs. Kawakami’s bowl. While Aiko is still hesitating where to sit and about showing her face Mrs. Okada sits down, pulls her balaclava under her chin and says “I am Mrs. Okada, dental assistant to Mrs. Sasaki. It is true I have studied in Aigata, but now that I suddenly see a completely uncovered female head, it seems so long ago. Please allow me to keep my balaclava on. My hair is not made up to be shown. I would prefer to sit next to you not to look directly into an uncovered face whenever I lift my head from the bowl.” Mrs. Kawakami says while Aiko, now for the same reason seats herself on the other side of her “It’s a pleasure meeting another of Miss Ikeda’s heroines. I’m happy Mrs. Sasaki wanted you to join us. But as Lady Ikeda didn’t introduce us to each other I better tell you I’m Mrs. Kawakami and I expect to be Miss Ikeda’s mother-in-law very soon. Please stay as covered as you like. My husband is doing business with people from all twelve provinces which makes me aware that customs are very different within Vippon and I have had lunch in a variety of ways.”

They start eating and Aiko says “I remember just after coming here from Aigata I sometimes gave a patient a little more laughing gas just to see an uncovered face for one more minute. But now it’s the other way around, I feel it’s crossing a line of privacy to show my face. In Aigata it was completely natural. I’ve become a conservative provincial woman.” Mrs. Kawakami says “Aigata is more liberal I agree. At least those growing up there are less strict and most young women violate the rules of veiling once or twice in the years where boys are in their mind all the time. Here padlocks are used to avoid such incidents, but I guess a girl now and then succeeds in avoiding having her mask locked and then perhaps is showing herself to a girlfriend or even a boy. But Aigata being the capital contains all sorts of people from all provinces. I’ve seen women not even showing a hint of eyes in female only company, women gagged 24/7 and women in sleeveless kimonos due to bound arms and all sorts of combinations of such restraints. The general lifestyle in even the most conservative provinces is nothing compared with what some families do.” Mrs. Okada says “I’ve heard rumors of women doing nearly all house chores at night because their daytime dress do not let them see or move enough, and from what you say they are true” Mrs. Kawakami says “Those rumors are not exaggerated, on the contrary. But the women I’ve met who are able to communicate didn’t complain, it seemed as if they expected all women would love to dress like them if possible. But with both of you being uncomfortable at seeing unveiled faces outside work, I could perhaps make this a normal situation to you by asking you to look into my mouth. I have an ache in my upper left side when having something hot.” Aiko says “Of course we’ll take a look into your mouth Mrs. Kawakami. But I think it’ll do more for our sense of working than it will do for your teeth. Examining your teeth professionally requires the right light and tools, but nonetheless let us try. You have just eaten so to be able to see anything first you have to wash your mouth. Mrs. Okada, would you fetch some water please? Remember to cover before leaving the room, it’s Boar outside the door.”

Mrs. Okada covers her face, nods and leaves while Aiko moves some cushions close to the window to enable Mrs. Kawakami to lie down with direct sunlight into her mouth. Mrs. Okada returns with water, napkins, a pair of plastic gloves and even some wooden toothpicks, getting applause from Aiko and Mrs. Kawakami. After washing and drinking some water Mrs. Kawakami lies down on the cushions, and Aiko with the plastic gloves on and her balaclava fitted right turns the head of Mrs. Kawakami to face the light. Mrs. Okada, balaclava fitted as well, is right next to her as during a normal examination. Aiko stretches a hand towards her and gets a toothpick. Aiko picks and scratches at the teeth where Mrs. Kawakami complains moving her eyes from the mouth to her face to see if she reacts to her picking. She does, making Aiko pull the hand out of her mouth, take the plastic gloves off and pull her balaclava down to say “I managed to make it hurt, didn’t I?” Mrs. Kawakami nods. Aiko continues “If you can find the time you should come down to our clinic during one of the coming days. Are you staying here until the wedding?” Mrs. Kawakami says “Is it so bad that you can tell just by using a toothpick? But no, I’m not staying. My husband can’t stay away from his job for four days. We travel back tomorrow morning. I have to go to my own dentist then?”

Aiko says “I can’t really decide anything with the toothpick, my judgment is just as much based on your reactions but from them, and what you say, it seems something needs to be repaired. If you can wait until just after ten before traveling home we can open half an hour early tomorrow, which means we can treat you without disturbing the planned schedule. Will you be able to arrive half an hour early Mrs. Okada?” Mrs. Okada says “No problem Mrs. Kawakami. If we can make a small contribution to the wedding to which we have so generously been invited, by making it less painful for the mother of the groom I would open the clinic in the middle of the night.” Mrs. Kawakami says “After a day of partying with Lord Ikeda and your husbands I’m sure my husband won’t take an early train and I have a maid with me who can accompany me to the clinic. But you working outside normal hours and checking me here on a holiday you have to accept I pay double.” Aiko says “Either it’s very generous Mrs. Kawakami, or you’ve heard we treat Miss Ikeda’s family for free. I can’t charge you even if you get a filling.” Mrs. Kawakami looks as if she didn’t know and says gladly surprised “You won’t accept any payment? I certainly have to thank Miss Ikeda. But a treatment has a material bill even if you work for free. You are travelling to the wedding so I’ll pay for your tickets. It’s an offer you can’t refuse. I’ll have my husband send some bad guys if you refuse.” Mrs. Okada, used to having her expression hidden, clearly shows it’s a generous offer for a half an hour overtime and says “With you being so insistent I won’t risk being mugged. I think we have to accept Mrs. Sasaki, if the offer includes our receptionist, Mrs. Nakano, and her husband as well?”

Aiko then nods to Mrs. Okada, bows to Mrs. Kawakami saying “A very generous deal Mrs. Kawakami. Thank you. Mrs. Nakano will be there as well as we accompany each other, and she will take care of your maid serving her tea while she waits. Normally after having found a cavity, which can’t be treated immediately, I would have brushed the location with fluoride, but alcohol can keep it clean as well. Let’s go and have some sake with the others if Miss Ikeda and the other young women have left any.” Mrs. Kawakami while reaching for her balaclava bows and says with a smile “I’ll follow the doctor’s orders and continue giving my teeth alcohol for the rest of the day.” All faces covered they return to the hall.

13.

The others have had lunch as well and reuniting with a toast in sake seemed to all a good way to end the meal. Before any conversation begins a large display behind a small podium at the other end of the hall flashes and announces the beauty contest. Miss Ikeda gets up, looks down to rudimentarily check that her kimono is as it should be and with small ladylike steps like her mother always uses, heads towards the podium. Soon ten young women are assembled along with three teachers who will be judges. One of the teachers lines the young women up at one back corner of the podium, and then one by one they walk to the front, along the front and back to the end of the line. Of course the walk has to be a slow gliding movement, where the kimono moves as little as possible and it looks like they are floating across the surface. That isn’t easy after most have had their first cup of sake and many more than one. Each time a contestant comes to the front her relatives, guests and others supporting her get up and bow repeatedly to applaud and encourage her. Aiko thinks Miss Ikeda is a little drunk, but being brought up in a family where all females walk like this always she manages very well and gets second in this part of the contest. But two young women walk so unsurely even a man would have noticed, and a third stumbles just avoiding falling off of the podium, but she doesn’t get up from the podium floor. The teachers quickly determine she is not hurt but too drunk to stay on her feet. Her mother comes, and with a teacher, they drag her to the nearby corner of the hall where mats have been laid out for the young women to sleep on. It is expected that all the young women coming-of-age today will end here sooner or later, and as such it is not shameful, most just pity the poor young woman having such a short day.

For the next part of the contest the young women walk one by one to the center front of the podium and make a full circle turn while lifting their arms in a gracious manner to show that the kimono is fitted exactly as it should be, very tight around the waist but not revealing any forms. Aiko has noticed Miss Ikeda doesn’t belong to those having their waist so tightly bound that the breath is severely restricted. Part of the art of dressing in a kimono is finding the right compromise between being able to breathe and having the cloth loosen or move too much. Miss Ikeda gets only fifth, just ahead of the young women moving insecurely. But one young woman has overdone tightening the obi, and the combination of being the center of attention in this her best discipline and having to lift her arms gracefully she can’t get the air needed and drops to the floor unconscious. Her supporters immediately sit down and two teachers pull her to the back where she wakes and can see the remaining contestants while sitting on the podium floor.

In the third and last part of the contest the young women go one by one to the front of the podium and bow three times to the audience, to the left, center and right. The teachers and judges use this performance to compare the quality of the kimonos. As this is much a matter of the cost of the fabric and paying for good tailoring, Miss Ikeda comes first, a position her father has bought for her. Living in Boar and not in Dragon, Miss Ikeda has attended an ordinary school looking exactly like her classmates in kigurumi and school uniform, but from today her high class and superior wealth is shown. Finally the remaining nine young women line up across the podium and almost at the same time make a bow to the audience.

Then, one by one the overall winners are announced on the display. The third prize goes to Miss Ikeda. She steps forward from the line to the front of the podium and bows to the audience while everyone in the hall get up and bows to her. While standing in front, one of the teachers hands her a small present to remember her prize. Most of the audience sit again but Aiko and the other women at the Ikeda table stay standing and bowing ten seconds more to applaud Miss Ikeda a little more and for the rest to see where the prize goes. Even Lady Ikeda is standing and bowing, somehow having been informed of what is going on and the result. While the second and first prizes are announced Aiko figures that if Miss Ikeda had stayed away from the sake until after the contest she would have won the walking elegantly section and come second overall. If Miss Ikeda is a little disappointed she has now learnt her first lesson with sake. Fortunately her mother only knows she is very good at walking and wears the most expensive kimono, but she hasn’t seen her actual performance or the competitors. Aiko hopes Lady Ikeda has not expected her daughter to win.

A few minutes later it looks like Lady Ikeda is happy her daughter came third, because Miss Ikeda, back from the podium, hands her phone round which reads ‘Please all join me in celebrating the prize of my daughter by drinking a toast with her.’ Mrs. Kawakami fills the cups and leads the toast. Again Miss Ikeda empties her filled cup completely. It doesn’t look like she has realized that sake affects her, perhaps the first cup took her sense of judgment away.

Then they all change places to talk to new people. After writing with a couple of the guests unknown to Aiko, she learns that these are not relatives of the Ikedas, but wives of some of Lord Ikeda’s connections here in the Boar province. One of the women tells Aiko that she has learnt that the female part of the family will not celebrate Miss Ikeda until the wedding. Aiko and the woman agree that if they are covered like Lady Ikeda the party here is not worth a long travel as the best thing is watching all the fine kimonos, where the young women are a particularly attractive sight. While discussing the beautiful kimonos a young woman at a neighboring table drops her full cup and drops her head to the table unable to remain upright anymore. It goes through Aiko’s mind that she will be around number ten on the mats in the corner.

An hour after the contest Aiko has moved to be with Miss Ikeda. Aiko starts writing ‘Congratulations on the prize Miss Ikeda. You were close to being second, but I think your legs were affected a little by sake.’ Aiko watches Miss Ikeda while she writes her answer noticing she is a little slow keying and corrects her writing a couple of times before handing the phone to Aiko, who reads ‘Thank you Mrs. Sasaki. Although this commetition is mostly for fun many of my classmates have trained hard to get a good result. Those ahead of me desevred it, and perhaps they have waited tasting the sakae as well.’  Aiko writes ‘I’m glad you’re not disappointed at coming third. But I hope you’ll take some advice from a friend who has had too much sake more than once. Drink much less than you like for the next hours if you want to have a long Coming-of-Age Day. Re-read what you have written as a warning. Can you tell me something about today’s agenda?’‘Yes you’re my frien Mrs. Sasaki, a real good true friend for many yaers  to come. There is no more common entertanment for everybody. Today we are alowed to drink, and it will soon be difficult finding young women able to consentrate on some contest or performing. You have to excuse me, because right away I’ll leave this table to meet with all my classmats perhaps for the last time, as we now start our adult life and many like mysef move away from here soon. I’m sure my mother likes to speak with you, but you can go to the oher tables as well. All the mothers here are happy you have checked their daughters teth before they marry. Which reminds me, I haven’t got a chance to clean my teeth after lunch, but alkohol is a good cleaning agent. I like to stay with good dental care and toast with you Mrs. Sassaki before I go to meet my classmates.’ Aiko writes ‘I understand you have to part with your classmates. I’m sure you’ll chat with each other like you for many years have seen your mothers chat with neighbors and friends. Just remember it isn’t tea you’re drinking right now. But it is true that alcohol keeps the teeth clean. From what I’ve seen so far, I’m not afraid of your teeth today, but we are friends and I can’t decline a toast. Just let me pour the cups. To a long and happy adult life Miss Ikeda’ Miss Ikeda reads and then hands the sake bottle to Aiko, who just covers the bottom of their two cups. Miss Ikeda faces Aiko directly, lifts her cup up between their faces, makes a sincere nod and puts her straw to the cup to suck it empty. Aiko has copied her movements and for once empties her own cup. Miss Ikeda gets up, points to the podium where the young women are gathering, nods around the table where only half the women notice her and then leaves.

Miss Ikeda again a little slow writes Aiko moves up next to Lady Ikeda and takes up her own phone. Lady Ikeda is in conversation with Mrs. Okada on her other side. Aiko’s phone coming close to them has made connection and Aiko can follow their conversation. Mrs. Okada has just told Lady Ikeda that Mrs. Kawakami needs dental treatment and has got an appointment tomorrow. Lady Ikeda sitting hands locked inside her sleeves and with blinding head cover as always, without moving to show Aiko is now present writes ‘Is my phone right Mrs. Sasaki is now with us?’ Aiko writes ‘I am.’ Lady Ikeda writes ‘Once again I have to thank the two of you and Mrs. Nakano. It would have been a pity if Mrs. Kawakami wouldn’t be able to enjoy her son’s wedding in full because of an aching tooth. The tradition of Dragon allowed me only to get a short glimpse of all the lovely kimonos the young women wear, but I hope both of you enjoy these wonderful garments in full. Not having children of your own yet you may not have seen so many festive kimonos since your own coming-of-age ceremony. It’s a shame both for us and the young women that two such great events as today and a wedding have to be so close. But an adult woman is a married woman with responsibilities for a home and a husband. If staying unmarried for long I’m sure they would fool around like today everyday chatting and drunk all day. Am I right my daughter is chatting with her classmates while drinking sake like it was tea?’

Mrs Okada writes ‘All the young women are on the podium now and they make a wonderful sight with your daughter’s kimono shining above them all. I’m sure they try to talk like married women now that they, for the first time look like us, but replacing tea with sake it’s probably good they keep their conversation among themselves. While we have been talking Lady Ikeda I think I’ve seen three young women being dragged to the mats in the corner to sleep for the rest of the party.’‘It’s sort of a tradition that a woman never sees her coming-of-age day to an end. I’ve told Miss Ikeda not to empty a full cup at each toast, but of course it will only keep her on her feet a few more hours if she follows my advice. I can’t remember the afternoon of my own coming-of-age day and I’ve been told I passed out at around seven, lasting much above average.’ Lady Ikeda writes ‘After the official part of the day at the Town Hall the young women are allowed to act completely irresponsibly for one day, which is one reason the women’s parties are inside the same building all day, and not touring the city like the men do. But nonetheless I would like my daughter to stay awake at least until six. You are able to follow her. Do you think she can make it?’ Neither Aiko nor Mrs. Okada answers immediately. After a minute the conversation has to continue and Aiko writes ‘If she continues drinking like when she was with us at this table I’m afraid she won’t last another hour.’ Then Mrs. Okada adds ‘I agree with Mrs. Sasaki. She is on a direct course towards the mats. I think I’ll go to the podium to have a few words with her and offer her a pot of tea to drink before continuing with the sake.’ Lady Ikeda writes ‘Please do Mrs. Okada. And if you can make some of her classmates have a tea break so to speak as well, then I think many mothers will be grateful. Could I ask one of you to get me some tea while we are at it?’ ‘If you persuade the young women to drink tea Mrs. Okada, I’ll get some tea for this table and Lady Ikeda.’ Aiko immediately writes

They both leave, Aiko to address one of the schoolgirls serving. Coming back to the table within a minute Mrs. Kawakami has placed herself next to Lady Ikeda. Aiko has hardly seated herself again to follow the conversation on her phone before a kigurumi schoolgirl brings a tray with a fresh pot of tea, some cups and some straws and remove used items before leaving. Aiko reads that Lady Ikeda and Mrs. Kawakami are discussing some details about the wedding and so doesn’t interrupt, but after a minute she reads ‘When the tea arrives pull gently on my head cover where I hold a straw.’ Aiko pours a cup for Lady Ikeda and gently pulls at her silk cover to make her bow with the silk cover covering the cup. No one writes while they all just drink for a couple of minutes. Then Lady Ikeda writes ‘Mrs. Sasaki, I know there’s one in particular here, except myself, who likes to thank you for taking care of her daughter. Perhaps it’s the right time to meet her now, while Mrs. Kawakami and I have to settle some details for the wedding. All I can tell you is that her name is Mrs. Nagya, and I’ve been told she’s wearing a basically pale blue kimono with flower patterns.’ Aiko writes ‘It would be a shame not getting acquainted with Mrs. Nagya now that we are in the same room. I’ll find her. See you later both of you.’

14.

Aiko gets up and overlooks the hall. There are plenty of women matching the kimono description, she can’t ask them all. Aiko looks for a schoolgirl. It’s much more likely one of them knows the young women coming-of-age and their mothers, perhaps being a younger sister of one of the class. She copies Lady Ikeda’s information and shows it to a schoolgirl, who immediately takes her to a table close to the podium where the teachers are assembled. The teacher being interrupted is hesitant at leaving the conversation with her colleagues, but seeing it’s an adult woman and not the girl who really wants her attention she gets up, knowing she can read up on her colleague’s conversation later. Reading Aiko’s phone she writes ‘The girls working here can certainly find Mrs. Nagya, but it may take a little while. Who wishes to meet her?’ Aiko writes ‘My name is Mrs. Sasaki.’ Reading the teacher starts typing extremely fast ‘Are you Mrs. Sasaki of the Sasaki Dental Clinic?’ Aiko nods making the teacher make a deep bow immediately followed by a gesturing to the waiting girl that finding Mrs. Nagya is extremely important and she has to involve all the girls immediately. The girl bows and rushes out of the hall. The teacher, with a gesture, asks for the phone and writes ‘I’m Mrs. Kabori, responsible for the class we are celebrating today. I once again have to thank you for what you did for the class and myself on our visit to your clinic. Please sit down and have a glass of sake with me and my colleagues while the girls find Mrs. Nagya.’ Aiko bows to Mrs. Kabori and sits down on the cushion indicated.

Mrs. Kabori more or less takes the phone circling among the teachers out of the hand of one of her colleagues to write who has joined them. A cup of sake is served to Aiko and after the phone has been read by all eight teachers they bow to Aiko holding up their cups. After the toast at least five of them reach for the phone wanting to ask her something. After answering a question they all read what one has asked and Aiko’s answer. When Aiko writes she will check all classes at their last year of school someone lifts her cup and they have another toast. For several minutes a girl has been waiting right behind her. While the phone of the teachers is away from Aiko she holds up her own phone to the girl who writes ‘When you are ready I can take you to Mrs. Nagya.’ Aiko nods to the girl and then is handed the phone of the teachers again. Someone suggest they should form a club of women working outside the home and then Aiko writes she has considered giving a bi-yearly dental check to all women working outside the home as a small acknowledgment of their work, and perhaps encouraging more young girls to be more than housewives. This makes for another toast, making Aiko fear the teachers will soon have to drag a colleague to the sleeping mats in between the girls who, with increasing frequency drop to the podium floor. Aiko has been with the teachers at least for half an hour before she is able to part from them. Mrs. Kabori accompanies her as she follows the girl to a table at the far left.

The women at Mrs. Nagya’s table all stop talking when seeing a woman accompanied by a teacher. As there’s only one pale blue kimono around this table Aiko immediately knows who to address. Aiko and Mrs. Kabori bow to Mrs. Nagya who is about to stand up and return the gesture if Aiko had not gestured her to stay. Instead Aiko is handed a phone and writes ‘I’m Mrs. Sasaki of the Sasaki Dental Clinic. Lady Ikeda said you would like to meet me.’ Mrs. Nagya looks up after reading like she had expected a dentist not at work to look different from other women, but immediately following Aiko is gestured to take a seat along with Mrs. Kabori. But Mrs. Kabori declines and leaves with the girl.

Soon Aiko can read ‘I’m honored to meet you Mrs. Sasaki. Thanks to your professional assistance my daughter can start her marriage without physical flaws. You have to settle for only me thanking you on behalf of the entire family and her future husband, because I doubt my daughter will leave the podium on her own feet to come here and thank you personally. But I can assure you she has praised what you have done for her, even to the extent of being punished by her father for speaking too much. But all of those seated at this table are women who wish my daughter a happy marriage and would like to thank you for helping her achieving that. Please take a cup and toast with us.’ While Aiko finds a cup and gets it filled the phone is handed round to let everybody know why they are toasting. From the way they all lift their cups and nod Aiko can see that they agree with Mrs. Nagya’s words. If her face had shown it would show red from being praised that much just for doing her job. Aiko remembers that Miss Nagya was the only one of the class where a dental problem was found, and she had to come back a week later to have a filling. After the toast Aiko writes ‘Your daughter had an unproblematic cavity and has generally good teeth. This may very well be her only cavity for decades. When will she marry and is the mother of the lucky groom at the table for me to greet her?’ After reading Mrs. Nagya hands the phone directly to a woman in a peach kimono opposite Aiko. Handing the phone on the woman gets up to bow to Aiko giving her no choice but get up and bow as well. Aiko feels her movements are not as swift as they usually are and uses her upright position to reach for a pot of tea. Before she can reach it a cup is placed in front of her and tea is poured for her. She empties half the cup with a few strong sucks of her straw.

Then she reads the phone again ‘My daughter has to wait for three weeks as the groom’s father has to travel out of the country on a business trip. But my daughter will stay at home until then being locked up when I go shopping. Are you here as a guest of Lady Ikeda?’ Aiko just nods to Mrs. Nagya while handing the phone on. Next time she reads it says ‘Please give my regards to Lady Ikeda. I’m very honored she remembers me from the few times I have been at her house for our daughters to help each other with their homework. My daughter is skilled at needlework. Lady Ikeda is such a straightforward woman talking openly and with ease to ordinary women like myself. Sometimes I even feel she would like to step down from her position and just keep the house and serve her family just like all her neighbors.’ Aiko writes ‘It is my impression as well that Lady Ikeda enjoys living here in Boar, where she can talk to neighbors and mothers of her daughter’s classmates about everyday problems. I’m sure she will miss talking to you and the rest of the mother’s of her daughter’s class, who will soon spread all over the province and perhaps even the country as they marry and settle with their husbands. How far is your daughter moving?’ Mrs. Nagya writes ‘Fortunately only some kilometers away to the other side of the city. It won’t be a problem seeing her at least every other weekend. And she can come to you if she gets problems with her teeth. I’m very relieved my husband found a nice young man living so close, and he is a trainee in a local company with only a small risk he will have to move because of his job. I’m very lucky, although from after the wedding I have to do all the housework again.’ Aiko says ‘I can assure you Mrs. Nagya your daughter will only get problems with her teeth if she gets a hard blow to her jaw. I’m sure she can manage the daily dental care just as she can manage her new home without your supervision.’ Mrs. Nagya says ‘I know, but your words clearly show you have no children of your own. Mothers just keep worrying about their children. Soon I’ll have to help her again as she gets pregnant and then has a baby, who takes time from her housekeeping.’ The conversation stops because a teacher is at their side. Aiko hands the phone to the teacher who writes ‘It’s Mrs. Kabori again. I have assembled all the mothers of my class at the table over there at the center. I would like Mrs. Nagya to come with me. You as well Mrs. Sasaki, I’m sure not only Mrs. Nagya is thankful you have checked her daughter.’ Aiko and Mrs. Nagya get up, Mrs. Nagya gesturing to her guests where she is going to be for a while.

Around several small tables next to each other Mrs. Kabori has assembled nearly thirty women, including Lady Ikeda. Mrs. Kabori sends a phone around the table where she has written ‘Just like your daughters are now together on the podium to say goodbye to each other after years together as classmates many of you know each other because of your daughters and should have this last chance to meet as well. To make this parting a happy one I have acquired some bottles of sake and would like us all to start with a toast. Not for your daughters, but for someone I know you all want to thank. Today as one of the guests here we have our female dentist, Mrs. Sasaki. Please lift your cups.’

Before the phone reaches her Aiko has found out she will be the center of attention for some time and has to toast with many of the women individually when meeting each of them. As the last she reads with Mrs. Nagya. A filled cup is already in front of her. As she lifts her cup to make the toast the reaction is overwhelming. All the women, except Lady Ikeda, get up and reach towards her from all sides. For once Aiko takes a large sip to cope with the strong emotions created by all these mothers, who all hope their daughter’s marriage will be perfect, or at least better than their own. Anybody like Aiko who have contributed to assuring this is their hero right now. Aiko has to hold her cup lifted for half a minute, then she takes the phone and writes ‘This class of your daughter’s will always be special to me. Not only because I hope Miss Ikeda follows in my footsteps professionally, but because of what we celebrate today and with weddings in the weeks to come. A woman starting her own family is the most important moment to her and to her parents. Among the many things that contribute to make a young woman ready and confident in creating a family of her own is by knowing that her teeth are in good condition. Because of that I’ve decided to check all girls in the months before their Coming-of-Age starting with your daughters. But I’m not alone doing this. Please let’s make a toast for my colleagues, my dental assistant Mrs. Okada and my receptionist Mrs. Nakano.’ Aiko starts handing the phone to Mrs. Kabori, who after handing it on quickly gets up to make Mrs. Okada and Mrs. Nakano join the group.

When she returns with them many cups are lifted towards them and Mrs. Kabori makes Mrs. Okada and Mrs. Nakano both kneel down on the cushion she had occupied, while a cup of sake is handed to them. To Aiko’s great joy they get the same toast where all the women get up to touch their cups. When they deeply touched put their cups down Mrs. Nagya hands them the phone so they can read why they are celebrated. After reading they both get up to let Mrs. Kabori have her seat and go back to the Ikeda table, but as Aiko has expected they are immediately invited to sit down elsewhere at the table. Now on average Aiko only has to toast with ten women before everybody has personally met a woman from the dental clinic.

With all women having had much more to drink than they are used to no one stays formal for long and it becomes the beginning of some happy hours. Of course now and then there has to be a common toast to unite the entire group. The first is as it should be to honor Mrs. Kabori for her work with their daughters, but she is praised for the idea of assembling all the mothers as well, although a few having older children knows this is a common thing at a female Coming-of-Age party. But after half an hour a phone is sent around the table that gradually stops all the small groups communicating. It says ‘Lady Ikeda and Mrs. Nagya don’t think this should be our last get together. We have enjoyed visiting the mothers of our daughter’s classmates, and this having ended, many will only have a few neighbors to visit on weekdays. But it is our daughters who move away to other parts of the town and other places in Vippon. We will still live around the school and most close enough to someone else here to act as company when leaving the close neighborhood for a visit. In about a month, when all our daughters have left home, Lady Ikeda invites all present here to a cup of tea and to talk for some hours during the afternoon. At this meeting we will agree on the next meeting at Mrs. Nagya’s home a couple of weeks later or whatever can be agreed upon. Lady Ikeda wishes to attend all future such gatherings of this group, knowing her participation will make the line of volunteers for holding these meetings infinite. And further on the day of a meeting she will arrive early with her maid to relieve the hostess from attending to the kitchen while taking care of her guests.’

Everybody around the tables get up to cluster around Lady Ikeda and Mrs. Nagya toasting with them, except the four working women, who are the teacher, Aiko and her two colleagues. But Aiko doesn’t mind not being the center of attention for a while. She thinks of her visits to Lady Ikeda, and although the idea may come from her own talk with Mrs. Nagya, it seems like Lady Ikeda has very much enjoyed having mothers for tea while their daughters were doing homework. This message has made most leave their seats and after the toast new small groups are formed all discussing their future meetings. Aiko, her colleagues and the teacher are of course invited as well, and Aiko says in the group where she has to make yet another toast with two women she hasn’t talked to directly before, that she and at least Mrs. Nakano living close to the school will be able to attend something like the last half an hour of such meetings.

15.

After another half an hour of lively conversation the mothers break up because it’s time for dinner and rejoining their guests. Aiko, being a guest, has no one to attend to and just walks to the counter serving food. Passing the podium she notices that the number of girls remaining up there is down to about twenty. The number of young women sleeping has grown considerably, but some must have gone back to their families perhaps to sleep in their mother’s arms. The time has passed six, the time Lady Ikeda found acceptable for the young women to pass out. Aiko gets a bowl with rice and fish and just lets a girl lead her to a classroom to eat the Boar way, with a screen around her.

She sits down at the same time as an unknown woman gesturing if she would like to talk while they eat. Aiko nods. To avoid having to talk about teeth she just says she is a guest of Lady Ikeda. Then they talk about the contest and the wonderful kimonos the young women display. Aiko enjoys the light conversation, making her think it would be wonderful if she could talk like this with Mutsuto just the few nights he is having dinner at home, but discussing kimonos or what he is doing at work the conversation would stop in a minute. Aiko pulls her balaclava up and gets up at the same time as her dinner companion. Together they walk back to the hall, where she gestures if Aiko would like a cup of sake at her table. She is shown where it is, but Aiko declines having had more than enough sake and gestures she has been away from her own table long before the dinner, but may join her later. Just as they have parted Aiko is about to regret her decision, the woman might be very special. With everyone wearing a balaclava with only a narrow eye slit, during their gesturing Aiko has been focusing on her hands, but she is quite sure her eyes weren’t moving. That could mean she is from the distant Sheep province from where Aiko has only seen women in pictures.

There is not much activity at the Ikeda table, some are gone probably eating, but Miss Ikeda has returned. She is sitting next to her mother with her head hanging down as if there were men present. It is obvious the sake is close to getting her down. Aiko sits down next to her and lifts Miss ikeda’s chin to make her see her. With difficulty Miss Ikeda reaches for a phone and after a little while hands it to Aiko who reads ‘I hobe it isn’t thys tiringg bing a adult women evryday. But it have ben fun. I lik sake. We’r friends Miss Sassaki and now we can conservate as equal all nite. But fist let’s toast our frindship.’ Aiko is glad Mrs. Kabori isn’t here to read this. Meanwhile Miss Ikeda has got hold of a sake bottle and tries to pour for Aiko and herself, but she’s unable to hold the bottle steady.

The display on the phone flashes and Aiko reads ‘Please drink with my daughter. Her evening might as well end here with you and me now. I would like a cup of sake as well please.’ Then Aiko takes the bottle out of Miss Ikeda’s hand, fills three cups and places one in front of Lady Ikeda and pulls at her head cover until she is able to drink. Aiko lifts her cup to toast with Miss Ikeda, but she just bows her head holding a straw directly forward to suck directly from the cup on the table. Aiko takes a small sip while watching Miss Ikeda make her cup half empty. Then Miss Ikeda lifts her head to face Aiko and nods. Aiko is sure Miss Ikeda is smiling under her balaclava. Miss Ikeda bows her head again like wanting more sake, but after some uncertain moments her head sinks to the table her chin down in the sake cup. Miss Ikeda’s Coming-of-Age Day has come to an end. Aiko looks at the phone, seeing that it is close to seven o’clock. Along with one of the other women Aiko drags Miss Ikeda across the hall to the mats. They are filled with young women by now and Miss Ikeda is put in a small space mostly resting on the two young women on either side. It doesn’t matter as all the young women are too drunk to notice anything. Aiko figures more than two thirds of the young women celebrating Coming-of-Age at this school are now sleeping here.

Seeing all the drunken women she suddenly feels a little tired herself, possibly because she has drunk more sake than for a very long time. Coming back to the table she drinks with the woman helping her with Miss Ikeda, but they drink tea. The next hours are just relaxed, chatting among the older women. Only a few women coming-of-age today make it after eight. Ten minutes past eight the teachers observe that the four young women remaining on the podium are in fact all sleeping and they are dragged to the mats. They know they have to stay here until late because everybody has an agreement with their husband that he will pass here on his way home, and everybody knows that the men will go on a little longer than usual because it’s a National Holiday and they are celebrating a son or daughter. But most being used to waiting at home alone, being here is much more fun with a large number of women to chat with and a little sake now and then to make it extraordinary. After having been to the restroom Aiko is caught by the sight of women standing in small groups around the young women sleeping on the mats and discussing the wonderful kimonos, the mats looking like a pile of clothes some hours after a sale has started. Refreshed she wants to meet some new people and can take one more cup of sake, which makes her head for the table her dinner companion sits at to find out if a Sheep woman is present.

16.

The woman is in conversation with another woman, but not more than they notice Aiko approaching and her dinner companion points to an unused cushion. Her dinner companion starts writing on the phone while the other woman reaches for a cup and the sake bottle. Aiko makes a polite bow to accept drinking with them. Then she gets the phone to read ‘I’m Mrs. Itou and with me is my sister Mrs. Watanabe. Please toast with us to celebrate my sister’s daughter.’ Aiko writes ‘I’m Mrs. Sasaki. I enjoyed our conversation over dinner very much. To your daughter and niece.’ They toast and then Mrs. Itou writes ‘I enjoyed our conversation as well. I then saw you went to sit at the table with the noble woman and her daughter, who won third prize in the contest. My sister and I are curious to learn more about them.’ Aiko is smiling under her balaclava while answering, because now it won’t be intrusive asking Mrs. Itou about her looks. And Aiko was right, her eyes are unmoving because it’s a very lifelike mask, probably the Sheep veiling style, but covered by a Boar balaclava nothing but the eye slit is showing.

‘Lord Ikeda of Tora in Dragon for the time being lives close to here and has had his daughter attending school here like everybody else living in this district. His wife and daughter have invited me to celebrate this day with them because we share a mutual passion. Am I right observing that you, Mrs. Itou, have traveled a long distance to be here?’ Mrs. Itou writes ‘You phrasing it so modestly is very sweet but the hard truth is Yes. For more than five years I have been a Sheep woman. The few times I’ve been out of the Sheep province since then I’ve always been the center of attention as soon as I remove my public veiling. But here in Boar, where women are veiled even among themselves, and wearing the local balaclava, you’re the first, not knowing where I live, to make me aware of my Sheep covering.’

Aiko writes ‘Women are modest by nature, and I know how you feel when being the center of unwanted attention. I am a rare sight as well, in Aigata being the only female dentist.’ Reading this make both Mrs. Itou and her sister stare at Aiko to see if there is something visible identifying a dentist, but of course realizing there isn’t Mrs. Itou writes what Aiko has hoped for by revealing her profession. ‘I feel ashamed complaining about being different to one so unique. I’m only special being here. In Sheep all married women look like me, literally. But there’s only one female dentist in the entire Sheep province and I’m not even sure if she just has a clinic there, but lives and works mostly in one of our neighboring provinces. But being dentist you must be used to seeing female faces. Have you ever seen a Sheep woman face to face, if not would you like to?’ Aiko writes ‘Professionally I see faces uncovered, but with only the mouth in strong light, it is only that I notice. But growing up in Tokuto I saw female faces everyday. They don’t make me ashamed or aroused as much as with women living here always. I have never been to Sheep, but Mrs. Watanabe being your sister and a local woman you might have been growing up here as well?’ Mrs. Itou writes ‘We were born in Aigata. It was difficult chatting with Sheep women about a month after we moved there. I felt ashamed meeting them feeling and looking naked and it was difficult looking at them. But gradually I realized that they couldn’t see my red face and shameful expression and their faces showed no emotions looking at me. I just had to accept within myself that Sheep women are actually not less but more covered than Boar women, who show their real eyes. Should we go to a restroom for removing my balaclava?’ After reading the message Aiko nods, but then points to Mrs. Watanabe. She takes the phone and writes ‘No I won’t go with you. My sister has numerous times told me she is better covered than us. But to me she is naked and when visiting me she has to wear a balaclava outside her room and the bathroom. I’ll go and see to my daughter and perhaps have a snack. Just take your time.’

Passing the food counter Aiko stops a girl and writes ‘Could we borrow a classroom to be undisturbed for a short while?’ Having just agreed with Mrs. Itou its annoying being known Aiko doesn’t show her the phone where the girl writes ‘Of course Mrs. Sasaki. Just a moment. Mrs. Kabori has told us to assist you in any way possible.’ In twenty seconds the girl, or an identical girl, is back showing them into a room and handing Aiko a key to lock from the inside. Turning around after locking the door Aiko is a little shocked hearing Mrs. Itou say “What a brilliant idea borrowing a room. Then we can stay without balaclava much longer and pretend we are in Sheep and chat and drink a little.” She has seated herself, removed her balaclava and taken a bottle of sake and other things from her handbag. Aiko had forgotten that it’s the balaclava with its padding over the mouth that makes them mute. Speaking comes as a surprise added to the expected surprise of seeing her lifelike face, which only for seconds at a time passes for the real thing, because then the observer notices that the eyes don’t blink, and while talking the lips don’t move.

But Mrs. Itou wears a very lifelike full head mask with a very real looking wig on top. She looks like a happy mid-twentieth beauty, but from her acting and now her voice Aiko guesses she is at least ten years older. Then she sees why Mrs. Itou says they can pretend they are in Sheep. She has an extra mask and wig. Holding it towards Aiko she says “What I wear is of course the happy look for celebrating among women. But all Sheep women always carry their obedient mask if having to serve their husband. It might be used by a young women when with her strict mother-in-law as well. I’m probably not old enough to be your mother-in-law, but no matter our ages, all Sheep masks portray the same young woman. Would you like to try this on? I’ll face my lap and turn my back while you change. Unlike you, seeing real faces makes me shameful.” Aiko takes the mask with a polite nod and turns her back to Mrs. Itou. The mask is basically made from some strong stretchy silk-like flesh-colored material. Lifelike coloring and features are printed on the fabric from a real photo, warped to take into account how the silk folds when molded by the contours of a face. A short zipper at the back allows it to be pulled on and off when stretched as well. The zipper is covered by the black hair, which is barely touching the shoulders and cut straight just above the eye brows. Aiko struggles a little with holding her own hair inside the mask and aligning the mask pupils, which are holes, with her own eyes before closing the zipper. After being zipped up the lower edge of the mask feels like a quite tight elastic string around her neck and the mask clings to her head everywhere, even going into her eye sockets to make her feel the fabric against her eyelids.

Aiko turns towards Mrs. Itou again saying “I’m masked, you may lift your head. What do you think?” Mrs. Itou says “It’s like looking at my reflection in the bathroom mirror just before going to bed. I of course wear a neck covering of the same material, but your natural skin color is quite close to the mask. But there are a few small folds here and there. Because Sheep women change mask several times a day I always carry a mirror in my handbag. I haven’t checked my own mask after removing the balaclava. It might be wrinkled as well as there has been no reason to be particular when covering it completely.” Taking the mirror makes Aiko pull a little at the mask here and there, and then she holds it next to Mrs. Itou to move her rather narrow field of view from the mirror to Mrs. Itou and back. They both depict the same young woman in two different moods. Mrs. Itou is with a smiling mouth staring with happy wide open eyes directly at Aiko, while Aiko has lowered eyes and a rounder nearly open mouth looking like she is waiting for an order to obey, no matter both of them behind the fabric probably shows curiosity and investigation.

Aiko hands the mirror back to Mrs. Itou who uses the mirror the same way while Aiko says “How many different expressions are there and how many faces?” Mrs. Itou says “All married Sheep women have for more than twenty years looked like the very popular wife of a governor who were both killed in a traffic accident when she looked like our mask, so what we wear are a kind of death mask. Before that the masks depicted a famous geisha for many years. Besides happy and obedient there are sad, angry and neutral relaxed faces.” Aiko immediately says “Who will meet their neighbors or friends with an angry face?” Mrs. Itou says “The angry mask is mostly used by teachers or mothers to show girls they have been doing wrong and show other women what is their main concern for the time being. As masks are only changed a couple of times a day, it has to be considered that it will be seen by many who it doesn’t directly apply to. Coming to visit you with the angry expression you shouldn’t directly feel offended, but ask why I’m angry. It could be because you mocked me at our last meeting, but it is more likely I am angry at my children or my husband. In this way these expressive masks ease conversation and make you express what is otherwise hidden by our total covering. And changing you won’t get soaked in your own sweat all day. Of course that could be handled by changing to a fresh identical mask, but like you probably wear old worn out gloves when alone cleaning your house and change to new dry and clean ones when going out or having guests, in Sheep women do the same with their head covering.” Aiko says “Yes after only a few minutes I feel this mask is much warmer than my balaclava even if it is thinner. I guess it’s because it sticks to the head everywhere and all air has to pass through the fabric, unlike the balaclava where it can flow down along the nose. It will take some time before I get used to the small peek holes for seeing as well. I have to turn my head all the time just to follow your movements.” Mrs. Itou says “These masks don’t allow much airflow on your skin making you hot very quickly. I have noticed while in Boar that putting the balaclava on top of the mask doesn’t really make any difference in how hot I feel. Because the obedient mask has lowered eyes your sight is the most restricted. But all masks remove most of the peripheral vision. This is considered an extra benefit as women should only see just what they are supposed to. Now let’s have a cup of sake and chat in the way these masks are supposed to encourage us to do and are one of the reasons why I enjoy living in Sheep. Is it your husband who has ordered you to wear that look Mrs. Sasaki?”

Aiko understands that Mrs. Itou has started a sort of play and says “Just as he was leaving for work I asked my husband if it was tonight he would be home for dinner and then what he would like to eat. He said I had not been allowed to speak and needed to improve my memory if I couldn’t remember what he said five days ago. He wants sushi and ordered me to keep this mask on all day.” Mrs. Itou holds a straw against the lips of the mask, and as expected it has an unseen slit to make drinking possible fully masked. Taking a sip and gesturing Aiko to drink as well she says “A just punishment for not thinking about why we wear the obedient mask with our husbands present. Talking to your husband you behave like a teenager questioning her parent’s. Women must obey men. I was hoping you wanted to obey me to gain some sort of favor from me.” Aiko says “You inviting me for a lovely chat, it is me who owe you a favor no matter how my face looks. I hope you wear that happy face because of me visiting?” Mrs. Itou says “On another day it could very well be because of you. It always make me happy chatting with you. But today I wear the happy mask to celebrate. I’ve been told my niece is going to marry.” They chat and sip happily like this for a long time, mixing reality and imagination.

Then Mrs. Itou says “I enjoy talking with you very much, but I think it’s time for getting back to my sister. Although it’s unlikely this early we have to be ready when our husbands come to take us home.” Aiko says “Yes we can’t let our husbands wait for a minute too long. I’ve enjoyed this very much as well. After moving to Boar I’ve gotten used to seeing uncovered faces as indecent, but I miss the spontaneity and expressiveness possible with voice conversation. In Sheep they seem to have combined both in the best possible manner. But talking about our Sheep covering, I’ve wondered how do you eat with these masks?” Mrs. Itou says “Alone or screened off from others like you do here. The mask has to be lifted for full access to the mouth, revealing mouth and chin which only the husband and children should see on special occasions. But by opening the zipper about half, with a little practice, it’s possible to lift the elastic hem to under the nose and make the fabric fold above the lips to avoid removing the mask entirely and keep the mask fixed above and thus still be able to see. Apart from requiring some skill it hurts quite a lot having the extremely stretched elastic hem pressing at your skin, but on the other hand you’re constantly reminded that eating isn’t a break to be extended unnecessarily. Try just uncovering your mouth for half a minute before taking the mask off.” Aiko says “I will. It’s with regrets I leave Sheep, but when we see each other again we’re Boar women with black balaclava heads.” A smiling face bows to thank for the time passed, Aiko bowing likewise.

Then she walks to the far corner with her back towards Mrs. Itou. After opening the zipper of the mask Aiko lifts the hem to just below her nose. The fabric folded hangs down over her mouth and the top of the mask shifts just a little making her unable to see. She pulls at her nose to be able to align the peek holes with her eyes again, but it doesn’t fit like when the mask was fully on. Further it feels like the elastic hem is cutting into her skin, and she decides being able to eat like this has to wait until going to Sheep sometime. Facing Mrs. Itou again they spend a minute getting the balaclava of each other to fit smoothly inside the neck opening of their kimono. Mrs. Itou takes her mirror to let them both see that their own balaclava and kimono are right at the back. Putting the mirror down Mrs. Itou takes up her phone. Aiko thinks she might have something she forgot to say, and in a way she has. Aiko reads the full names and addresses of Mrs. Itou and her sister making Aiko take her own phone to transfer the information between them. Coming into the hall Aiko goes with Mrs. Itou to her sister’s table. She knows how to say thank you for a new friendship asking for the phone Mrs. Watanabe is using to talk to another woman she writes ‘I Mrs. Sasaki invite Mrs. Watanabe and Mrs. Itou for a glass of sake with Lady Ikeda of Dragon. Most schoolgirls know where our table is if they are needed.’ The woman nods to show she will take care of the table, while Mrs. Watanabe gets up and with a deep bow says thank you for the invitation. Mrs. Itou still standing doesn’t know what Aiko has written, but just follows when Mrs. Watanabe and Aiko gestures her to go with them.

At the Ikeda table, like everywhere else it is very quiet. It is coming towards the end of a long day and everyone around the table has had time to talk with everyone else. Now most are tired to some extent by having far more sake than they are used to. Mrs. Kawakami and one of the wives of Lord Ikeda’s business relations are sitting on either side of Lady Ikeda to keep her entertained, and perhaps informing her about what is going on. They eagerly move away to relax alone when Aiko asks for their cushions for Mrs. Itou and Mrs. Watanabe. Aiko then gestures them to use their phones indicating Lady Ikeda will connect. Aiko seats herself next to Mrs. Itou watching the sisters happily chatting with Lady Ikeda and waiting five minutes before taking up her own phone to follow the conversation. She doesn’t write a line herself, but when Lady Ikeda asks then to join her in a drink Aiko acts as hostess. She serves sake to everybody who wants some around the table, pulls Lady Ikeda’s head forward to make her reach her cup and holds up her own cup for everybody to drink. A quarter of an hour later there is another toast to end the sister’s conversation with Lady Ikeda. Both sisters get up and bow deeply to Lady Ikeda even if she is blinded, followed by a light bow to the rest of the table. Then Mrs. Itou signals Aiko she would like to say something. Aiko gets up and they walk a few steps away from the table, Mrs. Itou gesturing her sister to go to their own table. Aiko reads ‘With nearly a hundred girls in the same year as her daughter and not in the same class as Lady Ikeda’s daughter, my sister had never dreamt of meeting the distinguished Lady in person. With me just being a guest here today, of course even less. We’re deeply honored for giving us this opportunity. I was positively surprised that the Lady seemed so interested in our ordinary lives and asked why I like living in Sheep. I have to see you again sometime. Please call me if you come near Sheep.’ Aiko writes ‘Lady Ikeda is a nice woman just like you and Mrs. Watanabe. I knew you would be on speaking terms right away. I would love to visit Sheep, but it’s more likely you come here to visit your sister. Then please call.’ Mrs. Itou bows to let her forehead just barely touch Aiko’s folded hands, which is the closest someone not related can go in showing love and affection. Aiko bows likewise to Mrs. Itou. Then she stares for some long seconds into the smiling mask eyes of Mrs. Itou knowing that her own real eyes at this moment look the same. Mrs. Itou turns and walks away, but for a long while Aiko just sees her eyes for her own inner sight.

The corner with the sleeping young women then catches Aiko’s eyes. She walks in that direction to get a better look. What had caught her eye is that a few of them are sitting up here and there in the pile of kimonos, very drowsy, trying to find out where they are, but not really fit to walk away. Then she sees a few other young women sitting on the edge of the podium. They might be a little more awake having managed to move away from the mats, but are still too drunk and sleepy to remember where the table of their family is. At the tables women are beginning to look for their young members. Aiko sees two women coming up to the podium and walking one of the young away, her arms around her shoulders. Spotting Miss Ikeda still sleeping Aiko goes back to the table for a cup of tea. Over the next hour she just exchanges a line with another at the table now and then, and speaks a little more with Mrs. Okada and Mrs. Nakano to learn how they have spent the night. More and more young women are waking up, and now and then women come to the mats to drag away a young woman who is still asleep. It is a sign that the men are beginning to arrive at the school to take their women home.

A quarter to midnight Mrs. Okada addresses Aiko and shows her phone. A flashing message says the Ikeda party is in the train arriving at the school in ten minutes. While reading Aiko notices her own phone flashing and Mrs. Nakano joins them as well. Then Mrs. Kawakami comes to ask them guide Lady Ikeda out, helping with Miss Ikeda as well. They all bow to each other at the table to say goodnight and thank you for a lovely party. Then Mrs. Okada and Mrs. Nakano start walking Lady Ikeda out, which is very slow, while Aiko goes with Mrs. Kawakami to the mats to get Miss Ikeda. About half the young women are gone, making it easy to walk in between the sleeping girls to Miss Ikeda. She lies as if unconscious, but Mrs. Kawakami takes hold of her and shakes her hard. Miss Ikeda starts moving and shortly after her eyes partly open. Mrs. Kawakami makes her look at her left wrist, which she taps. Miss Ikeda nods without trying to get on her feet. Then Mrs. Kawakami gestures Aiko to lift at the arm she is not holding herself. They lift until Miss Ikeda is on her feet, but Aiko feels she would drop the moment they stopped lifting. More carrying than walking Miss Ikeda, Mrs. Kawakami starts moving out from the mats. Just as they reach the open floor Aiko senses that Miss Ikeda has woken enough to stay upright on her own. Now they only have to support her while they slowly move towards the exit and the wardrobe. Five minutes later, at the wardrobe one of three cloaked women, one already hooded and hood opening covered, waves for their attention. Getting their cloaks they will be totally anonymous and may easily get away from each other among the large number of women leaving, so they immediately leash themselves to each other like Mrs. Okada and Mrs. Nakano are leashed to Lady Ikeda. Soon only Mrs. Nakano leading the line has not her cloak zipped and her hood opening covered.

Reaching the gate the teacher is told the name of Lord Ikeda, and after a few minutes his name comes on a large display to be seen by the men outside. The women are guided out and move away from the crowd at the gate to be united with their husbands. Each husband says his name and the wife bows to be unleashed from the line and leashed behind him instead. Then the men part making the women confirm they are just behind their husbands. The men of Aiko and Mrs. Nakano have decided to walk home instead of walking to the train, ride one stop and walk again. They all need some fresh air after so much drinking. Aiko really enjoys being a woman, just having to move her feet and stay in contact with the back of her husband. She hardly listens to the men’s conversation, but for once it isn’t sports, but Lord Ikeda’s geisha show, which has more than fulfilled their expectations. Mr. Nakano says “I think their powdering and performance was so good it made their faces look like masks of china.” A minute later he parts with Mutsuto outside his home and fifteen minutes later they are in bed. Mutsuto plays one of the geisha’s has wanted to be alone with him. Aiko has never hear of a geisha being drunk and tired when with men, but that is what she is, and she falls asleep before knowing how Mutsuto’s playing ends.

17.

It’s just past seven on the morning of Miss Ikeda’s wedding when Aiko and Mutsuto arrive at Aigata Central Station. She is leashed, walking blindly to the platform for the train to Dragon. While they wait for the train Matsuto suddenly starts talking. He is greeting Mr. Nakano and just before the train arrives they both greet Mr. Okada. Inside the train Aiko is not guided to a curtained corner seat, but they all enter a separate compartment. They are not a family but it’s a simple and good solution given to them by Mr. Kawakami paying their tickets. Because, although it means that the three women right now have to stay cloaked and blinded then if the men leave they can enjoy each other’s company instead of sitting in a corner each. As the train guard arrives Mr. Nakano asks for a key to the compartment. The train guard, understanding the situation, says there are lots of free seats on this early train and tells the number of another compartment they may use. Mutsuto asks him when the trolley will pass as they had decided to skip breakfast at home. With the answer at most ten minutes the men decide to stay. When the trolley arrives they all get rice, miso soup and tea, but the men leave with the trolley, having their meal served in the other compartment. Mr. Nakano, apparently having the key, says “We’ll stay away for at least an hour. Send a text message if you need anything.” As the door closes Aiko’s hood cover is flipped back and her cloak unzipped by another woman, probably Mrs. Nakano having been unzipped herself by her husband while he spoke. Its lovely seeing breakfast is ready and two friends to share the meal with. They are all a little shy at having to show their faces while eating. After having pulled their balaclavas down they should have said hello but as they gaze at each other Mrs. Okada is holding a finger to her mouth and points to the walls. Then both Aiko and Mrs. Nakano each put their mouth to one of Mrs. Okada’s ears and whisper “Good morning. You’re right. Let’s eat in silence.”

When only the tea is left they can cover and use a straw. Then Mrs. Okada produces her phone and writes ‘What lovely kimonos both of you wear. There is no need to as we have been promised that we could have the loan of an outfit suitable for a noble wedding. If I am wrong, I have to beg for borrowing something more presentable than what I wear now.’ Aiko writes ‘You’re not wrong, and your kimono is like the best I got myself. I have put on close to my finest kimono as I’m unsure for how long and under what circumstances we have to show in our own clothing.’ Mrs. Nakano writes ‘This is my second best kimono I think. The best I wore at the Coming-of-Age party, but not knowing for how long I have to stay in my own clothing I put on the best I can do without showing in the same dress at two parties in a row.’ Mrs. Okada writes ‘It’s my second best as well I have to admit. But do either of you know what we’re going to wear or how a noble Dragon wedding proceeds?’ Aiko says ‘I have never heard about special Dragon wedding ceremonies. I guess it’s like any wedding, but because Ikeda is a noble family the clothing has to match their status.’ The conversation goes on for more than an hour. Then there is a knocking on the door and a male voice says “It’s Mr. Nakano. The train is about to get filled, we have to take our seats in here. I’ll enter and zip my wife when she knocks the door.” In less than a minute three cloaked women with covered hood openings are sitting head down. With only about half an hour remaining of the ride it’s too short to doze, and they have to sit listening to the men discussing soccer.

At the station Aiko hears Mutsuto say “There’s someone with a sign to receive us over there.” They move about twenty meters and then a male voice says “You are guests for the Ikeda wedding? Please wait a minute I am to collect fourteen people arriving on this train.” A couple of minutes later the voice says “Please follow me, the car is just outside.” From the size of the group and the sound of the engine Aiko guesses they enter some kind of minibus. Just before they start moving the driver says “It is only a short twenty minutes drive to the Ikeda estate just out of the city.”

When they arrive it’s a short walk inside what sounds like a big hall. The driver’s voice sounds again “This is the door to the female wing. Ladies you’ll now be guided inside by a maid.” Aiko is guided five meters forward and then hears a door close. Moments later her hood cover is flipped back and her cloak unzipped. Seeing the maid she is about to bow to greet Mrs. Kimura, because the maid is wearing a ko-omote mask with a black wig making her look like Mrs. Kimura when Aiko saw her at her last visit to Lady Ikeda. The kimono is plain olive with obi of the same fabric and no decorations, but the fabric is fine quality silk to show the special occasion. Mrs. Okada, Mrs. Nakano and Aiko are in a large corridor along with four other women. The maid leads them a few doors down the corridor until they reach an open door. The maid picks out one of the group and leads her through the doorway gesturing she has to remember the number on the door. Looking inside Aiko sees that the woman is received by another maid masked and dressed exactly like the one receiving them, even the color of the kimono looks like they are both made from the same roll of fabric. The maid then crosses the corridor to another open door sending Mrs. Okada inside repeating to remember the number. Mrs. Okada is likewise received by an identical maid making Aiko forget about trying to communicate with the maid in the hope of having met Mrs. Kimura. Three doors later the maid chooses Aiko, who enters room 21.

The rooms appear to be large bedrooms and after the maid inside has bowed to Aiko she points to her geta to make her step out of them before entering the major part of the floor covered by mats. The maid then turns and with a gesture of her hand makes Aiko stare at the parts for a fantastic kimono lying unfolded on the bed. After giving Aiko a minute to admire it and Aiko disbelievingly pointing from the bed to herself with a nodding response, the maid walks to the back corner of the room to open a door showing her a bathroom. Aiko points to the tub and shakes her head, indicating she has bathed just before leaving home. The maid gestures that she may like to remove her balaclava and gloves and wash what is uncovered, she may of course use the toilet as well, but most importantly there is a shelf with fine perfumes. But first Aiko is gestured to let the maid remove her kimono. Quickly Aiko realizes that she won’t show any more skin by doing this and reaches for the tie of her obi. But the maid takes hold of her hands and makes Aiko let them hang down. The maid is not here only to dress her but undress her as well. Apart from Mutsuto, who may have tried to clumsily undress her once or twice Aiko can’t remember ever not having undressed herself since leaving childhood at thirteen. It feels good and each item removed is carefully placed on the bed with gracious movements. All too soon this gracious performance is over and Aiko is showing her finest off-white underkimono. The maid gestures Aiko to enter the bathroom. Inside Aiko carefully removes her new black gloves and then her balaclava. All the black items covering her extremities are new and of better quality than what she has owned before. It isn’t totally free being invited to this noble wedding, but only being promised the loan of a kimono, Aiko has expected her feet, hands and head might show covered in what she has chosen to wear. Seeing the kimono on the bed she is glad she bought this, which is the lowest quality to go with such a kimono. She uses the toilet and washes a little. Next, although not to be seen, Aiko meticulously brushes her hair while inspecting the perfume bottles. She has never even dared asked to be allowed to smell these expensive perfumes in a shop. But putting the brush down, one by one she lifts the top of off the bottles and smells the most wonderful scents of her life. One or two of the scents makes her think she has met a woman using this perfume, perhaps it is Lady Ikeda. Aiko chooses one dominated by fresh roses and reads the label several times to remember it. Then she puts on her balaclava and gloves again and looks carefully in the mirror to see that they are wrinkle free before leaving the bathroom.

The maid is standing hands folded and head down where she was when Aiko left, but her kimono has been removed from the bed. Hearing Aiko the maid lifts her head and opens a closet to show Aiko her kimono has been placed on a shelf perfectly folded. From the shelf above the maid then takes a black silk item which she unfolds and hands to Aiko for her to put it on. Seeing that it is a pair of pantyhose Aiko understands that they go where it will be too intimate for the maid to touch her. Before Aiko has considered, the maid gestures her to put them on top of what she is wearing already. But holding them to her feet and unfolding Aiko stops shocked. At the knee a strong silk strap goes around each leg and connects the two legs with only a few centimeters between. Aiko had thought noble ladies were trained in walking with their knees together, but maybe in reality they are just forced to do so or Aiko is forced to have her knees tied to act as noble for a day. Apart from the strap the pantyhose are very thick and completely opaque, and after pulling the pantyhose up her legs Aiko can feel their soft coolness on the narrow strip of skin between her long stockings and panties. Then the maid reaches for the belt of her underkimono making Aiko think she will have to show more than her eyes to the maid. But the maid only wants to tighten the belt. In fact she tightens it so much Aiko can sense it at every breath. Then she starts putting on the kimono.

Slowly and carefully Aiko is wrapped in the wonderful fabric, only having to watch the maid do her work much better than Aiko would have been able to do herself. But of course the maid has four hands for her disposal when Aiko now and then has to hold a piece until it  has been fixed by a string, belt or another wrap. The dressing is done in front of a full length mirror, leaving Aiko to easily enjoy the procedure without disturbing the work by bending her head. It is a great moment when the maid steps back from Aiko to overview her work and see if something needs to be corrected. Aiko admires her body in the mirror. She is a vision of superb burgundy silk with a little gold ornamentations and a tangerine obi. Not even at her own Coming-of-Age or wedding has she looked like this. She can’t breathe normally, but it is of no importance because her body is looking ten years younger. In the mirror she sees the maid bow to tell her she finds everything in order. Aiko is so overwhelmed she turns and bows to the maid like she was Lady Ikeda. She has deservingly made the maid happy but probably with a face red of embarrassment. With the maid being masked that doesn’t matter.

The maid next opens a closet. Aiko expects her to take out her geta or her handbag which are not to be seen. But she produces a mask and wig similar to what she is wearing herself. Aiko has to be masked. Are all Dragon women masked, or is it just because of the occasion, or because she is with a noble family today? Aiko has never worn a ko-omote wooden mask before but it is fitted easily on her face and tied with a silk strap by the maid. On top of her balaclava she senses it as a light pressure at several points except for her vision. Aiko immediately thinks of the Sheep mask or all the Boar schoolgirls she has seen putting on their kigurumi mask with its small peek holes inside large black cartoon like eye surfaces. With the ko-omote mask the entire pupils of the face portrayed are holes to see through but the eyes shown are very small, even smaller than the natural Sheep mask to make it look like the submissive young woman they are portraying obediently gazes down. And then they are made of wood turning the peek holes into short tubes and blocking all peripheral vision. While Aiko has thought about her sight and adjusted to the mask, the top and back of her head has been covered with a black wig attached to her balaclava with some cloth pins. Aiko looks at two identical heads in the mirror. Her mask has exactly the same design as that of the maid. Is this to signify that all women are equally inferior to men no matter if they are maids, housewives or ladies?

But the identical heads are only a temporary step. The maid, standing behind Aiko holds up a large black square sheet of silk, which, after letting Aiko see it, drapes it on top of her head to reach down over her shoulders like Lady Ikeda always appears. Aiko is blinded. Does she have to stay blind nearly all the time like Lady Ikeda? But after the silk sheet has been attached to the wig the maid flips the front half back. Knowing the question Aiko wants to ask she mimics flipping the front down and makes the symbol for a man. Aiko nods relieved. But she has to take another step in being like Lady Ikeda. The maid has a silk lace in burgundy matching the kimono. She gestures Aiko to hold her hands folded up in front of her and then with skilled movements she threads the lace through five or six sets of matching eyelets at each sleeve edge to tie the sleeves to each other. Of the new black stockings, gloves and balaclava only the latter shows a little in the neck opening of the kimono below the mask and the wig. Aiko is nearly completely covered in borrowed items. But more importantly her communication is limited to bowing and head movements. Unlike Lady Ikeda at her home in Aigata, Aiko is not wearing any phone-like electronic device under her coverings. Her phone is in her handbag which is in the closet and she can’t handle it. Finally the maid guides Aiko towards the door, stopping her just before leaving the mats. Then she puts a pair of zori sandals in front of her. They are soft, warm and covered in silk brocade the same color as her obi. No doubt this is the right footwear to accompany this extraordinary kimono. Aiko feels ready to attend a noble wedding. But just as the maid is about to open the door a sudden impulse makes Aiko shake her head. The maid lets her hand drop down not understanding. Then Aiko makes three deep bows in a row making the maid so embarrassed she turns her head away. But Aiko is sure she appreciates being praised and quietly waits until the maid turns her head again and then opens the door.

She looks down the corridor to see it seems to lead to a hall where Aiko can just glimpse some other extraordinary kimonos standing. Her tight waist, her scent, the rustling of her high quality silk and especially her knees strap makes her move like a real noble woman with tiny steps gliding down the corridor. Slowly, feeling like she has seen Lady Ikeda moving, she approaches the hall. Inside the hall, with her restricted view, she has to turn her head a lot to overview the surroundings. There are something like thirty women all standing, a few turning their heads to see what is going on, but most have head down like they were among men. The first remarkable thing is of course that all heads are identical. The same ko-omote mask and wig with a flipped back black silk sheet on top. Then it strikes Aiko that most of the kimonos are in many ways identical as well. They are differently colored and the obi’s are differently colored as well to match the kimono. But they are all cut exactly alike having the same stitching and the subtle gold ornamentation is identical. It’s like the display of a mass produced doll available in a large number of colors. But there are a few women dressed even more exquisitely than Aiko and her copies. These are perhaps the noble women of Dragon or the grooms close family or both.

Most of the women are clustered at one corner of the room and approaching them Aiko sees why. There is a buffet. It’s a little early for lunch, but then they can’t have solid food for lunch unless someone removes the mask and unties the sleeves or feeds them, which Aiko thinks very unlikely. Like when working she has to have liquid food and that is what is on the menu here. There are no samples on the counter, but a display scrolls slowly through a written menu containing most liquid food Aiko can think of. There are four women on her side of the long counter, all standing with heads a little bowed, not to avoid looking at men, but to connect the mouth hole of the mask with the cup in front of them through a straw. They are drinking, but for a casual glance they are standing much like many of the other women. Behind the counter are two maids. One approaches Aiko and points to her mouth as she comes close to the counter. Aiko has decided she better get filled now as she doesn’t know when it will be possible to eat later, making her nod to the maid. The display then changes, switching to show each category of food. Aiko shakes her head until blended vegetables are shown. Then she nods and the display switches between individual flavors. When it comes to carrots Aiko nods and the display writes ‘Please confirm that you have ordered carrot blend.’ Aiko nods so the maid reaches under the counter to produce a cup and a straw in seconds. The maid reaches over the counter to insert the straw in the hole in Aiko’s mask having to force it through the slit in her balaclava as well. Aiko can now bow her head and have her lunch. While drinking she realizes it is very likely that Mrs. Okada, Mrs. Nakano and very likely others that she knows are among the women here in the hall now. To Aiko it looks like all invited female guests will be gathered in here before the actual wedding ceremony begins, but as long as the sleeves of their kimonos are tied no communication is possible and they can only admire the clothing of each other without knowing who is wearing a particular kimono. They are just walking dress forms, but as long as the clothing displayed has this quality Aiko doesn’t mind being a mannequin and watching a fashion display for a day. Every time her restricted sight falls upon one of her fantastic copies she is reminded that she looks just as wonderful and a surge of pleasure goes through her body. After the cup of carrots Aiko is able to overview the entire hall again and it appears as if the number of women has nearly doubled. Most weddings start at noon, and that time can’t be far away.

18.

Aiko has held her head low for a few minutes to doze while still standing. From her work she is used to standing for long and she doesn’t think this will be a problem. She has figured out they can’t sit at least until after the ceremony as this may ruin the perfect fitting of the kimono or wrinkle it. Just as she is about to even let her mind rest for a while a sudden rustle of tens of silk dresses makes her lift her head. From a corridor opposite the buffet the bride and her mother are about to enter the hall. Just inside the hall they stop and maids start dividing the guests in two to form a line on either side of the path from the corridor across the hall to a large exit door next to the buffet. Within a minute the small bridal procession starts moving again. It consists only of Miss Ikeda, Lady Ikeda and four Shrine Maidens. Two walk in front side by side to lead the procession, and the other two walk one each side of the bride and her mother to guide and assist them. The maidens are dressed traditionally in a bright red kimono with white sleeves and top. To this is added matching red zori, white socks and white gloves. They are masked like old Boar girls, but probably coming from a school connected with the shrine, their masks are not cartoon characters. They portray a very lifelike face of young women of marriageable age, much like the Sheep masks, but they are not made of fabric but of some thin rigid material. The mask faces look so pretty and perfect that no real woman has a face like that. But Miss Ikeda comes breathtakingly close. For the first minutes nobody really looks at the fantastic white silk kimono making a perfect wrap for her body. Of course female faces rarely show, but nobody has seen a face like this anywhere. Miss Ikeda doesn’t directly compete with the maidens as her face is traditionally powdered in white with a little rouge and strong red lips and her hair emphasizes her face much more than the maidens, set up in a large bun with decorative combs. Adding to Miss Ikeda’s fabulous look is her posture, head a little down and practically closed eyes as if really wanting to be the submissive wife the ceremony in a short while will make her. Miss Ikeda is not allowed to see the lines of beautiful silk she passes. And Lady Ikeda, as always, is unable to see as well. She is the complete contrast of her daughter as she is dressed mainly in black. The kimono is just the finest quality black silk without any embroidery or decorations. On top is a sheet of similar black silk hiding her head and barely seen below are black socks or perhaps pantyhose, like Aiko. Contrasting this is only a wide obi of golden silk and zori in gold brocade.

After five minutes the small procession has reached the exit and stops. The maiden taking care of Miss Ikeda reaches for the large hood hanging down the back of the wedding kimono and pulls it up over the head ending with only the chin to be seen without looking from below. This is a signal to all the noble ladies dressed in even better quality kimonos than Aiko to break the lines and form two lines behind the bride and Lady Ikeda. A maid comes to each line and starts flipping the black silk sheets down. The remaining identically dressed guests are gestured to line up behind the noble women, and the maids continue down the lines blinding the guests. The procession now consisting of more than fifty women is again moving forward. Blinded Aiko now and then gets a small pat on her back or shoulder to correct her movements. Her head bowed it’s her forehead that stops her when touching the woman in front. The procession progresses very slowly like this for something like half an hour. After coming through the doorway the surface doesn’t seem to change, all that is happening is probably just that they are crossing a yard. It’s not a sunny day and being covered in several layers almost everywhere Aiko is unable to sense if they are inside or outside. But the last five minutes before the procession stops Aiko thinks she can hear much faster and heavier male footsteps nearby. Less than a minute after they have stopped her blinding sheet is flipped back. Aiko just slowly lifts her head to see that the first four or five rows are under an open roof housing a small shrine. Starting just behind the bride is a screen going some ten meters out into the yard along the left side of the lines of women separating them from the men. The lines keeps moving forward because a Shrine Maiden is making the women stand in quarter circles behind and to the right of the bride. Soon Aiko has her final position to stand for the ceremony. Where the screen ends she is just able to see the right half of the groom from the back. The groom has arrived so it can’t be long before the ceremony starts. It is always arranged so that the men have to wait for as short a time as possible. But Aiko can’t help taking a quick glance behind her. Apart from the women dressed like herself she sees that there are only a couple of Shrine maidens and four or five maids. It is a very distinguished invitation they have.

A priest appears in front of the bridal couple and it becomes totally quiet. After a ritual he addresses the spirits of past generations of the two families to tell them that the families are going to be united and he asks the spirits to help the young couple in having a happy life together. Then the groom reads an oath to stay faithful and obedient to each other in their married life. Having stopped reading for the first time he turns his head a little towards the bride, who takes the oath by doing a light bow. The time to regret is over this marks the actual moment of marriage. A sense of happiness spreads among those assembled, and if faces could be seen many would show relief in addition to a smile. A Shrine Maiden comes in front of the groom with a cup of sake while another unties the bride’s sleeves to make her hands appear. Like her face they are only powdered in white and with nails painted strong red. The groom has taken a sip of the cup and now hands it over to the bride, who takes a sip. The ritual of three-times-three exchange has begun, and for each exchange the couple holds the cup a little more inside their hands making their fingers touch more and more during the exchange. Aiko remembers from her own wedding that the first touch, after the wedding has been arranged for months, prepared for weeks and a morning of dressing up to the nines, feels like a strong current is send through the body, and the groom has to make it happen when he receives the cup as the bride is on the edge of fainting in the next half minute.

For the next ritual the maidens then bring new cups of sake, firstly for the parents of the groom to sip, and then the cups are brought from a female to a male, or opposite, of the other family in an intricate sequence starting with going to the parents of the bride. For the women it is only a ritual drinking as the maidens just hold the cups to the mouth of the mask and tilts a little to let a drop run down the chin of the mask. If it even goes so far with the second woman remains unknown, because Lady Ikeda, as the only woman present, still has the front of the silk sheet down and the maid just lifts the cup up under it for some seconds. The families, by exchanging sake, have been ritually united, but the bride and groom haven’t seen each other except him seeing her hands and her sensing his.

The next ritual brings them a little closer. One maiden comes next to the groom holding up a small box, while another comes next to the bride to turn her to face the groom who has turned as well. The groom opens the box to take a ring of gold to place it on the finger of the bride, allowed to hold her hand to fit the ring. Then he guides her hand to the box to let her hold his ring up and he puts his finger through the ring. The groom then is handed a left glove for the bride which he hold open to her and guides on her hand. It’s of course white silk to match her remaining dress, and now he can, if he dares, caress her lower forearm while pulling the short glove to just above the wrist. He has of course another chance and might even be a bit more daring when proceeding with the right glove. At the weddings Aiko has attended this ends the ceremony as the groom now can guide the bride away, her head down to let the hood cover the chin not to be seen when guided through the male crowd.

But the groom doesn’t take hold of the bride. Instead the maiden next to the bride turns to Lady Ikeda and turns her to face the groom. Meanwhile the maiden next to the groom turns the bride to face her mother, back to the groom and the other men. Aiko gasps inside her mask and senses all the women around her do the same, as the maiden unties Lady Ikeda’s sleeves and immediately continues to flip back her face cover. Aiko and probably nearly all the women present have never seen Lady Ikeda uncovered like that before. Of course her hands just show as a pair of superb quality black silk gloves. For the head it’s hard to say what could have been expected, but maybe what is seen is a little disappointing, it looks exactly like the rest of the women present, a ko-omote mask and a black wig. But where the mask and the wig meet something is wrong. Aiko has just seconds to perceive it because then the mask is partly covered by Lady Ikeda lifting her hands to the back of her head. Some seconds later the mismatch is revealed as she takes her hands down holding the mask in one hand. But she is still masked, now exactly like everybody else. She has been wearing two masks, and now she ceremonially transfers the face of herself and all married Dragon women to her daughter by holding the mask to her daughter’s face for the bride herself to hold it while her mother ties it. And then the bride folds her hands and holds them out from the body to let her mother tie the sleeves together again. Now the bride has both become a Dragon wife and is a noble woman with tied sleeves and she can finally let her head sink down to make the hood cover her now masked face completely. While one maiden turns the bride around to the groom, the other again covers Lady Ikeda’s head and ties her sleeves. The wedding ceremony is over and the groom leads his bride away.

The Four Shrine Maiden now line up among the women as on the journey to the ceremony. It’s still Lady Ikeda at the front having a maiden to escort her, but next to her now is another woman in black, who has to be the mother of the groom, Mrs. Kawakami. Some women move to let the small procession start walking up along the screen. Halfway to where the screen ends the maids start gesturing women to line up behind the two women, and when in line their blinding sheets are flipped down. Soon Aiko is in line and blinded. They move very slowly for something like half an hour again but Aiko senses they are moving in a different direction. The silk sheet is flipped back before she is actually sure the lines have stopped.

They are in a small hall or lobby not much longer than the length of the procession. The Shrine Maidens are gone and some of the noble women in front as well. Still most of the two lines are standing along a wall of finely carved wood panels, but nobody looks at the interior because in front of a large double door at the center of the far wall facing all of them is the bride. She has changed, or had removed, the entirely white kimono to show a fabulous bright red creation with white and gold embroidery and white obi with gold edging. It takes several minutes before anyone takes their eyes away from the sight. If not her placement or the kimono outshining everybody else convinces them they look at the bride. The head is unchanged from the end of the ceremony with its fabulous hairdo showing her hair and white powdered skin showing where the mask is not covering, unlike the remaining women who show black cloth covering the neck and wearing silk sheets. Although facing them the bride doesn’t enjoy the sight of her guests. Her head is bowed demurely and she looks only at a spot on the empty floor, but she may have changed in a room where she was able to get a glimpse of the procession leaving the shrine.

Maids passing now and then, blocking her view of the bride makes Aiko gradually aware what is going on around her. Starting at the front of the lines a number of maids are taking the guests to some rooms along the opposite wall. Those coming out don’t go back in the lines but find an empty space on the floor to wait and observe like everybody else, making the lines gradually dissolve. After twenty minutes waiting it is Aiko’s turn. A maid takes her to a restroom. First she is offered to use the toilet which Aiko accepts. The maid uncovers where needed and lifts her kimonos and cleans her when she is finished. There is no unnecessary undressing. Then she is offered a glass of water to drink, an offer she accepts, the maid, while holding the glass with a straw at her mouth thoroughly inspects her kimono for objects like dust. Then the dress is brushed, the maid pulls a little here and there to check everything will stay where it’s supposed to be and finally she checks that all ties are still tight. Now Aiko should look like when she left the dressing room and she is sure she does. After opening the door the maid gestures Aiko to find a place to wait and leaves to take care of another woman.

Again she spends a minute thinking that Mrs. Okada or Mrs. Nakano might be standing right next to her. But as something like forty women wear a kimono only differing from her own by colors, nothing identifies the women inside these kimono’s and they can’t communicate except nodding or bowing, perhaps she will never know which are her friends. The only woman not waiting before the ceremony, Lady Ikeda, is closely surrounded by women already, now able to admire her superb quality garment. At other weddings women in this situation would have passed the mother’s of the bride and groom bowing to congratulate. But Lady Ikeda is blinded and Mrs. Kawakami hasn’t been identified for sure. Instead everybody very slowly moves a little around and nods to everyone they pass.

Then suddenly everybody turns to face the bride, Aiko sees it’s because the doors behind her are being opened. They get some moments to look into a large hall with tables arranged in a large square. From somewhere else the men are being seated around the tables. The doors are something like ten meters behind the groom’s seat Aiko observes. She recognizes his back from seeing it at the ceremony and further many men greet him on the way to their seats. A minute after the doors have been opened all the men have apparently been seated because then a male voice is heard through a sound system. He welcomes everybody to this wedding between two fine families and then starts telling about the achievements of the Kawakami family, a little about the grandfather of the groom, but most about the business success of Mr. Kawakami, the current head of the family. Then the Ikeda family is praised. Here the long line of noble ancestors is the starting point and then he goes on with the bride’s grandfather, perhaps because he is present and last but most important Lord Ikeda is praised. Using exactly equal time for each family and doing it in ten minutes total shows that the speaker is very good. He ends the family presentations by saying “Please welcome the future mother of the Kawakami-Ikeda family union and the wife of the young Mr. Kawakami, the bride” At these words the bride has lifted her head to get a short glimpse at close range of her female guests and greet them all with a nod before bowing her head as deep as possible and turning to wriggle slowly towards her husband, guided and assisted by a maid on either side.

All the men stand and clap while the bride advances. A maid with a small podium on wheels overtakes the bride to place the podium just behind the seat of the groom. The podium is covered in white silk and has a large white silk cushion covering most of its top. Reaching the podium the kimono of the bride is lifted on top of the cushion and the podium has a height just allowing her to get her knees onto the cushion perhaps lifted a little by the maids. In ten seconds the bride is kneeling on the center of the podium looking down and the maids spend a little longer arranging her clothing. Aiko hopes she has found a comfortable position, because she is probably to sit like this during the entire reception, not expected to move in the slightest. Then the speaker coughs a little making the applause stop and the men seat themselves again. At this moment the maids with the female guests start flipping down everybody’s blinding sheet. The speaker says he will announce everybody present and at each name the man is to stand up and his wife to stand straight, all women asked to bow until announced. Aiko knows the men of course are seated according to importance and relationship to the bridal couple, expecting her own husband to be one of the last and herself having to stay bowed for many minutes.

During the long listing of full names, city and occupation Aiko sees inside her head a man alternately on each side of the groom rise and bow, first to the groom and then in at least two directions. Slowly the men going to stand are further down the tables to reach the tables opposite the groom. Aiko is surprised suddenly hearing “Mr. Mutsuto Sasaki from Aigata, assistant department manager.” She straightens immediately and in seconds a hand touches her shoulder. A kick on one of her zori makes her step out of them and then she is guided to walk. While slowly moving towards the table, knees nearly touching and head a little down, even if blinded, she hears the names of Mr. Okada and Mr. Nakano following. In a minute she is guided to kneel, finding she has a cushion in front of her. There are about ten names following making Aiko rather proud. Then the men start talking to those around them, and Aiko immediately finds out she is, as expected kneeling behind Mutsuto, who has Mr. Nakano on his left. Of course it means Mrs. Nakano is right beside her but because none of them is supposed to move unless a maid guides them to she won’t be able to greet Mrs. Nakano in any way or find out what color her kimono is while in here.

But service is very fast. Only about five minutes after Aiko has heard the men starting to have soup, Aiko’s chin is touched and a straw entered through her mask and balaclava. The women get soup as well, but probably filtered. After some time her straw is replaced and she gets sake in between the courses. She then smells fish from the men’s table, but she is served blended vegetables. The dessert, a strawberry smoothie, makes Aiko think of the day at the clinic that brought her here. Has Miss Ikeda, now the young Mrs. Kawakami, decided this course? Despite this course means so much to her, Aiko totally forgets about eating when the announcer says “The next speaker is Mr. Mutsuto Sasaki from Aigata.” There have been a number of lovely speeches, starting with the father’s of the bridal couple over other family members to what actually sounded just like ordinary people mostly knowing the groom. But one or two have, in very short speeches talked about his wife’s relationship to the bride. Aiko remembers speeches about someone she played with as little and a schoolmate from Dragon.

But now she can hear Mutsuto get up, and immediately following a maid flips back her sheet and pulls out her straw in one movement. She is allowed to stand up and watch while her husband speaks. But after a quick glance around the tables, only to see that many faces are turned towards Mutsuto, that Mrs. Nakano wears a pale sage green kimono with dark yellow obi and the woman on her other side wears deep yellow with navy obi, Aiko faces down as staring at men is inappropriate. Mutsuto says “Distinguished Kawakami and Ikeda families, honored guests. Mr. Nakano, Mr. Okada, myself and our wives are here today because of the young Mrs. Kawakami’s interest in dental care. She shares that passion with our wives, who work in this profession in Aigata. When I got married to my wife she was already into her dental education, and I allowed her to complete her education and work. At the beginning it was only for the money, but since I learnt that through her work she meets all kinds of people from poor widows, she can give one less worry, to mothers of young schoolgirls wanting to do her any favors possible for taking care of their most precious belonging. My wife will never be a dedicated housewife, but helping others has made her a loving wife and given me some experiences I would not have been without. Young Mr. Kawakami I assure you, your wife’s passion for teeth, if allowed to continue, will turn into a strong lasting passion for you.”

Mutsuto bows to the groom and gets seated again while he is applauded. Aiko doesn’t get to see Mutsuto sitting as her silk sheet immediately is flipped down and she has to kneel again. But Aiko is filled with pride, unaware that Mutsuko was capable of making such a fine speech. Perhaps Mr. Okada and Mr. Nakano have assisted him or written the speech, Mutsuto as husband of the dentist only to say it. But no matter what she will prove to him tonight she has the passion for him he says. Aiko has hardly thought about this when the words of the announcer grab her attention. “Before the next speaker the groom wishes to comment on Mr. Sasaki’s speech. Please Mr. Kawakami” The groom, who has not answered any of the speakers until now, says “Dear Mr. Sasaki, Mr. Okada and Mr. Nakano. Some members of my family have told me my wife working will be good for me. But hearing it from you, who actually have wives working, is very convincing. I have enrolled her at the dental school. Then she as dentist we can settle anywhere. Your wives would like us to come to Aigata, my parent’s want us to stay in Tokuto and my parents-in-law would like us to move here. No matter where we will be heartily welcomed, because everywhere in Vippon female dentists are few.” Aiko burns for shouting hooray, embracing Mrs. Nakano right next to her, to flip back her sheet to see how the bride reacts or even better run over and congratulate her with her admission. But being a well-behaved woman she stays practically unmoving for some seconds sensing the tightness of her kimono making her unable to breathe and the blood rushing to her head and then she . . .

Copyright © 2008, Bo_Emp ; Bo_Emp ‘at’ yahoo ‘dot’ com

Thanks to Nye North for proof reading

Back to the Vippon menu…

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