Mrs. Sato, a music teacher in her late 50s, blew us away. Taking the beanbags we'd been using to work out Mill's Mess, she began a right-to-left shower pattern, reversing every third ball to the right. A miniature double-headed shower, in both directions!
This, as we watched astounded, was our introduction to "otedama," a traditional Japanese girl's game and a quickly dying form of juggling.
If you juggle in Japan, odds are you'll be told the word for it is otedama. But otedama is both more and less than what Westerners think of as juggling. For example, there are no crossing patterns (a simple cascade draws oohs and ahhs), but there is a complex system of balancing, throwing and the shower pattern.
No one knows when otedama developed in Japan. Ask almost anyone under 35 and they'll tell you that they can't do it, but that their mother or grandmother can. Ask the grandmothers, and they'll tell you that they learned from their own grandmothers. It is very rare to find a Japanese man who can play otedama.
Otedama seems to have reached the height of its popularity during and after World War II, when other toys were unavailable and life in Japan was hard. The beanbags, called "ojami," were sewn of scraps of cloth. Slightly larger but half the weight of standard Western beanbags, they were made flat and filled with azuki beans, then sewn up with a draw string. The draw string served a practical purpose. When things were at their worst during the war, parents used ojami to smuggle extra food to their children at school. Several ladies told us of fights in their younger days over the beans inside the bags.
When things got better it was common for a girl to have four or five ojami with her at all times, particularly in winter when it was too cold to play outside.
The girls played singly or in groups from about the ages of 5-17. At its most basic level, otedama resembles jacks more than it does juggling. Toss one bag up and, while it's in the air, simply move a second ojami over to the other hand. The next step is to move two, then three or four, moving each ojami one at a time while the toss bag is in the air.
The next level of play involves wedging the ojami between the fingers of the throwing hand rather than just moving them from place to place. Toss one, then with the left hand place bags between the fingers of the right hand, holding up to four ojami in this manner, then catching the toss ball once again in the palm of the right hand.
The final move of this stage is when the very best players toss one up, using only three fingers, and then catch the bag balanced on the back of the throwing hand. The second through fourth or fifth bags follow, each one thrown, caught, and balanced together on the same hand.
Finally they move on to the shower pattern, usually in a follow-the-leader fashion. First, two in one hand, usually done in the front-to-back motion discouraged by many jugglers. Three in one hand is done in the familiar outside fountain. We haven't met anyone who could do four in one hand, but several of our older students can maintain impressive runs of a two-handed shower with four balls. We've heard claims of childhood friends who could do a five ojami shower, but have yet to see it demonstrated.
It takes a lot of coaxing to get any demonstrations at all, as the ladies find it difficult to believe that we're really interested in such a "boring old traditional game."
We've only seen one trick, and that was Mrs. Sato's reverse. Playing otedama is very straightforward, more a sociable than a competitive activity. In traditional Japan, it wasn't proper to outshine your peers.
There are several songs associated with otedama, but they are rapidly being forgotten. To track them down, we had to persuade several friends to call their grandmothers, and even most of these venerable old ladies couldn't remember the full lyrics, though they could still toss and balance the ojami.
Although Western jugglers are regularly featured at Japanese theme parks and on TV, the native manipulative arts are fast disappearing. Perhaps only the popular team now is the Osame brothers, Sometaroo and Somenosuke. While one comments, the other rolls balls on umbrellas, performs outrageous manipulations of a teapot and mouthstick. But these men are nearing retirement age and slowing up. They are largely ignored by the younger generation and there seems to be no one around to take their place.
So if you want to see juggling in Japan, bring along a few lightweight beanbags and go see the old ladies in the park. It'll take a big smile, some sign language and lots of encouragement, but they'll get the bags flying, all the while chanting slowly under their breath, "Oteshite, osara" - pick them up again and practice!
Editor's note - Thanks also to Russ Kaufman, who submitted material on otedama to Juggler's World.