“Mine is smaller than yours” was the unlikely slogan on a T-shirt worn by a burly man at the Slow Food Market in Stellenbosch, about an hour’s drive from Cape Town. Further investigation revealed however that this memorable phrase merely indicated that he was a dedicated exponent of bonsai – just one of the many Japanese cultural activities showcased at Stellenbosch’s Slow Food Market during March 2019.

The reason for this display of national pride was that there are nearly six months to go before Japan hosts the Rugby World Cup – the first such cup to be hosted in Asia.  Eager to rev up support and enthusiasm in both countries, local Japanese officials joined forces with Springbok rugby stars and officials to explain the programme and stir up national pride.

After all, our ties go back centuries. According to Wikipedia, Jan van Riebeeck, in 1643, visited Dejima in Nagasaki harbour. This was a trading post where Japan could interact with the outside world. He apparently accompanied the representative of the Dutch East Indies Company in Japan, and later proposed selling African animal hides.

Market visitors not only enjoyed the regular Saturday selection of fabulous artisanal foods, wines, beers and coffees at this popular market, but they could also buy Japanese clothing, hi-tech accessories and refreshments from the array of stalls. You could book a trip to Japan, network over business opportunities, and watch displays of karate, archery and dance ‒ in the unlikely vicinity of vineyards and Cape Dutch vernacular architecture.

The setting for the cultural displays was ideal – an intimate amphitheatre with a background of sunlit white plaster and an enormous spread of dark pink bougainvillea. It offset the embroidered detailing and the carefully wrapped and tied kimonos and costumes. They shimmered in the African sunlight as the dancers – a mother, later joined by her daughter and son ‒ proceeded through a highly stylised series of steps and arm movements, complemented by carefully orchestrated sweeps of fans and a parasol.

A highlight of this mini-trip to the Land of the Rising Sun was a demonstration of the iconic tea ceremony, a structured sequence of movement and etiquette founded on the qualities of humility, respect, purity and tranquillity. A tiny sweet, wrapped in origami paper, was placed in front of each of the kneeling guests: We learnt they could only unwrap and sample the sweet when the hostess indicated they could go ahead. Its sweetness offset the slightly bitter tea taste. Clearly all the senses were sharpened:  hearing, given the sound of wood against ceramic; aroma, with wafts of scented tea; sight, by the beautiful hand-painted ceramic bowl, turned to display the delicate pattern to delight the guest.

I also loved watching the stylised archery, the men stately in black and white costumes, long bows towering above their heads: every movement choreographed and recalling centuries of refinement and discipline.

It was fascinating too to talk to Cosplay members, who were arrayed in costumes inspired by computer games, audio-visual shows, comics and books. “When you are in costume you try to embody the character – it’s a tribute to the creator,” said a woman in a corseted yellow and white outfit, with matching ‒ and slightly disconcerting ‒ yellow contact lenses. A young woman – a financial analyst in her working hours – sported a mane of silver hair, topped with a padded green leaf headdress. She told me she was inspired by the acclaimed 1980s film My Neighbour Totoro, where two sisters encounter and become friends with playful forest spirits.

Cosplay was established locally in December 2011, with eight players, and there are now over 2000 members.  “Anyone can do it and everyone should try at least once,” I was assured.

As I slowly made a final foray through the stalls, before setting off for Cape Town, I heard strains of Japanese mingling with Afrikaans. It was the last thing I would have expected, had I not known the context. But somehow I had been successfully transported to Japan for a mini-break, and felt uplifted and refreshed by this exposure to a very different culture.

To find out more:

Rugby World Cup https://www.rugbyworldcup.com/supporters

Stellenbosch Slow Market: https://oudelibertas.co.za/stellenbosch-slowmarket/

Pics Judy Bryant