Kyoto Is Still Full of Magic and Mystery
Despite the crushing advance of modernity, Japan’s former capital retains its age-old mystery and charm.
Kyoto is its own state of mind. Here everything is possible. Everything is beautiful, strange, exciting—the coffee shops, the gardens, the quiet lanes and temples. I want to understand the life behind the door curtains and the shuttered windows—just a little more on each visit. I want to learn the names of everything sold in the Nishiki food alley.
Sometimes I wonder whether Kyoto’s endless mystery isn’t just a function of my inability to read the signs. Would everything suddenly look totally mundane if I knew what the words said on the advertising placards and the noren curtains hanging in the door openings of the old machiya?
One day I’m biking without a destination and find a deserted street I’ve never been down before lined with beautiful machiya—traditional Japanese town houses. In the doorways to the teahouses hang red-and-white paper lanterns, with three red rings on them as the emblem of the Miyagawachō geishas. In between the teahouses are tiny vegetable stores, tofu shops, and hair salons. Old women work out front sweeping the sidewalks, even though they look spotless already. It’s quiet; from inside one open door I hear someone plucking a samisen lute and singing—perhaps a maiko practicing. This is Kyoto at its best, I think: stumbling by chance on a side-street idyll like this, like a secret no one else knows.
And so in the evening I stand before the kaburenjō theater of the Miyagawachō geishas: I’ve managed to buy a ticket to their show. In the street around me stand elegantly dressed Japanese, distinguished gentlemen and their wives in kimonos, geta sandals and traditional hairdos. Everywhere I look there are geiko (full-fledged geishas) and maiko too, come to watch the performance with their clients. Not a tourist in sight: the contrast between this scene and the Hanamikoji paparazzi hell just a few blocks away is striking. I linger on the theater steps to make a surreptitious study of two sweet maiko, those miraculous embodiments of elegance. I don’t stare, of course, but apparently my gaze sweeps over them too often, or lingers on them too long, because one of the maiko looks me straight in the eye and bows her head in a slow greeting. I’m so stunned—like some stupid elephant or shabby barbarian to whom beauty is shown—that I can’t even return the greeting. I cough and jerk my head weirdly (why has no one ever taught me how to behave if a maiko greets me?), and then almost tear up, because that fairy-tale creature actually sees me.
The performance is wonderful. At night I think about these last dreamlike night women from a vanishing world.
But more bliss lies in store for me: three days at Nicole’s yoga retreat in a Zen temple. As soon as I enter the Daishin-in temple, tranquility settles in and the world disappears. I’m given my own beautiful tatami room with a view of the rock garden. We do yoga and meditate on the tatami floor of the temple’s main hall, through whose sliding doors we have a view of the garden, and then also out of doors, on the wooden walkway that circles the hall. The air is fresh, a slight breeze caresses my skin, and the smooth wood is warm under the soles of my feet. For lunch we are served a perfect shōjin ryōri, the monks’ vegetarian meal: a row of low red tray tables has been arranged on the tatami, on each many small portions in bright red lacquered bowls. The temple priest’s wife serves us the “tea” favored by the monks, hot water in which rice burned on the bottom of the rice pot has been steeped—it has the same aroma of roasted rice as genmaicha. In the evening we bathe in the ofuro one by one; before bed I stand for a moment more admiring the moon over the dark rock garden.
At six the next morning, we wake to mediate. The temple priest rings the gong—bong, bong— then we do yoga for a while, then we’re silent for a while, then we walk slowly around the temple, our socks shushing on the tatami like hospital patients in their slippers. Then we quietly eat our lunch out of our lacquered bowls, chewing our food slowly and carefully with empty gazes, then we sit silent in the tearoom, looking silently out at the raked sand of the rock garden, thinking I am a mountain, I’m a pebble in the current, serene as a stone, ommm, I’m a gust of wind, but the outside world seeks entry over the temple wall, somebody’s boom box booming, the blare of a megaphone, sounds like some sort of sporting event in progress, emergency vehicles’ sirens, the bleating of traffic signals for the blind—I try to concentrate on the humming of the wind and the chirping of the birds, but it’s difficult, so deranged does the noise pollution make the external world sound. And that’s precisely what this is about: learning not to attach myself to the irritants the world throws in my path, but letting them flow past.
I write in my notebook:
compassion for myself and others
try to see the truth about yourself, even if it’s unpleasant use your energy wisely
don’t cling to things either physical or mental
and most important of all:
don’t attach yourself to your identity, or imagine that it is unchanging, for it changes all the time.
What a relief it is to think this way: to step outside the shell of my imagined self, drop it like a nō mask, be fresh, raw, new—anything at all.
Adapted from THE WOMEN I THINK ABOUT AT NIGHT by Mia Kankimäki. English translation copyright © 2020 by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.