Monday, August 09, 2010

from Kyoto: arrival

It’s a long flight from Paris – nearly twelve hours, but I am impressed how like clockwork it goes. The arrival time is posted on the screen as 8:26 a.m. (Monday). It never changes. As we approach Korea, there is some turbulence, and still that time stays the same. The plane doesn’t go higher, or lower, but continues on its steady course, destined to get there no matter what. 8:26. Japan is a place where there are few delays.

landing in Osaka

It all seems so easy. We land on time, my bag spits out promptly, I find the train station, I buy the ticket and by 9:16, I am on the Kyoto Express.

If you do not know these central islands of Japan, then you will be surprised speeding through them. It is a continued stream of towns and cities. There isn't a break. What agriculture remains between Osaka and Kyoto is squeezed in between buildings. Instead of lawns, there are rice paddies.


Arriving at the Kyoto train station, it all comes back to me: the sensory pull toward another culture. The immediate absence of English. The clamor of noise where you begin to identify recurring sounds and words, but you have no idea what they mean. And you will never know.

Just past the platform I see the beloved Japanese sweet shop. By the end of my stay, I will be an addict. It all grows on you as you search for ways to accept a habit that is not typically yours. (And it is no surprise that when you bring the local candies and cakes back home to your own turf, they lose their meaning and become just something ordinary.)


Kyoto is arguably Asia’s most beautiful city. But at the train station, it is just a large Japanese city. Very very modern.


I search for a post office to access an international ATM and then I search for my subway line. As I walk through tunnels and pass countless shops and throngs of people, I think -- this is my brief moment of adjustment. Of accepting that everything around me is different and will remain thus til the end of the month.

I take the subway to the last stop. I am in a quieter neighborhood now – by the northern hills. Residential, for the most part. With an occasional rice paddy of course. And small, almost hidden shrine.




My apartment is functional, very neat, very modern. Lots of wrong buttons to push. (You’ll understand once you have come across a toilet that does more than just flush, or a bathtub that fills with water at the push of a button -- in the kitchen.) It’s spacious by Japanese standards. Equipped for an academic: bookshelves predominate. Long computer cables available. A comfortable small desk. A TV that cannot distract a foreigner (only Japanese channels).

I am in the middle of condo sale negotiations and so the first thing I do is fire off emails here and there and in doing this I realize I am very tired. Two nights on an airplane almost back to back leaves a mark. I decide to go out, acquaint myself with the neighborhood and head back downtown for a walk that can begin my total Kyoto immersion.

First, then, the neighborhood. Houses, rice, playgrounds, and the occasional place that throws open its door invitingly, but reveals nothing to me of what's inside.


The very first store I enter is just a few blocks down. A sweet shop.


It sells ice cream as well, and did I mention how steamy hot Kyoto is in August? The humidity is tropical – wonderfully moisturizing and dreadfully sticky all at once. I pick up a small pistachio ice cream bar and then I remember that in Japan, there is always the potential for a hidden surprise of sweet bean paste, when you least expect it.


It’s absolutely delicious and as so much of the food here – very subtle. It’s interesting that the sweet-toothed Japanese complain that cakes in other countries are too sweet for them. Here, the flavors are more delicate. Pay attention, or it’ll pass you by!

Japan: ice cream with sweet beans, girls in school uniforms, on bikes, texting.


I’m back on the subway, getting off in downtown Kyoto, heading for a stroll through the (covered) food market. Japan is a place where you remember your sense of smell. The faint scent of foods dipped in soy, pickled, boiled, fried. Words don’t help here, but surely walking through a market with eyes closed you’ll know you’re in Japan.


And perhaps “market” conjures up the wrong image, because the Kyoto market has more prepared foods than produce.


I’m hungry, but I haven’t found my bearings yet. There are no English signs, no explanations that will make any sense at all. In fact, it is amazing how much written language is all around me and how only the numerical digits are familiar.


I pause by a small stand with rice balls, or triangles actually. Yes, definitely a good snack. But which one? I think I finally pick a mildly chickenish one, but I can’t be sure.


The walk through the market relaxes me. The tiredness is ebbing. I’m enjoying the sudden explosion of new vignettes around me.



I leave the market and continue on to a department store to buy dinner. The market tickles and tantalizes, the department stores explode with counter after counter of prepared foods. Again, there is a confusion of meats and fishes and fried whatever, and the sellers are in the aisles enticing you, asking you to take note, but of what? I can only guess. I buy something that looks like rice cakes or egg cakes or bean cakes...


... and some pickled salads, and I deliberate on some of the green tea cakes, but decide to take it easy this first day.


On the busy commercial street again. I need to stock up with essentials. A towel (who knew). Dishwashing soap, detergent, that kind of thing. But which one? How can you tell? What if you do dishes with laundry soap or clothes with dish detergent?


These few early hours in Kyoto don’t tire me out – no, not at all. I want to walk further. And I am close to the uniquely lovely alley (Pontocho) that winds its way not far from the river. A place of secret restaurants and clubs (not so secret these days, but still somewhat forbidding to a person who can only guess at what foods are presented inside and at what price).


Here, if you arrive at dusk, you may come across an elusive geisha quickly stepping out, hurrying past you fleetingly, as if her careful art is not for you to see or appreciate. It’s reserved for whomever is paying for her company.

And I am immensely lucky, because I spot one, peering out, getting ready to make her dash...


...and then some more, passing her doorway, stopping to greet, perhaps welcoming her, she may be new to this...


Kyoto. A first evening and I already think that time moves quickly here. In some ways.


I leave the quiet alley, where young girls find spaces to share secrets, and geisha disappear into unmakred doorways.



I pick up a can of Japanese beer (at the price of a sixpack back home) and head home. I eat my foods to the sound of Japanese weather on TV. We’re either in line for a monsoon or a partly sunny day. Who can tell.