Wednesday, August 25, 2010

from Kyoto: connecting dots

Morning routines are so predictable -- the same the world over. I work, I shower, I work some more. Morning coffee here is a challenge (no, unless I am camping, I will not use the instant stuff). But, the coffee shop is a welcome break. With cinnamon toast these days.


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My subway ride to the university is a mere ten minute deal. Five stops. Today, as I look around, I think – why is it that young men look different here? Is it the clothes? The mannerisms? No! It’s the hair! They use more product. They style it. Just in the space of that five stop ride, these guys board my car. A sample of hair styles. Groomed with care.


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Okay, let me just add one photo of a young woman in the car. For balance.


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The afternoon teaching period ends for me just before three. I think about what to do for an hour or two before returning to the routines at home.

There is a cluster of museums a short subway ride away. Along with a shrine and a garden. A pleasant combination.

I walk from the subway through back lanes and alleys. I’m in the eastern part of town, close to the hills that provide a natural border for Kyoto. There are a number of old wooden homes here and the pace feels significantly slower.


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It’s a short stroll to the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art -- which lies just beyond the massive gate that welcomes to the area of the shrine further down the road.


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What’s this though? Crowds? Real crowds, with a loudspeaker directing movement? Ah! The beloved (to the Japanese, perhaps even more than to Bostonians) Impressionists are here from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.


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I resist the temptation to take a peek at the traveling exhibit. It is so crowded in the gallery (and the tickets are a small fortune) that even I’m likely to wince at the noise, the clamor, the congestion. I choose, instead, to view the permanent collection. It’s empty of visitors (they’re all on the other side of the building) and it is truly lovely. Currently they’re displaying works from the previous century – all by women.


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I spend a few minutes here and then cross the street to the other, equally empty museum – the National Museum of Modern Art.

There’s a sweet cafĂ© on the ground floor and I pause for a homemade soymilk custard with fruits...


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On the third floor, I enjoy seeing the Japanese screens...


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And I spend a while looking at photos by an American photographer of war scenes from Okinawa toward the end of World War II. It is disquieting to be seeing this American set from a war with Japan in a Kyoto museum. The photos are exceptionally moving and they put me in a contemplative mood. I’m glad there is a shrine and a garden a few steps away.


The Heian Jingu Shrine is bright and gaudy as ever and it covers such an expansive space that you could hardly be bothered by other visitors.


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But the stunning surprise is the garden to the side. I surely must have seen it in my previous visits to Kyoto, but I do not remember it. And even in less tourist driven months, it could not have been as empty and beautiful as it was this Wednesday afternoon.


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The path leading around the streams and ponds is brushed with a broom that leaves a pretty pattern in the sand. I can see few footprints disturbing the criss cross marks.

The iris pond is past it’s blooming period, but my attention is completely diverted anyway, to the gray, slender necked visitor among the lily pads.


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You always hope that at least one water lily will show its magnificence when you visit a Japanese garden and sure enough, on the larger pond, I come across several buds and a handful of blooms with the lovely pink toned petals.


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It’s still warm outside, but the breeze is picking up in gusts and spurts and you can’t help but feel refreshed, even in less shady areas. I walk slowly, and I think how I forget back home how much there has been that I have loved about my visits to Japan.


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It’s not an easy kind of affection. (By comparison, Paris is a piece of cake.) Made harder by the fact that my travels here have been at times of greater stress in my life. As I walk between delicate maples and weeping willows, I try to connect the dots – to form some sensible narrative out of the entirety – the travels, the periods of work, the desire to be more deliberate, so that time does not merely pass, unnoticed.


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You can do this in a Japanese garden. You can sit on a bench and lose yourself in your thoughts for hours. Not this time for me. I’m still in a mild hurry to get back to my tasks at home.

I cross the bridge back to the western (more commercially crowded) side of the river...


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...and walk along the busy but still pretty streets of shops and restaurants...


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...and I stop for an early supper at Biotei.

It’s a tiny place of three tables and a counter with five seats. Three women make and serve a mostly vegetarian, mostly organic menu. It’s the first time I order a glass of (organic and Japanese and inexpensive and very good) wine since I left Paris. Along with it, I have breaded pieces of haddock (I think), over a fresh salad.


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...followed by cooked veggies in a tofu and soy sauce, and for dessert – I cannot resist the Japanese favorite meal ending: rice. This time, brown rice with cracked pepper. With tea and pickles at the side.

It is a sweetly comforting meal. The kind you love because yes, it’s fresh and honest – exactly that.

Alone, I watch others. The couple with the baby. And the somewhat older couple, where the man wears what looks to be a permanent frown. He is reading a book. He looks up, grunts a request for a beer. The waitress brings it. He pours himself a glassful. The wife (surely his companion is that) pours herself a tiny bit. Both go back to reading.


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I’m thinking surely we deserve more from our companions in life, but who am I to say. Perhaps their joy is a very personal one, found in the quiet habits that they have developed together.

I ride the subway back and walk home before the last sunrays have disappeared behind the northwestern hills of Kyoto. The sky is almost pink. The day feels that way as well.