A night in a ryokan. My last in Japan. And all the magic was there quietly in that room. I’d booked this place for my last night only because it was close to the train station and I had to head to the airport before dawn cracked the next day. But what a find it was. The peace and rich tranquility I’d looked all over Japan to find where waiting for me there. Patiently.
And so, rather than (a) scurry around frantically trying to see and taste all I hadn’t gotten to, or (b) catch up on all the work that was weighing on my mind – the two options I’d spent so much of my trip juggling, I sat on the floor cushions at that low-slung table, gazed into the perfect pebble-and-plant courtyard garden, and listened to an audiobook (Memoirs of a Geisha – set right here in Kyoto, on the very streets I’d been walking and cycling these past days) and gazed and gazed. Inward and outward.
I’d done something similar the previous night, so this was fast-becoming an addiction. On that occasion, having traipsed the streets of Gion, the geisha district, for hour upon hour, looking for just the right place, I’d found it: a wagyu steakhouse’s rooftop terrace. There, cuddled up with my camera bag on a sweet little sofa for two, under a blanket brought out for the poor suffering tourist-from-the-tropics, I’d sat for five hours, watching the red lantern reflections from Pontocho district float on the Kamo River and listening to the stories of these neighbourhoods from nearly a century before.
I’ve been realizing again what I knew all along: I’m not happy as a tourist. Not quite melancholy, but an inner dullness had plagued my being as, my friend having left and the snowboarding over, I’d tried to see the sights. I simply don’t care to tick the boxes. It doesn’t bring me any particular joy. I’m not particularly concerned whether a place is considered a special one or not. I’m constantly in search of something else: the spirit of the place. I found that spirit in the modern shopping districts of Tokyo, for instance. And on the metro platforms. Where I became enamoured with dress. With how the modern Japanese man and woman choose to present themselves. And they do choose. With meticulous precision. Every outfit an extraordinary confectionary: each item of clothing and accessory just so. But all so beautifully understated.
The Malaysian woman on the plane next to me right now was gushing earlier about the lack of litter in Japan. How clean and charming everything is. And I understood what she meant. I’d felt that aesthetically. One can walk along the streets without once seeing the sort of plastic, garish ‘beauty’ that litters so much of Southeast Asia, where women who look so stylish in traditional dress choose cheap bling and tacky, flesh-flashing outfits for their modern wear.
The Japanese woman’s sense of beauty is about far more than merely appealing to the dick; or certainly not in such obvious ways. A line in the Memoirs novel was notable on that subject: “In fact, a geisha leaves a tiny margin of skin bare all around the hairline, causing her makeup to look even more artificial, something like a mask worn in Noh drama. When a man sits beside her and sees her makeup like a mask, he becomes that much more aware of the bare skin beneath.” The most exquisite and highly desired geisha wore ornate, heavy obi sashes wrapped around the kimono many times and so knotted that they belie the figure entirely.
But I’m getting carried away with musings and personal distastes… The Japanese woman of today is all about neutral shades – oh, the beige trenchcoat: never has it looked so desirable to me – with wide-legged pants gathered into tiny waists with boxy jackets over flowing blouses. And always Spanish shoes. Denim everywhere too. Sophistication and casual style in equal measure.
Partially Zen, I guess. And that worked its magic, just as anyone who knows me knew it would, when I found myself photographing moss and fallen leaves and rain drops at the 750-year old Zen Buddhist monastery of Tofuku-ji, renowned for its sculpted gardens. I’d cycled miles in the rain to be there, and that inclement weather gave me so much of the space to myself. A real gift. What mattered that my camera was getting wet? My creative spirit and my calm were being watered.
My tastebuds, of course, had had more than their fair share of watering and feeding, soul food and otherwise. (Of course, you’re waiting for me to gush about sushi. I had that in doses, but it wasn’t an epiphany. I remember years ago going to a place in De Waterkant, Cape Town with Kenneth. Its name now forgotten, but that was my forever sushi moment.) I blew way too much of my budget on wagyu meat and leaves (of course) but it didn’t blow me away entirely – delicious, undoubtedly, but not 10 times more so than the best South African beef.
The food that still flavours my memories is the egg, and especially the simple-seeming tamagoyaki rolled omelette. The beige trench coat of foods, I guess, was the epiphany. Even gobbling hurriedly straight from a cold Vacpac from Family Mart while clomping in snowboard boots to the gondola and the slopes, I luxuriated in the soft cold fullness visiting every tastebud. And, oh, the fresh-baked stuff… That’s worth waiting for in patient, snaking queues, which seems to be a Sunday morning ritual for local Japanese prepared to take on the tourist hordes that mark the 11h00 closing of Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market.
And the ogura – the sweet red bean paste that oozes from rice flour buns or fish-shaped taiyaki waffles. More (carb-free, I’m sure) peasant food that had me coming back again and again. The denim to the trench coat, I guess.
Kaiseki was undoubtedly a treat, and sharing these meals with a good friend even more so. An entire experience built on minute details. The dishes in their dishes. Each food and vessel pairing so simple, so perfectly considered. A dry sprinkling of seaweed crackles in my memory – merely a topping on something, but it was this garnishing that did it for me. Apart from that, no individual dish stands out. Or, more to the point, the dishes do. I recall one particular white wonkyware ceramic, another petite pink glass, or a coarse brown clay with rich, oily glaze on the coals… Each little bowl so carefully complementing its contents, and so indifferent to all around it. And that’s the worn criticism of Japan, isn’t it? The attention to the minutae; the perfection in the detail; the utter disregard for the outward zoom. No big picture stuff here. No matching sets of crockery to contain all meals. (Though matching black suits do contain all businessmen. Even as they stagger homewards in sloppy udon-noodle style when the bars close, their ties and jackets still crisp.)
But, in the end, as in all travel, you carry the essence of the experience with you. You bring your heart and your sensibilities from elsewhere. And me: there’s no escaping my craving for fire and ice, for the sensuous touch of wind and weather and earth and water on my skin and in my heart. So my passions sparked brightest in the Japanese elements.
Fully alive moments in the mountains, finally connecting the curves, lacing together tight, fast turns in effortless, carving style on those last two joyous snowboard runs of the day. Alone on the slopes, I’d outstayed all others. The light gentle, shadows generous, and a woman – this woman – found Flow in the still-soft powder of yesterday’s snowfall. The elusive rhythm she’d sought in France, found in Japan 8 years later.
And another dream made real: steamy hot onsen waters, warm sake in ceramic cups, little licks of snow on skin in an iced forest as the powder fell and fell and fell. Flakes on my face. Smiles too. And my tears of gratitude rose and rose and rose.