Some Feelings on Kyoto: My third time back

The past couple of blogs I’ve written have been a lot more honest in my impressions and general feelings about the places I’ve seen and the way I’m changing during my time in Japan. They’ve been very well-received, and so I thought this week I’d go one step further and transcribed a series of journal entries, one written about my third weekend back to Kyoto, the other about the third time in Tokyo–Japan’s two really incredible cities, the places I always find new thoughts and clues in. They have been edited, but the core portions were written while being in the cities, when the flow of life still rushed past me, and so they have a rawness and privacy to them that you won’t find in my normal posts. I’m very interested in the result.

(Also, please note that the section in Italics is from September, while the rest was written February 8th this year–the writing gets much better after that!). 

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Letting yourself be changed, all the things you used to see used to know…

            And looking out on the mountain. Not being dazzled into the change, but rather finding the change creep up on you, into you. Words: finding the few that balance, ring through like water, flushing over stones in their lines and circles.

            I’m still unsure of all I saw there today, but a peace ripples through me that I haven’t felt in an extraordinarily long time. Biking towards it, being towed in the line (gravitating, tugging swinging). “Being an adult is terrifying,” I said standing on the stairs this morning: watching friends leave, teaching tomorrow. But then setting out, the heat and shinkansens and screeching markets, the amble towards the river. And the temples, the art, the sun and the whispering trees, the square opening up on the grand tori gate (one of those moments when, thinking things are pitching towards an end, a light dawns, the world beckons forward: says ‘now, we begin,’ the Buddha smiles with a chime from somewhere off. Paris when the bridges and the bells and the gypsy woman tapping along, so it was with the words in the river at Nitobe Gardens right as the mushrooms began really kicking in).

            And Nanzenji, standing there at the end of the road. Feet on creaking floorboards. Gazing in, peering at the dark rooms, at the dimly-lit paintings of an age so lost it doesn’t even hurt to think of. The rocks, moving on their own. Just thinking where my mind’s swam in three days. Kyoto, 京都: even its kanji are beautiful.

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            From September 20th, written on a sweaty train back to Osaka, towards the bus that would take me home. I’m still in dialogue with those initial impressions of Kyoto: here I am, four months later, weekend number three. I wonder sometimes just how much I made all those initial feelings up; how much I was just searching for something to say, to fill the empty stretches of that first weekend. Because something that was there isn’t anymore.

Walking through Kyoto, Mr. Anxiety just a smoke’s curl of suggestions. And the snow scatters across the temple grounds. Saturation. I grip the handlebars, swearing about the cold as we drift through the grayest and most faceless quarter of Kyoto’s downtown, where the apartment blocks and their outer stairwells, their hidden doorways and lack of windows, could be any city anywhere in Japan. When we didn’t make it in time for temple closing, I was ready to swear off the whole weekend. My lungs burned, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to care about by this point.

And of course it’s me: the last thing the city’s not, is magical. There’s still that sparkle in the blue air, there’s still lampglow. I can wander off past the bamboo forest and, turning up the hill towards the tiny shops and the shrine under repair, can find the house on the hill. A breath, an entry: little cocoon houses and samurai mid-throw, tea is brought, words are exchanged-おばあさんは僕に話してくれます。お茶をいれてうれしくなります。きれいものお見ながら古い時代を考えています.

Up on the gallery the Shinto temple stands open. Lanterns like cocoons shining down on the empty stage, coloring the shadows of the temple. You stand out on the grounds just beyond and it feels like you’re edging into infinity, just touching the oblivion. But at that breadth of unknown the tree branches, the empty swingsets, remind you of something too familiar to name. And that space holds you, one hand towards the darkness, one reaching back towards the lanterns.

There’s something inherent in these Kyoto familiarities. Unnambles things you forgot were feelings return seeing the temple just beyond the fence, the oak tree across the water. The incense pervading the walls. Flowers and sake bottles speaking for the world; gardens speaking for eternity.

It’s like footsteps some ghost of you made in the beginning. In the forest by the lake. But why’s it here? How’d you lose it back home, but then find it now? Sometimes this city feels like a nursery box leaning half open, where if I peer far enough in I can see the play inside. On the stage are Geisha and monkeys and Shinto priests, but also me, my mother, the dog of my aunt that made as all cry when she died. Those clips of the beach that might not be real—grandma reclining on the plastic chair. But when those etchings are all that I have left, they’re more important than whatever might’ve actually been real.

The most Japanese city shouldn’t be the place I find it. By this point the city’s barely a setting at all: third day in, back September-way, I understood every avenue: I felt history running under it saw Geisha in the evenings; I wrote a blog, felt renewed and re-discovered. Now after so many more nights and temples it’s all a jumble of pictures and feelings that press so much so to render nothing at all. I’ve biked along twice now to the “last sunset,” and both times don’t feel much of anything—one time it’s Edith Piaf trying to re-render Paris, next it’s koto stylings trying to knit together a Japan of a feudal dream. And neither manages to say anything at all. So that was Kyoto?

The city seems to want to tell me something, and I’ve been unable to listen. Always with friends, trying to make the most as host—here’s Kyoto, here’s Japan, d’you love it and me yet? If not let’s find us a Geisha or a gold temple. And both times I find myself at the end of some Sunday of the month, dry and empty and confused about why this all doesn’t confuse me a little more. When did I become a tour guide, telling people at what point they should take their photos? Why did I spend my nights drinking with a bunch of Australian jocks who refused to leave the hostel just to wander a bit? What happened to my capacity to angrily strike out into the night on my own? Where’s the sense of necessity here?

I’m flirting on the edges again.I’m still peering into those dark rooms and trying to make out the picture in the fading the darkness, only now, seeing those pictures does begin to hurt, begin to drag with age—now I’m searching for something that’s supposed to be there, supposed to gleam between those lines. I’m supposed to be looking for something, but I wouldn’t know where to start.

I set out this morning somewhere northward, I found a shrine in the snow: somewhere just beyond the flute rose with the wind. And between the falling snow a bridge, a stage, a pagoda on the island. And on the mountains a temple I swear wasn’t there before. I’m still biking. Still willing to search for something that might just be there.

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